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Aug 18 2009

This Is About Sex, Right?

No, this isn’t a story about sex trafficking. This is a story about immigrant women working in factories in fields all across the country. And [Southern Poverty Law Center's] response is not to criminalize their work, thus penalizing the victims, but rather to help them file lawsuits against their employers and attackers. You can read about one such case, U.S. EEOC, et al. vs. Tuscarora Yarns, here.

It struck me as a stark and important contrast to the antiprostitution activists who claim to be working to help victims of exploitation but who are really further victimizing them by criminalizing their livelihood instead of prosecuting abusers. SPLC’s strategy makes it clear that they understand the issues: All people have a right to earn a living. No person should be subject to abuse, violence, or exploitation at work. Workers in many industries put their bodies at risk to do their work, but those risks should be minimized and worker safety is everybody’s concern.

This is a lesson that feminists who claim they want to protect women in the sex industry ought to learn.

If you’re not already reading Sex in the Public Square, you really should, and articles like the one quoted above are why. In a society that can’t seem to refer to sex without heaping loads of shame, it’s good to have people who expose that shame to the bleaching power of a little sunlight. Even I–whose circle includes burlesque artists, former strippers, sex-shop owners, erotica writers, nude models and photographers, customers of all the above and prostitutes as well, and people who have engaged in sexual relationships that one would have to stretch to call something other than prostitution–even I find challenges to my understanding of sex work at SitPS.

Here’s a recent example: Did you know that “indoor” (non-street) prostitution is currently legal in Rhode Island? I had no idea until SitPS started covering efforts to make it illegal, efforts which in turn shed some light on the people who claimed they were trying to protect women from exploitation by making criminalizing their jobs. The longer this process goes on, the harder it is to believe the most vocal supporters of criminalization are anything but deeply disturbed by the very notion of sex.

In this piece on myths of the sex trade:

Despite what some activists claim, most of those working indoors in the U.S. have not been trafficked against their will.

Many indoor workers made conscious decisions to enter the trade, and a significant number actually like their work. A recent New York City study found that indoor workers expressed “a surprisingly high degree of enjoyment” of their work, and several other studies also find that indoor workers have fairly high job satisfaction and believe they provide a valuable service. This is not an exceptional finding; it is confirmed by a growing body of research. The media often ignore it, and prefer to do feature stories on the abused and exploited.

This is not to romanticize indoor prostitution. Some indoor workers work under oppressive conditions or dislike their work for other reasons. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence to challenge the myths that most prostitutes are coerced into the sex trade, experience frequent abuse and want to be rescued. This syndrome is more characteristic of street workers, but it’s important to point out that the vast majority of American sex providers work indoors.

SitPS included a link to an opinion piece by Donna Hughes of Citizens Against Trafficking, one of the main forces pushing for criminalization. She described the testimony of those who willingly work in the sex industry (i.e., those who would be made criminals under the new law) as “a sordid circus, with pimps and prostitutes coming forward to oppose the legislation.” She complained about hearing testimony from a smoker and from people who were camera-shy. And she used scare quotes wherever the topic of sex came up.

Then a man reeking of cigarette smoke and other odors came forward. He was identified to me by Hurley as a pimp. He claimed credit for the growth of the spa-brothels in Rhode Island for his now-deceased wife. Another Korean woman came forward and said she did “it” for depressed, shy guys who needed stress relief. She implicated construction workers, judges and lawyers. She proudly exclaimed that she does “it” to make money.

Then a tattooed woman, calling herself a “sexologist and sex educator,” spoke against the bill. She is also a reporter for a prostitutes’ magazine called $pread. (I couldn’t make this stuff up!)

But don’t forget, her goal is to help those in the industry. She isn’t doing this because talking about sex gives her the squeems. Not her. It’s everybody else who’s working from a place of irrationality.

The State Senate’s obstructionism has been aided by the silence of many who should be speaking out. Some local and national anti-trafficking organizations have actually worked behind the scenes to oppose the desperately needed reforms. They blame the lack of trafficking prosecutions on lack of political will and inadequate police training. In reality, trafficking laws work only where law enforcement is empowered to fight prostitution.

Other groups, such as the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU and Rhode Island NOW, have opposed passage of a prostitution law for ideological reasons. They support the decriminalization of prostitution and mistakenly believe that good trafficking laws make prostitution laws unnecessary. The Rhode Island experience demonstrates that it is long past time to lay that utopian hope aside. The truth is that these very groups are to blame for obstructing efforts to equip police to protect victims of trafficking.

But it’s Citizens Against Trafficking’s most recent salvo that really lays their anti-sex opinions wide open for everyone to see. It came in response to a letter signed by 50 academics don’t believe the evidence supports the assertion that criminalization of prostitution is a solution to the problem of human trafficking. Citizens Against Trafficking responded, not to the substance of the letter, but by, well, the title of their letter is “International Sex Radicals Campaign to Keep Prostitution Decriminalized in Rhode Island.” Some highlights:

Citizens Against Trafficking has learned that their letter is not an isolated action, but part of a larger “Rhode Island Campaign.” Citizens Against Trafficking is working on a multi-part analysis of the authors and signers of the letter, the statements they make in the letter, and their campaign methods.

Part 1 focuses on initial discoveries made by Citizens Against Trafficking researchers about some of the authors and signers of the letter. We found shocking information about what they stand for and the goals of their international campaign. We will describe how members of this group are using sophisticated communications technologies to rapidly mobilize other sex radicals from around the world and how they are targeting Rhode Island legislators and media.

Translation: We’re going after them personally, and not only are they sex-positive, but they blog. And Tweet!

The leading signers of the letter call
themselves “sex radicals,” meaning they oppose any limits on any sexual behavior as long as it has the superficial appearance of being consensual.

Translation: People don’t really know what kind(s) of sex they want to have.

For years, Wood has struggled with feeling “invisible.” During her sabbatical leave she started to feel “more like herself, more free,” which led her to start acting out her latent exhibitionism. “During my sabbatical I had some … exhibitionistic urges that I allowed myself to explore.” Earlier this summer, she stripped on a dock and swam naked in the Mystic River, within sight of a restaurant and boats passing by. She said she wanted to declare her independence from society’s rules, but she also wondered if anyone saw her and might complain.5 The exhibitionist’s intention is to shock and force unsuspecting people to view their nudity. Citizens Against Trafficking wonders if the administration at SUNY is aware that one of their faculty members is crossing the line into sex offender territory.

Translation: Eeeeek, skinny-dipping!!!! Lock her up!

The sex radicals have now moved on to the second phase of their campaign; they are organizing a second letter, written by the same people, but to be presented as coming from “sex workers.”

Translation: Prostitutes and strippers aren’t competent to decide which petitions to sign.

The sex radicals think their letter has had a persuasive impact on Rhode Islanders’ views. Citizens Against Trafficking thinks the letter has got an inordinate amount of attention considering what these sex radicals advocate and defend. Their supporters on the Mix Tapes for Hookers web site are planning a party in Providence for late September. They’re inviting “hookers, strippers, rentboys, sex educators, porn stars, burlesque performers, dominatrices, go-go boys, and more.”

Translation: They’re listening to those people?

If you want to help those in the sex industry, who else would you listen to? Well, besides the academics who have actually studied problems, solutions and the status quo? Answer: Not the people who are trying to turn all the “victims” into criminals.

Instead, I recommend the following reading:

Don’t let personal attacks distract us
Letter from Norma Jean Almodovar to RI Lawmakers
Finding common ground for rational discussion
Being a Powerful Advocate: The Rhode Island Case
Stop, Look, Listen – what is really being done to stop human trafficking? (petition)

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Philip H.

    Like so much else that goes in the battle royale of morals in this country, America can't seem to get over its collective discomfort with open sexuality. If a woman chooses to express that sexuality by going into sex work, she's automatically in need of public shame, "rescue" and prosecution (presumably to deter her from such a foolish idea in the future).PLEASE! We're not Puritans anymore, and the evidence of the psychological damage from repressive approaches to sex is legion. I agree that SitPS is doing a great service – now waht do we in the collective digital square do>

  2. 2
    DuWayne Brayton

    As I said in my own post on Donna, when your comments are right at home with those of the religious right – who exactly is sucking more patriarchal cock?At least whores get paid for it…Philip -Keep in mind that boys are also known to sex for money. Mostly other guys. And while the shaming of the gals is more common, that is only because female prostitutes are more common. The shaming of the guys is much worse – their experience with law enforcement usually being much worse – not to mention jail…

  3. 3
    Happy EndingS?

    This is a great description of what is going on. Since you are from outside of Rhode Island, be prepare to be attacked.

  4. 4
    Stephanie Zvan

    Tara, please keep up the good work, and thank you so much for commenting. One reason I wrote this is because I'm a bit harder to attack as radical. I'm a long-married monogamous woman who does math for a living and writes on the side. I'm downright boring. Also, if I'm not a resident, I can at least address the idea that Rhode Island's "reputation" is ruined by legal prostitution.Which gets to your question, Phil. One of the best things we can do is talk about this from our own staid little positions. The more "radicals" there are saying this should be about protecting people instead of turning them into criminals, the less radical a proposition that becomes.

  5. 5
    Philip H.

    hum, I've been promoted to radical. Guess it was coming sooner or later. Of course, in the BUsh Administration I was also (infamously) a traitor.DuWayne – you are statistically correct, but the quotes I read seemed to be aimed at women sex workers, so that's where I framed my response. I suspect that those crusading to make sex work more illegal don't think about male sex workers becasue it repulses them too much.And as to Rhode Island . . . I visited there several years ago. Don't plan on going back, and this is just one reason.

  6. 6
    Michael Goodyear

    Not so much repulsive (male and transgender) as Victorian melodrama. The framing of the issue looks much better when described as predatory elderly (preferably foreign) men preying on innocent young women and children (the latter is a critical ingredient – it reinforces images of purity and innocence corrupted). This is the xenophobic oppression model that has worked so well in creating moral panic driven legislation since the 1880s (White Slave Trade). Now we have a new xenophobia – sex workers in Rhode island are always depicted as Asian. Thank you for the translations.

  7. 7
    Stephen P

    Actually I did know of RI's sex worker laws, though I doubt many did. The discourse is very much similar here in the UK, as Michael Goodyear knows well, just scan through some stories on my blog.Thanks for this posting.

  8. 8
    Stephanie Zvan

    Stephen, I'll second that recommendation to check out your blog. Thanks.

  9. 9
    Mike Haubrich, FCD

    I hadn't known about Rhode Island's sex laws, either, until I had read the story. Not that I am now hitting Priceline.com to negotiate airline tickets, or anything.My social libertarian streak is all in favor of a safe, clean and non-coercive sex-worker class. Whether I engage their services or not is irrelevant, it's just good for me to know that they are legally able to provide an obviously wanted service without being arrested.In fact, I think that sex work is a more honest trade than the strip joints that are more about teasing and frustration than about sex; it's the promise of sex with no legal delivery option that makes me cringe.

  10. 10
    James Crosson 

    The sex worker has to use physical, psychological and interpersonal abilities to perform my work; technical and personal skills; money management skills and the capacity to deal with the strong prejudice against what they do.All of this knowledge has a direct impact on my ability to make a successful career from sex work.

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