• Enter search term(s):


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.



Recent Posts

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.

How I am on the verge of losing my adoration for Queers for Economic Justice

Date: November 7, 2011

Queers for Economic Justice is an organization in New York that I have long admired, so I was really excited when my friend invited me to its fundraiser/party this past week. Citing a series of parties with racist/colonialist themes that are happening around the city during Halloween season, the QEJ party which took place at Bartini Ultra Lounge (a gay male venue) was tagged as “Party Without Oppression.” But the main drag performer for the night posted something weird on the event’s facebook page:

Divine Grace Super-fantastic. I apologize in advance if my song offends anyone who may be a prostitute.
October 26 at 3:26pm

I thought it was odd that she had to “apologize in advance” to prostitutes, so I asked a question.

Emi Koyama Are you saying that your song is offensive? Or just being super sensitive? I’m all for nasty, but not for things that are mean to prostitutes.
October 27 at 8:21am

I waited for three days, but I did not receive a response so I wrote another comment.

Emi Koyama Not getting a response and I am starting to wonder if I read the title of the event wrong. Perhaps it meant to say Party with Oppression.
October 30 at 10:27am

At this point, Brandon Lacy Campos from QEJ and Divine both replied.

Brandon Lacy Campos Hey Emi…thanks for posting your concerns to Grace. I know she has had out of state company for the last few days, so perhaps giving a little lee way for a response. I will also check in with her. QEJ supports sex work and the right to provide for oneself using whatever means one has and to be able to do so with dignity. I will not censor Graces choice of performance number, but also please know that she is a comedic writer so there should be no assumptions made that derive from her magical ability to piss everyone off with a few simple words….until we know exactly what she meant by it. Also know that Grace is wicked but works for justice every bit as much as we do, which is why she was invited to perform. Be welcome.
October 31 at 8:47am

Divine Grace Perhaps I would just be better suited emceeing this event rather than performing. My act tends to be pretty low rent and it already appears that I am offending guests.
October 31 at 1:32pm

Divine Grace And Emi, just so you know, and just so your children will someday know, my intent has never been nor ever will be to oppress. As Brandon has stated, I have put in 20+ years at the office in an effort to garner equality and justice for the LGBT community.
October 31 at 1:35pm

Brandon Lacy Campos The hell you will.
October 31 at 1:35pm

I appreciate the fact that “QEJ supports sex work,” but they are not addressing my concern. I was not concerned about whether or not her performance piss people off in general, but I wanted to know why she singled out prostitutes as one group she intended to “apologize in advance.” Also, her threatening to cancel her performance fully knowing that she is the main attraction for the event and that QEJ would not cancel her just because one prostitute is upset with her seems manipulative.

I wrote:

Emi Koyama It doesn’t seem that either of you answered my question. My question wasn’t whether or not you are a good person, or your act tend to offend people. It was whether or not your act is mean to prostitutes.
November 1 at 4:43am

To which Divine wrote:

Divine Grace Emi, darling, my act is never mean. Tacky? Yes. Tasteless? Probably. Vulgar? Always. But my act isn’t “mean” to prostitutes unless you take Kim Kardashian’s feelings into consideration. Now, is there anything else that I owe you, and how quickly should I respond before you get huffy again?
November 1 at 1:16pm

I am glad to hear that her act “is never mean” to prostitutes, but she is continuing to engage in manipulative behavior with this fake passivity. I wrote:

Emi Koyama I would have appreciated that clarification earlier, but after witnessing how you can make such mean-spirited comments toward me about how you are not mean, I don’t have very much faith.
November 1 at 5:01pm

This brought further ridicule, belittlement, and insult from Divine:

Divine Grace And after seeing that you consider the word “huffy” mean-spirited, I have no faith that you could sit through an episode of “Dora the Explorer” without curling up fetal.
November 1 at 5:03pm

Immediately after this, Divine changed sharing setting of this thread to make it invisible from me, so that the personal attack remained on the event wall while depriving me of the ability to respond. At first I thought that she had deleted the thread, but my friend pointed out that she could see the exchange from her account, and allowed me to copy the content.

Finally, Brandon further adds insult:

Brandon Lacy Campos Emi. I appreciate your concern, but I clearly indicated that QEJ supports sex workers. While I appreciate that you may have perceived that Divine’s comment was “mean” to you. It is clear that something about it triggered something for you, which is a valid experience, but I assure you nothing “mean” was said to you. QEJ would never invite a performer to share space with us if that person actively participated in oppression towards a community. Having said that…satire and comedy often intersect at an individuals personal experience and just because something make you feel uncomfortable does not mean that it was unjust or mean.
November 1 at 5:13pm

Brandon seems to be employing the infamous Bush administration rhetoric on torture: the United States does not practice torture, and therefore what its military is doing in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere are not torture. Similarly, since QEJ supports sex workers, nothing it does can possibly amount to attacks on prostitutes or those who stand up for prostitutes; since QEJ never invites a performer who is oppressive, nothing the performer does would amount to oppressive acts. I am astonished by the use of anti-oppression policies and principles as a tool to invisibilize and therefore support oppressive acts. To suggest that I merely “perceived” meanness in Divine’s comments, or that I was merely “triggered” is invalidating and insulting, and seriously undermines my trust in QEJ’s ability to advocate for sex workers and others facing multiple oppressions.

I was going to just give up and not deal with QEJ in the future, until someone pointed out to me that QEJ’s interim director is Amber Hollibaugh, who is one of my superheroes in the social justice movements and the author of “My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home,” which is also one of my all-time most favourite books in the whole world. I love and trust Amber so I wrote her an email to alert her what has happened under her watch. I hope that she will reply to me in such way that restores my trust in and support for an organization that deserves much better.

Suggestions to improve “Queering Occupy Wall Street: Radical Language Road Guide”

Date: November 6, 2011

This past week, I visited New York City to present “Erasure of Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade” at an NYU Law symposium on transgender law. While I was there, I went to Occupy Wall Street and spoke with people at Queering OWS table, who showed me a draft copy of “radical language road guide” for other OWS participants to understand queer and trans terminologies. Many of the definitions were problematic, so I promised to write what I think should be changed. Below is what I thought the “language road guide” should consider.

I live in Oregon, but visited NYC this past week to give a presentation at NYU symposium on transgender law. While in NYC, I was able to come to OWS and spoke with someone about the problems with the draft version of “Radical Language Road Guide.” I agreed to write my recommendations to make the guide better, so here it is.


People often get hang up on understanding terminologies to avoid appearing offensive to people, like when a white person gets obsessed about whether to call someone Black or African American or something else. But the important part should be to respect how someone identifies, and actively engage in resistance to systems of oppressions, rather than simply learning how to appear “sensitive.” It would not be a “radical” guide if it doesn’t stress that. I think respecting each person’s self-defined ways of identifying and expressing themselves is more than just recognizing fluidity.

Now to the specific term…


AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) defines an asexual as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” It is wrong to define it as a matter of (lack of) expression of sexuality or sexual preference.


Similar to “transgendered,” the acted-upon construction should be avoided. “Cisgender” is preferable. Also, this definition may not be clear to many folks, so I suggest adding that it means someone who is not transgender.


The definition (“an individual who doesn’t qualify or conform to any gender identity”) is wrong, because someone who clearly identify with and conform to a third gender would be considered “gender non-conforming” from the perspective of gender binary. Perhaps you meant to say “an individual who doesn’t qualify or conform to male and female gender roles and identities.”


As pointed out in the general comment above, this should stress the importance of respecting others’ self-determined gender pronouns, rather than giving examples of alternative pronouns. My experience is that a lot of cis people want to learn about all the exotic pronouns but supplying them with such list is a distraction.


Let’s be honest and just say that this is something that is cultivated by gays and lesbians. It is true that bisexual and transgender communities also hold their versions of normative standards (i.e. appropriate ways to be bisexual or transgender), but much of what bisexual and transgender people are facing are homonormative prescriptions coming from gay and lesbian communities.


Intersex is not about “gender expressions,” but any of the many medical conditions that result in internal or external reproductive and sexual anatomies that are different from most males and females.


Providing definitions for these terms without contexualizing them give the false impression that it is okay to talk about these topics. These terms either don’t belong in the “radical” terminologies, or simply declared “none of your fucking business.”


So wrong and offensive. First, it’s “Two Spirit.” Second, it is not a term referring to a “concept,” but actual indigenous people who live as Two Spirit, and that should be stressed to avoid cultural appropriation of their identities by colonizers. It should also be noted that “Two Spirit” is not a traditional term within First Nations communities, but a term invented by indigenous people in order to describe a whole series of gender and sexual categories that exist among many different cultures and communities that have been considered by colonizers as abnormal, as well as those identities that were created by contemporary indigenous queers and trans people beyond their traditions under the colonial rule.


I have an issue with this concept, because it frequently functions as part of the homonormative discourse. How about rephrasing it to say that “an individual should be allowed to live in an environment that fosters pride in” their sexualities and gender identities, rather than that an individual “should be proud”?

Good luck QOWS people!

One more comment re “TRANSGENDERED”:

The term “transgendered” (as opposed to more appropriate “transgender” as an adjective) has always been offensive, but it is more so now that anti-trans “radical feminists” have adopted this as their terminology of choice.

The “radical feminists” have referred to sex workers regardless of their circumstances as “prostituted women” in order to deny women’s (and others’) agency and resilience in doing whatever it takes to survive and to categorically classify them as powerless victims. Over the last couple of years, they have began to use “transgendered” in a similar construction to suggest that trans people are manipulated and victimized by the society and the medical industrial complex into accepting transgender medical treatments, and should not be treated as individuals capable of speaking for themselves.

Worse, they use the term “transgendered men” to refer to male-to-female transgender persons (i.e. trans women) and “transgendered women” to refer to female-to-male transgender persons, because they reject people’s self-defined gender identities. To them, a “transgendered man” (i.e. trans woman) is a man who has been wrongly manipulated into believing that “he” is a woman, and “he” should be helped to recognize this act of “violence.”

In the past, use of the term “transgendered” instead of “transgender” was just annoying. But now, it is part of the vocabulary of clearly hostile people and movement that wishes to “morally mandating it out of existence” (Janice Raymond, “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male”) and all trans allies must abandon it.

Note: Someone commented on facebook that it wasn’t fair that I group all radical feminists and suggest that they are all anti-sex worker and anti-trans. Below is my response.

You might want to read the exchange between pro-sex, pro-kink sex worker feminist Lori Adorable and her “radical feminist” critics. Lori said that she views herself as a radical feminist because she believes that “there is structural oppression of women and that radical everyday actions that undermine traditional gender roles can undo this large-scale, structural oppression.”

For writing this, she was however ridiculed and dismissed as “just making it up” what it means to be a radical feminist. A comment on her blog states that “I believe you are a feminist. But I do not believe you are a radical feminist. A liberal feminist, sure. But not radical.”–which is a typical response from other radical feminists. See for example:

As someone who have studied feminist theory, I tend to agree with these (majority) radical feminists’ own definition of radical feminism: it is a version of feminism deeply rooted in the belief in the primacy of patriarchy and men’s subjugation of women over all other oppressions. Other oppression may be tools of men’s domination over women, but are viewed as subsystems of patriarchy.

Now, the reality is that not everyone who identifies as “radical feminist” agrees with this definition, including your friend and Lori. I agree that we need to acknowledge diversity of opinions among people who identify as “radical feminists,” but I feel that it would be disingenuous to pretend that radical feminism at the very fundamental level is not racist, classist, transphobic, etc. due to its fundamental assumption in the primacy of patriarchy over all other oppressions. I am talking not about radical feminists, who might take the label for whatever reasons, but radical feminism as a theoretical standpoint with a specific history and tradition.

Individual radical feminists might be able to reconcile pro-sex worker or pro-transgender stances with radical feminism, as I have done in the past (see my 2001 article, The Transfeminist Manifesto in “Catching a wave: reclaiming feminism for the 21st century” as an example). Even Andrea Dworkin has written something supportive of trans women, which is completely forgotten by many of her fans. But that doesn’t negate the overwhelming weight of the history and tradition of radical feminist thought.

Also, for what it’s worth I did clarify that I was referring to “anti-trans ‘radical feminists’,” not just any “radical feminists,” precisely because I know I myself have been a pro-trans “radical feminist” in the past.

Pedagogy of the Bound and Gagged: Teacher as a Dominatrix (memo)

Date: November 1, 2011

This is actually a serious pedagogical paper I was going to write many years ago, but a pedagogical conference rejected my abstract and I never ended up writing. I just re-discovred it in my hard drive, and I thought you might find it interesting…

1) Traditional feminist pedagogies:
– create “safe space” for women where personal experiences can be shared, honored, and placed in sociopolitical context.
– foster egalitarian relationship among students as well as between students and the teacher.
– personal awareness connected to political action.

2) Problem with the traditional feminist pedagogies:
– creates pretense of egalitarian relationship, when in reality there are definite power imbalances not just between teacher and the student, but also among students along their respective social locations.
– notions of “safe space” privileges women who are oppressed only because of sex (i.e. white, middle-class, able-bodied, etc.)

3) “Safe, sane and consensual” S/M pedagogy:
– explicit negotiation of power within classroom which outlines rules and responsibilities
– exercise of power is consensual and designed to maximize equity and learning (e.g. use of teacher’s power to interrupt oppressive patterns and model anti-oppressive behaviors)
– positions as “teacher” and “students” played as roles, rather than something inherent in the individuals or the relationship
– use of “safe words” to time-out

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!)

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 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 – 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:

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

Pages: Prev 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ... 18 19 20 Next