When the Weiner sexting story broke, I was on holiday in Amsterdam, where prostitution is legally regulated, and newsstands display Penthouse and Vogue magazines side-by-side. It was no surprise then that “Weinergate” seemed to be met by the Dutch with a “here the Americans go again” eye roll.

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.

And then there are people like Anthony Weiner: Charismatic heterosexual men in powerful positions who thrive on taking risks.
Guys who benefit from the security and social status of marriage but who also have ample time away from their partners. Men who are fierce defenders of reproductive rights, are friends with the likes of John Stewart and Ben Affleck, and who (understandably) have many dedicated women fans. In pre-Twitter and Facebook days (circa 2006), such public figures were sometimes called “rock stars”; their fans, “groupies.” Today, with the democratizing boost of social media, more of us than ever before can construct our own neo-rock star status, supported by “Facebook friends” and “twitter followers.”

The privileges taken by (mostly heterosexual male) rock stars are nothing new; what’s new is the neo-rock star’s ability to showcase their goods on such a massive scale. But with this newfound power of instantaneous social impact, private digital messages are increasingly impossible. It’s the equivalent of whispering sweet nothings into a megaphone; or asking the masses to kindly shut their eyes while they flash that one special love interest in the crowd.

When teen girls send sexy words and images (and those photos are intercepted and distributed by “frenemies” for the purpose of shaming them), American parents panic and talk about “ruined lives.” But what about when the “sexting” is between consenting adults? Is there any harm in Weiner’s actions, and if so, harm to whom?

From a legal perspective, it seems that there is no case against Weiner. He did initially lie to reporters, his “fans,” and possibly also to his wife, but not under oath (so no perjury). He has admitted to engaging in several digital affairs, but adult, consensual sexual liaisons outside of heterosexual marriage and reproductive sexuality are (gratefully) no longer criminalized in the United States. If Weiner had campaigned against “dangers” of sexting and the internet, we could bash him for being a hypocrite (but alas, he was too busy championing issues like insurance industry reform).

I do not yet know enough about the situations and interpretations of Weiner’s sexting partners to comment on whether or not these women ever felt harmed by his messages (at this point I have not seen any self-reports of negative impact). But I will venture to guess that all of them (as well as Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin) are being wounded by the invasive scrutiny of this media storm.

And so, from my perspective Weiner’s biggest “crime” may be that he was reckless with his neo-rock star privileges. I thus will
offer two pieces of sincere advice to Representative Anthony Wiener and other rising neo-rock stars:

  1. Invest in a good therapist who will help you reflect upon your desires, social/sexual identities, and social privileges. This is crucial information for then reassessing your own goals for yourself and your relationships including your marriage.
  2. Never confuse your fans and followers for your friends. This is especially important when operating under “schoolyard” conditions, where the status of one person or political interest depends on the beating down of others, and where conservative or knee-jerk normative definitions of “good” vs. “bad” sexuality rule.

Meanwhile, for the most part, American media coverage continues to uncritically replicate the notion that Weiner’s messages are simply “inappropriate” and “shameful.” And that’s why some of us with “Dutch” and sexual justice sensibilities — including us at Sexuality & Society — are rolling our eyes.


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


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.




Measuring a child's body fat, University of Iowa, 1930s

In the midst of public health panic over obesity, a parallel concern about “fat” girls and their sexuality exists. In particular, the question that appears to be on many researchers’ minds these days is: “Are “fat” girls at higher risk of sexual dysfunction or STI/pregnancy risk than girls of average BMI (body mass index)?” One way that researchers have attempted to answer this question is by searching for statistical correlations between BMI, sexual behavior and self-esteem.

Indeed, several recent studies have focused on the relationship between body image or body size and sexual health, with a special concern around girls and women. For example, the authors of a recent study (Bajos et al., 2010) found links between obesity and “adverse sexual health outcomes” for both men and women, noting that obese women were less likely to access family planning, more likely to have unplanned pregnancies and less likely to consider sexuality an important part of their “personal life balance.” In a June 2010 interview for HealthDay News,  Bajos went well beyond the reach of his data to make generalized comments about obese women:

“Being obese has a strong influence on people’s sexual life. Because of social pressure or social stigmatization, obese women are less likely to engage in sexual intercourse and more likely to find sexual partners via the Internet. Because of their obesity, they are not comfortable meeting men through friends, through work, through parties.”

In that same interview, Bajos made the assertion (despite any direct evidence from his data) that:

“a lot of these problems are driven by the stigmatization of obese women [because] these women are more likely to have low self-esteem.”

Beyond this particular study, researchers’ focus on female bodies and sexuality even occurs when larger cross-sectional studies survey both men and women about sexuality and sexual pleasure. Typically such studies describe associations between BMI and sexuality factors as measured by sexual attitude or behavior measure (Addofson et al 2004).

While the BMI measure is ubiquitous as an indicator of health, its measurement problems are numerous. For example, BMI does not account for the ratio of muscle and fat in bodies (e.g. why a bodybuilder or elite athlete could be labeled as overweight or obese) nor does it take into account a number of other important factors related to health beyond height and weight including cholesterol levels, blood pressure and family history of diabetes, all things commonly associated with obesity and poorer health (Burkhausera and Cawley, 2008).

Despite concerns over the adequacy of BMI as an indicator of health, BMI continues to be a popular measure in population-based studies of sexuality, sexual health and obesity. Another recent study that garnered press attention was led by Dr. Margaret Villers of Medical University of South Carolina. The study findings (based on data taken from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a large scale data set that gathers information of youth behaviors ranging from sexual behavior to substance  use to violence) were presented at the 2010 ACOG conference in San Francisco under the title “Sexual Behavior in Obese and Overweight Adolescent Females.” The researchers found that overweight and obese girls were more likely to have sex before the age of 13, have three or more sexual partners during their teen years and were less likely to use contraception. Although the findings have yet to be peer reviewed, or published, the results have been taken up by a number of news outlets and sexual health blogs including the Black AIDS Institute and Kinsey Confidential, a sexual health blog from the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. Eric Grollman, a sociology doctoral student at Indiana University, had this to say about about the Villers study:

Given the link between weight and attractiveness – a societal standard of beauty that favors skinny bodies over fat bodies – some might find the study’s findings surprising: why are heavy girls having more sex with more partners?  [In a press release from Dr. Villers’ university – see Brazell reference below], Dr. Villers and her fellow researchers provide two possible explanations for the difference in sexual behavior among teen girls: development during puberty and self-esteem. The researchers suggest that overweight and obese girls may begin puberty sooner and thus develop faster, which may put them at risk from more pressure from boyfriends and friends to have sex.

Since Villers’ study has yet to be published, reviewing the findings is a bit of a challenge. But the popularity of the initial report of the study by MSNBC reinforces a number of ideas about sexuality and obesity, and especially about the sexuality of girls and women: early puberty means more sexual activity and/or body shame, which leads to sexual pressure from partners. In the press release from her department at the Medical University of South Carolina, Villers points to the need for conversations about sexuality and safer sex regardless of what “daughters” weigh; at the same time Villers’ work presents a clear message about the dangers of not just female teenage sexuality but in particular of obese female sexuality.

Portrayals of overweight girls and women, both in mainstream media and by many health and sexuality researchers, seem to be making several assumptions.  These include perceptions that obese women don’t deserve positive messages about their bodies or that these positive messages can only come from a (male) romantic partner (who is then demonized as pressuring the girl into sex). These messages speak to larger assumptions that obese girls/women are  (and perhaps should be?) disempowered in terms of their sexuality.

These simplistic and fat-phobic assumptions point to how research about sexuality is often more productive when it is not limited to simple associations. Instead, qualitative or mixed methods research (where both statistical/survey and open-ended questions are asked of participants) allow for greater understanding of how social context impacts the meanings that girls and women attach to their bodies and their sexual behavior. For example, what kinds of positive or negative messages do overweight or obese girls receive about their bodies from romantic partners, friends, or family? How did those messages make them think about their sexuality, and how do they resist or incorporate these messages into their lives? For that matter, what messages about sexuality or sexual behavior did they receive, and which had the most salience? How did those messages impact their view of their bodies?

While correlational studies will have a continued and important presence in almost all types of research, especially in public health, when the focus is on sexuality or sexual health, perhaps we need to think beyond numbers. In order to better understand how bodies and emotions relate to each other in the context of human sexuality, research about body size and sexuality warrants a more varied approach.


Natalie Ingraham is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. She is interested in fat studies, embodiment and human sexuality.


References and Recommended Readings

  • Adolfsson, Birgitta , Stig Elofsson, Stephan Rössner and Anna-Lena Undén. 2004. Are Sexual Dissatisfaction and Sexual Abuse Associated with Obesity? A Population-Based Study. Obesity Research, 12, 1702–1709.
  • Bajos, Nathalie, Kaye Wellings, Caroline Laborde, Caroline Moreau. 2010. Sexuality and obesity, a gender perspective: results from French national random probability survey of sexual behaviours. British Medical Journal, 340:c2573. Accessed online at: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/340/jun15_1/c2573
  • Brazell, Dawn. 2010. “Obese teens more likely to have unsafe sex.” Press release. Accessed March 12, 2011.  http://www.musc.edu/catalyst/archive/2010/co6-18teens.html
  • Burkhausera, Richard V. and John Cawley. 2008. Beyond BMI: The value of more accurate measures of fatness and obesity in social science research. Journal of Health Economics. 27:2, 519-529.
  • Grollman, Eric. 2010. Plus-Size Girls Are More Likely To Have Sex Early And Unprotected. Kinsey Confidential blog. Accessed at: http://kinseyconfidential.org/plus-size-girls-unprotected-sex-early/
  • Reinberg, Steven . 2010. Obesity Can Take Toll on Sex Life. HealthDay News. ©2011 HealthDay Accessed at: http://www.healthfinder.gov/news/newsstory.aspx?docID=640149
  • Rothman, K.J. 2008. “BMI-related errors in the measurement of obesity.” International Journal of Obesity (2008) 32, S56-S59.
  • Simopoulos, Artemis P. 1986. “Obesity and Body Weight Standards.”American Review of Public Health, 7, 481-92
  • Villers, Margaret S. . 2010. Sexual Behavior in Obese and Overweight Adolescent Females. Presented at the annual meeting of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), San Francisco, CA, May 2010.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.


*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).


Related Story:  Top Ten Sexual Stories of 2009

For the second year in a row, we at Sexuality & Society are compiling a list of top ten stories of the year. We are looking for stories from around the globe related to sexuality, culture, health, and politics from 2010. Please email us at sexuality@thesocietypages.org with your recommendations (and if we use them we’ll be sure to credit you as well).

Thanks! Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin


Click here for Sexuality & Society’s top 10 Stories of 2009

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

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

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

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


Treating Violence Against Sex Workers as a Hate Crime

By Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoops

December 16, 2010 – 6:40pm

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

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

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

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

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

Groundbreaking Move

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

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

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

Ugly Mugs

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

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

Supporting Cases Getting to Court

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

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

Gaining Trust

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

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

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

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


Related links:

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


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

December 2, 2010 by Kari Lerum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On World AIDS Day (December 1), it is crucial to recognize the progress that has been made concerning prevention, treatment, and care efforts and all of the urgent work that still needs to be done. Worldwide, 33 million people are living with HIV. In the United States alone, 1.1 million people are living with HIV (CDC, 2010). Within the US, 20% of people are not aware that they are living with the virus. In the richest nation in the world, 3 decades into the epidemic, 56,000 people per year are infected, HIV is the leading cause of death for African-American women age 25-34, the epidemic has an alarming impact on communities of color, particularly young MSM of color, and there are vast disparities in access to prevention, treatment, and care (El-Sadr, Mayer, & Adimora, 2010).

Despite the fact that I normally discuss the state of the HIV pandemic globally, I am going to focus my comments on the epidemic in the United States. This is because in July of 2010, President Obama put into place the FIRST National HIV/AIDS Strategy in history of the United States. The goals of the policy (White House, 2010, p. vii) are to:

  1. Reduce the number of people who become infected with HIV,
  2. Increase access to care and health outcomes for people living with HIV; and,
  3. Reduce HIV-related health disparities.

In order to meet goal #1, the policy proposes that the US:

“intensifies HIV prevention efforts in communities where HIV is most heavily concentrated, expand targeted efforts to prevent HIV infection using a combination of effective, evidence-based approaches, and educate all Americans about the threat of HIV and how to prevent it” (p. vii).

In order to meet goal #2 (increasing access to care and improving health outcomes for people living with HIV), the policy calls for: 

“establishing a seamless system to immediately link people to continuous and coordinated quality care when they are diagnosed with HIV, take deliberate steps to increase the number and diversity of available providers of clinical care and related services for people living with HIV, and to support people living with HIV with co-occurring health conditions and those who have challenges meeting their basic needs, such as housing” (p. ix).

Finally, in order to reduce HIV related health disparities, the public and private sector are called upon to:

“reduce HIV-related mortality in communities at high risk for HIV infection, adopt community-level approaches to reduce HIV infection in high-risk communities, and reduce stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV” (p. ix).

The US National HIV/AIDS Strategy can be found here.

Meeting these goals is an enormous task and will require efforts well beyond the federal government, academia, media, health care institutions and practitioners, policy-makers, community mobilization and community based groups to include each and every sector of society. In December of 2010, a special issue of JAIDS was released that assessed the state of the epidemic in the US and made suggestions to ensure that the goals of the National Policy are realized. In it, Chris Collins and Dazon Dixon Diallo praised the National Policy and argue that for prevention efforts to truly succeed, it will be important to advance prevention funding alignment (ensure funding matches epidemic conditions and priorities) and accountability (improve transparency of prevention funding), go to scale with effective prevention efforts in communities at elevated risk, foster synergies between evidence-based prevention and community-based efforts for home-grown and locally developed interventions, and to go “beyond individual behavior change programming by putting a greater emphasis on structural, network, and policy interventions” (Collins & Diallo, 2010, p. S. 148).

Colleagues Ada Adimora and Judith Auerbach agree with this last point in particular, underscoring that “social determinants — the conditions in which people are born, live, work, and age — are critical influences on health and that these determinants, which are shaped by the distribution of money, power, and resources can be influenced in positive ways” (Adimora & Auerbach, 2010, p. S. 132). They detail how social determinants both influence HIV risk and the course of the epidemic and reveal how several structural interventions (such as comprehensive sex education with access to male and female condoms, syringe exchange programs, health care availability, and housing) help to reduce risk behaviors and increase access to care.

Indeed, the National HIV/AIDS policy and its implementers hope to reduce the number of people who become infected with HIV, increase access to care and health outcomes for people living with HIV and reduce HIV-related health disparities. To do so, it will be necessary to support work that intervenes on social and structural determinants of HIV, including poverty reduction, incarceration, homelessness, and food insecurity, along with the numerous other strategies that are discussed and planned as a result of the National policy.


Related links:


  • Adimora, A.A. & Auerbach, J. (2010). Structural interventions for HIV prevention. JAIDS, 55 (S2),  S132-135.
  • Collins, C. & Diallo, D.D. (2010). A prevention response that fits America’s epidemic: Community Perspectives on the status of HIV prevention in the United States. JAIDS, 55 (S2), S148-S150.
  • El-Sadr, W., Mayer, K., Adimora, A.A. (2010). The HIV Epidemic in the United States: A time for action. JAIDS, 55 (S2), S63.