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

Date: October 31, 2011

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Consent is overrated: why “yes means yes, no means no” is inadequate

Date: October 21, 2011

“Consent workshops” are increasingly popular on college campuses and activist communities across the country (or is it just the pinko Northwest?) as a sexual assault prevention and healthy relationship program. They are valuable in a society where people’s clothes, sexual history, and pre-exiting relationships (i.e. being partners or spouses) are often regarded as an implicit consent, some sort of binding contract that can be enforced against one’s will.

But the whole concept of “consent” just feels too legalistic to me. To be fair, there is a difference between the notion of “consent” that is codified in law (and college policies) and those promoted by activists presenting consent workshops. Seattle University student group Break the Silence explain:

We begin by presenting the legal definitions for Washington State and Seattle University (since that’s where we’re located), which are, incidentally, exptremely similar. […] Both of the definitions below are highly problematic and do not encompass the idea of radical consent. After presenting the definitions to participants, we ask the questions “what is missing, assumed, and excluded?” and begin to break apart the definition of radical consent from, in part, Generation 5 and Common Action, and ask the same questions of it.

Legal definitions treat consent as a static agreement that is enforceable once it is freely given. The radical version, as explained by Break the Silence, goes:

Consent means everyone involved wants and agrees to be present at each step of the way. You can change your mind at ANY TIME before or during sex. Consent means that ALL parties say YES!. Just assuming someone wants to have sex is not enough–it’s not safe. Further, it is a free, fluid ongoing discussion and negotiation about what our desires are, what we want for ourselves in our lives and what we want for the people we’re either intimate with or in relationships with at any level. […]

To complicate consent is to realize that we live within an oppressive society, so consent is always tenuous. We don’t really get to consent to the country we live in, we don’t really get to consent to live within capitalism. Often times, even making a choice, yes or no, has many other implications about the choices we were forced to make before that.

I particularly appreciate the last paragraph from Break the Silence, but I think it is the main weakness of “consent”: it individualizes choices in the name of respecting self-determination, often neglecting contexts of choices we make and making us solely and individually responsible for their consequences. The language of consent is inadequate when people’s survival and well-being depends on entering into agreements, especially but not necessarily when market transaction is involved, which is why the notion of “consent” is particularly difficult for me as a sex worker activist.

Under the neo-classical economic theory, any third-party intervention preventing freely entered transactions are harmful to the parties that are involved. The logic goes: if the transaction is not net-positive for both parties, the transaction won’t happen. Therefore, stopping them from entering into the transaction harms both parties, even if they appear unfair to a third party. For example, they argue that minimum wage law harms the people it is intended to help, because it deprives employment from people whose market evaluation is below the legal minimum wage: if there weren’t minimum wage laws, people with low expected productivity can still get a job at a lower wage, rather than facing unemployment. They extend this argument to other “repugnant” transactions, such as transplantable organ trade, sweatshops, commercial surrogacy, and yes prostitution–some of which are legal under certain jurisdictions, some not, but they are all controversial.

I do not think that the transaction should be banned simply because it is problematic: after all, I consider much of the capitalist economy problematic. But even if I don’t think prohibition is appropriate–like in the case of prostitution–I think there are harmful repercussions if we treat them as unproblematic. I will say this again: prostitution in this society is a deeply problematic institution, as are marriage and capitalism.

Earlier this month I went to see Carmeryn Moore’s one-person play “Phone Whore,” which is based on her experiences working as a telephone sex operator. She intermixed her personal life and relationship with composite of actual scenarios she performed with the men who called her service, and it was quite entertaining. Some of the calls were, as you can imagine, deeply problematic, such as the obligatory incestuous scene, and white men calling to enact fantasy of being sodomized by big Black men, which she says is a major theme in her work.

Her main argument throughout the show and the discussion afterwards was that fantasies are always “okay and good.” Acting on pedophilic desires or projecting racist, homophobic (which is why the scene has to involve forced penetration, and also why they call her instead of actually calling a phone sex line for gay men), homoerotic desire to an unconsenting Black man would be illegal and/or unethical, but calling a phone sex line to explore such fantasies with a consenting operator is totally healthy and fine.

But I don’t think that they are unproblematic. I agree that judging people for their desires would be useless, and I prefer that they find outlets to explore such fantasies in safe and consensual ways (which phone sex lines are), but I still don’t feel that sexism, racism, and homophobia are “okay and good” as long as it is expressed on a phone sex line.

While I was in college I briefly worked as a phone sex operator from a dorm room. The company wanted to post pictures that supposedly represent me, so I insisted that they use an image of Asian girl: I feel fine playing the role of a skinny model with huge breasts wearing revealing clothes, but I didn’t feel okay playing any other race. Callers obviously know that the girl they are speaking to probably isn’t that model, but they went along.

Dealing with the (predominantly white, I assume) men’s fantasies about Asian women turned out to be more stressful than I had imagined, even more so than doing other forms of sex work because phone sex is so verbal. But I kept working until Student Housing for some reason decided to disconnect my phone, so in some way I was consenting to the onslaught of submissive-yet-slutty Asian girl stereotype. But it made me more conscious of comments and gaze I experience while riding bus, shopping at grocery stores, and just going about everyday things. The racist and sexist messages I experience outside of the phone sex work are less explicitly sexual in nature, but I sense that they come from the same source. To me, they are inseparable from what I was hearing while working for $0.35 per minute of logged time, and I wasn’t even being paid at all!

I can consent to engage in racially and sexually problematic conversations over the phone, but I don’t have a choice as to whether to live in a racist and sexist society. I don’t have a choice to live in a society in which food, housing, and college education is a luxury rather than a fundamental right. The appeal of sex work for some people is that it turns the master’s tools into a survival method, but it is still the master’s house that we are living in. While laws to prevent me from working on the phone sex line would be draconian, it feels very invalidating to hear someone say that all fantasies are “okay and good” when they are rooted in racism, sexism, and other social injustices.

Another way the notion of “consent” can become harmful is when consent for a specific act (often market transaction) is regarded as consenting to the social context surrounding the act as well as its consequences. The logic of classical liberalism couples choices we make with implicit and explicit personal responsibility for their consequences. In addition to blaming the victim of violence and poverty for their experiences (“you caused this”), it leads many advocates to deny agency and resilience of survivors who make “choices” that trouble us, such as abuse victims who kill their batterers, or childhood sexual abuse survivors who engage in sex trade.

These survivors are said to be suffering from “battered women’s syndrome” or re-enacting their early abuse, and therefore they should not be viewed as freely choosing to be violent or engage in illegal activities. Many self-professed advocates for youth who trade sex, for example, emphasize that the youth should be treated as victims of crime (especially sex trafficking) because they are incapable of making a choice to engage in sex trade, both because of age of consent laws and because they are “trafficked.” While this approach is preferable to treating them as delinquents and criminals, it feels profoundly disempowering and patronizing.

I argue that most people who trade sex are making conscious choice to engage in that activity, but the presence of consent should not be confused with the fairness or equity of the contexts in which such consent occurs. Nor should it be assumed that because one makes a choice to do something, that individual is solely and individually responsible for all consequences of that action.

The choice I am speaking about is the kind of choice a rape victim makes when she closes her eyes and dissociate from the sensation of her attacker’s tongue slithering on her skin so that she can stay alive. It is the choice parents make when they cross heavily militarized borders on the desert, risking their lives to give their children a better life. It is a choice that queer and trans youth make when they can’t take any more of abuse at home and bullying at school and run away to a big city instead of committing suicide.

We have many choices in life, but we often cannot choose the number and quality of choices that are presented to us or contexts in which we must make choices. That is the reality, and consent is rarely as simple as “yes means yes, no means no.” Even the radical, activist formulation of “consent” is too individualistic and legalistic, and does not differ enough from the neo-classical economic ideology of individual choice and responsibility.

Break the Silence is correct to point out that consent in a deeply unjust, capitalist society is “tenuous,” but throughout the rest of its “consent workshops,” they appear to forget this insight. For example, they list many examples of participatory exercises for such workshops, but none of them address the concern: it is as if everything would be “okay and good” as long as we learn to express and honor each others’ desires. It is not.

I’m not complaining that they are not doing a good job presenting a consent workshop; rather, I feel that this is an inherent flaw in workshops that center the notion of “consent.” There certainly is a tension between honoring each individual’s right to self-determination and recognizing that choices we make are constrained by social and economic factors that are beyond our control. There is also a practical issue, which is that consent workshops are not designed to stop people from having sex, but to do so in consensual and respectful manner. But I feel that there is a deep lack, and it becomes more of a problem when we are discussing the intersection of sexuality and market, that is the sex industry.

Youth in the sex industry: how recognizing “push” and “pull” factors can better inform public policy

Date: October 19, 2011

Recently, there have been several articles in the media challenging the frequently cited “statistics” that claims anywhere between 100,000 to 300,000 children annually are trafficked into sexual slavery in the United States, most notably in Village Voice (06/29/2011). I have also analyzed this claim in my zine, “War on Terror & War on Trafficking,” criticizing the methodological problems in the original study as well as misinterpretation of the study by the media and anti-trafficking organizations. (Village Voice requested a phone interview with me before that article came out, but I thought they were going to twist my comments so I insisted on a written interview over email, after which they trailed off.)

But while it is not true that hundreds of thousands of children are forced into sexual slavery, Village Voice is clearly wrong to suggest, based on the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution-related crimes, that underage prostitution is extremely rare. Any social service providers serving street-based youth know that underage prostitution is fairly common among the youth they work with, even though it does not look like what the media often depict it to be.

The confusion arises from the application of the legal definition of “human trafficking” to frame our understanding of underage prostitution. Because the law defines any youth who engages in sex trade (which is a value-neutral descriptive term I use instead of “sex work” or “sexual exploitation”) as victims of human trafficking, many people equate that to mean that all youth who engage in sex trade are enslaved by traffickers.

This impression is further reinforced by certain anti-trafficking organizations such as Shared Hope International that promote the notion that any child, even white middle-class children from good homes in the suburb, can be trafficked into sexual slavery. Such campaigns fuel fear and panic among white middle-class parents that their daughters might be “taken” from their suburban schools and malls by urban (code for Black) pimps. This fear-mongering tactics is highly effective for grabbing funding, media attention, and political influence than campaigns that focus on the plight of runaway and thrownaway youth of color and youth from impoverished or broken homes–a more typical profile of a teenager involved in sex trade.

It is true that any child can be trafficked, but like everything else, poverty, racism, and other societal violence are huge risk factors: A pimp who goes to a suburban school to pick up a girl is much more likely to be noticed or caught, and the girl that went missing will be reported to the authority immediately. On the other hand, youth who is neglected or abandoned by their family and has no safe place to return to is a much easier and safer target for anyone looking for a minor to exploit.

But the misguided panic among middle-class suburban parents lead to policies that are ineffectual or even counter-productive, such as curfews and more policing at schools and malls. Curfews or youth shutouts in public spaces that are intended to protect youth from harm at night would only work if the youth had a safe place to go home to at night; if they don’t, curfews would force them to find some random adult to stay with for the night, which may not necessarily increase their safety.

Village Voice and other critics of “100,000 to 300,000″ figure are correct to point out that the number of youth who are held in captivity and subjected to commercial sexual servitude–which the word “slavery” implies–is low. But when you include youth who occasionally or regularly engage in survival sex, which is trading sex for food, shelter, and other survival needs, and those who stay with a “boyfriend” or pimp not because they are unable to escape from them but because they get something out of the relationship that they are not getting elsewhere, the number would be exponential.

I believe that there are some anti-trafficking activists and organizations that distort reality about youth in the sex trade in order to advance agenda that have nothing to do with ending sexual exploitation of youth. I count Shared Hope International as well as the producers of the documentary, “Sex+Money: A National Search for Human Worth” in this group. I base this allegation on these activists’ and groups’ activities, such as Shared Hope shamelessly using its mailing list to distribute anti-abortion propaganda, and “Sex+Money” producers using its screenings to hand out “purity bands” that encourage viewers to pledge abstinence until they are married.

But I wonder if organizations that actually care about the youth are also making a conscious decision to let the public imagine there to be 100,000 to 300,000 minors who are “sold” as sex slaves, not challenging their misperceptions, precisely because they know that the public would care less about the youth if they understood the reality that most of them are not “forced,” at least not in slavery-like conditions, but are simply doing what it takes to survive. I wonder if they are intentionally hiding the fact that the youth in the sex trade are overwhelmingly youth of color, queer and trans youth, and other runaway, thrownaway, and homeless youth, and not your typical white middle-class children taken from suburban schools and malls, because they fear that the public won’t care about these children and youth. If white middle-class parents stop caring, there won’t be any funding to provide services to the youth who desperately need it. That seems like a reasonable hypothesis that explains why many social service agencies that work with this population remain complicit in upholding wildly inaccurate misperceptions about the problem at hand.

But, as I’ve pointed out above, such strategy also leads to ineffectual or counter-productive policies. I am especially alarmed that some of the social service agencies are forming and strengthening unnerving partnerships with the law enforcement, such as riding along in the police vehicle when cops conduct prostitution sweeps. The purpose of the ride-along is ostensibly to provide support and resources to any youth that might be uncovered in the sweep, but many street youth understandably view the police as their enemy, and it harms the social service agency’s credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the youth.

Further, the public misperception over who the youth are result in overemphasis on pull factors of underage prostitution, and almost complete lack of attention to its push factors. “Pull factors” are the presence of sex industry, johns (clients), pimps, and traffickers that lure youth into engaging in sex trade; “push factors” are factors such as family violence, poverty, prison industry, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and unjust immigration laws, that make youth vulnerable in the first place.

Almost all anti-trafficking organizations focus on policing and prosecution of johns, pimps, and traffickers–the pull factors of the equation. Behind such approach is a naive assumption that the youth have a safe home to go back to or remain at if it weren’t for the sex industry, johns, pimps, or traffickers. But this is not the case for the vast majority of youth who trade sex. Even if the institution of prostitution and sex industry disappeared altogether, the youth will have to find another way to survive in the hostile society, possibly by selling drugs or robbing stores.

Anti-trafficking activists and organizations that knowingly promote false images of “modern day sex slavery” infuriate me. So do Village Voice and others that claim that underage prostitution is not a significant problem. And most of all, I am exasperated by “the public,” the middle-American parents, television watchers, and people who click “like” in facebook as a form of activism, who don’t and won’t care about what youth have to do to survive, as long as their own children aren’t at risk.

Over the past couple of years, I have criticized anti-trafficking movement from a sex worker’s rights perspective, but I am finding it increasingly limiting to associate myself with the sex workers’ movement. Because sex workers’ movement seeks to decriminalize and destigmatize sex trade as a “transaction between consenting adults” just like any other market transactions, the movement automatically excludes minors from its consideration. I am not interested in “rescuing” youth from the sex industry, but I feel that it is our responsibility as adults to provide support and resources to the youth struggling to survive (whether or not they engage in survival sex or sex trade), while confronting social and economic violence that are “pushing” them onto the street in the first place.

I am preparing a new presentation on the topic, titled “Erasure of Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade: How Transgender Community, Sex Workers’ Movement, and Anti-Trafficking Movement Fail Transgender Youth.” I will first do a test run of this presentation for a class my friend teaches at Portland State University, and then present it at Justice in Transition: Serving the Transgender Community in Law and Practice symposium at New York University next month. This is the beginning of my new project on exploring alternative approaches to addressing the needs of youth in the sex trade. Let’s see where this project takes me next… (And please try to get me invited to your school if you are affiliated with one–speaking fees fund my activism!)

P.S.
Shannon, the youth services coordinator at Northwest Network, uses the acronym CSEY (commercial sexual exploitation of youth) in lieu of ubiquitous CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children). I like CSEY because it is not so radically different from CSEC that anti-trafficking people would resist it, and yet it brings the term closer to the reality and makes it less offensive. Everyone, let’s start replacing the term CSEC with CSEY whenever you see them in some documents! (That is, unless you are actually talking about five year olds.)

WE ARE THE 33%: A Call for Radical Survivor Activism Because Marching in Slutty Clothes is Not Enough.

Date: October 18, 2011

WE ARE THE 33%.

We are forming a radical activist group for survivors of sexual abuse and sexual violence…

BECAUSE it is fucking infuriating that the legal system consistently fail us, and the media continues to scrutinize personal histories of those of us who speak out.

BECAUSE we want more than just marching in slutty clothes.

BECAUSE our homes and communities are the most dangerous places.

BECAUSE we reject constructed ideals of survivorship that we are expected to aspire to.

BECAUSE taking a hot bath, drinking tea, going for a walk, and journaling about our feelings just don’t cut it sometimes.

BECAUSE “trauma recovery” industry treats survivors’ coping strategies and attitudes as the problem to be repaired.

BECAUSE acting hopeful and upbeat all the time in the aftermath of trauma is exhausting.

BECAUSE living with histories of sexual abuse is still so fucking hard.

BECAUSE acting out alone is considered pathological, but acting out with a large group is a REVOLUTION.

We are a group of survivors interested in radical activist responses to sexual violence and the society’s treatment of it. We reject mainstream narratives about sexual violence and the “trauma recovery” industry that often engage in victim-blaming and promote individualistic “healing” that seeks to change our attitudes and feelings rather than the society while profiting from our pain.

We are open to all survivors of sexual abuse and sexual violence, as each person defines it. But we place emphasis on women, queer/trans people, and others who experience sexual abuse and violence most frequently. Intersectional anti-oppression analysis is central to our movement, because single-issue approach privileges the already privileged and fractures movements.

Come to our founding meeting (date/time to be announced in Portland, Oregon) to discuss projects and actions you want to be part of. Do you want to publish a group zine or make art? Throw eggs at The Oregonian office window? Scream in public? Bring your idea and your fierceness!

(Leave comment on facebook or here to receive updates!)

New on Eminism.org – See the slides from my past presentations

Date: October 16, 2011

I don’t often use slides for my presentations, but sometimes I do, using an iPad running Keynote connected to the projector. I went through my hard drive and found some Keynote files of these presentations, so I decided to share it with readers… Please note that they are not meant to be stand-alone, and therefore they may not sense by themselves. I just thought it would give readers some idea about the sort of things I present about. See:

http://eminism.org/presentation/slides.html

Also, if you like my stuff and are affiliated with a college or university (especially Women’s Center or queer/trans groups on campus), please try to get me invited. I fund my activism with speaking fees at colleges, which is great because I am raising money for activism and community education by doing activism and education.

“Unhealthy”: On Coping with Pain in Socially Inappropriate Ways – New Zine Release!

Date: October 12, 2011

I am announcing the publication of a brand new zine, “Unhealthy”: On Coping wiht Pain in Socially Inappropriate Ways. It is a very personal zine about negative strategies to cope with the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. It is written from the perspective that the “trauma industry” of psychiatry, self-help books, therapy groups, etc. alienate some (possibly many) survivors when they glorify individualistic internalization of positivity, optimism, and hope as normative. The title comes from performance artist Penny Arcade’s famous line from the show “Bad Reputation”:

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
so you’re mute with rage, you act out, you’re bad

From the introduction:

i have been making zines for about ten years, mostly on social and political issues that affect me and my friends. this zine also addresses an urgent social and political issue that impacts me and too many people that i know, but it is much more personal than anything else i’ve created in the past. that is: this zine deals with the topic of childhood sexual abuse and its continuing impact in my and other survivors’ lives.

this zine also challenges ways in which social service industry and the anti-violence movement have promoted a singular mode of “healing,” the cult of compulsory positivity, that does not work for some survivors.

for many years, i had difficulty expressing why i despise “affirmations” and other exercises designed to improve our self-esteem, or the whole notion of “healing” that presumes a “healed” state to which i am expected to aspire to. people haven’t been receptive to my objections, and suggested that i either needed to try a little bit harder, or that i was “not ready” to heal just yet. “don’t worry, it is a hard work but you will get there when it’s time.” i found these comments invalidating and patronizing, but didn’t know how to respond.

this zine is an attempt to formulate a response to these challenges and to connect with other survivors who also feel invalidated and excluded by people and institutions that are supposed to help us. i also hope that this zine might in some remote way inform people in the helping professions as well as those of us whose loved ones, family members, and friends are survivors of abuse (that should include all of us, whether or not you realize) understand survivors’ (or at least some survivors’) experiences better. i hope that this zine helps them become better at supporting survivors who use survival strategies that involve 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 some (or most) of the time.

this zine definitely isn’t for everybody or for every survivor. i wrote it because i feel that it might help someone somewhere (possibly just me) feel less crazy, and might lead to a fuller societal understanding and appreciation of survivors’ resilience in whatever ways it may manifest. but this zine could be a double-edged sward: if for any reason you feel that reading this zine might make it more difficult for you to survive rather than less, i ask that you trust your intuition and refrain from reading on, even as i explore and embrace counter-intuitive approaches to survival.

I want to make this zine accessible to other survivors who is interested in reading it, but I don’t want to put it for download or order online: it’s too personal for that mode of distribution. For now, there are three ways to get hold of this zine: 1. I will be carrying some copies on me at one of my presentations or other public events I attend (Seattle Spit this week, for example); 2. If you already know me personally, email or facebook message me; 3. If you don’t know me personally but you still want a copy, get to know me by emailing me and telling me why you want a copy.

I apologise for inconvenience…

cover image

Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist

Date: October 8, 2011

PDF version here: Download – Print back to back upside down, then cut the paper in half horizontally. Makes two copies from a letter-sized paper. Feel free to distribute, but I’d love to know where and how you are using them.

1. Start from the assumption that women’s (and other people’s) experiences in the sex trade are diverse and complicated, just like women’s experiences in the institution of marriage.

2. Sex trade is often one of the few means of survival employed by members of marginalized communities. Criminalizing or taking away means of survival without replacing it with other, more preferable options and resources (as judged by people who engage in this activity) threatens the lives of marginalized people. If, on the other hand, we could actually provide more preferable options and resources, there is no need to criminalize or take away the option of trading sex.

3. The presence of consent does not imply fairness of the transaction, because consent can exist under deeply problematic relationships of power. Consent does not imply that one is solely and individually responsible for all consequences of the act performed consensually.

4. There is nonetheless a meaningful distinction between consensual and unconsensual sexual transactions because it helps us to recognize modes of intervention that are helpful rather than counter-productive to those involved. People who engage in consensual sex trade are harmed if the transaction is stopped, while those who are part of unconsensual acts are harmed if the transaction isn’t stopped.

5. Work under neoliberalistic capitalist economy is often exploitative and degrading. Treating sex work “just like any other work” is inadequate when “other work” are often performed under unsafe or exploitative conditions. Selling and buying of sex as commodities can be exploitative and degrading, as are selling and buying of labor, health, and safety in the neoliberalistic capitalist marketplace.

6. Legalization or decriminalization of prostitution will not end State violence against people in the sex trade. There are other laws, such as those concerning drugs, immigration, and “quality of life” crimes, that are being used against them. Arguments over how the law should classify prostitution (legalizing, decriminalizing, criminalizing, Swedish model, etc.) eludes realities of communities that are targeted by State as well as societal violence.

7. It is undeniable that the mainstream pornography and sex industry reflect and perpetuate women’s lower status in relation to men. But so do mainstream media and workplaces–sometimes in more harmful ways.

8. It may seem theoretically plausible to eliminate sex trafficking by ending the demand for commercial sexual services. But in reality, any artificial reduction of demand through increased policing would be immediately followed by a decline of price, which would in turn create more demand again. “End demand” policies have a devastating impact on the women’s bargaining power to negotiate for more money and safer acts, putting their safety and health at greater risk.

9. Many “experts” and “spokespersons” for the anti-trafficking movement are social, fiscal, and religious conservative extremists who have promoted anti-welfare, anti-immigration, anti-gay agenda. These very policies break down families and make women and children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking. Feminists and human rights activists must choose our allies.

10. We cannot fight sex trafficking effectively without partnering with sex workers, people in the sex trade, and their advocates. All over the world, it was workers organizing among themselves that have challenged and transformed exploitative and abusive working conditions, not police officers or politicians. In addition, people working in the sex industry have access to insider knowledge that need to be incorporated into any successful campaign to combat sex trafficking and other human rights violations within the industry.

Film “Sex+Money”: Evidence #7290 that the Mainstream Anti-Trafficking Movement is a Conservative Christian Movement

Date: October 7, 2011

Last night I went to a Portland screening of the feature-length documentary, “Sex+Moey: A National Search for Human Worth.” It was a brilliantly produced and well-structured film, but unfortunately it did not go beyond what I had expected from seeing the trailer which repeated the myth of extremely low the “Average Age of Entry” into prostitution. It also quoted people claiming that there are 100,000 to 300,000 trafficked children in the U.S., which is demonstrably false.

The film lost me from the beginning when the young white producers pushed their professional-quality cameras into massage parlors with Chinese signs, grilling the older Asian business owners and managers (who did not seem to be very fluent in English) about services they provide. They tried to trick the managers into offering illegal sexual services, but were unable to do so; later, the producers discussed among themselves that they should plan better. Well perhaps they should have partnered with Asian immigrants’ and workers’ advocates if they were serious about addressing the safety and rights of women who work there.

The producers claimed that they interviewed 70+ people around the country including sex workers. But the few sex workers and allies they “interviewed” were ambushed at the adult industry expo or while counter-protesting anti-prostitution demonstration. All other interviewees were treated more formally in their office, home, or other setting. A porn actor’s statement that she enjoys her job is followed by some “expert” explaining, without evidence, that vast majority of sex workers have been abused as children and learned to treat sexual violation as the norm.

The film kept going back to policymakers like Sen. Sam Brownback (now Governor of Kansas) and former Rep. Linda Smith (now the director of Shared Hope International, which has not responded to my questions about the discrepancy between its own study and its public statements) as experts. But they fail to mention that Sen. Brownback was one of the leading religious conservatives in the Senate that want to cut social services to fund tax breaks for rich people and corporations, and create harsher conditions for undocumented immigrants–both of which will exacerbate the problem of human trafficking. Former Rep. Smith also had her day as the anti-abortion, family values conservative, whose policies have devastated women and children (and also, people who signed up to receive updates about Shared Hope also receive anti-abortion materials). And yet, the film treats them like heroes. Oh yea, they also interviewed anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley so that she can make all those outlandish generalizations that we are already familiar with.

Trafficking survivors’ stories describing the violence they experienced from pimps and johns were chilling, and yet I kept feeling how similar they were to the stories of women abused by their husbands and boyfriends. In fact, if I were to make a film that depict all marriages or even heterosexual relationships as inherently abusive, I could interview some survivors of domestic violence and edit the footage to show exactly that. It would not be persuasive only because many viewers know from their experiences that not all husbands and boyfriends are violent, and there are many loving, caring heterosexual men out there. But most (white middle-class) people are not familiar with pimps, and most johns do not admit to being johns, so people get very limited ideas about pimps and johns from films like this. Anti-prostitution activists decry the glorification of pimp culture in the media, which I tend to agree with (hey I don’t think it’s so hard out here for a pimp), but their depiction of pimps as sadistic monsters is also overly simplistic.

There was an interesting segment during the film in which producers grapple with whether it is appropriate to classify all prostitution as slavery. Several “experts” argued either that it was appropriate to do so, or that it was merely a matter of degrees. The representative of Polaris Project actually made sense for once–he pointed out that, while there are cases of severe human rights violation that appear indistinguishable from slavery, we must be careful about the use of the term “slavery” because the word has a specific historical context in the United States. I agree: slavery in the U.S. was a complex institution supported by the Constitution, the law enforcement, the commerce, and the rest of the fabric of the mainstream society, and should not be applied lightly to individual cases of rights violation or even to the underground, illegal activities as a whole. But then, the use of the word “Polaris” in the organization–the north star that guided escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad–does seem to contradict his careful positioning in the matter.

After the film, they brought up local “experts” fighting domestic minor sex trafficking for a panel discussion. The panel consisted of an attorney working for children in foster care, a supervisor at Oregon Department of Health and Human Services, and an assistant US Attorney who heads the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force. The emphasis on the State and police power was evident, despite the fact that the very youth they are trying to “rescue” experience police harassment and abuse all the time.

I also found a handout created by Multnomah County at the resources table set up outside the auditorium which posits the logo of Janus Youth (social service provider for youth on the street) next to the logo of Portland Police Bureau. This is a bad idea. I know Janus struggles to maintain a cooperative relationship with the police when they need it while shielding youth from bad interactions with the police, but over the last few years I’ve seen Janus become closer and closer to the police in its public presentation as more of their revenues began to come from anti-trafficking grants while traditional funding streams have narrowed due to the economy, cutting street outreach and other programs, and I am alarmed.

Ms. Magazine Blog quotes a line from my (really old and not so good) poem, and I panicked.

Date: September 27, 2011

A friend told me that a poem (not particularly a good one) I wrote almost a decade ago is being cited and linked from a new article posted in Ms. Magazine Blog. The article is in response to a statement issued by radical Black women criticising SlutWalk, and quotes a line from my very old poem that says “everyone is safe when sluts are safe.”

The author of the article, Janell Hobson, is also a Black woman, and I have nothing against her. But people began accessing my piece in droves, sharing it via Twitter, and I started feeling worried about getting drawn into this controversy. So I quickly wrote up what I felt about the topic, and replaced the poem with it. Below is the little write-up that is now on the URL that hosted the poem. It’s not a complete analysis and position paper on SlutWalk, but it’s not intended as such.

update 09/27/2011 – Hey people, I noticed that some people are linking to this piece in the context of recent discussions about SlutWalk. Please know that I wrote this piece almost a decade ago, under a different period. I’ve been recently approached by a couple of editors about reprinting this piece in a book or magazine, but I turned them down because I feel that the cultural climate has shifted in the post-SlutWalk era and I do not want this piece to be used out of context by people discussing the merits and demerits of SlutWalk.

As a participant in Portland’s SlutWalk this past summer, and the producer for a couple of events in early 2000s with the name “Sluts Against Rape,” I do believe in the validity of the strategy that seeks to disarm words and concepts like “slut” that are used to divide women/queers and harm us all. I further feel that some of the white radical feminist critics of SlutWalk have too often relied on mainstream media depiction of SlutWalk for their understanding of the movement, which is ironic because they, too, would be upset if we bought into the media stereotypes about the humourless, anti-sex “70s feminists.”

But when a group of women of colour I highly respect and work with stand up and make public statements criticising SlutWalk and its approaches, first and foremost I stand in solidarity even as I feel ambivalent about some points. If SlutWalk is to continue, the movement has to radically transform itself to incorporate concerns voiced by the radical Black women and other women of colour. I am not entirely in agreement with everything the statement says, but I firmly believe that they need to be taken seriously by anyone organising SlutWalk events.

I am therefore asking everyone to stop pitting my words against theirs to orchestrate an artificial conflict between me and other women of colour. There are genuine disagreements among women of colour, but they should be addressed directly between and among women of colour.

The short piece that used to be on this URL has been removed. You should still be able to find it if you really wanted to, but for now I want to place a barrier. I will probably restore it once the storm is over.

I support the Tantric practitioners charged with prostitution, but not on the first amendment ground.

Date: September 19, 2011

Earlier this month, Arizona authorities (which usually focus on harassing immigrants and brown-skinned people) raided Phoenix Goddess Temple and charged 30 people associated with the group for prostitution. Prosecutors allege that the Temple was a de facto brothel in which prostitutes were referred to as “sacred healers” and johns “seekers.” The Temple insists that its members practice “Tantra and Goddess worship as a religion,” calling the raid “a modern day witch hunt.”

I know what it feels like to be the target of the witch hunt (see my zine, Surviving the Witch-Hunt: Battle Notes from Portland’s 82nd Avenue, 2007-2010), and I sympathize with those who have been arrested or had close ones arrested. I do not think that they deserve to be persecuted, and believe that the charges against them should be dropped.

But I find it troubling that many sex worker activist friends are rushing to defend the Temple on the first amendment (religious freedom) ground. I am not criticizing the Tantric practitioners for invoking the first amendment in their legal defense–when you are persecuted, use whatever is within your reach to your advantage–but I am concerned that some of my friends in the sex workers’ rights movement are also using this angle.

To invoke first amendment to defend the Tantric practitioners implies that while they are good people who are simply following their religious and spiritual practices, the rest of us who trade sex for money not as a religious practice but to survive in this neo-liberalistic capitalist economy are bad whores that deserve to be punished. I don’t believe that this is what they are actually thinking, but it would logically follow from the “religious freedom” argument.

Media discourse on this topic seems to center around whether the Temple’s activities are legitimate religious practices or the Temple is merely a front for illegitimate operation. But it is the legitimacy of the State (or lack thereof) to persecute sexual healers and sex workers that must be at the focus (not to mention the legitimacy of the State to use violence to police the artificial borders drawn over indigenous and Mexican peoples’ land).

A friend told me that nonetheless this case could be a breakthrough for sex workers’ rights in the State that has become the epicenter of naked hate and bigotry in the recent years. But I feel resentful of the idea that Tantric healers are better than the rest of us who provide sexual services, and I am sick of religious entities claiming special exemptions (e.g. the religious freedom to discriminate against women and queers).

There of course is a difference between the dominant religious group imposing its doctrine on all others and a minority religion defending its practices deemed objectionable by the dominant group. But I feel uncomfortable with the strategy to distance the Temple and its practitioners from the rest of us who don’t have a neat constitutional clause to count on.

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