Let’s Talk About Sex: Tackling the Taboo Topic of Sex & Sex Workers at Soapbox Feminist Winter Term – Day 1

Yay it’s Sunday…so let’s talk about sex!  Okay not the best segue, but I do want to talk about it but not in the conventional way we’re used to discussing the topic.  As I shared with you all last week, I participated in Soapbox Feminist Winter Term in NYC.  With each day categorized by a theme, Monday’s theme was “sex work.”

On the first day after our introductions, we trotted off to Babeland, a sex toy shop.  It was started in Seattle by two women who wanted to open a female-friendly sex shop.  It’s an inviting store where women and men can try out products like lube, browse books/videos and examine vibrators.  Employees answer questions and make recommendations.  I’ve been to a few sex toy shops before ranging from bright department store style to dingy and seedy with creepy men leering at female clients.  Babeland was an apropos field trip to kick off the day since we explored themes such as what constitutes prostitution?  Does pornography degrade women?  Should sex workers have rights?

Traditionally, people view the sex industry in two ways.  1) There exists a range of ways to be in it, either by choice, circumstance or coercion, but regardless it’s work and we must make it safe for sex workers and regulate disease or 2) the sex industry is a form of violence against women and girls; it’s exploitative and a form of gender-based violence.

We then split into two groups, each group visiting non-profits working with sex workers or trafficking survivors.  My group first visited the Sex Workers Project (SWP), an amazing non-profit project at the Urban Justice Center providing legal and social services to sex workers.  SWP posits the first view, that we must decriminalize prostitution.

We met with several of SWP’s employees, who consisted of lawyers and social workers.  They shared the background of SWP and its ideology.  The workers discussed the virgin/whore dichotomy; once you say you’re a sex worker, you’re a whore or a hooker, no longer seen as a human.  Sex work doesn’t just involve cis women. Cis men and transgender women and men become sex workers too.  Interestingly, some people don’t consider themselves sex workers.  Some escorts who have “relationships” with long-term clients, don’t consider themselves prostitutes; it’s how people self-identify.

I used to debate with one of my co-workers, who worked on trafficking issues, on legalization of prostitution.  I believed that it’s a person’s body and therefore their choice as to whether or not they wish to make money selling sex.  However, she believed that decriminalization increases trafficking.  So I asked the employees at SWP what their thoughts were on the subject.   One employee responded, “Criminalization hurts everyone.” People who’ve survived trafficking lose jobs or can’t get jobs due to convictions.  SWP supports decriminalization rather than legalization (brothels, laws), in order to diminish punishment, which helps no one.  In NY for example, misdemeanors are never sealed.  Trafficking doesn’t just involve sex work but professions in restaurants and as nannies.  Should we decriminalize those professions too?

SWP employs a harm reduction approach, a philosophy that stemmed from the HIV movement: rather than imposing judgment on drug users who were HIV-positive, let’s work on having people NOT contract HIV/AIDS.  Now lawyers employ this approach.  One of the SWP employees said, “I’m going to work on the problem the client brings me, not the problem I think they have.” Whether it’s sex work or drug use, people don’t have to change what they’re doing yet still receive services.  SWP said that many women say they would’ve killed themselves had they not started using crack; so destructive behaviors can be coping mechanisms.

One of SWP’s employees used to work with LGBTQ youth under 18 years old, some of whom worked as sex workers yet there are often no such services for them.  Clearly demarcated lines don’t exist for children working in sex as the situation is far more complex.  John Jay College of Criminal Justice conducted a study: for underage sex workers in NY, over 50% were boys and 90% of those didn’t have a pimp.  If someone’s 17 today, are they a victim and if they turn 18 tomorrow all of a sudden they are an empowered person?

There was a study where a trans woman and a non-trans woman applied for jobs and overwhelmingly, the non-trans woman got hired while the trans woman did not.  Sometimes sex work is the only work a trans person can get.  SWP offers an intersectional approach so there aren’t separate services for trans, genderqueer or anyone identifying as LGBTQ.

SWP also works on immigration, mostly for people trafficked.  Anyone who’s studied immigration law or worked in the field knows how difficult it is to obtain a visa. I don’t think most people realize this.  In order to get a work visa, you need lots of money and you must have a job sponsor you.  So SWP often gets trafficking survivors wishing to stay in the U.S. asylum or through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) or a T-visa (trafficking visa).  “Continued presence” allows people who are trafficked to work without a visa but again, it’s extremely difficult to obtain.  SWP also shared that if someone has been trafficked and they return home to their country to visit a dying relative for instance, and then they try to come back to the U.S., they can’t get a visa, it’s over.

Often times law enforcement THINKS they’re helping when they pull a person out of a trafficking situation.  But then the person is petrified and/or distrustful because they’re interrogated for 6 hours without a lawyer present.  Law enforcement trainings and trafficking task forces exist but from SWP’s perspective, they can’t get their hands on that training curriculum.  There definitely seems to be a cooperative yet understandably adversarial relationship with law enforcement.

SWP shared with us that the NYPD is reducing outdoor sweeps and moving online.  Both the NYPD and SWP were NOT happy about Craigslist shutting down erotic services site because it helped both organizations find underage prostitution.  Craigslist shutdown in U.S. in August last year and internationally last week.  It was shut down by pressure from some feminist orgs. NOT a victory for anti-trafficking movement.  When sex workers have to move to the street, more subject to violence and pimps.  Also sex workers could use Craigslist as a client screening tool.  As one SWP employee said, “The more underground things become, the more abuses and violations can occur, harder to prosecute.”

Bottom line: SWP provides non-judgmental services and support.  As people are going to engage in sex work regardless of its legality, they strive to answer how can we make it better for them?

In the afternoon, we visited the NoVo Foundation, a private foundation which funds organizations domestically and internationally.  They fund 1) social/emotional learning, 2) economic and educational empowerment of girls and 3) an initiative to end violence against women and girls.  The third area consists of ending sex trafficking and ending violence against women and girls domestically and in post-conflict countries.  NoVo is the organization that coupled with the Nike Foundation on the stirring and motivational video “The Girl Effect.”  Seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet, you need to watch it.

We met with two of the foundation’s employees, both of whom had backgrounds in women’s studies, law, political science and domestic violence.  They provided a brief overview of human rights.  After WWII due to genocide, the articles of human rights were created, which included right to vote, fair trials, standard of living, education, housing.  The articles guaranteed civil/political and social/economic freedoms.  Treatises created and countries can decide which treaties they will sign.  Governments cannot violate those basic rights.  Advocates organize around these basic principles of human rights.

As I brought up in the beginning of this post, there are two ways to look at sex work.  NoVo holds the opposite view from SWP.  They believe that women come into sex work with no other way to care for themselves.  Prostitution viewed as a harmless transaction yet it’s not.  Johns (purchasers of sex) say it’s an exertion of power for them.  NoVo argues that regulation doesn’t work as trafficking and child prostitution still increase.  They believe that we as a society can do more for women and girls, give them more options to earn a living, rather than say this is merely the reality.

NoVo believes that supply and demand fuel sex work.  Supply: violence, discrimination and lack of other opportunities; demand: what are the cultural norms that make it okay for men to buy sex?  How do we change norms?  NoVo supports the Swedish model from a policy standpoint, in which johns are criminalized but women and girls are not; rather they’re protected since they are viewed as “victims” in the sex industry.  In the U.S. model, women and girls are criminalized too.  In Sweden, exploitation and trafficking haven’t gone underground and have diminished.  When prostitution is legal, as in The Netherlands, trafficking increases.  As a NoVo employee stated, “Laws are a public statement as to what a society believes and holds important.”

NoVo works in India (with APNEAAP, a grassroots NGO whose name in Hindi means “self-help.”), South Africa (around the World Cup, they supported activists protecting women who might be vulnerable to the male travelers), Chicago (GEMS, an empowering group that works with women trafficked domestically) and New York City.  Their jobs involve making grants from proposals, visiting grantees on-site, relationship-building on a daily basis, and processing grants and funding.  Interestingly, the NoVo is scheduled to close in 20 years.  The foundation was designed to create the greatest impact so rather than spending 5% of resources, which is the minimum foundations must spend, and continually growing the foundation, NoVo is endowed and they spend down.  While men work as sex workers too and some grantees work with men and boys, NoVo usually funds programs for women and girls.  Luckily, they don’t treat trans women differently than non-trans women.

The question that kept springing to my mind?  It seems that NoVo’s and SWP’s views are both right.  Some people are coerced and some choose sex work.  I asked them, how do you balance the two?  The NoVo employees said, yes, there are women who choose it.  But if they possessed other options, they would choose something else as a vocation.  From NoVo’s standpoint, when you think about it from a policy perspective, you have to cast a wide net, for the majority of women and girls wouldn’t select this as a profession, rather than a small net, the women who DO choose this as a job.

They acknowledge that it’s hard to gather stats and data.  But one way is to ask women if they had another option, what would they do? Majority say get an education, do something else.  Also, they’re asked what do they want for their daughters.  In many places, there are no other professional options for women and girls.  One of the NoVo employees said, “Until there are no other options, it’s difficult to know what women would choose.”

While I commend NoVo’s efforts and the amazing support they provide, I couldn’t help but feel they were misguided.  The two NoVo employees kept calling women “victims.”  It pissed me off; you can be victimized and yet still empowered.  To me, “survivors” is what we should call women who’ve been trafficked.  Trafficking is a serious crime akin to human slavery.  Numerous women, children AND men are savagely sold and raped.  It’s a serious crime akin to human slavery; a human rights travesty that governments and advocates must confront.  As I wrote in a book review of Half the Sky,

“…Kristof and WuDunn confront the liberal myth that prostitution is a voluntary vocation for women. As a reproductive rights advocate, I believe that a woman’s body should be her legal and personal domain. Yet I viewed the issues from my Eurocentric stance; while some prostitutes in the U.S., China and Japan enter the profession willingly, in other societies, women and girls are often forced into prostitution. As the authors point out, “Paradoxically, it is the countries with the most straitlaced and sexually conservative societies, such as India, Pakistan, an Iran, that have disproportionately large numbers of forced prostitutes.” In these societies, traffickers coerce, beat and rape women into submission. Today, 3 million women and girls are forced into prostitution – more than were forced into African slavery during the 19th century. Yet in many countries, India for example, prostitution remains illegal, despite the flourishing red-light district.”

But trafficking does not encompass the full scope of sex workers.  For those who feel compelled for they can’t find any other work, yes, we absolutely should have more options for them.  What about those who freely choose this lifestyle?

Later in the week, we went and saw the “Red Umbrella Diaries” created by Audacia Ray, a writer, advocate and former sex worker.  The “Diaires” bring sex workers together to share their individual experiences.  The two stories that stuck out most in my mind are the young woman who shared how she liked to have sex in the dirt and the charismatic male escort divulging how he fisted a male client who requested cocaine be stuck up his ass.  The stories were provocative, shocking and surprisingly funny.  People make so many assumptions about sex work; that it stems from incest, rape, abuse or coercion.  But this isn’t always the case.  One of the social workers at SWP said, “Many ideas come from prejudices.” Sometimes sex workers enjoy the work they do, they’re not always coerced.

I think the Sex Workers Project and the NoVo Foundation are both right with the truth involving both extremes.  Instead of being in opposition, I wish organizations that held opposing views found common ground and built coalitions with one another.

It’s a gut reaction to think porn and sex work degrade women.  Feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon crusaded against pornography as detrimental to women in her controversial book Only WordsAndrea Dworkin, Naomi Wolf and Gloria Steinem have argued this stance too.  But what about lesbian porn, which is made by and for women and not geared for men?  Or what about erotic literature?  Do these degrade women too?  It’s one thing for a woman to be objectified as a sex object; it’s another for a woman to assert her sexuality.

People often hold a romantic version of sex rooted in Victorian ideals.  And I don’t disagree that sex can be a beautiful experience between two people who love each other.  But I also believe, as Samantha Jones infamously said to Charlotte (who said, “Sex is something special, it’s supposed to happen between two people who love each other….), “Or, two people who love sex.” Sex is something to be enjoyed and it shouldn’t make us feel squeamish, although it still does.

Sex is also a transaction, whether for money, goods or even for companionship.  As an SWP employee said, if someone buys someone a drink in a bar with the hope they’ll sleep with them, trophy wives, Tiger Woods and Elin…“where does this fall in the spectrum of transacting sex?   We’ve all engaged in it at one point or another.”

Society continually makes snap judgments about people’s sex lives and lifestyles.  As an SWP employee said, sex work is “one of the last taboos.  It’s okay to make fun of sex workers,” to call them whores.  Confronting mean jokes and judgment, “gets to the root of people’s discomfort.  Sex is stigmatized well more fearful a topic.” We also (and I admit to being a culprit of this at times) freely toss around the word “whore.”  We need to stop slut-shaming; a double standard exists where promiscuous men who have lots of sex can be a “player” or a “stud” yet women get labeled as “whores.”  There’s no shame in women embracing their sexuality.  As for me, I’m going to get out my vibrator, have a glass of wine and enjoy a relaxing evening…just saying.

Stay tuned for the next post on Soapbox Feminist Winter Term 2011!

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sex: Tackling the Taboo Topic of Sex & Sex Workers at Soapbox Feminist Winter Term – Day 1

  1. Hi,
    Since that I am a student of Literature, having Gender studies as my specialization, gender sensitive issues such as these, interests me.
    Thank you

  2. I have a chance to study into human trafficking issue last year. It just open my eyes. Too evil but a lucrative business. It’s multibillion industries involved so many parties. A very systematic and organised crime indeed. Sex trafficking, forced labour, sex slavery…those vulnerable girls are valuable commodities especially children …(think of the re-sell value and the process.) I view some clips and read articles on Somaly Mam (International) http//www.somaly.org/
    I’m just too upset to realize how much the society fuel the demand.

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