America has failed. Let’s get to work.

America has failed. It has given in to its most base, violent and ignorant tendencies. It has decided to embrace and project a man into power who is the literal face of sexual assault, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and a slew of other like qualities. America has chosen smug ignorance, abuse of power and pure hatred of all Others over basic human decency.

Like everyone that I know, I spent last night and this morning in shock and tears. As a queer woman, as a member of communities with inclusion, love and empathy at their cores, I am truly afraid for the first time in my adult life. I came out to friends and family in 2001 in Oklahoma; I was 14 years old. George W. Bush had been elected President on a wave of religious fervor and fear, that seems minor compared to what we’ve seen in the last year. DOMA and the anti-marriage debate was front and center and it was still illegal to be an LGBT person in much of America, including my hometown where my community was under constant assault. But we moved forward, ever so slowly, and today it is not only not criminal to be an LGBT person in this country but we have gained many of the rights that seemed so unlikely less than 20 years ago. We elected an African-American man to the presidency who has demonstrated a decency and strength of character not often seen on a national level. I believed that this country was becoming a place where I and the people I love would feel safe in who we were. That belief has been shattered. That sense of safety is gone.

To those of you planning to move to Canada, you are cowards. To those of you gloating and taking this moment to tirade against Clinton, saying that Sanders would have succeeded, your privilege is keeping you from seeing what truly happened here. Hatred of women and minorities brought that man the election. Hate of that magnitude would not have been tempered by someone less qualified for the office. Had Sanders succeeded, it would only reinforce and further verify that hatred. This was not simply an election, it was and is an unabashed assault on everything that we hold dear, our values, our dignity and the safety of ourselves and those we love. But though we thought November 8th would be the end of a year of hatred and derision, we now know it is only the beginning. We are tired and we may feel broken. We must take our time to mourn, but we must fight and defend our right to be treated equally as Americans. We must fight with a renewed vigor for our futures and show our children that we will not be leaving them in an America that condones abuse and ignorance. Shake it off and let’s get to work.

 

(Photo Credit: The Odyssey) (Image Credit: Dusk Magazine)

 

Security of Sex: New Oklahoma Abortion Law

Yesterday, October 7, 2009, the Oklahoma legislature passed a law requiring that private and identifying information be published online for women who have had abortions in state in order to deter women from having abortions.  While this is only one of a plethora of restrictions on women’s right to choose in Oklahoma, it is a particularly dangerous one.  The law has no actual scientific purpose, the manner in which the data is collected is practically unusable for any objective research, instead it is meant to shame and endanger women who seek this medical procedure. It even goes so far as to ask women why they are getting the procedure and outlaws any sex-based abortions.  Though women’s names are not published, information such as their age, race, level of education, marital status, number of previous pregnancies, and the county in which the abortion was performed.  Such information could easily identify a woman living in a smaller town.  No woman should have her medical history judged in the public square and the idea that this will deter abortions shows an unfathomable misunderstanding of pregnancy and abortion in this country.  Abortions are not sought simply by promiscuous teenagers that the overly paternalistic legislature is trying to make “take responsibility”.  You have to be 18 or have parental consent in Oklahoma anyway.  Abortions are sought by women for a wide variety of reasons including incest, rape, health of the mother, viability of the fetus or inability to care for the child.  Irrelevant of the reason, it’s private.

Likewise, the paperwork is incredibly long and puts an additional burden on already overstretched doctors and nurses at the handful of clinics in the state.  The publication of this information is a potential violation of HIPPA and the Oklahoma Constitution and while there are likely to be suits to overturn the bill, they will not be able to have an effect for some time.  The law goes into effect on November 1st.

Regardless of your feelings on the abortion debate, publishing women’s private medical history with information that could easily identify them is a gross abuse of power by the legislature.  It is not a matter of religion and scare tactics that drive women’s health procedures further underground are never for the public good.  Abortion will be reduced when the need for them is reduced through accessible and affordable contraceptives, education regarding contraceptive use and family planning as well as prevention of sexual abuse.  We need to let our legislators know that this is not acceptable.  Please look up your representatives here: http://www.lsb.state.ok.us/.  Write and call them immediately and let them know that you do not want this law.  Pass this information on to every Oklahoma voter that you know.  Below are several articles and the language of the law itself.

http://mobile.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/feature/2009/10/07/okla_abortion/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/08/oklahoma-abortion-law-det_n_313779.html
http://jezebel.com/5376502/new-oklahoma-law-will-put-details-of-all-abortions-online
http://www.sos.state.ok.us/documents/Legislation/52nd/2009/1R/HB/1595.pdf

(Photo Credit: Michael Cross / KOSU / NPR)

Going gay for porn and other disasters

Like a lot of people growing up, I got nervous speaking in public and got the obligatory suggestion from some adult that I picture the audience in their underwear.  The idea was that if I was standing in front of naked or mostly naked people, I couldn’t possibly be the most self-conscious person in the room.  Well, this didn’t work because I realized at a young age that there were some people that I just didn’t want to picture only in their undies.  At least this is what I thought at the time.  I’ve learned something recently though, had an epiphany really.  Here it is: NAKED PEOPLE ARE ALL POWERFUL.  It’s true.  Why else do we have to wear so many clothes all the time?  The more important something is, the more clothes people have to wear and the more they are reprimanded if too much skin is showing.  Why else would formal clothes be so stiff and uncomfortable? To reign in your nakedness, to contain it in cotton, woolen or silken shackles.

There is, however, a hierarchy to body parts.  They aren’t all created equal.  So I am going to focus on the big guns, the atom bombs of body parts, and discuss how they are destroying our society.  I consider this a very serious public service.  Let’s start with the ones making the news this week: boobs.  They seem innocent enough, right? Soft. Squishy.  Bouncy.  Bulbous.  Nothing to be scared of, right?  It would be like being scared of a jellyfish and that’s ridiculous, right?  WRONG! Anyone who has seen Finding Nemo knows that jellyfish are KILLERS and so are boobs.  Glenn Beck should be all over this one.  Let’s look at the evidence.  Exhibit #1:  over the weekend, Michael Schwartz, Chief of Staff to the ever-impressive Tom Coburn (R-OK), testified that pornography inflicts homosexuality on people because “all pornography is gay pornography”.  Of course you are male, only men watch porn, and seeing naked women makes you want to touch yourself.  The power of your own penis is of course so strong that you will desire other naked penises and the blight will spread.  Now, sometimes the strong can fight off the gayness like a bad cold but even a mild case of pornography at “least renders you less capable of loving your wife”.  But that’s only the beginning.

On a larger scale, the Detroit City Council is fighting to take back their city from the strippers.  A local church member opines against those who “want to use the city of Detroit as their dumping ground of their bottom-feeding, gutter-living behavior…Then they want to go back to their nice, suburban communities…It’s a shame that poor people, minority people are always the dumping ground for this.”  Translucent naked women and gutter-living patrons ought to be ashamed for single-handedly leading to the downfall of Detroit.  New legislation, however, is trying to ban lap dances and VIP rooms and may even require background checks, distance away from the dancer and opaque pasties in order to provide a safe distance between patrons and boobs, a move that one club owner calls ‘un-American’.  Yet, there are few things more profoundly American than taking our fears, and minorities, by the horns and making them illegal.

Nudity causes crime.  The lust that it inflicts sends people, men, into a blind madness over which they have no control.  They are blind animals.  It can’t be rape if she had that much cleavage or her skirt covered only half of her thighs!

Sound absurd?  This logic isn’t exceptional.  It exercises itself everyday when lawmakers justify cutting  government spending for public services, especially those that work with women, minorities and minority women who have experienced abuse while playing tough on crime.  Sexual violence is still one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S.  and obvious violence is only one facet of the way in which sex is policed.  The latest victim to this absurdity in the Washington, DC area is WEAVE, Women Empowered Against Violence, Inc., which may have to close its doors on October 1st. if it is unable to raise enough funds.  WEAVE is a major lifeline for victims and survivors in the D.C. area.  Help keep WEAVE’s doors open or look into the status of centers in your area.

(Editor’s Note: WEAVE closed in 2012.)

Martyring the ‘Ballbreakers’

Shrine in memory of Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack

Last Wednesday, August 28th, residents of the 200 block of Q St. NW in Washington, DC were shocked by a brutal assault against two women, one of whom was killed.  Violence is nothing alien to DC, the District was once known as the ‘murder capital’ of the U.S., but this act stands out.  The motive, officially, is unknown.  The act occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon in broad daylight after the assailant had followed both women for several blocks and was exceptionally brutal. Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack was stabbed in throat; her injuries were fatal. The women involved were also both African-American, male-to-female transgender, were possibly been sex workers and there were supposedly several anti-LGBT epithets used by the assailant. The scene was also only a few blocks from a local transgender health center.  Yet, the motive is said to be unclear.

What is clear, other than that the attacker saw them as less than human, is that the media is not entirely sure how to talk about these women.  Different news outlets used several different ways of referring the Mack’s and the other victim’s gender.  A local television affiliate of Fox utilizes no uniform language at all.  Aside from one line mentioning that the victims were transgender women, the piece contains quotes utilizing exclusively male pronouns and refers to Mack by her birth name, Joshua, while focusing almost exclusively on the reactions of neighbors.  The focus is not on the victims but rather fear and the violent disruption of a normally tranquil area.  Coverage by the Washington Post, however, is a step worse.  The Post article refers to the women as transgender people and biological men living as women throughout the piece, again only referring to Mack by her birth name.  The writer, Paul Duggan, seems to be scraping for some shred of objectivity, but his own discomfort is readily apparent.  On the other end of the news spectrum, the Washington Blade, a local LGBT newspaper, utilizes Mack’s taken name and gender while focusing much more on what happened to these women, family’s and friends’ reactions and violence against transgender people more generally. All of these articles relate to the same incident but provide radically different information.  The kicker is that all of this criticism is possible after all of the articles, save Chibarro’s article in the Blade, had already been re-edited.  The original versions all referred to Mack and her friend as “transgender men”. News articles that blatantly disregard the gender identity of Mack and the other victim are no less policing than the act of violence itself.  One is simply more subtle, hiding behind science and journalistic integrity, and reinforces the fears that feed these acts of violence.

On the other side of the world, the media and science are policing gender more overtly.  Over the last couple of weeks, Caster Semenya has been ever-present in the international press, not because of her 800m win which would have garnered little attention in mainstream press, but because her sex was under scrutiny.  The media’s scrutiny and judgment of Semenya is more obvious perhaps because it is not tempered by a major act of violence.  But words are weapons and they feed already active fires that are raging against women outside of and within the LGBT community.  Semenya was required to take a gender test in order to be eligible to compete because she did ‘too well’ in recent competitions.  Such athleticism is not thought possible for women and Semenya’s muscular body was used as additional evidence to justify the testing.  The fact that she is a professional athlete and that most female athlete’s are muscular does not seem to dissuade the judging officials.

This case is disturbing and unsurprising for several reasons.  First, Semenya’s sex is called into question due to the combination of her athleticism and her apparently masculine or nonfeminine presentation and features.  The assumption is transparent; women are supposed to be soft, white and frail.  It is an assumption and argument that has been at the core of colonial politics and postcolonial politics.  There is actually not a chance in hell that Meadows would have been tested had she ran as well as Semenya did.  Second, Semenya’s family, like President Obama in a surprisingly parallel situation with the birthers, was able to furnish a birth certificate.  However, the documentation provided by a poorer black community in South Africa is apparently not reliable enough to be considered proof of the girl’s sex.  Would it have been has the runner come from a wealthy, Western and white family?  Third, the media has chosen to not only vilify and attempt to embarrass this young woman, but has likewise conflated several unrelated and yet entirely related issues: sex, gender and sexual orientation.  The latter two categories are not actually relevant to the IAAF’s argument of fairness.  The only thing they relate to is heteronormative notions of what it means to be a woman.

The results of Semenya’s test later revealed that she had 3 times the ‘normal’ female amount of testosterone in her system.  This was released on the same day as a BBC article claiming that high levels of testosterone turn women into “risk takers” and “ballbreakers”.  The implication is that ‘masculine’ women are practically not even women and that only masculinity can and should be able to compete in our society. Thus, by questioning her sex so publicly and utilizing gossip and conjecture as evidence, the media has placed Semenya on the 21st century’s version of the pillory.  She is meant to be an example for all young girls, especially if they are darker skinned and athletic, of what they can’t be: strong. In the same way, Tyli’a Mack was publicly murdered to warn against those born male being anything other than hypermasculine.

Caster Semenya

(Photo Credit 1: Washington’s Other Monuments) (Photo Credit 2: John Giles / PA / The Guardian)

Security of Sex: Legally Bound (and Gagged)

In the good ‘ol US of A, we’ve been seeing some odd juggling around not just civil but human rights under the new administration. President Obama has been under fire for reneging on his campaign promise to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for offering support of DOMA, though Obama recently issued a statement negating his previous statement. And the good news has been that there has been vigorous debate and even some voting regarding the Matthew Shepard Act.  These three issues are supposed to represent the pinnacle of LGBTQ rights in America: the right to shoot people for my country, the ability to legally enter into a heteronormative institution and the ability to put more people in jail for longer. OK.  These are considered basic civil rights that affect the entire ‘community’.   The problem is that none of these topics actually relate to the needs of the larger LGBTQ community, because is there is no community, no consensus.  The only thing uniform about this community is that there are individuals across every major racial group, ethnicity, gender, sex, religion and class that consider the ability to discriminate and even harm LGBTQ persons a necessary right.  Such universal disempowerment only exists for one other group: women.  Despite this, the larger issues affecting the LGBTQ community of domestic and sexual violence and abuse, unusually high suicide rates, under-education, harassment both generally and by police, discrimination, heteronormativity, etc. are overwhelmed by marriage, military and prison. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, the struggle for ‘equality’ looks a little different in South Africa, but only a little. Africa’s largest economy has had full legal equality for LGB persons since the ratification of the post-Apartheid constitution, gender identity and expression or transgender rights are not listed.  Despite having one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, South African LGBTQ persons are commonly subject to brutal acts of violence.  And they aren’t the only ones.  In particular, African lesbians in South Africa have been explicitly targeted for gang-rapes.  I’ve talked about this particular situation before, that women and specifically queer women are targeted is no accident.  That these acts are not causing mass outcry or even being consistently investigated is no accident.

The United States of course is no better we just have a legal term for these types of acts. Individuals who commit these ‘hate crimes’ are often portrayed as either marginal and extreme or victims themselves of an awkward circumstance, in South Africa they are generally faceless groups of males, assumedly black.  Such portrayals justify larger apathy and inaction by removing these acts from the larger debate. When violence against LGBTQ persons is mentioned as being part of larger systemic prejudices, it is usually to say that violence is caused by laws against LGBTQ persons, that it will wane once there is full legal equality.   It is the same argument that has been used for women for more than a century.  Yet, the elephant in the room is the fact that South Africa has those legal rights that the mainstream American LGBTQ organizations are hung up on and not only are LGBTQ persons in South Africa not equal, they are the subjects of intense discrimination and violence.  Full legal equality, whatever that means, will not magically create a society of equals because the issue is only in part about laws.  It’s like giving someone painkillers and saying it will cure cancer.  No amount of legal progressivism will undo the damage of a country’s President making a mockery of rape and being elected despite it.  It is primarily about power and how disempowered groups are balkanized and ranked creating a system in which low class African males in Johannesburg and minority males in California gain power through the gang-rape of lesbians.

Reliance on law, regardless of whether or not the laws are good, has not accounted for a lack of willingness to enforce.  The U.S. is established as the imprisonment capital of the world and South Africa is playing catch up.  If a state emphasizes that criminalization and long sentences equal justice but refuses to actually prosecute or even investigate acts of violence against LGBT persons, of color and women especially, then that government not only seems to condone these actions but sends the message these are just actions.  They are public services.  It’s the same message that both the Apartheid and Jim Crow governments sent in their heydays.  Yet, now the messages are masked by so called legal progresses. The moral of the story remains the same as it has always been, ‘no one’ cares if you are poor, black, queer and/or female, no matter where you are.

(Photo Credit: DavidMixner.com)

“Why can’t I quit you?”

In March, the Metro Police Department had a minor publicity issue when one of its own was arrested in an anti-prostitution sting targeting clients.  Officer Robert A. Schmidt was charged with solicitation after agreeing to pay an undercover female officer $80 for sex.  Solicitation is a misdemeanor in the District, however, solicitation tends to be treated completely differently within both the police department and the courts.   Like in most other U.S. cities with anti-john laws, D.C. still tends to focus most of its resources on policing the sex workers themselves.  Since most workers are woman-identified, these sort of tactics have been declared to be discriminatory on a few select occasions, though not most.  Women are the largest group arrested on charges of prostitution with transgender workers being the second largest groups.  Male workers and clients only make up about 2-3 arrests per night.  In recent years, a few U.S. cities, most notably San Francisco, have instituted reforms targeting clients in order to cut off demand for sex work altogether.  In Sweden, authorities have even gone so far as to decriminalize sex work itself, while criminalizing the act of solicitation.  The intent, however, remains the same: abolition.  Even when tactics target male clients and not workers explicitly, abolition still sends the statement that sex work is wrong and inherently exploitative; workers are victims worthy of pity rather than a safe and fair wage.

With the intent of seeming more even handed in enforcing the law against engaging in and soliciting prostitution, D.C. utilizes “rehabilitation” programs for individuals charged as clients of prostitution called “john schools” as a means of teach clients about the ‘inherent’ harms of prostitution like “crime, fear, and health disorders”. School is one day long and consists of testimony from “a psychologist, survivors of prostitution, prosecutors, police, health professionals, local residents, and business owners”.  The finger is pointed at these clients instead of pimps, police, and other abusers; it also virtually ignores systems, which not only perpetuate the practice but make it dangerous. These schools, with a fine, are offered in lieu of the typical penalties for first time offenders.  Officer Schmidt’s charge was dismissed after he completed “john school” and his record is clean.  It is a safe bet that workers arrested that same night had a different experience.

Despite the fact that the law itself is written indiscriminately, policing practices and the ability to expunge one’s record and avoid jail time through “john schools” signify that anti-prostitution policy remains discriminatory in practice.  Authorities have acknowledged a legitimate interest in keeping clients, especially middle-class white men, out of jail and their records clean, yet, the state seems disinterested in considering that the lives of workers would also be improved by not having convictions, police harassment or their daily lives disrupted by jail time or fines.  The practice of the law quite literally values the lives of men over women.  Low arrest rates of clients, likewise, means that there are generally low recidivism rates compared to workers and recidivism often leads to harsher sentencing.  Workers who are unable to pay increasingly high fines are more likely to spend as many as 180 days in jail.  Street workers often come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and often are parents or are supporting others.  The criminal justice system tries to see these individuals apart from their relationship to the larger community and fails to acknowledge that jail time is an unpaid absence from work.  It’s a loss of income for the worker and often for their families that is further complicated by court fees and fines, which require them to work more.  Separation from family, especially children, has problematic short and long-term complications. Children whose parents serve time in prison are often left vulnerable to higher incidences of abuse, neglect and rape; if unable to stay with extended family they are placed in state care not because their parents are necessarily unfit but because they were working.  How can advocates of criminalization claim that these practices are in the best interest of women?

Imprisonment is especially complicated in regards to transgender workers, a group, which has been disproportionately targeted for harassment and arrest in D.C.  With the passage of the amendment adding gender identity and expression to the D.C. Human Rights Act in 2007, the Department of Corrections has had to change its intake and housing policy.  Previously there was no system in place to change a person’s gender in the criminal records database, even if they had undergone transitional surgery and/or had their name and gender legally changed.  This caused many women to be automatically placed into holding cells with males and led to high incidences of sexual assault.  The new policy ostensibly would allow for transgender persons to be housed in either the general population or protective custody of the gender they are deemed by the Transgender Committee. Transgender inmates must also be allowed access to hormone treatment under the new policy even if they had not started prior to arrest.  The new policy also requires strict nondiscrimination.  It has yet to be seen, however, how the policy will be carried out and though seemingly benign, the daily reality of imprisonment poses its own dangers.  Genitalia are still the primary indicator used for determining housing and it is unlikely that many transwomen would be housed with biological women or that they would even choose to be.  Likewise, protective custody is simply euphemistic for solitary confinement; these inmates are placed in single-person cells and only given two hours outside of these cells a day to shower and exercise.  Because of this, few knowingly choose protective custody even when they fear violence among the general population.  Transgender men and women are not passive victims of a system which hasn’t yet ‘caught up’, but they have been targets of a system which bent on eliminating them.  Disproportionate and violent targeting of transgender workers, as well as all woman-identified workers, sends precisely the signal it intends: abolition.

(Image Credit: DC Trans Coalition)

The Security of Sex: The (South) Africa Problem

On April 22nd, South Africa will hold its latest round of elections and for the first time in the last 15 years, the African National Congress (ANC) has serious competition.  The upstart Congress of the People, headed by former ANC leader Thabo Mbeki, was created in December to address concerns over corruption in and the direction of the ANC.

Though the ANC is expected to win by large margins, it is clear that South Africa is changing and the extreme violence and poverty are taking their toll on the stance of the historic party.  But what is the actual difference between the parties?  And what would all of this mean for women, sex workers in particular?  With the looming 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa continues to be plagued by infrastructural issues as well as climbing rates of violent crime, particularly crime related to violence against women and children.

Over the past year, specifically, there has been a large pattern of “corrective rapes” committed against lesbians; the majority of these acts are committed by gangs of men rather than a single person.  The most notorious of these rapes was committed against one of the most famous female soccer players in South Africa, Eudy Simelane, last April.  She was gang raped and left in a ditch after being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs.  While some focus on homophobia as an explanation for these acts, the brutality and pervasiveness of these acts implies larger underlying issues related to violence and gender. Women of all backgrounds and orientations are being affected by rising violence, which is more and more being attributed to an “increasingly macho culture, which seeks to oppress women and sees them as merely sexual beings.” Lesbians are being targeted in particular because their orientation is seen as antithetical to these gender roles in which women are expected to be more and more diminutive to men.  Attacks such as these are then not specific to sexual orientation but signify a larger social policing of women.

Likewise, trafficking has become a growing specter within South Africa.  Unlike in the U.S., the state is primarily confronted with trafficking occurring between different regions of the country itself. It involves primarily women and children from rural provinces like KwaZulu-Natal and the Transkei into urban areas primarily around Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Trafficking of different populations has risen in recent years for a variety of reasons.  In this instance, I am referring to the trafficking in persons for body parts as well as for the purpose of slavery.  Demand for human potions made from human body parts and progressively younger girls for sexual purposes has risen recently as they have become associated with ‘traditional’ cures for HIV.  Likewise, increases in refugees within South Africa and neighboring countries have made more individuals, children especially, vulnerable to slavery.  Demand for young girls for sexual slavery is expected to rise exponentially for the Cup.  However, focus on trafficking for the Cup ignores the existing gender issues embedded within South Africa itself, while also refusing to distinguish between those migrating to meet the demand and those being violently exploited.  The idea of legalizing prostitution for the duration of the Cup was floated in Parliament in an attempt to regulate sex work and protect workers.  The issue, however, was never meaningfully discussed and limiting legalization to just the Cup would ensure no meaningful change.  Without these things in mind, it is impossible to truly address the issue.

When one considers the platforms of the two major political parties in South Africa, however, it seems as if no attention is being given to violence against women at all.  The ANC mentions women only in passing within their official platform claiming only that they will “combat violence and crimes against women and children by increasing the capacity of the criminal justice system to deal with such violence.”  Does that mean building more prisons or increasing sentences and police?  While the actual meaning of the statement is unclear, the disinterest of the ruling party is quite apparent.  On the other hand, COPE gives a great deal more detail first saying that “workers have rights” and that “workers should have social protection to safeguard income,” which is promising for trafficked workers, and going on to “consider legislation that will make it difficult to withdraw charges on violent crimes and specifically crimes against women and children” and  “establish specialised units to combat identified priority crimes and crime areas in each of the provinces, including crimes committed against women and children”.

Though COPE vaguely mentions the issue more often, neither party acknowledges the growing trend of violence or prioritizes addressing it.  Jacob Zuma, head of the ANC, was even accused of rape himself and the woman was degraded in the courtroom.  Political meetings and platforms deal with women’s issues only nominally, if at all, and certainly do not address issues of violence.  Lisa Vetten, a gender rights activist within South Africa, points out that the system has even gone backwards in recent years with specialized sexual violence and family units being disbanded as well as an increasingly unfriendly court that is more focused on procedure than a victim-friendly orientation.  Likewise, sex work remains unaddressed beyond larger hyperbolic discussions of trafficking and slavery by NGOs and within the larger media.  It is then apparent that women’s safety and work remain on the margins and outside of politics.

(Photo Credit: Gays Without Borders)

The Security of Sex: Hi-Tech Sex

A detective `monitors’ Craigslist’s “Erotic Services” category

Earlier this month, a Chicago-area sheriff’s office sued Craigslist claiming that the website facilitates prostitution through its “Erotic Services” section which Sheriff Tom Dart claims to be “one the largest sources of prostitution in the country”.  The Cook County Sheriff’s Department is asking a federal judge to both force the site to close the offending section and repay the sheriff’s department $100,000 in funds that have been used over the years to police the website.  Dart goes on to claim that the site’s ads are often masks for pimps, child and forced prostitution.  He also claims that Craigslist is at fault for an increase in volume of workers that the force has had to battle and that it allows criminals to elude police more easily.  Craigslist may also be responsible for spikes in teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and global warming; but that’s for another day.

This suit has not only ignored the fact that Craigslist has been exceptionally cooperative with police in many cities by adding requirements such as payments and proper ID for the “erotic services” section, removal and reporting of illegal ads and supporting undercover officers placing ads with no legal requirement to do so, but that law enforcement seems to have an easier time policing the website because of the digital fingerprints as well as faces in photos posted, credit card and active phone numbers that can be traced.  Workers who are online are also less likely to use public strolls and are able to safely and discretely work indoors.  Likewise, Craigslist and workers on the site are potentially protected by certain legal loopholes.  Websites cannot be held liable for the postings of users, which is the entire basis of sites like Craigslist; they also post a number of legal warnings on the site itself.  Also, many workers utilizing the “erotic services” section have been to place disclaimers on their posts claiming “Money exchanged is intended for time/companionship services only. Anything else that may occur is a personal choice between two consenting adults of legal age and is not contracted for, nor is it requested to be contracted for any other matter. This is NOT an offer of prostitution!!! Contacting me constitutes acceptance of these terms”.

Despite this, the suit continues.  However, any more, most major cities have devoted staff, sometimes full time, to policing the site.  This is often done under the banner of searching for underage or trafficked children.  The FBI has also jumped on this bandwagon, starting a full-scale campaign against “child prostitution” in June 2003 called “Operation Cross Country”. The FBI also blames the internet for a growth in instances of child prostitution.  However, neither the FBI nor police seem to question whether or not it is actually more common or just more visible and identifiable by police because of the accessibility of the internet. An article from last October concerning the latest FBI push points to discrepancies in this discussion saving child workers.  The article celebrates the fact that 518 consenting adult workers were arrested while rescuing merely 47 children ages 13-17 and arresting only 73 pimps.  Such disproportionate numbers of adult arrests as well as an account from the Boston Globe about a sting by this team involving another 5 adult arrests (the FBI does not claim that they suspected any of the women to be minors) hints that there is a much larger mission being undertaken by the FBI.  Special Agent Robbie Burroughs comments on the arrests in western Washington state, that most will be charged by the state but only 3 of the 35 will be prosecuted for pimping children.  If getting children out of the sex trade is really the goal of “Operation Cross Country”, why are predominately adult women workers being targeted, abused and harassed so blatantly? The message is clear; either the rights of adult sex workers are not respected by lawn enforcement and are scene as a necessary and deserving casualty of this attempt to “save the children” or “saving the children” is merely a cover for a larger campaign against workers.  The harassment and targeting is justified because the police in this instance are simply claiming to be an extension of the larger “help industry”.

So what is gained by battling Craigslist and other sites of internet-based sex work?  It’s a symbolic victory most. The internet, it seems, is being as heavily gentrified and policed as downtown Washington. This policing is just as violent towards workers, taking away one of the safer modes of work.  Critics of the networking site fail to acknowledge why the site may be so popular for workers, the vast majority of whom are not underage and work for themselves.  Sites like Craigslist provide a safer means for workers to advertise and screen clients.  Workers on the streets have a much higher risk of being attacked or abused because strolls in D.C. and other major cities are being moved into progressively less established, less secure and poorly lit areas due also to heavy policing. Shutting down legitimate websites where workers can network and advertise simply pushes the industry further underground and back onto the streets. Advertising on the web allows workers to skip this traditional step of walking the streets where they are also more prone to manipulation from pimps and blackmail by police in exchange for petty protections.  Workers also need not rely on pimps or brothels for advertising and safety, allowing them to keep more of their own profits.  Stings are also highly disruptive with police claiming computers and cash (often several hundred dollars worth) as evidence while also imposing fines or jail sentences, disrupting business, and requiring the worker to pay for attorneys.  All of this pushes a worker with no labor protections potentially further into debt and further decreases their ability to have legal work, if they so choose, due to their arrest record.  Regulating and policing abuse and slavery within the industry is one thing, using that as an excuse to endanger women is another.

(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Kirk Condyles)

Pushing the Sex Out of the City

In 2004, then D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams announced a plan to build a brand new baseball stadium around Half and O Streets SE to house the newly purchased Montreal Expos. The land chosen for the new baseball stadium was home to one of the largest conglomerations of gay bars and clubs in the city including a couple of strip clubs.

On February 13th, the first of the displaced clubs was able to reopen in SW after much debate about the ordinances restricting the rebuilding of all the clubs.  The location chosen for the stadium seems hardly accidental, as this less than picturesque area of the city had been considered too seedy and dangerous for the average citizen, especially at night.  Yet, it was the only area where these clubs had been allowed to exist.  Queer culture had literally been peripheralized and pushing it out of this area, by way of literally dropping commerce onto it, meant that this section of SE had just been designated for gentrification.

Over the past decade, the D.C. landscape has been transformed both by physical structures and in the dispersal of its population.  The city’s gentrification is far from accidental beginning with the plan of Mayor Williams to increase tax revenues for the city.  Entire sections of the city have been re-established as middle-income trend spots where there once existed rent-controlled low-income housing and families.  This has also meant that historically black neighborhoods, like Shaw, U Street and Columbia Heights, have changed drastically in their ethnic make-up as well as class.  While the black exodus moves further east and into Maryland, the landscape of the city becomes de-urbanized and includes oddities like a corporate mall on 14th and Park Streets NW where there was low-income housing 4 years ago.  With the higher class and sometimes semi-suburban façade comes an expectation of what types of people will be frequenting and living in these areas.  Such assumptions about what safe and higher-class look like have from the beginning been police-enforced.

While gentrification is an intensely complicated and problematic situation overall, I am concerned that it has been an assault on the sexual geography of the city as it had been known for decades.  Overt alternative sexualities, like sex work and queer culture, are displaced by gentrification and city ‘beautification programs’.  These elements are often correlated to dirty underbelly of the city and not to be seen in civilized or safe areas of town.  Sexual elements, however, do not disappear simply because the rent goes up in a neighborhood; after all queerness did not flee the city when the bars were paved over.  Visible signs of sex work or queerness is physically pushed beyond the perimeter of “good” areas of the city and into progressively more neglected areas.  In D.C., this has meant that street work has been moved further east and closer to the Maryland border as well as literally marching a group of workers to the Virginia border.    The pushing is being done by the Metro Police Department’s prostitution unit, which has been given more tools and legislation to combat prostitution.  Remember the “prostitution free zones”?  They aren’t just saved for major events and tourist attractions but are usually used crack down on groups who have started working within the gentrified zone.  I’m sure that those lovely signs are very assuring to the residents of those areas.  A fancy billboard in certain areas, I think, could do wonders for real estate values.

Harass, though, is probably a better word than combat, if we’re defining the role of the prostitution unit.  Even MPD doesn’t claim to be able to make prostitution end within the District.  They don’t even necessarily claim to make life easier for those performing it on the streets.  Considering some of the propositioning that takes place by officers, some sexual harassment protections or a decent firehose could really be useful on the streets.  Instead, former police Chief Ramsey portrays “those residents who must endure the presence of prostitutes and their paraphernalia in our neighborhoods” as ‘victims’ of prostitution.

The areas that workers are forced to move to are often more residential or industrial but they are also significantly less safe than the areas previously worked.  This is because these areas are both geographically and literally peripheral.  They are often very low-income if they are residential or highly unregulated and violent.  Such policing creates a progressively more dangerous and violent situation for those being regulated.  This is ironic considering that so many proponents of the abolition of prostitution sight women’s rights as justification.  Yet, it assumes that by practicing sex work a person somehow forfeits their ability to be treated humanely rather than prodded and herded like stray cattle.  These tactics, however, assure that the issue remains out of sight and therefore out of mind for the majority of the public.  How can this be service and protection?

(Image Credit: StudyLib)

The Security of Sex: Take This Job and Shove It

Last September, a recently graduated co-ed, going by the pseudonym Natalie Dylan, decided to put her virginity up for auction on the Moonlite Bunny Ranch website.  She has claimed that she is doing so for a number of reasons from social experiment to paying for graduate school.  What’s interesting here, remarkably, is not that there actually exists a 22 year-old co-ed whose virginity is intact or that she is able to command $3.7 million for the opportunity to pop it. Instead, the ambivalence expressed both in the popular and feminist media have raised larger issues as to how we discuss women’s sex work and female sexuality.  The media is fascinated, shocked and constantly debating whether or not this “poor girl” actually knows what she’s getting into, whether or not she’ll regret it. Would she regret it less if she lost it to a former beau in the back of a car or on a bed of roses or on her wedding night?  Who knows and, honestly, who cares? I am not concerned with virginity.  I don’t recall any fireworks, club invitations or a hardy handshake at the time the money-making capacity apparently went down a notch or two. I am instead concerned with this idea that sex work may be considered to be degrading and exploitative in all situations.

As with everything else in feminist circles, discussions around sex and sex work seem to orbit ad nauseum around this elusive notion of choice.  Interestingly, unlike many discussions around choice, the most virulent debates do not hinge on who has the right to do what but actually on whether or not an individual may ever have the ability to choose to do sex work.  For some, this is an absolute impossibility.   During December session of the Transnational Network of Women’s Issues, which was held on the issues of trafficking and slavery, the two guest speakers illustrated the ambivalence towards choice in sex work perfectly.  When asked to place trafficking and slavery within the global structures of power, Carolina De los Rios, a case a manager with the Polaris Project said that “Poverty is triggering this work…These women work to support their family. They feel trapped by immigration [status] and threatening …Initially they made the choice but after a while they don’t want to do it.”   On the other hand, Jessica Leslie of Free the Slaves gave an example of quarry workers who had returned to the same type of work without the threat of debt bondage.  She remarked that they had returned “not necessarily because they liked the work or wanted to do that kind of work but because it was a work they knew and knew they could do to survive… The question was not whether they chose to do a kind of work but whether or not they were in a situation of bondage… It is the circumstances around that type of work that make it slavery or not.”

The distinction made by Jessica, however, is not generally made in regards to sex work.  While it is generally acknowledged that people do not go into quarry, domestic or other types of work associated with low-income communities because they like it, these types of work and workers are still discussed as having agency.  Yet, sex work is generally discussed in terms of being forced by different factors, primarily poverty; I am assuming sex work done by women as it generally what the media assumes unless we’re talking about Senators or televangelists and transgender workers are mentioned rarely if ever. Except that sex work is not always done simply out of financial necessity.  The example of Natalie Dylan and recent stories of highlighting higher-class escorts makes that clear enough. So, what distinguishes sex work from other forms of labor?

This whole discussion seems to go back to the public myth that there is something sacred about sex or at least that there is something more respectable about hooking up with a random stranger in a club as opposed to having regulars to pay the rent. Somehow the combination of SEX and MONEY breeds disaster, especially for women who might be doing so outside of a traditional marriage.  If women were simply having sex in parked cars for free, like teenage caricatures, I wonder if there would exist as much of a police presence.  Perhaps so, as much of the discussion orbits around these women either being fallen and needing to be saved or being burdens upon the community.

I asked Carolina to clarify what she had said before, wanting to know if sex work was inherently abusive.  She said “Yes definitely…we believe that these women are exploited in the sex industry. Many of these women have been trafficked.  Some never knew what they were getting into. They may have made the choice initially but then they were pretty much trapped and when they were not able to leave.”  This may be true but are workers victims because of something innately degrading about the work or is it the working conditions as mentioned by Jessica?  The dangers associated with sex work include rape, battery, low wages, poor working conditions, manipulation by pimps, and blackmail.  These dangers are not caused by sex work but can be drawn back to either the immigration status of workers or criminalization.

Does the media obsess over victimhood in sex work because society still feels that “promiscuous women” don’t deserve services, respect or legal recognition of their labor? Or must women’s sexual fragility be rescued incessantly from the man in the shadows?  It would seem that when it comes to conceptualizations of sex work, we have not yet departed from the notion that women’s sexual purity must be protected, that women are merely vessels to be exploited by hypersexual and predatory men.  Such an approach to analyzing sex work and trafficking ignores the larger powers at work in these situations and actually reinforces archaic constructions of female sexuality that disempower women and demonize men. These constructions trap all of us.

 

(Image Credit: RH Reality Check)