Sex in America: Can The Conversation Change?

This Huffington Post article  by Cory Silverberg includes references to BoundnotGagged, Audacia Ray and me in a section called

Sex and Money

We desperately need more critical, and less politically charged, conversations about the intersection of sex and money in America. Ironically (I think it’s irony) individuals who have the most grassroots experience of this, those who pay for sex and those who get paid for sex, tend to have the least amount of influence on public discourse about sex and money. That’s changing, thanks in part to sex worker run projects like Bound, Not Gagged, writers like Audacia Ray and academics like Laura Agustin. But there’s still a ways to go.

They are holding an event called Sex in America: Can the Conversation Change? Maybe some of you could participate in New York:

Cory Silverberg will join Esther Perel, Amy Sohn, Leonore Tiefer and Ian Kerner for a conversation called “Sex in America: Can The Conversation Change?” The symposium is co-sponsored by the Huffington Post and Open Center and will take place in New York City on Friday, February 20th. Click here to register.

I originally said this was to be online, and it’s not, so I apologise. Someone should do such a thing online.

I’m not an academic, by the way, in the sense of being employed by any academic institution.  I just do and write academic things amongst others – for the record.

Laura Agustín, Border Thinking

27 Responses

  1. They don’t say whether it’s an online event at either website. If you can ask questions online then I’ll definitely do so.

  2. Yes, sorry, I believe I was wrong about that. Someone said it to me and I didn’t check it out. Someone should do it online!

  3. of course the conversation can’t change given that academics are talking about it. “The experts” How much sex qualified you as an expert? Fucked over a 100 people? Got paid by at least half?

    As we heard in Belem, talking is cheap.. action is better.

  4. Maxine,

    I don’t believe anyone on BnG is required to disclose number of sex partners, number of paid sex partners and amount paid — or any other specifics in order to participate.

    Laura is one of the few “academics” whose powerful arguments speak for sex worker rights. If you want to attack “academics”, there are plenty of anti-sex work academics to choose from. Save your vitriol for them.

    Have you actually read Laura’s book? It contains all the arguments and ammunition needed in the whole “sex trafficking” debate constantly tossed at sex worker activists. Her work is well-researched and draws logical conclusions. Her sex life does not need to be part of her work to be valid.

  5. Girl chill your self, don’t take it so personally

  6. There’s some muddle here. First, I only made the disclaimer about not being technically an academic because Silverberg cited me as one. I wasn’t slagging off all academics.

    Second, neither Silverberg nor any of the other people doing this conversation event are academics. I didn’t know them, mostly, so I looked up their names. They are sexologists, writers, researchers, journalists – and they could be escorts, for all we know, or madly promiscuous, or polyamorous, or a million other things.

    Third, the sex-and-money conversation is about culture, and I’m interested in how ideas deeply embedded in culture change. To me, it’s a very positive sign that mainstream writers on sex would identify sex-and-money as one of the topics for their event. Activism and action come in many forms.

    Fourth, Silverberg explicitly points to how usual debates ignore sex workers’ voices. This is what activists usually complain about.

    Fifth, sex-and-money is only one of several topics they identified as needing change. Look at the whole article to see the others.

    If I were in New York, I’d go.

    Laura

  7. Maxine,

    You sound just like a pimp I recently had an online argument with who was unhappy when I spoke my mind. You’re allowed to say what you want, so am I.

  8. Let’s not forget how many sex workers are academics, too. You just don’t hear about them because of the whorephobia in academia. (I’m thinking of the book Callgirl by anthropology professor Jeanette Angel, for example, and the unfortunate story of Brandy Britton.)

  9. First of all, Amanda, what I sound like to you is none of my business.

    Secondly, my comment was directed at the self appointed ‘experts’. Specifically the comment: “We desperately need more critical, and less politically charged, conversations about the intersection of sex and money in America. Ironically (I think it’s irony) individuals who have the most grassroots experience of this, those who pay for sex and those who get paid for sex, tend to have the least amount of influence on public discourse about sex and money.”

    And then they didn’t include us who are actually directly involved in ‘sex and money’ did they. It’s beyond insult.

    If any of them are actual workers who’s economy is under threat due to the criminalization of prostitution, and aren’t saying so, but want to call out privilege to speak about us like we aren’t in the room, well, that doesn’t even need to be addressed here with this group, does it?

    The fact that they unilaterally have stated that: “We desperately need more critical, and less politically charged”, is positively incorrect and diametrically opposed to what the sex worker rights movement is about. We, meaning we the actually workers, the ones who don’t have a political voice because our first amendment speech has been barred in anti prostitution laws. Hello? Unlike them, who gets this media outlet to sponsor their voices. Sex Sells. The media outlet will benefit, those ‘experts’ professions will benefit, but will the sex worker rights movement benefit ? Will the prostitute who’s getting her ass kicked by some asshole who’s targeted her because of her occupation benefit? Will those of us who spend every day liviing in the solution to free ourselves benefit?

    So for this group of ‘experts’ who want to point to us but not include us and then decided what’s best is beyond ridiculous and not credible in the least.

    What have academics done for us, the sex worker rights movement. What have the experts done? At the end of the day we’re still criminals, we’re still barred from equal protection under the law.

    And finally, Amanda, Laura’s book is one of the few books listed on the link section on the espu site as are a few academics.

  10. I know Maxine appreciates my work whether I’m an academic or not, so that’s not an issue for me.

    And I know how annoying it is to constantly be talked about and not with. I get it. Recently on a History of Sexuality list I lost my cool a bit with the level of ‘talking about’ sex workers that was going on.

    But at the same time I am a pragmatist, I want to encourage people who are willing to think and talk about these issues together in a different sort of way. I’m interested in more than rights, and more than one group of screwed-up and screwed-over folk. I think people who’ve never bought or sold sex want to be able to talk about the taboos, and I want them to be able to. When everyone’s shut up because only certain experts can speak, it’s oppression. Whether the experts are sexologist or sex workers. Even if the power relations are not fair.

    How can I explain better? I’ve been going to activist events for 12 years, I spent two years helping organise the Brussels conference in 2005, when we made sure that a majority of attendees were sex workers and limited the number of allies. It was exhilarating for a lot of people. There were union people there from different countries, it was like this event in Brazil.

    But I have seen little change since then, and it’s no one’s fault. I believe the ‘conversation’ should be widened and opened up to more people of all kinds.

  11. “You sound just like a pimp I recently had an online argument with who was unhappy when I spoke my mind.”

    California Criminal Code relating to “pimping”

    266h. (a) Except as provided in subdivision (b), any person who,
    knowing another person is a prostitute, lives or derives support or
    maintenance in whole or in part from the earnings or proceeds of the
    person’s prostitution, or from money loaned or advanced to or charged
    against that person by any keeper or manager or inmate of a house or
    other place where prostitution is practiced or allowed, or who
    solicits or receives compensation for soliciting for the person, is
    guilty of pimping, a felony, and shall be punishable by imprisonment
    in the state prison for three, four, or six years.

    My point being Amanda that maybe we should avoid using a term like “pimp” in the derogotory. I have never been an owner operator, a madam or a boss of any type but I do know this, when I worked for and with other women I was safer and happier. The laws that make owner operators, madams etc. felons isolate workers and no worker should be forced into isolated and unsafe working conditions.

    I am just saying that maybe we should avoid “pimp baiting” our own selves. To me it is the same as tying the noose around our own necks.

  12. Laura wrote, “I think people who’ve never bought or sold sex want to be able to talk about the taboos, and I want them to be able to.”
    I agree that we should all be able to talk about sex, but I also think sex workers should be invited to participate public discussions about sex work. Though I realize that many sex workers keep their work private and would not out themselves in public forums, there are also various sex workers who do speak publically and some sex workers are on the sex work panel at the Yale University Law School (info. is posted in another thread), so this is a great example of how an academic institution is including sex workers in discussions about sex work.

  13. Yes. But don’t we want to be able to discuss Gaza, and indigenous rights, and a million other topics without those protagonists being in the room? We’d be unable to talk about anything but our own navels if we couldn’t.

    It’s nice to be invited to universities, but those are super-limited, elite affairs, with audiences of students and professors. So why bother to try to influence them if they are despised? It all gets very confused.

  14. I don’t despise all academics. There are academics who are very supportive of sex workers rights. I’m both an academic and a sex worker, so I have experience in both worlds.

  15. laura said: ‘ But I have seen little change since then, and it’s no one’s fault. I believe the ‘conversation’ should be widened and opened up to more people of all kinds.’
    I know lots of people have worked hard over the years to get us where we are today and I really applicate all the hard work.

    My view is that as long as un unionized people who aren’t the workers ithemselves in the sex industry continue to put themselves at the center of the movement, i didn’t see much happening either. You either need to be an actual worker who organizes like your life depends on it or a trained union organizer helping the workers organize themselves. And I don’t see too many of either running around.

    And FYI, I’ll be organizing while on the east coast. I don’t care where your elite meter reads. I’m looking forward to meeting several of the worker and supporter faithful.

  16. I think this is one of those difficult conversations that we need to have from time to time, where everyone sees a bit, but not necessarily all of the picture, and why we all need each other, regardless of background and experience.

    Given some of the history of the relationship between academics and sex workers, it is only natural that there is going to be some tensions, and academics have a lot to learn from sex workers. However this should not be about these two groups. Sex work and the reactions of the state and social groups to sex work effect us all, and whether we like it or not these conversations are going on everywhere, and often driving apalling public policy.

    The question is asked – where has this got us? Well in those countries that have made progress, it has been coalitions of many groups, sex workers, academics, women’s organisations, social services, health systems and human rights groups that have eventually been able to overturn centuries of oppression. The one that I am the most familiar with is of course New Zealand where sex workers were central to the whole movement and essentially wrote the legislation.

    Should sex workers be part of discourses on sex work? – absolutely, and preferably central, but other voices are important too. Sex worker groups do good research, but together we can do more.

    It was pointed out that it is not always easy to get sex workers to participate in such meetings, and I can relate to that. I would do anything to have more sex workers more actively involved in our community’s debates, but stigma and fear are major barriers, and sometimes we have to take what they tell us and speak out for them. Sex workers in other cities are luckier sometimes, which is why we try and bring them in to talk here.

    Similarly, ideally I would like to have an outreach organisation run by sex workers for sex workers, but rather than have no support group we give them as much responsibility as they feel comfortable with. Hopefully that will change.

    If we don’t have these conversations and be seen publicly to be talking and working together, others with a more narrow view of the world than ourselves will continue to prevail.

    Michael

    http://www.steppingstonens.ca/

  17. Micheal said: “It was pointed out that it is not always easy to get sex workers to participate in such meetings, and I can relate to that. I would do anything to have more sex workers more actively involved in our community’s debates, but stigma and fear are major barriers, and sometimes we have to take what they tell us and speak out for them. Sex workers in other cities are luckier sometimes, which is why we try and bring them in to talk here.”

    Getting people to forego the fear and stigma is what unionization is all about . Unionization addresses these barriers in an institutional systematic and effective way.

    And my ability to speak out and work on behalf of myself and other workers didn’t happen by luck. It was literally years in the making for me personally. I had to wait until my dependents were self-sufficient as I didn’t want to sustain any backlash that would negatively impact them and their lives.

    Political retaliation is something I witnesses happening against our Daisy Anarchy and her daughter here in San Francisco. It was devastating, not only to her and her daughter but to the whole community who stood by and watched. It sent a clear message about what can happen to you if you stand up to the decision makers and call them out on their hypocritical policies.

    So while I was waiting for my plate to clear of domestic responsibilities, I educated myself about the issue, the politics and the players. It seemed that the modes of activism were not viable, the stagnation obvious and the people themselves were ineffective . In some cases it was that the players didn’t know what they had and would not have known what to do with it if they did.

    One of the main reasons why I’m so hot on the labor school for prostitutes/supporters is because it addresses all of these issue. You get solidarity, you get the opportunity to be in solidarity yourself and walk away with actual skills. Like how to speak out without wasting time trying to convince those around you, you are okay, like how to define yourself in labor terms because that worker message is by far a more universal language.

    I personally would really like to see this group get some collective bargaining training together. I’d like to see this group become conscious of what we’re doing and how we can do it better together. It is going to take all of us and many more of us to break the US’s sex negative shame based strangle hold on sex.

    Speaking just for debate or information sake is good, but we have to do better. We have to set our standards higher and get to collectively demanding things like, equal protection, like anti discrimination legislation policies. When we speak, it’s to educate and make demands, specific demands for something that the people you are speaking to can give. Those countries who don’t have anti prostitution laws in place, criminalizing the workers like we have, can be doing more and are. I mean it was third world prostitutes who sponsored this first world prostitute to Brazil! What does that tell you? Not having your first amendment speech impaired in fundamental.

    Organizing for whatever, is a painstaking process. Right now, I don’t see a cohesive group, I don’t see common goals, I don’t see common vision. I see non workers with privilege calling the shots about what’s talked about, where it’s talked about and how it’s talked about. And I’d like to see those non workers 1) get some training in organizing so that 2) you all can be of assistance to us organizing ourselves and 3) treat me like I’m already the organized prostitute that I am.

    I was watching the movie Gandhi a while back and at one point when he’s in jail (unfairly), he tells his British Christian counter part that he must leave, that he’s done all he can and that the Indians must do it themselves.

    Lots of us old actual workers and new actual workers stook up during Proposition K and outted ourselves so we could beg for our lives ourselves. It was a miracle. And in Proposition K’s wake, I’ve only come across one worker who’s bee retaliated against by the police citing her for prostitution. And she’s fighting it and we’re all standing by her. A miracle.

    Transcending the barriers of know how has to happen first.

  18. With all due respect. And with absolutely zero malicious intent or personal ego investment.

    Again, like last summer, I am asking people please remember we are all on the same side. I have never been involved with a group of people in any cause other than this one where I felt everyone I”ve met is in this for the right reasons. I feel this way with all of you.

    We all have good intent and we all have the right ideas. The concept of the right idea is fluid and transitory. Nonetheless it is imperative to remember that the flame of our movement is fragile. The environment, as everyone here knows, for sex worker rights is hostile. There are a huge number of people that would love to suffocate our movement. There is a difference between healthy strong conversation with strong personalities and strong feelings and pissing on each other for the sake of being right. I”m not saying any one person is wrong. I’m only asking that we as activists and as a movement remember what we are fighting for and that everyone is needed in that fight and that none of us can do it alone or are on an exclusive path.

    Please can we find our way to remembering we are all on the same team and we win when the team wins.

  19. >>There are a huge number of people that would love to suffocate our movement. >>

    This should read a huge number of people outside our movement that would love to suffocate it.

  20. Speaking of the conversation changing, there is an initiative in Georgia to get rid of teachers of classes on sex, prostitution, etc. The CNN video is quite interesting:

    http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/living/2009/02/18/am.costello.teaching.sex.cnn

  21. Laura

    thanks, I had seen it, but found it more frightening than interesting, since amongst other things it is a major attack on academic freedom, reminiscent of the Scopes trial over evolution. I am sure the groups pushing this would be very distressed if there was an attempt to suppress the teaching of any of their cherished values. A society draws its strength not just from the existence of diversity, but its ability to tolerate and incorporate different views and opinions.

    Perhaps most concerning of all is the implied attack on the ability to think for oneself, to evaluate, and to form considered opinion. Surely this is the antithesis of what we attempt to teach in higher education.

    Michael

  22. I will be attending this event. I will be happy to write a report back to the community to post here at BNG.

    When I read the description of this event, I felt it was a welcome shift in conversation to discuss the root issues that Americans have about sexuality. I feel that discrimination against sex workers is deeply rooted in discomfort/shame/fear about sex, especially one’s own sexuality, which our culture viciously works to suppress within all of us. I don’t perceive this to be an event *about* sex work, but that sex work is inevitably and properly one of the topics associated with any discussion about sex and policy.

    Maxine asked what have academics done for us? Well, some do and some don’t benefit us. Cory Silverberg has worked with me over the past six months as my adviser in an independent study course called “Sex and Disability.” My research and writing has centered on sex work and the parallels that we have with disabled people who experience platitudes of discrimination. By being willing to work with me in this ‘academic’ context, Cory has contributed significantly to the development of a sex worker who is struggling through an undergrad degree and has given great feedback as well as expressed that he has been educated and informed by my work. Through his networks and audience, he has on many occasions linked to BNG and other SW’s to say “Listen to these people, THEY are the experts on this subject.”

    I don’t think these labels are helpful without proper context. Should we trust any person who shows up and claims to be a ‘union organizer’, has union training or is an ‘expert’ in labor organizing? That label can be extremely misleading just as much as ‘academic’.

    For that matter, can any person who is a ‘sex worker’ really be considered an expert on the entire sex industry?

    I am firmly committed to sex workers speaking for ourselves on topics that are about us. I don’t feel like this event in itself is being exclusionary. I think they’re initiating a discussion featuring people who are prominent to some degree on broad topics of sex, of course sex work will be mentioned and hopefully will inspire another forum or deeper discussion on sex work featuring those of us who are experts in specific scopes of that topic. This forum is not about sex work, it’s about ‘Sex in America’ and believe it or not, people who aren’t buying/selling are also having sex.

  23. Echoing all that Stacey has said here, and adding — Maxine, I feel that you’ve had this same argument here a number of times and each time you add vitriol to it. No more attacks or demeaning language about our community *or* smearing of those who have demonstrated themselves to be our allies. Final warning. Defame or insult one more person on this blog, and your access will be ended. I have no more tolerance for this and would like to advance this conversation in a useful, actionable direction.

  24. Like Maxine, I also had a problem with them calling for more critical and less politically charged discussions about sex for payment. I don’t agree with dichotomizing between being critical and politically charged. discussions. Being able to address issues critically is an important part of our political advocacy and when people are being incarcerated for exchanging sex for payment, this is a political issue. It’s also a political issue when law enforcement is using these anti-prostitution laws to get away with abusing sex workers. Sex workers are very strongly affected by political policies, so I don’t think we can or should entirely separate politics from the issue of sex for payment. When people outside of the industry say we need more critical and less politically charged discussions about sex for payment, I also find that offensive.
    However, I’m also against bashing academics because there are academics who are allies and it’s important to develop strong alliances with our supporters.
    I also agree with Maxine that organized labor is a great avenue for building alliances. I’ve attended organized labor events and overall, there was a lot of support. However, as a sex worker, I sometimes felt awkward in this environment and like a spectacle. Some people acted condescending and I didn’t feel like the issues we face as sex workers are the exact same as workers in other industries. Though there may be some common ground, it’s important not to collapse us all together. Likewise, not all workers in the sex industry have the same issues. For example, some people are working legally and some are working illegally. People who are working illegally in prostitution and being subject to arrest and violence don’t have the exact same issues as sex workers working legally in webcam or phone sex who aren’t having to constantly try to hide from the police and who don’t come in direct contact with the clients.

  25. Seriously? I can’t believe how deeply out of context this conversation has become. Cory hasn’t said that it’s not political, he (like many allies) understands how very deeply political the issues for sex workers are. He’s saying that because it’s so politically charged, the PUBLIC is not thinking critically about it. They’re reactionary and operating out of fear rather than truth.

    I agree that labor is a very important avenue and has the potential for us to achieve much better work/life conditions for SW’s. I don’t think it’s smart to just assume that anybody who calls themselves a ‘labor organizer’ is somebody that SW’s should trust. I don’t think a union of one constitutes a union.

    Even though Desiree Alliance and the many SWOP chapters and other regional groups don’t call themselves ‘unions’, they are doing a far better job of uniting than any of the so-called ‘unions’ for SW’s that exist in the US. The reason that there hasn’t been more advancement within labor is not because SW’s don’t get it, it’s because the people who’ve been behaving as gatekeepers in this arena turn so many of us off that we can’t find our footing in that realm. Fortunately, the labor community in San Francisco seems to be figuring this out and hopefully the damage that has been done won’t be too terribly difficult to reverse once more rational people become recognized in this sphere.

    The fact is, aside from the Lusty Lady, SW’s don’t have a union in the US.

  26. Thank you for the clarification, Stacey, though I don’t think my comments were out of context based on what I initially read in the first post on this thread. What you wrote in the first paragraph of your comment above was left out of the initial post I was responding to. It just said that we need to talk about sex for money in more critical and less politically charged ways, without mentioning how sex has become so politically charged that the public was reacting out of fear rather than truth. Based on how it was written, I see how it could have come across like they were saying that we shouldn’t get so political about the intersectionality of sex for money, even though I now don’t think that was the intended message. I think the wording just confused some of us.
    Anyway, thanks for reporting back to us on this event and I look forward to reading your recap. Also, I think a major challenge U.S. sex workers face in terms of unionizing is that the vast majority of us are independent contractors rather than employees, so we can’t form employee unions. In this sense, the dancers at the Lusty Lady were unique in that they were classified as employees. I think that really helped in terms of unionizing.

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