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.


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.


Filed under activism, feminism, labor organizing, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex work, sexually oriented businesses

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

  1. Excellent post!! Here in DC, a group that advocates on behalf of trafficking victims in moving to the the DC city council to pass measures protecting victims that will work in parallel with the federal law.

  2. Alex

    I think it may depend on how those that used the escort service react. I can’t see the current one who resigned helping much; he basically slinked away in shame. What we need is for one of the politicians to say “I used the service, they were great.”
    The only way this will help is if the outed politicians don’t treat the whole issue with shame. Hopefully the public will follow those politicians lead.

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  4. I’m sorry I didn’t see you/get to chat with you on Tuesday night, but I hope you enjoyed the opening.

    You might be interested in the work that the International Union of Sex Workers (http://www.iusw.org/) is doing. They are primarily active in the UK as a part of the GMB, which last fall helped a phone sex worker win back her job after they found that she’d been fired illegally.

    In addition to unions, I think the legal system can sometimes be used in powerful ways for sex workers – at least, for those who do legal work. In the upcoming issue of $pread, there is an article about an exotic dancer who has successfully sued several clubs for back pay and gotten back her stage fees ($ dancers pay per shift to work). There are also strong unionizing efforts in Australia, where some forms of prostitution are legal. Women in strip clubs there have recently gotten things like sick pay and maternity leave.

    So its possible – just more possible for those in legal professions to organize. Excerpt for maybe the porn industry, which seems pretty hopeless.

  5. noidont

    I don’t know what you all are smoking, but NO this will not de-stigmatize prostitution. Prostitution is the buying and selling of human beings and as a country and a culture, we are opposed to it, hence the stigmatization.

    If you truly care about women, please please work on alternatives for poor and desperate women. Then you can tell me women “choose” prostitution.

    Trying to fight for better working condistions for prostitutes is like trying to get better working conditions for slaves – it doesn’t help the underlying condition.

    In fact, you are contributing to the continuing abuse of these women by trying to convince us that it is just “work”. If you have been anywhere near actual prostitution, you know it is not work and you are perpetrating a huge lie by calling it that. When you have the 5th man in a row in your mouth that day, and he is calling you degrading names, it is far beyond work, it is abuse.

    Making it legal will not stop the pain and humiliation. De-stigmatizing it will not stop it either. No one wants their child to grow up to be a prostitute. (unless they truly hate their child). There is a reason for that. It is an awful thing to go through.

    I doubt you will publish this comment since it doesn’t fit in with your consensual hallucination that abuse and humiliation is fun and games. But I really beg you to consider the damage you are doing to real women when you call their abuse “work.”

  6. Listen, the two reasons people go into prostitution are because they have a drug habit to support or because they *gasp* like sex. Clearly, the first reason is a problem because it means the workers don’t like their work and are more likely to allow themselves to be treated like crap. The reason “no one wants their child to grow up to be a prostitute” is because, in a place where it is illegal, there is a great amount of shame and ridiculous thinking associated with it. Yes, people with drug addictions who go into prostitution because they will do anythin get the money—that is clearly an external problem that needs fixing at the source. But sex workers who have their jobs because they like them? Quite a different scenario.

  7. I am as surprised to read that there are only two reasons people get into prostitution as I am to read that prostitution is always akin to slavery or abuse. I think the reality is much more complicated, and that it is obscured when we separate sexual labor from all other kinds of labor. People work at demeaning jobs that are not sexual in nature, and not all prostitution is equally demeaning or abusive. An upscale call girl or escort and a homeless street prostitute do not have the same working conditions.

    I take the call to help poor women — and poor people more generally — as a serious call. The limitations on agency and freedom that the poor face are serious and require lots of social changes in order to eliminate them. My suggestions are very much in line with those of the International Union of Sex Workers, mentioned by Audacia Ray in her comment above. Namely:

    -Access to health care and education
    -The right to organize and join unions
    -Zero tolerance for coercion, violence, forced labor or child labor.
    -Access to legal assistance when necessary to enforce one’s rights
    -Safe working conditions and fair pay

    These are conditions that all workers, regardless of industry, should have as a matter of course. Specific to sex workers, I also support decriminalization and destigmatization. If the conditions in which sex work is performed are conditions that support workers’ autonomy and safety, then it becomes a more reasonable option as a chosen occupation.

  8. mollishka: uh, no: i believe the most biggest reason is because of, y’know, the money.

    and, what EW said.

    btw, do you know this blog?


  9. *shrug*. I’m sure there are, in fact, a multitude of reasons, but in my experience those are the two main reasons people jailed for prostitution under the age of about 25 cite for getting into it.

  10. Mollishka, your clarification really helps. I haven’t studied the question myself but I’d be very confident in guessing that those who are under 25 and who get arrested and jailed for prostitution are more representative of a subset of prostitutes than they are of prostitutes in general. For example, I’d guess that drug-addicted prostitutes are more likely to engage in behavior that is more likely to result in arrest than are non-drug addicted prostitutes (e.g., working on the street, for example, making drug buys as part of their prostitution exchanges). Does that correspond to your experience with the population you mention?

  11. baconeater

    -Access to health care and education
    They have the same access as everyone else right now. If they can afford it, they get the good stuff. Otherwise they rely on the emergency room/free clinic model just like the rest of us.

    -The right to organize and join unions
    Yeah, good luck with that one! I believe the phrase “herding cats” might apply here.

    -Zero tolerance for coercion, violence, forced labor or child labor.
    Great idea, but to enforce it we will need to have an OSHA inspector at every sex act. Or possibly we will have to regulate where the acts take place so we can video tape each one. In other words – how on earth would you reinforce this in the sex room? If you are talking about violence, coercioin and forced labor outside the sex room, those are completely and totally illegal right now, but prostitutes won’t report pimps and johns.

    -Access to legal assistance when necessary to enforce one’s rights
    Already exists for prostitutes just like it does for everyone else.

    -Safe working conditions and fair pay
    Again, how will this be enforced? You would need to have work places inspected and certified. We can’t even get our food inspected and certified. No matter how legal you might wish it to be, it will never be a priority to spend tax dollars making prostitutes lives nicer when our schools and hospitals are falling apart.

    Wish it were not so, but it is.

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