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.”

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AcarLQI?p=1 width=”550″ height=”443″]

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.)

Only Rights Can Stop the Wrongs

The prostitute is the scapegoat for everyone’s sins, and few people care whether she is justly treated or not.  Good people have spent thousands of pounds in efforts to reform her, poets have written about her, essayists and orators have made her the subject of some of their most striking rhetoric; perhaps no class of people has been so much abused, and alternatively sentimentalized over as prostitutes have been but one thing they have never yet had, and that is simple legal justice.  –  Alison Neilans

Today is International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, which started in 2001 as a huge sex worker festival (with an estimated 25,000 attendees) organized in Calcutta by the Indian sex worker rights group Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee.  Prohibitionist groups tried to pressure the government to revoke their permit, but DMSC prevailed and the following year decided to celebrate their victory by establishing the event as an annual one.  As I wrote in my column of one year ago today,

Perhaps its Asian origin has slowed the day’s “catching on” in Europe and the Americas, but in the light of the current trafficking hysteria and the growing problem of American “rescue” organizations in Asia, I think it’s time to remedy that.  Whores and regular readers of this column are acutely aware of the paternalistic attitude taken toward prostitutes by governments, soi-disant feminists and many others, and it’s no secret that many Westerners still have very colonial, “white man’s burden” ideas about Asia; imagine then the incredible paternalism to which Asian sex workers are subjected by American busybodies!  I therefore think it’s a FANTASTIC idea to popularize a sex worker rights day which began in India; its very existence is a repudiation of much of the propaganda which trafficking fetishists foist upon the ignorant public.

As I’ve written in the past, American cultural imperialism in Asia is still very much a fact; despite our loathsome record on civil rights the US State Department presumes to judge other countries on their response to so-called “human trafficking”, based on secret criteria which obviously include classifying all foreign sex workers in a given country as “trafficked persons”.  The annual “Trafficking in Persons Report” results in cuts in foreign aid to countries which don’t suppress their prostitutes brutally enough to please their American overlords, and therefore provokes mass arrests and mass deportations in the countries so targeted.  Nor are these operations instigated only by governments; wealthy NGOs, enabled by money from big corporations looking for a tax dodge, from empty-headed celebrities in search of good publicity, and from clueless Americans desperate to “do something”, invade Asian countries and abduct prostitutes, forcing them into “rehabilitation”  which consists largely of imprisonment under inhumane conditions and brainwashing them to perform menial labor for grueling 72-hour weeks at one-tenth of their former income.  When the women escape from “rescue centers” or protest, they are said to be suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome” and their children are abducted and given away.

Nor is this sort of violence restricted to Asia; local US police agencies, often financed by wealthy prohibitionists like Swanee Hunt, routinely use prostitution as an excuse for mass arrests, robbery and grotesque intimidation tactics:

Tania Ouaknine is convinced the police are watching her.  She’s not paranoid — it says as much on the red sign painted along the side on the hulking armored truck that’s been parked in front of her eight-room Parisian Motel for several days:  “Warning:  You are under video surveillance”…From the front bumper of the menacing vehicle, another sign taunts:  “Whatcha gonna do when we come for you?”…[it’s loaded with] surveillance equipment…and [decorated]…with [Fort Lauderdale, Florida] police emblems…[which they] leave…parked in front of trouble spots…”They say I am running a whorehouse,” said the 60-year-old innkeeper…[who has] been the subject of an undercover operation targeting prostitution starting in September.  Ouaknine was arrested on Oct. 28 on three counts of renting rooms to prostitutes for $20 an hour…She says she’s doing nothing illegal.  “They’ve tried everything to shut me down and have failed,” she said.  “Now they bring this truck to intimidate me and my customers.”  Some neighbors surrounding the Parisian Motel say the truck is another form of constant police harassment.  On a recent afternoon, Leo Cooper watched as two undercover…[cops molested] a group of men gathered at the corner.  Within minutes, one of the men ran away.  A second man was charged with loitering.  “This is what happens here every day.  We can’t sit outside without being harassed,” said Cooper…

This is why sex worker rights should concern everyone, even those who aren’t prostitutes, don’t know any prostitutes, have never hired a prostitute and don’t give a damn about the human rights of strangers:  prostitution, especially as it’s viewed through the lens of “human trafficking” mythology and “end demand” propaganda, is simply the latest excuse employed by governments in their campaign to control everything and everyone.  The 2005 re-authorization of the so-called “Violence Against Women Act”…

…permitted the collection and indefinite retention of DNA from, as the Center for Constitutional Rights understood at the time, “anyone arrested for any crime whether or not they are convicted, any non-U.S. citizen detained or stopped by federal authorities for any reason, and everyone in federal prison.”

Using this, Swanee Hunt (through her “Demand Abolition” organization) is now pushing for collection and retention of DNA from every man cops can accuse of patronizing a sex worker…which given the low standards of “suspicion” favored by police, means essentially any male found by cops in certain neighborhoods or in the company of a woman to whom he isn’t married.  While fanaticism-blinded neofeminists cheer, the war on “violence against women” (and by extension prostitution, which is defined as exactly that by neofeminists) is used to justify the same kind of egregious civil rights violations as those resulting from the “wars” on drugs and terrorism.

I think I can safely speak for virtually all sex workers when I say that we don’t want to be passive tools used by governments and NGOs as the excuse for tyranny; we simply want to be left alone to live our lives like anyone else, with the same rights, privileges, duties and legal protections as people in every other profession.  We are not children, moral imbeciles or victims (except of governments, cops and NGOs), and we do not require “rescue”, “rehabilitation” or special laws to “protect” us from our clients, boyfriends, employers or families to a greater degree than other citizens.  And we certainly don’t need others to speak for us no matter how much they insist we do.  Almost a year ago, Elena Jeffreys published an article entitled “It’s Time to Fund Sex Worker NGOs” and I wholeheartedly agree; furthermore, I would argue that it’s long past time to defund “rescue” organizations and all the others who presume to speak for sex workers while excluding us from the discussion.  How can someone who hates a given group and opposes everything its members want be considered a valid representative of that group?  It would be like allowing MADD and Carrie Nation’s Anti-Saloon League to represent distilleries and bar owners.  The very idea is absurd; yet that’s exactly what governments do, even in some countries where our trade isn’t criminal.  Millions of people claim to care about the welfare of prostitutes, yet contribute to groups who advocate that we be marginalized, criminalized, censored, hounded, persecuted, registered, confined, stripped of our rights, robbed of our livelihoods and enslaved…all because they don’t like what we do for a living.  It’s a lot like contributing to the KKK because you claim to be concerned about minorities.

If you actually care about the rights of women, or want to look like you do; if you’re opposed to imperialism and police brutality; if you support the right of people to earn a living in the jobs of their choice, and to organize for better work conditions; or even if you just want to protect yourself from yet another head of the ever-growing hydra of government surveillance, you should consider supporting the cause of sex worker rights.  Fight prohibitionist propaganda, speak out for decriminalization, contribute to sex worker organizations, vote against candidates who espouse prohibitionist rhetoric, and oppose local efforts to increase criminal penalties against whores and/or our clients.  And if anyone asks why you care, please feel free to quote from this essay or just hand them a copy.  Sex worker rights are human rights, and laws or procedures that harm sex workers harm everyone.

(Cross-posted from The Honest Courtesan)

Friday the Thirteenth

A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them.  –  P.J. O’Rourke

Today is the third Friday the Thirteenth since I’ve been writing The Honest Courtesan, and there will be three such days this year (today, April 13th and July 13th); as it so happens, three is the maximum number of such days in any given year, though each year has at least one.  In my very first column on the subject (Friday, August 13th, 2010) I explained how the superstition arose and why even superstitious whores should consider it lucky for us rather than unlucky:

Given the origin of beliefs about Friday the 13th…even the superstitious whore has nothing to worry about…since Friday is the day sacred to our patron goddess, and 13 the most feminine of numbers, Friday the 13th should be good luck for whores even if it really were bad luck for Christian men.  Now, I’m not really superstitious; I don’t believe that a day can bring either good luck or bad.  But considering that the reasons for fear of this day are so closely related to the reasons our profession is maligned and suppressed, perhaps whores and those who support our rights should make every Friday the Thirteenth a day to speak out in favor of full decriminalization and an end to the institutionalized persecution of prostitutes.

Nine months later (on Friday, May 13th, 2011) I explained why it’s especially important for my readers who aren’t sex workers to speak out:

A number of advocates are working to respond to the lies, propaganda and misinformation wherever we find them, but…we’re often accused of distorting facts to make ourselves look good, and no matter how assiduously we work to present a balanced view this is a natural and credible accusation against anyone who advocates for some issue which directly concerns her.  That’s why allies are so important; it’s much harder for the prohibitionists to shout down people who don’t have a dog in the fight, but merely support prostitutes’ rights on moral grounds.  Every Friday the Thirteenth I will ask my readers, especially those of you who aren’t yourselves sex workers, to speak up for us in some way; talk about the issue with someone who will listen, make a post on a discussion board, comment on a news story which spreads disinformation, or even just post a link to this column.  If you aren’t confident in your ability to debate, even a simple phrase like “I think adult women should have the right to decide why and with whom they want to have sex” or “everyone has the right to equal protection under the law” might have a tiny but important impact on those who overhear.  Because in the final analysis, they’re the ones we have to convince; rational people already support some type of prostitution-law reform and fanatics cannot be convinced by argument because their minds are already made up, but the silent majority – the fence-sitters and swing-voters, the ones who answer “unsure” or “no comment” on polls – are the ones who can and must be made to understand that we are not intrinsically different from other women and deserve the same freedoms and protections that non-harlots take for granted.

Last time around I also offered a synopsis of prohibitionist victories since the last such day, but since I already offered a similar list just two weeks ago I think that would be inexcusably repetitious.  And though there are several other days dedicated to fighting for sex worker rights (namely International Sex Workers’ Rights Day on March 3rd,  International Whores’ Day on June 2nd and International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on December 17th), human rights are not something to be discussed only once a year; even six occasions to speak out on the subject are not enough.  For me and many others, every day is Friday the Thirteenth, and so it must remain until people wake up and understand that no collective, “authority” or government has the right to tell women what we can and cannot do with our own bodies.

(Cross-posted from The Honest Courtesan)

Decriminalization Petition

I’m not sure how much good online petitions do, but here’s one to the president for the decriminalization of prostitution.  Since that issue is handled state by state I don’t think the president can really do anything, but it doesn’t hurt to let him know that there are people who support the idea.

Norma Jean Almodovar: The AGs vs. Backpage

Veteran sex worker rights activist Norma Jean Almodovar has written a passionate essay on the hypocrisy of the stance taken by 45 state attorneys general in demanding that Backpage discontinue all adult advertising, and I’m pleased to announce that she’s done me the honor of allowing me to publish it as a two-part guest blog on The Honest Courtesan:

Part One (September 16th, 2011)

Part Two (September 17th, 2011)

Both columns contain numerous links supporting Norma Jean’s position that if the “authorities” really want to protect “children” from sexual exploitation, that aim would be best served by forgetting about Backpage and cleaning up their own “disorderly house”.

Village Voice vs. Demi & Ashton

Late Tuesday evening ( June 28th) a story entitled “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight” by Martin Cizmar, Ellis Conklin and Kristen Hinman, appeared on the Village Voice media website; it uses the widely and justly ridiculed Ashton Kutcher/Demi Moore anti-prostitution ad campaign as a springboard for examining the fantastically exaggerated claims of “child sex trafficking” fetishists.

First, the story compares the widely-touted “100,000-300,000 trafficked children” myth I debunked back in January with the police arrest records of the 37 largest American cities and found that in the past decade there were only 8263 juveniles arrested for prostitution among them, an average of 827 per year (roughly 22 per city per year).  Even if one assumes that these cities together have only half of the underage prostitutes in the U.S., that still gives us fewer than 1700 per year.  Ask yourself:  Even considering the incompetence of police departments, which is more believable: that police catch roughly 5% of underage prostitutes per year (by my estimate), or that they catch only 0.27% per year?

The article then moves on to the 2001 Estes & Weiner study, the original source of the fabulous number; as I reported in my column of April 2nd, the study “guesstimated (by questionable methodology) that ‘as many as 100,000-300,000 children and youth [of both sexes] are at risk for sexual exploitation’ of one kind or another…this guess is for BOTH sexes, for ‘children and youth’ (not just children), and most importantly represents those at risk of some form of ‘exploitation’, not currently involved in one specific form (sex trafficking).”  That “questionable methodology” (such as including all runaways, female gang members, transgender youth and those living within a short drive of the Mexican or Canadian borders as automatically “at risk”) was criticized in the Village Voice article by the University of New Hampshire’s Dr. David Finkelhor, who said “As far as I’m concerned, [the University of Pennsylvania study] has no scientific credibility to it…That figure was in a report that was never really subjected to any kind of peer review.  It wasn’t published in any scientific journal…Initially, [Estes and Weiner] claimed that [100,000 to 300,000] was the number of children [engaged in prostitution].  It took quite a bit of pressure to get them to add the qualifier [at risk].”  Professor Steve Doig of Arizona State said the “study cannot be relied upon as authoritative…I do not see the evidence necessary to confirm that there are hundreds of thousands of [child prostitutes].”  He also said, “Many of the numbers and assumptions in these charts are based on earlier, smaller-scale studies done by other researchers, studies which have their own methodological limitations.  I won’t call it ‘garbage in, garbage out.’  But combining various approximations and guesstimates done under a variety of conditions doesn’t magically produce a solid number.  The resulting number is no better than the fuzziest part of the equation.”  And when pressed by the reporters, Estes himself admitted, “Kids who are kidnapped and sold into slavery—that number would be very small…We’re talking about a few hundred people.”

Not that any of this bothers Maggie Neilson, Ashton & Demi’s “celebrity charity consultant”; she told the reporter “I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed.  While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.”  Presumably it would still “need to be addressed” if the number were 827, so why not just say 827?  Because, of course, that wouldn’t justify pouring millions down police department and NGO toilets instead of spending it on programs to help actual underage prostitutes (as opposed to phantom multitudes of “trafficked children”):  as the article explains, “…though Congress has spent hundreds of millions in tax-generated money to fight human trafficking, it has yet to spend a penny to shelter and counsel those boys and girls in America who are, in fact, underage prostitutes.  In March of this year…[two senators] introduced legislation to fund six shelters with $15 million in grants.  The shelters would provide beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services.  If enacted, this legislation would be the first of its kind…[it] has yet to clear the Senate or the House.”

The article ends with a clear indictment of government attitudes in prohibitionist regimes and an equally-clear statement that sex work is work:  “The lack of shelter and counseling for underage prostitutes—while prohibitionists take in millions in government funding—is only one indication of the worldwide campaign of hostility directed at working women.”  Village Voice recently told a group of sex worker rights activists that they are behind us, and that this is only beginning of a campaign for decriminalization; this could at last be the public voice we’ve needed for so long, and I eagerly await the next salvo fired in defense of whores.

Human Trafficking Program in Chicago

One of my regular readers in the Chicago area forwarded this to me.  SWOP Chicago is involved, and some points we often make are on the agenda so those who will be in Chicago in two weeks may be interested.

THURSDAY April 14
6:30-8:30pm
Human Trafficking: Strategies and Solutions
*Featuring our own Serpent Libertine!

http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/_programsevents/_upcomingevents/_2011/_human%20Trafficking/apr14.html

Human trafficking, for sex, for other forms of labor, or any purpose of involuntary servitude, is an exploitative practice that is prevalent in countries all around the globe, including the United States.

Activists and scholars fervently debate the definition of trafficking, moral distinctions that are often made between labor and sex work, various understandings of victimhood, and questions about the intent and success rate of “rescue operations.” In addition, there are complexities of migration to consider and debates about the relationship between forced labor and the global economy.

Join us for an evening of discussion and education. Scholars and activists working to end trafficking will discuss their strategies and positions. Hull-House history and Jane Addams’ relationship with the movement to end “white slavery” will be highlighted.

Panelists represent the following organizations:
Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation
The International Organization for Adolescents
National Immigrant Justice Center at the Heartland Alliance
Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago