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.
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.