News for the ‘Sex Work’ Category

10 Reasons to End Both the War on Drugs and the War on Sex Workers

 

Sex and drugs are two of the most controversial and intensely charged topics in American culture, and the connection between them extends far beyond their shared association with the hedonistic impulse.

Sex and drugs can be powerful ways to alter consciousness, to facilitate surrender, to heal and to re-connect. But there’s yet another important link to be made between the two: the oppressive prohibitionist wars on drugs and sex work.

As someone with experience fighting for both drug users’ and sex workers’ rights, I am struck by the mirroring of underlying issues at play.

Sex workers and drug users share the questionable distinction of being two groups of people who are consistently and often acceptably stereotyped and maligned as a whole, even in so-called progressive circles.

The general campaign against sex work through state and federal laws (as well as lobbying by anti-trafficking organizations) is not generally called the War on Sex Workers—but that’s effectively what’s taking place. Selling sexual services is illegal, and many activities that help ensure the safety of sex workers are criminalized under pimping or trafficking laws.

Like the War on Drugs, these laws further marginalize the most marginalized. Just as the drug war makes drug-taking more dangerous and disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, the War on Sex Workers makes sex work more dangerous too—unfairly targeting certain workers based on gender, race and class.

The worlds of sex work and drug use would both benefit from a harm reductionist rather than prohibitionist model.

 

Here are 10 reasons ending the War on Sex Workers makes as much sense as ending the War on Drugs:

 

  1. Criminalization increases harm and dangers (but legalization isn’t the answer either).

We already know that the criminalization of drugs has a whole slew of unintended negative effects, from impure and potentially dangerous product on the market to the unfair targeting of certain populations in its enforcement.

Similarly, criminalizing sex work creates harm and makes sex work more dangerous. Sex workers have no protection under the law if they are robbed, beaten or raped on the job. (Some still don’t believe a sex worker can be raped.[1])

When sex workers experience theft, rape or other assault, there is no way for them to go to the police. Sex workers who are dealing with a coercive middleman can be left feeling dependent on them, isolated in the underground. Criminal records for sex work (just like records for drug convictions) often prevent those who do want out of sex work from being able to get a different job.

Not to mention the fact that police disproportionately target street-based workers, especially trans women and women of color. In some places, carrying condoms is used as evidence of the intent of prostitution—meaning that sex workers are being incentivized not to protect their health and the health of others, because doing so risks arrest.[2]

However, legalization is not ideal either. Legalization is a reverse criminalization that inevitably creates a two-tiered system, with some activity remaining underground. The amount of stigma around sex work pretty much guarantees that many sex workers are not going to want to register with the government under their legal names.

Regulation also involves jumping through hoops, often requiring extra time and money, a process that favors more privileged workers. The most vulnerable workers are left to work in the underground and continue to face all of the dangers of criminalized sex work. The legalization of sex work in Germany and the Netherlands has demonstrated the weakness and ultimately, failure, of this model.

This is why sex workers’ rights organizations nearly always campaign for the decriminalization of sex work. Decriminalizing would make it possible to prosecute violent clients and to provide social services for exiting sex work outside of the criminal justice system. It would also allow sex workers the freedom to continue their work as they choose, except with a reduction in potential harm.

New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003 and its laws remain the model sex worker organizations refer to as the ideal for their rights and safety.

96% of street-based sex workers in New Zealand say they feel the law protects their rights. This can probably be attributed to the fact that the New Zealand government worked directly with sex workers in order to create laws, something that is so often missing from discussion and legislation of the sex industry elsewhere. One popular sex worker protest slogan is “Nothing about us without us!”

 

  1. Stigma around sex work and drug use compounds harm.

 

As important as changing laws is undermining the dehumanizing social stigma around both drug use and sex work. The stigma around drugs means many users fear that the discovery of their use could lead to everything from the loss of their job to the loss of their children.

Stigma can also prevent users from asking for help and support when struggling with their relationship to substances. Similarly, sex workers often cite stigma as the most harmful aspect of their work. And many sex workers who do want to switch professions find that stigma makes it difficult to explain resume gaps, etc.

At the very least, stigma is isolating and psychologically harmful. But de-stigmatizing sex work wouldn’t just improve sex workers’ mental health and well being—it would help improve their physical safety as well.

One can see both laws and social attitudes reflected in some clients’ treatment of sexual service providers. The stigma of the “dirty whore” facilitates socially acceptable hostility towards sex workers—and leads to a system that has come to accept violence towards them as an inevitable consequence of their work rather than a societal problem that needs to be addressed.

The acceptable stigmatization of sex workers has made them ideal targets for serial rapists and serial killers whose crimes often go unnoticed until more “respectable” victims are targeted as well. “Whore stigma” has both subtle and not-so-subtle consequences.

 

  1. People of color and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.

 

The racist enforcement of the drug war has now been well-established (not to mention we now have proof that it was always intended to be that way.[3])

We also know that generally, those with economic privilege are more likely to get away with using their illegal substance of choice. Similar rules apply in the current enforcement of the war on sex workers. Street-based sex workers are targeted for arrest most often, with trans women and women of color (sex workers or not) profiled far more frequently.

In New York City only one third of the population is black, yet black defendants face 69% of charges brought before the court for prostitution-related offenses and 94% of the charges for the vague offense of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.”[4]

Discrimination occurs along socioeconomic lines as well. When law enforcement officers stage setups, they often respond to ads on websites such as Craigslist and Backpage, where sex workers can advertise freely or cheaply. (These cheap advertising sites are frequently the determining factor in whether sex workers can work independently indoors or need to work on the street and/or for a third party, and their shutdown can be financially devastating.) Meanwhile, websites that require tens or even hundreds of dollars a month to advertise on, which cater to sex workers with higher rates and wealthier clientele, are left alone.

 

  1. Both wars use law enforcement and imprisonment responses to what are really much broader social problems.

 

Our society’s criminal justice approach to the war on drugs (and as the brilliant author Gabor Maté often says, this system of justice truly is criminal) counts success by arrest numbers. In doing so, we avoid having to face the underlying and intersecting social issues of addiction, poverty, trauma, racism and other marginalization.

Similarly, the War on Sex Workers allows us to avoid issues like transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, poverty, homeless youth, immigration, labor rights and structural inequality under capitalism. The law enforcement approach to sex work gives a seemingly easy solution to what are incredibly complex problems endemic to our society. It allows politicians to tell their voters they have acted to solve the problem, while actually fixing nothing and often compounding the struggles of society’s most vulnerable.

 

5.  Both wars justify themselves through the use of hysteria around “trafficking.”

 

Some of us have lived long enough to remember the hysteria around drug trafficking back in the 1980s that now finds its parallel in the recent explosion of concern over sex trafficking. Both are cases of a moral panic driven by “noble intentions” and an “end demand” prohibitionist approach.

The public wasn’t sold “tough on drugs” legislation as a way to send black people to prison for life over a couple of joints (even though that’s what ended up happening). It was supposed to save us from violent drug gangs and evil crack fiends who were luring innocent children from schoolyards.

Yet we all know how that story ended: mandating more law enforcement, funding police militarization, and enforcing stricter laws unleashed an inhumane war on the most marginalized in our society—without any success in reducing drug use or the violence surrounding it.

The war on sex trafficking is having the same effect, with the popular trend of harsher sentences for trafficking offenses (including new mandatory minimums) and huge amounts of funding to agencies to fight sex trafficking. What’s rarely talked about is the fact that most sex trafficking stings end up rounding up sex workers in handcuffs who were working of their own consent.

The origin of the term “sex trafficking” is problematic and is often used as a way to push an anti-sex work agenda, regardless of the agency of the sex worker involved.

In the 1990s an unholy alliance was formed between evangelical Christians and some radical feminists, who worked to rebrand their (by now unpopular) agenda of eradicating prostitution as a campaign to end sex trafficking.[5] Who could argue with the fight to end sexual slavery?

But leading anti-trafficking organizations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) define all sex work as trafficking.[6] They pushed their redefinition of commercial sex as “sexual exploitation” into the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which was approved and signed by 117 countries. What the general public remains unaware of is that the protocol (along with the ever expanding range of anti-trafficking laws around the globe) provides legal and moral cover to target sex work under the guise of fighting trafficking.

Organizations such as CATW do not recognize the existence of voluntary sex work because by their definition, all prostitution is violence against women (never mind the inconvenient fact that a lot of sex workers aren’t women). This strategy of rebranding the fight to abolish prostitution as one of eradicating sexual slavery has largely succeeded—it’s now impossible to have a discussion about sex work today without also discussing trafficking.

Trafficking of people into forced labor, in the sex industry or any other industry, is clearly abhorrent. But too often the activities now targeted under anti-trafficking laws are consensual acts between adults. One can be prosecuted as a “trafficker” for offering or soliciting paid sex, living with a sex worker, running a classified advertising website, or being a sex worker’s driver or security person.

In real life, “sex trafficking” seldom resemble the images of desperate young girls bound at the wrists plastered all over “end modern-day slavery” campaigns. Under current U.S. law, anyone less than eighteen years old and selling sex is considered “trafficked.”

Underage “trafficking victims” are typically street-based youth (most commonly between 15 and 17 years old) trading sex for survival. [7] Recent studies have found that the majority of these underage sex workers are selling sex without the aid of a middleman or pimp—90% in New York City, according to a study from John Jay College (the same study found 45% of underage sex workers to be boys).[8]  This population would be much better served by the assistance of well-funded social services than by an increase in funding for law enforcement.

Where coercion is taking place by a third party, the traffickers are often abusive partners, with the sex worker emotionally entangled and otherwise dependent on their abuser. This situation has far more in common with domestic abuse situations than the common portrayals of being abducted by a stranger, handcuffed to a bed and forced to have sex for money. While of course the “trafficker” in this case can be prosecuted under the law, the most effective way to affect change in this situation is through emotional support helping the victim leave the abusive situation and then resources and aid for food, jobs, and housing.

Even migrant workers “rescued” under anti-trafficking laws were most often already sex workers in their home country who immigrated illegally in order to work in the sex industry here, rather than having been unexpectedly coerced into doing so upon their arrival.[9] As in the days of peak “drug trafficking” hysteria, “sex trafficking” remains a highly-charged term—but it has also become meaningless.

Worse than meaningless, however, it effectively erases the systemic social conditions that shape sex workers’ lives. We substitute “traffickers” for the traps of poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and strict immigration policies. Once again, the prohibitionist approach allows lawmakers to avoid dealing with the most pressing issues at the edges of society.

We can immediately shift the number of people affected by sex trafficking by providing more shelter beds for the homeless (particularly LGBT youth), expanding government programs that provide food and housing, and providing opportunities for job training. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes, “For the vast majority of vulnerable sex workers, the greatest barrier to exit aren’t ankle-cuffs, isolation, and shadowy kidnappers with guns, but a lack of money, transportation, identification, or other practical things. Is helping with this stuff not sexy enough?”[10]

 

6.  “End demand” doesn’t work.

 

“Ending the demand for drugs is how, in the end, we will win,” President Ronald Reagan told us in 1988. “The tide of the battle has turned and we’re beginning to win the crusade for a drug-free America.”

Of course, the number of Americans using illicit drugs has only increased since then, billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of prison sentences later.

The “Nordic model” to “end demand” for sex work (which is law in Scandinavia, France, and Canada and is rapidly influencing American policy) criminalizes buying sex but not selling it. Just as in the war on drugs, the Nordic model so popular in feminist circles theorizes that if only we can make enough arrests or make the punishment severe enough, demand will end and people will stop trying to purchase sexual services. Not only is this based on a false premise, but—contrary to the frequent claims by supporters that this law only punishes “johns”—it directly harms sex workers.

The simple fact is that you cannot criminalize a worker’s customers and not negatively impact the worker’s life as well. These laws have not only failed to reduce prostitution in places like Sweden, but have actually made life more dangerous for sex workers who, for example, now have less time to negotiate safer sex practices with nervous clients who fear arrest.[11]

These laws also perpetuate discrimination and the further marginalization of sex workers, including even the removal of children from their custody if they do not identify with the narrative of victimhood around their work. This is because under the Nordic model, sex workers who don’t define their work as damaging are seen as living in a “false consciousness” and incapable of making their own decisions—including taking care of their own children.[12]

 

7. The real lived experiences of drug users and of sex workers are underrepresented and widely misunderstood.

 

Due in no small part to stigma, social portrayals of drug users and sex workers often miss the mark.

We’ve seen a slight shift in this recently with the normalization of cannabis use and the corresponding widening of mainstream portrayals of cannabis users as a result.

Representations of sex workers, however, remain split along the dichotomies of “wealthy high class call girl” versus “drug-addled street worker,” and of “happy and empowered” versus “desperate victim.”

The reality, of course, is much more nuanced and complex—i.e., human. When will we see the story of the single mom supporting her children through sex work? The trans teenager kicked out of their house and trying to survive? The student putting themselves through college?

A parallel stigma exists for those who purchase sex, particularly if they are men. “Johns” are often demonized as lascivious, aggressive, or abusive. But the reality is most men who buy sex are just normal guys.

Where are the stories of the lonely man on a business trip, the cripplingly shy guy who hasn’t gotten laid in years, the guy with the fantasy he’s too ashamed to share with a partner, the divorcee trying to get his mojo back after a terrible betrayal, or the disabled man who yearns for intimacy?

 

8.  Criminalizing drugs and sex work denies fundamental human rights to cognitive liberty and bodily autonomy.

 

Anti-sex work and anti-drug laws both criminalize activity between consenting adults. Taking drugs and selling sex are consensual crimes where there is no “victim.”

Over time we’ve come to eradicate many of these kinds of laws that seemed to make sense at the time, but eventually came to be understood as reflecting no more than the social morality of the day. For example, homosexuality used to be a crime punishable with fines, jail, or death.

Imagine instead if we could accept that each person is the best expert on their own life, that we all engage in risk and harm reduction all of the time, and decided to live and let live.

Drug reform campaigners sometimes argue that the right to take certain substances falls under the category of cognitive liberty, the right to “mental self-determination” or to alter one’s consciousness as one so chooses.

Sex work has its parallel here in the principle of bodily autonomy—that is, bodily self-determination. If someone chooses to have transactional sex, that’s their body and their right to choose.

The reality is, sex can often be transactional, even outside of sex work. We don’t arrest sugar babies and sugar daddies, for example. Most would find it ridiculous to prosecute someone who felt they should have sex after someone paid for an expensive date. And we would never dream of punishing wives that give their husband oral sex to acquire a favor later. Laws that forbid this transaction from taking place in exchange for cash instead are simply a puritanical hangover.

 

9.  Laws prohibiting drugs and sex work reflect America’s puritanical heritage.

 

The puritanical impulse is alive and well in America—as is all the hypocrisy that comes with it.

We punish people for using some substances (illegal drugs) but not others (alcohol, legal prescription drugs) whose use can also manifest as anything from life-enhancing to harmless to life-destroying.

Similarly, we punish someone for selling a sexual service to another person—but only if they’re not being filmed to have the video sold on the internet later (pornography). We also allow and sometimes even expect people to capitalize on their sexuality (as the adage goes, “sex sells”) but have a real problem with (particularly women) actually selling sex for themselves rather than for a corporation.

As Sue Bradford, member of the New Zealand Parliament, stated in her 2005 speech:

“We believed, and still do, that it was completely wrong to go on living with an archaic law which criminalized generations of sex workers, mainly women, for a victimless so-called crime in the name of antique moralities shared by only some of the population.”[13]

The drives to alter consciousness through drugs or to pay for sexual services have been common throughout time—and other societies have felt no need to criminalize or stigmatize such activity.

In fact, just as numerous cultures around the world and throughout history have had sanctioned and sacred occasions for the use of psychoactive substances, there is some evidence to suggest that ancient Mesopotamian temples priestesses provided sexual rites in exchange for donations to the temples. Having sex with a priestess, who was seen as a living embodiment of the divine Goddess herself, would have been seen as a way to worship and connect to Her. Conceiving of that possibility requires a complete shift in the Western understanding of sexuality and the sacred.

 

  1. Drugs and sex work can be powerful tools for healing and spiritual connection.

We now know that some drug use can lead to healing or transcendent experiences that have positive effects on people’s lives.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health found that participants who took naturalistic doses of “classic” psychedelics—magic mushrooms, DMT, mescaline and LSD—had significantly decreased likelihood of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and psychological distress. Psychedelic users were found to have 19% less likelihood of exhibiting psychological distress in the past month, 14% lower reports of suicidal thoughts and 36% lower probability of suicidal attempts in the past year.

As the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 30,000 people in the U.S. die from suicide each year (worldwide that number is 1 million), these numbers are important. While treatment for mental health disorders has improved markedly in the past century, the suicide rate remains stagnant.

Beyond that, studies with substances such as psilocybin and MDMA have been found to be remarkable healers for anxiety in those with terminal illness, depression, PTSD, social anxiety in autism, etc. Psychedelic experiences can lead to powerful unitive and mystical experiences. Drugs that currently remain Schedule I, users of which have been stigmatized for decades, are suddenly being recognized as powerful catalysts for healing and spiritual connection—when used with that intention.

Similarly, sex work can be another powerful tool for healing and spiritual connection. Sex surrogates, sexological bodyworkers, sacred intimates, and neo-tantrikas—all sex workers who focus on sexual healing and re-connection—can be seen as the underground psychedelic therapists of sex work.

In fact, all forms of sex work have innate healing potential—because sex has innate healing potential.

It is innately healing to be met in your nudity and vulnerability with complete presence and acceptance, no less by a stranger. Sex workers can help release sexual shame and guilt, work with troubling sexual fantasies, overcome sexual trauma or dysfunction, build confidence, and provide sexual education. Data on these claims is yet to be compiled, but we do know that touch and intimacy are healing—and that most of us don’t receive nearly enough of it.

 

Both drugs and sex work can be triggering topics for a lot of people, but it’s time to admit that we’ve been using the wrong strategy to address them. It’s no coincidence that organizations like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch are pushing for an end to the War on Drugs at the same time that Amnesty International has called for worldwide decriminalization of prostitution.[14] Prohibition, which only ever increases harm, must come to an end. We need to decriminalize and shift to a harm reduction approach instead.

It’s time to start legally testing drugs for purity, providing clean needles and access to condoms, and permitting safer online markets like Silk Road and Backpage. Time to trust each person to make their own choices with what’s currently available to them—whether they’re a Silicon Valley CEO microdosing LSD to come up with new ideas or a long-distance truck driver taking speed to stay awake at work, a college student escorting to pay tuition or a single mother selling sexual services to keep her kids fed. It’s time to acknowledge the magnificent complexity of how drugs and sex work manifest in real people’s lives—and to invest in supporting them through that complexity.

To deal with difficult matters such as addiction to drugs and coercion in the sex industry, we can replace our law enforcement approach and re-designate funds to focus on ameliorating the conditions that leave people vulnerable to addiction and abuse to begin with, through education, housing, social services and more. There are real and practical measures that can be taken to reduce harm and improve drug users’ and sex workers’ lives. That starts with listening to what sex workers and drug users themselves have to say.

The dream? Once we’ve ended these wars on consensual human activity, de-stigmatized sex work and drug use, and fully implemented a harm reduction approach, a whole new world of possibility opens to us.

Exploring one’s body or mind is no longer done with fear or guilt. Sex workers are seen as expert educators and service providers like any other—and just like a masseuse or therapist, clients see them for everything from pleasure and relaxation to exploration and healing.

Drug users have the opportunity to participate in guided experiences with pure substances to explore their own consciousness in a safe and supportive environment, where old traumas can be reexamined and new insight can emerge.

In this future world, two of the most powerful tools we have for healing, reconnecting and exploring consciousness, are set free. And as a result, so are we.

 

~ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ~
 

[1] Mary Mitchell, “Mitchell: Rape Case Sends Mixed Messages on Prostitution,” Chicago Sun-Times, September 12, 2015, http://chicago.suntimes.com/crime/7/71/952556/charges-send-mixed-messages-prostitution.

[2] Margaret H Wurth et al., “Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in the United States and the Criminalization of Sex Work,” Journal of the International AIDS Society 16, no. 1 (May 24, 2013), doi:10.7448/IAS.16.1.18626.

[3] “Top Adviser to Richard Nixon Admitted That ‘War on Drugs’ Was Policy Tool to Go After Anti-War Protesters and ‘Black People’ | Drug Policy Alliance,” Drug Policy Alliance, March 23, 2016, http://www.drugpolicy.org/news/2016/03/top-adviser-richard-nixon-admitted-war-drugs-was-policy-tool-go-after-anti-war-proteste, http://www.drugpolicy.org/news/2016/03/top-adviser-richard-nixon-admitted-war-drugs-was-policy-tool-go-after-anti-war-proteste.

[4] Noah Berlatsky and 2014, “Black Women Profiled as Prostitutes in NYC,” Reason.com, October 1, 2014, http://reason.com/archives/2014/10/01/nypd-profiles-sex-workers-too.

[5] Ellizabeth Nolan Brown, “The War on Sex Trafficking Is the New War on Drugs,” Reason.com, accessed November 6, 2015, https://reason.com/archives/2015/09/30/the-war-on-sex-trafficking-is.

[6] “Coalition Against Trafficking in Women,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, September 4, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Coalition_Against_Trafficking_in_Women&oldid=679392870.

[7] Katherine Koster, “Is Operation Cross Country the Best Way to Fight Child Sex Trafficking?,” Huffington Post, accessed November 6, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katherine-koster/is-operation-cross-country-the-best-way-to-fight-child-sex-trafficking_b_8307634.html.

[8] Kristen Hinman, “Lost Boys,” Village Voice, November 2, 2011, http://www.villagevoice.com/news/lost-boys-6433393.

[9] Noah Berlatsky, “‘Human Trafficking’ Has Become a Meaningless Term,” The New Republic, October 30, 2015, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/123302/human-trafficking-has-become-meaningless-term.

[10] Brown, “The War on Sex Trafficking Is the New War on Drugs.”

[11] Jay Levy, Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden (Routledge, 2014).

[12] Global Network of Sex Work Projects, “The Real Impact of the Swedish Model on Sex Workers: Advocacy Toolkit” (NSWP, November 2015), http://www.nswp.org/sites/nswp.org/files/The%20Real%20Impact%20of%20the%20Swedish%20Model%20on%20Sex%20Workers%20Advocacy%20Toolkit%2C%20NSWP%20-%20November%202015.pdf.

[13] Sue Bradford, “Is Prostitution a Victimless Crime?,” ProCon.org, August 15, 2013, http://prostitution.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000119#answer-id-000979.

[14] ACLU, “End the War on Drugs,” American Civil Liberties Union, accessed March 27, 2017, https://www.aclu.org/feature/end-war-drugs; Diederik Lohman, “Rethinking the War on Drugs,” Human Rights Watch, March 22, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/rethinking-war-drugs; Catherine Murphy, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights,” Amnesty International, accessed November 6, 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/.

 

~ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ~
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*Originally published on Psymposia*

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Sex Work and Sexual Healing: Modern Day Sexual Healers Speak

Can a provider of sexual services facilitate healing? How can transformation take place within such an exchange? We don’t often hear about them, but there are plenty of anthologies of sexual healers’ stories, for those who would seek them out. It is these men and women’s voices that I’d like to amplify in this piece. It would be illuminating to hear from their clients as well, but those accounts are few and far between. However, it is interesting to note that many of these people actually started out as clients, with trauma or pain to be healed, and later in life became healers themselves. Often their personal essays include stories of being in both roles.

sexualhealing

Why is sexual healing necessary? Joseph Kramer, founder of the Body Electric School and a self-professed “sacred prostitute“ says:

You can talk to a psychotherapist about sexual abuse for years, but for intervention on the physical plane, we call on a sacred intimate…It is in the physical world that the trauma took place and that’s where the healing most effectively takes place. (Blackburn, 2007, p.61)

It seems important to note that the terms “sexual trauma” and “sexual abuse” carry a lot of stigma, and it is easy to forget that these things take place on all different points along the spectrum. Being addicted to drugs can mean being a “functioning addict” or being a “junkie” on the street. Although one might seem better off than the other, we’d agree that both people need treatment. Similarly, having a conscious memory of egregious abuse as a child is not the only qualification for trauma. I would argue that most of us carry sexual pain and trauma from living in this sexually dysfunctional society, whether or not we are conscious of it.

A legitimized role for sexual healers is not that far of a leap from what we already have as (almost) socially acceptable in society today: sexual surrogates who are sometimes recommended by psychotherapists as an adjunct to talking therapy. Still controversial, they are gaining acceptance. The International Professional Surrogates Association has a training program that you can go through if you wish to work within the realms of traditional medicine and therapy. The men and women featured in this article mostly work outside of those worlds, with only a couple of them doing official “surrogacy” work.

Two prominent and important aspects of all the featured healers’ stories is their ability to offer acceptance and presence:

A common trait of all the sacred intimates in this book is their full acceptance of themselves and those who come to work with them. Such complete acceptance is so rare that it is much more radical than any of the physical activities that take place during their sessions. Perhaps that is why we so often hear that shame is released in sacred healing sessions – because, in the presence of a loving person who accepts another ‘warts and all,’ a person can let go of their self-loathing and recriminations, even if for one precious moment. (Blackburn, p.215)

Presence means that you are met ‘where you are’ physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Presence doesn’t mean that the person is like you in all these ways, but that she respects you and accepts you fully. To be present also means that the sacred healer attends fully to the individual(s) he is with and the situation he is in, without jumping to conclusions about what is happening inside the person, and without attempting to lead or control. Sacred intimates often describe their experience of being present as being an open conduit for healing, as channeling divine energy, or as just being a witness for their client. They limit their own personal input, and allow healing energy to take over the situation. That level of presence allows wonderful and amazing things to happen. (Blackburn, p.219)

Similar to presence is the gift of allowing a person to feel wanted and received, something not all of us feel in life. Sensual masseuse Carolyn Elderberry says, “The men…knew they wanted their wives to desire them; they hadn’t realized the extra dimension of their frustration was their need to be wanted and received” (Stubbs, 1994, p.164).

In terms of healing, many clients have issues around trust, intimacy, sharing and surrender. All these things are important in living a “healthy” life and these kinds of sessions allow them to experience them, and to build their ability to have these experiences with another (non-working) partner. None of these sexual healers (and not all sex workers in general, for that matter) think of their job as providing a strictly sexual service, although sex is often (not always) a part of the time they share with their clients. It is the service of providing intimacy. This is increasingly common, as is well documented in Columbia professor Elizabeth Bernstein’s Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex.

Other aspects of healing can occur through exploration of fantasies:

We suspect that many of the dark fantasies we love to explore in SM are paths to the Shadow – paths to parts of ourselves that we wish to bring back into consciousness, split-off parts that we want to welcome back so that we can be whole. Seen in this way, the theater of SM is a sort of psychodrama, tracing a scary painful path to some dark cave in our iceberg, but with someone else to share in the journey and act as mirror to validate our experience…What if bringing our dark fears into the light of awareness can heal us, make us more whole? (Easton, 2004, p.167)

So if all this healing is possible, why would anyone choose to work outside of sexual surrogacy and brave the underworld of sensual massage and other services that could have them arrested for prostitution? As Selena Truth put it:

One of the pleasures of doing sensual massage was that I reached people who would never have come to see me if I had called my work “spiritual” or “healing.” Yet often they were the ones most in need of healing. The promise of an exotic sexual experience lured them in, and once they were there, they often received much more than just a hand job. Like with this man, I used the opening that happened with orgasm as a way in, to plant seeds of self-loving, heart-healing and a glimpse of a broader reality. (Truth, 2009, p.103-104)

Carol Queen, activist and self-identified call girl says:

To guide another person to orgasm, to hold and caress, to provide companionship and initiation to new forms of sex, to embody the Divine and embrace the seeker – these are healing and holy acts. Every prostitute can do these things, whether or not s/he understands their spiritual potential. (Stubbs, p.201)

To see an act of prostitution as “healing” or “holy” is to turn Judeo-Christian and Puritanical values on their head, to look at the world through a completely different lens. A lens that is sex-positive, that embraces embodied spirituality (rather than a spirituality that denies the body), one that seeks immanence rather than transcendence. Through this lens we see a whole new world of possibilities for healing, connection and oneness ahead. Shepherding us from the old world to the new are these bright spirits, these modern day sexual healers, leading the way.

~ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ~

References:

Blackburn, S., & Wade, M. (2007). Reclaiming Eros: Sacred Whores & Healers. Portland, ME: Suade Publishing.

Easton, D., & Hardy, J. W. (2004). Radical Ecstasy: SM journeys to Transcendence. Oakland, Calif.: Greenery Press.

Stubbs, K. R. (1994). Women of the Light: The New Sacred Prostitute. Larkspur, Calif.: Secret Garden.

Truth, S. (2009). Tales of a Sacred Prostitute: Revelations of how Sexual Energy Heals. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

~ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ~

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How Not to End Sex Trafficking: My Day Testifying at the New York City Council

In case you haven’t heard: there’s a new moral crusade on the rise. It began two years ago with a campaign for Craigslist to take down it’s adult advertisement section because it was being used by sex traffickers to advertise their victims. After winning every legal battle in court, Craigslist finally caved to public pressure and took it down. What followed was the inevitable exodus of adult services ads to another website, this time Village Voice owned Backpage.com, another website for classified ads. It wasn’t long before the anti-trafficking crusade was up in arms again.

The pressure has reached critical mass in recent weeks as scathing editorials by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have become near-weekly and a petition with a quarter million signatures was delivered by local clergy and council members to Village Voice Media in NYC. The movement is growing nationally with 19 US senators and 51 attorneys general signing on to the cause.

The idea behind this is a simple one. For example take the Brooklyn District Attorney, who has claimed that in two years, 70 percent of the 40 trafficking cases his office dealt with involved ads on Backpage.com. They conclude from this that Backpage is effectively pimping underage/trafficked girls and that the site’s adult services section needs to be taken down.

The thought on this issue seems to stop there. Firstly, it would seem obvious that whatever website is most popular for those seeking adult services is going to be the place traffickers go to advertise their victims as well. The whole discussion around this issue seems to also show a certain naiveté around the prevalence of consensual prostitution, which makes up the vast majority of the ads placed on Backpage.

Aside from that, it is clear from what happened after Craigslist was shut down that this is really a game of Whac-A-Mole. With the advent of the internet as a marketing tool, we are dealing with a new era for the sex industry (as for any other industry), and shutting down one website at a time is simply not going to solve the problem.

Not only is it not going to solve anything, it’s actually a dangerous tactic for several reasons. Any website that cooperates with law enforcement and is proactive about screening its advertisements for any hint of coercion or underage sex (as Backpage does) is an opportunity to monitor a world that law enforcement can’t usually access. Assuming that these ads will eventually all move to a new website (even the District Attorneys attacking Backpage admit they will), there is no guarantee that this new website will have the rigor or interest in pursuing this on the scale Village Voice Media does, never mind the funding to do so. There are an estimated 5000 adult advertisement websites that advertise sex workers/escorts in the United States, and an increasing number of them are not on US shores. Therefore not only might they not take a principled stand on this issue (as Village Voice has) – but they may not be under US jurisdiction either. Many prosecutions of sex trafficking cases use information obtained from Backpage via subpoena, something not possible with an off-shore company.

This all doesn’t bode well for the future protection of victims of sex trafficking. And it’s only the beginning of the problem with the cause to shut down Backpage. While taking down Backpage may make some feel better, there is no evidence that doing so will help victims of trafficking. What we do know is that it will have many unintended and dangerous consequences for those involved in the sex industry by consent.

Backpage is a low-cost advertising site that has allowed many people in the sex industry to break away from a pimp or madam, get off the streets or out of a house, and work independently.

What happens when you shut down an advertising site that services so many people? Further marginalization leads to increases in violence, HIV and other STIs, stigma and discrimination. Without sites such as Backpage it is much harder for sex workers to screen their clients and negotiate their terms of service, such as condom use. Closing down low-cost advertising sites makes it harder to be independent and forces sex workers to rely again on third parties, leading back to exploitation and trafficking.

Having heard little discussion of these and other consequences in the crusade to shut down Backpage, I spent the day at City Hall yesterday waiting for a chance to testify on the proposed City Council resolution recommending the closure of Backpage’s adult services advertisements. I was joined by the wonderfully bright and articulate Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer from the Sex Workers Outreach Project of NYC. Chairing the panel were Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Councilman Brad Lander.

It wasn’t so much a hearing as a lynch mob. Cameras rolling, I watched as members of our City Council practically lined up to abuse Village Voice attorney Liz McDougall (who came to testify by choice). She was interrupted, insulted and accused repeatedly – while her sensible and sensitive responses to their questions went completely ignored. I couldn’t help but wonder: knowing that the city has no power to shut down Backpage (the resolution is just a strong recommendation), surely the opportunity to sit and talk with Backpage’s attorney about these issues would have been better spent in an in-depth discussion of what Backpage could do to improve it’s current efforts to curb trafficking? Unfortunately all that ensued was finger-pointing, angry raised voices and public humiliation. Having spoken to Ms. McDougall I feel it’s obvious that she truly believes that the Village Voice is doing the right thing here (and I agree). It’s rare to see a sense of corporate responsibility these days and it was truly painful to watch her efforts met with sarcasm and bullying.

The rest of the testimony might as well have been a mutual masturbation session as City Council members, District Attorneys, and anti-trafficking organizations congratulated each other on having the courage to ‘stand up’ on this issue.

Except all I saw in that room was cowardice and politics. It is pure sleazy politics to not stand up and admit (as at least one council member is said to have done privately) that shutting down Backpage will probably not help the trafficking situation. It is pure cowardice to hide behind an easily passed resolution to be able to say you’ve done something about trafficking – instead of pushing for the funding for programs that would really help the populations most at-risk from this kind of abuse.

There are some real and tangible changes our society can make, as my fellow SWOP member Kate D’Adamo explained to the City Council:

“According to the John Jay College study The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York City, 95% of the youths interviewed said they exchanged sex for money because “it was the surest way to support themselves.” And we are not talking about a missing population who is isolated in their quest for support. 68% had visited at least one youth service agency. And while 87% expressed a desire to leave the sex trade, the barriers can feel insurmountable at times. 60% said they would require stable, legal employment, 51% identified educational needs, and 41% required stable housing before this was possible.

While these all seem like lofty goals, they are clear, decisive places to start that we know will have a huge impact on this population. The most frequent request for services? Stable, long-term housing, most acknowledging that the typical 90-day maximum stay does not provide enough time for them to get on their feet. In 2007, before the financial crisis, one study identified 4000 unaccompanied youth in New York City every single night, and even this number is low. This number does not include youth with their family in the shelter system. It does not include youth who have not tried to connect with the system in some way in order to be counted. It does not include the increase in homeless and housing unstable persons which occurred during the financial collapse a year later. To meet this need, the city funds just over 300 shelter beds. And while 45% of the population of youth engaging in the sex trade is male, and half of street-based youth identify as LGBTQ, the vast majority of these beds have gender restrictions. This year, Mayor Bloomberg is seeking to cut this number even further. Funding emergency shelter services could be a silver bullet into this issue, and it would be a solution which preserves the agency, the rights, and the autonomy of this population.”

I’m afraid to say our testimony fell on deaf ears. The council members present had already made up their minds a long time prior to this hearing. We were briskly thanked for our testimony and spared a single question or follow-up, unlike the many hours of questions we sat through during every testimony prior to ours. The message, in our eyes, was clear. Our ideas are not popular and the voices of the sex workers on whose behalf we were speaking are not exactly important in the political world. A depressing day indeed.

In the meantime, with it’s long-held tradition of standing up for marginalized groups and civil liberties, the Village Voice doesn’t look likely to back down anytime soon. And I’m proud of them. Shutting down Backpage’s adult section would have many unintended consequences. As well-meaning as the anti-trafficking campaigners are, it’s one of those cases where the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem of sex trafficking is complex and deserves a thoughtful, multi-level approach to prevent its occurrence and facilitate the rescue of its victims. In addition, sex workers’ voices (those working with agency and by consent) need to be heard when considering a policy that will affect them more than anyone else. Yesterday may have been disappointing, but we can’t afford to back down when there is so much at stake.

~ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ~

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In Pursuit of Personal Liberty:
Why I Write About Drugs and Prostitution

As a child in school, I was fascinated by the fact that only a few generations back, it was considered normal for a person to own slaves, for women to be denied the vote, for gay sex to be a crime worthy of imprisonment. At the outset, it is almost inconceivable that good people could have bought into a belief system that condoned such things. The vast majority of people living back then must have been so normalized to this oppression that they couldn’t see past their social norms to the greater injustice of it all. In fact, some of most ‘enlightened’ thinkers and leaders would still have been blinded to their own racism, sexism, and bigotry – all the while seeing their society as the new pinnacle of progress.

Carrying on from that idea, it seems only logical that a few hundred years in the future, people will view our society in a completely different light as well. They will most likely see themselves as more advanced than us, just as we see ourselves now. What aspects of our culture are so ‘normal’ to us that we fail to recognize their unfairness or backwardness? What laws are on the books, what beliefs are commonly held, that form our society’s blind spots?

It was from this point of view that I entered into my study of sociology. Taboos have always fascinated me, and sex and drugs are certainly two of our society’s most common ones. But regardless of a society’s acceptance or nonacceptance of certain taboos, once the government becomes involved in legislating them we are looking at a human rights issue.

One could chart the progress of human rights as modern society came to recognize, one group at a time, that regardless of gender or race all humans are born with certain inalienable rights. Since then we’ve examined more closely issues of personal liberty. The sexual revolution, the invention of birth control, abortion rights, and the retraction of anti-sodomy laws all progressed the idea of the individual’s right to his or her own choices, as long as they do not interfere with the well-being of another.

Looking back to drug policy and the sex industry, both issues concern the rights of consenting adults to make these very choices.

The ‘War on Drugs’ and the laws that come with it are very recent inventions. A hundred years ago there was little or no regulation of any substances. As it stands now, the government allows you to alter your consciousness through the intake of any number of prescription drugs or substances like alcohol, nicotine or caffeine – but not through others like marijuana, magic mushrooms, coca leaves, or peyote cactus. This seems random at best, an attack on cognitive liberty at worst. In the scheme of human history drug prohibition is but a tiny blip. Possession or sale of illegal drugs (many of which were sacraments in religious rituals not so long ago) will now land you with a jail sentence and a criminal record.

Prostitution might be the ‘oldest business in the world’ but it wasn’t always demonized and stigmatized in the way it is today. In fact, similar to the use of certain hallucinogenic and narcotic plants, prostitution was seen as sacred in many societies of the past. The idea of the sacred whore might seem like an oxymoron from a modern Western point of view. Indeed many anthropologists object to the term ‘sacred prostitute’, even while admitting to the existence of priestesses devoted to a goddess who accepted payment donated to the temple in exchange for sex. If that’s not prostitution then I’m not sure what is. In those times, the priestess was seen as an incarnation of the great goddess. In her role as priestess she was a teacher of the mysteries, of the healing and restorative power of sexual energy. Maybe what we need to look at is why we have imbued the word ‘prostitute’ with such strong negative connotations that today our society cannot bear to associate the word with anything spiritual or positive.

There are some who will object to the idea that past (and often considered more ‘primitive’) civilizations’ acceptance of sacred drug use and prostitution should bear any weight in the argument to permit them today. So let’s look rationally at the crux of these issues and get past the initial reactions we’ve all been programmed to have when we hear words like ‘drugs’ and ‘prostitute’ in news headlines.

The idea that two consenting adults agreeing to exchange sex for money can be a crime (as it is in the US) is moralistic, and (ironically) out of step with the very principles of a capitalist system. Any number of goods and services are exchanged for money under capitalism, regardless of whether we’d prefer if those services were granted for free by loved ones instead (nursing, childcare, etc). Sex and companionship shouldn’t be any different. We can’t seem to get past the idea that prostitution is selling one’s ‘body’ ‘ or ‘self’ – as if selling manual labor that involves the rest of your body is somehow different from physical labor that can involve one’s genitals.

Yes, we can all agree that the seedier side of the sex industry needs a serious clean-up, that some horrible things like trafficking and coercion do occur (indeed these are the only times the media reports on the sex industry). But exploitation and trafficking are already illegal, we don’t need anti-prostitution laws to stop them. The simple act of prostitution doesn’t pose any inherent danger to society, unless of course the government is enforcing Judeo-Christian ‘morals’ as law. In which case, we should surely start imprisoning adulterers again too.

Most illegal drugs, whether cocaine (from the coca leaf) or magic mushrooms, originate as a plant in the natural world. In fact human use of mind-altering drugs originates from copying animals in the wild who sought out these plants, after witnessing the unusual effects they had on animal behavior. Some now argue that the desire to consume psychoactive plants is an evolutionary drive that is fundamental to all animals. How can it be illegal for a person to ingest a plant that grows naturally (often sprouting like weeds) on our planet?

A more mature discourse about illegal substances and prostitution will inevitably lead to a healthier culture around them.

Anti-prostitution laws are a reminder that our supposedly free society still has a heavy hangover from it’s Puritanical past. Perversely, we have no problem with someone paying two ‘actors’ to have (often unprotected) sex with each other on camera (pornography), but to pay someone to have sex off-camera is strictly prohibited. These laws make the lives of working girls more dangerous, leaving them in vulnerable situations and unable to go to law enforcement to report true crimes like rape, theft, or violence. They also dehumanize women in the sex industry, feeding exactly the stigma and belittlement that allows some men to justify abusing them (as in their eyes prostitutes don’t need to be treated with the same respect as a ‘normal’ women.)

The American prison population is now five times what it was in 1971 when President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of the nearly 2.3 million Americans currently imprisoned, drug offenders constitute 50% of those in federal prison and 20% of state prisoners.

As Terence McKenna once said, “If the words life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on.”

So lets look again the next time we hear the local news report on a new ‘prostitution sting’ – in other words, the round-up of women who were only trying to make a living, who will now suffer public humiliation and criminal charges. Or when police brag of a huge ‘drug bust’ – imprisoning ‘dealers’ while doctors and pharmaceutical companies make their fortunes peddling legal heroin and speed in the form of prescription drugs.

Not only do these laws infringe on personal liberty, they also perpetuate a criminal underworld of gangs, pimps and violence. The harms often associated with illegal drugs and the sex industry are the product of the black market we ourselves create by forcing these activities underground.

So let it be our own children and grandchildren who gasp reading their history textbooks, incredulous at the idea that in the ‘old days’ people really thought it was okay to lock someone up for the crime of consuming a plant, or selling a sexual service.

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Overlooked in the News: So Far This Summer…

As the Daily Transmission is on a summer hiatus, here are a few not-to-be-missed headlines that should keep those juices flowing:

‘Why do we so willfully cover up the failure of the war on drugs?’ asks Angus Macqueen in The Guardian. Macqueen has just completed a documentary series for Channel 4 called ‘Our Drugs War’ which is a well-needed examination of the global ‘War on Drugs’. (Save for another time a discussion of what exactly constitutes a ‘drug’ in the first place… possibly the ‘War on Drugs’ belongs in the same failed category as the ‘War on Terror’?)

For further evidence of failed drug policy look no further than ‘Mephedrone found not guilty, but the next legal high may be a killer’ from former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris. We’re on a road to nowhere, attempting to ban each new pharmaceutical ‘high’ that comes out of a lab. It seems the recipe that got MDMA banned still works: Take tabloid headlines, scare stories and incomplete research, mix in some panicked political bravado, season with a bit of ignorance, and bam! You got yourself a mephedrone ban.

And for a shining example of where rational thought ends and politics begins, Sky News reports on why legalizing prostitution works (in Australia) – but ends telling us why prostitution laws in England are not likely to be changed any time soon:

There are not many votes to be won by decriminalisation and, potentially, many votes to be lost if it sparked a moral crusade by opponents of reform.

But that’s why we elect politicians, isn’t it? So they can get in power and ignore what they think is right in order to ensure getting re-elected?

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Dear Julie Bindel:
Why Selling Sex is Not Selling Your Self

Today’s Guardian featured a celebratory article by Julie Bindel on Iceland’s new ban on strip clubs. Hip hip hurray! Now women in Iceland can live in a globalized raunch culture but never get paid for their participation. Liberation indeed.

First of all, if you think women are objectified by our hyper-sexed culture and you want change, the banning of strip clubs is certainly no place to start. At least those women earn money doing what they do. I wish I had been paid for those hours I put in at school discos back in high school where bumping and grinding was simply what was done to ‘fit in’.

But let’s get to the bigger picture. So-called ‘feminists’ are now powerful enough to tell women who disagree with them that they have no right to capitalize on their sexual power. That they are deluding themselves if they feel empowered by earning money with their ‘tits and ass’. I thought it was supposed to be patriarchy that attempted to control the way women use their sexuality, not the ‘women’s movement’ itself?

One’s ability to do manual labour involving heavy lifting often relies on having typically male biological traits, just as stripping tends to depend on having typically female ones. In our economy, we capitalize on our assets – whether genetic or learned, physical or intellectual, etc.

So unless you’re trying to undermine the entire capitalist system of selling labour, the sex industry is like any other service industry and should be treated as such. That is, after all, what so many sex workers are fighting for themselves.

But no, we read that “the men of Iceland will just have to get used to the idea that women are not for sale”. Why is dancing on stage in clothing selling your service as a dancer, but dancing on stage without clothing actually selling ‘you’? It’s pure discrimination that reeks of puritanical notions of sex and self – particularly with regard to women.

If women involved in the sex industry are not there by choice (a relative notion – how many work their lives at McDonalds by ‘choice’?) then that is something to work on. But it is only through the de-stigmatisation of sex work that we will start to see a sex industry where those working do so because they want to, and those who don’t find a job they’re better suited to.

Let’s not disenfranchise women in the name of feminism. Because when it comes to women’s rights, it’s all about choice – right, sister?

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Posted: March 27th, 2010
Categories: Sex Work, Sexuality
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Overlooked In the News: January Round-Up

♥  Let’s start with a story of trivial magnitude that I still found fairly unbelievable: ‘Oshkosh Police Arrest Las Vegas Woman For Prostitution After Viewing Posts For Services On Websites’. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been living in the UK too long. But the idea of government money spent on an ‘undercover operation’ to arrest a single independent woman advertising sexual services on the internet seems unreal to me. No excuse of stopping trafficking, coercion, soliciting – just good old-fashioned moralizing on the exchange of cold hard cash (versus presents and dinner?) for sex. She was only living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin temporarily – a pretty harsh wake-up call to the fact that our Dorothy wasn’t in Las Vegas anymore!

I have no idea how common these kind of police operations are, tracking working girls on the internet. If you have any further info, please feel free to post in the comments below.

♥  On to some discrimination on a much larger scale. Queerty has been bringing CBS’s ridiculous hypocrisy to the public eye with regards to it’s Superbowl ad choices.

First we hear that ‘The Super Bowl Welcomes $2.8 Million Ad Buy From Hate Group “Focus on the Family”‘. Which is fair enough, until you remember CBS’s own policy that does not allow any ad that “touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance”. This quote is from a letter to the United Church of Christ, whose ad campaign of inclusiveness (“Jesus Didn’t Turn People Away. Neither Do We.”) was rejected for broadcast in 2004. So much for CBS’s ‘long-standing policy of not accepting advocacy advertising.’ No one’s seen the Focus on the Family ad spot yet, but from what the group has said publicly, it is going to be very clearly pro-life.

Just to emphasize the political nature of these decisions, Queerty has posted two ads rejected from this year’s Superbowl: ‘CBS Won’t Let Super Bowl Viewers See GoDaddy’s Gay-ish Ad Or a Gay Dating Site’s Spot. 30 Seconds of Abortion Still OK’. Although some might argue the content itself was not up to snuff – I demand you watch your average American TV spot before you make that judgement.

♥  Next, to the BBC reporting on how ‘Sanitary pads help Ghana girls go to school’. “Schoolgirl absenteeism in Ghana could be cut by half by providing free sanitary towels, a study has shown.” So easy to take things like that for granted in life. Somehow I think this is the kind of study that only gets done when it’s women on the research team!

♥  The NY Times had an interesting article called ‘Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret’ on the number of gay partnerships that are open sexually, and how they negotiate that understanding. I find it fascinating not just in itself, but as a model for straight couples as well. There needs to be a certain amount of trust, lack of jealousy, etc. – but these are things that often make relationships stronger. Some studies show that open gay relationships last longer than closed ones. As Joe Quirk, author of the relationship book “It’s Not You, it’s Biology”, put it: “If innovation in marriage is going to occur, it will be spearheaded by homosexual marriages.” Here, here!

♥  On a final, lighter note, click here to read how ‘Student Peter Backus uses alien maths to explain why single men can’t find a girlfriend.’ Apparently the probability of finding love in the UK is only about 100 times better than the probability of finding intelligent life in our galaxy! Somehow I bet those chances are much improved by spending less time in front of a calculator.

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The Death and Rebirth of Intimacy in the Sex Industry

There was an interesting article in the Sunday Times today called “How teenage access to pornography is killing intimacy in sex”. Natasha Walter addresses the issue of internet pornography and it’s effects on a generation of children who see their first hardcore porn at a younger and younger age.

According to a London School of Economics study in January 2002:

Nine out of 10 children aged between eight and 16 have viewed pornography on the Internet. In most cases, the sex sites were accessed unintentionally when a child, often in the process of doing homework, used a seemingly innocent sounding word to search for information or pictures.

I clearly remember attempting to visit the website for the US government and making the unfortunate mistake of typing in whitehouse.com rather than whitehouse.gov at a very young age. But I would imagine that as we see children dealing with adult themes earlier and earlier in their lives, a lot of this viewing is not unintentional.

We mustn’t make the assumption that children viewing sex at a young age is necessarily harmful – however, the problem is that most popular pornography is a very skewed and one-dimensional portrayal of sex. As a teenager, I personally thought of sex as something one does because men like it – that was the impression I had gotten from my exposure to porn on the internet. It wasn’t till years later that I would start to understand female sexuality, and then my own.

It would be great if our education system could provide sex education that taught more than just the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. How about teaching our children something about sexuality as an important way humans express intimacy and sometimes love?

I agree with Walter when she writes that:

“If the rise of pornography was really tied up with women’s liberation and empowerment, it would not be increasing women’s anxiety about fitting into a narrow physical ideal.

and

“…women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure.”

Unfortunately the article goes downhill from there, as she goes on to attack the sex industry across the board.

I was disappointed to see the conflation of the entire industry with the intimacy-less portrayal of sex in much popular porn and culture.

Walter completely ignores the shifting trend in the sex industry away from the “porn-star experience” (PSE) prostitute in favor of sex workers who offer the “girlfriend experience” (GFE). Many men are not interested in paying for sex without intimacy. The highest paid call girls in the industry are those who provide more personal interaction – not just completing a sexual act, but focusing on things like kissing, cuddling, foreplay, and conversation.

For more on this I highly recommend Elizabeth Bernstein’s “Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex”. In this model, intimacy is being sold along with sex. Sex workers are seen as just another kind of service provider (in line with therapists, masseurs, etc.) in a capitalist economy where (let’s face it) we all prostitute our time and labour for money in one line of work or another.

Walter claims that “women are scarred by the myth that selling sex is a positive career choice” citing two girls who worked in the sex industry as examples. But when she refers to the bestselling memoirs of prostitutes such as Belle de Jour, she completely ignores the validity of their experiences as empowered sex workers. Denying women’s agency and subjective experiences – is that not typical misogyny?

Surely we can do better than that Ms. Walter.

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America’s First Legal Male Prostitute:
As Progressive As He’d Like To Think?

He’s compared himself to Rosa Parks, but don’t laugh.  Read what 25 year-old “Markus” has to say in his interview with Details first.

Markus is America’s first legal male prostitute after Nevada finally changed it’s health codes in December.  Male prostitutes were previously unable to qualify under these codes because they specified that prostitutes must undergo “cervical” testing for sexually transmitted diseases.  Talk about confirming the assumption that the word prostitute always implies a female worker!

It’s great that Markus is a political crusader who wants to make a point through his employment:

“This actually isn’t about selling my body. This is about changing social norms.”

Having empowered straight male prostitutes who work legally in Nevada will probably help build the case for de-stigmatisation and legalisation of sex work across the country.  Somehow the fact that he’s so heteronormative stops people from reverting back to a prostitutes-as-victims discussion.

However, as Gawker pointed out, his business plan is a bit flawed.  For now, women who purchase sex are a serious minority in the sex industry, and the competition is rough.  Judging from the fact that he’s not much to look at, he probably stands a better chance in the world of gay prostitution, a market with a higher demand. Society seems to allow men the right to pay for sex, so prostitution is more accepted among free-thinking homosexuals.  

So unless he’s the charmer of the century, he may have to reconsider the idea that his “sphincter is not for sale”.  Even if he only wants to service women, how about all the potential clients who enjoy pegging?

Funny how we pick and choose which social norms to deconstruct, eh Markus?

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Posted: January 14th, 2010
Categories: Sex Work
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How Not To Promote Safe Sex: A Lesson in Defeating the Point

Today’s outrageous headline comes to us from Change.org, where Alex DiBranco reported ‘Don’t Carry Condoms in D.C. – You Could Be Charged with Prostitution’.

That’s right, police in Washington D.C. have the right to arrest anyone suspected of sex work – and carrying three or more condoms has been used as proof of intent to sell sex.

In any sane society, you’d think the police would be relieved to find prostitutes carrying condoms. After all, sexually transmitted diseases are one of the most common ways we tend to stigmatize prostitutes.

But we live in an insane society, because apparently New York and San Francisco use condoms as evidence of prostitution as well.

In New York:

Some businesses are even afraid to offer the city’s snazzy free condoms because they can also be used as evidence of “maintaining a premises for prostitution”.

Apparently public health is lower on the agenda than a moral crusade against sex work.

Will the madness ever end? Only if you want it to. Sign the petition on change.org now to tell D.C., San Francisco and New York that condoms aren’t a crime!

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Posted: January 13th, 2010
Categories: Sex Work
Tags: , , ,
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Decriminalize Prostitution, Drugs, and Gambling: No Joke, Mr. President

President Obama might have laughed off the question at a Pennsylvania Jobs Town Hall, but legalizing prostitution, drugs, and gambling makes sense both in terms of personal rights and economic growth.

The fact is that these things go on anyway, untaxed. That is a major source of government revenue lost every year. On top of that, because all these industries are forced underground, criminal gangs get involved and violence enters the picture where it certainly shouldn’t have to. Leading, of course, to the government instead spending endless money fighting the crime that arises and a “War on Drugs” that can’t be won.

Never mind the fact that nothing involving two consenting adults, or the ingestion of a substance by personal choice should really be illegal.

Why is it that we are so far from making these changes that our so-called “liberal” president can literally just laugh off the question?

Of course these things aren’t going to become legalized overnight. But decriminalization would be a first great step. We could learn a lot from Portugal’s 2001 decriminalization of all drugs, for example. Seven years later the data is in, and the policy has been a “resounding success”.

What really killed me was President Obama praising the student who asked the question for “doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing,” in college by “thinking in new ways about things.”

Well yes, Mr. President, exactly. Something that shouldn’t end in college. Something we need to see more of in this country’s social policies across the board. You campaigned on the concept of change. Isn’t it about time we saw some?

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In Summary: The Best of the Belle de Jour Buzz

As you may have noticed, there’s been a hell of a lot of writing about prostitution in the last week following Belle de Jour’s coming out on the cover of the Sunday Times. Here is the Daily Transmission’s pick of some of the more interesting articles and commentary from this past week:

Belle Lays Bare The Myth That Every Hooker is a Victim

Belle De Jour’s Mother Proud of ‘Brilliant’ Daughter Brooke Magnanti (Heart-warming!)

Brooke Magnanti’s Surprisingly Logical Call Girl Confession: That’s DR. Belle De Jour To You

How Belle de Jour’s Secret Ally Googlewhacked The Press

There is No Shame in Admitting if You’re a ‘Happy Hooker’

More Myths About Students Going On The Game

Enough Hand-wringing On Prostitution

Belle de Jour and the Myth of the Happy Hooker

Brooke Magnanti Says She MIsses Parts of Old Belle de Jour Life

Of course, there will always be some who manage to call themselves feminists and yet deny the validity of a woman’s account if she dares to claim an experience that doesn’t suit some feminists’ political agenda. Here’s a classic example:

Belle de Jour: I Don’t Believe Brooke Magnanti Was a Happy Hooker

All too predictable. Belle de Jour may have made a brave first step in opening a new dialogue on prostitution, but it seems we still have a long way to go.

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Dear Tanya Gold: Dr. Brooke Magnanti is a Model Prostitute

Yesterday, Guardian columnist Tanya Gold wrote “Dr Brooke Magnanti says she enjoyed life as Belle de Jour. Please don’t let this distort the grim reality of prostitution.” Why does a liberal newspaper like the Guardian consistently publish such reactionary commentary when it comes to sex and prostitution?

Tanya Gold is confounding the issue and confusing her readers by assuming that the sale of sex necessitates exploitation and coercion. Gold asks “can we ever untangle those two soul mates: violence and prostitution?” What a preposterous notion! We might as well ask whether it is possible to untangle exploitation from the textile industry. The obvious answer is yes. It is a matter of regulation and unionization, just like any other service industry.

The disfunction that occurs in the sex industry is a byproduct of its underground status. It is the constant stigmatization of prostitutes that allows some people to see them as less than human – seemingly giving license to a small percentage of clients to behave violently.

Otherwise, a sexual service provider should be no different from any other service provider. You hire a nanny to care for your child, a masseuse to give you a massage. In a perfect world there would be a full time mother taking care of the kid and your husband would be able to relieve the tension in your back but we accept that life’s not always like that. We pay for service providers.

Prostitution is just another service industry, providing intimacy, therapy, and the relief of sexual tension. It is an ancient, and I think noble, occupation. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of cleaning up to do. We need to address conditions in ‘working class prostitution’. We need to look at trafficking, under-age workers, and other forms of exploitation.

Dr. Brooke Magnanti could be seen as a middle class prostitute. And that is why she is so important. She can be a model for what the world of prostitution could and should look like. So no, Tanya Gold, violence and prostitution are not soul mates. I’ve interviewed enough sex workers in my own research to know that violence is a rare occurrence for most. But of course all violence in the world of prostitution should be eradicated. On that I think we can agree. So how to move forward?

De-stigmatisation, legalisation, and unionisation. Got it?

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Posted: November 18th, 2009
Categories: Sex Work
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Belle de Jour Escorts Us To Her Coming Out Party

Yesterday the Sunday Times cover story was “Belle de Jour reveals her biggest secret: she’s a research scientist”. Yes, the anonymous call-girl blogger turned writer whose books became the TV series Belle de Jour played by Billie Piper has revealed her identity. And about time too.

Time for the estimated 90% of prostitutes who work indoors to start coming out and speaking up about their experiences. Time to realize that most of our common knowledge about prostitution comes from street workers – primarily through police records – hardly representative of a massive industry that operates entirely underground. Time to find out just how big a minority women like Dr. Brooke Magnanti are in the sex industry.

Yes, that’s right. Dr. Brooke Magnanti, an educated research scientist who worked as a call girl while writing her PhD. Her experiences were in such contradiction to our cultural folklore about prostitution that many decided she must be making it up, that it was male fantasy, a complete fiction. But no, there are thousands of women like Dr. Magnanti who have these experiences in their past. Who don’t speak up because of the stigma. But its time to start talking, because whoever has got the mic has got the power. And right now it seems everyone’s had their chance at the podium except working girls themselves.

The Daily Transmission is proud of Dr. Magnanti. Maybe it’s time for a coming out party?

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Posted: November 16th, 2009
Categories: Sex Work
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Bumping and Grinding: High School Lessons in Giving it Away For Free

I first felt a man’s erection at the tender age of fourteen.  On my daily commute to school on the subway in New York City, a crowded train provided cover for unsolicited dry-humps from strangers behind me.  I suppose this was my sexual awakening.  Not particularly romantic.

This first experience was not shocking in the context of teenage pop culture.  I was already dressed for the part, in my mini-skirt and high heels.  I just needed to learn the moves. Watching MTV, the instructions came in loud and clear.  Even at my uber-nerdy school of math and science geeks, the point needed no clarification.  Nelly told us to ‘take off all our clothes’, Xtina got ‘Dirrty’, and even not-so-innocent Britney showed us how to make high school hallways and school uniforms more palatable.  From music videos and movies to school discos and prom, sexier was always better.  In this period I had a moment, an awakening which occurs in many young women’s lives, that maybe I should start wearing more skirts, putting on the lip gloss, and learning to flirt.

Becoming ‘sexy-conscious’ I unknowingly entered a world of delicate balancing and complicated hypocrisy.  Looking back, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cringes at memories of too much makeup, skirts that were too short, and heels that were too high.  I quickly became attuned to the effects of dressing provocatively.  Cat calls from builders, comments on the street and special treatment in shops became regular occurrences – which, in a funny way, I soon found myself reliant upon for constant reassurance that I was, indeed, attractive to men.

Even then I remember feeling confused as to the point of it all.  I knew I didn’t want to follow through with all the attention I was attracting, but I was also secretly pleased I was getting it.  It meant I was sexy – in the world of high school, a ‘hot chick’.  Then there were times when I’d manage to get my way with a male teacher, and I had no illusions as to why it was happening.  It seemed to me that flaunting my assets finally had a payoff.  But there was disapproval.  These tsk-tsks were the early precursors to the all too common ‘she-slept-her-way-to-the-top’ syndrome – where both men and women belittle or disregard a woman’s accomplishments if it turns out she was once a glamour model or slept with her boss.

One has to wonder why don’t we look down on the men in these situations for thinking with their ‘second brains’?  It seemed to me they were making fools of themselves, leaving themselves easy targets to be manipulated by a wink of an eye or a hint of cleavage.  But feminism tells us that I was the one ‘cheapening’ and ‘objectifying’ myself by actually using the sexuality we’d all earnestly aspired to flaunt (after much social instruction).  Had I been completely mistaken in feeling empowered?

This, it would seem, is the confounding legacy of the feminist revolution.  We’ve whittled down the principles and ideals of our foremothers – burning bras has long been out of fashion.  Sexy is the new black, it never goes out of style.  But we still look down our noses at those women who choose to capitalise on that sexual power – or at least when done with purpose or agenda.

Maybe it’s time we stopped to ask ourselves, who does this benefit?  I think back to school discos at ex-strip clubs (podiums, cages and all), where we bumped and grinded our way up the social ladder to the captain of the football team.  We dressed to tease and please, and were in awe of those girls who had mastered the arts of seduction and fellatio – not those who had learnt to give themselves an orgasm.  We competed by out-doing each other on the ‘hotness’ scale, looking for crucial signs of approval from guys, our own self-esteem hanging in the balance.  But we also waited like sharks in the water for the first girl to follow through with the tease, who could then be publicly humiliated for being a slag.

This trend continued on from high school into the ‘real world’.  I became aware that those women whose careers were reliant on their sexuality (lap dancers, strippers, prostitutes and so on) are widely looked down upon.  It’s as if that fact undermines any other qualities they may have – or indeed, that the career choice itself reflects a lack of other options, brains, or talent.  Women in more ‘serious’ careers who are seen to use or even express their sexuality risk losing their colleagues’ respect altogether.  But those who don’t often find themselves being labeled as ‘ball-breakers’ or ridiculed by men for lacking feminine appeal.  A bit of a catch twenty-two.

We’re expected to hone our sexual power but not to use it.  Whether we should be using it or not is another question, but surely our current raunch culture has nothing to do with female liberation.  Personally, I’d have felt more emancipated if I’d at least been saving up a college fund, charging men for all the free bumping and grinding I did in the subways and at the school prom.  I laugh when I hear people refer to pole dancers and topless models as ‘cheap’.  Because in the end, what’s cheaper than giving it away for free?

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Posted: November 1st, 2009
Categories: Sex Work, Sexuality
Tags: ,
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