Ron Weitzer sent me this collaborative video in which a group of women thoughtfully argue in favor of sex worker rights. It's a bit more than nine minutes long but take a look at it and check out some of the related videos. Let me know what you think!
PS: I looked around on YouTube for a link to info about the collaborators and couldn't find anything. If you were involved in the making of this video and you want the project credited more completely or would like to share more information about it please let me know how to do that by using the contact form to send me an email.
Last night's panel discussion of sex work and civil liberties at Harvard Law School, hosted by the HLS ACLU, the American Constitution Society and the Women's Law Association (?) was a learning experience. I learned that some formats, which sound helpful in theory, are very limiting in practice. I learned that one should never make assumptions about an audience. And I learned that when you've had the last word and the panel is officially over, letting it be reopened is a very bad idea.
The panel was extremely well moderated. Professor Glen Cohen promised at the beginning to keep a tight rein on the discussion and he did. That made me feel confident and safe going into the discussion that it would not become a shouting match nor be derailed by questions that are not really questions. Unfortunately that limited the opportunities for panelists to respond to each other. It meant that if we were to play by the rules (where did I learn to be such a good girl?) we could not easily challenge each other's evidence, or revisit questions once the discussion had moved on. For example, if an audience member had a question specifically for Melissa Farley, and Farley answered using anecdotal or unreliable evidence, as soon the question was answered a new question was invited. There were only a few questions that were posed to the whole panel and it was hard to get back to earlier questions without deviating from the format. So, lesson number one: advocate for format change or break the rules if necessary to get important information out.
Please Join Us December 17, 2009 for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers Event in Tucson, Arizona!
November 11, 2009
Dear Friends & Supporters of Sex Worker’s Rights:
In 2009, sex workers from around the globe met gruesome deaths and endured unspeakable violence. Some died at the hands of a solitary perpetrator; others were victims of serialprostitute killers. While some of these horrific stories received international media attention ( Boston, Grand Rapids, Albuquerque, Tijuana , Hong Kong , Moscow , Great Britain ,Cape Town , New Zealand ), other cases received little more than a perfunctory investigation. Many cases remain unresolved, sometimes forever.
In fact, most violent crimes against sex workers remain unreported. Stigma and criminalization facilitate this violence; when sex work is criminalized, prostitutes can't turn to the police for protection without risking prosecution themselves. Sex workers remain one of the largest marginalized populations in existence without the benefit of the basic civil rights that everyone else takes for granted.
Each year, December 17th marks the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Last year’s event in Washington, D.C. was a big success and this year, sex workers and their allies from across the U.S. will gather together in Tucson, Arizona to remember and honor sex workers who have been victimized by virtue of their chosen profession - including rape, assault and murder.
Honorable Representatives and Senators,
As a retired sex worker and a long time sex worker rights activist, I’d like to address the Rhode Island bill which proposes to criminalize indoor prostitution. I am hoping that reason will prevail and you will not be pressured into signing a piece of legislation which will so negatively impact the lives of sex workers in your state. While I am a resident of California and not Rhode Island, I have been fighting against laws which criminalize consenting adult prostitution- wherever those laws exist- since I left my job with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1982.
I worked for ten years as a civilian traffic officer with the LAPD, primarily at night, and I witnessed first hand what happens when laws are arbitrarily enforced and used against women to extort sex, money and information. I left the police department because corruption on all levels was so pervasive, and I became a call girl and a sex worker rights activist so that I could expose the rampant abuses perpetrated by the cops against prostitutes and others. Simply put, bad laws make bad police officers.
I experienced being arrested and incarcerated and I have to tell you, it is far more traumatic than anything a prostitute might encounter at the hands of her clients. Being arrested has quite the opposite effect of being ‘rescued.’ It destroys your life. If indeed prostitutes suffer from PTSD as many anti- prostitution activists allege, this may be a direct result of being arrested and incarcerated, rather than giving pleasure for pay.
I woke this morning to find lots of support in the face of a personal attack by Donna Hughes against me and the other signers of a letter to the Rhode Island legislature arguing against the criminalization of prostitution there.
Thank you to all those who are being so supportive of me. I will respond to the attack myself later, but first I want to say that I am very worried that this could distract from the real issue at hand, which is our work to keep consensual adult sexual exchange from becoming criminalized in RI.
Both for the sake of those who are victimized by players in the sex industry and also for the sake of those who find meaningful careers there, and for all those in between, we need to keep our focus on the creation of sane and useful laws. Criminalizing prostitution will eliminate a source of livelihood for some and will drive harmful activity further underground. This must be avoided.
Some important points to keep in mind, and to keep in front of those who make the laws:
- Adults need to be free to make decisions about the kinds of consensual sex they do and do not want to engage in with other adults.
- Everybody deserves a right to earn a decent standard of living.
- Physical autonomy is a basic human right.
- Everybody, regardless of industry, ought to have safe working conditions and be free from violence. Laws to protect workers, and laws to prohibit violence, need not criminalize work in order to be effective.
- Just because lots of states have irrational laws doesn't mean that Rhode Island needs to follow suit. (Just because something is, doesn't mean it ought to be.)
Tara Hurley, director of "Happy Endings?", wrote a fantastic letter to the RI legislators. She calls for others to do the same. She got an encouraging response from one legislator who said he was being bombarded by Hughes supporters and really needed to hear from those who oppose criminalization.
You can use these email addresses to write to the lawmakers in Rhode Island. If you live in Rhode Island your voice is even more important right now.
With her permission I am reprinting Tara's letter below. Please feel free to use it as inspiration for your own:
First let me offer condolences on the recent passing of Representative Slater. I think a lot can be learned from his career. It was difficult to pass a medical marijuana law, but Rep. Slater remained the forceful voice for its passage, and I know he gained the respect of many of his fellow Assembly Members.
One of the lessons I hope that was learned during the debate and ultimate passage of the “Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act” is that for the benefit of the citizens of Rhode Island debates should be based in reason and fact, not emotion and propaganda. I wish the atmosphere in which the medical marijuana was debated could return for the debate on prostitution.
I know many women who work in spas from when I made my film. I want what is best for these women. I want what is best for Rhode Island. I know that these two things are not mutually exclusive.
As a woman and Rhode Islander, I am offended at the tactics of Donna Hughes and Citizens Against Trafficking. It seems like Hughes and CAT do not care about the women, all they want is a "moral victory". They have no basis for their attacks on me, the spas, the people who have been writing to you, and basically anyone who does not accept or promote their agenda, including RI Coalition Against Human Trafficking. I have been following this a long time, and it is bad enough to attack me, fellow academics, or even the women they claim to be trying to help, but to attack a RI Coalition Against Human Trafficking is beyond the barrel. It is horrible that this radical fringe group could drive out the coalition that seemed to actually care about the women.
To use an analogy, I would say that Hughes and CAT are to Rhode Island and sex workers as Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church are to homosexuals. They are both radical fringe groups that use fear and hate mongering. I am an artist, so I believe in freedom of speech, so even though I do not agree with Hughes or CAT, I believe they have the same right to freedom of speech as everyone else. I just hope that people don’t confuse the propaganda and fear mongering for fact. If you would like to save yourself some time, just delete anything that comes from Hughes or CAT, unless you enjoy reading fiction and extremist propaganda.
Director "Happy Endings?"
Last week 50 academics signed on to a letter written by Ron Weitzer and myself. It was a collaborative effort and required compromise and you can read the letter here. Today there have been several news stories about this letter. If you support the overall mission of keeping prostitution in RI from being criminalized please comment on the stories listed below, or blog about the same. Here are some links:
Boston Herald - Boston,MA,USA
Providence Journal - Providence,RI,USA
FOXNews - USA
Update: More news coverage! Please comment on these stories if you can!
Providence Daily Dose: (author is a state rep)
WJAR 10 Providence:
WBZ Radio (Boston):
News on Feeds:
Much of what is said about the sex industry revolves around a single question: Is it okay or not? This question can be phrased in many ways: Is it okay that prostitution exists? Can street hooking ever be a real job? Is everyone who sells sex exploited or free? To address this question, most people talk about their own experience or that of the people they know personally or did research with, after which they extrapolate to a bigger group. But in the end it’s a question with different answers for different people in different places and moments in their lives.
Several weeks ago, first in the Providence Journal and then here, Ron Weitzer, a professor of criminology at George Washington University, debunked myths about prostitution that were being circulated during testimony and press coverage of Rhode Island's attempts to recriminalize the private exchange of sex for money. Donna Hughes, a Women's Studies professor at University of Rhode Island, wrote a commentary piece for the Providence Journal in which she continued to promote those myths and the moral panic they fuel, and in the process also ridiculed sex educator a Megan Andelloux and $pread, a magazine by sex workers for sex workers.
It has been easier for a small but vocal group of academics to ridicule the sex industry and condemn it with deeply flawed research and tired stereotypes than it has been for a larger more reasoned group to publish honest examinations and advocate for evidence-based policy. In light of the steps that Rhode Island's legislature is taking to criminalize legal sex work, Ron Weitzer and I, with organizing help and feedback from a Michael Goodyear (Dalhousie University) and Melissa Ditmore (Editor of the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, and research consultant at the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center) decided to coordinate an academic response to the irresponsible attempts to promote moral panic and bad policy under the guise of protecting women and communities.
That effort resulted in a letter to be delivered to the Rhode Island State Legislature and to Rhode Island media outlets. It is a letter that involves compromises, as all collective efforts do. The letter does three important things:
LETTER TO MEMBERS OF THE RHODE ISLAND STATE LEGISLATURE
RE: PROSTITUTION LAW REFORM PROPOSAL, 2009
BY: Ronald Weitzer & Elizabeth Anne Wood, and signatories listed below
Rhode Island is currently the only state in the U.S. without a statute expressly prohibiting prostitution. State law bans loitering in public places, which is used to arrest street prostitutes, but does not ban solicitation itself, which leaves the indoor trade untouched because no loitering is involved. This may change soon. The state legislature recently passed a bill criminalizing prostitution, although the House and Senate versions differ and will require changes before the bill can be forwarded to the governor.
In the past few weeks, advocates of criminalizing prostitution have lobbied Rhode Island’s legislators and made frequent appearances in the media. Many of their assertions about prostitution are myths. Research shows that there is a world of difference between those who work the streets and those who sell sex indoors (in massage parlors, brothels, for escort agencies, or are independent workers).
Regarding street prostitution, the problems often associated with it are best understood as outcomes of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and runaway youth – suggesting that the best way to deal with street prostitution is to tackle these precursors rather than simply arresting the sellers.
Compared to street workers, women and men who work indoors generally are much safer and less at risk of being assaulted, raped, or robbed. They also have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, enter prostitution at an older age, have more education, and are less likely to be drug-dependent or have a history of childhood abuse. Indoor workers also tend to enjoy better working conditions, although this is naturally not the case everywhere.
Despite what some activists claim, most of those working indoors in the U.S. have not been trafficked against their will. We oppose coercive trafficking whether for sexual labor, agricultural labor, or any other type of work. But when trafficking is conflated with prostitution, as is so often done now, it confounds law enforcement’s ability to target their efforts to fighting human rights abuses in the trafficking sphere.
Many indoor workers made conscious decisions to enter the trade, and several studies also find that indoor workers have moderate-to-high job satisfaction and believe they provide a valuable service. One Australian study found that half of the call girls and brothel workers interviewed felt that their work was a “major source of satisfaction” in their lives, and more than two-thirds said they would “definitely choose this work” if they had it to do over again. (This study was conducted in the state of Queensland, where indoor prostitution has been decriminalized.) In other studies, a significant percentage of escorts report an increase in self-esteem after they began selling sex. These findings may surprise some people, because they are not the kinds of stories reported in the media, which usually focus instead on instances of abuse and exploitation.
This is not to romanticize indoor prostitution. Some indoor workers work under oppressive conditions or dislike their work for other reasons. We believe that worker safety should be a high priority in all industries. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence to challenge the myths that most prostitutes are coerced into the sex trade, experience frequent abuse, and want to be rescued. This syndrome is more characteristic of street workers, and is associated with the vulnerabilities of poverty, addiction and abuse. While these are issues that need to be addressed, it is important to point out that the vast majority of American sex providers work indoors.
Since street and indoor sex workers differ markedly in their working conditions, experiences and impact on the surrounding community, public policies should be cognizant of these differences rather than a monolithic, broad brush approach. Policy makers would also do well to listen to those doing the work; all too often, the views of the sex workers themselves are marginalized in public debates. Because street-based prostitution has negative impacts on neighbors, policies should address those impacts separately from indoor prostitution. Moreover, the opportunity to work indoors, in itself, helps to reduce the problems associated with street-based prostitution. Rhode Island’s current system of treating indoor and street prostitution differently is a step in the right direction. Criminalizing indoor sexual services is not the answer.
Signed by the following members of the academic community:
Ronald Weitzer, George Washington University
Elizabeth Wood, Nassau Community College, a unit of the State University of New York
Michael Goodyear, Dalhousie University, Canada
Barbara Brents, University of Nevada
Lisa Wade, Occidental College
Janet Lever, California State University, Los Angeles
Elaine Mossman, Victoria University, New Zealand
Susan Dewey, DePauw University
Christine Milrod, Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexuality
Mindy Bradley-Engen, University of Arkansas
Molly Dragiewicz, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Canada
Ann Lucas, San Jose State University
Frances Shaver, Concordia University, Canada
Ariel Eisenberg, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Juline Koken, National Development and Research Institutes, Public Health Solutions
Larry Ashley, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Barry Dank, California State University, Long Beach
Richard Lotspeich, Indiana State University
Tamara O’Doherty, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Canada
Lauren Joseph, Stony Brook University
Crystal Jackson, University of Nevada
Gayle MacDonald, St. Thomas University, Canada
Daniel Sander, New York University
Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
John Betts, New York University
Suzanne Jenkins, Keele University, UK
Benjamin Reed, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Anna Kontula, University of Tampere, Finland
Janell Tryon, New York University
Mindy Chateauvert, University of Maryland
Jessie Daniels, City University of New York - Hunter College
Rachel Hsiung, New York University
Gillian Abel, University of Otago, New Zealand
Deborah Brock, York University, Toronto, Canada
Elizabeth Nanas, Wayne State University
Charles Watson, Curtin University, Australia
Wendy Chapkis, University of Southern Maine
Ilona Margiotta, New York University
Jennifer Manion, Connecticut College
Lyle Hallowell, Nassau Community College
Emily van der Meulen, York University, Toronto, Canada
Rebecca Chalker, Pace University
Gilbert Geis, University of California, Irvine
Rachael Stern, New York University
Lynn Comella, University of Nevada
Alessandro De Giorgi, San Jose State University
Martin Schwartz, Ohio University
William Chambliss, George Washington University
Kelley Moult, American University