CLPP 2010: Feminism and the rights of people involved in sex work and street economies

This panel was an incredible conversation about the issues surrounding sex work and street economies. What was so great about it was that it featured and centered the experiences of folks who are sex workers themselves or work directly with sex workers.
So often conversations and debates about sex work simply leave the workers themselves out completely.
These notes are not a comprehensive view of the discussion, but some notes after the jump. Check out the organizations that were present for some really great work that is trying to address the needs of folks in the sex work industry directly.
Update: There is some confusion in comments about the speakers and their histories with sex work. If they self-identified as someone having history in the sex work industry, it’s noted in the post. Please keep this in mind.

Corinna Yazbek, JD Rosario, Shira Hassan, C. Angel Torres aka Skitlz and Angel Brown.
The following definitions were elaborated throughout the workshop, with input from all the speakers.
Sex work: Any trade in sex or sexual fantasy to meet a need or desire. It could be a gift. Phone sex. We all trade sex for something, even if you’re just trading sex for more sex.
We talk about the kinds of trading that are often stigmatized. Porn, d/s, erotic fantasies, erotic dancing. A stigmatized behavior being traded for something like money or drugs.
Trafficking: There are lots of definitions that are floating around and some reflect people’s experiences, and some are about policy. Forced coercion and travel (border crossing) for sex work but also domestic, industrial and agricultural labor.
The mainstream media has obliterated any distinction between trafficking and sex work. This is so dangerous.
Corinna Yazbek, CLPP

Being pro-sex work is my political position. I believe experiences doing sex work can be validating; empowering; and an act of reclamation of one’s body, finances, and time. I don’t assert that position in an attempt to erase the negative, traumatic experiences people can and do have trading sex and erotic services for money, drugs, shelter, gifts, etc., especially when it’s forced or coerced.
I also don’t want to frame the experience of sex work as all or nothing, black and white – for one, it wouldn’t do justice to the positions of the panelists and secondly it’s not realistic for people’s lived experience. It creates polar opposites of victims and perpetrators, it denies people agency in sexual transactions and relationships, and it over-simplifies what we really need to be talking about. The ideas that we’re working with are complex, the lived experiences of the people we’re talking about (everyone involved in the sex trade – from clients or johns to workers/people providing services/offering pleasure, comfort, company, entertainment to pimps and madams) are complicated. We have to be open to challenging our impulse to want to package things really simply and neatly.
We must ask ourselves what is it about the nature of sexual labor that gets people so riled up?

JD Rosario and Angel Brown HIPS: Assisting sex workers in Washington DC with living healthier lives. We do holistic work to make the lives of the individuals we work with healthier.
Did a great exercise to get the audience thinking about their ideas and opinions about sex work.
Melissa Gira Grant, Third Wave Foundation

I used to work at St. James infirmary, which was run by and for sex workers. Prior to that I was a sex worker in Western Massachusetts.
As far as I can tell, Whores, Housewives and Others (WHO) was the first sex worker advocacy group. Came out of the gay liberation movement, which owed a lot to civil rights movement.
Let’s talk a minute about the term sex worker, which originated in 1978 at maybe an unlikely place given the politics of the time but maybe it was just the right place — at a conference against pornography in San Francisco, organized by feminists and including a march through North Beach, a part of SF with a lot of strip clubs and stores — I once worked there. A prostitutes rights activist named Carol Leigh, who also goes by Scarlot Harlot, was there, and tells the story this way: after entering a workshop and seeing its title written up on a piece of newsprint — “women in the sex use industry” — and suggested, once the workshop began, that they instead refer to “the sex work industry” because she didn’t feel that being called “used” described her experience as a prostitute, and, it felt dehumanizing, especially in this feminist context
And so that’s the context in which I use the term “sex work” — both to describe my own experience, and as a political term to include a rich and diverse group of people — male, transgender and gender non-conforming, and female, who exchange different kinds of sexual contact and entertainment for what they need to get by — cash, a place to stay, food, drugs — all the things that motivate and compel almost all people to work, earn a wage, make money.
There are hundreds of sex worker projects internationally, see the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. There are unions of sex works abroad, lots of successes that are really instructive.
At this time the sex worker community is grappling with policy issues and conversations. What does seem to unite the folks working in this movement is a shared understanding that it is not the act of exchanging sex or sexual services for what we need to get by that is dangerous, harmful. But it is the conditions of criminalization and social stigma that harm us.
Ending the demand of prostitution does very little to address structural inequalities and oppressions.

Shira and Skittles, Young Women’s Empowerment Project

Started by majority women of color and folks who had experiences in sex trade and the street economy. We decided we wanted to do social justice organizing and leadership development with young people.
We work with girls and transgender girls ages 10-23. We are women of color led.
We use the language of “sex trade” because we wanted to create an umbrella for all our experiences. We are working to build bridges and develop solidarity.
The values that we use: popular education, harm reduction, empowerment theory, self-care and healing, social justice (transformative justice and reproductive justice).
We do our own research because we were sick of being used and put at risk by researchers. We got taught how to do participatory action research. We asked:
What institutional violence were girls experiencing? What individuals experiencing?
How were they resisting this violence? How were they resilient to this violence?
Three main findings:
1. Girls were being denied help.
2. Institutional violence made individual violence worse because girls were being denied help.
3. Resilience was making us stronger.
Campaign: Street Youth Rise Up. We started a bad encounter line so that if folks had a bad experience that information could be used to warn girls.
We developed a Chicago Task Force to change the way the city sees and treats our homeless youth.
We’ve started an herbal institute to give folks an opportunity to take care of themselves even though they can’t go to a doctor.
Releasing a video game by June. It would be a way to breakdown how institutional violence affects our every day life.

From discussion:
Myth: That women don’t buy sex.
Be an active ally in your every day life–don’t put pressure on your local sex worker community. Call out myths and untruths about sex work in your every day life.
What about the issues of people being forced or coerced into sex work? This is about what girls have to do to survive. This system is set up to have us fail. What does force and choice mean in this context? When we’re looking at what our options are, how does force shake up in that? If you have no other options, it gets super complicated. We encourage people to step away from this framework.
The situations in your life mediate the choices you have in order to meet your needs. It’s not a good framework but it’s a common one.

Join the Conversation

  • Anonymous

    Re: “This system is set up to have us fail. What does force and choice mean in this context? When we’re looking at what our options are, how does force shake up in that? If you have no other options, it gets super complicated”
    This just tell me a lot.
    Also, the convo about separating trafficked workers from workers who want to do the work. How do you define consent, given the first paragraph above? Sure, the obvious is to separate women forced through passport-retention and threats of violence. But what about economic and social violence? Don’t they matter as well?
    There are a lot of workers worldwide who are coerced, to various degrees, into working. When do we have a choice? When do we not? We live in a society that tells us to follow our dreams. What does this mean when you have to pay the rent? What does it mean when you know your dreams are not likely to be honoured as much as the “default population” dreams?
    I think a lot more needs to be said and heard.

  • naomi1978

    Very interesting.
    I do have a problem though with the idea that just because one woman (C Yazbek) experienced sex work as empowering, we should make a POLITICAL DECISION to advocate for sex work as feminist and empowering.
    To give an example from my life – After months of unemployment I took a job in finance that was really great for me. A great group of people, a wonderful boss, etc. It really helped me develop skills, develop a personality. This was during the same time that the whole financial crisis was happening. So was my particular experience empowering? Absolutely. Is our financial system corrupt and a peril to our economy, overall? Absolutely. I would never use the fact that I had a great situation to argue that finance is A-OK, and everyone should ignore those mortgage defaults.
    I feel the same about sex work & porn – I’m sure there are plenty of women who enjoy participating, but as industries, in the current culture, they are a power for ill.

  • naomi1978

    I’d also love to learn if the participants said anything about reaching out to sex-workers who aren’t empowered to speak up and take care of themselves.
    That’s something I struggle a lot in my volunteer work with sex abuse survivors who feel trapped in what they do – so ashamed of it, damaged goods, want to get out but don’t believe they deserve any better.
    The problem is, they would never go to a conference like this. So how do we reach them (outside of support groups for abuse survivors)? Is there anything the sex work community doing about that?

  • makomk

    “The mainstream media has obliterated any distinction between trafficking and sex work. This is so dangerous.”
    It’d probably be more accurate to say that the anti-sex trafficking movement has obliterated any distinction between trafficking and sex work, and the mainstream media has dutifully followed suit.
    (Then again, I may have an odd viewpoint on this since I’m in the UK. Our anti-sex trafficking groups seem to have gone to some effort to ensure that the only sex worker voices anyone hears are the ex-workers whose experiences and opinions match their ideology.)

  • Lydia

    I agree. This post seemed to be very vague and contradictory to me. I had a hard time getting much out of it. On the one hand, there seems to be a division being made between people who are forced into sex work and people who “choose” it. But on the other hand there’s some allusion to the fact that “choice” is a loaded term in this context. Which it is, and I’d like to see that elaborated upon more. Many people who “choose” sex work, do so because they are poor and feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have no other options. I suppose that’s making a choice but hardly one to celebrate. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for anyone to be a healthy, happy sex worker but I don’t think this gray area is talked about enough.
    Also: “We all trade sex for something, even if you’re just trading sex for more sex.”
    Hmmm. Can’t say I find that attitude very appealing. I’ve never thought of any sex I’ve had as “trading sex for more sex.” It’s not just something I’ve got that I give to somebody to get something they’ve got that I want. Sex is not simply a transaction. It’s not just a commodity. It’s not a product. Selling sex is NOT just like selling anything else. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it needs to be talked about in a different way. Oversimplifications like this frustrate me.

  • Sleepy

    While I’m not totally against legalizing “sex for money exchanges”, there’s an aspect of it that gives me pause. It’s the aspect of choice, and the idea of women choosing this only because they’re desperate.
    What if we were talking about selling your kidneys? And we had a few stories from fairly privileged women saying how empowering it was to be able to get a million dollars that way? Would that imply that selling your kidney should be legal? I would think not. You don’t have to doubt the womens’ description of their experience. Or disrespect people who sell their internal organs because they’re desperate for money. But you could still see the problem with legalization – that it might create even more coercion with a kind of legitimacy, (where you just expect that of someone who’s in dire financial need).
    Maybe sex work isn’t quite so self-sacrificing as selling internal organs. Maybe it’s more like selling your blood (instead of donating it), or offering your body as a research subject for money. But those latter things have questions about consent and choice too. I can’t imagine that having to do those things would feel particularly empowering.
    Maybe sex work isn’t as bad as any of this, and the bad feelings of many women who’ve done it are due solely to societal stigma. Well, I’m all for getting rid of the stigma, but I’m not ready to say “yay sex work!”, “so empowering!”, “so feminist!” until the negative reports about it diminish. (That may be a while.)

  • corinna

    Naomi, you really misinterpreted what I said. I was saying that I believe sex work can be empowering and it can also be traumatizing – I held both of these truths when I asserted that I’m pro-sex work politically. (I’ve been rethinking since Saturday that perhaps a more accurate political position is being pro-sex worker, I’ll elaborate below.) YOU certainly don’t have to take this political position, I was simply saying that I wanted to take it as a way to reject shame, stigma, and judgment. I also said (and Perez featured as much as she could since I was only framing and moderating the panel, I wasn’t a featured speaker) that it’s about asserting the right to have power and control over what we do with our own bodies – this is the link to reproductive justice – whether that’s the right to engage in sex trade or the right to get the hell out of the sex trade.
    Your parallel to the financial industry doesn’t quite work because your job was to make money off of other people’s labor whereas strippers, porn stars, prostitutes, etc. are making money off their own labor. As my dear friend who’s been an escort for 10 years always says, “the only one I can exploit is myself and I’m ok with that!”
    I would also like to challenge the idea that porn and sexual services/sex trade are inherently forces for ill; they meet needs for entertainment, sexual expression and pleasure (according to Non-Violent Communication, sexual expression is a universal human need).
    I guess the main point I want to make in declaring myself pro-sex worker is that I am tired of feminists painting women (mostly, though there is a lot of gender variance in sex work/trade) as deserving only of pity and sympathy; that feels really maternalizing and gross to me. It feels radical to me to frame it as something worthy of respect and to create room for people to be proud of trading sex for something, to challenge the notion that someone should feel ashamed or worthy of pity for what they’re doing with their body. Would it be so anti-feminist to celebrate someone who is skilled and talented and a savvy business person at trading sex for money? This certainly doesn’t have to come at the expense of people who need supports to make other decisions about their lives – to me, the two are not mutually exclusive but are both about being pro-sex worker and feminist (as I understand feminism).
    Something else I learned from the panel (I learned SO much from the other speakers – you should really read up on their work!) was the idea that empowerment and trauma often exist in the same body – whether it’s because you were coerced as a teen and became an independent sex worker as an adult or from one client to the next you have a really great experience and then something bad happens. As feminists, we can’t draw clear lines in the sand and pit “privileged” sex workers against “marginalized” sex workers. These are artificial, oversimplified divisions because there are SO many layers to power, privilege and oppression.
    The last thing I’ll share is something JD from HIPS said which is one of the most brilliant things about sex work/trade that I’ve ever heard:
    “I don’t care what you think about sex work; I care how what you think affects the people I work with.” I heard this as a call for accountability for how each of our opinions, judgments, and values create culture and impacts other people in very real ways.

  • corinna

    Ok, just to be *really* clear, you drew inaccurate conclusions about my personal experiences from what I was asserting as a political position.

  • simon

    K, a few things. As someone who attended the panel, I thought it was fantastic. Thanks to all the speakers and to Perez for sharing it here. I want to respond specifically to Naomi and Sleepy and anyone else who may have reservations about legalizing or decriminalizing sex work because of the stories of coercion and violence they’ve heard. A number of the panelists made the point that the most consistent and intense violence that they and other sex workers face is violence from the state – from police, the courts, prisons, and detention centers, and also from hospitals and health care workers (who may or may not be funded by the state but who function as part of an institutional system that is highly regulated by the state). And this is where JD’s comment comes in. I don’t care if you think that sex work isn’t empowering or feminist, but if you support its criminalization, then you are supporting state violence against sex workers.
    And I’ve heard some feminists touting what is often referred to as the “Swedish Model” of criminalizing johns, but not sex workers as a way to try and protect sex workers from incarceration, but still eliminate the industry. The problem with this model is that it pushes johns into different, often less safe locations and then sex workers seeking clients have to travel to these places that they are less familiar with and that are often away from support services like needle exchanges or hiv-prevention outreach services. The end result is that they are more at risk for violence or HIV. To see some research supporting this idea, check out:
    Again, I think a “pro-sex worker” politic necessitates advocacy for full decriminalization of sex workers lives.

  • Anna

    I find it extremely sickening and upsetting when “feminists” advocate prostitution. I’ve been active in feminism for 15 years.

    The legal right to buy, use and dispose of a woman has absolutely nothing to do w/ female empowerment. Do you really think men look at a prostitute, a table dancer etc. as “empowered human being”? I graduated in psychology and wrote my thesis on a topic involving men’s views on that. As it had to be neutral and scientific, it wasn’t “biased”, just sayin’.

    I get into this a lot, first because I have been working in a counseling office (in Europe, where prostitution was and is decriminalized) for women in and/ or after working in the sex industry, secondly I fight against the legalization for a long time. I don’t see anything feministic about giving men the right to buy women as goods.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am as much, if not more, against shaming women, or denying them safety. But there are middle grounds that are far away from just decriminalizing it.

    I, as a woman, do not want to give men the impression that women, or some women, are goods or items of use. That women have a price. Sex is not always a “trade”, and for sure not in a commercial sense, and I’m sick of hearing the so called “confident or content” prostitutes making those statements.
    When you decriminalize it, you trivialize it. Also for the 18 year olds for example that sell their bodies on Craigslist because they think it’s an easy way to get a new pair of shoes.
    You make it much easier for the guys who post on CL asking teenagers if they don’t want to make their rent in an “easy and stress free” way. Sorry, but 18, and even 20, is not an age where you can estimate the consequences for psyche and body.

    It’s essentially giving men more power and freedom. And an invitation to look down on women once more in a degenerative way.
    Shouldn’t the voice for proper education and free college be much louder? And, of course, more ACTUAL rights for women, including defense and safety for prostitutes.

    Sex work may be a term that makes it sound less degenerative or more bareable. But essentially, it’s prostitution, porn, (and I am seeing the difference between erotica and pornography. Most women working in porn don’t know the difference, another thing they should get educated in) etc. No need to sugar coat it. I find it very suitable to keep those slightly in-your-face terms. And if it’s just to make a young girl think a minute longer before she decides to do it.

    I’d never look down on a woman doing it involuntarily. But those who choose it every day new.. I don’t have to accept that you make it harder for all women to get the respect we deserve. Most men, I’m sorry, don’t respect you. You’re not empowered in their eyes. If they would, they wouldn’t mind their daughter being a prostitute, too.
    And when is it a choice, even? Which girl dreamed of being a prostitute later on?

    I don’t wish anyone harm. But I do wish that it stays illegal and that it stays in a realistic light.

    “Our anti-sex trafficking groups seem to have gone to some effort to ensure that the only sex worker voices anyone hears are the ex-workers whose experiences and opinions match their ideology.”
    Perhaps women that come out of it and feel battered/ abused/ unhappy/ traumatized, even if not trafficked, ARE just the majority?