Toughing It Out

What I did this weekend — April 12, 2017

What I did this weekend

I spoke at the 31st annual CLPP conference at Hampshire college this past weekend and I was on several panels speaking through the lens of incarcerated sex workers.  I worked with another colleague on 2 workshops and then spent the Monday and Tuesday with another activist of legendary proportions meeting and greeting people who were accomplishing amazing things in her community.  But one always stands out.


Mama Dread and her Mission of Love impacted me in a way I hadn’t ever felt before and I want to tell you about her.

Mama Dread was once homeless and – while homeless – she started a community based organization called Mama Dreads Mission of Love and she worked to feed other people in the community who were also homeless.  She developed a following and almost everybody knows her.  Including the commissioner, city council folks and – of course – the police know her pretty well too. They harass her and her crew when they are going around town feeding people and helping them access safe resources, and they threaten her on such a regular basis, she carries around a card in her pocket that has the Homeless Bill of Rights on it.  She’s tried to get a regular place to let her cook and serve her homeless community but the churches and the politicians?  Well they just put up more barriers.

She even won an award for being the BEST COMMUNITY SERVICE PROVIDER TO THE HOMELESS in her town and that award came with a $500 prize.  But the folks who gave her the award told her they couldn’t give her the check because she wasn’t a licensed service provider with a 501c3 non-profit.

Mama Dread and her crew of about 20 other people weren’t swayed by this AT ALL!  They just kept doing what they do, however they can, and you can find them at almost every civil rights action meeting, working to change policies that affect not only them – but their community.  She partners with PRYSM and DARE and Coyote RI as well as many others – and she attends city council meetings and shes in the room with politicians and council members and law enforcement folks every chance she gets – and she is everything we admire in grassroots social justice movements.

Mama Dreads Mission of Love got some unexpected support yesterday from a pretty surprising source and I’m gonna come back and tell you how you can support her activation and her work.  In the meantime – you can follow her activity on Facebook and I think you’ll see why I want to see her work grow.

Love ya Mama Dread.  You all that!

Dear Diana Hemingway — December 22, 2016

Dear Diana Hemingway

Dear Diana,

When I received the news of your passing yesterday morning, I was sad.  Selfishly, I was sad for me.  You not being here means I will not be able to enjoy your deep wisdom and your sarcastic wit.  I will miss your honest assessments of ideas I “ran past you” – even the one where you laughed and said “That’s a horrible idea!”  I loved the way you allowed me to be who I was even though you probably thought I was silly and entitled.  I respected the gentle way you would guide me to be a better activist without demeaning me and how you instructed me how to be a better ally without condemning me.  I am grateful that you allowed me to share my emotional pain over a difficult personal circumstance without judging me for my choice or giving me advise that was inappropriate.  You were a champion of personal autonomy – in fact you were the one who told me what that was and you explained it in a way that made me understand how important it was to respect another persons choice even when you might disagree with them.

When I received the news of your passing yesterday morning, I was not surprised.  I knew that you were in both physical and emotional pain and I wish that I had more to offer you than solidarity.  I know you found true love this past year and that you were experiencing joy on the highest level that was possible at the time.  I know you faced uncertainty in the future.  I know that you protected your love and your community by the way that you lived your life on your own terms and I respect that you chose this path…also on your own terms.

You will be missed.  You will be remembered.  You will be honored. And your life will be celebrated as one that made a difference.

Rape, Sex Work and Opinions — September 15, 2015

Rape, Sex Work and Opinions

I really dislike bathing my 2 nine-year old golden retrievers.  I can delay it forever and they wouldn’t mind if I never did it again at all, but all of us know it will eventually have to get done and we all look forward to it being over.  I felt similarly about reading an op-ed article regarding the rape of a Sex Worker in Chicago.

Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote an opinion editorial regarding a sex worker who had called the police after being raped by a man who had contacted her from an ad she posted on the adult section of Backpage.  My Twitter feed quickly filled up with links to the article accompanied by condemnations of Mary Mitchel, the Chicago Sun-Times and then later more links to more publications, blogs and posts with both large and small organizations and individuals  calling for apologies and retractions.  My inbox filled up with angry and hurt emails and my Facebook page was deluded with more links and comments.   The intro to the links on both Facebook and Twitter were filled with fury and resentment and I delayed actually reading the article for the better part of two days because I knew this was going to be a trigger for my anxiety to crush any hope I had that the lives of Sex Workers were going to improve any time soon.  So yesterday afternoon over a cup of chamomile tea, I read – and reread – Mary Mitchells opinion piece.

Violence in general, has always been a good way to get me riled up, but violence against women by other women is just unforgivable.  Women have fought too hard for too long to allow any one of us to behave in such a way without concern for consequences.  There is no room for a woman in a place of power as a board member of the editorial staff of the Chicago Sun-Times to voice her opinions about the victimization of another woman.  Particularly one, like this sex worker, who has been violated in such a horrific criminal act and then shamed for her profession in such a public manner.  For Mary Mitchell to say that it was “hard to see her as a victim” and to be “grateful” that the perpetrator hadn’t done this “to an innocent woman on the street” and to have the Chicago Sun-Times rubber stamp their approval and publish it, was like a knife to the heart.

Mary Mitchell has been found guilty in the court of public opinion of violence against women by her op-ed piece and she should have to pay a price for that.  She has nothing to offer the community in Chicago or anywhere else for that matter that will ever makeup for this gross violation of ethics.  Mitchells insinuation that Sex Workers cannot be raped and her own “risky” behavior was just cause for her bad luck at being raped at gunpoint are the verbal equivalent of a hate crime.   Victim blaming, minimizing the act of rape and a complete disregard for the framework of “consent” are all issues that Mary Mitchell completely disregarded, setting us back decades in the Human Rights for Women in general and Sex Workers in particular.

I spent some time looking at other issues that Mitchell has written about and she seems to enjoy controversy and almost appears to have taken this stance in an effort to gain notoriety.  I think she got the notoriety she sought but I’m hoping she loses her job, her place on the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times and is forever considered a pariah in the media.  I also hope that this despicable article reinforces the need for better protection for Sex Workers and the furtherance of the cause for decriminalization of Sex Work as recommended by Amnesty International this past August.

But my greatest hope is that women everywhere will recognize that we MUST unite and force each other to be accountable for our actions.  We could achieve so much if we would simply understand that we are stronger together and find our commonality instead of looking for ways to be divisive and unkind to each other.


Amnesty Decision on Sex Work For Anti-trafficking NGO’s — September 13, 2015

Amnesty Decision on Sex Work For Anti-trafficking NGO’s

The week before the “Big Decision” by Amnesty International, someone told me that NGO’s who were anti-trafficking supporters would fold if they voted to support the decriminalization of Sex Work.  I was doubtful that it would have such a serious impact that it would cause them to pack up and go home, but I could see that some who had been fence-sitting on direct questions regarding consensual sex work might take this opportunity to gracefully bow out of this arena.  After all, the most common complaint I heard about Prostitution Outreach efforts from Anti Trafficking groups was their efforts were met with such resistance from their target audience.  I thought they would welcome the opportunity to relinquish their freakishly self-righteous control on a subject they clearly had no knowledge about how to address, successfully or otherwise, and refocus their efforts in places they could make a difference.  I was almost amused that most of them didn’t even bother to read more than the Headline on this pivotal Amnesty decision, and instead immediately started the process of demanding Amnesty “change their mind” and reverse their decision.

That is simply not going to happen.  And if they had taken the time to read the entire decision, the Anti Trafficking community would have found they had truly been given a get-out-of-jail-free card instead of wasting more time and resources trying to change that which cannot – and will not – be changed.  In fact, when Amnesty International makes a decision you don’t agree with, you really need to step back and reassess your position from a Human Rights perspective.  Amnesty International has brought us so far with so many other Human Rights issues and we should listen to them.

But just in case you are an Anti Trafficker and have sand in your ears, here is a quick primer on what this policy decision really could mean to this – in the very words of Amnesty International – most marginalized group of people world-wide.

Decriminalization does NOT mean legalization.  Legalization – as in Germany and in Nevada  – have unintended consequences and most Sex Workers do not support it.  Legalized sex work leaves sex workers tangled up in a mess of burdensome regulations where they must conform to license requirements that bring an unfair burden on women who are already living in poverty and the very application of a license can immediately stigmatize a sex worker and keep her from eventually accessing other employment opportunities.  For example – a Sex Worker in a legalized model in the United States would be required to register as a sex worker and pay a licensure fee – kind of like an occupational license – before she began working as a Sex Worker.  This would probably mean she would have to have a physical and be tested for STD’s which is a good thing if she is not already having problems accessing affordable healthcare.  Women’s Healthcare – particularly low-cost affordable healthcare – has always been a problem and even more so with the problems organizations like Planned Parenthood has faced over the years.  Before she got her license, she may even have to attend government sponsored Sex Work classes or submit to questionnaires that she may or may not fully understand.  She might also be required to perform or conduct Sex Work business in a location that also requires a legalized, bureaucratic process as well and might be hampered unfairly by a lack of transportation to get to this location. This legalized location would most likely be a brothel. Brothel owners have a clear interest in maintaining their image as law-abiding, trouble-free businesses to keep their licenses and maintain good relations within their communities. The owners ensure this by making it policy to call the police at the slightest hint of trouble to send a message that they don’t tolerate bad behavior. The whole name of the game is control.  Just that statement alone is cause for concern about legalizing Sex Work in a Legalized environment – it almost immediately removes the control from the Sex Worker over who and when she sees a client and who she alone decides what she considers bad behavior.

Women in a poverty situations often undertake Sex Work as an intervention to crisis (pay the rent, buy food, provide for her children)  and would be subject to fines and tickets and court costs to defend themselves about participating in sex work while unlicensed in a legalized environment.  Then, of course, she would be ineligible to get the required license or registration because of the financial penalties that would accrue if she were “caught” performing Sex Work without a license.  This sequence of events amounts to the criminalized system we already have firmly in place in most areas of the United States.

Legalization would mean the regulation of prostitution with laws regarding where, when, and how prostitution could take place.

Although often presented as a more tolerant and pragmatic approach, the legalized model still criminalize those sex workers who cannot or will not fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities, and therefore retains some of the worst harms of criminalization. It disproportionately excludes sex workers who are already marginalized, like people who use drugs or who are undocumented. This makes their situation more precarious, and so reinforces the power of unscrupulous managers.

The US has actually had some experience with both models. Nevada has a highly regulated legalized prostitution system.  Rhode Island also decriminalized prostitution in 2003 and, according to University of California researchers, instances of reported rape and sexually transmitted diseases plummeted after Rhode Island stopped policing prostitution.  Nevertheless, due to public moral outcry and absolutely NO input from Sex Worker voices, Rhode Island outlawed prostitution again in 2009.

The Amnesty International policy recommendation that calls for the decriminalization of one to one consensual Sex Work refers to the removal of all criminal and administrative prohibitions and penalties on sex work, including laws targeting clients. Removing criminal prosecution of sex work goes hand-in-hand with recognizing sex work as work and protecting the rights of sex workers through workplace health and safety standards.

Decriminalizing sex work allows workers to access financial services like bank accounts and insurance and other financial services.  Moreover,
decriminalization means sex workers are more likely to live without stigma, social exclusion, and fear of violence. All good things, right?  To effectively protect the health and rights of sex workers, governments must remove all criminal laws regulating sex work, including laws that criminalize the purchase of sex.  Systems that maintain criminal penalties for clients – like the Swedish model – who purchase sexual services continue to put sex workers at risk.  Rather than ending demand for sex work, penalties on clients force sex workers to provide services in clandestine locations, which increases the risk of violence and limits the power of the sex workers in the transaction.
Not only does the decriminalization of Consensual Sex Work benefit the of-legal-age Sex Worker, there are a host of other benefits as well.  For one, in a decriminalized environment, who do you think is in a better position to recognize and assist in the identification of underage sex workers?  Do you think it’s an actual full-time Sex Worker or a church lady who volunteers for one of your Faith Based Alliances a few hours a month?  And you can bet your bottom dollar that a Sex Worker will recognize – and report – a predatory member of the community faster than you can say “Call 911!”
When sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are empowered to realize their right to work safely, and to use the justice system to seek redress for abuses and discrimination. 
Even if sex work is decriminalized per the Amnesty International policy recommendation, the prostitution of minors and human trafficking can and should remain criminal acts although we should really take another look at a better plan for minors than criminalization as well.
So Anti Trafficking Organizations should happily put their stamp of approval on this Amnesty Policy recommendation and be assured that your lucrative efforts to freak out the general public about Human Trafficking “taking place in your backyard” is safe and secure.  You just don’t get to speak for Sex Workers anymore without even bothering to consult them.