Daily Archives: May 1, 2007

Will the “Washington Madam” Scandal Help Destigmatize Sex Work?

It won’t do the job on it’s own, but imagine if more and more high powered people were to “come out” or be outed as clients of escort services. Imagine if sex industry clientele all stood up one day and identified themselves.

Perhaps you’ve been following the story. The New York Times reports that, according to ABC, which received a list of phone numbers from Ms. Palfrey to try to match to real names of clients, the list includes

“a Bush administration economist, the head of a conservative think tank, a prominent C.E.O., several lobbyists and a handful of military officials” in addition to Mr. Tobias and Mr. Ullman.

Destigmatizing sex work is as important as decriminalizing it. In fact, perhaps it’s even more important. In response to my last post about sex workers, Alex asked whether or not there was any data on the connection between legalization of sex work and a reduction in crime against sex workers. I said I didn’t know offhand. Then, just yesterday, I read a post by Kochanie, writing at Real Adult Sex, in which she describes some research she’s been doing, and which indicates that

for prostitutes in Sweden, New Zealand, Netherlands, or Australia, decriminalization and legalization of their trade has not removed the stigma of engaging in sex work. Even where sex work is legal within certain zoned areas of a city, prostitutes are reluctant to press charges against an abusive client because of the lack of support from local law enforcement. Complaints of police harassment were cited in most reports I read. Some prostitutes did not want to even register as members of the sex trade, because they felt that, once registered, the stigma could never be erased.

She concludes, I think rightly, that decriminalization and legalization on their own are not enough to make sex workers safer. Without removing the stigma from the work, the people who do it will not benefit as much from the decriminalization as proponents of those measures would intend.

I think of this in part because, as I wrote a few days ago, my union just voted overwhelmingly in support of strong anti-trafficking legislation that would allow having been trafficked to be a defense against prosecution for illegal sex work. At a meeting of the Civil and Human Rights committee, where this was being discussed, I suggested amending our resolution to also include support for organizing efforts among sex workers. You could have heard a pin drop. The amendment did not get much support, though several people came to me after the meeting to suggest that I prepare more thoroughly and propose a resolution at next year’s Assembly. My rationale is this: if large groups of organized workers come out in support of the organizing of sex workers, that would be a powerful push in the direction of destigmatization. Imagine if teachers stood up for their students who are sex workers, and if nurses stood up for their patients who are sex workers. Or, imagine if the carpenters and the lawyers and the politicians and the electricians stood up for the sex workers they patronize.

Several months ago I was fortunate enough to interview Audacia Ray, an incredibly powerful sex worker advocate and very inspiring woman. (She’s just finished her Master’s Thesis, produced her first porn film and published her first book!) She said something at the end of our interview that really struck me. We were talking about the difference between destigmatization and decriminalization of sex work. She said she didn’t think the US was nearly ready for decriminalization, but that destigmatization might be happening, and in ways that some of us might not really like. When I asked her to clarify, she referred to “sex worker chic” trends in mainstream media.

I wonder if the exposing of powerful, upper middle class clients of high end escort services is also going to become a source of destigmatization.

I’d be thrilled if labor organizations become another engine for the destigmatizing of sex work. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790 is the union with which the Lusty Lady employees (now owners) affiliated back in the mid-90s, so this isn’t as much a stretch as some might think. (Click here and scroll down for a link to their 2005-2006 contract).

Those of us who are members of labor unions will need to speak up in favor of sex workers’ organizing efforts and to acknowledge them as our sisters and brothers in the labor movement. We’re all safer when sex workers are safer.

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Some other good reasons to be thinking about sex workers today:

Today is May Day, which is both International Labor Day and a day traditionally associated with ancient spring-into-summer fertility rituals featuring dancing and passion and ecstatic celebration

Oh, and the Sex Worker Visions II Art Show has it’s gala opening tonight! Maybe I’ll see you there.

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