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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!

Occupy Janus Youth? Social service industrial complex and its betrayal of street-based youth

Date: November 15, 2011

The City of Portland shut down the Occupy Portland encampment in Chapman and Lownsdale Squares across the street from the City Hall this past weekend. It was part of the nationwide takedown of Occupy demonstrations. In an interview with PBS, Mayor Sam Adams explained his decision:

Police said the sites have been plagued by a series of problems, including multiple assaults and two fatal drug overdoses. And on Wednesday, a man was arrested on suspicion of throwing a Molotov cocktail the night before, doing minor damage at the city’s World Trade Center. […]

Well, you know, when the details of the drug overdoses, the details surrounding the individual that ignited the Molotov cocktail, when I have homeless and homeless youth advocates telling me that this is a very unsafe situation, you know, I listen to that.

I felt that it was disingenuous that the Mayor is citing overdoses and safety concern for youth as reasons for shutting down Occupy Portland. Occupy does not cause drug overdoses: they happen all the time across the city. If anything, the presence of the camp can save lives because people experiencing overdose are far more likely to survive when they are surrounded by many other people.

Similarly, Occupy does not endanger street youth: Occupy merely attracted youth who have already been endangered by poverty, homelessness, and lack of services. Taking away the resources the youth found for themselves is inherently disempowering and does not make them any safer. It is as if the City wanted overdose deaths and youth endangerment to be scattered across the city so that it would not have to recognize the magnitude of its failure, even if that means homeless youth and adults are put in greater danger.

I was particularly offended that the Mayor claims to have listened to “homeless and homeless youth advocates” when he decided to destroy a community many homeless youth and adults have chosen to stay. I thought he was making it up, because I believed that street youth advocates would support a harm reduction approach to advocating for the youth taking charge of their own survival, rather than forcibly removing them from resources they find for themselves.

I was wrong. Janus Youth, Portland-area’s largest provider of services to youth including Yellow Brick Road street outreach program, actually did advise the City about how Occupy Portland endangered youth–several days before Mayor announced his decision to crack down on the movement. A letter from Janus executive director Dennis Morrow, which was very unwisely posted on the Mayor’s website, says:

When Yellow Brick Road teams went through Occupy Portland during the early afternoon on Monday October 17th, they were greeted by large numbers of homeless youth who had voluntarily exited Homeless Youth Continuum (HYC) services to take part in the event. […] While we are very supportive of young people having both meaningful voice and purpose, our years of experience with vulnerable street-affected youth tell us that this requires a great deal of structure and expertise or it is a recipe for disaster. […] We have also met numerous youth who were voluntarily opting out of homeless youth services or refusing to access services as new clients because they felt they were getting their needs met adequately at Occupy Portland sites.

In talking with Yellow Brick Road staff, it is their sense that the political leanings of the original march and occupation have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of homeless youth and possibly runaway minors who have descended upon the area and, in some instances, brought the violent nature of street-based subcultures and internal hierarchies to the protest site. There are young people with significant developmental delays, mental illness and drug/alcohol abuse issues mingling with potentially predatory adults (and young children) in a largely unchecked environment. More recently we have seen several cases of staph infection from young campers in the area. Recent days have seen the implementation of “safe injection” and “sexual assault response” tents which, despite our unwavering support for risk reduction, speaks to the level of unexpected behavior in the area.

It appears to me that the main concern for Janus was the fact that many youth have abandoned its programs, making their failure as a social service provider apparent. Youth who decided to abandon Janus services did so because Janus was failing to provide competent and respectful services that were meaningfully better in the eyes of youth than what a group of disorganized volunteers provided at Occupy. The encampment was not taking away the youth from Janus; Janus was losing them. And the agency wanted them back, even if that meant a destruction of the youth’s chosen community.

I used to love Janus. I still love and trust many people who work at Janus. But over the past several years, I have noticed its distinct departure from harm reduction principles as the agency received funding from and embraced anti- (domestic minor sex) trafficking efforts. They are frequently seen appearing and working alongside law enforcement officers at various places (including at the national runaway and homeless youth conference in Portland this week), compromising youth’s trust in the agency as well as its ability to meet the youth where they are at.

Janus’ support for forcibly removing Occupy Portland and for evicting homeless youth from a place they made home is yet another sign that Janus takes supporting autonomy and dignity of youth less seriously than it once did. Of course, I know that many front-line workers at Janus do not agree with their bosses’ paternalistic, pro-police stances, and I am glad that there are many true advocates for youth within the agency. That said, while I have no doubt that the City would have shut down Occupy Portland regardless of Janus’ opinions, I feel that Janus betrayed street youth by participating in the City’s brutal attack on them.

Time to occupy Janus Youth?

Janus Youth
707 NE Couch Street
Portland, OR 97232
Phone: 503.233.6090
Fax: 503.233.6093
feedback@janusyouth.org

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.

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