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Reclaiming Harm Reduction: a new zine released in time for the Harm Reduction Conference

Date: October 30, 2016

Just in time for the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference next week, I am announcing the publication of my new zine, “Reclaiming Harm Reduction: a collection” which compiles my writings related to harm reduction philosophy (excluding my numerous writings on sex trafficking and sex trade, which have been published in other zines). The new zine is available for order from my new online store.

zine cover

Here’s the introduction from the zine:

This booket/zine is a collection of my writings on the topic of harm reduction in my almost 20 years of activism.

Aside from the fact that I am presenting at the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference in San Diego next week (November 3-6, 2016) and wanted share my thoughts with people I meet there, I had a couple of reasons to compile some of my writings on this topic:

First, I live in Seattle area, where the phrase “harm reduction” has become a buzz word among people in the governemtn as well as in social service providers, which is welcome but its actual meaning is often lost in translation: many service providers use the term “harm reduction” when they simply mean that they don’t automatically exclude clients who are currently using drugs, but continue to have judgmental disdain for them or push a vision of “recovery” that does not reflect the needs or wishes of actual individuals who are coping with difficulties in their lives in the best way they know how.

Second, connected to the first point, I feel that harm reduction can be a lot more than just “a better way to deal with drug problems.” Drug use/abuse/addiction has not particularly been an issue that I deal with in my own personal life, but I encountered many of the similar failures of systemic responses to social problems, such as homelessness, violence against women, sex trafficking, and racism/classism/ableism/homophobia/transphobia/etc. In fact, harm reduction is the analysis that connects my involvement in various social justice movements, including advocacy of survivors of domestic and sexual violence, sex workers, intersex people, people with disabilities, and others. I wanted to compile a collection of my writings in these different movements to demonstrate a potential scope of harm reduction as a foundational philosophy and perspective.

That said, I also encountered limits of harm reduction, which I discuss in one of the essays included in this collection. While harm reduction helps us promote social interventions that meet the immediate needs of communities and individuals facing difficulties, it does not necessarily and automatically address the larger context of injustices in which these difficulties occur.

An example of this limitation that I address in the aforementioned essay is a suggestion that the distribution of condoms to U.S. military service members was a successful harm reduction program to reduce the spread of venereal diseases. While I agree such program may reduce the risk of venereal disease among U.S. soldiers, it does not address the violence of U.S. military interventions around the world itself, or the sexual violence too frequently perpetrated by the members of the U.S. forces against native women and girls. If anything, it might enable the U.S. to more efficiently and aggressively pursue military interventions across the globe that ultimately may result in more harms to the nations and peoples the U.S. decides to invade.

Harm reduction without an intentional commitment to the broader social and economic justice agenda can be reduced to a mere technology of population management. There are “harm reduction” housing programs in various cities where drug dealing and use are completely unregulated and unsupervised under the guise of “meeting where people are at,” where residents die from overdose every week without anyone outside of the building even taking a notice. Harm reduction should not be our communities’ excuse for being indifferent: while ultimately respecting how members of our communities choose to live, we cannot stop advocating for a better living environment for all of us, rather than simply pushing some of us aside in “harm reduction” ghettos and forget about them.

Essays collected in this booklet/zine span over 15 years of my writings, so some of the circumstances have changed since I wrote about them (I intentionally left out many writings that critiques the anti-trafficking movements because there are too many and I have compiled them into other booklets/zines). My thinking has also evolved in some of these areas as well. But overall, a commitment to harm reduction combined with social and economic justice continue to motivate my research and activism and it has only become more solidified if not sophisticated.

Thank you for picking up this collection, and I would like to hear what you think about them, or learn what else you are working on. Please feel free to contact me in any of the following ways:

Emi Koyama
PO Box 40570, Portland OR 97240
emi@eminism.org
www.eminism.org
Twitter: @emikoyama
Facebok: emigrl2

Table of contents:

#ImNotQuiteWithHerButOMGTheAlternative

Date: October 13, 2016

i didn’t expect this to happen, but i’m starting to have deep empathy toward the first woman running as a major party candidate for the president in history, who has to share the debate stage with an opponent who is possibly the most outwardly misogynist man to be running as a major party candidate in history, and she must act like she’s just having a normal debate because she’d get penalized as a woman for expressing one millionth of emotional reaction or instability that he is freely displaying. and no this isn’t an endorsement for her but i’m identifying with her as a woman like i never expected.

*****

this is really getting to me hard. more and more women coming forward and speaking out about what this man did to them over the span of decades and how he always got away with it because he was “a star” as he said. his followers posting home addresses and phone numbers of these women online. his mocking the appearances of the women, suggesting that nobody would ever want to harass or assault someone who look like them. and i imagine that it must have felt like this for many american muslims and mexicans and others for many months before it started affecting me this way and it sucks.

(compiled from my ramblings on October 13, 2016 in Facebook)

A brief comment in response to Seattle Times columnist’s call for more cops to stop rapes

Date: October 13, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, an activist friend asked me to provide a brief comment that they could quote in a community statement in response to this horrible column published by The Seattle Times earlier. The column criticized activists working to halt Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to hire 200 additional police officers, arguing that the apparent increase in the number of reported rapes is a reason Seattle needed more cops.

Sadly, the statement they were working on did not materialize, so I am posting it here.

For many women in our communities, especially women in the sex trade, women who are homeless or marginally housed, women of color and immigrant women, women with cognitive and mental disabilities, and others–the very people who are most vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence–the law enforcement is a major source of violence rather than a resource they can safely reach for help. We do not oppose increased police presence in our communities because of some unfounded prejudice against police officers, who by the way are four times more likely than average to be perpetrators of domestic violence, but because of our lived reality that more police does not make our lives safer nor does it address underlying vulnerabilities resulting from poverty, racism, sexism, as well as failed criminal, drug, and immigration policies.

My rejected response to the question “should prostitution be legal?”

Date: October 6, 2016

Note: Below is a piece written for an online media outlet that requested my 300-500 word response to the question “should prostitution be legal?”.

It was uncompensated, but because they were lining up many activists (anti-prostitution and sex worker rights) and scholars (law, philosophy, etc.) on both “pro” and “con” sides of the debate, and I felt that none of them on either side would represent my perspective, so I wrote one on a very tight deadline.

Well, it has been a month since that time, but they have not used my response in their published feature so I will assume that they did not like my piece, or felt that my response was completely incomprehensible to their target audience, who are members of the “personal finance industry,” so I decided to publish here instead.

*****

Should prostitution be legal? Of course it should, as I am sure others can explain how there is no fundamental moral or ethical reason that private sexual transactions between consenting adults should be criminalized, or how, if one were actually concerned about the violence and exploitation that exist within commercial sexual exchanges, prohibition of prostitution exacerbates the problems by pushing the sexual marketplace further underground.

But those who argue whether prostitution should be legalized, decriminalized, criminalized, or combination thereof (as in the case of the so-called Nordic model) often miss the crucial reality that criminalization is not about what the laws on the book say, but about the targeting and persecution of communities and individuals deemed criminal, as the extra-legal executions and murders of Black men and women by the law enforcement and the dearth of prosecutions against such actions attest. Criminal laws do not make criminals; they are merely tools to further persecute those who are already labeled by the society as criminal.

That is why, while I welcome my fellow sex worker activists’ and allies’ efforts to decriminalize prostitution, I believe that the criminalization of sex workers who are people of color, trans women, immigrants, street youth, drug users, and other criminalized populations will continue unabated regardless of how the law might classify the legality of commercial sexual exchange. In fact, I have heard anecdotal stories from youth advocates in cities that have enacted “safe harbor” policies which prevent minors from being charged with the crime of prostitution that the constant harassment, abuse, and persecution of street youth engaging in sex trade by the police have not decreased as a result.

Even laws that ostensively target pimps and sex traffickers are in reality used to further criminalize young people of color (I heard the police chief of a city I lived at the time tell a crowd at a human trafficking community forum that we must “stop listening to that crap, rap music” in order to prevent sex trafficking), in addition to making it harder for people in the sex trade to help each other without committing the crime of “promoting prostitution,” which media often equate with “pimping” and human trafficking but does not necessarily involve coercion or exploitation.

Since around 2011, the federal government reframed “domestic minor sex trafficking” as part of the “gang problem,” setting the government’s “war on trafficking” on the same devastatingly racist trajectory as Richard Nixon’s “war on crimes,” Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” and George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” In the meantime, the trafficking of foreign and domestic workers in our farms, factories, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses—none of which are predominantly owned by Black and brown people—remain unaddressed. We need to stop arguing in abstract about whether or not prostitution should be legal, and instead focus our attention on the white supremacy of our social, political, and legal institutions.

*****

Update: Several more months later, they finally posted my response on their website.

New Zine: Against Japanese “Comfort Women” Denialism in the U.S.

Date: November 9, 2014

“Against Japanese ‘Comfort Women’ Denialism in the U.S.” was written in response to the recent rise of Japanese right-wing nationalist activities among some of the Japanese residents in Southern California (not Japanese Americans, but Japanese people from Japan), especially their campaign against resolutions, memorials, and other recognitions of Japanese “comfort women” during the WWII by U.S. cities.

This zine analyzes the “talking points” of Japanese right-wing nationalists, and applies the same nuanced approach to the issue of “comfort women” that the author (a co-founder of Japan-U.S. Feminist Network for Decolonization) has advocated for in the contemporary anti-trafficking movement for many years, pointing out precisely what responsibilities Japanese government bears.

The zine is available for purchase online, or at the upcoming workshop “Confronting Japanese Right-Wing Nationalism in Southern California this Friday, November 14th at UCLA.

Faces of CW Denialism

The Uses of Negativity: Survival and Coping Strategies for Those of Us Who Are Exasperated by the Empty Promise of “It” Getting “Better”

Date: October 26, 2013

[Speech given at Gallaudet University for the National Coming Out Day, October 11, 2013.]

Today I want to talk about negativity and its uses in our survival, which may seem like an odd topic for a presentation on the National Coming Out Day: most people perhaps associate National Coming Out Day with celebration, pride, hopefulness, and other positive emotions and activities, and not with negativity. I want to be clear that I am not here to promote negativity: if positivity works for you, that’s wonderful! What I really want to talk about is how positivity and hopefulness do not work for all of us, in fact it can exacerbate difficulties we are experiencing, and how we can cope with them and support each other better if we could build a greater tolerance and appreciation for negativity.

But before getting into my discussion, I want to give a heads up about the content of my talk. As you might imagine, I will be talking about many things that the audience might find triggering. I will not give graphic details of any violence, abuse, or self-harming behaviors in my own life as well as in many others’, but I will talk about them, in hope that some of what I say resonates with you. But if you find any part of my presentation “too much,” please do not feel obligated to stay in your seat; do take care of yourself in whatever ways you know, including leaving the room. I will be available after the presentation to talk privately if any of you wish to.

Okay, so what is negativity? It is our emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses to difficulties we face in our lives that are uncomfortable for us and those around us, or those that are inconvenient for the society. It is expressing emotions that the society considers inappropriate, such as anger, depression, desperation, numbness. It is behaviors that the society labels “unhealthy” or “maladaptive,” such as substance use, self-injury, eating “disorders,” promiscuity.

Sometimes, we react negatively to things and it harms us further. But often, the harm is not necessarily the direct result of our reactions, but the result of the society not understanding or supporting our negative reactions. New York-based performance artist Penny Arcade wrote:

Being a bad girl is not about wearing too much makeup, too short skirts, or fishnet stockings. It’s about being cut out, and left out of the society because you can’t handle the pain in your life in a way the society thinks is appropriate.

My struggle to make sense of my propensity for negativity began when I started talking to someone at a rape crisis center in a rural college town. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse as well as the dysfunctional child welfare system and as a queer disabled fat Asian girl in and out of sex trade, my self-esteem was predictably low. Trying to be helpful, someone loaned me self-help cassette tapes (yes, this was in the mid-90s) that were supposed to help me heal myself and build self-esteem. I listened to them on repeat, but it did not work. And not only that, it made me feel like I failed once again.

I didn’t–and still don’t–know what healing was. Our common understanding of trauma–whether it is violence or war or accident or whatever–is that it is exceptional and disruptive rather than the norm. We as the society take for granted that everyone pretty much lives a normal life, and only occasionally experiences traumatic incidents that leave us with physical and emotional injuries that require healing and restoration of the normal. But when life is a constant stream of difficulties, as it often is for children and adults in abusive long-term relationships and for people who face multiple layers of oppressions such as racism, poverty, homophobia/transphobia, and ableism, trauma becomes the norm. I could not imagine a normal norm to which I would return to after healing, or the true self that I would become once trauma ceased to define who I was. Again, it felt like a failure on my part.

The society prescribes a model of healing that is linear and short-term, as exemplified by the for-profit health insurance system that limit counseling to a certain number of sessions, if any. Even within survivor advocacy, we often hear about the linear progression from being a dreadful “victim” to empowered “survivor” as the idealized path toward healing. For example, a website for sexual abuse survivors states:

Yes, you are a victim of sexual abuse, but a victim stays in a victim role and never moves further and changes any behaviors that might change the outcome of the feelings that you are suffering from. You can’t change what happened to you… but you CAN change how you will react to it and how you want your life to be from this day forward! Once you make the decision to recover, you have the power to change your life!! Your abuser does not have to win! You can take back your power and move on and not stay stuck where you are!

D.C. Rape Crisis Center disagrees with this progression model of healing, and yet it continues to uphold the victim/survivor dichotomy:

You have made it past the assault, and you have earned the title of “survivor” rather than the depressing identifier “victim.” It takes courage, bravery, and strength to tell your story […] Being a survivor […] means that you are not letting yourself or your life be defined by your assault. […] Identifying as a survivor is a major step in the healing process.

Many people prefer the word “survivor” to “victim” because “survivor” feels strong and proactive. I understand that, as that is precisely how I felt for a long time also, but I started to think that we need to honor and embrace weakness, vulnerability, and passivity as well, or else we end up blaming and invalidating victims (including myself) who do not feel strong some or most of the times.

The society views victimhood as something that must be overcome. When we are victimized, we are (sometimes) afforded a small allowance of time, space, and resources in order to recover – limited and conditional exemptions from normal societal expectations and responsibilities – and are given a different set of expectations and responsibilities that we must live up to (mainly focused around getting help, taking care of ourselves, and recovering). “Healing” is not optional, but is a mandatory process by which a “victim” is transformed into a “survivor”; the failure to successfully complete this transformation results in victim-blaming and sanctions.

This is the function of “victim role,” an extension of sociologist Talcott Parsons’ theory of “sick role.” The society needs victims to quickly transition out of victimhood into survivorship so that we can return to our assigned positions in the heteronormative and capitalist social and economic arrangements in order to resume our productive and reproductive duties. That, I believe, is the source of this immense pressure to become survivors rather than victims, a cultural attitude that even many feminist anti-violence advocates have internalized.

On Mayo Clinic website, a physician wrote:

Everyone has setbacks, disappointments and frustrations. But the way you respond to these challenges and opportunities is what defines you. Whether you become a victim or a “seasoned survivor” depends on your attitude and the way you view the setback. […] Whatever has happened, you can choose to whine and complain about it, or to profit and learn from the experience. Whining is not only unproductive, it also pushes away your support network. Friends and colleagues will listen for just so long, but then it is time to move on. The choice is yours. Your life depends on it.

Note that this was written by an oncologist, so I assume that he was addressing to people who survived cancer rather than interpersonal violence. But there are striking similarities between societal attitudes toward sufferers and survivors of cancer and those experienced by abuse survivors, as I gather from Barbara Ehrenreich’s work on the former (she wrote an article titled “Smile! You’ve got cancer” criticizing the societal pressure people with cancer live under to be cheerful and positive).

Mayo Clinic physician’s article is a clear example of victim-blaming: victims who “whine and complain” are blamed for causing their own isolation and suffering by pushing away our support networks, as if our mentality is the only barrier for us to thrive. He pretends to offer “choices,” but he is clearly promoting the normative survivorship that whitewashes negativity over “unproductive” whining and complaining, suggesting that those of us who remain “victims” deserve what we get because of our failure to live up to the societal expectations.

Victim-blaming of course is a common occurrence against victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence. When activists decry that we live in a rape culture, it doesn’t just mean that rape is ubiquitous. More importantly, it means that we live in a culture that provides excuses and justifications for sexual violence under the premise that the perpetrator could not help the urge, and the victim deserved it because of how she or he conducted themselves. Unfortunately, survivor advocates end up replicating the victim-blaming pattern when they prescribe a particular way for victims to heal and deny survivors a room to whine and complain unproductively without losing support.

Blaming of people experiencing negative feelings is closely connected to the popular ideology of positive psychology. Positive psychology, or at least its popular versions, announces that we all “have the power” to change our lives through transforming our attitudes, neglecting how our power is constantly being weakened, undermined, and stolen by violence and societal injustices in our lives. If we all “have the power” to be happy simply by changing our minds rather than material reality of our everyday struggles, it reasons that those of us who are unhappy are to blame for our own misery.

The society prescribes “healthy” ways for us to cope with difficulties in our lives, and admonishes us for using “unhealthy” ones. “Healthy” coping strategies include exercise, consistent eating and sleeping schedule, accessing support (but not too much, or you will become a “whiner”), hot bath. “Unhealthy” ones involve substance use, eating “disorder,” self-injury, and other “negative” things that push away our support system. When we engage in these “unhealthy” coping strategies, we are blamed for causing more problems to ourselves.

The Icarus Project, which is a network of people living with experiences that are labeled “psychiatric illnesses” but reject the conventional medical model of “mental health” and “mental illness,” published a handbook specifically about people’s uses of self-injurious behaviors to cope with difficulties in our lives. In it, the authors provocatively provide a long list of activities that might be described as “self-injury,” but often not, which includes:

  • working very hard
  • dieting
  • exercising excessively, or not at all
  • piercing
  • walking on high heels
  • getting tattoos
  • playing football
  • mountaineering
  • skateboading
  • ballet
  • working in a job you hate
  • depilating/waxing

Each of these acts may cause pain, injury, and other undesirable consequences, but they are generally considered normal. What are the differences between socially appropriate and inappropriate self-injury? There may be many factors, but one of the tendencies I observe is that self-injurious behaviors that are compatible with capitalism and uphold societal hierarchies (sexism and classism in particular) are generally considered socially appropriate, while those that undermine our ability to be productive workers and happy consumers are considered inappropriate.

I believe that “unhealthy” or negative coping strategies that we use some or most of the time must be validated and supported. It does not necessarily mean that every coping strategy is equally valid all the time, but the validity and desirableness of coping strategies need to be evaluated by the person experiencing it, rather than externally imposed on her or him by the society or by the advocates.

This includes suicidal thoughts. I have long struggled with thoughts thoughts about suicide and self-harm, but I have since come to accept suicidal ideation as a coping strategy rather than merely a symptom or a warning sign. After all, every time I contemplated suicide, it helped me survive. The failure to recognize our resilience in suicidality makes it difficult to have honest conversations about how we truly feel.

That said, the Mayo Clinic physician does have a point about how negativity pushes away our support system. Negative survivorship often presents a challenge for our friends, family members, and other people in our lives. I feel that the blame we receive for engaging in “unhealthy” coping strategies or remaining a “victim” rather than “survivor” has more to do with how they make other people uncomfortable than with our well-being. The feeling of uncomfortableness is understandable and valid, but we need to own up our uncomfortableness and deal with it rather than blaming the victim for it.

I think I have the similar experience related to my physical disability. My body is weak (even though I am big and swim every other day) and I have bad balance, so occasionally I fall to the ground despite using crutches. People who see me fall often rush toward me and begin pulling my arms to get me up without bothering to ask me if I need any help or how they could help. I believe that they are genuinely trying to help, but at the same time I feel that they are also extremely uncomfortable seeing someone clearly in pain and distress, and can’t stop to think if what they are doing is actually helpful before rushing to make my reality of disability disappear from their sight.

Experts working with people who are dealing with major depression advise that friends, family members, and others to avoid attempting to “cheer up” their loved ones who are depressed. It almost always backfire because it leads the person to feel invalidated and misunderstood, and deepens the sense of isolation and alienation that she or he feels. It is often more helpful to simply be there for and with that person without getting too caught up about finding the solution.

I am often socially awkward, but one thing I feel I am good at socially is that I have a high tolerance for negativity of people around me who are having difficult times. I have developed the ability to tolerate negativity through my own negative survivorship, especially from finding peace in having low expectations of life and accepting insignificance of my existence. Having low expectation of life does not prevent me from being hurt, but it shields me from disappointments, at least some of the times; accepting insignificance of my existence helped me stop worrying about meaning or purpose of my life. This place of peace allows me to sit with my friends who are depressed or even suicidal and validate their feelings without judgment.

Seattle-based organization Northwest Network which advocates for LGBTQ survivors of relationship abuse started a program called Friends Are Reaching Out, or F.A.R. Out, about ten years ago. The purpose of F.A.R. Out is to “build capacity within our community to resist isolation and sustain meaningful connections” among friends in the queer/trans communities, especially queer/trans communities of color who are often left out by the mainstream anti-domestic violence programs.

The idea behind F.A.R. Out is that relationship abuse often first manifest in the isolation of the victim from her or his community outside of the intimate relationship with the abuser. This is allowed to occur because we often feel uncertain about what our friends are actually experiencing in their relationship with their intimate partner even when we see potential signs of abuse, and unsure as to how to talk about it or intervene. We feel too uncomfortable witnessing these signs and yet not knowing what to do, so we often withdraw, leaving our friends in potential danger.

F.A.R. Out is based on the idea that we might be able to prevent abusive patterns from developing if our communities and friendships were more resistant to the initial attempt to isolate the victim. To that end, it facilitates intentional dialogues about what healthy relationships would look like in our communities, how to tell when something is going wrong, and what we want each other to do if we notice something unusual, even if we are not 100% sure about what is going on. This program builds on existing friendship networks and makes them more resistant to abuse that can occur to any one of us (or that any of us might engage in without the help of our friends).

Relationships are key to our survival, and it is not just negativity itself that isolates and alienates us when we are in distress. It is the lack of resilient communities and friendship networks that have mechanisms to resist isolation; it is the inability for us to own and take care of uncomfortableness that we feel about the negativity that some of us–or many of us–employ in order to cope.

Since this is the Coming Out Day, I want to make some comments about the popular representations of what is promoted as “giving hope” to young people who are struggling with homophobia and transphobia, whether it is societal, familial, or internalized. Obviously, I welcome the fact that there are far more books, music, films, websites, resources, and organizations that are supportive of young people who are LGBTQ than I had access to when I graduated from high school in the mid-90s in rural southern Missouri, which was zero.

There is a stark contrast and contradiction in the popular discourse surrounding LGBTQ youth: the news media is filled with stories about bullying, harassment, and suicide of young people who are in fact or perceived to be queer or trans; the pop culture presents promotion and celebration of individuality, pride, and positivity, often as exemplified by successful mostly white gay men and lesbians (and straight celebrities) speaking on the behalf of all LGBTQ people.

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign combines the two, suggesting that the dreadful reality young people are experiencing now is only temporary, and with time things would get better, especially if they move to a big city and become middle-class professionals like themselves. I’m sure it works for some young people (especially if they are white and middle-class and can reasonably expect things to get better once they are on their own), but I find it alienating in the same way that telling a depressed person to “cheer up” backfires.

Things do sometimes get better. But in my experience they mostly shift and move and change shape, constantly, rather than taking the linear upward trajectory. The idea that things would just get better with time is unrealistic, invalidating, and alienating for those of us who have lived through a long stream of multiple trauma and oppressions in our lives. “It Gets Better” could have been an interesting project if it were promoted as a way for middle-class, middle-aged gays and lesbians to reflect on their own lives, for themselves, because that’s what it really is. But as it is, I worry that it is taking too much space, shifting attention away from media and creative projects by young people themselves that tell their own stories to cope with whatever “it” is, and possibly changing “it” at the structural level.

I want to end by reading a poem I wrote about how I hate survivor poems. I’m not saying that I dislike poems written by survivors, but I hate the cliche that are survivor narratives that we are expected to repeat.

i don’t write survivor poems
i don’t write about the journey
from a survivor to a thriver
from a wounded child to a
bad-ass feminist revolutionary
that is not me most of the time

i don’t write about healing
about forgiveness
about grief and letting go

i don’t write about strength
i don’t write about the courage to heal
and i never want to hear again
oh you are so courageous to speak out
about your story
that i haven’t even began to tell

i don’t write to inspire

i don’t write about finding purpose
about finding jesus
about finding self-love

i don’t write about the truth
because truth is too fragile
like a particle whose location and velocity
cannot be simultaneously observed

i write instead
about the lack of counseling
that is actually competent and affordable

i write about the fake sympathy
and the lynch mob that robs me of my rage
and repurposes it to build more prisons

i write about the need for validation
even if our survival involves slashing on the wrist
not eating overeating and purging alcohol drugs
avoiding sex having too much sex

i write, in fact, about survival
through not just the abuse from the past
but survival in the society that doesn’t give a fuck

i don’t write survivor poems
because my story is not for your consumption
i don’t write a coherent and compelling narrative
and i don’t exist to demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit

i write survival poems
i survive

Happy (or not so happy—and it’s okay!) Coming Out Day!

My remark for the March for Ivanice Harris

Date: August 27, 2013

Below is a recap of a brief remark I made at the march for Ivanice (Ivy) Harris, a Portland woman who was murdered while vacationing in Hawai’i earlier this year. A U.S. Marine was initially arrested for her murder, but was released after the law enforcement concluded that there was not enough evidence to convict him.

Sex Workers Outreach Coalition (SWOC) was invited to send someone to give a speech at the march because Ivy was working as an escort. I attended the march representing SWOC.

But minutes before the speech, I was asked to be “discreet” because there were children in the audience, along with Ivy’s mom. Specifically, they asked me not to mention “sex work” or anything related to that, not even the full name of Sex Workers Outreach Coalition.

What you see below is what I said under this last-minute restriction.

Thank you for allowing me to say a few words. My name is Emi and I am part of SWOC coalition, which is a group meeting at Portland Women’s Crisis Line. We are social workers, activists, and community members advocating for women like Ivy who are doing what we need to do to survive, support our family, pay for school, and such.

At SWOC and Portland Women’s Crisis Line, we hear a lot about violence targeting women like us. We are targeted by people who commit violent acts on us. We are targeted by the media that disrespect us when they report about violence against us. We are targeted by the law enforcement that refuse to investigate violence against us. And too often we are also abandoned by our family and friends.

But today, I am very surprised and encouraged to see you all here, family and friends of Ivy who have not abandoned her, who are demanding justice for her. Thank you very much for your presence, your support, your love. I’m proud to be part of this march. Thank you very much!

Here’s the news article about the march from Portland Observer. “Like” BRING Ivanice HOME page on facebook to receive updates about the case!

Confusion and Contradiction in Law Enforcement Views on Sex Trafficking

Date: June 22, 2013

On June 18, I attended a public forum on human trafficking in Washington County (Oregon) sponsored by Respect for Life, a Catholic anti-abortion group. Main speakers were both representatives of the law enforcement, Tigard detective Yonsoo Lee and Multnomah County detective and deputy sheriff Keith Bickford.

Lee was to discuss domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) while Bickford would focus on trafficking involving “foreign-born” victims, but they both ended up addressing almost exclusively about young people trading sex. (This division between DMST and “foreign-born” trafficking reflects a larger re-organization of law enforcement units, as I have explained before.)

Detective Lee, who is also a deputized federal agent with the FBI, advised the audience that his presentation was PG-13, and surely enough he showed a series of online escort ads and other images with semi-explicit pictures of women, for no apparent reason. “We here in suburbia don’t often see human trafficking, but it is happening behind closed doors,” Lee stated.

Lee said that he was “pretty weary” of statistics, but nonetheless cited the oft-repeated (and thoroughly debunked) figure that “the average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14.” “From our experience, it holds true” he said, because he has encountered some girls who started trading sex at ages as early as 10 or 11. However, it was clear from the way he was discussing “our experiences” that these very young girls are anomalies, which makes it implausible that the “average age” can be anything close to 12.

He then admitted that the average age of girls (minors) he actually encounters (as opposed to the age at which they supposedly began trading sex) is about 16, which further makes us wonder how all these 10-14 year olds avoid encounter with the law enforcement for so many years before they finally come to his attention. The only plausible explanation is that the “average age” figure is totally wrong.

The most interesting part about Lee’s presentation was about how the law enforcement identify online sex ads that might involve trafficking. According to him, the law enforcement looks for ads for different girls that share the same contact information, user identifier, or other characteristics that indicate that they are not working alone. He also searches for older ads by the same poster, because sometimes people are less sophisticated when they begin using the internet for advertising, and there might be more identifying information in earlier ads.

Another example Lee gave is an ad found in an escort board that uses another provider (sex worker), not clients, as a reference. On boards, providers and clients both use references to avoid dealing with the law enforcement, but a new provider would not have any references, so she may ask another provider she knows to vouch for her authenticity. But, to Lee, this indicates that she is not working alone, which means it might involve trafficking.

This tactic is worrisome because the fact that someone is not working alone does not necessarily mean (and usually does not mean) that that person is being trafficked: it might be someone who is helping out the individual, or multiple individuals working together. Some sex workers choose to work with others for their safety, and may be forced to abandon this safety measure if doing so makes them more vulnerable to be targeted by the law enforcement.

“Where do victims come from?” Lee said that of 38 girls identified in connection to a brothel raid, four were former Tigard High School students. They are recruited online via social networking sites as well as outside schools and at shopping malls, Lee said.

Detective Keith Bickford followed Lee to discuss international trafficking, which is supposed to cover both labor and sex trafficking, but quickly narrowed down his talk to sex trafficking involving gangs and drug cartels (I’ve discussed the shift in the anti-trafficking discourse to treat trafficking as a primarily “gang problem” before). He told the audience that he had recently spoken with custom and border control agents in Arizona, who warned him about the “coming storm” of the emerging alliance between gangs and cartels.

“Cartels are very well funded, and very well armed,” said Bickford, pointing out that cartel members are connected even to some foreign diplomats. “A foreign consulate can be a cartel member… Mexican Consulate here in downtown Portland: Who knows?” he said. “Cartels have terrorist type of mentality,” he continued, referring to how they infiltrate educational and political systems.

An audience member raised his hand and asked if cartels also traffick “our children” to Mexico. “Yes, I’ve seen quite a bit of it,” Bickford responded. I don’t really have any prior knowledge about this, but I have a hard time understanding what profit motives Mexican cartel might have to take extra efforts and risks trafficking U.S. children to Mexico when they could easily exploit Mexican children: it just seems implausible to me.

I have seen Bickford speak several times before, and it was surprising that he spoke with so much hyperbole and fear-mongering. While I disagree with many of his stances, I had always thought he was one of the more rational, even compassionate member of the law enforcement (for example, he often stresses the need for the law enforcement to work with undocumented immigrants rather than targeting them, coming very close to publicly advocating for comprehensive immigration reform). I worry that he drunk the cool-aid during his trip to Arizona where he was exposed to the extreme elements of U.S. boarder patrol.

All these discussions raised fear among the audience, as exemplified by a father who stood up and asked the presenters if it was safe for his teenage daughter to ride public transit by herself. A law enforcement officer in the audience responded with a reality check: “Washington County is a safe place. There are bad people out there, but we aren’t talking about guys pulling girls off buses.” Yes, only cops do that around here.

Another law enforcement officer spoke out from the audience to point out that “these girls” are usually not “good students from good families.” “They are coarse, they speak back at us, they don’t want to go to school, and they run away. They like the way it is because they can stay up and party all they want, take whatever drug they want. That’s why they don’t come forward as victims.”

I felt that law enforcement agents are caught in a bind between the view they have traditionally held about young people in the sex trade (i.e. they are teenage whores, delinquents from socially undesirable backgrounds) and the politically fashionable view that dominates the “anti-trafficking” craze (they are innocent young girls victimized in modern-day slavery). These views are contradictory and confusing to those listening to these presentations, but they co-exist in the minds of law enforcement officers through a single common thread, which is the need for further criminalization of people of color, street youth, immigrants, and other targeted communities.

Regardless, many audience members seemed to connect the issue of human trafficking to the larger schema of “culture war.” Several audience members suggested that human trafficking–or rather, the presence of young people in the sex trade–was caused by the “coarsening of the culture,” represented by the “promotion of promiscuity” through sex education in schools. “What role did Planned Parenthood play in promoting promiscuity and sex trafficking?” a retired attorney asked. Another audience member pointed out that materials used in sex ed mentions Planned Parenthood website, which may lead to trafficking. “We need to stop Planned Parenthood,” she said.

In response, both Lee and Bickford failed to confront the misperception that sex trafficking was about promiscuity: Lee said that he did not know enough about sex ed curriculum to comment, while Bickford stated that parents need to be aware what websites their children are accessing (in response to the question about the harms of youth accessing Planned Parenthood’s website). I realize that this was a forum hosted by an anti-abortion group, but I think they could and should have said something along the line of: “I understand that there are different opinions about Planned Parenthood and what it does, but sex trafficking is not about promiscuity. It is about violence and exploitation.”

This association between Planned Parenthood with sex trafficking may seem ridiculous, but ultra-conservatives have successfully shut down community organizing network ACORN under the entirely made-up claims including the allegation that the organization offered assistance to a pimp to traffick Central American women and open a brothel, so it is not far-fetched to say that they are trying to do the same to Planned Parenthood. Anyone who is actually concerned about the well-being of young people in the sex trade need to challenge anti-trafficking campaigns that center religious extremism or law enforcement expansionism.

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

Proposal for Bad Date Line 2.0: Text-Based “Bad Date” Blacklist for Sex Workers

Date: December 20, 2012

This is something I thought of today: a text-based “bad date” blacklist for sex workers and people in the sex trade. I know that there are several online “blacklists” out there, along with local “bad date” lists, but this is unique because it can be offered for free, and used from cheap cell phones many street-based workers have.

HOW TO USE:

Using a cell phone, sex workers can text the license plate number, phone number, or email address to a specified number. The text could be something like “5031234567 ?” (phone number 503-123-4567) or “OR*ABC012 ?” (Oregon license plate ABC-012).

The server computer looks up the information in the central database for a match. The worker would receive a response within seconds indicating whether or not there was a match, and if so what kind.

If there is no match, the server would respond with the message “NO RECORD.” If there are matches, it will give discreet codes like “VI” for violent or abusive client, or NC for someone who refuses condom. There may be multiple reports for the same person, in which case the response would say something like “VI NC*2”.

HOW TO REPORT:

When a sex worker experiences a bad date, she or he can text the license plate number, phone number, or email address to a specified number.

When reporting, the worker can include a code to indicate what kind of “bad date” it was, such as:

VI – violent or abusive
NP – no payment
HG – persistent haggler
NS – no show
NC – refuses condom
DR – especially disrespectful
PO – police
ST – stalker
PH – keeps calling, no intent to pay

A worker would send information such as:

5031234567 VI NC = phone number 503-123-4567, violent, refuses condom

OR*ABC012 PH NS = Oregon license plate ABC-012, repeated phone calls without intent to pay and no show.

ADVANTAGES OF USING THIS SYSTEM

  • it can function via text alone, making it easier to use even on cheap prepaid phones; workers don’t have to carry an incriminating piece of paper on them.
  • it can be implemented for relatively cheaply–cheap enough that we can probably get it funded by donations, and offer as a free service to all. (We can probably get it started for $1,000 seed money.)
  • unlike “Bad Date Line,” it doesn’t have to publish the master list (it only responds to the specific number or email address that was inquired).

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS:

  • Someone could make false reports.
    • True, but if someone was led to make a false report, there must be some reason. We don’t guarantee that the information is always correct, but workers can make their own decisions about whom they interact with.
  • Someone who is blacklisted might dispute it.
    • Solution: any client who disputes the information can come to us with a proof of identity, and we would agree to replace the code(s) with “DP” for “report was made, but is disputed.”
  • The record might be used as evidence for prostitution.
    • We won’t keep the record of who is texting us.
    • Also, we could modify the system to make it available to the general public who are going on date with people they met online. That way, usage of the service does not necessarily indicate that someone is doing sex work.

This is the kind of cost that we’d be looking at. I think it’s entirely possible to fund with individual donations.

Is there any tech person who is interested in volunteering with a project like this? Do you know anyone?

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