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

Date: May 30, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Thank you. That is all I was trying to say to Ms. Marr. Well put!

    Comment by Lilithe — June 1, 2012 @ 4:16 am

  2. Thank you for this excellent post, Emi. There’s now a Part 2 of the blog entry you linked to: . and Stella complains of being cyberbullied when this person has been cyberbullying sex workers rights activists for a long time to discredit our voices through claiming that the sex workers’ rights movement is run by pimps and represents the interests of pimps without knowing all of our experiences–basically arguing that certain people in the movement have held management positions and then using this to discredit our whole movement–even sex workers who do not hold such position. It’s not only people in management who this person targets, as Stella previously accused Norma Jean Almadovar of being a convicted pimp when Norma Jean was actually arrested while being an escort. Months later ( Part 1 of the blog entry above that you linked to) Stella said Norma Jean was convicted of prostituting women while working as a cop, when this had nothing to do with Norma Jean’s conviction, which occurred while working as an escort after leaving the police force and writing a book to expose corruption in the LAPD. This seems like nothing more than a deliberate attempt to deny Norma Jean’s ability to speak out as a sex worker, and then use this to discredit all sex workers in our movement.

    Such maliciousness makes it harder for sex workers to identify as and speak out as sex workers rights activists, and I have no doubt it is nothing more than a malicious attempt to shut us up. I do not know who this person is or what qualifies Stella to make any claims about our movement, but the nasty comments have caused some sex workers advocating for our human rights a lot of distress, and I demand an end to this maliciousness. Even people who have not been personally targeted by the claims still feel this as sex workers’ rights activists. We have every right to defend ourselves as sex workers advocating for our human rights, even if Stella does not like what we all say. For all I know, the people making malicious claims against our movement could be abusive pimps attempting to shut up sex workers mobilizing for our rights so they could have more control.

    Stella, if you read this, there are a variety of reasons why people become sex workers’ rights activists that have nothing to do with pimping. You identify as a survivor, yet so do some sex workers’ rights activists, and this experience could lead people to advocacy to give sex workers more power and abusive pimps and traffickers less control. Some sex workers rights activists also are trafficking survivors; have experienced working for abusive and exploitative management; have experienced violence in the sex trade; and persecution and hatred for being sex workers. In this context, the malicious attitudes against the sex workers’ rights movement as a whole are all the more hateful, and ignorant.

    Dancers at the Lusty Lady peek show in San Francisco, not management, formed a labor union to improved conditions. In fact, these dancers were challenging many of the claims by management. Such action is very much what sex workers’ rights advocacy is about, sex workers having the freedom to speak up, be listened to, and unite for rights. Years later, dancers bought out the Lusty Lady and it is not now a sex worker-owned (in this sense, meaning dancers) co-op.

    Advocating for the human rights of sex workers does not make people pimps. Opposing violence against sex workers does not make people pimps. Allowing sex workers to have voices and encouraging people to listing does not make people pimps. Supporting sex workers’ rights to work in the sex industry as well as with right to leave the sex industry without being discriminated against in other jobs for being sex workers does not make people pimps. Striving to give sex workers voices in policies affecting our livelihoods does not make people pimps. As we say, no laws about us without us. These are what the sex workers’ rights movement stands for and advocates for.

    Comment by Vegan Vixen — June 29, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

  3. Oh, and by the way, Robyn is dying of cancer (though her strong spirit will always live on) and her physical condition is not good. Yet, this does not stop Stella from making nasty claims about her without even explaining the context surrounding her prostitution-related conviction, saying that Robyn was convicted of conspiracy to promote prostitution across state lines (which I imagine could mean all kinds of things) to justify calling her a pimp. Stella continues making horrible claims about Robyn as she (Robyn) is not in a position to defend herself, while providing no evidence that Robyn abused or harmed anybody, or forced anybody to do anything against their will. Regardless of people’s feelings about the sex workers’ rights movement, please just back off of Robyn and let her live her final days in peace (however many more she has). I feel a tear come to my right eye as I write this.

    Comment by Vegan Vixen — June 29, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

  4. Oops, sorry for the typos two messages above. I meant to say the Lusty Lady is now a sex workers (dancer) owned co-op, and accidentally wrote the last letter in “now” wrong to make it a different word. I also meant to say the dancers challenged management’s policies, not only claims. I was so emotional that I wasn’t focused enough on grammar.

    Comment by Vegan Vixen — June 29, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

  5. Here here! I personally was arrested and am now facing charges of promoting prostitution. If convivted I face up to five years in prison and labeled a sex offender for the rest of my life. All because I have a website. I have only ever been an independent provider. I am NOT a pimp, but that doesn’t stop the judicial machine from charging us and convicting us as if we were. Not everybody convicted of “promoting prostitution” is a pimp.

    Comment by Cilly Honey — February 8, 2013 @ 9:31 pm

  6. […] justice activist, sex worker, and feminist writer Emi Koyama wrote in a May 2012 blog post that “One reason [the laws are] so broad is that real pimps (i.e. those who control other people […]

    Pingback by The Blurred Lines Between Sex Work and Sex Trafficking | Slixa — May 14, 2018 @ 9:21 am

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