“our lives do matter”: pressuring the State Dept to end rights abuses faced by US Sex Workers

On February 20, 2015 Janet Duran–a representative of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance and a network of organizations using international human rights strategies to bring attention to rights abuses faced by sex workers–traveled to the District of Columbia to present a statement during a meeting organized by the US State Department. This “civil society consultation” was held in advance of the Second Universal Periodic Review of the United States, that is scheduled for May 11 at the United Nations in Geneva, and included representatives from various United States government agencies. In  its prior Universal Periodic Review process,  the US accepted Recommendation  86,  requiring it to “undertake awareness raising  campaigns  for  combating stereotypes  and  violence  against  [LGBT  people], and  ensure  access  to  public  services, paying  attention  to  the  special  vulnerability  of sex  workers  to  violence  and  human  rights abuses.” Even though Recommendation 86 is considered a very important step forward in global acknowledgement that the United States should improve its policies and actions to protect the rights of sex workers, the US government has taken no action since that time to do so. Janet Duran addressed the State Department and other government agencies to make clear the reality of the rights violations faced by sex workers across the United States:

I stand before you today to bring to your attention to the numerous ways in which sex workers’ human rights continue to be violated due to criminalization. The biggest problem is that most of the violence which they fall victim to is at the hands of the very people who should be protecting them.

I have been a witness to law enforcement and people in positions of security and power allowing fellow law enforcement brethren to engage in said illegal activities with no recourse for their actions.

This is where criminalization makes things even more dangerous because at any time we can become victims of sexual assault or other violence and know full well if an attempt is made to report any act of violence during the alleged commission of an “illegal sex act,” we become vulnerable to retaliation and even more violence and even death.

If we do try and report it’s not only the police that further makes us victims but also at the hands of attorneys on both ends. We will not go report if we know that prosecutors will question our motives and yell at us when we question the corruption and misconduct the arises from trying to report.

The constant harassment of repeated and constitutional rights violations further make us distrust police. Misconduct manifesting itself as lost statements and police reports falsified to protect the accused by their law enforcement comrades. The prosecutorial misconduct we face when we are treated as criminals when we are victims.

When that pertinent fact, according to the attorney general’s office, is left out of the report but it’s not important enough to be investigated because according to various victim rights attorneys, who were also former prosecutors, no prosecutor will ever prosecute a case involving sex workers because no real crime is committed because they say we don’t matter.

But our lives do matter.

In this spirit, I call on you all to implement  Recommendation  86  to ensure the human  rights  of sex  workers  including  the rights  to  healthcare,  education  and housing;  and  the right   to  be  free  from  violence  by  government  and non-government  actors. I call on you to take  measures  to  decrease  violence towards my community by  implementing  campaigns  to  end  the  harms  of  stigmatization  and  criminalization.
Preparing to enter the State Department Civil Society Consultation in D.C.

Preparing to enter the State Department Civil Society Consultation in D.C.

 

Update on the United Nations’ UPR process

Best Practices Policy Project and other groups working for the human rights of sex workers and people in sex trade has been engaging with the latest round of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This is a continuation of excellent grassroots community organizing around the last round of the UPR in 2010/2011. We submitted a shadow report along with our friends at Desiree Alliance and SWOP-NYC.

You can view the United States’ assessment of its own human rights record as reported to the Human Rights Council here. Now that the government has submitted their report, the next steps for grassroots advocacy are to contact the US government about our shadow reports, as well as contact the diplomatic missions of other countries to encourage them to submit recommendations to the US to support the human rights of people in sex trades. We are participating in several upcoming opportunities for these activities

If you would like to contact policy makers in the US or in the diplomatic missions of other countries, this one-page summary may be helpful.

Monica Jones Prevails #standwithMonica

Today an Arizona Superior Court Judge ruled that the guilty verdict against Monica Jones be reversed because of procedural errors during her trial earlier last year. Monica is elated and in a telephone interview earlier today noted that, “this is a win and the truth has come out. It has taken many months for the appeal to rectify a decision that the first judge announced in less than a minute.” At the April 2014 trial, when Judge Hercules–in the absence of clear evidence–found Ms Jones guilty of “manifesting prostitution,” he stated she was not a “credible” witness because of  having a prior conviction for prostitution. His abrupt decision shocked a packed court room of observers and supporters of Monica Jones.

Judge Mclennan–who vacated the ruling today–found that the trial court had erred in “considering the Defendant’s potential punishment in assessing her credibility.” Judge Hercules had argued that because Monica Jones had acknowledged having  a prior conviction that she had a “motive [to lie] to avoid a mandatory 30-day sentence.” Today’s reversal shows that a defendant who is innocent also has motive to deny having carried out the act in question and the “fact that a defendant testifies that he or she did not commit the crime is not a valid indicator whether the defendant is testifying truthfully or falsely.” The reversal, however, did not draw any conclusions in regards to the Constitutional arguments to invalidate the “manifestation statute” brought by Monica Jones and her legal team.

And so while Monica has prevailed, her quest to end the profiling of so many in the community under the vague and discriminatory statute of “manifestation of prostitution” has not yet ended. “Today is a only small step for women, trans women and sex workers who have been convicted under this law, there is still so much more to be done to end the injustice of the arrests,” Ms Jones said. “I hope that my case is an inspiration for others. I hope this is a precedent for sex workers who have been charged to stand up and fight for their rights. I hope we see more and more individuals fighting against these types of charges.” Monica is currently in discussions with her legal team about how further constitutional challenges to the manifestation statute can be made.

The future is seems much brighter for Monica now that the guilty verdict has been reversed. “I’m really excited that I’ve won this case,” she said with relief, “Its been a long journey but the love and support that I got along the way kept me strong. I want to send my thanks to all who helped me on this journey.” Monica Jones plans to continue her studies and her human rights work for sex workers, women of color and the transgender community.

Shannon Williams (remembered by the Red Umbrella Babies Collective)

A guest posting by our friends at the Red Umbrella Babies Collective to honor the amazing Shannon Williams, who was an activist with SWOP in the Bay Area, a founder of the sex worker rights movement, and is very much missed by all…

Shannon Williams: the hottest mama (photo from Naomi Akers)

Shannon Williams: the hottest mama (photo from Naomi Akers)

Shannon Williams died this week, catching us all off guard. During the MLK long weekend, she had a bad headache. She went to the emergency room, a tumor was found in her brain stem. It was inoperable. Almost immediately she lapsed into a coma. On Tuesday January 20, 2015, her family removed her from life support. This had been her wish.

We are her friends at Red Umbrella Babies, a forthcoming anthology developed by sex workers who are parents and our children. When we learned of what had happened, we called each other, torturing ourselves with questions: did she know that she wouldn’t wake up? And, did she have time to say goodbye to her sons who are twenty-one, nine and seven years old? One of our children, Blaze who is seven and knows Shannon’s younger kids asked through her tears, “who will take care of the boys?”

Although our hearts ache we know the answer, because we knew Shannon. She was dedicated to the beautiful art of raising children in the most thorough and thoughtful way.  We know that those boys will be okay because Shannon has laid the groundwork for them and because their dad is there too.

Shannon did everything in her life with such grace and apparent ease. She was a gorgeous, sensual babe. She dressed in cool, funky outfits, radiating raw energy. But her casual demeanor was underpinned by thoughtfulness and steely determination. She was completely grounded, practical and not given to pointless abstraction. She was a successful sex worker, proudly taking courses in techniques—such as Bondassage and Tantra—to hone her skills. She created a schedule that allowed her to live her life on her terms and bring up her children well.

“I’ve been asked if the fact that I was a parent made me more hesitant to do sex work,” she wrote in her contribution to the Red Umbrella Babies anthology, “ It didn’t. I never felt like being a parent and being a prostitute were at odds with each other. In fact, I thought it was absolutely the most perfect job for me BECAUSE I was a parent.”

But a nosy parker neighbor and the law did not see it that way. In 2003 Shannon’s house was raided. “Seventeen of Oakland’s Finest came crashing into my bedroom with their guns drawn,” she recalled. When the press found out that a Berkeley High School teacher had been arrested for prostitution, “it instantly became a national news story and blew my life to pieces,” Shannon added. Her case was a catalyst for organizing in the Bay Area. Other sex workers like Robyn Few and her compatriots took to the streets in protest, wearing leopard skin-patterned lingerie in solidarity. The cops had dragged Shannon into a police car in her underwear in order to humiliate her.

The powers that be still have yet to figure out that sex workers are a force to be reckoned with, and that shabby attempts to sexualize a woman like Shannon will always be subverted by the sex worker rights cause. The leopard skin lingerie turned into an emblem of freedom.

Shannon—with her certification as a teacher and her mentoring heart—turned the public nature of her arrest into a “teachable moment” when communicating with her then nine year old son. “The story was running in every local paper, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh featured segments about me on their shows, and everyone around us was talking about it. I took my son up to one of our favorite parks up in the Oakland hills to have the conversation,” Shannon recounted. She had only six months before explained her job to her son when other kids had taunted him saying that his mother was a whore. ‘You know about my job, spending time with people who are lonely,’ I began. He said, ‘Yes.’ I went on. ‘You know how I told you that I might have sex with them sometimes, if we both wanted to.’ He said, ‘yes’ again.  ‘Well, I’ve been arrested because of my job.’ ‘Why?’ he asked and I said, ‘Because it’s illegal to have sex with someone for money.’ And my brilliant, wonderful, nine year old son said to me, ‘Well that’s dumb. You should be able to have sex with whoever you want.’ And that was the end of that.”

So very few of us are as brave and as open as Shannon Williams when faced with arrest and public humiliation. So very few of us could have laid the groundwork for this conversation with our children. How many of us can speak to our children frankly about sex at all? How many of us would be proud of our child’s candid answer? We are so lucky to have had Shannon Williams in our lives, we are so lucky to have her example. All parents must find their own path, but knowing how others have handled devastating situations with poise and affirmation, strengthens us. Enlightens us.

Rest in Power, Shannon Williams. We imagine that you are with Robyn Few, Gabriela Leite and all the rest from our movement who have passed after giving us so much of themselves. Our other mothers, that we hold so close in our hearts. Your children will proudly carry their memories of you for the rest of their lives, we are sure.

The Red Umbrella Babies Collective