Category Archives: sex work

    Top ten Sexual Stories of 2013


    For the 5th year in a row, Sexuality & Society brings you its (highly subjective and mostly North American/U.S.-centered) list of top ten sexual stories of the year!

    One of the satisfying aspects of compiling these stories each year is noticing their connections to past stories. Collectively, these “sexual” stories are critical to the societal narratives that are told and retold and sometimes sold to make sense of our lives. Below are some of the stories which struck us as worth retelling and analyzing…..Check out our lists for 200920102011, and 2012!

    Also: We maintain an active Facebook Page — please find us there as well!

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    10. Iowa court says it’s ok to fire women who are “irresistible”

    This story is so ludicrous that it is difficult to believe that it is not out of The Onion. Nonetheless, it relies on 19th Century Victorian notions of femininity whereby women were viewed as responsible for controlling men’s sexual desires, and thus ensuing calls for modesty were viewed as minimizing the possibility of sexual attention from men. See below for a 2013 version of this Victorian mentality:

    irresistible

    Melissa Nelson was fired because her boss found himself unable to restrain himself around her “irresistible” charms. An all male jury and judge agreed that the scourge of irrisistible women must be stopped.

    (CNN) – Melissa Nelson lost her bid Friday to have Iowa’s top court reverse its ruling that held the former dental assistant did not suffer gender bias when she was fired for being “irresistible.”

    The Iowa Supreme Court stood by its December finding that Dr. James Knight was legally able to fire the assistant after his wife became concerned about the relationship between the two.

    Knight’s conduct was not sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the court said.

    The all-male court had previously ruled against Nelson, finding that employees who are seen as an “irresistible attraction” by their employers can be fired in such circumstances.

    Source: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/12/us/iowa-irresistible-worker/index.html

     9. Susan B. Komen rejects money donated by exotic dancers 

    The Pink foundation has made our list for a second year in a row …. (remember last year, when they cut funding to Planned Parenthood due to anti-abortion politics within the foundation? But then they changed their mind?). This year they kept themselves under the public radar but still received some press when they refused money from a fundraiser held by exotic dancers. Their rationale? “Southern Nevada’s Executive Director Stephanie Kirby said it’s Susan G. Komen’s national policy to not partner with certain businesses, especially ones that may sexualize women.”

    “It just doesn’t fall in line with who we are as an organization. There are too many survivors out there who no longer have the body part that is being displayed at a lot of these shows,” Kirby said.”

    official-save-the-ta-tas-save-a-life-grope-your-wife_design

    One of many T-shirts available for purchase at the Save the Ta-Tas Foundation.

    source: http://www.fox5vegas.com/story/23585295/breast-cancer-foundation-denies-donation-help

    Meanwhile, the Komen Foundation also appears to be consistent in their distancing from sexualized breasts as they have no official partnership with the Save the Ta-Ta’s Foundation — a breast cancer research and for-profit organization which sells T-shirts like “Save a life; grope your wife.”

    8. Teen girls criminalized for their consensual sexual relationships

    130524150248-01-kaitlyn-hunt-story-top

    Kailyn Hunt (18) was prosecuted and eventually jailed for her relationship with a 14 year old girl.

    In the state of Florida the age of sexual consent is 16. The problem is that the age of sexual exploration is much earlier than this. Given increased attention to the issue of child sexual abuse over the past couple of decades (a good thing), there have been many cases of older teenage partners now being defined as sex offenders, even if the relationship with consensual and non-violent (a bad thing). This is what appears to have happened to Kaitlyn Hunt, who was 18 when she entered into a sexual relationship with a girl four years her junior. The younger girl’s parents objected, and found that they could enforce their objections by law. Given the threat of going to prison and being a registered sex offender, Hunt chose a plea bargain, plead guilty to all charges and is now in jail. (Source: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/02/justice/florida-gay-teen-kaitlyn-hunt-case/)

    See also: http://theseattlelesbian.com/fl-teen-faces-felony-charges-for-same-sex-relationship/

     

    7.  Russia instigates state-sponsored terrorism against sexual, ethnic, and artistic diversity (e.g.: gay people, labor migrants, and the punk rock band Pussy Riot).

    Russia.Putin

    Since 2011, thousand of people have gathered for Anti-Putin demonstrations such as this one in Moscow. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011–13_Russian_protests

    In June of 2013, Putin signed into law an “anti-gay propaganda bill” which sought to punish individuals for “promoting” homosexuality. The law imposes fines for those members of society who “disseminate information at minors that are directed at forming nontraditional sexual setups” or which cause “distorted understandings” that gay and heterosexual relationships are “equivalent.”  (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130630/eu-russia-gay-rights/)

    AmericaBlog reported on these events by stating that “Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law … one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet.” (right up there with Uganda: see # 6 below).

    “The new law, coming only seven months before Russia is to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, would ban anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech, to gays holding hands in public, to even wearing rainbow suspenders. The law also contains a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. That provision ought to send chills to anyone gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender who is planning to attend or participate in the Winter Olympics.” (see: http://americablog.com/2013/07/russia-olympics-sochi-gay-law-putin.html)

    The Russian media is also under fire by Putin: One Russian news media outlet is now under investigation for reporting on a gay teacher who was recently fired for being gay (he was said to teach that gay relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships). The news coverage did not report negatively (enough) about the gay teacher. (see http://www.advocate.com/news/world-news/2013/11/14/russian-newspaper-accused-violating-gay-propaganda-law)

    While the Putin regime is also instigating crackdowns on ethnic minority labor migrants in Moscow, there is an increased movement to oppose Putin’s politics both inside and outside of Russia. The recently released members of the Punk band, Pussy Riot — imprisoned for two years as punishment for their anti-Putin demonstration in an Orthodox Russian Church — have promised to be part of this ongoing movement for greater sexual and social justice in Russia. See: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/927f4516-6f0c-11e3-bc9e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2pBljprat

    6. U.S. preacher behind Uganda “kill the gays” efforts will be tried for crimes against humanity

    Since 2009 we have been following the story about the connection between US conservative evangelical preachers and the push by some lawmakers in Uganda for strident and violent anti-gay laws. See our first post on this here:  

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    Scott Lively, a US based anti-gay evangelical pastor who went to Uganda to preach his hatred, is now being tried for crimes against humanity.

    Despite widespread global opposition, a version of this bill passed on Dec. 20, 2013. However, the story continues to evolve with now Ugandan GLBT activists pushing for accountability for the U.S. religious leaders who stirred up this mess. In what is being called a “landmark decision” .. “a federal US judge (has) ruled that the case filed by a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group against American anti-gay evangelist Scott Lively, for his collaboration with religious and government officials in Uganda that lead to the introduction of the African nation’s “Kill the Gays” bill, will be allowed to proceed.”

    “As reported in Gay Star News, Michael Ponsor, the US District Judge in Massachusetts, said “Widespread, systematic persecution of LGBTI people constitutes a crime against humanity that unquestionably violates international norms.” This marks the first ruling by a federal U.S. judge calling the persecution of LGBT persons a crime against humanity, possibly setting a precedent for the human rights of sexual minorities will be protected under international law.”

    “The case against Lively stems from the evangelist’s 2009 lecture tour of Uganda, the theme of which according to its Ugandan organizer, was “the gay agenda – and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.”

    A 2010 article published in , The New York Times, wrote about on one of Lively’s speaking engagements in Uganda.”[T]housands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians,” reportedly attended the conference. Lively and his colleagues “discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ’the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ’to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.’” Lively wrote days later that “someone had likened their campaign to ’a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.’” (Source: http://www.edgeonthenet.com/?148277)

    5. Regnerus’ anti-gay “study” condemned by the American Sociological Association 

    The past year showed us not just that U.S. based anti-gay pastors have influenced the laws of other countries (see #4 above), but that flawed empirical studies conducted by credentialed researchers can also inflict malicious impacts. The most striking example of this can be seen with the case of Mark Regnerus, who has a Ph.D. in sociology and is an Associate Professor at University of Texas, Austin. In the words of John Becker from The Huffington Post:

    “The study was widely discredited for its flawed methodology, its wildly inaccurate conclusions and its alleged partiality. Nonetheless, it has been breathlessly touted by the anti-gay right as evidence justifying their opposition to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Many of the Supreme Court briefs filed by equality opponents rely on the Regnerus study, but the American Sociological Association — Regnerus’ own professional organization — has just demolished those arguments.”

    Indeed, given its serious flaws combined with the intent by anti-gay activists to use it to justify anti-gay discrimination, leaders of ASAthe American Sociological Association have roundly condemned Regnerus’ study, including but not limited to the 42 page Supreme Court brief in support of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

    Fortunately, law makers in the U.S. are also listening to the reasoning of the ASA as well as human rights activists to nip in the bud any ongoing legal influence of the Regnerus study. On November 12, 2013, we saw this news from a Florida judge:

    In today’s opinion, Orange County Circuit Judge Donald Grincewicz ruled that emails and documents possessed by University of Central Florida (UCF) related to the flawed study’s peer-review process must be turned over to John Becker, who sought the documents under Florida’s Public Records Act. UCF houses the journal Social Science Research, which published the Regnerus study, and the editor of the journal, UCF Professor James Wright, led the peer-review process for the research. Becker is represented by the Law Office of Andrea Flynn Mogensen, P.A., and Barrett, Chapman & Ruta, P.A; and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation funded the litigation. (Source: Human Rights Campaign press release found at http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2013/11/florida-judge-orders-ucf-to-release.html)

    While Regnerus’ study has been discredited by experts and law makers in the United States, other law makers with malicious anti-gay intent have and will continue to grasp at any “evidence” which supports anti-gay messages. For example, in Russia (see #6 above) the Regnerus study was presented to the Russian legislature and may have played a role in supporting Russia’s recent move to outlaw non-heterosexuality. See: http://www.bilerico.com/2013/08/anti-gay_regnerus_study_to_russia_with_love.php

    4.  Transgender justice and visibility 

    Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.

    Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.

    In 2013, many tuned into U.S.-based media and saw several stories featuring transgender individuals and issues. Perhaps the most visible faces were Chelsea (formerly: Bradley) Manning — a U.S. solider who was incarcerated for releasing war-related documents to Wikileaks; and Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the Netflix series hit centered in a women’s prison, Orange is the New Black.

    The media attention on the real life and fictional stories of Manning and Cox inspired a press release from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project on “the realties for transgender and gender non-conforming people in prison, jails, and detention centers:”

    A significant amount of media fascination with transgender people in prison is about accessing surgery and focusing on the criminalized act underlying an individual’s sentence. Not only do transgender people in prison have problems accessing healthcare, but they experience a heightened level of gender policing.  The clothing they wear, their hairstyles and grooming practices, their bodies, mannerisms and identities are scrutinized and controlled by the state.  Any deviance from norms can lead to violence at the hands of corrections officers or other people who are incarcerated.  Legal “protections” are hard to access as there is little accountability on the inside.  If one is brave enough to risk retaliation and file a grievance, they must follow up with that grievance and timely appeal any denials.  It is not until those appeals (usually two) are denied that one can access the court system.  Finding a lawyer or representing one’s self pro se (without a lawyer) is another difficult barrier that one must overcome, as SRLP’s report IT’S WAR IN HERE has documented.”

    Beyond high rates of incarceration, trangender individuals also face an alarming rate of violence and harassment in the US and worldwide and this intersects with race, class, and other social locations. According to a recent report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in the U.S., LGBTQ people of color experience 1.8 times the violence of white LGBTQ individuals. 73% of all LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. Transgender people are 3 times more likely to experience police violence than non-transgender individuals, with transgender women experiencing the highest rates.

    In one legal step toward transgender rights, in August 2013, Jerry Brown signed into law AB1266 that offered the right for individuals “to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities” (including bathrooms) based on their gender identity rather than by birth sex. Predictably, conservative groups and religious individuals immediately rallied in protest, creating a new “war on privacy rights.”  California Republicans support a referendum that is being prepared to overturn AB1266. While the law goes into effect on January 1, 2014 and the state plans to continue to issue same-sex marriage licenses, there could be enough signatures on Jan 8 against same-sex marriage to push the referendum process forward. We’ll be watching this case unfold in 2014.

    3. The Papacy changes its guard

    Despite the fact the the majority of the world is not Catholic, the Pope, as leader of the Worldwide Catholic Church, tends to have a lot of influence on sexual politics. (Recent church statistics indicate that 17.5% of the world’s population is Catholic). The Changing of Papal leadership was important in several ways, including the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of the left-leaning Pope Francis.

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    The old (Pope Benedict XVI , left) vs. the new (Pope Francis, right). Source: http://www.tmz.com/2013/03/13/old-pope-vs-new-pope-whod-you-rather/#ixzz2p6HNNQB2

    “Pope Francis faulted the Roman Catholic church for focusing too much on gays, abortion and contraception, saying the church has become “obsessed” with those issues to the detriment of its larger mission to be “home for all,” according to an extensive new interview published Thursday.

    The church can share its views on homosexuality, abortion and other issues, but should not “interfere spiritually” with the lives of gays and lesbians, the Pope added in the interview, which was published in La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome-based Jesuit journal.

    “We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” Francis said in the interview.

    “The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” (source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/19/pope-francis-gay_n_3954776.html)

    2. Utah finds itself in a pickle about its marriage politics.

    Utah, a state founded by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) church, has long been a bit of an outsider compared to the rest of the nation; indeed it was only after leaders defined marriage as being between one man and one woman that it was accepted into statehood. This was after a long history of plural marriages:

    In 1852 church leaders publicized the previously secret practice of plural marriage, a form of polygamy.[52] Over the next 50 years many Mormons (between 20% and 30% of Mormon families)[53] entered into plural marriages as a religious duty, with the number of plural marriages reaching a peak around 1860, and then declining through the rest of the century. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormons)

    Given the need for the Mormon church to divorce itself from plural marriages it is likely that for Mormon leaders, the moral mantra of monogamous heterosexual marriage is likely undergirded by an ongoing quest for mainstream assimilation. Indeed the success of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot proposition in the 2008 California elections, can largely be connected to money from the Mormon Church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City Utah.  (See, for example the documentary 8: the Mormon Proposition.)

    Thus, when in December, a federal judge struck down Utah’s anti-polygamy stance on the grounds that one cannot “prohibitsister-wives-season-4 cohabitation” mainstream Mormon religious leaders were not happy. The challenge to the law was brought by the Reality TV star Kody Brown who stars along with his four female partners (and 17 children) in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.” The Brown family successfully argued that the Utah cohabitation law violated their rights to privacy and to religious freedom.

    Ironically, during the same month, Federal Officials also shot down Utah’s discrimination against same-sex marriage — thus striking down the original requirement by the Feds a century and a half earlier that Utah define marriage as a dyad between one man and one woman. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby stated that the law to ban same-sex marriage conflicted with the U.S. Constitution which guarantees equal protection and due process. Thus even though 2/3 of the voters voted to ban same-sex marriage on a ballot in 2004, in 2013 Utah became the 18th state in the United States (17 states and the District of Columbia) that allows same-sex couples to be legally married.

    utah.gayWhile same-sex couples flooded the county clerk’s office seeking to be married, movements to reverse both legal the Utah polygamy and same sex marriage decisions are underway. We’ll be following both stories as they progress in 2014.

     

     

     

    1. Two victories for sex workers’ rights: Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada, and the repeal of the Anti-Prostitution Pledge

    Finally, we end with two major developments in support of global rights and justice for individuals who work in the sex trade.decriminalize-prostitution-men

    The movement for decriminalization of prostitution (much like that of moves historically and currently against criminalization of homosexuality) — arises out of the work of a range of global human rights activists. And after years of work by Canadian activists, on December 20, 2013 prostitution was decriminalized in Canada.

    “The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the country’s major prostitution laws, saying that bans on street soliciting, brothels and people living off the avails of prostitution create severe dangers for vulnerable women and therefore violate Canadians’ basic values.

    Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, stressed that the ruling is not about whether prostitution should be legal or not, but about whether Parliament’s means of controlling it infringe the constitutional rights of prostitutes.” (source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/supreme-court-rules-on-prostitution-laws/article16067485/)

    This ruling comes on the heels of an important statement stemming from the United Nations in 2012 calling for decriminalization of prostitution in Asia. (See: http://www.voanews.com/content/un-reports-calls-for-decriminalization-of-prostitution-in-asia/1529473.html)

    In a similar spirit, in June of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Anti-Prostituion Pledge, stating that “it is a violation of the First Amendment for the federal government to force groups to endorse the government’s views opposing prostitution in order to receive funding to combat AIDS overseas.” (Source: http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/politics/read-supreme-court-strikes-down-required-anti-prostitution-pledge-for-hiv-and-aids-workers/243/).  Finally! A brief breath of relief from global health workers and sex worker activists across the globe — but more work needs to be done as this ruling still only protects US-based organizations.

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    Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists, scholars, and practitioners working towards sexual and social justice. May 2014 be filled with stories of hope and justice.

    The Price(s) of Pleasure in the classroom: The Appalachian State University Controversy’s Relevance to Sex Workers

    This past March, Appalachian State University (in Boone, North Carolina) put Dr. Jammie Price, a tenured professor of sociology, on administrative leave. Price was suspended after showing a documentary film which critiques the pornography industry, titled “The Price of Pleasure.”  This temporary suspension was enacted as a result of four students’ protest to university administration; they claimed that the film was “inappropriate” for classroom use.

    Of course, there has to be a backstory to this. Various sources report that Price was known as a vocal critic of university practices, such as their handling of sexual assault allegations leveled at student athletes.[1] Prior to screening the film, student athletes had complained to university officials that she had created a hostile environment by facilitating classroom discussions on sexual assault accusations against student athletes on the ASU campus.[2]

    After conducting an investigation (in which the University states that it did not focus on the screening of the film itself, but the manner in which the classroom was conducted), the Provost has allowed Dr. Price to return to the classroom as long as she consent to a mandatory “professional development plan.”  This professional development plan requires Dr. Price to, among other things, develop and implement steps to contextualize and debrief “sensitive” material in the classroom.

    The film at the center of the controversy

    Sexuality scholars, researchers, and activists should be concerned about Price’s suspension for many reasons. This includes standard concerns about academic freedom, and questions of academic integrity in dealing with the complex and controversial matters of sexuality, power, and media. This also includes concerns about the “backstory” of student backlash (i.e. critically examining the gender, race, and sexuality dynamics of when students complain about their professors). But this case is also important for an additional set of concerns: that of sexual rights and justice as they pertain to sex work and sex workers.

    Dr. Price’s suspension based on her inclusion of “graphic” material in the classroom has lit up the blogosphere. Some have drawn on the language of “academic freedom” in order to conceive of it as a tool to promote truly inclusive democratic debate. Gail Dines — a well-known anti-porn feminist who is featured in the film, has leapt to the defense of Professor Price and the film, The Price of Pleasure. Given the film’s sudden prominence as an educational tool and as a catalyst that re-ignited long held debate about academic freedom, it’s worth pausing to examine the film itself.

    The film, produced and distributed by the Media Education Foundation, purports to examine “how pleasure and pain, commerce and power, liberty and responsibility have become intertwined in the most intimate area of our lives.”  The MEF is a popular source for academics seeking to include educational films in the classroom and it is known for producing films that espouse similar anti-porn themes (The Bro Code, Dreamworlds). The Price of Pleasure includes clips from pornographic films with the claim that these clips “represent current trends in mainstream pornography.”  Some porn performers featured in the film have criticized it for the ways in which they felt the film purposefully misrepresented their perspectives and encoded a patently anti-porn message into something they were told would be an “unbiased” exploration.

    Gail Dines, a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, at Wheelock College was a senior consultant for the film.[3] The film argues that porn has become what Linda Williams has described as “on/scene”: in other words, that “sexual scenarios” once considered “obscene” have increasingly become part of the public sphere (albiet via public scandal) [4]. However, unlike Williams, the filmmakers name this as a universally bad phenomenon.

    Some might critique the filmmakers for espousing a nostalgic, moralistic wish for the “way we never were” (a world free of commercial sex and its’ depictions). A brief survey of U.S. history reveals that commercial sex has been an integral feature in public social life (albeit in different ways) at different moments in time.[5] The filmmakers attempt to sidestep this critique by utilizing a somewhat crude version of Marxist mechanics. For example, in the opening scene, Gail Dines explains that she is accused by some for being “anti-sex” because she critiques pornography, but what such critics don’t realize is that you can criticize McDonalds and still eat food.[6]  The comparison doesn’t quite hold up on at least two fronts.

    First, unlike food, it is difficult to trace the effects of any cultural product, including pornography. Without rehashing the feminist sex wars and an entire body of social scientific literature, there is no consensus that consumption of pornography causes the perpetuation of sexual violence.[7] Furthermore, the idea that representations directly impinge on or cause individual actions is one that some feminists –via such campaigns as the reform of rape laws—have long sought to contest.

    Given the absence of strong direct evidence that porn causes sexual violence, some anti-porn activists instead argue that pornography promulgates a “worldview” that reifies gender inequality writ large and has harmful consequences to the public at large. There are two main components to this anti-porn argument:

    1. porn as a genre universally “objectifies” women, by which they mean that it, more than any other media outlet, trains them to relate to their bodies as a site of scrutiny, to eroticize submission and “degradation,” and that these activities can never be a source for women’s self-creation or pleasure.
    2. pornography leads men (as Robert Jensen, Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas, testifies in the film), to have difficulty distinguishing between the modes of relating to women enabled in and potentially appropriate to erotic fantasy and the modes of relating to women on an everyday basis in which they are not sex objects that are continually available for one’s sexual use.

    Embedded in The Price of Pleasure are these logics of direct and uncritical consumption: What you watch becomes who you are. Perhaps this is the message Professor Jammie Price was hoping to introduce to her students.  It’s worth asking whether this message alone is able to stimulate expansive and inclusive classroom debate on the topic of commercial sex. It’s worth asking whether this logic is representative of the diverse body of intellectual thought on media reception—which frequently demonstrates that people contest, resist, rescript, as well as reproduce, inequalities in their interactions with media texts.

    But it is actually the second part of Dines’ food metaphor (re: McDonalds) that I am interested in.  The “McDonalds” analogy situates the amorphous public and producers of porn in a morality tale. In this morality tale, the public are those who, barraged by porn, are being sold a dangerous and harmful product. Producers are either callous, usually male, profiteers or the sex workers themselves, who are either victims or “brainwashed” apologists.  To this end, the only self-described former sex worker interviewed at length in the film is Sarah Katherine Lewis, who speaks about what she loathed about working in the sex industry, pointing out that the only options open to her at the time were working in service economies—McDonalds or sex businesses. Either way, the workers in the films are not the ones asked to offer definitive meanings about or set the agenda around business practices. The McDonalds analogy essentially eliminates from the terms of the debate the desires, needs, or interests of those who work at the McDonalds in question, those who for whatever complex array of reasons and motivations make their living via sex work.

    Sex workers (and allies) who craft their own intellectual analyses and political agendas around questions of political economy, labor and human rights, and the politics of representation are not even intelligible within the schema of the “anti-McDonaldites.”  Based on watching The Price of Pleasure alone, viewers would have no idea that sex worker advocacy groups have advanced trenchant critiques about what can be done to improve their working conditions and social existence.

    The case of Professor Price reveals the extent that academic discussion of pornography often centers on the (presumably) non-sex working academic, or the academic advancing an anti-porn critique.  No one seems to be questioning the anti-porn message of the film —a message that was perhaps lost on the students who felt violated by its graphicness. What then what does that say about the state of protections for academics and aspiring academics who are current or former sex workers? Or simply those who wish to include in the classroom the voices and worldviews of sex workers speaking on their terms?

    In response to Price’s suspension, Gail Dines suggested that if Price had given a ringing endorsement of commercial sex businesses or to have invited what she likes to call “pornographers,” or sex workers and adult business owners (often one and the same), to speak on campus, all would be good in Price’s life.[8] This characterization is reminiscent of what Michael Bérubé has described as the movement of “campus conservatives to construe themselves as victims of liberal intolerance.”[9] Dines may not consider herself a campus conservative, but her fanciful claims about the supposed cultural status of sex workers belie the myriad ways in which academic research has historically stigmatized those working in sex industries. Moreover, it defies recent evidence that suggests that the mere introduction of discussions of commercial sex cultures to academic spaces are often met with protest.

    Flyer for the 2008 sex worker art show; allowing the show on campus of the College of William and Mary may have lead to the President losing his job

    For instance, in 2008 the president of the College of William and Mary did not have his contract renewed in part for his begrudging refusal to censor the Sex Workers Art Show, who had been invited by student organizations to perform on campus.

    The implication that former or current sex workers are immune and protected from pervasive forms of discrimination in the academic (or any other) workplace is beyond farcical. Were Price to have been suspended for having once been a sex worker, let alone dared to introduce that in the classroom, who would be speaking up for her? Dines herself proudly admits to a record of opposing the decision to “allow” those working in the commercial sex industry to speak on university campuses.[10]

    Make no mistake, sex workers and former sex workers who are also students, are at jeopardy of losing their jobs in education and their place in institutions of higher learning. In 2001, a student at California State University-Fullerton was ejected from the track and field team for working as a stripper to pay her way through school. She was outed by male athletes who attended the strip club and who had no disciplinary action taken against them. In 2010 a former sex worker who had written openly about her experiences in the sex industry was fired from her position with the New York City Teaching Fellows Program. More recently, Stacie Halas, was fired from her position as a science teacher at a public school when students “discovered” that she was a former porn performer.

    How might starting our analysis of the state of academic freedom from these stories complicate our understanding of what is at stake, and for whom, in the disciplining of academic bodies? Lisa Johnson, in her astute observations on the Price incident, points out that “there is still no vocabulary for resisting the conservative moral framework that says graphic sexual material is inappropriate for the classroom, and no public statement of feminist pedagogy that says our notions of what is deemed proper in the classroom are part of the very status quo that WGS (Women & Gender Studies) generally interrogates.”

    While I agree with Johnson that too often feminist academics avoid publicly articulating the value of the explicit challenges to sexual normativties they explore in the classroom, it’s important to delineate where these challenges actually diverge. These divergences may very well work to consolidate an understanding of academic freedom that claims the virtues in speaking about “disreputable” topics in order to stimulate learning and/or to debate certain kinds of conclusions. Yet in doing so, they may very well replicate and embed social stigma against “disreputable” ontologies or subjects themselves.  The consequences of this move do not just affect the educational opportunities for sex workers. Rather, they go to the heart of how scholars define the ethical and methodological questions that arise in studying historically marginalized communities.

    At a moment in which an international movement for sex worker human rights is gaining momentum, it is worth reconsidering how the available intellectual frameworks frame commercial sex and represent commercial sex workers, and remind ourselves of the panics that invariably emerge around the presence of commercial sex in the classroom. Such panics function to demarcate the boundaries of how any stigmatized topic is or is not allowable as a topic of learning and how marginalized groups, including sex workers are allowed to participate in academic cultures.

     

    Jayne Swift is a doctoral student in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at University of Minnesota. Her areas of specialty include Commercial Sex Cultures & Obscenity, and Queer and Feminist Theory.

     


    [1] Monte Mitchell. “ASU professor suspended after showing film on porn business, expressing views on athletes, racism,” Winston-Salem Journal. April 24, 2012. http://www2.journalnow.com/news/2012/apr/24/2/asu-professor-suspended-after-showing-film-on-porn-ar-2202862/

    [2] Kellen Moore, “ASU professor decries university action,” WataguaDemocrat.com April 24, 2012. http://www2.wataugademocrat.com/News/story/ASU-professor-decries-university-action-id-007608

    [3] The Price of Pleasure. Dir. Chyng Sun, Media Education Foundation, 2008.

    [4] Linda Williams. “Porn Studies: Proliferating Pornographies On/Scene: An Introduction,”  in Porn Studies. Ed. Linda Williams. Duke University Press: 2004.

    [5] See: Andrea Friedman, Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945. Columbia University Press: 2000. Mara Keire, For Business and Pleasure: Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890-1933. The Johns Hopkins University Press: 2010.

    [6] The Price of Pleasure. Dir. Chyng Sun, Media Education Foundation, 2008.

    [7] Based on their review of published academic literature, Ferguson and Hartley (2009) conclude that “it is time to discard the hypothesis that pornography contributes to increased sexual assault behavior” (p. 323). See:  C. J. Ferguson, & Hartley, R. D. (2009). The pleasure is momentary…the expense damnable?: The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 14 (5), 323-329.

    [8] Gail Dines, “The Power of the Porn Industry: The Shocking Suspension of Dr. Price,” Counterpunch, April 19, 2012. http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/19/the-shocking-suspension-of-dr-price/

    [9] Micheal Berube. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and ‘Bias’ in Higher Education. W.W. Norton & Company: 2006. P. 61

    [10] Gail Dines. “The Power of the Porn Industry: The Shocking Suspension of Dr. Price,” Counterpunch, April 19, 2012. http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/19/the-shocking-suspension-of-dr-price/

     

     

    Top 10 Sexual Stories of 2011

    As the Gregorian calendar year officially comes to a close, we offer once again a sampling of the year’s top ten sexual stories. While certainly not a complete, in-depth, or globally representative list, we do think that this list contains snippets that have both disturbing and hopeful implications for sexual justice.

    10. Rick Perry steals gay, secular icons to create anti-gay Christmas message

    Rick Perry in a replica of the jacket worn by Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain."

     ”​By now, you’ve probably seen Rick Perry’s “Strong” ad, in which he opines, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Not only are gays in our military, they’re also composing music for our campaign ads. As the Harvard Political Reviewpoints out, the music that plays in the background of Perry’s ad is inspired by or directly taken from Aaron Copland, a gay composer.” (Nick Greene, Dec. 10, 2011, Village Voice).

    9. Herman Cain tests Mainstream American Media: What’s worse in a political candidate: Assault or Affair?

    Presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s campaign abruptly crashed and burned after news media learned of his long time extra-marital lover. But this was after his multiple cases of sexual harrassment and assault against his former employees were also aired. Most news media, including reputable news outlets like the Washington Post, failed to differentiate between Cain’s alleged criminal and consensual acts, using the language of “accusation” to describe both. See for example this story with a headline of “Ginger White accuses Herman Cain of long affair.”

    …”Cain denied the accusations. In an interview that aired before White’s allegations were broadcast, Cain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he knows White and that the two had been friends but that there had been no sexual contact and no “affair.” He characterized their relationship as “trying to help a friend” because of her “not having a job etcetera and this sort of thing.””

    The story then goes on to simply state that:

    “This month, Cain was accused of sexually harassing several women.”

    Such lack of differentiation between criminal and consensual sexual scandals is common among contemporary American mainstream media. Gratefully, Amanda Marcotte (Alternet, Nov. 30, 2011) provides a helpful guide for assessing the significance different kinds of sex scandals. See Marcotte’s article here: “6 Kinds of Sex Scandals: What Should be exposed? What should be left private?”

    8. Wienergate

    … AND speaking of the need to have more sophisticated interpretative filters around why and how some Wieners constitute a “scandal” … see article above, again. … See also our post about Anthony Weiner:

    “In contrast to the Dutch, Americans love sex scandals. We love them so much that in a good year we produce and consume not just one of these high-profile scandals, but several. For many of us interested in sexual justice, the juiciest stories are those of the hypocrites: the Elliot Spitzers who lead anti-prostitute campaigns while purchasing sex; the George Rekers who champion the anti-gay movement while hiring “rent boys,” and the Newt Gingrichs who lead impeachment hearings while engaging in their own extra-marital affairs.”

    7.  Obama’s Secretary of Health & Human Services overrules the FDA, pulls “morning after” pill 

    Kathleen Sebelius overrules FDA recommendation

    “In what can only be called an astounding move by an Administration that pledged on inauguration day that medical and health decisions would be based on fact not ideology and for which women are a major constituency, today Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) overruled a much-awaited decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make emergency contraception (EC) available over-the-counter (OTC) to women of all ages.

    According to the New York Times, “no health secretary has ever [overruled an FDA decision] before.”  See Jodi Jacobsen’s full story in RhReality Check here.

    6.  The politics of Rape. Rape committed by men against women was frequently in the news during 2011, not because the dynamics of it have changed (it’s always about maintaining/exerting symbolic power), but because some people and institutions have found new tactics of exerting and/or maintaining heterosexism. Here’s a sampling of three such tactics.

    Ms Magazine posted several stories on rape this year. This image comes from: http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2011/05/02/25-facts-about-rape-in-america/

    5. Penn State & masculinist cultures of sexual abuse.  Rape and sexual abuse committed by men against boys was again in the news this year. While the Catholic Church and the Military managed to avoid serious spotlight time in 2011, another site of masculine privileged culture — American college football –wasn’t as lucky.

    “With former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky charged with sexually abusing children—and school officials including iconic former football coach Joe Paterno dismissed for purportedly failing to report Sandusky’s alleged crimes to law enforcement—many observers have compared the situation to a series of similar cases that have rocked the Vatican.”

    See: What the Catholic Church can teach us about the Penn State Scandal.” (Patrick Hruby, The Atlantic, Nov. 16, 2011.)

    After all these dire (and at times ludicrous) sexual stories, we will end with four stories on a slightly more hopeful note …

    4.  Mainstreaming of Transgender stories (including both opportunities and misses for gender transformation).

    Transgender actress Harmony Santana

    While images of Chaz Bono’s new book and his stint with Dancing with the Stars were ubiquitous, the inclusion of transgender individuals in policies and programs were just as, if not more, influential.  Any sort of mainstreaming can bring missed opportunities for radical transformation (in this case for the institution of gender). But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality details 14 reasons why 2011 was “a game-changing year for transgender rights.” (See full story in The Advocate, Dec. 28, 2011).

    3. Sex workers rights recognized by the UN and US State Department

    (Meanwhile the conservative sexual politics of mainstream anti-trafficking rhetoric became increasingly exposed. See: for example, social justice activist Emi Koyama’s brilliant investigative article in Bitch Magazine, American University Human Rights professor Ann Jordan’s series of critical papers exposing the “Hype” of the abolitionist/trafficking movement, as well as of course the Village Voice’s mocking of Ashton Kutcher’s “real men” campaign.)

     

    2. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers historic gay rights speech to the United Nations

     GENEVA — The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that the United States would use all the tools of American diplomacy, including the potent enticement of foreign aid, to promote gay rights around the world.

    In a memorandum issued by President Obama in Washington and in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton here, the administration vowed to actively combat efforts by other nations that criminalize homosexual conduct, abuse gay men, lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered people, or ignore abuse against them. (Myers and Cooper, New York Times, Dec. 8, 2011).

    1.  The Sexual Politics of Egypt’s Arab Spring, featuring:



     

    Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists and scholars working toward sexual and social justice; may 2012 be filled with your stories!

    Warm regards, Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin

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    Related Sexuality & Society stories:


    Sex worker and GLBT rights take UN platform

    I recently wrote a story for Rh Reality Check about the Universal Periodic Review process for the US, specifically highlighting the text of recent speeches delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Council;  I’m re-posting the story here for Sexuality & Society readers … the story can also be found here: http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2011/03/21/settingglobal-mandate-towardhuman-rights-approach-work-policy

    ————

    Last Friday, March 18, 2011, was a day of celebration for sex worker activists and allies, as well as for global advocates of sexual health, justice, and human rights.  Why the celebration? The United States made public its new position that: “No one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.” 

    Inside a Human Rights Council session

    The first part of this position regarding sexual orientation was not a surprise. (Despite predictable and periodic right-wing backlashes, GLBT justice movements have continued to make gains at all levels of US society, including increased federal recognition by the Obama administration that sexual orientation is not a valid litmus test for full citizenship.)

    The second part of this statement, however – a commitment to uphold the human rights of all sex workers — is completely unprecedented at the federal level of the United States.

    The occasion for this public statement on the part of the US was the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UPR is new process where the UN community evaluates the human rights record of each member state. Upon its first UPR review in November 2010, the US received 228 recommendations by its global peers for improving its human rights record, including recommendation #86 from member state Uruguay: “undertake awareness-raising campaigns for combating stereotypes and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and [transgender people], and ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of [sex] workers to violence and human rights abuses.[i]

    On Friday, March 18, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, the US presented its written response to each of the 228 recommendations (including the one listed at the top of this post). Additionally, Harold Koh, Legal Advisor for the US Department of State, delivered a verbal summary statement of the US commitment to human rights. Invoking the spirit of more recent US history including the civil rights movement, Koh stated that it is now “a fundamental American belief” that “society as a whole is transformed for the better through our work to protect and promote the civil and human rights of its least powerful members.”

    Following Koh’s remarks, ten UN member state representatives were allowed to read two-minute prepared response statements, followed by statements read by ten civil society representatives. The process of getting a speaking position in this forum resembles a competitive race, with adversarial member states (such as Cuba and Iran) highly motivated to achieve a speaking slot. As a result of perseverance, luck, and sponsorship by the Sexual Rights Initiative and member group Action Canada for Population and Development, sex worker and transgender rights activist Darby Hickey[ii] was able to secure the 10th and last civil society speaking position. Below are segments from her speech:

    Thank you, Mr. President. I am a sex worker and transgender rights activist from the United States. On behalf of hundreds of civil society organizations  that called on the U.S. government to ensure the human rights of people engaged in sex work, I would like to both congratulate and thank the U.S. delegation for accepting recommendation #86. We believe that it is the first instance of affirmation of sex workers‚ rights in this forum.

    Due to stigma and criminalization, sex workers — and those profiled as such — are subjected to violence and discrimination, and are often barred from necessary services and the right to equal protection under the law. State agents themselves, specifically police officers, commit physical and sexual violence against sex workers. These abuses are particularly rampant in low income, African-American and immigrant communities and also greatly affect transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay people. Globally, U.S. policies, such as the “anti-prostitution pledge,” have negatively affected international HIV/AIDS efforts.

    As part of such implementation, it is critical that the government work to systematically involve sex workers in policy decisions that affect them. Specifically, we hope to see the government eliminate federal policies that conflate sex work with human trafficking, investigate and prevent human rights abuses perpetrated by state agents against sex workers, and examine the impact of criminalization on our communities. Protecting the human rights of sex workers is also connected with broader efforts to ensure sexual and reproductive rights and address the problems of the criminal justice system in the U.S.

    We are deeply appreciative of the respect for, openness to, and engagement with civil society that the U.S. government has shown throughout this UPR process. We stand ready to work with the administration to implement this recommendation and others.

    This first UPR has brought about an unprecedented opportunity for dialogue between government and civil society around issues of human rights. At the close of the United States’ UPR process we face a unique opportunity – a global mandate – to begin implementing human rights principles into policies around sex work and human trafficking. In his concluding statement to the UN on Friday, Harold Koh stated that “this is an ongoing process leading to concrete policy and self conscious change.” We (A broad coalition of sex work activists and researchers in the fields of sexual and reproductive health, human rights, and justice) are excited and prepared to begin implementing these principles into policy.

    Useful Links:

    • Archived video of Darby Hickey’s speech, as well as that of Harold Koh and others available here. http://www.un.org/webcast/unhrc/archive.asp?go=110318#pm2 (UN Human Rights Council, Sixteenth session, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.  36th Plenary Meeting, Archived video, Friday 18 March 2011. )
    • “Human Rights for All”( http://www.humanrightsforall.info/), is the group of organizations and individuals (including myself) who organized on behalf of recommendation #86. Included on this site are primary documents and evidence including: the original UPR report (written by members of Best Practices Policy Project and Desiree Alliance), a policy brief for the US state department, and a call to action with dozens of stakeholder signatures.

    i The translation of Uruguay’s recommendation uses the term “transsexuals.” “sexual workers.” In our advocacy response to this recommendation we inserted the terms “transgender people” and “sex workers” which more accurately reflects terms used in the United States.

    ii Darby Hickey is a member of the Best Practices Policy Project.

     

     

     

    US makes historic move to recognize human rights of sex workers

    Great news for advocates of sexual health, human rights, and social justice! See my story below (first posted March 15, 2011 at Ms Magazine Blog):

    ———————-

    Recently I blogged about how the United Nations’ Human Rights Council flagged sex worker rights in its periodic review of the United States’ human-rights record. Member state Uruguay recommended that the U.S. “ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of sexual workers [sex workers] to violence and human rights abuses.”

    Within four months of Uruguay’s recommendation to the U.S., and after a subsequent flurry of advocacy efforts by sex worker activists, researchers, and allies (including me), the State Department has released its response. To each of the 228 Universal Periodic Reviewrecommendations, the State Department replied in one of three ways: “fully support,” “partially support” or “do not support.”

    In what is being heralded as a victory for sex workers’ rights, the State Department chose to “fully support” Uruguay’s recommendation, stating: “No one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.”

    This simple statement marks a potential monumental shift in U.S. policy: a new recognition that anti-trafficking policy alone is not an adequate response to the human rights violations of all sex workers. There is mounting evidence that current anti-trafficking policy ignores (and even exacerbates)  human rights violations of adult, consensual sex workers and of people working under coercive or trafficked conditions.

    Members of my group, Human Rights For All: Concerned Advocates for the Rights of Sex Workers and People in the Sex Trade (HRA) were ecstatic. “People in the sex trade have been marginalized and stigmatized when seeking public services, including through law enforcement. This is a big step forward to acknowledging sex workers’ human rights,” says Kelli Dorsey, Executive Director of Different Avenues, a group dedicated to reproductive justice by and for girls and women of color.

    “We were long overdue for the United States to take the needs of sex workers seriously, particularly the need to stem violence and discrimination,” says attorney Sienna Baskin, Co -Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York.

    On Friday, March 18, sex workers will stage demonstrations in cities across the country to celebrate the adoption of Recommendation #86. For further information on the demonstrations, as well as supporting documents, see the HRA website.

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    Links:

     

    Human Rights for U.S. Sex Workers now on Global Stage

    For the past few months, I have been honored to be part of a team of activists and researchers responding to developments involving the United Nations Human Rights Council, the US State Department, and matters concerning human rights abuses against sex workers. The team of which I am a part is one of many civil society groups invited to engage in dialogue with the State Department in response to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of the human rights record of the United States. For this blog post, submitted on March 3 – International Sex Workers’ Rights Day – I will briefly share highlights of this unprecedented historic process.

    The Universal Periodic Review is a relatively new procedure created by the United Nations Human Rights Council (which itself was only created in 2006). Over the past three years (beginning in 2008 and ending in 2011) the human rights record of all member states of the global community have been and/or will be reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. This past November (2010), it was the turn for the current human rights record of the United States (as well as 15 other UN member states) to be reviewed. Upon review of the US record, more than 200 recommendations were made to the Obama administration, including the following by member state Uruguay[i]: “undertake awareness-raising campaigns for combating stereotypes and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and [transgender people], and ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of [sex] workers to violence and human rights abuses.”

    Since its review in November, the US State Department has engaged in meetings with civil society representatives to help inform its response to the 228 UN recommendations. (The entire list of recommendations to the US can be found here).

    Uruguay’s recommendation has generated an exciting and productive dialogue among people concerned with the welfare of sex workers and people in the sex trade. This historic moment has also created a refreshing opportunity to discuss sex work BOTH as a human rights issue AND as an issue that cannot be adequately addressed by responses to sex trafficking alone.

    Will the US administration recognize this UPR recommendation, and make concrete steps to improving human rights for all, including sex workers (meaning ALL sex workers, including adult consensual sex workers AND those who are exploited or trafficked)? We are hopeful that it will. Judging by the outpouring of support we have received from leading researchers and organizations — representing sexual and reproductive health, law, and criminal justice — we are far from alone in this hope. Several formal letters of support have been received, including from former Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), and Change.org. Dozens of other researchers, experts, and organizations have given signatures of support including Human Rights Watch, Sexuality Information and Education Council (SIECUS), and Amnesty for Women.

    These letters and signatures, along with other documents including a policy brief discussing violence against sex workers, have been submitted to the State Department for review. Below are segments of this policy brief (see end of post for list of authors and collaborators).

    “In November 2010, the current human rights record of the United States was reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. As part of this process, members of the U.N. made a series of recommendations toward improving human rights in the U.S. In recommendation #92.86, member state Uruguay called on the Obama Administration to “undertake awareness-raising campaigns for combating stereotypes and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and [transgender people],[ii] and ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of [sex] workers[iii] to violence and human rights abuses.”[iv]

    “This recommendation from the global community highlights human rights issues that have gone unnoticed for too long. Sex workers—that is people who engage in sexual commerce for income and subsistence needs—are members of families and communities in all parts of the United States. Because of stigma and criminalization sex workers—and those profiled as such—are subjected to violence and discrimination, and are impeded from accessing critical services, such as healthcare, and the right to equal protection under the law. State agents themselves, specifically police officers, commit physical and sexual violence against sex workers. These abuses are particularly rampant in poor and working class, urban, majority African-American and immigrant communities and also greatly affect lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Globally, the U.S. federal anti-prostitution policies, such as the “anti-prostitution pledge,” have had dire consequences for international HIV/AIDS efforts.

    Our policy brief discusses and critiques three policy areas in need of improvement: 1) Federal policies that conflate sex work and trafficking, 2) Federal approaches to HIV/AIDS, and 3) Criminalization (including state level laws) and Policing. Below is our language on Federal policies that conflate sex work and trafficking:

    “Some current federal policies are rooted in the misconception that sex work and human trafficking (a serious human rights abuse acknowledged by the U.S. Government under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and subsequent re-authorizations) are the same issue. This misconception, combined with pressure from some advocates seeking to use concern about human trafficking as a way of diverting resources into anti-prostitution campaigns, has had significant impact on efforts to provide the services and support needed by sex workers both within the United States and globally.

    “Globally, the U.S. imposes the Anti-prostitution Loyalty Oath or the “anti-prostitution pledge” on groups funded by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to provide services internationally to address HIV/AIDS.[v] In order to receive funds organizations must adopt a policy indicating that they oppose prostitution and “sex trafficking.” This policy runs counter to documented best practices for HIV/AIDS interventions[vi] and have lead some groups to avoid offering any health and safety services for sex workers.[vii] [viii] As a result, the global and public health community has been virtually unanimous in its calls for revoking the anti-prostitution pledge. [ix] [x] [xi] [xii] [xiii] Two lawsuits against the U.S. government were filed on behalf of three U.S.-based NGOs engaged in HIV-prevention, leading to U.S. Court Judgments concluding that the “anti-prostitution pledge” is unconstitutional on the basis of violating the first amendment right to freedom of speech.[xiv] The Department of Justice has appealed both cases; the second case is still in court.[xv]

    “Federal policies that conflate sex work and trafficking also impact sex workers’ human rights domestically. Federal funding and other resources intended to protect victims of trafficking have instead been used to arrest and incarcerate adult sex workers based on state laws. For example, ongoing federal taskforces aligned with regional and municipal law enforcement agencies, such as “Operation Cross Country,” use funds that are allocated for services for trafficking victims.[xvi] There is mounting evidence that anti-trafficking brothel raids of this kind place migrant sex workers and trafficked persons at greater risk of incarceration, deportation, and trauma.[xvii]

    After careful consultation with organizations run by and serving sex workers, as well as human rights activists and members of the State Department, we have made a number of recommendations to the US government. These recommendations, in their shortened version are the following:

    The U.S. Federal Government can show progress in addressing human rights abuses against sex workers by a) accepting recommendation #92.86, and b) engaging in concrete, politically-feasible steps that can minimize human rights abuses including at a minimum:

    1. Building capacity for states to address human rights violations through research and dialogue.
    2. Modifying or eliminating existing federal policies that conflate sex work and human trafficking and prevent sex workers from accessing services such as healthcare, HIV prevention and support.
    3. Investigating and preventing human rights abuses perpetrated by state agents, such as law enforcement officers.
    4. Investigating the impact of criminalization, including state level criminal laws, on sex workers and other groups.

    These recommendations, if approved and implemented, will address the needs of a population that disproportionately impacts low-income women, but will also serve a population that is extremely diverse in terms of sex, gender presentation, sexual orientation, race, class, and nation of origin. In the midst of numerous and devastating political assaults on women’s health care in the US, the movement for a human rights policy approach for sex workers and people engaged in sex trade work in the United States is a breath of hope. Stay tuned: the State Department is scheduled to release its response the the UPR recommendations soon.


    [i] Uruguay has already shown clear leadership in sexual rights and social justice; Uruguay was the first South American country to recognize civil unions for both same sex and different sex partners in 2007 and legalize same sex adoption in 2009; it has low levels of income inequality, and is ranked at the top of  South America countries for a range of quality of life and prosperity measures. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uruguay

    [ii] The translation of member state Uruguay recommendation uses the term “transsexuals.” We have inserted the term “transgender people” which is a translation that more accurately reflects terms used in the United States.

    [iii] The translation of member state Uruguay recommendation uses the term “sexual workers.” We have inserted the term “sex workers” which is a translation that more accurately reflects terms used in the United States.

    [iv] Human Rights Council, United Nations General Assembly. Geneva, 1-12 November, 2010. Draft Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review. http://lib.ohchr.org/HRBodies/UPR/Documents/session9/US/A_HRC_WG.6_9_L.9_USA.pdf

    [v] Organizations within the U.S. were also subject to the pledge under Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act but recent policy changes now allows groups to say that they have no policy on prostitution and will remain neutral during the term of the grant.

    [vi] UNAIDS. 2002. Sex Work and HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS Best Practice Collection. http://data.unaids.org/publications/IRC-pub02/jc705-sexwork-tu_en.pdf

    [vii] Sexual Health and Rights Program (SHARP), Open Society Institute. 2007 (June). Anti-Prostitution Pledge Materials. http://www.soros.org/initiatives/health/focus/sharp/articles_publications/publications/pledge_20070612

    [viii] Human Trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and the Sex Sector: Human Rights for All. (October 2010). Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law. (See P. 22). http://www.genderhealth.org/files/uploads/change/publications/Human_Trafficking_HIVAIDS_and_the_Sex_Sector_12_3_2010_FINAL.pdf

    [ix] In 2005, Brazil turned down 40 million dollars of USAID funds due to its ethical opposition to the “anti-prostitution” pledge. See: http://www.thenation.com/article/just-say-não

    [x] Middleberg, M.L. 2006. “The Anti-Prostitution Policy in the US HIV/AIDS Program.” Health and Human Rights 9, 1: 3-15.

    [xi] Roehr, B. 2005. “Charity Challenges US ‘Anti-Prostitution’ Restriction.” BMJ 331(7514): 420.

    [xii] Schleifer, R. 2005. “United States: Funding Restrictions Threaten Sex Workers’ Rights.” HIV/AIDS Policy Law Review 10, 2: 26-7.

    [xiii] Center for Health and Gender Equity. 2008 (August). “Policy Brief: Implications of U.S. Policy Restrictions for HIV Programs Aimed at Commercial Sex Workers.” http://www.genderhealth.org/loyaltyoath.php

    [xiv] Bristol, N. 2006. “US Anti-Prostitution Pledge decreed “Unconstitutional.” Lancet 1, 368 (9529): 17-8. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(06)68948-4/fulltext

    [xv] For an in-depth discussion of the anti-prostitution pledge and its current legal status, see Pp. 18-26 of Human Trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and the Sex Sector: Human Rights for All. (October 2010). Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law. http://www.genderhealth.org/files/uploads/change/publications/Human_Trafficking_HIVAIDS_and_the_Sex_Sector_12_3_2010_FINAL.pdf

    [xvi] More information available at: http://www.examiner.com/sex-trafficking-in-national/fbi-arrests-885-suspects-nationwide-child-sex-trafficking-sting-operation

    [xvii] See: Sex Workers Project. 2009. Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons.” Sex Workers Project. http://www.urbanjustice.org/pdf/publications/Kicking_Down_The_Door_Exec_Sum.pdf. Based on interviews with self-identified trafficking victims, this report recommends a rights-based (rather than a law-enforcement based) approach to identifying and assisting trafficking victims.

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    *Policy Brief Authors and collaborators:

    • Kari Lerum, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, University of Washington, Bothell
    • Penelope Saunders, Ph.D., Director, Best Practices Policy Project
    • Dara Barlin, Board of Directors, Sex Worker Outreach Project USA
    • Stephanie Wahab, PhD., Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, Portland State University
    • Jayne Swift, M.A. Cultural Studies & Doctoral Candidate

    In consultation with representatives from the following organizations:

    • Best Practices Policy Project
    • Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network
    • Desiree Alliance
    • Different Avenues
    • Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS)
    • Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP)
    • Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center
    • St. James Infirmary
    • Woodhull Freedom Foundation

    Top 10 Sexual Stories of 2010

    This year’s top ten sexual stories: an incomplete list from our subjective, North American perspective, containing a mixture of disturbing, entertaining, and hopeful developments.

    10. Katie Perry got kicked off Sesame Street

    “Thursday morning, the PBS children’s show announced that a scheduled appearance by Perry, queen of the most inappropriate whipped-cream bra ever, had been canceled. On Monday, a clip of Perrywearing a sweetheart-cut dress, singing a G-rated version of her hit “Hot N Cold” and begging to “play” with Elmo, was leaked on the Web. Parents, outraged by Perry’s C-cup-accentuating dress,immediately protested. “You’re going to have to rename [Sesame Street] Cleavage Avenue,” wrote one commenter, while another simply joked, “My kid wants milk now.” (LA Times, Sept. 23, 2010).

    Anti-gay activist George Rekers and his "rentboy"

    9. George Rekers got caught with “rent boy”

    “Reached by New Times before a trip to Bermuda, Rekers said he learned Lucien was a prostitute only midway through their vacation. “I had surgery,” Rekers said, “and I can’t lift luggage. That’s why I hired him.” (Medical problems didn’t stop him from pushing the tottering baggage cart through MIA.)” (Bullock, P. and Thorp, B., Miami New Times, May 6, 2010).

    8. Constance McMillen barred from her prom, becomes a Glamour Magazine “Women of the Year

    “Constance McMillen has been named one of Glamour Magazine’s ‘Women of the Year’ for 2010.  We came to know Constance through her personal ordeal with Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi.  The school board rejected her request to bring her girlfriend to the prom as her date, and even further, didn’t allow Constance to wear a tuxedo as she had planned.” (Sledjeski, J. GLAAD, Nov. 5, 2010).

    7. This one is a tie between: a) Republicans got caught at W. Hollywood Strip Club

    “The “family values” Republican National Committee spent almost $2,000 last month at an erotic, bondage-themed West Hollywood club, where nearly naked women – and men – simulate sex in nets hung from above.” (Bazinet, K, and Saltonstall, D. Daily News, March 29, 2010).

    and b) Strippers protest Ohio church

    “For the past four years, Pastor Dunfee and some of his New Beginnings church members have picketed and protested the strip club in their local community; they’ve even videotaped visitors to the club and posted the videos online in an attempt to hold them accountable for their actions. Pastor Dunfee said the regular protests were to avoid “sharing territory with the devil.”

    Irritated by the protests, employees of the club have decided to protest the church—they arrived early in the morning Monday wearing swimwear and toting barbeques, picnic food, sunscreen, and lawn chairs, along with signs reading Matthew 7:15: Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing and Revelation 22:11: He that is unjust, let him be unjust still. ” (Aug.16, 2010; ChurchLeaders.com).

    6.  European Court of Human Rights Rejects Irish Ban on Abortion

    “In December, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion violates the rights of pregnant women to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases. Each year, more than 6,000 women travel abroad from Ireland to obtain abortion services, often at costs of over $1,500 per trip. In a statement on the ruling, the Irish Family Planning Association—the IWHC partner that helped bring about this decision—said the court sent “a very strong message that the State can no longer ignore the imperative to legislate for abortion.” (Top Ten Wins, International Women’s Health Coalition, December 23, 2010).

    5. Millions searched for their G-spot

    “Asking if the “G-spot” exists can be a bit like asking if God (the other G-spot) exists: It depends on who you ask. And in both cases, science is (thus far) ill equipped to adequately measure either G-spot. ”

    (Lerum, K. Sexuality & Society, Jan 6, 2010).

    4. The Pope OKs condoms in some circumstances

    “In a break with his traditional teaching, Pope Benedict XVI has said the use of condoms is acceptable “in certain cases”, in an extended interview to be published this week.”

    “After holding firm during his papacy to the Vatican’s blanket ban on the use of contraceptives, Benedict’s surprise comments will shock conservatives in the Catholic church while finding favour with senior Vatican figures who are pushing for a new line on the issue as HIV ravages Africa.” (Kington, T., and Quinn, B. Guardian UK, Nov. 21, 2010).

    3. Microbicide Research offers hope for HIV prevention

    “More than 20 years ago, the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) convened 44 women from 20 countries who conceived of a substance, like contraceptive foam or jelly, which could be inserted vaginally to prevent HIV infection. We named it a “microbicide,” and set out to find scientists and money to develop it. Until recently, progress has been slow, but in July, results from a clinical trial in South Africa found a new gel to be nearly 40 percent effective in protecting women against HIV during intercourse.” (Top Ten Wins, International Women’s Health Coalition, December 23, 2010).

    2. Gay Teen Suicide & Bullying as a Social Problem

    “The recent rash of high profile suicides by boys who were bullied for gender and sexual non-conformity has created a wake up call for parents and school administrators in the U.S. To create a broader base of support from heterosexual allies, as well as to reach out to GLBT youth themselves, a number of new educational and activist initiatives have emerged. Dan Savage created the “It Gets Better”video project, directed at GLBT youth in despair over hostile treatment and at risk of killing themselves. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) declared Oct. 20, 2010 Spirit Day to call attention to and memorialize the recent suicides. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even released her own version of an “It Gets Better” video. ” (Lerum, K. Sexuality & Society, Nov. 18 2010).

    1. The Repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

    WASHINGTON — “The military’s longstanding ban on service by gays and lesbians came to a historic and symbolic end on Wednesday, asPresident Obama signed legislation repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the contentious 17-year old Clinton-era law that sought to allow gays to serve under the terms of an uneasy compromise that required them to keep their sexuality a secret.” (New York Times, Dec. 22, 2010).

    ——————————————————————–

    Related Story:  Top Ten Sexual Stories of 2009

    Terrorism against Sex Workers: It’s time to Take a Stand

    For the past 7 years, December 17th has been recognized by sex workers and their allies as a day to recognize that violence against sex workers is endemic to many societies. It is also a day to commit energy toward making the cultural and working conditions of sex work safer. This is very different from simply telling people not to be sex workers (Imagine criminalizing the mining industry and jailing miners as a way to protect them; imagine how much more dangerous the mining industry would be if there were no health and safety regulations in place). The work of making any cultural and work environment safer for all is to recognize the right of individuals to be agents over their own bodies, to achieve personal livelihood, and to live a life free of terror.

    This work, on a larger scale, also entails the recognition of the potential social value of sex work. This does not mean that all sex workers love their job, any more than all miners love theirs; what it does mean is that it is not enough to listen only to the tragic stories (reaffirming the notion that people involved in this work must be punished), while covering ones eyes and ears to other stories (which suggest that the work is not intrinsically dangerous, evil, or otherwise worthy of punishment). As academics, policy makers, and citizens we don’t have to personally become providers or consumers of sex work (or the mining industry) to have compassion. But we must take seriously people’s claims that they, their families, and their communities can benefit economically or socially from their work, and ask what it is that we can do to make their work safer.

    This year’s Dec. 17 vigils, at least in the US, will be tinged with a new sense of urgency given the recent discovery of 4 bodies in Long Island, some or all of whom were women sex workers. (See NBC news link here). Targeted violence on this scale is a form of war, of terrorism, of outright hatred for a particular category of people. Can you imagine the media and political response if the bodies were of children, or of politicians, or a particular ethnic or religious group?

    Today, and all this week, a number of progressive media outlets are featuring stories about the importance of Dec. 17 anti-violence vigils. Rh Reality Check is featuring a series of stories, one of which I’m reposting in full below:  ”Treating Violence Against Sex Workers as a Hate Crime”  By Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoop. (Other links also provided at the end of this article).

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    Treating Violence Against Sex Workers as a Hate Crime

    By Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoops

    December 16, 2010 – 6:40pm

    Published under: Women’s Rights | End Violence Against Sex Workers Day 2010 | England | Prostitution | sex work

    Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoops’s blog | Printer-friendly version | Login or register to post comments | ShareThis

    This article is part of a series published by RH Reality Check in partnership with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, December 17th, 2010. It is excerpted from Research For Sex Work 12, published 17 December 2010 by the NSWP, an organization that upholds the voice of sex workers globally and connects regional networks advocating for the rights of female, male, and transgender sex workers. Download the full journal, with eight more articles about sex work and violence, for free at nswp.org.  See all articles in this series here.

    Over the last decade sex work projects, the police and other agencies in Liverpool (United Kingdom) have been addressing violence against sex workers, encouraging reporting and taking crimes committed against sex workers seriously. In recent years Armistead Street, a sex work outreach and support project in Liverpool, has worked with Merseyside Police to continue to build on this legacy. This partnership has led to unprecedented increases in the number of street sex workers reporting crimes committed against them to the police, the number of active investigations of such crimes, and the numbers of people being charged, brought before the courts and convicted of crimes. Key to this success is the practice in Liverpool of treating crimes against sex workers as hate crime.

    Liverpool is a city in the North West of England. The majority of women involved in street sex work in the city experience problematic drug use, with high levels (over 90 percent) of heroin and crack cocaine use. They also experience social exclusion including homelessness. Research in the city, and frontline project work, has for over a decade reported high levels of violence against street sex workers, 80 percent of them reporting they have experienced violence in the course of their work. These studies showed there was noticeable under-reporting of incidents to the police. The key reasons identified for not reporting were: sex workers believing they would not be taken seriously or would not be treated with respect by the police; a lack of trust in the police; poor previous experience with law enforcement; fear of revenge from attackers; fear of arrest for soliciting; anxiety about court cases and fear that involvement in sex work would become public.

    Groundbreaking Move

    Liverpool has had more than its share of tragic loss of lives amongst sex workers in the UK, with eight women who were involved in street sex work murdered since 1990, of which five cases remain unsolved. The most recent murder of Anne Marie Foy in September 2005 led to a debate in the city about how to manage street sex work, resulting in strong support to address violence against street-based sex workers. During the murder investigation, Merseyside Police acknowledged that relationships with agencies and sex workers were ad hoc, that there were difficulties contacting and maintaining contact with vital witnesses, and that there was a continued lack of trust in the police amongst sex workers.

    In a groundbreaking move in late 2006 Merseyside Police agreed a policy that all crimes against sex workers be treated as hate crime. They were the first, and at the time of writing, the only force in the UK to do so. In this country, the hate crime model has been developed for dealing primarily with racially motivated and homophobic crime. In policing policy, if a reported crime is classified as a hate crime, it will receive an enhanced response with more attention and police resources being allocated to it. The hate crime approach implicitly recognises that violence against sex workers is shaped by discrimination and attitudes of hostility and prejudice.

    In the same period of time, Armistead Street was the first sex work project to secure government funding for an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) located within the project.2 ISVA’s were introduced as part of the national government strategy to address rape and sexual abuse. Armistead Street’s ISVA is a specially trained member of staff who co-ordinates initiatives in the sex work project to address violence and safety, liaises with the police, offers training and awareness-raising sessions to other agencies and last but not least, supports sex workers who have been victims of crime to ensure all their holistic health and social care needs are met. This includes advocacy and intensive support if cases are progressing through the criminal justice system. Key concerns in this regard have been, first, to improve the quality of evidence, and second, to support sex workers in getting their cases to court. The approach used is victim-centered and low-threshold (see below). The ISVA works closely with the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) which opened in Liverpool in 2008. SARCs are regional centres that provide holistic care – including the collection of forensic evidence – for victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

    Ugly Mugs

    One of the tasks of the ISVA is to coordinate the ‘ugly mugs’ (‘bad date’) scheme. After each incident, sex workers are encouraged to make formal reports to the police as well as fill out an ugly mugs form. An ugly mugs report describes the incident, characteristics of the perpetrator, e.g., clothing, hair, accent, approximate age and height, and descriptions of his car or the location where the incident took place. Not only does the report serve to warn other sex workers of dangerous individuals, it can also be (anonymously) shared with the police to aid investigation and in some cases, support evidence.

    In 2007/2008, 65 ugly mugs reports were made to the project, 2 for robbery, 29 for rape and other serious sexual offences, and 16 for assaults. The rest covered a range of offences such as being held against one’s will, verbal abuse and threats of violence. Ugly mugs reporting forms and processes have been developed with advisory input from Merseyside Police. There is a formally agreed process for the processing and analysis of ugly mugs reports by the police. For instance, the information is used in the official investigation of the incident it reports on, as well as shared with police officers in areas where street sex work takes place. Further, the forms are used for monitoring and analyzing incidents related to sex work.

    Supporting Cases Getting to Court

    Armistead Street has adopted an approach which puts the victim of violence first and tries to eliminate all barriers that make it difficult for him or her to access justice. For instance, early evidence can be taken by outreach staff (including the ISVA), who carry early evidence kits. Further, the ISVA can be present when a police officer interviews a victim, using video. This interview can also take place at the project’s premises as Armistead has its own video interview equipment. Normally, two police officers will conduct such interviews but as the ISVA has had specialist training from the police on interviewing vulnerable witnesses, she can replace one of them. Outreach staff assist victims of violence from clients in filling out an ugly mugs form.

    If a sex worker wants to press charges, the ISVA will support him or her in filing an official complaint with the police. If a particular case is going to court, the ISVA will apply early for ‘special measures’, so witnesses can give evidence from behind screens or via a video link to protect their identity and avoid having to face their attacker at court. She will also work with the courts to avoid where possible that the victim has to spend a long time at court waiting to give evidence. If someone is on a methadone prescription, the ISVA can liaise to arrange for people to collect the medicines before court and if someone is homeless, accommodation can be arranged during trials. The work in Liverpool has seen tangible outcomes. The proportion of sex workers giving permission to share their ugly mugs form and full details with the police and willing to make a formal report, increased almost fivefold, from about 20 to 95 percent. Of the eighteen people who have been brought before the court since 2006, fifteen have been found guilty, a conviction rate of 83 percent. Since the Sexual Assault Referral Centre and Rape Support Unit opened, 98 percent of all sex workers experiencing sexual offences have gone to the SARC for full forensic medical examination. No sex workers supported by Armistead have withdrawn their formal statement or refused to proceed. News of success travels fast. Recently, Armistead Street’s example has been followed by other organisations: a further five sex work projects secured funding for an ISVA located in their service in 2010.

    Gaining Trust

    Building confidence in the police amongst sex workers and gaining trust has been very important in creating these achievements. Strong partnership work with ongoing liaison and communication between Merseyside Police, the sex work project and sex workers has been key. Since 2006, the police have appointed a sex work liaison officer. Linked to this has been a commitment to getting the message out that crimes against sex workers will not be tolerated in the city, hence challenging attitudes that such violence is acceptable. For instance, senior police officers have engaged with the media to communicate the message that sex workers are part of the community and will get the full protection of the law.

    The police have also worked at building trust with sex workers providing ‘friendly faces’, routes for reporting, and information and reassurance via leaflets and the media, as well as utilising the intermediary role of the Armistead Street project. Information about cases brought to court and the successful outcomes are shared with sex workers via outreach work and mechanisms such as the ugly mugs newsletter.

    All this has seen a real shift in the relationship between street sex workers and the police in terms of violence against sex workers. Many sex workers now expect that the police will take them seriously and many will independently report to the police as well as to the project, through ugly mugs forms. There has been a real shift in balance within wider policing policy of street sex work. The safety of sex workers and collecting evidence are now priorities, and whilst a degree of law enforcement in response to community complaints regarding soliciting does take place, there is continuous contact with Armistead Street. The police now consider the impact of each planned action on the safety of sex workers. Sex workers are also encouraged to work in areas covered by video surveillance for their security.

    There is still a long way to go. For example, the police policy applies to sex workers in all sectors of the sex industry but proactive work building trust with indoor sex workers is underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the work in Liverpool shows that real in-roads can be made into enabling reporting, investigating and prosecuting crimes against sex workers if there is commitment and resources are dedicated to do this. Indeed this can happen even within a challenging and problematic framework in which street sex work is criminalised. This highlights that addressing actual violence against sex workers needs to be a strategic and operational priority in all legal settings.

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    Related links:

    Looking for a happy, gay, holiday film?

    I’m happy to say that I’m now also a contributer to Ms. Magazine‘s blog. My first article there is a review of Burlesque, the musical film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. The original article can be viewed at this link. I’ve also inserted its text below (without the internal links and Ms. Magazine‘s pretty formatting):

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    Burlesque Is So Gay. And That’s A Good Thing.

    December 2, 2010 by Kari Lerum

    When I worked as a strip club waitress, part of my job was to look out for troublemakers: people entering the club with an intention to harm the dancers. OK, it wasn’t officially my job (that was up to the managers and bouncers), but as a feminist, an ally, and also friend to some of the dancers, I felt it was my unquestionable duty. The worst of the troublemakers? Undercover cops–guys who would enjoy a lap dance and then slap their pleasure provider with a ticket for indecency.

    Now, more than 10 years later, as a tenured professor, my job has expanded to analyzing sexual-social systems and all forms of sexual policing. This is why I’m interested in not just Burlesque itself, the new musical film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, but also the film’s sociocultural context, including the chorus of negative reviews.

    Even before Burlesque’s Thanksgiving release, reviewers were sharpening their knives, eager for a kill. Not since the mid-90s releases of Showgirls and Striptease–both of which were given Golden Raspberry Awards for the worst in cinema–have reviewers been so eager to tear a movie and its (sexually unapologetic, dancing, woman) protagonist to shreds.

    Post-release, most reviewers have followed a standard formula: Compare Burlesque to Showgirls; make fun of Christina Aguilera; declare the film a miserable failure. Below is a sampling:

    • The headline for Marshall Fine’s review in Fox News exclaims: ‘Burlesque’ not just Bad, it’s ‘Showgirls’ Bad.’ Fine organizes his review around ridicule of Christina Aguilera:

    There’s nary a surprise to be had, except for Aguilera’s apparent misconception that she has acting talent.

    • Catherine Shoard’s review in the Guardian concludes “Two divas, one stage – you do the maths,” with the apparent assumption that no stage, or film, is big enough to fit more than ONE larger-than-life female (and unapologetically sexual) protagonist.

    • Mary Pols’ review in Time judges Aguilera not against her co-star, but against other women who have played similar roles:

    Aguilera, making her dramatic debut, is far from a great actress, but compared to Elizabeth Berkley [Showgirls] or Spears [Crossroads], she is a veritable Nicole Kidman [Moulin Rouge].

    (Note that of the three films, only Moulin Rouge, which ends with the death of the prostitute/dancer protagonist, is implied to be “good.”)

    • Finally, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune ridicules not just the plot and the acting, but delivers the final cut: “The whole movie amounts to an I-will-survive anthem.” A curious denigration, as Gloria Gaynor’s mega-hit single “I Will Survive” is a recognized anthem for the women’s movement, the gay movement and HIV/AIDS survival.

    With these critiques in mind, I took my partner and brother-in-law to see Burlesque on Thanksgiving weekend. Burlesque has a familiar plot for US audiences, full of underdog themes: A sweet, talented small-town protagonist moves to Hollywood to pursue her dreams. She faces initial hardships (can’t get a job as a singer or dancer), but her path is altered when she meets an intriguing character (in this case the character is a place, a magical neo-Burlesque theater). The protagonist meets opposition from the theater’s boss (Cher) and a rival performer, but through her determination and raw talent works her way into a top singing/dancing position.

    Our immediate reaction? Pure, easy pleasure. Burlesque is a light, sometimes cheesy, visually gorgeous, sexually tame, feel-good film. A perfect Disneyland-for-Adults distraction for the Holidays. Cher and Aguilera have the kind of voices that make your hair raise, out of not horror but out of delight. Technically, it gets right some elements of both classic burlesque and the neo-burlesque scene, but it’s also a montage of styles borrowed from American Idol, Pussycat Dolls, and Las Vegas showgirls. Worthy of an Oscar? I’ll leave that up to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science–but I won’t be surprised if costume design is in the running.

    What then accounts for the cutting reviews of Burlesque and Aguilera? What grand community or artistic standards does this film, or Aguilera, violate? Is there really no place for a fluffy, feel-good, aesthetically pleasing film during the holidays?

    Then again, maybe I’m a bad film cop, and Aguilera is just an irredeemable actress, deserving of that ticket for indecency. At least her voice isn’t in question; perhaps her policers would ease up if she simply became the voice of a cartoon character, like the Rapunzel figure in Disney’s new holiday film, Tangled. As it turns out, Burlesque and Tangled have much in common: both were light musical romances released around Thanksgiving, both feature pretty, young, blonde, female protagonists and tall, dark-haired mother figures. Indeed, reviewers like Marshall Fine (who could barely spit out his disdain for Aguilera in Burlesque) seem quite taken by the “tale of the girl in the tower with the long, loooong hair.” According to Fine: “Disney’s new film manages to be romantic, musical, moving–and outstandingly funny. Don’t skip it.”

    There is an intriguing similarity between Marshall’s enthusiasm for Tangled and reviews of Burlesque coming from gay or gay-friendly sources. Sara Michelle Fetters from Seattle Gay News writes:

    But just because there are no surprises doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of cheesy cornball fun to be had by watching Burlesque. Aguilera is fairly charming as the star-struck ingénue, while Cher and Tucci (playing the requisite Gay best friend with an answer for everything) could do this sort of thing in their sleep and make it somehow worthwhile. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I never felt terrible about sitting in my theater seat. Heck, most of the time I was reasonably entertained, going along with the flow even if every fiber of my being told me not to.

    Mick LaSalle, writing for SF Gate, is unabashedly enthusiastic about the film:

    Burlesque is irresistible from its first minutes, and over time it creates a whole atmosphere, not only onscreen but within the audience. It’s big, perfectly cast and entertaining in every way, but more than that it feels like a generous public event. See it with other people. See it with a crowd.

    Much more can be said about the film’s web of inside jokes and gay cultural references and the fact that Cher and director Steve Antin were (at different times) long-time lovers with media powerhouse David Geffen.

    But ultimately, here is where Burlesque goes “wrong”: While trashed for being too predictable, it is actually not predictable enough. Unlike most other contemporary Hollywood (fictional) films about sexual, dancing women, our protagonist is a “good girl” who is sexually expressive but suffers no negative consequences. She is not forced to choose between innocence and sensuality, good girl and vamp. She, and everyone else at the club, gets to have it all. The club is not a hotbed of despair, corruption, and exploitation. The tall dark mother figure, a sexy burlesque dancer herself, is not a villain. Rather, as a club owner she is fiercely loyal to her employees; her club is their family. Women employees ultimately stick together, survive and thrive. Gay employees are loved and integral to the club. No one dies.

    I have a strong suspicion that it is all of this–more than the soft dramatic tension and cheesy lines–that most mainstream film reviewers really can’t stomach.

    Behind the Marquee: A Worker’s Eulogy for the Seattle Lusty Lady Theatre

    We welcome this guest post from Jayne Swift, who is currently a graduate student in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell and an employee of the Seattle Lusty Lady Theatre.

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    In the 1970s, U.S. manufacturing jobs were decimated, with thousands of workers losing what had once been well paid and valued jobs. It was a deindustrialization crisis that would come to be remembered as a national loss.  Many saw it as a sign that Americans were losing their birthright to work that is fairly compensated and unionized; work that produces a sense of pride, identity, and community. 

    If you have spent any time within the Seattle Lusty Lady Theatre lately, you would hear similar, albeit scaled down, testimonials from Lusty Lady workers. But unlike the massive public outcry around automotive plant closings, few outside the workers of the Lusty Lady seem to care about the historical and economic impact of Lusty Lady labor.

    To be sure, as Carly Chillmon mentioned in her recent post on Sexuality & Society, many DO care about the loss of the Lusty marquee. The marquee should be missed as a beacon of Seattle’s bawdy past. Yet, the public focus on the marquee also masks the reality of actual people labouring and loving inside. For almost three decades, the Lusty Lady was more than a job to countless employees—it was our GM plant, our place.

    Book cover for "The Lusty Lady," by photojournalist and Lusty Lady worker, Erika Langley (1997).

     

    I have known I wanted a place in the Lusty Lady world for a very long time. When I was 17 and first saw the Lusty Lady while on vacation in Seattle, I was enthralled by the robed women standing outside, smoking, talking to each other, seemingly unmoved by the (potentially hostile) stares of passers-by.  I wanted to know more about this place and these women.

    Shortly thereafter I realized I had already knew something about this place and these women. I grew up in a feminist-intellectual home and was an avid consumer of texts that explored questions of feminism, gender, and sexuality. In particular, I sought to understand the feminist sex wars and the fierce battles over pornography and prostitution they engendered.

    Like many of my “third wave feminist” ilk, I discovered a burgeoning field of literature that articulated what might be called a “sex-positive” vision of sex work; anthologies that featured the voices of sex workers discussing their work on their terms. The Lusty Lady was a recurring feature in many of these texts—used as a site for sex workers to think through the value of their work, articulate experiences of sex work not often validated in the larger world, and sometimes organize to serve their own best interests as workers and people. Indeed, a cursory look at U.S. sex worker literature[i] reveals the Lusty’s significance to the growth of the contemporary sex worker rights movement. The battles to unionize the San Francisco branch of the Lusty (dramatized in the 2000 film Live Nude Girls Unite!). the memoirs published by Lusty workers, and the uniquely female management made the Lusty Lady a rich site for theorizing commercial sex cultures and producing a sex worker feminism.

    Image from the documentary film, "Live Nude Girls, Unite!" (Dir. Juilia Query, 2000).

     

    Throughout my undergraduate years I studied the Lusty from afar as something akin to a feminist destination, something I might do with my education and training in Gender/Sexuality Studies. After finishing my M.A. in Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa I moved to Seattle and got up the courage to pursue what, quite simply, had become my dream of working at the Lusty Lady.

    For the last several years that dream has structured and animated my life. Like all jobs the Lusty involves its share of drudgery, and more than many jobs a host of emotional and physical challenges. Yet, unlike a lot of other jobs I’ve held (in and out of the sex industry) the Lusty has consistently demanded that I grow on an embodied ethical and intellectual level. The Lusty is the space in which I was able to claim the term sex worker and feel prepared to defend my worth. Every day at the Lusty presented an opportunity to reflect upon some of my central intellectual preoccupations, including: the performativity of gender, theories of objectification, feminist agency and resistance, the production of desire and power, queer theory, the intersections of labor, feminist, and local history and struggle.

    It might seem odd to some, but the Lusty made me a better thinker and scholar. Perhaps just as important, the Lusty also forced me to examine and change myself on a more grounded, personal level.

    At the Lusty, I learned that there were all kinds of beautiful bodies and personas. I learned that being desired and being able to desire are not contingent upon achieving a pernicious beauty standard. The Lusty taught me—in a way that no therapy or degree could—that my body was mine and I had better find a way to feel good and strong in it in order to survive. In doing so, the Lusty also taught me to look customers, men, in the eye and find a way to show up to their desires and needs when they asked for them respectfully—and stand up to them when I was disrespected. The Lusty reaffirmed my commitment to honoring other people’s erotic selves and gave me a tangible venue in which to perform that commitment. The Lusty taught me that one’s work could be good for others as well as me, that I had a right to be treated fairly and respected, and that I need to pursue the respect I want. Perhaps most importantly, the Lusty challenged me to reconceive of and enact the thing that feminists once called “sisterhood.” 

    My Lusty sisterhood grew not out of consciousness raising groups but out of my grounded working conditions: the Lusty required employees to find ways to work alongside each other, often across multiple lines of social difference. The physical and social structure of the business, instead of breeding the competition found in many other legal sex businesses, inculcated workers with a sense of collectivity and common purpose. As my co-worker Wildflower puts it,

    “much like a contrived women’s support group…we share the most tender and raunchy parts of ourselves. Something about being naked, playing a role and entertaining the gents keeps things light enough to share some heavy challenges.”

    Indeed, the workers of the Lusty often express a bond with each other simply due to our shared love for this place and what is has given us. My experience of the world tells me that it is rare for people to describe their workplaces in terms that another co-worker, Lux, does as the place where she “grew up”:

    “It was a safe place for me to be unconditionally loved, a place where it was alright for me to be me, a place no matter what I did I would be accepted.”

    Gypsy, another co-worker, reiterates this theme of kinship. For her the Lusty was the site of a unique and “incomparable connection with female co workers/”family.”

    I probably could have espoused it, but until I actually became a Lusty Lady I don’t think I really understood what people—feminists often—meant when they talked about the need for sisters, allies, family. 

    Home, family, erotic temple, feminist teaching ground, support system, or as Lux put it, “place of belonging”—these are the organizing narratives and metaphors we (the workers) often use to describe and explain our experience of the Lusty Lady.  No one is arguing that it was a perfect place; a utopia. However, many of us, myself included, are currently charged with trying to make sense of this time, place and labor we have shared with each other. We want the world to understand the Lusty’s powerful and at times beautiful resonance in our lives and our grief about its ending. The loss of this place—a local institution which employed countless people over three decades, inspired its workers, and at times brought women together in a world that often profits by driving us apart—matters, whether or not you’ve ever dared to set foot inside it.

    I can only hope that when we close our doors in June we are greeted by other mourners, all those who care about sex workers, standing respectfully on the other side of the marquee.

    —————————————- 

    Jayne Swift was lucky enough to take her first baby steps in six inch heels at the Lusty Lady theatre and is currently completing an M.A. in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington-Bothell.


    Referenced and recommended works:

    [i] See:Brooks, Siobhan “Dancing Towards Freedom” Whores and Other Feminists, Ed. Jill Nagle  Routledge: 1997.

    Dudash, Tawnya. “Peepshow Feminism,” Whores and Other Feminists, Ed. Jill Nagle  Routledge: 1997.

    Eaves, Elisabeth. 2002Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power. Knopf.

    Funari, Vicky “Naked, Naughty, Nasty: Peep Show Reflections” Whores and Other Feminists, Ed. Jill Nagle  Routledge: 1997.

    Langley, Erika. 1997. The Lusty Lady. Scalo Zurich-Berlin-New York.

    Queen, Carol. 1997. Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of a Sex-Positive Culture. Cleis.