Category Archives: workplace

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/

 

 

Evidence-based trafficking policy?: Sociologist gives State Department an “F”

When the Obama administration took office on Jan. 1, 2009, many scientists and scholars were hopeful that empirical evidence would play a greater role in defining a range of domestic and international policies, ranging from justifications for war, to global warming, to sex education, to policies about human trafficking. The hope was that the administration would turn away from making decisions that were rooted in ideological agendas and make decisions that were informed more directly by reliable empirical data. To some extent, this has been the case. [E.G.: see the State Department's (remarkable) response to evidence of human rights violations against people in the sex trade].

However, when it comes to directly criticizing the State Department about its international policies — even using solid empirical data —  it is probably inevitable that the State Department machine will kick into defense mode. And this is what is happening now in response to Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, for her book Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo which is based on her ethnographic research with bar hostesses in Tokyo. The State Department argues that women who are similar to those Parreñas included in her study need to be “rescued.” Parreñas’ research suggests otherwise, and adds to the mounting evidence which indicates that calls for “rescuing” adult women are simplistic, not based in reliable evidence, and are ultimately harmful to the women who allegedly “need” to be “rescued.”

Parreñas’ more complicated and empirically-grounded analysis puts a wet blanket on widespread popular discourse about “sex trafficking” — a “victim/rescue” narrative that many critical feminist, human rights, and labor scholars critique as a colonialist, patronizing, (ironically) sexualizing fantasy of White Knights swooping in to rescue helpless women. Parreñas’ work also provides yet another push to the State Department — and other all parties interested in alleviating human trafficking — to ground their approaches in rigorous data collection, as well as analysis that addresses labor and migrant rights in the context of global economic inequalities.

See below for Nina Ayoub’s story which briefly summarizes Parreñas’ findings and the State Department’s response:

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Scholar’s Views Rile State Department

November 10, 2011, 9:00 pm

By Nina Ayoub

The author of a new scholarly book from Stanford University Press has become the target of criticism from an unusual source: the U.S. Department of State.

In recent weeks, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, has received media attention for Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo, a book about Filipina women working as bar hostesses in the Japanese capital. Bloomberg News ran excerpts of her work. She was called the “literary lovechild of Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Wolf” by Zócalo Public Square, which said the book will “inspire indignation for reasons you didn’t expect.” Parreñas also was interviewed onThe World, a program of Public Radio International. Following that broadcast, the State Department asked—essentially—for equal time.

The issue? Parreñas was highly critical of the ways in which State Department policies on international sex trafficking characterize the women who are the focus of her book, minimizing, she says, their individual agency as migrant laborers, and seeking to “rescue” them and regulate their lives in ways that Parreñas argues may leave them worse off.

On November 4, Alison Kiehl Friedman, deputy director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was interviewed on The World to “clarify U.S. policy on sex trafficking.” She told the host that “we agree with Dr. Parreñas that there is exploitation inherent in what is going on, and we agree that not all the people there are trafficking victims. And we agree that there needs to be more done to get unscrupulous labor recruiters out of the system and better protect migration flows. Where we disagree is that somebody can go in, have a personal experience for a couple of months, and categorically say these people weren’t sex-trafficking victims, and somehow calling some of them sex-trafficking victims is worse than ignoring their exploitation and trying to address it.”

In an e-mail interview, The Chronicle asked Parreñas for her response. Is she surprised at the public attention her research is getting from the State Department?

“As a scholar who is committed to ‘public sociology,’ that is, sociology that aims to transcend the academy and reach a wider audience, I couldn’t be anything but pleased that policy implementers have given attention to my work,” she writes. “Unfortunately, they seemed to have also misinterpreted the work.”

Parreñas adds: “I do wish that the U.S. State Department gave greater attention to the evidence-based research on human trafficking by scholars such as myself, and others including the anthropologist Denise Brennan, the legal scholar Dina Haynes, and the anthropologist Tiantian Zheng.” The department does not, she charges. Instead, they “insist on making unsubstantiated claims on human trafficking.”

What the sociologist is chiefly calling “unsubstantiated” is the Trafficking in Persons Report, which the State Department describes as its “principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments” on the subject. She is critical of the State Department, she says, for not fully accounting for its methods, as well as for its informants and sources. “The TIP Report would get an F if it were a  social-science-research project.”

Parreñas says she is fairly sure that her critics at the agency have not yet read her book. “Otherwise, they would not be able to dismiss my methodology as ‘having a personal experience for a couple of months.’” she writes. As a qualitative sociologist, she used a varied set of methods, including “in-depth interviews with hostesses, brokers, club owners; participant-observation both as a customer (in nine clubs) and as a hostess (in one club primarily); archival research; and interviews with government representatives in both Japan and the Philippines. I spent not just ‘a couple of months’ but a total of 11 non-continuous months in Tokyo to conduct my project.”

Unlike Friedman and the TIP Report, she says, “all the claims that I have made about the situation of hostesses—a group they say are ‘forced into prostitution’—are based on evidence, i.e., concrete interviews with migrant Filipina hostesses who I made sure represented a diverse group.” The women included “those who are college educated and those who are high-school dropouts; some work in high-end bars and others in low-end bars; some undress in the club where they work and others never sit next to a customer at a club when at work.”

Speaking on the radio of the Filipina hostesses, Friedman, the State Department official, used an analogy she said her boss was fond of. “I think that focusing on how they got there and whether there was any initial consent to travel is really beside the point,” she told The World. “It’s almost like criminalizing driving to the bank robbery, but not the bank robbery itself.”

In her e-mail to The Chronicle, Parreñas counters: “As I explicitly described in the interview, the work of hostesses is not prostitution. Instead, the work is to flirt professionally with customers.”

Friedman, notes Parreñas, “said we should not focus on how one gets to commit a robbery, but to focus on the robbery. This statement just goes to show that she chooses not to consider the circumstances of people’s lives and the particular needs that arise out of those circumstances.

In the case of hostesses, she says, “these women are often from the poorest of the poor in the Philippines. We cannot understand why they do hostess work unless we consider the structural contexts that have shaped their lives.” Those who prefer they not become hostesses, she says, should work on easing the structural inequalities that limited their choices and made hostess work the best of bad options.

“But let us say I agree with Friedman’s boss,” she adds. “Let us look at the act of bank robbery. Let us disregard how they got there. In this case, we would look at the act of hostess work. We would actually see that the work is not prostitution but professional flirtation. Professional flirting could be performed in a variety of ways—via showing acts of care such as spoon feeding sensually, dancing on stage (clothed or unclothed), singing, verbal teasing. I would ask Friedman—what is wrong with professional flirting? What is so different between professional flirting and working as a waitress in Hooters?”

“Yes, I would say let us look at the act of ‘bank robbery’ or the act of ‘hostess work.’ If we were going to do it accurately, we would actually rely on evidence to know the specifics of that ‘bank robbery.’ We would perhaps realize that the robber walked away with three pieces of mint candy from the bank and not wads of cash. If one looks at the TIP Report,one sees that the U.S. Department of State provides no evidence related to working conditions. So it is questionable if they know anything about the ‘bank robber.’”

Commenting on Friedman’s statement that “compelled service is frequently misidentified as consent,” Parreñas says that the official is “cloaking the problem of human trafficking. She is looking at the surface and not the structure.” Most migrant workers, she says, are not free laborers. They are often guest workers whose legal residency binds them to a sponsoring employer. This leaves them in a highly unequal relationship of dependency. This, she writes, would apply to farm workers in North Carolina, non-immigrant-visa domestic workers in Washington, D.C.; likewise, domestic workers in Singapore, or the kafala system in the United Arab Emirates, or au pairs in Denmark, or migrant teachers in Baltimore.

“Eminent scholars such as Carole Vance and Ann Jordan have expressed their puzzlement over the obsession of the U.S. State Department on sex workers as well as their conflation of sex trafficking and prostitution,” says Parreñas. She says that the department’s “over-obsession with finding ‘prostitutes’ who are ‘sex trafficked’” has led them to misidentify migrant Filipina hostesses. “Hostess work is not a euphemism for prostitution,” says Parreñas. Yet, she claims, the U.S. Department of State, “without evidence,” misidentifies the hostesses as not just prostitutes but women “forced into prostitution.”

This misidentification is a “setback,” she argues, “because it has eliminated the jobs of tens of thousands of women, many of whom are now living in poverty in the Philippines.” This shift, the book indicates, occurred when Japan changed its visa policies on “Filipina entertainers” in a way that conformed with U.S. preferences. The scholar also cites the research of her Ph.D. student Maria Hwang at Brown University, where Parreñas taught before going to the University of Southern California. Hwang has found a sizeable number of Filipina hostesses displaced from Tokyo working as migrant sex workers in Hong Kong. Hwang’s research, says Parreñas, shows us that “falsely rescuing them from prostitution has actually forced them into prostitution.”

Her student’s finding “tells us that it is very important that the U.S. Department of State only provide evidence-based research in their reports. Not having evidence-based research could backfire on them in more ways than one.”

Parreñas will continue her research on migrant labor. She says she is preparing a second edition of her 2001 book, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work (Stanford), which compared Filipina migrant domestic workers in Rome and Los Angeles. She is conducting new research in both cities to update their situations. She also has a new project that will compare the experiences of domestic workers whose legal residency in a country binds them to a citizen sponsor employer, meaning “that they cannot quit their job unless they are willing to be deported.” She will compare domestic workers in that situation in Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

———

Original story posted here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/pageview/scholars-views-rile-state department/29694?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

See also human rights law professor Ann Jordan’s prolific scholarship on this issue, including her article here:  http://www.fpif.org/articles/sex_trafficking_the_abolitionist_fallacy

Other related Sexuality & Society stories:

 

 

 

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

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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.

Embracing Contradictions: Why Gay Catholics and Religious Academics need leaders like O’Brien now more than ever

Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle University. The design of this chapel is based on the metaphor of "A Gathering of Different Lights," which "describes Seattle University's mission" as well as "St. Ignatius' vision of the spiritual life as comprising many interior lights and darknesses, which he called consolations and desolations." (SU chapel website).

It has been a Wild-kind of month for faculty, staff, and students at Marquette University and Seattle University. After President Wild of Marquette University tore up a signed job contract with a woman who would be their first “out” Lesbian administrator (Jodi O’Brien, of Seattle University) many faculty, staff, and students on both MU and SU campuses have been left in turmoil.

Although Marquette has managed to “resolve” this conflict with a negotiated settlement, President Wild’s actions call into question a number of basic academic assumptions including: 1) the honesty of Marquette University’s statements on commitments to diversity and anti-discrimination, 2) the assumption that GLBTQ people are welcome community members within Jesuit institutions (unlike conservative Catholic and Evangelical Protestant institutions, Jesuits are known for their tolerance, encouragement of fearless intellectual curiosity, and commitment to social justice), and 3) the assumption that University faculty have the rights and responsibilities of sharing the governance of their institution.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, a key player in convincing Marquette President Wild to tear up his job contract with Jodi O'Brien

The recommendation to hire Dr. O’Brien as Dean of Arts & Sciences at Marquette came after two years of committee searches, interviews, and deliberations. The President and Provost of Marquette also met with committee members and all job candidates, and signed on with the decision to offer the job to O’Brien. This extensive vetting process was obliterated after two local conservative Catholic leaders (neither of them faculty or staff members at Marquette) caught wind of O’Brien’s hire. Somehow, unbelievably, these two men (Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki and Father Paul Hartmann, the archdiocese’s judicial vicar) were able to trump the entire academic administrative vetting process at MU. The search committee and was abruptly informed that their input — as well as O’Brien’s administrative leadership skills — was neither needed nor welcome.

Despite the strong suspicion among many that this is a clear case of discrimination based on sexual orientation, President Wild has maintained throughout the aftermath of his rescinded offer that this is simply about a mismatch between O’Brien’s scholarship and Marquette’s mission. Wild has yet to adequately specify how and where O’Brien’s scholarship is anti-Marquette, anti-Jesuit, or anti-Catholic, but Father Paul Hartmann (one of the two local church officials who complained) explains that O’Brien investigates a particular “subject matter” that may create “dichotomies,” “tensions,” and “contradictions.” According to the Milwaukee Sentinel (May 12, 2010):

“Hartmann sent a March 3 letter  to the chair of the search committee that said the gender studies professor “pursues subject matter that seems destined to actually create dichotomies and cause tensions (if not contradictions) with Marquette’s Catholic mission and identity.”

As long-time colleague, mentee, and friend of Jodi O’Brien, and as a former lecturer at Seattle University (a place I still hold near and dear to my heart) I am very familiar with O’Brien’s work, as well as her commitment to Jesuit education. Ironically, what the conservative church leaders fear is actually what makes O’Brien a successful Jesuit scholar and administrator. Namely, O’Brien’s ability to embrace (rather than denounce or deny) contradictions and tensions– may in fact be a pinnacle Jesuit model of intellectual and spiritually complexity.

In her 2009 Presidential address to the Pacific Sociological Association, Professor Jodi O’Brien describes the personal growth that comes with wrestling religious and spiritual contradictions:

My research with queer Christians led me to understand and define the social self as a process of wrestling contradiction. We are in a constant state of becoming. This “becoming” is shaped through processes of interaction and revealed through the internal dialogues in which we observe, feel, comment on, and try to make sense of our own complexity. The process of self-understanding is a dialectical process of definition, a continual interplay between personal experiences and attempts to fit experience into existing conceptual categories and representations. All of us struggle to make sense of ourselves, to find ways of self-expression, and to be heard and understood. Our sense of self undergoes constant revision as it encounters friction, contradiction, and conflict along the various boundaries that constitute meaning (O’Brien 2009, Pp. 15–16).

She continues to describe how the intellectual process of finding connections in the face of conflict provides an opportunity for personal as well as professional transformation:

Isn’t this what we’re doing as sociologists when we strive to practice scholarship that matters: finding connections, revealing patterns, striving to bridge seemingly contradictory perspectives by offering deeper, richer frameworks of understanding? My suggestion is that when we experience fully the contradiction, conflict, and pain of engaging with our own teaching and research, we can’t help but be transformed  …. This produces an epistemology of contradiction that, together with the principles of the “sociological imagination,” enables us to navigate through complex personal and professional terrain in ways that both resonate and inspire (O’Brien 2009, P. 20 )

Rather than embracing the powerful teaching moments of such everday contradictions, Marquette University officials have chosen to rescind them, putting themselves closer to the edges of rigidity, fear, and fundamentalism, rather than intellectual curiosity, creativity and, I would argue, spiritual vitality.

I will leave it to Jodi O’Brien to describe the nuances and evolution of her thinking throughout her illustrious scholarly career. However, for those interested in reading more about how stereotyping and prejudice works, O’Brien’s own social psychology textbook, The Production of Reality is a great resource.  In this text as well as in the dozens of lectures she’s given to churches and universities around the country, including other Jesuit Catholic universities, O’Brien teaches us about  the subject matter of  ”permissible prejudice” – in other words, prejudice that is deemed ok if those in positions of authority justify it as such through their actions or non-actions.

And it is this critical perspective on prejudice and power that is the deeper “subject matter” at hand. This is the kind of subject matter that creates critical reflection on all forms of power relations, including but certainly not limited to that pertaining to religious institutions. This is precisely why those invested in maintaining an uncritical stance on particular power relations within the larger Marquette community needed her to leave; this is also precisely why Gay Catholics and religious academics need leaders like O’Brien now more than ever.

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Referenced and recommended sources:

O’Brien, J. (2009) “Sociology as an epistemology of contradiction.” Sociological Perspectives 52, 1, 5-22.

O’Brien, J. (2007).”Queer Tensions: The Cultural Politics of Belonging and exclusion in same gender marriage debates.”” Pp. 125-149 in Interdisciplinary Readings on Sex and Sexuality. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

O’Brien, J. (2005).  The Production of Reality: Essays and Readings in Social Interaction, 4th Edition. Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press (Sage).

O’Brien, J.  (2002).  “Heterosexism and Homophobia.” Article length entry for the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences.  Oxford: Elsevier Publishing.

Jaschick, S. “Stained Glass Ceiling.” Inside Higher Education. May 11, 2010.

While this case underscores timeless clashes between religion and sexuality—particularly in the form of gay and lesbian “permissible prejudice” within religious institutions — some argue that this discrimination is rising in a backlash movement against the fight for equal rights by gays and lesbians. For example, On March 6, 2010, the Washington Post reported that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative Republican, advised Virginia’s public colleges and universities to revoke policies protecting employees on the basis of sexual orientation.

See also the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force statement on ending job discrimination.


Related posts on Sexuality & Society:

http://thesocietypages.org/sexuality/2010/05/12/in-annuling-contract-with-obrien-marquette-can-assume-its-missionary-position/

http://thesocietypages.org/sexuality/2010/05/10/marquette-rescinds-job-offer-to-sociologist-and-sexuality-scholar-jodi-obrien/

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.

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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.

In annuling contract with O’Brien, Marquette can assume its Mission(ary) Position

Administrators at Marquette University have found themselves in an awful mess this week after revoking a job offer to Jodi O’Brien, their top candidate  for the position of Dean of Arts & Sciences. (See our earlier post for details on the case).

The official reason for this radical breach of academic, professional, and legal decorum is still murky, coded in terms like “marriage,” “family,” and “the Catholic mission.” President Wild and Marquette spokesperson Mary Pat Pfeil claim that the reversal had nothing to do with the fact the O’Brien is a lesbian. Indeed, since she was “out” during the entire process, this might be true. Indeed, Marquette’s website includes several specific references to the idea that discrimination based on sexual orientation is not acceptable. Below is one example:

As a Catholic, Jesuit university, Marquette recognizes and cherishes the dignity of each individual regardless of age, culture, faith, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, disability or social class … Through our admissions and employment policies and practices, our curricular and co-curricular offerings, and our welcoming and caring campus environment, Marquette seeks to become a more diverse and inclusive academic community dedicated to the promotion of justice. (Marquette University’s statement on Human Dignity and Diversity.)

So if O’Brien wasn’t disqualified because she is gay, per se, what is “really” going on? Maybe it’s just the sort of gay she is, the sort who likes to talk openly about sexuality, and moreover to discuss it critically within the context of social institutions such as religion and family. An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provides a few more clues in this direction:

Officials haven’t provided more detail about what writings might have raised red flags. But Wild told members of the dean search committee last week that there was an article in which “sex positions” and “sex toys” were mentioned, and that the passage could be interpreted as autobiographical, said psychology professor Stephen Franzoi, who served on the committee. O’Brien’s work includes a sociological study of vignettes on lesbian sex. Franzoi said members of the search committee reviewed the work again and did not believe the passages were autobiographical and that the article was a scholarly work.

So let’s get (or make) this story straight:

  1. Jodi O’Brien has worked and lead for 15 years in a Jesuit institution (Seattle University), and is an enthusiastic proponent of the Jesuit mission (e.g. see her cover letter to Marquette).
  2. Marquette’s interpretation of the Jesuit Mission is to NOT discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. 
  3. Marquette and O’Brien agreed that their union would be mutually beneficial.
  4. After Marquette proposed a job offer and O’Brien accepted, leaders in the Marquette extended family became concerned about O’Brien: In particular, her critique of the patriarchal family and her open discussion of non heteronormative sexuality. These previously unnamed members (today named as two Milwaukee archdiocese leaders, judicial vicar Paul Hartmann and Archbishop Jerome Listecki) became suspicious that O’Brien’s writings were not purely intellectual, but could be actual autobiographical and public representations of a sexual life led outside of heteronormative boundaries.

Simply stated, my conclusion is this: This is not a conflict between O’Brien’s lesbian identity and Marquette’s Catholic Jesuit Mission. This is about conservative, Milwaukee-based Church officials needing to divert the attention (of parishioners, as well as of media) away from critical sexuality scholarship and back toward its (silent) missionary position.

O’Brien’s critical sexuality scholarship is threatening to conservative Church leaders because it calls into question the utility of silence around discussing sexual matters. This is much more than just about an Archbishop’s distaste for sex toys: this is about a distaste for discussion of the great sexual variance found within the human species and analysis of how heterosexist family formations are not universal and “natural” but are created, regulated, and enforced by social institutions such as the Catholic Church.

Make no mistake, there are many people living and working within Catholic and Jesuit instituions who live their lives outside of heternormative married couples and families. The very core of Catholicism is based on elevating these non heteronormative models in the form of priests and nuns.

Unlike some religious traditions, Catholicism offers women and men a legitimate option to REFRAIN from marriage and to join vibrant homosocial communities. But the Marquette situation illustrates that this freedom from marriage and heterosexuality may be delicately balanced upon a strict code of silence. Even if a Marquette faculty or staff member has no personal interest in marriage or heterosexuality, the lesson learned here is that they must only discuss these views and practices in distinctly NON-SEXUAL ways. Although invisible on Marquette’s website, the consequence of violating the code of sexual silence is real. O’Brien got dis-invited to lead the Marquette family not because she crossed a line of heteronormativity, but because she discussed these matters publicly.

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Related Sexuality & Society blog posts:

Dworkin, S. and Lerum, K. “Marquette rescinds job offer to sociologist and sexuality scholar Jodi O’Brien.” May 10, 2010. 

Lerum, K. “Catholic Priests, Sexual Abuse, and Learning how to talk about sex in church.” Sexuality & Society March 29, 2010.

Referenced news articles:

Farden, K. “SU Prof. O’Brien was eager to take Dean position at Marquette.” Seattle University Spectator. May 12, 2010 

Johnson, A, Sharif Durhams, S. and Ferral, K.”Listecki raised alarm over Marquette hiring: Comments are first indication Milwaukee archdiocese raised concerns about O’Brien.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. May 12, 2010.

Marquette Rescinds job offer to Sociologist and Sexuality scholar, Jodi O’Brien

Professor Jodi O'Brien

Last month Marquette University –a Jesuit University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — offered esteemed Sociologist Jodi O’Brien the position of Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. After carefully weighing the vast professional and personal transitions that such a move would entail, O’Brien accepted the offer. She signed the contract and mailed it back to Marquette. She and her partner were preparing to put an offer on a house in Milwaukee. But early last week, after pressure from unnamed sources, Marquette backtracked. The official reason? As Marquette President Father Wild told the New York Times,“We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family.”

This abrupt turn away from O’Brien – a job candidate actively pursued by search committees at Marquette for the past TWO years — has left O’Brien’s extensive and loyal network of colleagues, friends, and students vacilliating between complete disbelief and rage. Hundreds of her would-be Marquette colleagues and students are also shocked by this news and have organized several protests. Two Facebook support groups have emerged, one originating from Marquette, one from Seattle University. Marquette Professor of Theology Daniel C. Maguire has written a scathing open letter to Marquette President Robert Wild and Provost John Pauly, calling for Wild’s resignation and for Wild’s successor to re-offer the job to O’Brien.

In this post we will simply list some of the facts of this case. We will provide an overview of O’Brien’s scholarship, as well as the legal and social implications of Marquette’s actions in a follow-up post.

  • Jodi O’Brien has been a leader at her home institution of Seattle University (a Jesuit University) since she arrived as an Assistant Professor in 1995. She quickly became promoted to Associate Professor and has served as Chair of the department of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work for seven years. O’Brien was promoted to Full Professor since 2005. In 2007 she received the honor and responsibility of being named the Lewis B. Gaffney Endowed Chair, a two year rotating position that carries with it the mandate of connecting academic and community life with the Jesuit mission.
  • Dr. O’Brien has a long history of leadership positions in national professional organizations including the American Sociological Association and the Pacific Sociological Association. From 2008-2009 O’Brien served as President of the Pacific Sociological Association.
  • O’Brien is the author of dozens of articles and the author and editor of several books, including Everyday Inequalities, and The Production of Reality (now in its 4th edition),  a leading textbook in the field of Social Psychology.

Marquette’s excuse for reversing their offer is not sitting well with many, including those deeply committed to the Catholic and Jesuit mission. In his letter to Marquette University President Father Wild, Professor Maquire is incredulous that although Father Wild and Provost Pauly based their “decision on an interpretation of what was or what was not compatible with Catholic teaching,” they did not consult Catholic theologians in their decision. Maguire scolds:

(Y)ou did not consult the faculty experts on Catholic moral teaching on this campus.  The Theology Department is one of the major theologates in North America, just a few yards away from your offices.

As well, Maguire reminds Father Wild and Provost Pauly that they also ”ignored teachers of ethics in the Philosophy department and professors in Sociology, Dr. O’Brien’s field.”

As professors in Sociology and long term colleagues of Dr. O’Brien, we are most happy to offer our assessment of O’Brien’s scholarship on religion and sexuality. Stay tuned.

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Referenced news articles:

Dillon, S. “Marquette rescinds offer to Sociologist.” New York Times. May 6, 2010.

Durhams, S. and K. Ferral. “Marquette on hot seat for rescinding job offer to Lesbian.” Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Wisconsin. May 6, 2010.

Finnegan, L. “Marquette Withdraws Job offer to Lesbian Dean Candidate Jodi O’Brien.” Huffington Post. May 7, 2010.

How to not hire a dean.” Editorial. Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Wisconsin. May 7, 2010.