Strippers and sex workers have long been used as a trope for others’ agendas. From Chris Rock joking about keeping his daughter “off the pole,”  to Dr. Paul Song hollering about “corporate Democratic whores,” the power of this trope relies on a widespread stigmatization of sex workers. It works as a punchline because many assume that strippers cannot be good daughters and that whores cannot be good politicians. When non-sex workers slip in words like “stripper” and “whore,” the crowd goes wild because they see sexually stigmatized individuals — especially if they are feminine or woman identified — as, well, a joke.

So when Kenny Harvard, a Republican State Representative in Louisiana, recently made a “joke amendment” for a new strip club law (no strippers older than 28; no strippers over 160 pounds, in the spirit of “trimming the fat”), it is no surprise that the response from some of his colleagues was: laughter.

In the following days, what has emerged is a very understandable and justifiable outrage at Harvard’s sexist wisecrack. His women colleagues describe this kind of locker room banter as part of a much larger problem faced by women in politics. Pressure has mounted for Harvard to apologize. But thus far, he has steadfastly refused, saying that this was just a joke about government over-regulation, and that he will not cave to “political correctness.”

It is clear that jokes like this only work in a context of misogyny, which often intersects with fatphobia. And Harvard’s “stop with your political correctness” response is so … early 1990s. He, like too many others, misses the point about how it’s just not cool to make people with less social power and privilege than you bear the brunt of your jokes.

However.  As sexist as Harvard’s “joke amendment” was, what is being lost in this frenzy is this: he was the *only* legislator to intervene with the harmful bill under debate. While the language of Harvard’s joke amendment has been widely scrutinized, the actual bill being amended has thus far been *completely free* of media critique. Namely, the bill, which was passed unanimously in the House (96-0, including Harvard voting yes!), would raise the legal age from 18 to 21 for women working in strip clubs in Louisiana. Introduced under the guise of anti-trafficking efforts in the name of “protecting” women, if signed into law this bill will very likely serve to hurt the women they claim they want to protect.

The poverty rate in Louisiana is the second highest of any state in the U.S. (after Mississippi; it is the third highest if you also count Washington D.C.) The situation is bad. Folks need livable wages. Before this bill, young women could get a legal and potentially well paying job in a strip club at age 18. They could use that money to pay for school, food, & housing for themselves (and potentially their families). Now young women in need of income must wait another *three years* for this work option. In those three years some of these women will likely land in more precarious and potentially criminalized income generating activities. Allegedly for their own good.

And: There is no evidence that this kind of patronizing and punishing legislation of taking away legal work options helps *actual* victims of trafficking in the sex industry. (See my & Barb Brents’ review of the literature here).

If you really want to help individuals working in strip clubs who are dealing with force, fraud, and coercion  (the three critical criteria for qualifying as a human trafficking case), then there are plenty of other strategies. In the words of Alexandra Lutnick:

“If young people’s basic human rights are met, if they have stable and safe housing, employment or another source of income, health care, access to education and welfare benefits, and supportive networks (familial or social) those who really do not want to be trading sex will have other options.” (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, 2016, p. 121).

Meanwhile, the vast majority of global human trafficking occurs in jobs *outside* of the sex industry in jobs such as domestic work, agriculture, and construction. No one is making jokes about those workers nor enacting laws to raise the age of legal entry into those forms of work. Instead, what needs to happen in all work environments is securing sustainable and equitable working and living conditions for all individuals, rather than taking away their job options.

So as progressives and conservatives unite in throwing Kenny Harvard under the bus, yet another law is silently and uncritically being slid into creating a legal barrier to employment for poor and young working class young women. All in the name of saving them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post is an extension of comments I gave at GeekGirlCon’15 on a panel focused on the feminist potential of Mad Max, Fury Road. I was honored to share the panel with Kristine Hassell, Elsa S. HenrySarah Mirk, Anita Sarkeesian, and Jennifer K. Stuller, who in turn spoke passionately about the film’s representations of WOC, women of size, disability, the hope of ecofeminism, violence as a mistaken feminist strategy, and women as heroes. These perspectives have helped layer my own understandings of Fury Road, as well as to appreciate the diversity of feminist experiences and interpretations of the film. Below is an elaboration of my comments on the panel, focusing on my argument that Fury Road is ultimately an updated White Christian man’s fantasy of being a “good” man in the context of White feminist politics.

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IMG_3755 (1)
Max convinces Furiosa that she is on the wrong path; she and her tribe of women should go right back to where they began.

After the May 2015 release of Mad Max, Fury Road (a dystopian sci-fi/action film starring Tom Hardy and Charleze Theron, in that order), the U.S./Anglophone blogosphere erupted around the film’s uses and/or misuses of feminism. Men’s rights activist Aaron Clarey called for a boycott of Fury Road because he saw it as a “feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick”; in the subsequent fury many feminist writers heralded Fury Road as worthy of feminist support, while others offered mixed and even negative reviews.

Much of the positive excitement centered on the Theron’s co-starring role as Imperator Furiosa, who in the words of Natalie Wilson is “a gender-queer, disabled, bad-ass feminist hero who proves that heroism has no one gender, no one body type, no one sexuality.” Yet many others voiced disappointment about the use of “scantily clad models” to portray the former wives/sex slaves (rescued by Furiosa from the evil dictator, Immortan Joe). And in one particularly scathing review, Eileen Jones also mocked the film’s “essentializing Earth Mother nonsense about women,” as well as Eve Ensler’s praise that “(a)ll the women in the film maintain their inherent woman-ness.” (Ensler – of “Vagina Monologues” feminist celebrity status – was a consultant for Fury. More on Ensler’s politics later).

I share some, but certainly not all, of these feminist praises and critiques. Theron’s role as Furiosa – a tall, bald woman warrior with sculpted shoulders and a prosthetic arm – offers viewers a beautiful view of gendered and human variability. I am delighted to see the portrayal of Furiosa’s former Matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini. A mainstream Hollywood film respectfully depicting a lesbian-feminist-separatist’s fantasy of a vulva-centric tribe lead by wise women elders?! In addition I appreciate Furiosa’s relationship with Max, which builds slowly from animosity to peer-based respect and is free of romantic innuendo, despite Max’s puppy dog eyes and full lips. Max also does not demonstrate any sexual interest toward anyone in the film, including the stunning “sex slaves.”

But from my queer, intersectional, post-colonial perspective, I also have several additional reads of the film. For example, the criticism around “scantily clad models” is for me a (White feminist) red herring for a much deeper problem in the film: the deployment of the sex slave trope. And during my first viewing of the film I nearly shut it off after the first 30 minutes, as it was all about men screaming, abusing, chasing, and killing and each other. (Not my idea of a good time). I also find the film’s ending to be problematic. When Furiosa and her victorious women warriors return to the Citadel with the body of the evil dictator, Immortan Joe, a crowd of grateful minions shout to the White men and boys above, “Let them up, let them up!” The women heroes are then literally pulled up into power by White men.  In contrast, my fantasy ending of the film would involve the large bodied women in the Citadel (some of whom appear to be women of color, and all of whom were formerly used for their “mother’s milk”) taking over the controls to lift up the other women.

Yet ultimately it is Fury’s White and Christian order – swept in under the conservative (AKA “liberal”) agenda of White feminism – that turns my simultaneous admiration of and impatience with the film into political critique.

WHITENESS

For anyone who has seen Fury Road, I am stating the obvious that the film is very, very White.  All of the dozens (hundreds?) of boys and men in the film appear to be White. And as if the film is not White enough, the bodies of many of the boys and men are actually also painted white. There are fewer women than men in the film, but at least three women with names and spoken lines can be visibly recognized as (light skinned) women of color. 

And yet, much of the mainstream (White) feminist discussion of Fury Road has underplayed the film’s racial politics. As Nashwa Khan writes:

Witnessing white feminists find ways to make themselves feel better about this lack of diversity in a movie they really want to love points to a larger problem. A big part of feminism is race, but these self-imposed blinders suggest that as long as a movie appeases white feminists, they will not question in solidarity why we women of color are absent.

Khan’s critique highlights the problem of feminist discourse that omits anti-racist critique and fantasizes the struggle as being between cis women and men (holding race constant). In other words, this type of feminism (AKA White Feminism) prioritizes the concerns of White (economically secure, heterosexual, cisgender, mainstream, Global North) women.

CHRISTIANITY

As with many Hollywood films, the plot of Fury Road incorporates several familiar Judeo-Christian symbols and cultural narratives. In this case the film features themes of redemption and witnessing, as well as crucifix/savior metaphors.

Redemption: Along their journey in Fury Road, Max and Furiosa both state that they are looking for “redemption.” For Max, it is possible that the redemption he seeks is due to guilt about not saving his young daughter who has apparently died (but who haunts him throughout the film). Clues about Furiosa’s need for redemption are more opaque. (Did she engage in unholy sexual or violent practices after being stolen as a child?). But from a Christian perspective explanations are unnecessary: all are considered to be born of sin and hence in need of redemption.

Witnessing: When Christians speak of “witnessing,” they do not mean that they just watched something happen. To “witness” means that one spreads the word to as many people as possible about how one was personally saved by Jesus’ sacrifice.

But in order to demonstrate the importance of good/God witnessing, the film first illustrates examples of bad witnessing. Namely, the practice of War Boys maniacally yelling “Witness me!” before sacrificing themselves for the evil cause of Immortan Joe (who reassures them that this will allow them to the afterlife of Vahalla and live again.) Christian writer Brett McCracken interprets the War Boy sacrifices as a reference to radical Islam’s suicide bombers, and I concur. (I also see reflections of the death of Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in the mob celebration and maltreatment of Immortan Joe’s body after his death).

MM they helped us
Furiosa reassuring the Vulvalini leaders that the Max and Nux are “reliable.”

This theme of witnessing, in the Christian sense of the word, begins to be practiced after Furiosa introduces Max and Nux (the former War Boy who has now switched teams) to her Matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini. The matriarchs ask: “The men – who are they?” Furiosa reassures them that: “They’re reliable. They helped us get here.”

But the importance of witnessing good/God men is most obvious in the climax of the film when Nux sacrifices himself to kill Rictus Erectus (AKA Big Dick) — the only viable surviving son of Immortan Joe. In an emotionally powerful scene, the camera focuses on longing looks between Nux and his love interest, Capable (one of the former sex slaves, riding in the war rig ahead). Nux points to Capable, whispers “witness me” and then deliberately crashes his rig, killing both himself and Rictus Erectus.

In contrast to the crazed “witness me!” yelling by the War Boys, Nux’s words are not an order. But they are also not an ask. Capable (i.e. a woman capable of loving a flawed man in seek of redemption) is required to witness his sacrifice and hence his redemption as a good man.

Witness me(n)
“Witness me”: Nux’s last words to Capable before sacrificing himself so that others may be saved.

Crucifixing:

While most of the film’s critical attention has been placed on Furiosa and Max, for me it is clear that Nux and Capable are the soul of Fury Road. The film gestures toward the possibility of Max being a savior (at one point his hand and head are pierced with a long sharp object). But in the words of Capable, it is Nux who has the “manifest destiny.”  As she later witnesses to her tribe of women: “he’ll be bringing us home, bring back what was stolen, as he’s meant to.”

Film critic Scott Beggs Nux is one of the few (apparently) secular reviewers who noted Fury Road‘s religious themes, calling Nux “a genuine Christ figure” because “he seeks death, wrestles with his doubts, recognizes that his god has forsaken him, and then sacrifices himself so that all of humanity can have another chance at redemption.” But what he and the other religiously-informed reviewers tend to miss are the how the Christian themes intersect with contemporary sexual politics.

For me, the moral of Fury Road is this: Women (specifically, White Feminists) must give credit to good White men who renounce their former evil ways. If they do so, together they may return stolen women/sex slaves, defeat the monster men, and lift womankind up into safety and security.

POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS

As I have written elsewhere, Hollywood stories about “sex slaves” have weight beyond just the box office — they actually end up reinforcing ideologies that can justify policies which focus on marginalized women, including sex workers, as being in need of rescue by organizations run by White feminists and Good White men.

It is thus not surprising that Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame, has used the film as a platform to dispense hype about “sex trafficking” as well as heap praise on director George Miller. In an interview with Time Magazine, Ensler describes Miller as a feminist, and explains that her consulting work for the film involved discussion about “sex trafficking in America, which is rampant.” (For a critical academic perspective on Ensler’s claim, see Ann Jordan’s “Fact or Fiction: What do we really know about human trafficking?”).

Given Ensler’s stature as a feminist spokesperson, is also important to note that she (as well as Charleze Theron, and several other Hollywood celebrities) signed a petition that opposed Amnesty International’s historic and important move to work for decriminalization of sex work.

Finally, imagine if this story was centered on White supremacy rather than patriarchy, with POC cast as slaves who are required to witness White people’s sacrifices and redemption, and then rely on more White people to lift them into power. Unfortunately, such a storyline is not difficult to imagine. As Brittney Cooper observed in the controversy over the 2015 film Selma (dir., Ava DuVernay), when Hollywood stories shift the gaze away from White heroes, racist backlash happens.

A (Fury) road for White men’s redemption

After now “witnessing” Fury Road several times, I have come to appreciate much about the film. (In addition to my earlier praise,  I am drawn to Fury Road‘s powerful visual and musical aesthetic). At the same time, the unsettling political undercurrents for me are bright as day. In the opening scene of Fury Road Max explains that he was once a cop, a road warrior in search of a righteous cause; similarly, the current End Demand (anti-prostitution) movement offers policemen and others a morally righteous mechanism to distinguish Good from Bad men. While both Fury Road and the End Demand movement provide the public with gripping tales of sex slavery focused on Good vs. Evil men, neither narrative addresses the sexist, racist, and hyper capitalist ideologies and policies that contribute to war, violence against women, exploitation of labor and natural resources, extreme inequality, and mass incarceration. Nor are such morality tales typically very useful for broad based movements for economic, racial, and sexual justice. On the other hand, both Fury Road and End Demand give Good White men the hope for blessings from Capable White feminists, which in turn further secures their position at the top of a remodeled White supremacist patriarchy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does it matter when popular stories about “sex trafficking” are based on half-truths, junk science, and/or religious beliefs? Given that many people are interested in the issue of human trafficking in general and human trafficking in the sex industry in particular, it is critical that we face the consequences of stories told in the name of rescuing girls and women.

Since the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), stories of human trafficking have been well integrated into the American cultural imagination. While there are now many more reliable scholarly resources on human trafficking today then there were at the turn of the 21st century, many individuals still derive most of their knowledge about human trafficking from sensationalistic media stories about so-called “sex trafficking.” [i]

In the United States, mediated stories of human trafficking of sex workers vary around specific contextual details of who, when, and where, but they consistently portray the same messages about why and how. Hollywood action-adventure characterizations of victims and villains are deployed; complex structural problems are squeezed into personal morality tales; and the stories are then used by anti-sex work politicians and activists to justify heightened forms of criminal punishment. While the stories may have popular appeal, evidence suggests that more criminalization actually hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

The argument I will make here is organized around the following interrelated points:

  1. We must critically interrogate dominant stories told about people in the sex industry. (There are numerous examples, but I will focus here on the content and impact of recent feature length film in particular, The Abduction of Eden);
  2. Such stories justify the criminal punishment system via rescue/capture methods as an avenue for social justice (this includes laws being proposed right now in Washington State);
  3. Because the criminal punishment system has a long history of destroying the lives of poor people and people of color — including those of sex workers — academics and activists concerned about people in the sex trade need to rethink this entire set of dominant stories and strategies.

1. Demonizing tales
While there are a plethora of sensationalized media stories about coercion, abuse, and trafficking in the sex industry one recent story – Abduction of Eden (AKA Eden, released 2012) – provides a powerful blend of Hollywood and Biblical tropes. This in combination with the promise that Eden is a “true” story makes it a productive one for understanding the relationship between American cultural storytelling and political policies about sex work and human trafficking.

Eden is a feature length film directed by Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths derived from the allegedly true story of Chong Kim. The protagonist (actress Jamie Chung) – a naïve 17 year old girl with hard working, Korean immigrant, Christian parents – is kidnapped and brought to a warehouse/jail with dozens of thin, young, feminine, cisgender, and (mostly white) girls who are forced to stand obediently in line wearing identical white underwear-tanktop sets. The protagonist’s (now renamed “Eden”) first assignment is on a BDSM porn set; she sobs as her hands are handcuffed and pulled upward. At her next job Eden attempts a dramatic escape; bloody and screaming she runs into a suburban backyard with white women drinking white wine (they don’t call the police and Eden is recaptured). We learn that Eden’s best friend in the prison/brothel was stolen at age 13, and when her friend gets pregnant and gives birth, her baby is also stolen and sold. A message portrayed in Eden is that when girls disobey or simply grow too old for the work (20+ years of age) they are executed. The film also implies that this sex trafficking operation is part of an international network directed from outside the US. Although the external controller is never named, there are Russian men working for the operation and Dubai is frequently mentioned. This includes a scene where the drug-addicted supervisor (Vaughn/Matt O’Leary) threatens Svletlana (Naama Kates), a blonde Russian woman with being sent back to Dubai, where she “can get dicked by donkeys all day.”

If these themes are not enough to convince the average American viewer that the world of sex work is pure evil (relying on enslaved cisgender girls enacting forced BDSM porn and probably dictated by an international network of men from Russia and the Middle East who have sex with donkeys), the film hits home the message with multiple Biblical references and metaphors.

This includes the obvious metaphor about the Garden of Eden. It also includes a scene where God appears in the body of a tall white deputy named Ron Greer (Tony Doupe). When Greer questions the corrupt, murderous federal marshal Bob Gault (Beau Bridges) about his possible role in a double homicide, Gault/Bridges looks upward with fear in his eyes and says: “Lord. How are your leads coming?” When Greer informs him that his cell phone activity was picked up near the scene of the crime, Gault replies: “I’ll be damned.” Greer responds: “Well I surely hope not.

Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is a devout Christian who reportedly refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain, when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” – I think we should assume that he means it literally http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beau_Bridges
Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is reportedly a devout Christian who refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain. So when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” I think we should assume he means it literally.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beau_Bridges

What Eden viewers may not be aware of is that there are many counter-narratives to the “truth” claims of such messages. For example:

  • While there are certainly degrees of coercion or lack of choice found in all jobs especially unregulated or informal economy labor including the sex industry, the portrayal of a warehouse of dozens of kidnapped teenage girls being forced to be prostitutes is simply not consistent with reliable data about the experiences of contemporary sex workers, especially as practiced in the U.S.
  • Individuals representing a spectrum of genders, sexes, races, ages, social classes, sexual orientations, and body types work as sex workers.
  • BDSM is a consensual sexual lifestyle choice for many people as is participation in pornography – but both of these activities have long been demonized by conservative feminists and religious groups. The stigma and fear of BDSM and porn can thus be used as an easy tool to invoke shock and horror from people who are morally opposed to both.
  • Despite narratives about international “sex trafficking rings,” critical criminologists describe trafficking in the sex industry as better described as “crime that is organized” (rather than “organized crime”).[ii]
  • Eden was produced and consumed within a broader U.S. cultural context where fictitious claims about “sex trafficking” are common, ranging from grossly inflated and unreliable global estimates, to debunked claims that the Superbowl creates an uptick in sexual slavery, and statistically untenable assertions that the “average age” of women entering prostitution is 13-14.[iii]
  • As it turned out, none of the content of Eden was based in truth. In June of 2014 multiple investigators into Chong Kim’s story found that she lied about the everything.[iv] Kim was investigated and charged for fraud by a variety of anti-trafficking organizations.[v] But Eden still had several years of celebrity adoration before this news broke.

Initial mainstream responses to Eden
Even before its official release, mainstream (non-sex worker and non-allied) audiences and critics went wild over the story of Eden. While many found the performances impressive and the action-adventure storyline gripping, what sealed Eden’s critical success was that people believed that this story was true. Feminist and women’s groups, churches, and film festivals sponsored screenings; awards were given, local anti-sex work/trafficking politicians were featured, people became enraged en masse and were motivated to join the crusade. The text of Eden folded seamlessly into the curriculum of U.S.-based anti-sex trafficking efforts with its images of taped mouths, chained wrists risen toward the heavens, “in our own backyard” and “stolen innocence” messages, and the idea that the average age of sex trafficked girls in the U.S. is age 13. The true story of Eden appeared to be an American anti-sex trafficking activist’s dream come true.

Even mainstream/secular journalists converted to Eden’s cause, infusing their reviews with Judeo-Christian language and imagery. David Schmader of the progressive Seattle based periodical The Stranger called Eden “a miracle.”[vi] James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment described Eden as “a rewarding, righteous example of how fiction can tell the truth.”

Eden_Poster
In June 2014, the “true story” sex trafficking film, Eden, was exposed as having no basis in truth. In September 2014 the official website for Eden was still claiming that the film is based on a true story. By at least early February 2015 the website had completely vanished. Director Megan Griffiths, Producer Colin Plank and others affiliated with the film have given no public explanation or apology for the fraudulent story, their strange silence about the controversy, or the disappearance of their website.

Anti-sex work apologists may try to explain away the embarrassment around Eden (as well as other high profile “sex trafficking” stories)[vii] as just an anomaly, or as a few people stretching the truth for a good cause. But Eden is just the visible cultural iceberg of a story that has already become embedded into U.S. policing practices.

2. Context of U.S. policing & criminalizing policies
Part of the reason for the success of Eden is that it was preaching to an American choir that already had the why and the how part of the story in place. It also complemented dominant approaches to end trafficking in the sex industry that feature coercive “law and order” methods where participants are either forced to be rescued/reprogrammed or captured/incarcerated. The rescue side is led predominantly by well-meaning (and mostly white) middle-class women and men (Christians, social workers, feminists) attempting to “save” cisgender girls and women from sex work. The capture side is directed by (predominantly white) men in policing agencies (police, FBI, Homeland Security) who capture girls and women for rescue and men for punishment.

The dynamics between the rescuers/rescued and capturers/captured can also underscore racist power relations. To borrow from Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase, “white men are saving brown women from brown men”[viii]: Anti-sex trafficking crusaders are often white men and women saving (all cisgender) women from (black and brown) men.

However, we are now in a cultural moment – thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement – where many white middle class people are collectively and finally having an epiphany around the reality of police brutality, mass incarceration, and criminalization of everyday life for poor communities and communities of color.[ix] But what many people have not yet made the connection on is how these same principles need to be applied when evaluating the war on trafficking.[x] This war combines many of the same strategies from the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” (targeting “urban gangs,” people of color and immigrants) to create even more invasive policing and surveillance mechanisms of marginalized people’s everyday lives.

This brings me to the current legislative climate in Washington State: the location where Eden was produced. Washington is currently facing several new state legislature bills intending to create more criminal penalties for clients of sex workers[xi]. The bills are largely generated and coordinated from the desk of Washington State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who is a long time supporter of state level anti-trafficking legislation.

An earlier anti-trafficking bill (also sponsored by Kohl-Welles) resulted in harsh felony punishment for domestic “traffickers” in Washington State. The first individual sentenced under this new law in 2009 was a 19-year-old African American man working as a pimp/manager/boyfriend to a group of young African American women in West Seattle.[xii] He sits now with many other young men of color in prison, many of whom were first incarcerated under the failed and racially discriminatory “war on drugs,” and now also increasingly incarcerated in the name of the war on “sex trafficking.”

With Federal and State punishments now locked in for “traffickers” in Washington State, the new set of proposed state laws are now set on the clients as part of the “end the demand” approach (AKA the “Nordic Model”). The idea is that if men are given harsh enough criminal and social punishments for buying sex, then they will stop trying to buy it. This is a popular idea with contemporary anti-sex work activists despite the fact that:

  • there is no reliable empirical evidence to support that this approach is helpful for reducing harms to sex workers,[xiii]
  • leading global health experts oppose any form of criminalization in the sex industry due to the health harms it poses for sex workers,[xiv]
  • sex worker activists and advocates have consistently documented the harms of criminalization and policing on the well-being and human rights of people in the sex industry,[xv]
  • these policies criminalize sexual interactions between consenting adults, and:
  • more criminalization ≠ social justice.

Is there a connection between sensationalist “sex trafficking” stories such as Eden and policies that hyper-criminalize the sex industry? I think there is. Not only do these stories serve as a popular master narrative around the sex industry; in this case the critical acclaim for Eden (and its director, Megan Griffiths) is also intertwined with the success of Kohl-Welles’s push for increasingly harsh anti-sex trafficking legislation in Washington State. At a May 2013 screening of Eden, Kohl-Welles was featured as an expert on sex trafficking; Kohl-Welles subsequently supported the Motion Picture Competitiveness Bill in Washington State, which directly benefits filmmakers like Griffiths. In October 2014 Griffiths spoke in support to Kohl-Welles’ re-election.

3. Work with sex workers, not against them
Many progressive individuals and communities aspire to support the war against trafficking, and want to trust that laws that criminalize men actors will help girls and women who are coerced, abused, or trafficked in the sex industry. However, evidence from global health and human rights researchers consistently show that more criminalization hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

Because of the harms of criminalization:

  • We must insist that the voices of a diverse range of sex workers be included in all panels and policy discussions that impact them.[xvi]
  • It is time for class- and race-privileged individuals to examine their own complicity in supporting sensationalistic stories and moralistic rescue/capture policing strategies.
  • People concerned about exploitation in the sex industry should join activists working for the labor and human rights of people working in the sex industry. This includes opposition to criminalization of consensual adult sexual exchanges.
  • Rather than seek to punish individuals who are already marginalized, and/or punish people for engaging in adult consensual sex, it is time to work with sex workers against systemic punishment, criminalization, and institutional exclusion of women, people of color, poor people, trans* individuals, undocumented people, and homeless youth – many of whom rely on the informal economy including sex work.

If you care about improving the lives of people in the sex trade it is time to advocate for a greater diversity of sex worker stories and perspectives on how to first discuss and then solve coercion and abuse in the sex industry. There may certainly still be space for religious beliefs and metaphors in this wider diversity of stories and plot lines. However, if one truly listens to the bottom line perspectives of sex workers around the world, it will become clear that we need to look beyond the criminal punishment system for solving social justice issues.

————

References and further readings:

This essay is an extension of an argument that I made in an earlier publication, which was featured as a dialogue/debate amongst experts on human trafficking: Lerum, K. 2014 (Winter). “Human Wrongs vs. Human Rights.” Contexts.


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.

—–

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.

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/

 

 

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:


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

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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.

 

 

 

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):

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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:

 

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

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).

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