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Prostitution should not be treated like “any other job”

Date: February 25, 2012

Over the weekend, Feminist Philosophers blog revised an old hoax (from 2005) that a young German woman was told that she must start working as a prostitute or her unemployment benefit would be cut. Just so I don’t unintentionally spread the story further, IT IS NOT TRUE.

This hoax is part of the anti-prostitution campaign of lies that link all sorts of bad outcomes to the legalization of prostitution in Germany, most notably the thoroughly discredited claim that tens if not hundreds of thousands of women and girls were trafficked into the country as sex slaves during the World Cup 2006 which took place soon after the legalization.

This story does raise a legitimate concern many feminists have, though: if prostitution were to be treated “just like any other job,” as some advocates for sex workers argue, government would begin forcing prostitution as work on unemployed women seeking job or benefits. What’s missing from this analysis is the fact that women at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder are already being forced to accept jobs that dehumanize and demoralize them.

I find it hypocritical for feminists to tolerate this ongoing dehumanization of poor and working-class women, while categorically opposing prostitution. If we find so objectionable that women may be forced to “work as prostitutes,” why do we allow women to be forced to work in other fields that the person may find equally distressing and dehumanizing?

I don’t agree that sex work should be treated “like any other job” because “any other job” that is available to women facing multiple oppressions tend to be horrible. Sex work needs to be treated like how any job should be treated, which is with respect, dignity, and self-determination. Nobody should be forced (either by force or by economic necessity) to work in jobs that she feels is deeply dehumanizing–which for many women, though not all, include prostitution, and may include many other forms of labor.

Masculinist leftie news site and rad-fem blogger? The strange bedfellows that sexualize and oversimplify the anti-trafficking discourse

Date: December 20, 2011

A couple of days ago, leftist news site AlterNet.org re-published my Bitch magazine article about the anti-trafficking movement through some sort of syndication agreement between the two outlets (I’m sure), but with a twist: AlterNet has chosen to change the title, and to include a different image to go along with the article.

Here’s the Bitch version, which was published with the title “Trade Secrets: The tough talk of the new anti-trafficking movement” (which isn’t a particularly good title, but it’s not offensive in any way):

Bitch article

The AlterNet version looks like this, with the new, salacious title, “Christian Fundamentalists and Private Military Contractors? The Strange Bedfellows of the Sex Slavery Anti-Trafficking Movement”:

AlterNet article

As the user antipropagandamachine points out,

Ironic that an article warning against sensationalizing rape slavery for partisan politicking should be renamed to front AlterNet’s #1 and #2 enemies, add the word “sex”, and toss in an unnecessarily salacious reference to “bedfellows.”

I would also add AlterNet’s decision to use a picture of a woman walking on the sidewalk taken from behind resembles just about every mainstream media outlet’s behavior when they publish stories about prostitution or sex trafficking. I’m so sick of this, as I am of the salacious expression chosen by AlterNet editors for the title. Oh well, at least the woman appears to be dressed warm.

In the meantime, the radical feminist blogger womononajourney left a comment dismissive of my work, characterizing my position as simply “in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution” and suggesting that I am working to preserve men’s access to women’s sexuality and “women’s rape-ability,” hence “women’s subordination.” She wrote:

I am not in favor of the military apparatus or racial profiling, but I have to notice that it is issues pertaining to women’s rape-ability that get this sort of attention. Could it be that since women’s sexuality is the ground zero of women’s subordination, this is the one area where men MUST keep access at all costs?

I find that most people who take this “hands off” stance on sex trafficking are really in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution, which if you check out Emi’s website, she is. It makes little sense to me to avoid taking an anti-prostitution stance just because the Christian Right also takes one. A feminist stance against prostitution is for entirely different reasons than a conservative christian one.

I posted a response to her, which goes like this:

For someone who claims to have read my blog, you seem to be conveniently neglecting that I have been publicly criticizing sex worker’s rights movement and its (feminist and non-feminist) supporters for their over-emphasis on promoting decriminalization and destigmatization of prostitution. In fact, I specifically wrote in this very article you are responding to that decriminalization/legalization of prostitution (or any other legal classification) is not the answer.

My perspective is that, while yes I do support decriminalization because I don’t think my friends and I deserve to be arrested and prosecuted for surviving and supporting families through sex trade (what feminist does?), I don’t think that this is the most important issue affecting people in the sex trade. I think that the privileging of decriminalization as a core demand of the sex workers’ movement and its allies reflects the interest of white middle-class sex workers and their clients, much like the over-emphasis on same-sex marriage reflects the interest of certain kind of queers over others, or on abortion rights reflects the interest of certain kind of women.

You may also find, if you are actually paying attention, that I only mentioned the term “sex work” or “sex worker” in the context of referring to the sex worker’s movement or sex work “controversy,” or in a quote. I intentionally avoided the term (instead using a more value-neutral “sex trade”) because I wanted to move away from the simplistic “is sex work oppressive violence or liberating choice?” debate, and talk substance about forces that harm women in the sex trade and how we are fighting back.

I find it disturbing that someone who claims to be a feminist and to have actually read my blog thinks that she can distort and dismiss another woman’s point of view, mislabeling it as simply “in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution” when I am explicitly criticizing that as a false emphasis. I wrote this article precisely because the sort of over-simplification and dumbing down of our conversations about sex trafficking and sex trade that your comment exemplifies harm women and others who are engaged in the sex trade.

Indeed, I actually pointed out in the article itself that rad-fem critics of the institution of prostitution are at odds with the Christian fundamentalists in the anti-trafficking movement, and argued that feminists of all persuasions have a chance to work together. It’s one thing if womononajourney disagreed with this sentiment, but she appears to be confirming what I wrote about the differences between radical feminist and Christian fundamentalist opposition to prostitution and sex trafficking, all the while accusing me of failing to recognize the difference.


12/20/2011 update

User womononajourney responded to my comment, once again trying to paint me as a pro-porn, pro-prostitution sex libertarian. My response to her is below:

I think this is important to make readers aware of since decriminalization and trafficking are interlinked.

You have no basis for this claim. No legal jurisdiction in which prostitution was decriminalized allow trafficking of women and others for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and in fact it reduces the ability of traffickers to control their victims and increases the victims’ ability to seek help.

So I was correct in asserting that you support decriminalization.

Are you saying that my friends and I deserve to be arrested and imprisoned for surviving and supporting our families through prostitution? I am shocked. I thought that radical feminists supported decriminalizing at least the selling of sex acts…

Furthermore, I do not endorse “hands off” approach which you associate with the decriminalization/legalization camp. I just don’t believe that the capitalist, patriarchal state with its prison and military industrial complexes has women’s best interest at heart. That does not mean that there isn’t a need for feminist intervention.

You point out correctly, as I also explained in the article, that feminist and fundamentalist Christian opposition to prostitution are not the same. Why is it so difficult for you to recognize also that feminist and libertarian support for decriminalization are different?

Have you not also started the Portland State University’s Porn Club? Let’s get real about your position in this debate, emi.

Indeed, I along with a couple of friends at Portland State University started Porn Club, whose goal was to appreciate and make feminist alternatives to the misogynistic and racist mainstream porn. What’s so scandalous about it?

How did you find out about Porn Club? We only met once or twice at a cafe to discuss what we wanted to do, and it fizzled away. As someone who had to deal with a stalker who followed me across the continent and showed up in front of my apartment, I find it creepy that you went back so far in my past to uncover something I had long forgotten about.

Why do you continue to rely on ad hominem attack on me (which aren’t even accurate–I don’t fit the description of the prototypical pro-porn, pro-prostitution feminist that you are trying to paint me as), rather than engaging in the content of what I actually wrote? It’s very disappointing and depressing that someone who claims to be a feminist does nothing but attacking women.

I Heart Google Ngram Viewer.

Date: December 14, 2011

I just discovered Google books Ngram Viewer, which lets users find out historical changes in usage frequencies of particular words or phrases in its vast catalogue of scanned books. It’s not perfect, but a very good tool to analyze how our vocabularies have changed over time. Just as an example, here’s the comparison of terms “transgender,” “transsexual,” and “transvestite” (click for larger graph).

Google Ngram: transgender, transsexual, transvestite

As you can see, both “transsexual” and “transvestite” were used commonly in the literature until the 1990s, when “transgender” started to become more popular. Just to give you the perspective: Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaw” was published in 1994; Leslie Feinberg’s “Transgender Warriors” came out in 1996.

In my zine, “War on Terror & War on Trafficking,” I pointed out that the term “human trafficking” came into popular usage since around 2000. The chart below, which compares frequencies of “human trafficking,” “involuntary migration,” and “forced prostitution” confirms this.

Google Ngram: human trafficking, involuntary migration, forced prostitution

Here’s another interesting graph, comparing the usages of “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “bisexual,” and “queer.”

Google Ngram: homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, queer

You can see that the word “queer” was commonly used before the 1970s, but probably for different meaning: in the 1970s and 1980s when the word was increasingly recognized as a slur against LGBT+ people, its usage dropped. However in the 1990s the word “queer” makes a comeback as a self-identified label for LGBT+ people, surpassing clinically-sounding “homosexual.”

Chart below shows how current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s middle name was dropped from popular usage after she went from the First Lady to a politician on her own light. I know that during the 2008 primary election pollsters were showing different polling results depending on whether or not “Rodham” was mentioned, so it makes sense that she strategically dropped the middle name and became Hillary Clinton.

Google Ngram graph

Finally, here’s a fun comparison between “womyn,” “womon,” and “wimmin” as to which one is the most popular alternative spelling of “women”:

Google Ngram: womyn,womon,wimmin

Isn’t this fun?

Janus Youth’s conscious move to betray youth, and why we need to create systems to hold social service industrial complex accountable

Date: November 23, 2011

Last week, I wrote about how Janus Youth, Portland area’s largest youth service provider, assisted the City’s raid on Occupy Portland encampment under the dubious premise that the camp “endangered” youth (rather than that it simply attracted youth who are already endangered due to lack of housing, opportunities, and services). I also discussed how it reflected Janus’ increasingly pro-police stance as it became further and further dependent on “anti-trafficking” funds.

But the reality of Janus’ betrayal of youth was much worse, as I found out when I attended a presentation about Portland’s CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children–which should actually say “youth” instead of “children” for CSEY) programs at the national runaway and homeless youth conference.

The presentation, titled “CSEC: A Collaborative Approach to Addressing Sexual Exploitation of Children in Your Community,” was presented by three individuals representing Janus Youth, FBI, and Sexual Assault Resource Center (which has a trafficked minor program inside a big church).

The person from Janus started off his presentation with a statement that he was going to say some critical things about his agency. His complaint: Janus workers were not very friendly to the police officers in the past.

For example, he continued, when police officers detain and deliver youth to the Janus service center for curfew violation and other reasons, youth are frequently angry at the police officer. They often complain that they have been brutalized, harassed, or otherwise treated unjustly by the officer. Social workers at Janus validated their feelings and helped them file grievances, which made police officers hostile to Janus.

Janus guy felt it had to change, so he told all of his staff to treat police officers “like their best friends.” As a result, police began to like Janus a whole lot more, and now they are such great partners. In other words, Janus has made a conscious decision to side with the police when youth feel violated and abused by the police, rather than affirming and validating youth’s experiences.

Janus also helped police officers get hold of a youth who was camping at Occupy Portland. Because many Occupy protestors were hostile to police officers, it wasn’t the best idea to send police officers into the camp in order to search a youth. Instead, they asked Janus worker to go into the camp to find the youth for them.

It was in the context of this intimate relationship between Janus and the law enforcement that the former provided the justification for the City to use its police force to forcibly evict youth who had chosen Occupy camp over Janus’ services, presumably to save youth from themselves.

The director of trafficked minor program at SARC spoke next, also describing friendly relationship with the law enforcement. She, too, criticized other feminist anti-violence projects that are skeptical of law enforcement, and discussed how SARC was different from those in that they value partnering with the law enforcement.

The person from FBI who works closely with the anti-trafficking division of Portland Police Bureau also repeated her satisfaction with the law enforcement’s relationship to service providers like Janus and SARC. She explained that the law enforcement specifically chose these two organizations to work with over other anti-violence projects because of their pro-police stances.

“Collaborations with Janus and SARC are great; it makes victims better witnesses for the prosecution,” she said. SARC person echoed this sentiment when she explained the benefit of SARC’s services: Because SARC isn’t a mandated reporter, youth feel safer disclosing their experiences to them. And once they disclose their experiences to someone, they are more likely to disclose to other service providers who are mandated to report, or even to the law enforcement.

In my opinion both Janus and SARC have perverted their mission to support youth when they bought into the structure that prioritize prosecution rather than empowerment and long-term well-being of their clients. It is probably true that someone who discloses once to a non-mandated reporter are more likely to disclose to someone else who will act on that information, but is it beneficial to the youth? It feels like the premeditated manipulation of youth they are supposed to empower.

Someone in the audience asked whether they thought a locked facility (i.e. some place youth cannot get out of on their own will) might be a good option for victims of sex trafficking. Both Janus and SARC persons were cautious, but the Janus person said it was more preferable to build a non-locked facility in areas far removed from the City (which of course is no different from a locked facility unless one has access to a vehicle). The SARC person claimed that over half of the women they are serving want to be locked up, which I find highly questionable. She made it seem like someone engaging in non-suicidal self-cutting should be locked up for her safety, which I completely disagree with, as I believe cutting can be a very useful coping strategy for many survivors (including myself).

Another person, a youth worker from Texas, asked the presenters to comment on the most recent Village Voice article which cites a study from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Among many things, the study reports that only about 10% of the youth who trade sex in New York City have pimps, undermining the theory that youth survival sex equals “modern day slavery.”

The SARC person completely dismissed the study, claiming that most youth who trade sex have pimps, and suggested that researchers probably didn’t have enough rapport with the youth to discover the truth. But people I know from Safe Horizon/Streetwork, which reaches more street youth in New York than any other organizations there affirm that the John Jay study reflects their own understanding of reality. The youth worker from Texas also seemed to believe that the John Jay study to be valid, and seemed surprised to see SARC’s dismissive attitude.

In response, the SARC person characterized the “debate” over sex trafficking to be between those who believe sex work is an empowering choice versus those who disagree with that, clearly positioning herself in the latter camp. But this is a grotesquely unfair and dishonest characterization of the real debate here. The real debate is between youth-centered versus police-centered approaches, harm reduction versus paternalism, and reality-based versus ideological.

I also attended several other workshops on the topic, all of which turned out to be throughly dishonest and anti-youth.

For example, the workshop titled “Assisting Victims of Human Trafficking: A Collaborative Approach” was presented by two women from Rainbow House of Columbia, Missouri, which I was particularly interested in because I have engaged in sex trade as a teenager while living in Missouri and therefore I know something about the topic.

Their level of knowledge and awareness was dismal, as evidenced by their tacit acceptance of mythical “statistics” about youth in the sex trade. They also included “mail order bride” as an example of human trafficking, which doesn’t agree with the actual legal definition of trafficking, despite the fact they take advantage of the legal definition when it is convenient to do so as they characterize all sex trade by a minor as “modern day slavery.”

The presenters placed a huge emphasis on the role of Stockholm Syndrome as a way to explain why many youth defend people who are abusing and exploiting them. “Youth frequently go back to their pimps and traffickers because of brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome,” they insist, but fail to mention the possibility that their services do not meet the youth’s needs.

Someone in the audience gave an unsolicited advice: “When a youth runs away from your services, try to locate them in the adult services section of Backpage.com!” Well, what about thinking about ways to make the services more attractive so that they don’t have to run away from you?

The Rainbow House people also gave a “story” of one of its clients, most likely without the explicit permission of the youth whose story was used, and I find such practice exploitative and offensive. They even told the audience that the youth did not admit to trading sex, but other clients told them about it; she eventually run away from Rainbow House. These details made their telling of her story even worse. I don’t understand why they can’t simply find a youth who consent to having their stories shared in this form.

The presenters demonstrated their cluelessness when they recommended that service providers learn and use street slangs in order to “make youth feel comfortable.” I can’t believe that they said this. Service providers certainly should learn and understand street slangs, but it is an extremely bad idea to use them unless they actually come from the street culture. Youth do not feel comfortable with people who are fake; in fact, they will completely distrust you when you present yourself as something that you are not. It is much better to simply own up to their status as (often white middle-class) college-educated professionals.

Further, someone in the audience asked the presenters about dealing with girls who recruit other girls in the youth services into sex trade, possibly for a pimp. The presenters replied that they have never seen that happening in their years of working at the youth shelter, which once again shows that they do not know what they are talking about.

Yet another workshop I attended was presented by Polaris Project, a prominent national anti-trafficking organization. Their presentation felt more like a cult seminar than a social service workshop, because the whole audience seemed to have “drunk the cool-aid” that dissociated them from the reality. Aside from repeating all the false “statistics” and the supposed spike in human trafficking during the Super Bowl (which there is none), their perception of sex trade was so unreal.

For example, Polaris vastly exaggerated the number of sexual acts that a typical “trafficked youth” (which is any minor who trade sex) performs, or the money pimp makes each year, giving the figure that is completely unrealistic. When the presenters began “brainstorming” for what the society associates with pimps, the audience responded that the society views pimps as benevolent protectors–which I highly doubt is what most people think about pimps. Interestingly, nobody mentioned how the word “pimp” has a racial connotation.

Overall, the conference was a painful reminder that most of the youth services are horrible and anti-youth. I sometimes feel jealous of youth today because there seem to be more resources for them than I had 20 years ago, but Youth Services Still Suck. There were several more presentations about trafficking of youth, but I had to go home early because I could not handle it any more.

On the last day of the conference, the closing keynote presenter was (predictably) Rachel Lloyd from Girls Education and Mentoring Services. I actually agreed with many things she said, such as how we must work toward fighting poverty if we truly cared about stopping sexual exploitation of youth.

But it was painful to hear her speak knowing that GEMS takes most of its clients from criminal justice system as an involuntary, court-mandated “services,” or that they do not accept any transgender girls and young women who need services, or that they do not honor gender identities and pronouns of female-assigned transgender or genderqueer youth who get mandated to receive their “services” like a prison sentence.

It was painful knowing, as she promoted her film, Very Young Girls, and her book, Girls Like Us, that girls shown in the film (who were court-mandated to be there) were not told how their images were being used, and that girls whose stories illustrate Rachel’s narratives throughout the book did not give permission for their stories to be told. I can’t write everything I know about GEMS here, but there are many other reasons I felt sad and in pain as I heard Rachel receive a standing ovation.

There seems to be so much desire in our society to reach out to the youth experiencing rough times, but the institutions that supposedly exist to provide services are often fundamentally flawed. Especially in this time of economic downturn (and hence greater reliance on government funding), more and more organizations are assuming their role as the extension of the law enforcement and the welfare system that dehumanize and abuse youth.

I think we need to replicate “Bad Encounter Line” system that Young Women’s Empowerment Project has developed in Chicago. BEL is “a way to report bad experiences you had with institutions such as police, the health care system, public aid, DCFS, CPS, etc.” that are “set in place to help” youth. The repots are published as zines, and used to introduce systems of accountability in social service fields.

I want to start this. Is anyone in Portland or Seattle area interested also?

Erasure of Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade — My keynote at Transgender Day of Remembrance

Date: November 20, 2011

For those of you who came to my keynote presentation at Transgender Day of Remembrance at PSU (no, not that one, the one in Portland) this afternoon, thank you for coming! As I’ve promised, I am posting the slides from my presentation publicly so that people who came to the presentation can go back to read the slides again, and those who couldn’t make it can also see what I presented about. Please note that the slides are not intended to be stand-alone; they may not be self-explanatory without my talk. But regardless–enjoy!

(10/28/2012 – Link updated after Apple shut down iWork.com)

My article in Bitch magazine, and keynote at Portland State’s Transgender Day of Remembrance celebration

Date: November 18, 2011

I have two updates to promote my stuff:

First, my article on the U.S. anti- (domestic minor sex) trafficking movement has been published in the brand new issue of Bitch magazine, which should be shipped to subscribers and bookstores near you soon (official publication date is December 1st). The article has also been posted on BitchMedia website (but buy the magazine or get subscription anyway because we need to support the magazine).

Bitch Winter 2011 issue

Second, I am giving a keynote lecture at this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance celebration at Portland State University. The celebration includes a reading from the anthology Trans/Love Saturday evening, and a day of workshops, presentations, and candlelight vigil on Sunday. My own presentation takes place at 4pm on Sunday, but there are so many other great stuff happening! Please visit Basic Rights Oregon‘s listing of all TDOR events in the state, scrolling down to Portland to view the activities.

There is also a facebook group for my talk at http://www.facebook.com/events/178569218900819/. I hope to see all local and visiting folks there!

Pimping does not equal enslavement: thoughts on the resilience of youth and adults who have pimps

Date: November 14, 2011

Language shapes our perception of reality. The term “human trafficking,” for example, shifted governments’ and NGOs’ approaches to addressing the issue of involuntary migration and labor (including sexual labor) from those that focus on economic empowerment and labor rights protections to ones that center policing and criminal prosecution. Similarly, the legal definition of “sex trafficking” that is interpreted to treat all minors who trade sex regardless of their circumstances as “trafficking victims” have distorted public perception of who these youth are and their lived experiences.

In my previous article about street youth sex trade, I pointed out that the popular imagery of “domestic minor sex trafficking” in which very young (white, suburban, middle-class) girls are “taken” by evil men (of color from urban areas) and forced into sex slavery is a very small part of the picture, and does not depict realities of the vast majority of youth who trade sex. This understanding (which I came to based on my own experiences and observations) is echoed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study of street youth in New York City, which was recently featured in Village Voice (11/02/2011).

Another concept that have distorted public perception of sex trade is “pimps” and “pimping.” Even the John Jay study, which correctly points out that only about 10% of youth who trade sex have any relationship to a pimp, equate “pimp” with “exploiter,” leading readers to assume that these 10% of youth are forced or coerced to engage in sex trade. There are two distinct problems with this equation.

First, media often depict people as “pimps” when they are arrested or charged with crimes of facilitating or promoting prostitution, but most of these people are not actually what most of us think of as pimps. They are often friends, partners, mentors, family members, photographers, drivers, bodyguards, and others who do not control the person trading sex in any way. When a youth “trafficking victim” is “rescued” from a “pimp,” the person they arrest as the “trafficker/pimp” is often another youth, such as a boyfriend of the “victim.”

In the October 2008 nationwide “search” for trafficked minors (Operation Cross Country II), which is the only one in which relevant data is made public, FBI claims to have arrested one pimp for every 7.76 “trafficked minors” and adult prostitutes in the 29 cities where the sweeps were conducted. Even though FBI does not provide the breakdown of the ages, genders, or roles these people played in the lives of youth and adults in the sex trade, there is no question that the vast majority of these people are not what most people think of as “pimps.” Real pimps are notoriously difficult to prosecute. They are very rarely caught or convicted because the prosecutors cannot build a case against them without “victims” coming forward and testifying against them.

Another problem with the equation of “pimps” as “exploiters” who use force, fraud or coercion to exploit youth and adults is that this is simply not true in many people’s lives, even if we were to limit the discussion to the “real” pimps (as opposed to partners, friends, etc. who are labeled as such by the police). I do not question the assertion (backed by my own experiences as well as others I’ve seen) that many pimps are violent or abusive, but that should not be confused with sexual enslavement of people who have abusive pimps. Let me explain.

We know that many marriages and romantic relationships are violent or abusive. We also know that many victims of abuse (often girlfriends and wives) do not leave their abusers/batterers/perpetrators. There are many reasons abuse victims do not leave. Some victims might be afraid for their lives if she attempted to escape, and remain under siege–but that is not the most common explanation. Most of the times, victims receive something from the relationship, whether it is financial security for themselves and their children, affection (when the abuse is in remission), or something else. Many do not leave the abusive relationship because they love their abusers.

That many victims of relationship abuse choose to stay with their abusers should not be treated as consenting to the abuse: they consent to the relationship, not the abuse. But it would also be wrong to suggest that these victims are held captive by the violence; they are not staying because of the violence, but in spite of it.

Pimping relationship that are abusive can be understood in the same way: while some people are forced to trade sex because of the violence, many remain in the pimping relationship for the same reason many abuse victims stay with their abusers: they get something out of the relationship that they are not getting elsewhere. Or rather, they remain in the relationship because they get something that our communities are failing to provide otherwise. This includes basic necessities such as food and housing as well as emotional needs such as affection, validation, and support. In fact, some pimps consider themselves to be workers performing emotional and care labor for their “girls” similar to the sex trade.

I do not think that these relationships are unproblematic, or that violence and abuse should be tolerated just because the victims do when they can’t control it. But there is a huge policy implication to recognizing agency and resilience among people who stay with their pimps instead of treating them as passive, powerless victims or “sex slaves.” Efforts to unilaterally “rescue” these individuals take away their security and support, leaving them worse off than before (and still having to engage in sex trade to survive under less desirable circumstances).

A better approach is to ensure that our communities provide resources and support that everyone needs and deserves. They include housing, jobs, education, and healthcare, but that is not enough. We also need human connections that give us a sense of belonging, validation, support, love. The former is essential for our physical and economic survival, but the latter is just as important if we truly cared about ending relationship abuses, whether it is in romantic relationship or pimping relationship (which can also be romantic).

There is no contradiction between acknowledging resilience of abuse victims who remain with their abusers, and wanting to create caring communities that instils greater resilience to abuse in the first place. Increased policing and prosecution only helps a very small group of victims who are actually held hostage by threats and violence, and by all means we should liberate these victims from their captors, but the application of this approach is harmful for the vast majority of youth and adults who trade sex. And the racist mainstream media representations of “pimps” make it harder to promote real solutions to abuse in our lives and relationships.

How I am on the verge of losing my adoration for Queers for Economic Justice

Date: November 7, 2011

Queers for Economic Justice is an organization in New York that I have long admired, so I was really excited when my friend invited me to its fundraiser/party this past week. Citing a series of parties with racist/colonialist themes that are happening around the city during Halloween season, the QEJ party which took place at Bartini Ultra Lounge (a gay male venue) was tagged as “Party Without Oppression.” But the main drag performer for the night posted something weird on the event’s facebook page:

Divine Grace Super-fantastic. I apologize in advance if my song offends anyone who may be a prostitute.
October 26 at 3:26pm

I thought it was odd that she had to “apologize in advance” to prostitutes, so I asked a question.

Emi Koyama Are you saying that your song is offensive? Or just being super sensitive? I’m all for nasty, but not for things that are mean to prostitutes.
October 27 at 8:21am

I waited for three days, but I did not receive a response so I wrote another comment.

Emi Koyama Not getting a response and I am starting to wonder if I read the title of the event wrong. Perhaps it meant to say Party with Oppression.
October 30 at 10:27am

At this point, Brandon Lacy Campos from QEJ and Divine both replied.

Brandon Lacy Campos Hey Emi…thanks for posting your concerns to Grace. I know she has had out of state company for the last few days, so perhaps giving a little lee way for a response. I will also check in with her. QEJ supports sex work and the right to provide for oneself using whatever means one has and to be able to do so with dignity. I will not censor Graces choice of performance number, but also please know that she is a comedic writer so there should be no assumptions made that derive from her magical ability to piss everyone off with a few simple words….until we know exactly what she meant by it. Also know that Grace is wicked but works for justice every bit as much as we do, which is why she was invited to perform. Be welcome.
October 31 at 8:47am

Divine Grace Perhaps I would just be better suited emceeing this event rather than performing. My act tends to be pretty low rent and it already appears that I am offending guests.
October 31 at 1:32pm

Divine Grace And Emi, just so you know, and just so your children will someday know, my intent has never been nor ever will be to oppress. As Brandon has stated, I have put in 20+ years at the office in an effort to garner equality and justice for the LGBT community.
October 31 at 1:35pm

Brandon Lacy Campos The hell you will.
October 31 at 1:35pm

I appreciate the fact that “QEJ supports sex work,” but they are not addressing my concern. I was not concerned about whether or not her performance piss people off in general, but I wanted to know why she singled out prostitutes as one group she intended to “apologize in advance.” Also, her threatening to cancel her performance fully knowing that she is the main attraction for the event and that QEJ would not cancel her just because one prostitute is upset with her seems manipulative.

I wrote:

Emi Koyama It doesn’t seem that either of you answered my question. My question wasn’t whether or not you are a good person, or your act tend to offend people. It was whether or not your act is mean to prostitutes.
November 1 at 4:43am

To which Divine wrote:

Divine Grace Emi, darling, my act is never mean. Tacky? Yes. Tasteless? Probably. Vulgar? Always. But my act isn’t “mean” to prostitutes unless you take Kim Kardashian’s feelings into consideration. Now, is there anything else that I owe you, and how quickly should I respond before you get huffy again?
November 1 at 1:16pm

I am glad to hear that her act “is never mean” to prostitutes, but she is continuing to engage in manipulative behavior with this fake passivity. I wrote:

Emi Koyama I would have appreciated that clarification earlier, but after witnessing how you can make such mean-spirited comments toward me about how you are not mean, I don’t have very much faith.
November 1 at 5:01pm

This brought further ridicule, belittlement, and insult from Divine:

Divine Grace And after seeing that you consider the word “huffy” mean-spirited, I have no faith that you could sit through an episode of “Dora the Explorer” without curling up fetal.
November 1 at 5:03pm

Immediately after this, Divine changed sharing setting of this thread to make it invisible from me, so that the personal attack remained on the event wall while depriving me of the ability to respond. At first I thought that she had deleted the thread, but my friend pointed out that she could see the exchange from her account, and allowed me to copy the content.

Finally, Brandon further adds insult:

Brandon Lacy Campos Emi. I appreciate your concern, but I clearly indicated that QEJ supports sex workers. While I appreciate that you may have perceived that Divine’s comment was “mean” to you. It is clear that something about it triggered something for you, which is a valid experience, but I assure you nothing “mean” was said to you. QEJ would never invite a performer to share space with us if that person actively participated in oppression towards a community. Having said that…satire and comedy often intersect at an individuals personal experience and just because something make you feel uncomfortable does not mean that it was unjust or mean.
November 1 at 5:13pm

Brandon seems to be employing the infamous Bush administration rhetoric on torture: the United States does not practice torture, and therefore what its military is doing in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere are not torture. Similarly, since QEJ supports sex workers, nothing it does can possibly amount to attacks on prostitutes or those who stand up for prostitutes; since QEJ never invites a performer who is oppressive, nothing the performer does would amount to oppressive acts. I am astonished by the use of anti-oppression policies and principles as a tool to invisibilize and therefore support oppressive acts. To suggest that I merely “perceived” meanness in Divine’s comments, or that I was merely “triggered” is invalidating and insulting, and seriously undermines my trust in QEJ’s ability to advocate for sex workers and others facing multiple oppressions.

I was going to just give up and not deal with QEJ in the future, until someone pointed out to me that QEJ’s interim director is Amber Hollibaugh, who is one of my superheroes in the social justice movements and the author of “My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home,” which is also one of my all-time most favourite books in the whole world. I love and trust Amber so I wrote her an email to alert her what has happened under her watch. I hope that she will reply to me in such way that restores my trust in and support for an organization that deserves much better.

A couple of paper proposals submitted to a Gender Studies conference…

Date: October 31, 2011

Embracing Negative Survivorship and Unhealthy Coping: Resisting the Compulsory Optimism and Hopefulness of the Trauma Recovery Industry

Throughout its history, feminist anti-violence movements in the U.S. have challenged the society’s judgmental and victim-blaming treatment of survivors of violence and abuse. It has however largely bought into the heteronormative discourse of compulsory optimism and hopefulness, as it is evident from casual reading of leaflets and self-help books for survivors, which relentlessly promotes positive thoughts and outlook through affirmations, self-esteem exercises, and “inspirational” stories.

These activities and materials may be helpful for some survivors, but are deeply problematic as they reinforce the neo-liberalistic worldview that you are responsible for your own misery, and that the solution for our personal difficulties is individualistic rather than collective or organized action. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” which is often repeated as words of inspiration and encouragement, can be reasonably interpreted as blaming an individual for feeling bad about herself rather than interrogating and challenging societal factors such as violence, discrimination, and power imbalance that might be leading her to feel inferior.

This paper extends analyses of recent publications such as Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant, Brightsided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, and The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam and explores often counter-intuitive alternatives to the compulsory optimism and hopefulness, new kinds of survivor-centered anti-violence activism, that embrace rather than stigmatize so-called “negative” or “unhealthy” coping mechanisms and survival strategies. Such strategies include (but are not limited to) negativity, defeatism, withdrawal, lowered expectations, hopelessness, pessimism, emptiness, ambivalence, contradictions, self-injury, indecision, inappropriate feelings, passivity, masochism, silence, substance use and abuse, promiscuity, melancholy, and other so-called “unhealthy” or “maladaptive” behaviors and thoughts one employs some (or most) of the time.


Erasure of Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade: How Transgender Community, Sex Workers’ Movement, and Anti-Trafficking Movement Fail Transgender Youth

Transgender youth are overrepresented among young people who occasionally or regularly trade sex for money, food, shelter, and other survival needs. According to Young Women’s Empowerment Project, which works with girls and young women in sex trade and other underground economies in Chicago, about twenty percent of its participants are transgender youth, most of whom are youth of color. Another unpublished study by National Development and Research Institutes show that transgender street youth in New York City are 3.5 times more likely to engage in sex trade compared to cisgender ones.

There are many factors that contribute to the high prevalence of transgender youth in the sex trade. Many of them become runaways and thrownaways due to homophobia and transphobia within their families, schools, and communities. They often cannot find employment in other fields because of their age, mismatched identification documents, and discrimination. In many cities, the only places where transgender youth can find supportive communities are venues where alcohol, drugs, and prostitution are common.

Transgender movement, sex workers’ movement, and anti- (domestic minor sex) trafficking movement have all attained greater recognition and influence over the last decade, and they seem to be in the position to provide support for the transgender youth in the sex trade, especially transgender youth of color. But each of these movements have failed to do so, not merely as a result of some oversight, but because of fundamental flaws in how they frame their issues and interests, prioritizing white, middle-class, adult interests and concerns over those of the more vulnerable population.

This paper analyzes how transgender movement, sex workers’ movement, and anti-trafficking movement have systemically excluded transgender youth (often transgender youth of color) from their consideration, and what is needed to transform our conversations surrounding transgender youth in the sex trade.

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.

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