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Announcing SYSTEM FAILURE ALERT!

Date: December 18, 2012

System Failure Alert! Flier

System Failure Alert! is a new grassroots project in Portland, Oregon that empowers street youth and other people by helping each of us share our stories and experiences about “system failures”–problems we had with social service, medical, law enforcement, and other systems that are supposed to help us–and about how we cope with these problems and take care of ourselves. We let people know about these stories through SFA! zines, internet, and public events, and try to make “systems” treat youth and adults better.

We are just starting out! Let us know if you want to get involved, and/or have stories to tell us. We are looking for youth, adults, activists, advocates, students, rogue social workers and medical providers (ya know, the good ones), and others to join! More information & SFA! zine issue #0 are forthcoming!

voicemail: (503) 567-8537
email:systemfailurealert@gmail.com
facebook: http://www.facebook.com/SystemFailureAlert
tumblr: http://systemfailurealert.tumblr.com/

State Violence, Sex Trade, and the Failure of Anti-Trafficking Policies – New Zine Released!

Date: December 17, 2012

In celebration of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I am announcing the release of new zine, titled “State Violence, Sex Trade, and the Failure of Anti-Trafficking Policies.” This zine is yet another compilation of short essays and articles I’ve been writing about sex work, sex trade, and the anti-trafficking movement.

In spring of 2011, I wrote “War on Terror and War on Trafficking: A Sex Worker Activist Confronts the Anti-Trafficking Movement,” which focused on debunking main claims of mainstream anti-trafficking organizations. In “Understanding Complexities of Sex Trade/Work and Trafficking” published in late 2011/early 2012, I discussed what sex trade actually looks like for people who come from complicated backgrounds, demonstrating how mainstream anti-trafficking rhetoric and politics harm the very people they are intended to “rescue.”

Essays in this new compilation extend the analysis of the previous two booklets on this important topic, with a special emphasis on the context of pervasive surveillance and criminalization of communities of color, immigrants, street youth, as well as people in the sex trade. Throughout the booklet, I am calling for a new multiracial coalition against state violence and criminalization, instead of narrowly focusing on sex workers’ rights or on sex trafficking.

I hope that this booklet stimulates conversations among feminists, sex workers, progressive activists, and all others who need to be part of this emerging coalition.

Table of Contents

The new zine is available for download (PDF) and purchase (hard copy) at http://eminism.org/store/

“Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade” handout updated for December 17

Date: December 16, 2012

Just in time for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I’ve updated my half-page flier, “Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist.”

Please feel free to download PDF and distribute copies at your local December 17 event!

Anti-Criminalization: Criminalization happens on the ground, not in the legislature

Date: November 27, 2012

I attended Harm Reduction Conference for the first time this year, and it was also the first year this conference had the “sex worker track,” a series of workshops and presentations throughout the conference dedicated to addressing harm reduction approach to meeting the needs of sex workers and people in the sex industry. Many of the presentations I’ve posted on this blog last week were part of the sex worker track, and I attended many presentations by other activists.

But there is a downside to holding a specific “track” on sex workers’ issues, as it became clearer as activists and advocates working for people in the sex industry discussed among ourselves: I felt that “sex workers’ issues” was treated like a separate set of issues, distinct from issues affecting people who use drugs–the central focus of the conference overall–despite the fact there are large overlaps between issues and concerns faced by both groups. And it is not just in the sense that many people in the sex trade also use drugs; more importantly, it is because social and economic circumstances that exacerbate risks both groups face are often the same.

For many activists participating in the “sex worker track,” it was obvious that the ascent of the mainstream “anti-trafficking” discourse that reduces the complex issue of sexual labor to evil “traffickers” forcing innocent “victims” into prostitution and prescribes further policing and prosecution as the solution is not just harmful to sex workers, but to people of color, immigrants, street youth, and all others whose lives are under pervasive surveillance and criminalization, as I’ve discussed in my presentation about “war on trafficking”.

We were also keenly aware that police encroachment of social service systems under the guise of fighting human trafficking (mainly domestic minor sex trafficking), as discussed in my presentation about youth services, is dismantling the coalition based on harm reduction principles between social and economic justice movements and public health administration that we have built over last several decades, with serious negative consequences for many other vulnerable communities in addition to people in the sex trade. But I’m afraid that the rest of harm reduction community are not recognizing this clear and present danger to the entire harm reduction movement because they compartmentalize “sex workers’ issues” as a side business, rather than one of the central themes of the entire movement.

One of the most exciting things that came about as a result of our discussions at the Harm Reduction Conference is a new framing for addressing how attacks on people in the sex trade which are perpetuated by the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse operate in relation to other ways communities are targeted and criminalized by the state.

Mainstream (white, middle-class) sex workers’ movement in the U.S. puts lots of emphasis on “decriminalizing” prostitution and sex work–i.e. eliminating laws that prohibit consensual adult commercial transactions involving sexual contact–as well as destigmatization of sex work. But to those of us who are street-based, immigrants, youth, transgender, etc. this agenda appear to be based on the naive premise that people engaging in prostitution are targeted by the state because the legislature passed laws to criminalize prostitution. Those of us who live under pervasive surveillance and criminalization know that the cause and effect run the other way around: we are just targeted and criminalized for who we are, and the laws are passed by the legislature to justify it and make it more efficient.

In other words, criminalization happens on the ground, not in the legislature. For example, even though some States have passed “safe harbor laws” that define minors who are “rescued” from prostitution as victims, not criminals, young people are still arrested and detained as juvenile delinquents, “material witnesses,” mentally incapacitated, etc., or are “charged up” with drug and other crimes that result in longer sentences than simple misdemeanor prostitution offenses. Young people, especially young women of color and transgender women, are still profiled as suspected prostitutes, and are targeted for “stop and frisk” in search of drugs and condoms–which is construed as an evidence for prostitution. They are still forcibly placed under the child welfare system that many young people had to run away from in the first place for years, instead of serving 12 days in jail as they did before. We are not targeted because we trade sex for money, food, shelter, survival; we are just targeted, period, and it is simply slightly more convenient for the state that some of us are also breaking laws against prostitution (and even if we aren’t–we are automatically suspects).

We need an anti-criminalization movement, not decriminalization movement. An anti-criminalization movement is not just about sexual freedom or “right to choose,” although it supports these ideas too. More fundamentally, it is about fighting for social and economic justice in the face of pervasive state violence against communities of color, immigrants, street youth, drug users, and others. An anti-criminalization movement is not just about changing laws, but about delegitimatizing state violence from its very foundation of colonialism and genocide to slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex.

We saw a beginning of this new alliance in California, where voters earlier this month overwhelmingly approved Prop. 35, a ballot measure enacting several “anti-trafficking” laws that focus on increasing criminalization and policing. Even though Prop. 35 was easily passed statewide, the array of organizations that publicly stood against this problematic statute was impressive: along with some sex worker and civil liberties organizations, the list of critics included Black Women for Wellness, Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and Causa Justa / Just Cause–organization led by people of color for people of color who saw through the anti-trafficking rhetoric of Prop. 35 and recognized it for the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that underlie the increased surveillance and criminalization of their communities.

It is this new, emerging alliance against criminalization of our people and communities in an increasingly multi-racial and queer/trans-friendly America that gives me hope despite of the massive overreach of policing and criminalization advanced by the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. We need to continue having conversations not just about decriminalization as a matter of legal reform, but about anti-criminalization, linking the struggles of people in the sex trade with other people and communities that are facing state surveillance and criminalization, building alliances with organization for racial, economic, gender, housing, queer/trans, and immigration justice.

(Thanks to people I spoke with at the conference, especially S. and K. for your insight that informed much of what I wrote here. This isn’t my personal manifesto, but something that came bubbling in the space among and between all of us. I love you.)

Limits of Harm Reduction: “Managing” Sexual Assault is Not Enough

Date: November 26, 2012

Several days ago, I posted slides from my presentation, “Reclaiming ‘Victim’ and Embracing Unhealthy Coping,” which took place during the Harm Reduction Conference.

Much to my surprise, the presentation was received ridiculously well, like, best responses ever. So many people came up to me to tell me how much they appreciated the presentation throughout the rest of the conference, including many who did not even attend the panel but heard about it from someone who did. One person who attended told me that when she saw her friend immediately afterwards and began telling her about what she had just heard, the friend commented, “you look like you are having ecstasy.” I didn’t realize that it was that good, but it was great to have my work appreciated so much.

I think all the positive reactions (which is still good, despite the fact my presentation was about “negative survivorship”) came about because many of the people in the room were folks who work in harm reduction field (as it mostly relates to working with people who use substances), and also are survivors of violence and abuse or know someone who is. They liked my presentation because I made harm reduction principles (which they are so familiar with) applicable to their own personal coping and survival or that of someone close to them.

But during the questions and answers period, some curious discussion came up: a woman asked how harm reduction principles apply to her work with sex offenders, rather than victims and survivors of abuse. I hesitated, because it’s emotionally difficult to engage with the behaviors of rapists, child molesters, and abusers, even in the abstract. But when I heard someone else responding to her, suggesting that harm reduction could be practiced just the same way for offenders as for drug users or abuse victims in order to reduce the harm they inflict, I had to say something: I had to point out the limitations of harm reduction principle, as wonderful and effective it may be in some areas.

A couple of years ago, I went to a workshop about harm reduction philosophy hosted by a local activist collective. The presenter spoke about one of the best examples of harm reduction-based policies, which according to her was the distribution of condoms to U.S. soldiers stationed overseas: condom distribution prevents sexually transmitted diseases, which is good for both U.S. servicemembers (assumed to be heterosexual men) and locals (assumed to be women), as well as other people.

I immediately thought about stories of rape and other forms of violence committed by members of U.S. armed services against native inhabitants of Okinawa, as in (I’m sure) many other places around the world. Under the diplomatic treaties, it is difficult for local police to charge and prosecute U.S. servicemembers with the crime once they return to the base, from which they sent back to the mainland U.S. quickly. That is not to say that consensual sexual acts don’t happen between U.S. servicemembers and locals–but sexual assault is too frequent and too often concealed by both governments for me to celebrate the distribution of condoms (which, I’m not sure if they do in Okinawa specifically) as “harm reduction” measures.

Condoms do certainly reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, but they do not reduce the number of rapes committed by members of the U.S. armed services, or the size of the Okinawan land forcibly occupied by the U.S. military (about 10% of all of Okinawa, and 18% of the main isle of Okinawa), which is itself a form of violence, a joint product of dual imperialisms of the U.S. and Japan over Okinawa. It is perhaps true that a rape with a condom is less harmful than one without, but making condoms available does not address the worst harm that is being perpetrated; worse, it may perpetuate even more harm by reducing the risk of the behavior to the rapist.

Some people do in fact advocate for “harm reduction” approach to sexual assault. In an article titled “Relapse Prevention or Harm Reduction? (published in July 1996 issue of the journal Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment), forensic psychologist D. Richard Laws wrote:

In this view sexual deviation would be seen as a chronic, well-established disposition to commit sexual crimes, a condition that could not be cured but could be managed, albeit imperfectly. […] A harm reduction perspective with sex offenders acknowledges that lapses and relapses are probably inevitable and that the job of treatment, at the very least, is to reduce the frequency and intensity of these instances, if they cannot be eliminated.

At bottom, our job in managing sex offenders and reducing harm is, in reality, a sort of social policing. What we are really doing is attempting to contain and limit socially undesirable behaviors. This is not unlike the efforts of law enforcement officials to contain gambling, prostitution, or drug dealing.

In the follow-up article, published in July 1999 issue of the same journal, Laws argued:

However, it will eventually prove necessary to normalize some aspects of sexual deviation including some features of sexual offending. We need to normalize sexual offending in the same way that we have normalized other deviant behaviors such as drug dealing, prostitution, or gambling.

I would agree that we cannot, at least for the foreseeable future, eliminate sexual violence altogether. But I am deeply disturbed by suggestion that sexual violence is “inevitable” and can only be “managed,” as well as by the parallel Laws seems to be drawing between non-violent behaviors such as substance use and gambling and sexual violence where there are clear, direct victims who are harmed by the behavior.

An attitude like this, or like that of the workshop participant who stated that harm reduction approach is equally applicable to working with sex offenders as well as their victims, is symptomatic of how harm reduction has turned into a merely more sophisticated form of paternalistic intervention to modify individual behaviors.

But harm reduction is supposed to be more than just reducing or “managing” harms. It is supposed to be a fundamental reframing of priorities for social interventions that places individual and community well-being, as defined by the individuals and the communities that are affected most. I fully endorse a harm reduction approach to survivor advocacy, which includes embracing of negative survivorship, but it would be a misuse of harm reduction principles to simply lower expectations for sex offenders, child molesters, and abusers when they are not the party most directly affected by the harms their behaviors inflict.

Youth vs. the Social Service Industrial Complex: How Anti-Trafficking Hysteria is Dismantling Harm Reduction Movement

Date: November 24, 2012

This is the last of the series of presentations I gave at Harm Reduction Conference last week. I would really appreciate reactions to this presentation: the explosive title is not at all an exaggeration.

Resisting the “War on Trafficking”: Two Presentations at Harm Reduction Conference

Date: November 22, 2012

Here are a couple of presentations I gave at Harm Reduction Conference last week as part of the panels critiquing the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. First has to do with debunking commonly stated myths about trafficking–more specifically, domestic minor sex trafficking–and the second addresses problematic public policies that result from these inaccurate claims, and proposes an alternative framework.

Because of weird scheduling I ended up presenting the second part first at the actual conference, but I’m posting them here in correct order.

Negative Survivorship: Reclaiming “Victim” and Embracing Unhealthy Coping

Date: November 21, 2012

Here’s another presentation from last week’s Harm Reduction Conference. It is part of the project I’m calling “negative survivorship,” which is one of the things I’m feeling most passionate about these days. Enjoy!

Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade–my presentation at TransConnect: Resource and Cultural Fair

Date: November 20, 2012

Below is my presentation at this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event, TransConnect: Resource and Cultural Fair held at Portland Q Center. This is basically a shorter version of my keynote talk at Portland State University’s TDOR event last year, so there’s not much new materials in it, but I thought some people might prefer the shorter version. The presentation was sponsored by Portland Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Portland Bad Date Line: Limitations and Challenges

Date: November 19, 2012

I announced earlier that I was going to speak on two panels at Harm Reduction Conference that took place last week, but I ended up doing five panels instead, different themes each time. Here’s one of the presentations I did about Portland Bad Date Line.

Bad Date Lines are a tool used by people trading sex to protect each other by sharing information about “bad dates”–people who use violence to hurt them. This presentation gives a brief history of Portland Bad Date Line, focusing on how its features changed when Danzine, a grass-roots sex workers’ organization that started it, closed its doors and the PBDL was taken over by social service agencies.

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