Category Archives: labor organizing A Labor Day Call to Johns

From Sex In The Public Square dot Org, Friday, May 2008:

sex worker rights red umbrella logo only rights can stop the wrongsYesterday I’d intended to write a Labor Day post. It was going to be about the importance of workers organizing across all types of work, recognizing that we are all workers, and it was going to be the beginning of a conversation I want to have about why established unions need to support the organizing efforts of sex workers.

And then I read about Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s death and all that went out the window for a while.

This morning I went back and looked for last year’s May 1 post. I couldn’t remember what I’d written about. My breath caught in my throat when I found that I’d written this, also about Deborah Jeane and about my speculation that perhaps the exposing of high profile clients would help in the effort to reduce the stigma attached to sex work.

Obviously I’d been overly optimistic last year. While there continues to be the occasional exposing of a high-end john, we also continue to see sex work trivialized in the press and sex workers treated as criminals and victims and rarely as people making choices, sometimes difficult and sometimes obvious, but always from a range of options that is circumscribed by economic and social circumstances.

I no longer think that the exposing of clients is going to be the source of any great reduction in the stigma attached to sex work. Why? Because they always apologize.

They apologize by admitting their “sins” a la David Vitter or they apologize and resign their posts, a la Eliot Spitzer, but they always apologize, and by doing so they reinforce the impression that consciously and explicitly exchanging sex for money is wrong, and they reinforce the stigma. In fact they often refer to that stigma when they include in their apologies their regret for bringing shame on their families.

Note that they do not apologize for any mistreatment of the workers. They apologize for being clients in the first place.

So my new call on Labor Day is a call to the clients and not a call to the workers. Clients of the sex workers of the world: stand up for the people whose work you are paying for. Treat those workers respectfully and protect their safety and don’t apologize for paying for their services.

Yes, you may have much to apologize for:

Apologize if you have actively worked to keep the services you pay for criminalized.

Apologize if you have said insulting, demeaning or paternalistic things about sex workers.

Apologize if you have contributed to the shaming of sex workers.

Apologize if you have jeopardized the health of a sex worker.

Apologize if you have committed violence against a sex worker.

And by all means apologize if you have lied to your partner about sex you are having with other people.

But for being a client of a sex worker?

Please, no more apologies. We can’t afford them.

Links to sex worker organizing efforts:

Please add others in the comments on this thread and on Sex In The Public Square dot Org.

Technorati Tags: Deborah Jeane Palfrey, labor unions, labor day, prostitution, sex work, sexuality

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Filed under activism, human rights, labor organizing, News and politics, prostitution, public discourse, sex, sex work, sexuality

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

Remembering Sex Workers on Workers’ Memorial Day

Today is Workers’ Memorial Day, a day to remember people who have died because of unsafe conditions on the job, or because their jobs are simply dangerous by nature, and to also recommit ourselves to working for safer workplaces and safer jobs.

Because this is Sex in the Public Square and because sex work is such an important issue to me, I want to dedicate this space today to remembering sex workers who’ve died because of their work, and to tell you about a way that labor unions can help.

Last December, when I attended an End Violence Against Sex Workers vigil, names of sex workers who’d been killed in 2006 were read. There were more than 60 names. Most of them I did not know. I knew the names of the four sex workers — Molly Jean Dilts, Kim Raffo, Tracy Ann Roberts and Barbara V. Breider— killed in Atlantic City, because their murders made the national news. There were also the names of the five who’d been killed in Suffolk England — Tania Nicol, Paula Clennell, Anneli Alderton, Gemma Adam, Annette Nicholls — because that case made international news. But more often violence against sex workers goes unreported. It is only when a string of murders happens that we pay attention. Violence against individual sex workers is largely off our radar and thus much less likely to get a serious response. This is unconscionable.

There are some important principles that I think could motivate much more concern for sex worker safety:

1. No women are safe until sex workers are safe. As long as being a prostitute makes one a target for violence, and as long as that violence can be perpetrated with much less risk of sanction, and as long as all women are potentially identifiable as prostitutes, no women are safe until sex workers are safe.

2. An injury to one is an injury to all. When we don’t speak up to protect the safety of other groups, we cannot expect much support when we ourselves are targeted. Solidarity is important across groups of workers. Stigma and bias only serve to divide us.

I’m thinking about this all the more because I just came from the Representative Assembly of my state-wide union, New York State United Teachers. This was my first time at the RA. I learned that a central component of the RA is the considering of resolutions that will guide the organization’s work in the coming year (and beyond). I attended the Civil and Human Rights Committee meeting and at that meeting a resolution was considered — and overwhelmingly supported — calling for strong anti-trafficking laws. I was impressed by the way the resolution was worded. It recognized that not all trafficked people are sex workers, and its focus was clearly on the trafficking and not on sex work itself. Also, and also it called for legislation that would explicitly make having been trafficked into a defense for those who get caught working in illegal jobs so that they are not punished but their traffickers are.

To the degree that this does pertain to people trafficked for sex work, this does not go quite far enough though. In order to achieve the goals that it sets out to achieve, such a resolution ought to also include support for the organizing of sex workers, and perhaps support for the decriminalizing of sex work. Here’s why.

1. Trafficked workers’ main source of info is likely to be their traffickers. Traffickers are not going to inform their victims about their rights.

2. A defense can only be applied after an arrest. These workers should not be subjected to arrest in the first place.

3. Fear of arrest keeps workers from attempting to access the kinds of services that the laws demanded by the resolution would support.

4. The stigma attached to sex work makes it very difficult for people trafficked into sex work to “come out” about their situations, and it also makes it difficult for people to “reach out” to them! Statements by large unions in support of their right to organize would help combat that that stigma.

I am proud to belong to a union that actively works to rectify social injustices, and I believe in the power of the labor movement to be a strong engine driving this society in the direction of progressive social change. But I want my labor movement to affirm the rights of all workers, to organize all workers, and that includes sex workers.

Imagine if Molly Jean Dilts, Kim Raffo, Tracy Ann Roberts and Barbara V. Breider had belonged to a union! Imagine if the women who are trafficked into go-go bars and massage parlors had a union.

Remember that sex workers can and do organize, but they face tremendous challenges and they need support. In addition, the more organized the sex industry becomes, the less it will become a receiver of trafficked workers.

After all, it’s a lot harder to traffic someone into a strong union shop!
Click here for the Trafficking Policy Research Project (examining the effect of US anti-trafficking legislation)

And here are some links to organizations that are working to make sex workers safer, and to destigmatize sex work:

And, keep your eyes open for the Sex Worker Visions II Art Show, organized by $pread Magazine. You can read about it here and here.


Filed under activism, feminism, inequality, labor organizing, sex, sex work