In Memoriam: Robyn Few

Until prostitutes have equal protection under the law and equal rights as human beings, there is no justice.  –  Robyn Few

Last Thursday, sex workers all over the world were saddened to hear of the death (after a long battle with cancer) of the charismatic and tireless Robyn Few, founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA.  When the day finally arrives on which sex work is recognized in the majority of the world as work like any other, hers will be one of the names remembered as instrumental in achieving it.

Robyn L. Spears was born in Paducah, Kentucky, on October 7th, 1958, to Virginia Owen Spears; she had an older brother and a younger sister and lived in the small community of Lone Oak, Kentucky.  She attended Lone Oak Elementary and Lone Oak Middle School, but dropped out and ran away from home either during or after her 8th grade year, when she was 13 years old.  The causes of her leaving are not clear, but whatever they were she later reconciled with her mother and in fact died while visiting at her home.  Like so many runaways she soon turned to survival sex work, and though she later received vocational training to be a materials tester for concrete and tried a few “straight” jobs such as drafting, she was never satisfied with these and became a stripper soon after turning 18.  As she says in the video below (recorded in Chicago in July of 2008), “I loved it so much; it was so empowering to be able to get up on the stage…I came alive, and for me being paid to dance and to show my body [that] I was so proud of anyway…it was just an amazing experience.”

After stripping for a while she started working in a massage parlor, then later escort services and a clandestine brothel; in her late 20s she married one of her clients and had a daughter, but after her divorce in 1993 (after which she retained her married name, Few) she moved to California and began to take college classes with the intent of earning a degree in theater.  She became interested in marijuana and AIDS activism, but the bills had to be paid so she returned to escorting in 1996 and soon became a madam.  Like so many of us, she never told anybody about her sex work; her activism was directed toward other causes until fate decreed otherwise.

The events of September 11th, 2001 engendered a heightened climate of paranoia, and the enactment of the PATRIOT Act soon made an unprecedented level of funding available to any government agency which could make even a remote claim to “fighting terrorism”.  And though then-Attorney General Ashcroft had been strongly rebuked by Congress for devoting more FBI agents to the “Canal Street Brothel” case in New Orleans than to counterterrorist operations, he had learned his lesson and justified later whore persecutions with flimsy “anti-terrorism” excuses.  Robyn’s agency was accused of having “terrorist suspects” as clients and she was arrested in June of 2002,  then convicted of “conspiracy to promote prostitution” and sentenced to six months house arrest (during which the trial judge allowed her to continue her activism).  After her arrest, she was angry to discover that both neighbors and supposedly “enlightened” activists treated her differently once they knew she had been a prostitute; she threw herself even harder into medical marijuana activism, but began to think about how people’s ignorant attitudes and the oppressive anti-sex work laws could be changed.

Her inspiration came a year after her arrest, in the form of the US Supreme Court decision Lawrence vs. Texas:  Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out in his dissenting opinion that “state laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult  incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery,  fornication, bestiality, and obscenity  are likewise sustainable only in light of [the overturned Bowers vs. Hardwick decision’s] validation of laws based on moral choices,” and though the other justices tried to pretend otherwise Robyn knew that Scalia was correct, and that the court had opened a door for sex workers’ rights.  So after a Berkeley, California high-school teacher named Shannon Williams was arrested for prostitution in August, Robyn gathered a group of sex workers to protest outside the courthouse at Williams’ arraignment in September.  Unfortunately (but understandably), Williams wanted the whole mess to go away as soon as possible and so had no desire to become the “poster child” for prostitutes’ rights.  Robyn of course backed down, but the fire had been lit; with the help of her partner Michael Foley and sex worker Stacy Swimme (whom she had met earlier that year at a medical marijuana protest), she founded SWOP-USA the following month.

The organization was modeled on SWOP Australia, and Rachel Wotton (who now specializes in sex work with the disabled) was instrumental in securing permission for the American group to use the name and helping to set things up.  Within a few weeks the new organization was contacted by Dr. Annie Sprinkle for assistance in arranging the very first Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers, and for the next year Robyn worked furiously to contact politicians and get the attention of the media so as to let them know that sex workers were not going to quietly accept persecution any more, and were mobilizing like those in many other parts of the world to demand our rights.  But after the failure of “Proposition Q”, a ballot measure she wrote which would have established de facto decriminalization in Berkeley, Robyn and SWOP settled in for the long haul and committed themselves to the slow, arduous task of reversing centuries of stigma and decades of oppressive legislation.

Shortly after the two shorter videos were recorded at the International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harms in Warsaw, Poland (May of 2007), Robyn was diagnosed with cancer; she continued to work tirelessly for the cause all through her chemotherapy, and though the disease appeared to have gone into remission in January of 2010 it returned by July of 2011, and this time proved terminal.  She died on September 13th, 2012 while visiting her mother, and there will be a memorial service on what would have been her 54th birthday (October 7th, 2012) at the Milner and Orr Funeral Home in Lone Oak .  I never had the pleasure of meeting Robyn, but as you can see from the personal accounts on her website and the many expressions of grief all over the internet, those who did speak without exception of her warmth, her strength, her good humor, her courage and her plain human decency.  And though it’s an oft-used phrase, there is no other which sums up the way everyone in the sex worker rights community feels about her passing:  she will be sorely missed.

 

(Cross-posted from The Honest Courtesan.  I am indebted to the Sin City Alternative Professionals’ Association (formerly SWOP-LV) for information and links, and also to a group of Robyn’s school friends from Lone Oak, who contacted me Sunday morning and filled in a number of vital details I could not find anywhere else.  If anyone reading this can correct an error or omission, please email me with the info.)

Chicago Sex Worker Film Festival- August 11-13

For Full Film List, Visit SWOP-Chicago’s Website.

NYC’s Second Annual Sex Worker Cabaret – June 12 2011

Join us for the Second Annual Sex Worker Cabaret on Sunday, June 12, 2011!
>>> Buy Tickets Now!

Sex workers take the stage to tell their diverse stories through performance, narrative, puppetry, burlesque, comedy and more. This event starts with a curated selection of video works about sex work around the globe, and then features an all-star lineup of eleven performers.

Producers Sarah Jenny and Damien Luxe are proud to present this Sunday evening cabaret showcasing some of the most vibrant creative talent in the sex worker community. The cabaret is in homage to Annie Oakley’s Sex Workers Art Show (1997-2009) and takes place during LGBTQ Pride month, a time to reflect on the importance of community. Come listen to tales of self-determination, and bear witness to survival and celebration as sex workers eloquently — and at times raunchily — speak their truths.

With MCs Sarah Jenny and Damien Luxe and DJ Sirlinda!

WHEN: Sunday, June 12, 2011
TIME: DOORS @ 7:30PM, VIDEOS @ 8PM SHOW @ 8:30PM
TICKETS: $12 in adv. or $15 at the door (Click here to purchase tickets online.) Goodie Bag from The Pleasure Chest for first 50 tickets sold online!
WHERE: Public Assembly, 70 N. 6th St., Brooklyn, NY

For more information, please visit www.sexworkercabaret.com

Desiree Alliance 2.0

Since this year’s conference is going to be a week-long event, I know that many sex workers/conference attendees will be Tweeting/blogging/whatevering about their time in Las Vegas. For those who want to follow what’s going on from their own computer, I encourage everyone who is attending DA and publicizing it to add their names and links in the Comments section below.

Open Invitation to the Int’l Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

poster_small_jpgIn 2009, sex workers from around the globe met gruesome deaths and endured unspeakable violence. Some died at the hands of a solitary perpetrator; others were victims of serial “prostitute killers.” While some of these horrific stories received international media attention (Boston, Grand RapidsTijuana, Cape Town, Sussex, Moscow, New Zealand and Hong Kong, just to name a few), other cases received little more than a perfunctory investigation. Many cases remain unresolved, sometimes forever. In fact, most violent crimes against sex workers remain unreported. Stigma and criminalization facilitate this violence; when sex work is criminalized, prostitutes can’t turn to the police for protection without risking prosecution themselves.

Each year, December 17th marks the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Last year’s event in Washington, D.C. was a big success and this year, sex workers and their allies from across the U.S. will gather together in Arizona to remember and honor sex workers who, by virtue of their profession, have been victimized  – including rape, assault and murder.

You are invited to join us on December 17-18, 2009 in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona to honor their memory.  This year is especially poignant for us in Arizona because in May, 2009, Marcia Powell, an inmate at the Perryville women’s prison outside of Phoenix who was serving 27 months for prostitution, died when she was left outside in a holding cage in 107 degree heat without shade, food or water. Marcia Powell’s death is not only a travesty of justice and a failure of the prison system, but bring into sharp focus the unjust nature of current anti-prostitution laws which continue to oppress sex workers everywhere. We are outraged and saddened, and we ask for your participation in putting an end to the violence.

To learn more about the IDEVASW events in Arizona, please click here or visit SWOP-Tucson.  If silence is the voice of complicity, then your presence in Arizona this December will be a powerful message for justice to be heard across the world.

_________________________@@@_____________________

IDEVASW Event Schedule – Arizona

December 17, 2009 – Tucson

5:00 – 6:00 p.m. “No Human Involved” Event

El Presidio Park, 160 West Alameda Street, Tucson, AZ.

Performance art/art installation with the theme, “No Human Involved.” The central image will be a physical representation of the Perryville Prison which will honor Marcia Powell and sex workers everywhere who have been victims of violence; a performance piece/die-in and live music.

6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. “Remembrance Memorial”

El Tiradito Shrine, 354 South Main Avenue, Tucson, AZ.

Join us in remembering and honoring sex worker who have been victims of violence. Live music, performance poetry, ritual, candlelight vigil and refreshments. El Tiradito is a national historic shrine dedicated to the “castaway sinner” and holds a special place in the hearts of Tucson sex workers.

December 18, 2009 – Phoenix

Political Rally at the downtown Phoenix offices of the Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections to protest current anti-prostitution laws and prison conditions. Did you know that in Arizona, a fourth conviction is a mandatory Class 5 felony with 180 days of prison for consensual sex between a client and a sex worker? Please visit http://swop-tucson.org for more details. Volunteers are needed to organize this day!

For more information or to volunteer, please email info@swop-tucson.org

Mariko Passion sings “Decriminalize Me” in PSA for Sex Worker Fest

It plays when you come to the site, http://www.sexworkerfest.com/

You can download it here! http://www.sexworkerfest.com/PSASexWorkerFest2009.mp3

“Erotic Services” Denied: Craigslist and Attorneys General Are Putting Sex Workers At Risk

This is a collaborative press release – please distribute and repost widely!

Contact:
Dylan Wolfe – Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), swank@riseup.net
Will Rockwell – $pread Magazine, will@spreadmagazine.org
Audacia Ray – Sex Work Awareness (SWA), aray@sexworkawareness.org
Susan Blake – Prostitutes of New York (PONY), pony@panix.com
Michael Bottoms – Sex Workers Outreach Project – New York City (SWOP-NYC), info@swop-nyc.org

With Craigslist’s recent announcement that its Erotic Services category will be discontinued within the week, hundreds of thousands of erotic service providers will become more vulnerable to dangerous predators. Eliminating erotic listings as Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and others propose will only drive us further underground.

Policing the masseuses, phone workers, pro-dominants, and escorts using Craigslist fails to protect those of us who are coerced into the sex industry. Preventing the use of Craigslist advertisements also eliminates the advantage of screening clients online, which makes for a safer work experience by filtering out potentially dangerous individuals. Furthermore, keeping us offline hinders police investigations of violent crime. In the Boston murder of Julissa Brisman, it was online tracking that enabled the police to identify the suspect. One has to wonder: are the Attorneys General examining the evidence or simply enforcing their moral values?

“Removing the erotic services category from Craigslist does not help prevent violence against escorts and other sex workers. It only pushes me and people like me out of the places where advertising is available,” said Jessica Bloom, a sex worker from Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK). In the face of increasing criminalization, we insist upon respect. As mothers, daughters, brothers, and members of your community, we claim that sex work is real work, work that we are entitled to conduct in safety. As such, we must be accorded the human right of full protection under the law.