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Pressuring or requiring cab drivers and hotel workers to report suspected prostitution will backfire

Date: July 30, 2013

In the previous post, I wrote about how penalizing cab drivers, hotel workers, and others for building relationship with people in the sex trade (instead of immediately reporting it to the police, as the law enforcement requests) isolates people in the sex trade (youth or adult, trafficked or not) and make them more vulnerable. But some people continue to insist that the right thing to do is to call the police, so here is further explanation.

Public policies often have unintended consequences. That is, when the government takes measures to encourage certain actions and discourage others, it does not necessarily lead to the desired result, and might even cause unanticipated harms. So the question we should ask is: what will happen if the government requires or pressures cab drivers, hotel workers, and other businesses to report suspected sex trafficking cases, including any suspected minor engaging in prostitution?

Cab drivers, hotel workers, and others witnessing potential sex trafficking cases have several options to choose from. They can 1) call the police, 2) pretend that they are not seeing anything, 3) refuse services to them, or 4) approach the potential victim and build relationship so that they can offer resources if they need and want them (including calling the police if that is what they want).

Businesses might call the police in the very rare cases when they are 100% certain that the person is being trafficked, or the victim is clearly underage (someone who appears like a pre-pubescent, for example). But when it is uncertain, which things usually are, businesses are reluctant to call the police on their customers.

When the cost of acting on a suspicion that might be wrong (such as calling the police under false impression) is high, businesses recognize that it is in their best interest to remain (or feign) uninformed about the situation (option 2), or simply distancing themselves from it (option 3), rather than risking angering innocent customers (option 1), or learning too much about the situation by becoming too involved with people who might be in the sex trade (option 4), making them complicit in the crime in the eyes of the law enforcement.

As a result, policies that are intended to promote option 1 (calling the police) actually lead businesses to choose options 2 and 3, and foreclose further the possibilities for more innovative solutions that meet people in the sex trade, build rapport with them, and assist them in ways they desire.

What Businesses Should Know About Service Animals: A Guide

Date: January 5, 2013

[Download PDF]

Many people are confused about what service animals are, or what rights people using service animals have under Americans with Disabilities Act. This document is intended to help businesses understand what obligations they have to customers and members of the public who have service animals under law.

1. Service animals are not pets.

Service animals are different from pets because they are trained to perform tasks to assist persons with disabilities. Service animals must be allowed to accompany their owners wherever people without service animals may enter, even if the premises do not generally allow pets.

2. There are psychiatric service animals, too.

In addition to guide dogs, seeing eye dogs, and other more commonly recognized ones, some service animals are trained to assist people with psychiatric disabilities. The DOJ guideline lists dogs that are trained to calm people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack as an example of service animals that must be accommodated.

3. Service animals do not need to be trained by professionals.

Some service animals are trained by professionals to perform highly specialized tasks and are certified by established institutions. But service animals can also be trained by their owner, and do not need to receive any certification or license to be recognized as service animals.

4. Businesses cannot require any documentation.

Under ADA, businesses are not allowed to require any documentation for service animals such as a certificate or a physician’s letter. They are not allowed to demand people with service animals to “prove” that they are service animals, or to demonstrate their ability to perform tasks.

5. Tags/harnesses marking the animal as “service animal” are optional.

Some people with service animals put a tag or harness that marks their animals as service animals in order to inform other people, but they are not required. It is entirely optional.

6. There are only two questions businesses can ask.

When it is not clear that an animal is a service animal, businesses may ask: 1. “Is this a service animal?” and 2. “What work does the animal do?” Businesses are not allowed to ask what disability the person has, or to demand a proof.

7. Businesses can expect service animal to be under the control of the owner.

People with disabilities are expected to keep their service animals under control (not barking or making a scene) and on a leash (unless it would prevent the animal from performing the task). Also, service animals must be potty-trained. Businesses can ask a person using a service animal to leave the premise if he or she cannot keep the animal under control.

8. Businesses cannot discriminate.

Businesses cannot charge extra fees for people with service animals, even if they charge extra for people with non-service pets. They cannot isolate or segregate people with service animals from other customers, or treat them less favorably.

9. Fear or allergy are not legitimate reason to exclude.

Some people are afraid of dogs or are allergic to dogs, but these are not legitimate grounds to exclude people with service animals. When appropriate, businesses may need to accommodate both customers with service animals and those with allergic reactions, for example by seating them away from each other.

10. People with service animals cannot be singled out.

When service animals cause damages, it must be treated the same way damages caused by people are treated. For example, a hotel may charge for an extra cleaning fee for a mess made by a service animal if another customer who made a similar mess is also held responsible.

This document is based on “ADA 2010 Revised Requirements: Service Animals” issued by U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.

(Also posted in System Failure Alert!)

Going Places with Your Service Animal: A Guide

Date: January 4, 2013

[Download PDF]

Many people are confused about what service animals are, or what rights people with disabilities have about bringing their service animals to places like buses, restaurants, schools, and other places. Some businesses violate the law when they refuse service to people with service animals out of ignorance, but we can’t demand our rights effectively if we don’t know them better than they do. This guide is designed for people who are interested in going to places with their service animal.

What Are Service Animals?

Service animals must be dogs (with some exceptions) that have been trained to perform a task to assist a person with a disability. They are different from pets, “companion animals,” or “emotional support animals” because they are specifically trained to do something for a person with disability.

Examples of “tasks” given by the Department of Justice include:

  • guiding someone who is blind
  • alerting someone who is deaf
  • pulling a wheelchair for someone
  • protecting someone who is having a seizure
  • calming someone during an anxiety attack (licking, nuzzling, etc.)

Service animals must be trained to do one of these things (or some other task), but they do not need to be trained by professionals. Some organizations train and certify dogs as “service animals,” but you or your friends and family members can train your own dog as well. There is no requirement for certification or registration for service animals.

What Are My Rights and Responsibilities?

Businesses, government buildings, clinics, and non-profit organizations that other people can enter generally must allow service animals. There are some exceptions, but they are very specific (such as an operating room at a hospital).

Service animals must wear a harness, leash, etc., unless these devices prevent them from working. They must be under control (not barking or making a scene) and must be potty-trained (they are able to hold off until they are in an appropriate place to relieve themselves).

What Are Businesses’ Rights and Responsibilities?

There are only two questions businesses are allowed to ask about someone’s service animal: 1. “Is this a service animal?” and 2. “What work does the animal do?” They cannot ask what disability you have, require documentation of any kind, or make you “prove” that the animal can perform tasks.

Businesses cannot charge extra fees for people with service animals, even if they charge extra for people with non-service pets (hotels, airplanes, etc.). They must allow service animals even if they do not allow other animals (restaurants, grocery stores). They cannot treat people with service animal any worse than they treat other customers.

Businesses can ask people with service animals to leave if the dog is out of control, or the animal is not potty-trained, but not just because someone else is afraid of or allergic to dogs.

Businesses can make people with service animal pay for damages their animals cause only if they would also ask customers without service animals to pay for damages they cause.

What Else Should I Know About Service Animals?

Some people make their service animals wear “service animal” tags, harnesses, or jackets. They are not required, but they might stop other people from questioning if your dog really is a service animal. You can buy them at a pet supply store or online.

This document addresses your rights in most places of “public accommodation.” There are different definitions of “service animal” or “assistance animal” for having service animals in housing (including shelters), or for air travel, which might give you more rights. Talk to your friendly disability justice advocate to find out more!

This document is based on “ADA 2010 Revised Requirements: Service Animals” issued by U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. Download the original document, print out a copy and hand it to ignorant businesses to educate them!

(Also posted in System Failure Alert!)

Roundtable on California’s Prop 35 and “War on Trafficking”

Date: December 24, 2012

I participated in the roundtable discussion about California’s Prop 35 and “war on trafficking” in the current (January 2013) issue of In These Times magazine, which is also available on its website.

ITT Jan. 2013 Cover

Cutting off people in the sex trade from support networks: Opportunity cost of the NYC anti-“sex trafficking” taxicab rule

Date: July 10, 2012

Last month, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a new regulation targeting taxicab drivers who knowingly transport people who are engaging in prostitution. The new law imposes a $10,000 fine and the revocation of taxi license when the driver or owner of that taxi is convicted of such crimes as promoting prostitution (first thru third degree), compelling prostitution, or sex trafficking if the licensed vehicle was used in the crime.

Critics of the law have pointed out that the new regulation might lead cab drivers to refuse rides to any woman who are suspected of being prostitutes or sex trafficking victims (based on their appearance and other factors) out of fear that giving transportation to someone who might be involved in the sex trade could be construed as “promoting prostitution.”

When the bill was proposed, female bartenders who must frequently use cab to go home late at night held a protest against the law. The president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers also protested the regulation, arguing that it would encourage police officers to arrest innocent cab drivers who are simply doing their job.

While members of the New York City Council assure us that the law does not require cab drivers to determine who is or is not involved in the sex trade, pointing out that the driver has to be first convicted of one of the crimes listed above before the additional penalty kicks in, drivers’ and female riders’ fears are not entirely unwarranted, considering how broadly “promoting prostitution” is defined. Under law, “promoting prostitution” could simply mean that one “knowingly causes or aids a person to commit or engage in prostitution,” which providing transportation to and from a “date” would qualify, for example.

That said, my concern with this law is not about innocent cab drivers who might be wrongly targeted because he or she transported someone who turned out to be a prostitute or trafficking victim, or even about innocent female riders who experience inconvenience and annoyance as they are refused rides. My concern is about the loss of an opportunity to actually partner with cab drivers to offer resources and support to people in the sex trade, including victims of sex trafficking (though most actual sex trafficking rings do not use regular commercial cabs, as pointed out by the Sex Workers Project at Urban Justice Center; they generally use private vehicles that are not licensed as cab).

New York City does intend to provide training to cab drivers to identify and report suspected sex trafficking victims. But that is not likely to be helpful to the actual victims of sex trafficking, as many victims would simply go back to their traffickers rather than testifying against them in the absence of legal, financial, and emotional support and services they need. It is also very annoying and inconvenient to those who are wrongly reported as potential trafficking victims, and downright harmful to those who are non-trafficked sex workers, immigrants, and others who wish to avoid interacting with the law enforcement.

Contrary to the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slavery,” the actual practice of sex trafficking–where one person exercises power and control over another person to exploit that person sexually for financial gain–usually looks more like domestic violence than chattel slavery (or what most people imagine chattel slavery are like). We should not hesitate to call the police when we hear or see signs of immediate, life-threatening violence from our neighbor’s house, of course, but calling the police may not always be the best response when we are supporting a friend or neighbor who is in an abusive relationship. In an ongoing, long-term relationship that has elements that are abusive, and I include many “sex trafficking” or “pimping” relationships in this, calls made to the police, especially by a third party, might make things worse and more dangerous for the victim, not safer.

There are many initiatives within anti-domestic violence movement that attempt to build community support for people who are in ongoing, long-term abusive relationships. One example of such strategy is anti-DV organizations partnering with cosmetology schools and practitioners to educate hairstylists and others in the field to become the first line of support and information referral point for victims of domestic violence. Hair salons are ideal, because they are female-dominated space where women spend a long time chatting with each other about their lives while their hair is being done, away from their husbands and boyfriends.

The purpose of the partnership is not so that hairstylists can identify and report suspected abuse victims to the police; it is to build trust and rapport with the women, hear their stories, provide support and encouragement, and when a woman ready and willing, give her resources she needs to escape from violence. What I wish the New York City had done is to adapt a similar strategy to reach out to people in the sex trade through cab drivers, whether or not their circumstances meet the legal definition of “sex trafficking.”

The problem with the New York City law is not that innocent drivers might get caught in the crossfire; it is that it discourages them from building trust and rapport with people in the sex trade by generating the fear that any knowledge about their passengers’ involvement in the sex trade might incriminate them and expose them to persecution. The problem is not that cab drivers have no way of determining who is or is not a prostitute; it is that they are prohibited from knowing who is, or from forming relationships with people in the sex trade that might one day allow more trafficking victims and other people in the sex trade to come forward and access support and services they need.

Chicago Police misclassifying trans women of color in the sex trade as “johns” in its “end demand” initiative

Date: June 6, 2012

In “Mug Shots: Transgender ‘Johns’,” research methodologist Rachel Lovell reveals that a large number of people whose mug shots have been posted by the Chicago Police Department as individuals arrested for soliciting for prostitution (i.e. buying sex) appear to be transgender women of color.

According to Lovell, Chicago Police Department has been posting mug shots and personal information of people who were arrested as “buyers” of sex online in 2005. Public posting of the mug shots of people arrested as “buyers” of sexual services has been a cornerstone of many “end demand” campaigns targeting the “johns” throughout the country.

Her research center, Social Science Research Center at DePaul University, began collecting the published information since 2010, and she almost immediately noticed a curious trend: a significant portion of mug shots seem to show individuals wearing clothes, hair, makeup, and accessories that are clearly feminine in presentation, despite the fact they are categorized by the police as male “buyers” of sex. In fact, over 10% of the mug shots published in the two-year period from March 2010 to March 2012 show faces of trans women.

Those who consider trans women as “men in disguise” might jump on such finding as an evidence supporting their prejudice, while the rest of us instinctively get the feeling that there is something wrong with the notion that over 10% of individuals who have been arrested as “johns” are trans women. Further analysis by Lovell and her team indicate that there is, indeed, something unusual going on.

According to her breakdown of arrest data, there are stark differences between non-transgender men who are arrested as “johns” and trans women who were arrested for the same offense, beyond their gender identity and presentation. Trans women who were arrested as “johns” tend to be overwhelmingly (92.7%) Black, compared to less than half of non-trans arrestees; they are much younger too.

Young trans women of color are not known to patronize prostitutes in droves. But they are known to be more likely to engage in prostitution to survive, more so than any other group I can think of. In fact, any young trans woman of color is vulnerable to be profiled and arrested as prostitutes even if one is not engaging in the sex trade. This is also the group most often targeted for hate crimes, and for police harassment and brutality. Lovell is probably right to assume that these women are far more likely to be sellers, not buyers, of sexual services.

It is not clear to me if they are actually arrested under false premise as “johns,” or the Chicago Police Department is simply publishing names and photos of any legally male individuals arrested for prostitution (since many laws do not distinguish buyers and sellers–which is another discussion). But regardless, there is no question that they know exactly what they are doing: maliciously punishing and humiliating women for their race, gender, gender identity, and class for daring to survive.

This intentional mislabeling of trans women of color as “johns” by the Chicago Police Department of course reminds me of the recent case of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who has just been sentenced to serve 41 months for defending herself against violent assailants. In McDonald’s case, too, she is not just punished for doing what she had to do to survive, but on top of that she is misclassified as a male perpetrator: she will spend her sentence in a men’s prison. The message is clear: for trans women of color, survival is a crime.

There has been a huge war of words over a radical feminist conference in the U.K. that excludes trans women from attendance over the last couple of weeks, but that exclusion does not occur in a vacuum. The same radical feminists who disregard trans women’s lived realities of womanhood under the patriarchy are also behind the punitive/criminalizing approaches to prostitution including “end demand” initiatives (e.g. Sheila Jeffreys who has been banned from the venue of the radical feminist conference for hate speech against trans women before the venue canceled the conference altogether is the Australian representative of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women).

Trans women of color know that this is not just an issue about some obscure conference of close-minded folks: transphobia, racism, and the persecution of women and other people in the sex trade are inseparable, and the violence of trans exclusion and misclassification, racial and gender profiling, hate crimes against trans women of color, and State violence are all connected and constantly present in the lives of trans women of color.

Not so quick to call sex worker activists “pimps”: criminal charges do not tell the full story

Date: May 30, 2012

Last week, sex trafficking survivor and activist Stella Marr wrote an interesting article exposing some of the leaders of sex worker’s rights groups as “pimps” who are “posing” as sex worker activists, ostensibly to silence survivors like herself and promote “policies that protect pimps.” I appreciate her effort to address the conflict of interest within sex worker organizing as it is something I’ve been speaking out about, but I am troubled by her use of criminal records to support her claim that many “sex worker activists” are actually “pimps.”

That said, I want to state this first: regardless of what one’s views regarding prostitution and sex trade are–whether they are pro- or anti-prostitution, feminist or moralistic, libertarian or paternalistic, secular or religious–I feel a sense of connection to and camaraderie with everyone who has lived through abuse and exploitation in the sex trade. I hesitated responding to Ms. Marr because I fear that there are people out there who are not one of us, who would quote my words to attack her, as they would use her words to attack me and others like me. But this discussion is so important that I could not avoid it.

One of my first encounters with the national sex worker’s movement was in 2001, when I attended a series of workshops for sex workers held in conjunction with the Sex Worker’s Art Show in Olympia, Washington. I was naive about the racial/class/etc. division within the sex worker’s movement at the time, so I was really excited to be surrounded by sex workers who were proud, not ashamed, of what they did. I had never thought that it was possible to validate myself as a “sex worker,” rather than feeling ashamed or damaged about my experiences. (And this honeymoon period with the sex worker’s “community” and the sex worker identity lasted for less than a year.)

But even to my naive self, it felt very weird and offensive to hear one of the presenters chastise sex workers “who don’t enjoy their job” as being “sex-negative.” It was later that I found out that she had stripped behind a protective glass while she was a graduate student “as part of a research project,” and was managing a sex toy shop at the time. No wonder: as a manager, she had a vested interest in convincing her employees (which, I don’t consider sex toy shop workers to be “sex workers,” but that’s beside the point) that their jobs are fun and liberating: it’s cheaper than offering good pay and benefits.

Similarly in 2004, I was involved in the debate at/around St. James Infirmary, a free comprehensive health clinic specifically for sex workers in San Francisco. In order to make up about $80,000 budget shortfall after a funding cut from the city, SJI organized “Erotic Health Day,” on which “much of San Francisco’s adult entertainment community, including local exotic dancers, adult entertainment club owners, and sex workers” donate 10% of their proceeds to the clinic. The fundraiser was endorsed by the owners of the clubs (Hustler Club, New Century Theatre, Market St. Cinema, and others), but many sex workers were concerned that dancers would be forced or pressured by their bosses to give up their earnings.

In addition, there was a concern about St. James Infirmary, an institution that has to stand on the side of the vulnerable workers, becoming financially dependent on the bosses who exploit dancers every day. The controversy was further exacerbated after critics discovered that one of SJI’s board members (at the time) was a club owner, and that the board had contracted with his company to provide publicity for the fundraiser. (See my comments from November 2004 in “Pimps are not our friends: sex workers’ clinic should distance itself from managers.”)

In that sense, Ms. Marr is right: for a movement that purports to promote the notion that sex work should be treated just like any other work, its failure, in many instances, to actually treat sex workers’ interests and rights violations like any other workers’ is deeply troubling, even though there are also many sex worker activists with labor rights and other social justice analyses.

Where I become concerned about Ms. Marr’s article is her reliance on criminal records to label and dismiss someone as a “pimp.” Charges she conflates with “pimping,” such as promoting/facilitating prostitution, running a brothel, etc. do not necessarily mean that someone is controlling or taking advantage of another person, or even profiting from another person’s sexual labor. Under Oregon law, for example, promoting prostitution is defined as:

A person commits the crime of promoting prostitution if, with intent to promote prostitution, the person knowingly:

  • (a) Owns, controls, manages, supervises or otherwise maintains a place of prostitution or a prostitution enterprise; or
  • (b) Induces or causes a person to engage in prostitution or to remain in a place of prostitution; or
  • (c) Receives or agrees to receive money or other property, other than as a prostitute being compensated for personally rendered prostitution services, pursuant to an agreement or understanding that the money or other property is derived from a prostitution activity; or
  • (d) Engages in any conduct that institutes, aids or facilitates an act or enterprise of prostitution.

This statute, which is similar to many other jurisdictions’, is quite broad. For example, it can apply to sex workers who share a “work space” to save money and increase safety for themselves, or people (including friends) who provide transportation and other services for sex workers to work more safely, even if they are not controlling another person or profiting from their sexual labor. I am personally guilty (although I have never been charged with promoting prostitution), for example, of helping a friend who had just left a pimp learn to use Craigslist to post ads on her own, among other things, that might fall under this broad definition.

One reason it is so broad is that real pimps (i.e. those who control other people and pocket their earnings) are notoriously difficult to prosecute for what they do, which in Oregon law is called “compelling prostitution.” Prosecutors want to have the option to charge them with something that is easier to prove in court. But the same law can be and are used to target sex workers, survivors, and our associates–sometimes even as a threat to coerce us into “cooperating” with the prosecution against those they perceive to be “pimps.” In addition, while I don’t have any hard data, I would not be surprised if racial/class/gender/etc. stereotypes and prejudices sometimes influence what specific charges are brought against sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.

The distinction between people who “engages in any conduct that institutes, aids or facilitates an act or enterprise of prostitution” and those who actually perform the sexual labor (trafficked or otherwise) is not as clear as Ms. Marr suggests. Many of us who trade sex, regardless of why or how we do it, are also vulnerable to prosecution under “promoting prostitution” laws: it can apply when we exchange health and safety tips or are on the lookout for a friend who is getting into a strange vehicle. It will definitely apply when a pimp asks (or makes) us talk to and recruit other “girls.” That should not disqualify us from speaking as a sex worker or a survivor of abuse and exploitation for that matter; in fact, it is part of what it means to be a sex worker or survivor of abuse and exploitation in the sex trade.

Pimps who control and abuse other people should never be allowed to speak as a sex worker or lead a sex worker organization. But people whose criminal histories include “promoting prostitution” and other similar charges are not necessarily guilty of controlling and abusing us, and some of them are actually not any different from us. Ms. Marr is correct to point out that sex worker’s movement often fails to address the inherent conflict of interest that exists within the sex industry as well as in the sex worker’s movement, but I don’t agree with her tactic of using people’s criminal history to reduce them to “pimps” just like her abusers.

(See “Pimping does not equal enslavement: thoughts on the resilience of youth and adults who have pimps” for more discussion about the problem with the label “pimps.”)

Consent is overrated: why “yes means yes, no means no” is inadequate

Date: October 21, 2011

“Consent workshops” are increasingly popular on college campuses and activist communities across the country (or is it just the pinko Northwest?) as a sexual assault prevention and healthy relationship program. They are valuable in a society where people’s clothes, sexual history, and pre-exiting relationships (i.e. being partners or spouses) are often regarded as an implicit consent, some sort of binding contract that can be enforced against one’s will.

But the whole concept of “consent” just feels too legalistic to me. To be fair, there is a difference between the notion of “consent” that is codified in law (and college policies) and those promoted by activists presenting consent workshops. Seattle University student group Break the Silence explain:

We begin by presenting the legal definitions for Washington State and Seattle University (since that’s where we’re located), which are, incidentally, exptremely similar. […] Both of the definitions below are highly problematic and do not encompass the idea of radical consent. After presenting the definitions to participants, we ask the questions “what is missing, assumed, and excluded?” and begin to break apart the definition of radical consent from, in part, Generation 5 and Common Action, and ask the same questions of it.

Legal definitions treat consent as a static agreement that is enforceable once it is freely given. The radical version, as explained by Break the Silence, goes:

Consent means everyone involved wants and agrees to be present at each step of the way. You can change your mind at ANY TIME before or during sex. Consent means that ALL parties say YES!. Just assuming someone wants to have sex is not enough–it’s not safe. Further, it is a free, fluid ongoing discussion and negotiation about what our desires are, what we want for ourselves in our lives and what we want for the people we’re either intimate with or in relationships with at any level. […]

To complicate consent is to realize that we live within an oppressive society, so consent is always tenuous. We don’t really get to consent to the country we live in, we don’t really get to consent to live within capitalism. Often times, even making a choice, yes or no, has many other implications about the choices we were forced to make before that.

I particularly appreciate the last paragraph from Break the Silence, but I think it is the main weakness of “consent”: it individualizes choices in the name of respecting self-determination, often neglecting contexts of choices we make and making us solely and individually responsible for their consequences. The language of consent is inadequate when people’s survival and well-being depends on entering into agreements, especially but not necessarily when market transaction is involved, which is why the notion of “consent” is particularly difficult for me as a sex worker activist.

Under the neo-classical economic theory, any third-party intervention preventing freely entered transactions are harmful to the parties that are involved. The logic goes: if the transaction is not net-positive for both parties, the transaction won’t happen. Therefore, stopping them from entering into the transaction harms both parties, even if they appear unfair to a third party. For example, they argue that minimum wage law harms the people it is intended to help, because it deprives employment from people whose market evaluation is below the legal minimum wage: if there weren’t minimum wage laws, people with low expected productivity can still get a job at a lower wage, rather than facing unemployment. They extend this argument to other “repugnant” transactions, such as transplantable organ trade, sweatshops, commercial surrogacy, and yes prostitution–some of which are legal under certain jurisdictions, some not, but they are all controversial.

I do not think that the transaction should be banned simply because it is problematic: after all, I consider much of the capitalist economy problematic. But even if I don’t think prohibition is appropriate–like in the case of prostitution–I think there are harmful repercussions if we treat them as unproblematic. I will say this again: prostitution in this society is a deeply problematic institution, as are marriage and capitalism.

Earlier this month I went to see Carmeryn Moore’s one-person play “Phone Whore,” which is based on her experiences working as a telephone sex operator. She intermixed her personal life and relationship with composite of actual scenarios she performed with the men who called her service, and it was quite entertaining. Some of the calls were, as you can imagine, deeply problematic, such as the obligatory incestuous scene, and white men calling to enact fantasy of being sodomized by big Black men, which she says is a major theme in her work.

Her main argument throughout the show and the discussion afterwards was that fantasies are always “okay and good.” Acting on pedophilic desires or projecting racist, homophobic (which is why the scene has to involve forced penetration, and also why they call her instead of actually calling a phone sex line for gay men), homoerotic desire to an unconsenting Black man would be illegal and/or unethical, but calling a phone sex line to explore such fantasies with a consenting operator is totally healthy and fine.

But I don’t think that they are unproblematic. I agree that judging people for their desires would be useless, and I prefer that they find outlets to explore such fantasies in safe and consensual ways (which phone sex lines are), but I still don’t feel that sexism, racism, and homophobia are “okay and good” as long as it is expressed on a phone sex line.

While I was in college I briefly worked as a phone sex operator from a dorm room. The company wanted to post pictures that supposedly represent me, so I insisted that they use an image of Asian girl: I feel fine playing the role of a skinny model with huge breasts wearing revealing clothes, but I didn’t feel okay playing any other race. Callers obviously know that the girl they are speaking to probably isn’t that model, but they went along.

Dealing with the (predominantly white, I assume) men’s fantasies about Asian women turned out to be more stressful than I had imagined, even more so than doing other forms of sex work because phone sex is so verbal. But I kept working until Student Housing for some reason decided to disconnect my phone, so in some way I was consenting to the onslaught of submissive-yet-slutty Asian girl stereotype. But it made me more conscious of comments and gaze I experience while riding bus, shopping at grocery stores, and just going about everyday things. The racist and sexist messages I experience outside of the phone sex work are less explicitly sexual in nature, but I sense that they come from the same source. To me, they are inseparable from what I was hearing while working for $0.35 per minute of logged time, and I wasn’t even being paid at all!

I can consent to engage in racially and sexually problematic conversations over the phone, but I don’t have a choice as to whether to live in a racist and sexist society. I don’t have a choice to live in a society in which food, housing, and college education is a luxury rather than a fundamental right. The appeal of sex work for some people is that it turns the master’s tools into a survival method, but it is still the master’s house that we are living in. While laws to prevent me from working on the phone sex line would be draconian, it feels very invalidating to hear someone say that all fantasies are “okay and good” when they are rooted in racism, sexism, and other social injustices.

Another way the notion of “consent” can become harmful is when consent for a specific act (often market transaction) is regarded as consenting to the social context surrounding the act as well as its consequences. The logic of classical liberalism couples choices we make with implicit and explicit personal responsibility for their consequences. In addition to blaming the victim of violence and poverty for their experiences (“you caused this”), it leads many advocates to deny agency and resilience of survivors who make “choices” that trouble us, such as abuse victims who kill their batterers, or childhood sexual abuse survivors who engage in sex trade.

These survivors are said to be suffering from “battered women’s syndrome” or re-enacting their early abuse, and therefore they should not be viewed as freely choosing to be violent or engage in illegal activities. Many self-professed advocates for youth who trade sex, for example, emphasize that the youth should be treated as victims of crime (especially sex trafficking) because they are incapable of making a choice to engage in sex trade, both because of age of consent laws and because they are “trafficked.” While this approach is preferable to treating them as delinquents and criminals, it feels profoundly disempowering and patronizing.

I argue that most people who trade sex are making conscious choice to engage in that activity, but the presence of consent should not be confused with the fairness or equity of the contexts in which such consent occurs. Nor should it be assumed that because one makes a choice to do something, that individual is solely and individually responsible for all consequences of that action.

The choice I am speaking about is the kind of choice a rape victim makes when she closes her eyes and dissociate from the sensation of her attacker’s tongue slithering on her skin so that she can stay alive. It is the choice parents make when they cross heavily militarized borders on the desert, risking their lives to give their children a better life. It is a choice that queer and trans youth make when they can’t take any more of abuse at home and bullying at school and run away to a big city instead of committing suicide.

We have many choices in life, but we often cannot choose the number and quality of choices that are presented to us or contexts in which we must make choices. That is the reality, and consent is rarely as simple as “yes means yes, no means no.” Even the radical, activist formulation of “consent” is too individualistic and legalistic, and does not differ enough from the neo-classical economic ideology of individual choice and responsibility.

Break the Silence is correct to point out that consent in a deeply unjust, capitalist society is “tenuous,” but throughout the rest of its “consent workshops,” they appear to forget this insight. For example, they list many examples of participatory exercises for such workshops, but none of them address the concern: it is as if everything would be “okay and good” as long as we learn to express and honor each others’ desires. It is not.

I’m not complaining that they are not doing a good job presenting a consent workshop; rather, I feel that this is an inherent flaw in workshops that center the notion of “consent.” There certainly is a tension between honoring each individual’s right to self-determination and recognizing that choices we make are constrained by social and economic factors that are beyond our control. There is also a practical issue, which is that consent workshops are not designed to stop people from having sex, but to do so in consensual and respectful manner. But I feel that there is a deep lack, and it becomes more of a problem when we are discussing the intersection of sexuality and market, that is the sex industry.

I support the Tantric practitioners charged with prostitution, but not on the first amendment ground.

Date: September 19, 2011

Earlier this month, Arizona authorities (which usually focus on harassing immigrants and brown-skinned people) raided Phoenix Goddess Temple and charged 30 people associated with the group for prostitution. Prosecutors allege that the Temple was a de facto brothel in which prostitutes were referred to as “sacred healers” and johns “seekers.” The Temple insists that its members practice “Tantra and Goddess worship as a religion,” calling the raid “a modern day witch hunt.”

I know what it feels like to be the target of the witch hunt (see my zine, Surviving the Witch-Hunt: Battle Notes from Portland’s 82nd Avenue, 2007-2010), and I sympathize with those who have been arrested or had close ones arrested. I do not think that they deserve to be persecuted, and believe that the charges against them should be dropped.

But I find it troubling that many sex worker activist friends are rushing to defend the Temple on the first amendment (religious freedom) ground. I am not criticizing the Tantric practitioners for invoking the first amendment in their legal defense–when you are persecuted, use whatever is within your reach to your advantage–but I am concerned that some of my friends in the sex workers’ rights movement are also using this angle.

To invoke first amendment to defend the Tantric practitioners implies that while they are good people who are simply following their religious and spiritual practices, the rest of us who trade sex for money not as a religious practice but to survive in this neo-liberalistic capitalist economy are bad whores that deserve to be punished. I don’t believe that this is what they are actually thinking, but it would logically follow from the “religious freedom” argument.

Media discourse on this topic seems to center around whether the Temple’s activities are legitimate religious practices or the Temple is merely a front for illegitimate operation. But it is the legitimacy of the State (or lack thereof) to persecute sexual healers and sex workers that must be at the focus (not to mention the legitimacy of the State to use violence to police the artificial borders drawn over indigenous and Mexican peoples’ land).

A friend told me that nonetheless this case could be a breakthrough for sex workers’ rights in the State that has become the epicenter of naked hate and bigotry in the recent years. But I feel resentful of the idea that Tantric healers are better than the rest of us who provide sexual services, and I am sick of religious entities claiming special exemptions (e.g. the religious freedom to discriminate against women and queers).

There of course is a difference between the dominant religious group imposing its doctrine on all others and a minority religion defending its practices deemed objectionable by the dominant group. But I feel uncomfortable with the strategy to distance the Temple and its practitioners from the rest of us who don’t have a neat constitutional clause to count on.

Remembering our history: Sex workers in Portland organize against draconian City ordinance, 1999-2000

Date: May 31, 2011

Below is an excerpt from my old (2002) zine, Instigations from the Whore Revolution: A Third Wave Feminist Response to the Sex Work “Controversy”. My thinking has evolved and shifted in some ways since I made that zine, but I thought it’d be interesting to share a history of sex workers organizing against the City government.

How Sex Workers Defeated Mayor Vera Katz: Information on Portland City Ordinance 14.44

In September 1999, Portland City Council passed a new ordinance (City Code 14.44) proposed by Mayor Vera Katz and the Portland Police Bureau regarding the personal escort/modeling industry. The ordinance mandated absurd requirements for anyone who worked as a personal escort or model, making her even more vulnerable to abusive customers, police abuse, and discrimination than she already was. It violated sex workers’ right to privacy, patronized their ability to make their own decisions, and seriously compromised their safety.

Local sex workers formed Scarlet Letter, a collective of workers and their supporters, to combat the city ordinance. “Workers need affordable housing, health care with dignity, and protection from mismanagement and harassing authorities,” instead of such a repressive regulation, says its press release. Scarlet Letter later submited “Sex Workers’ Wish List,” the counter-proposal to the City describing a better way to regulate escort/modeling industry.
Sex workers and their allies also waged a legal battle, arguing the City Code 14.44 to be unconstitutional. City modified the ordinance twice to increase the odds of withstanding the legal challenge, but the judge eventually sided with sex workers on March 8. Mayor Katz subsequently abandoned the ordinance.

Even though we were able to defeat this particular ordinance, we know that it could come back in a different form any time, plus sex workers across the country are fighting daily against similar legislation. The information about this ordinance is included here in order to preserve the history of sex workers’ successful organizing.

Absurd Requirements under the Ordinance

Under the City Code 14.44, anyone who works as an escort or a lingerie model must:

  • Pay $200 to get a personal escort/model permit that has her headshot.
  • Give police their finger prints. – Submit to a criminal background check–permit is denied if she has been convicted of “prostitution-related crimes” in the past five years.
  • Keep a telephone log of each customer who calls. – Show the escort/model permit to customers.
  • Sign a contract with customer before each appointment that describe specific services provided.
  • Make the phone log and contracts available to police inspection without search warrant.
  • If she works independently, she must obtain a $500 business license and comply with additional requirements.

Penalties

If a worker is caught in violation of Code:

  • It is a Class B misdemeanor ($500 fine/ 6 months in jail) to work without a permit.
  • Civil penalties of $100 (for first offense) and $500 (the second) are assessed for each “minor” violation.
  • Permit is revoked for any “major” violation, such as failure to pay civil penalty within ten days and accumulating three offense in a single year.
    Other Consequences of the Ordinance
  • Those with the history of prostitution-related convictions will be ineligible for the permit, putting them further “underground” and at the greater risk of being abused or exploited.
  • Those with fewer opportunities to become self-reliant outside of the sex industry will be trapped in poverty and government assistance.
  • When uneligible worker is abused, assaulted or exploited on the job, they will be less likely to seek police assistance.
  • The existence of public registry of workers’ personal information will make it easier for the customer to harass or stalk her.
  • Public record of escort/model permit makes it more difficult for workers to leave sex industry in the future, effectively trapping those who may wish to leave.

Sex Workers’ Wish List

The following is excerpted from Scarlet Letter’s counter-proposal to the city council as to a better way to regulate escort/modeling industry. Of course the City ignored everything we said in this, but it felt good to have a concrete counter-proposal: we aren’t saying that escort/modeling businesses don’t need regulation, but that the regulation proposed by the City was harmful to us.

  • Change the title of the permit from “Personal Escort/ Modeling Permit” to “Worker Permit” so that workers can leave the industry without the scarlet letter.
  • Use the OLCC beverage/food server application as a model of what a work permit application should look like, including the fees.
  • Have escort/models obtain the permit from the Bureau of Licenses and Multonomah County Health Department, instead of Portland Police Bureau.
  • Require escort/modeling business management to have a working relationship with Health Department. Raise the standard of awareness of how to decrease one’s risk at the job site. Require job training that addresses disease prevention, safety issues, and current laws that pertain to sex work.
  • Hold the management accountable for proper security measures at the job site.
  • Remove any unnecessary personal information from the permit application.
  • Issue a certificate instead of a photo ID as the permit.
  • Remove the automatic rejection of a permit if individual was convicted of a misdemeanor (i.e. prostitution) so that they can engage in sex work legally.
  • Police should not be allowed to enter one’s residence without a search warrant.
  • Change the punishment of working without a permit to a fine, rather than a misdemeanor.
  • Remove unreasonable requirements that escort/models keep the customer’s phone numbers in a log for Police to inspect, and sign a written contract with the customer before each appointment.

Timeline of Our Struggles

September 22, 1999 – City Code 14.44 is introduced by Mayor Katz and the Portland Police Bureau. No sex workers are informed of the proposal.
September 29, 1999 – City code 14.44 passes the City Council with no objections.
November 1, 1999 – First meeting of Scarlet Letter. Open only to workers.
November 8, 1999 – Second meeting of Scarlet Letter. Open to all supporters.
November 14, 1999 – Sex Workers’ Masquerade, a fundraiser for Danzine and Scarlet Letter campaign.
November 15, 1999 – Third meeting of Scarlet Letter, to which a Willamette Week reporter showed up to write an article.
November 17, 1999 – Scarlet Letter speaks out at the City Council.
November 23, 1999 – Emi hosts a panel discussion on sex work at Portland State University, which turned into a pep rally for Scarlet Letter.
December 15, 1999 – Lawsuit is filed to block enforcement of the ordinance.
January 26, 2000 – Scarlet Letter presents the “Sex Workers’ Wish List” to the City Council. Emi was almost arrested for holding up a sign in the Chamber. City Council makes a minor modification to the ordinance, but ignores us for the most part. Willamette Week runs a story that is somewhat favorable to sex workers.
February 4, 2000 – First hearing of the lawsuit against the ordinance.
February 22, 2000 – Judge declares the ordinance invalid under Oregon constitution.
March 8, 2000 – Mayor Katz abandons the ordinance. WE WON!!!!

Emi’s Final Comments

1. It is frustrating that the only thing that stopped the ordinance from being enforced was the constitution. I mean, we worked with the media, tried to educate the City Council, went to City Hall many times, called up people, and even worked with the Multnomah County Health Department to come up with an effective alternative to the ordinance so that the escort/modeling industry is regulated just like all other industries–and the only thing that actually worked was a judge’s order. I guess that’s how the system works in this lawsuit-obsessed country, but I’m really sad that City Council absolutely refused to think, even for a second, that perhaps the Vice Unit of the Portland Police Bureau may not be the expert when it comes to the sex industry.

2. I’m annoyed by the “sex radicals” who celebrate sex workers as strong independent women (or men, or whatever) while neglecting the real suffering of people who are being exploited or abused within the sex industry. And I’m also annoyed by the radical feminist I spoke with who told me how much money sex industry is costing tax payers and how many abortions are taking place as a result of the sex industry as a way to demonize it.

My goal is to empower everyone working in the sex industry, whether they are engaged in commercial or survival sex so that people who wish to leave can have other realistic options and people who wish to stay can have safer, better working environment. So all sex radicals and radical feminists–stop arguing and do something already.

3. Initially, I thought that this ordinance is about inhibited sex moralists versus us freakish folks. In fact, that’s how all the media reported it. But it was not. The reality is that this is not about morality, but is about business owners versus workers. I realized this as I was talking with the City officials.

In fact, it is not true that the City did not consider the legitimate needs of the industry while drafting this ordinance: they talked with people who run the businesses although not the people who work for them, which makes me think that the interests of the owners and managers–but not those of workers–are reflected in the ordinance.

The ordinance would have made it much more difficult for women to work independently without a pimp–which is exactly what the owners and managers want, because it would wipe out the competition for their businesses. The ordinance was never intended to hurt these businesses; the City was trying to enact a system in which workers are under the control of pimps and pimps are under the control of the Police Bureau.

4. Escorts and models still do not have the protection they deserve within the industry. Now that the ordinance is struck down, City of Portland should join Multnomah County in working with us to develop a real regulation that would protect safety and rights of workers. If they don’t–well, everyone who has ever consumed adult entertainment (which is pretty large number of people) should refuse to vote for the current City Council members when they come up for re-election!

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