Sex workers voices at AIDS2014 (and absent)

This week a small but feisty contingent of sex worker rights activists from the United States travel to Melbourne, Australia for the International AIDS Conference (AIDS2014). They will be joining sex workers converging at the conference at the Sex Worker Networking Zone in the Global Village and numerous other events to ensure that sex workers voices are heard. Jules Kim, the manager of Scarlet Alliance’s Migration Project who has been central in coordinating actions in Australia, has described the zone as a, “vibrant hub for everything by and for sex workers at the conference… if you are coming to the conference look for the red umbrellas- the symbol of our fight against stigma and discrimination and towards sex worker rights.” A schedule of events is available online. Best Practices Policy Project and A Kiss for Gabriela will be covering events on Twitter.

To the best of our knowledge, no sex worker representative from the United States received a complete scholarship to attend. A number of the key presenters from the United States addressing the concerns of women of color, sex worker health initiatives and youth were not given space to present at all. In order to address the shortfall, US sex workers have come together to fundraise and have pooled resources. The team has also worked with the local host committee to have space at the Sex Worker Networking Zone for presentations that were not accepted, organizing that the presenters will show videos of their work and be available online to respond to the audience. One of the United States most eloquent representatives on the issue of sex work and HIV/AIDS, Sharmus Outlaw a co-coordinator of the Desiree Alliance, who was unable to travel to the conference will be posting her comments online and via video presentations.

Some key events showcasing US Sex Worker rights organizing include the Not Your Rescue Project Sex Worker Mini Film Fest (July 21, 12.40 pm to 2.10, Global Village Film Screening, Clarendon Room C), the Sex Workers Rights and HIV Global Village Scavenger Hunt (Wednesday 23 July from 12noon – 2:30 in the Global Village); Pretty Woman REdux: REmixing, REviving and REclaiming Mainstream Perceptions of Sex Work! (Live Performance in the Community Dialogue Space, Tuesday 22 July 2014, 1:30pm – 2:15pm);  “In My Skin” (short documentary), Thursday 24 July 2014, 4:45pm – 5:05pm (Level 2, Clarendon Room 2). The Best Practices Policy Project, Desiree Alliance and SWOP-USA  together will be hosting a booth in the Global Village, US Sex Workers United! (booth number 608, quite far from the Sex Worker Networking Zone… but see if you can find the team there or in the zone).

Our colleagues in Brazil at Davida and A Kiss for Gabriela were not granted an official spot to screen “A Kiss For Gabriela” and to host a “minute of noise” to honor Gabriela Leite (a sex worker rights leader who died in 2013). BUT, the film will now be shown in the sex worker networking zone, followed by discussion and twitter presence, Friday 25th July, 10-11am. Tweet #akissforGabi and #umbeijoparaGabi on the day of the screening to add to the online “noise” honoring all of her works and how they have inspired real change. Similarly WHORE LOGIC with Incredible, Edible, Akynos will screen Wednesday 23rd of July, 12.30-1pm. In order to ensure that sex workers unable to attend AIDS2014 can see Akynos video-taped performance, filmmaker PJ Starr will stream the video for the day.
Most conference events and activities will be held at the International AIDS Conference at the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, 1 Convention Center place, South Wharf, Melbourne, VIC.

Project ROSE faces growing controversy

Yesterday community members carrying information and harm reduction supplies were threatened with arrest and were not allowed to communicate with sex workers (and people profiled as sex workers) who had been detained by police and forcibly transported to Project ROSE.  Project ROSE is run twice a year and is a collaboration between the Phoenix Police, the ASU School of Social Work, and local social service agencies.  Project ROSE and policing of sex workers in Phoenix in general have come under intense scrutiny because of a long list of rights violations documented by local community representatives. In March 2014, advocates from the Best Practices Policy Project and SWOP Phoenix traveled to the United Nations to raise concerns about these abuses to the Human Rights Committee during the review of the United States under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Organizations in Arizona are continuing to sound alarm bells about the rights violating detentions carried out by Project ROSE. Yesterday, protesters chanted “Rights! Not rescue, rights!” at the entrance to Bethany Bible Church where people caught up in the raids are forcibly transported in handcuffs to “diversion services.” Jaclyn Dairman-Moskal of SWOP Phoenix explained yesterday in a statement released by SWOP Phoenix that there appears to be nothing voluntary about the “services” at the Project ROSE location. “Project ROSE coordinators claim this program offers voluntary diversion,” noted Ms Dairman-Mosal, “[But] … the program creates a coercive environment, using jail as a threat to intimidate people into participation.” She further explained that, “Over 30% of people picked up in Project ROSE are not even eligible for diversion, and face accumulating criminal charges as a result of these raids. This program is a way to fill jails, not to help our community.” Local organizations are continuing to seek support for comprehensive, rights-based programs for sex workers, and an end to criminalization. Nationally a group of social workers, Social Workers United for Justice, is petitioning the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to “demand an end to Arizona State University School of Social Work’s involvement with Project Rose” because it violates socials work’s core professional principles. Last year two social workers described in an editorial in Afilia–a journal of women and social work--how Project ROSE violates the ethical and professional standards of both the NASW and CSWE.

SWOP Phoenix’s full press release of May 15, 2014 is available below.

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Partial victory in NYC as police chief limits use of condoms as evidence

Sex workers and allies in New York advocating for human rights had a significant victory today as the Police Commissioner announced a partial elimination of the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution or related activities. Read the statement from the Access to Condoms Coalition here:

The policy announced by Commissioner Bratton today barring confiscation of condoms as arrest evidence in prostitution, prostitution in a school zone, and loitering for the purposes of prostitution cases represents a welcome and important step in the direction of protecting the public health and reproductive rights of New Yorkers. Unfortunately, it does not go far enough, and creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through:  police can still continue to use the possession of condoms to justify an arrest, confiscate condoms from sex workers and survivors as “investigatory evidence” where promoting or trafficking is suspected, and confiscate condoms as evidence in promoting and trafficking cases.

As long as possession or presence of condoms on the premises of a business can be used as evidence of intent to engage in any prostitution-related offense, including over thirteen more serious New York Penal Law offenses and civil proceedings not covered by this policy, we are concerned that cops will continue to take them out of the hands of people who are the most vulnerable to exploitation – youth and trafficking victims. We are also concerned that the people who are exploiting them will deny access to condoms in the hopes of avoiding prosecution, and that businesses and individuals will be discouraged from carrying and distributing them. Also, we are concerned that under this policy, police can still use the fact that a sex worker has condoms in their possession as a basis for arrest for prostitution, even if they don’t physically voucher them as evidence. This continues to send a message that it is unsafe to carry condoms.

We hope that the NYPD will continue to move in the direction of a comprehensive ban on the use of condoms as evidence of all prostitution-related offenses, and protect the rights of all New Yorkers, including victims of trafficking and young people in the sex trades, to protect themselves and the health and safety of their communities.

We will be monitoring implementation of this policy closely, and are looking forward to working with the NYPD to expand the policy.

It is critical to remember that this effort has been led by sex workers in New York City, as Audacia Ray of the Red Umbrella Project reminds us:

“Sex workers have been at the front of the fight in this campaign since 2009,” said Audacia Ray, founder and executive director of the peer-led group Red Umbrella Project. “We are excited that the NYPD has finally responded to our concerns, though it is an imperfect solution. We will continue to fight for justice and to ensure that the experiences of people in the sex trades are centered in this work.”

Sex workers mobilize via social media against Prince George’s Police Department

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 10.12.46 PMOn May 1st, the Prince George’s Police Department (in Maryland, bordering D.C.) announced plans to “live tweet” prostitution stings in the coming week. The social media reaction from sex worker twitter was rapid and powerful, denouncing the department’s idea and taking over their proposed hashtag #PGPDVice. The announcement and the backlash resulted in a lot of media coverage, locally and nationally–almost all of it including a critical perspective advocating for sex worker rights and against criminalization.

In a cynical move to silence critics, the police department the next day said they had all along planned to target only clients, not sex workers themselves. This came despite the initial announcement’s accompaniment by a photo of a male cop leading away a woman in handcuffs, which was subsequently removed from the police department’s website.

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 10.02.44 PMSex workers and allies kept up the criticism on twitter through the weekend and into the week, when the police department released a statement that they had conducted the stings but not live tweeted. The decision to not live tweet was based in concerns about officer safety, the statement said:

Earlier today, the Prince George’s County Police Department’s Vice Intelligence Unit conducted a planned sting targeting johns. The event took place over several hours in the southern part of the county.  On average, the unit arrests five to 10 johns during similar operations.  Today, no johns were arrested.
“I’ve participated in hundreds of stings, and I’ve never seen what happened today. By advertising this days ago, we wanted to put johns on notice to not come to Prince George’s County. That message was heard loud and clear. We just put a dent in the human trafficking business without making one arrest,” said Sergeant Dave Coleman, the Officer in Charge of the Vice Intelligence Unit.

The department’s effort to spin the conflict was dismissed by most resulting media coverage. As with the recent #myNYPD attempted campaign in NYC, #PGPDVice is a reminder of how social media can be harnessed to highlight social problems.

Local groups like HIPS and DC Trans Coalition contributed to the effort, along with unexpected support from the National Center for Trans Equality and Freedom Network. Even Polaris Project condemned the move.

Twitter conversations and media coverage included not only a condemnation of the live tweet plans, but also of the stings themselves, as well as the regular practice of police publishing mug shots of clients and sex workers online or in other media as a “shaming” tactic. Here’s hoping the whole debacle helped chip away at misconceptions about sex work and policy.