Category: Articles

Who will be harmed by this “Sex Trafficking” Legislation?

On Wednesday March 21, 2018, the US Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, the counterpart to the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act that passed the House last month. The legislation is now headed to Trump for signature.

While the titles of the bills would lead the general public to believe that this legislation is to protect “victims of sex trafficking,” the intent is to shutter “websites that promote and facilitate prostitution.” Section § 2421A of the house bill, for example, states that “Whoever uses or operates a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or attempts to do so with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.” An aggravated offense in regards to any entity that “promotes or facilitates the prostitution of 5 or more persons” is tied to 25 years imprisonment. This legislation intends to target online venues where sex workers are thought to advertise.

A couple of weeks ago in a conversation with several advocates for the rights of sex workers, it was noted that we still do not know how this legislation will be implemented and that is even more worrisome. While it is true that not all is known, based on all the history of the implementation of criminalizing legislation pertaining to “sex trafficking” and anything relating to sex work, the following pattern emerges.

  1. Law enforcement efforts to implement this legislation will focus on people of color, specifically African Americans, routing them into jails and prisons. Low income women of color will face the harsh penalties associated with “facilitating” prostitution. To read more about how this has happened before, pick up a copy of Invisible No More by Andrea Ritchie.
  2. Transgender people, specifically transgender women of color, will be targeted with law enforcement efforts. The spaces where transgender people of color congregate online for any reason will be policed and in some situations transgender women will be misgendered as men in order to facilitate their arrest and demonization. This is already happening, as per observations made by Monica Jones, about the closing of sites since the passage of the legislation.
  3. These new laws will be used to police and surveil immigrants, leading to their deportation under the guise of ending sex trafficking.

The work for us now as advocates for the rights of sex workers and for the rights of trans people and other communities targeted by law enforcement, is to bring our knowledge of how racism, xenophobia and transphobia fuels the implementation of this kind of legislation. And to be ready to support those who almost certainly will be harmed. People of color, trans people, immigrants, young people and sex workers of color.

Navigating the References: Part 1

In 2015, Jill McCracken prepared for a TEDx talk on the topic “Selling Sex: Contradicting Violence with Choice” amassing a great deal of the current research on the topic. Later in 2015 Jill joined BPPP’s research advisory committee for the Nothing About Us, Without Us Project, and these references and summaries proved to be an extremely valuable resource as we developed our work on HIV policy and sex worker rights. She has now kindly provided us with a comprehensive blog posting collating key research summaries. We are publishing her post in two parts, the first focusing on the intersections of sex work, HIV and health, and the second part will focus on references referencing trafficking in persons. Jill is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and author of the book Street Sex Workers Discourse.

Navigating the References Connecting Sex Work, Criminalization, and Violence

By Jill McCracken, PhD

You may not learn a great deal of new information in this blog. I say that truthfully and also to acknowledge the incredible work that has and continues to be done and shared within the sex worker rights movement and beyond. As I was compiling these sources and writing the blog, explained more fully below, I was continually hearing myself say, “Well, this is nothing new. This is what we have been saying all along”. And yet, because sources are making this information known through case studies, sites of analysis, research methodologies, and community organizations and perspectives, it becomes extremely helpful to reiterate this information and put it in one place for easy reference; at least it has been helpful for me.

When I found out I was going to give a TEDx talk at the University of South Florida, I was instantly terrified. My terror is usually linked to not only my high expectations for myself, but also my fear of disappointing my audience. And when I considered my fear in relationship to this project (working through my fear has become my new way of being of late), I realized the audience I was most afraid of disappointing was my sex worker and sex worker rights colleagues and organizations. I also knew that in order to give a talk that was worthy of the subject matter: A World Beyond Ourselves, I would need to, once again, rely on my sex worker and sex worker rights colleagues and friends. I therefore went to my many online lists and organizations and asked for help. I also did a great deal of research. Ironically, most, if not all, of this research did not actually make it into the talk, because I later found out that TEDx talks were not meant to include lots of statistics and facts, but rather stories and information the audience can relate to. But what I did find in doing all of that research was that I became even more convinced of my (and many others’) central idea for this talk: that sex work must be decriminalized if we are to reduce violence against sex workers, sex workers must be at the forefront of any discussions about these policies, and that we must focus on a rights-based approach rather than a prosecution or criminal-based approach.

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SILENCE is still death for sex workers: the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Implementation plan

by Penelope Saunders (BPPP), Cristine Sardina (Desiree Alliance), Katherine M Koster (SWOP-USA) and Derek Demeri (NJRUA)

Impassioned community leaders at the beginning of the HIV pandemic took to the streets and called out in policy fora that “SILENCE=DEATH” to ensure that people took notice. They sought to inspire action to address HIV, to seek treatments and to prevent the transmission of HIV among the most affected groups of people, people who happened to be highly stigmatized in other ways because of their sexual orientation: gay men, drug users, sex workers.

As leaders of sex worker rights organizations we applaud the attention that HIV receives on World AIDS Day, we express joy that the United States actually has a national strategy (after decades of not having one) and we celebrate the fact that with medication, comprehensive health care, housing and support that HIV is no longer a death sentence at all.

But a silence continues and that silence is immeasurably harmful. Despite the clear global understanding that we cannot address HIV without sex workers, the United States of America somehow didn’t get the memo. Despite the nearly dozen strong and solid recommendations by US sex workers rights organizations to the Office of National AIDS Policy and Douglas Brooks, our concerns were not included in the national strategy.  Sex work was mentioned only once in the recently updated National HIV/AIDS National Strategy (NHAS), and, was not mentioned at all in the National HIV/AIDS Federal Action Plan released December 1, 2015.  For this sector of society to be omitted entirely limits the scope of HIV and AIDS conversations, discussions, and policies. It is grossly negligent and inexcusable to ignore one of the most vulnerable populations that suffer the consequences of silence.

In the plan, “high-risk populations” are defined as “gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men; Black and Latino women and men; people who inject drugs; youth aged 13 to 24 years; people in the Southern United States; and transgender women.” Yet an estimated 20 to 40% of women at high risk of HIV infection in the United States reported having sex in exchange for money or drugs within the past year, and according to current epidemiology women engaged in commercial sex have a higher risk of contracting HIV not only than general population, but also other similarly high-risk women who do not engage in sex work. The plan also makes no mention of trans women who engage in sex work, despite the fact that trans people with sex trade experience are nearly 6 times as likely times as likely to be living with HIV (15.32%) than the general trans population (2.6%) and 25 times as likely to be positive than the general population (0.6%).

Beyond epidemiology, consider the social reality: Not one mention of sex work even though all across the United States sex workers–and people profiled as such under laws and policies against sex work–are detained and searched for their condoms and for HIV medications. Not one mention of sex work even though the most egregious state laws criminalizing HIV are those specifically targeting prostitution. 13 states have laws specifically criminalizing people living with HIV arrested for prostitution-related charges, statutes that can raise penalties to felonies even if condoms are used, even if all the acts are safe with no possibility of transmission. Even if the person’s viral load is zero. Not one mention of sex work even though our community-led research project “Nothing About Us Without Us” we have documented the vast, almost entirely unfunded sector of sex worker-led grassroots outreach initiatives doing the day-to-day work to end HIV and AIDS. Not one mention of sex work, even when sex workers are recognized by other national governments globally and international health organizations like the World Health Organization as a vital partners in order to end the HIV epidemic. Not one mention of sex work, when even international pressure has forced PEPFAR to include sex workers as a key population in the fight against HIV.

Silence still equals death for people in the sex trade who are living with HIV, and unable to access healthcare because they don’t have a home because of prior convictions for prostitution. Silence still equals death when they are turned away from mainstream health care services/providers who discriminate against them because they are “suspected to be prostitutes.” Or, because they can’t walk through the neighborhood safely to reach the clinic because of policing.

We know that with our advocacy there will be change because we refuse to be silent. Tucked away in the “implementation plan” that will guide the coming year’s work on HIV across the country, our community has some pressure points that we can use for change. For example, that by 2020 the National Institute of Health is supposed to “increase awareness of, and build support for, HIV prevention and treatment clinical and behavioral research nationally with specific community engagement and education activities for historically underrepresented communities and populations at greatest risk for HIV infection.” Historically underrepresented communities would seem to include sex workers.

Given the current poor record of HIV policy in the United States, sex worker rights organizations expected nothing significant from the NHAS Federal Action Plan. However, neither elimination nor silence will deter us from being recognized as a voice in HIV and AIDS strategies. We continue to organize with national HIV and AIDS groups that will ensure our place in the next NHAS update in 2020. As we begin to strategize our long-term plans of inclusion and collaborative work with key policy and scientific research stakeholders, sex workers must be at the table in these necessary and pertinent decisions of who is included in the NHAS. Join us and make sure that there is no longer a silence about sex work in the United States. Join us because it is no longer acceptable to silence, harass, arrest, abuse, deny healthcare, incarcerate, make homeless, or murder anyone because they are a sex worker, or because you think they are one. Those days are over.

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