DC Madam Deborah Jean Palfrey Commits Suicide

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. – A woman believed to be the one convicted of running a high-end prostitution ring in Washington was found dead Thursday of an apparent suicide, police said.

A body police believe to be 52-year-old Deborah Jeane Palfrey was found in a shed near her mother’s mobile home Thursday morning in Tarpon Springs, about 20 miles northwest of Tampa. Police said in a statement that she left a suicide note, but they did not disclose its contents or how she killed herself.

Police did not immediately have additional comment when reached by telephone. Her attorney, Preston Burton, did not return a telephone call and e-mail message.

Palfrey, known as the “D.C. Madam,” was convicted April 15 by a federal jury of running a prostitution service that catered to members of Washington’s political elite, including Sen. David Vitter, R-La. She had denied her escort service engaged in prostitution, saying that if any of the women engaged in sex acts for money, they did so without her knowledge.

She was convicted of money laundering, using the mail for illegal purposes and racketeering.

But the trial concluded without revealing many new details about the service or its clients. Vitter was among possible witnesses, but did not take the stand.

Palfrey faced a maximum of 55 years in prison and was free pending her sentencing July 24.

Prosecutors said Palfrey operated the prostitution service for 13 years.

Vitter, a first-term senator who is married and has four children, has acknowledged being involved with Palfrey’s escort service and has apologized for what he called a “very serious sin.” But he avoided commenting further.

Besides Vitter, the trial also concluded without the testimony of military strategist Harlan Ullman or Randall Tobias, a former senior State Department official. Both men had been named among possible witnesses.

One of the escort service employees was former University of Maryland, Baltimore County, professor Brandy Britton, who was arrested on prostitution charges in 2006. She committed suicide in January before she was scheduled to go to trial.

Last year, Palfrey said she, too, was humiliated by her prostitution charges, but said: “I guess I’m made of something that Brandy Britton wasn’t made of.”

This story at msnbc.com

AP alert here, and more at Fox, USA Today.

Update: AP story in full.

More on Moms

I told my mom I am a sex worker. It went something like this:

(scene) Eating sushi downtown on a Tuesday night

Me: I got the check

Mom: No, honey, you aren’t working right now…

Me: Actually, I am.

Mom: (long silence) Are you doing THAT again?

Me: Yeah.

Another long silence

Mom: I am worried about your safety.

Me: Don’t Mom. My clients aren’t crackheads or misogynists. Some own multi-million dollar corporations and serve on the boards of museums and the symphony.

Mom: Oh. (heads to the bathroom for like, ten minutes)

Half hour later, some idle gossip about family members at Starbucks, and then left field….

Mom: Is what you do illegal?

Me: Only if I don’t pay taxes.

Mom: I just love this mocha latte. (sip)

Ten minutes later after talk of Christmas plans….

Mom: I better get a top notch nursing home.

Me: Sure, mom, you will.

Mom: Let’s go shopping.

Me: Let’s.

So there you have it folks. I LOVE YOU MOM!!!

Thanks to Chris and Elizabeth at SITPS for hosting a very interesting forum!

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Summary Statement, Special Forum on Sex Work, Trafficking and Human Rights

With the participation of over a dozen prominent sex worker advocates, researchers and writers, we’ve had a very productive week! If you’re into numbers, during the forum we had about 4,000 visits from nearly 3,500 unique visitors for a total of nearly 10,500 page views. While the forum officially ends today, the forum topics will remain on the site and active so we can continue the conversations as we like.

The forum addressed a range of topics from labor rights to immigration, and from variations in individual experiences in sex work to the way that consumers in the sex industry are understood. We think that the following are some of the most important points to emerge from the discussions:

  • Sex work must be destigmatized and ultimately decriminalized in order to protect sex workers, their clients, and their communities.
  • Negative attitudes toward sexual freedom itself are part of the problem and need to be addressed at the individual and cultural levels.
  • Sex work meets the economic needs of the people who perform it and meets social, sexual, educational, and emotional needs of those who consume it. The problems with sex work lie not in the work itself but in the cultural stigma surrounding it, and in the exploitive economic systems that sex work, along with most work, is performed.
  • There is a huge divergence between the reality of “human trafficking” and the portrayal of it by media and political figures. This divergence includes hugely inflated numbers based on studies with flawed methodology; an over-emphasis on “sex slavery” at the expense of more common labor exploitation, like manufacturing of consumer goods and domestic help; and a paternalistic view of sex workers and migrant workers in general as the “other.”
  • U.S. anti-trafficking policies actually make it harder to find and help real victims because resources are diverted to antiprostitution efforts, which do not help the majority of real trafficking victims. Those efforts also interfere with public health projects in other countries by refusing USAID money to any group that does not actively work against prostitution.
  • Human trafficking needs to be understood in the context of international (and intra-national) labor migration patterns and in the context of global inequality. Much of what we call trafficking begins as voluntary migration from one economically depressed area to a less depressed area. Barriers to legal migration make those workers vulnerable to other human rights abuses.
  • Politicians and media personalities scapegoat sex workers and their clients in such a way as to direct attention away from larger social and economic problems like poverty, consumer culture, racism, sexism, and the growing gap between the wealthy and everybody else.
  • Sex workers are not a homogeneous group and they should not be treated as one.
  • Research that relies on poor methodology needs to be publicly criticized. Policy should be directed by reliable, valid research.
  • Academic researchers, activists, sex workers, and consumers need to talk to each other and listen to each other. And policy makers need to listen to all of them!

Sex Work, Trafficking, and Human Rights: A Public Forum

For Immediate Release
Contact:
Elizabeth Wood
Phone: provided upon request
Email: elizabeth (at) sexinthepublicsquare (dot) org
Co-founder, SexInThePublicSquare.org
Assistant Professor of Sociology, Nassau Community College

Sex In The Public Square Presents:
Sex Work, Trafficking, and Human Rights: A Public Forum

New York, February 20, 2008 – Ten prominent sex worker advocates, writers, researchers will be publicly discussing the issues of sex work and trafficking from a human rights and harm reduction perspective, February 25 – March 3, on SexInThePublicSquare.org. The week-long online conversation will conclude with a summary statement on March 3, International Sex Worker Rights Day.

Sex work and trafficking are two issues that must be discussed as distinct yet intersecting, and we’ve invited some of the smartest sex worker advocates we know to help sort out the complexities. “This forum is not about debating whether or not we should be using a harm reduction and human rights approach instead of the more mainstream abolitionist and prohibitionist approach to sex work,” explains Elizabeth Wood, co-founder of Sex In The Public Square and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nassau Community College. “Instead our goal is to create a space for nuanced exploration of the human rights and harm reduction approach so that we can use it more persuasively.”

Wood explains: “The human rights and harm reduction approach seeks to reduce the dangers that sex workers face and to stop human rights abuses involved in the movement of labor across borders, a movement which occurs in the service of so many industries. We want people to be able to learn about this perspective, and to develop and refine it, without having to dilute that conversation by debating the legitimacy of sex work.”

Questions and themes include:

Defining our terms: Is the way that we define “porn” clear? “Prostitution”? “Sex work” in general? What happens when we say “porn” and mean all sexually explicit imagery made for the purpose of generating arousal and others hear “porn” as indicating just the “bad stuff” while reserving “erotica” for everything they find acceptable? When we say sex work is it clear what kinds of jobs we’re including?

Understanding our differences: How do inequalities of race, class and gender affect the sex worker rights movement? Are we effective in organizing across those differences?

Identifying common ground: What are the areas of agreement between the abolitionist/prohibitionist perspective and the human rights/harm reduction perspective? For example, we all agree that forced labor is wrong. We all agree that nonconsensual sex is wrong. Is it a helpful strategic move to  by highlighting our areas of agreement and then demonstrating why a harm reduction/human rights perspective is better suited to addressing those shared concerns, or are we better served by distancing ourselves from the abolition/prohibition-oriented thinkers?

Evaluating research: What do we think of the actual research generated by prominent abolitionist/prohibitionist scholars like Melissa Farley, Gail Dines, and Robert Jensen? Can we comment on the methods they use to generate the data on which they base their analysis, and then can we comment on the logic of their conclusions based on the data they have?

Framing the issues: What are our biggest frustrations with the way that the human rights/harm reduction perspective is characterized by the abolitionist/prohibitionist folks? How can we effectively respond to or reframe this misrepresentations? What happens when “I oppose human trafficking” becomes a political shield that deflects focus away from issues of migration, labor and human rights?

Exploring broader economic questions: How does the demand for cheap labor undermine human rights-based solutions to exploitation in all industries, including the sex industry?

Confirmed participants include:

Melissa Gira is a co-founder of the sex worker blog Bound, Not Gagged, the editor of Sexerati.com, and reports on sex for Gawker Media’s Valleywag.
Chris Hall is co-founder of Sex In The Public Square and also writes the blog Literate Perversions.

Kerwin Kay has written about the history and present of male street prostitution, and about the politics of sex trafficking. He has been active in the sex workers rights movement for some 10 years. He also edited the anthology Male Lust: Pleasure, Power and Transformation (Haworth Press, 2000) and is finishing a Ph.D. in American Studies at NYU.

Anthony Kennerson blogs on race, class, gender, politics and culture at SmackDog Chronicles, and is a regular contributor to the Blog for Pro-Porn Activism.

Antonia Levy co-chaired the international “Sex Work Matters: Beyond Divides” conference in 2006 and the 2nd Annual Feminist Pedagogy Conference in 2007. She teaches at Brooklyn College, Queens College, and is finishing her Ph.D. at the Graduate Center at CUNY.

Audacia Ray is the author of Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing In On Internet Sexploration (Seal Press, 2007), and the writer/producer/director of The Bi Apple. She blogs at WakingVixen.com hosts and edits Live Girl Review and was longtime executive editor of $pread Magazine.

Amber Rhea is a sex worker advocate, blogger, and organizer of the Sex 2.0 conference on feminism, sexuality and social media and co-founder of the Georgia Podcast Network. Her blog is Being Amber Rhea.

Ren is a sex worker advocate, a stripper, Internet porn performer, swinger, gonzo fan, BDSM tourist, blogger, history buff, feminist expatriate who blogs at Renegade Evolution. She is a founder of the Blog for Pro-porn Activism and a contributor to Bound, Not Gagged and Sex Worker Outreach Project – East.

Stacey Swimme has worked in the sex industry for 10 years. She is a vocal sex worker advocate and is a founding member of Desiree Alliance and Sex Workers Outreach Project USA.

Elizabeth Wood is co-founder of Sex In The Public Square, and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nassau Community College. She has written about gender, power and interaction in strip clubs, about labor organization at the Lusty Lady Theater, and she blogs regularly about sex and society.

To read or participate in the forum log on to http://sexinthepublicsquare.org

For more information contact Elizabeth Wood at elizabeth (at) sexinthepublicsquare (dot) org.