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.)

Jill Brenneman Interviewed by Maggie McNeill

Regular readers of Bound, Not Gagged need no introduction to Jill Brenneman, a regular contributor to this blog with a unique perspective on sex worker rights.  You see, Jill is what many prohibitionists like to claim we all are:  a woman who was forced into prostitution in her teens by a brutal pimp.  But though she participated in the prohibitionist movement herself for several years (and really, who could blame her?) she was open-minded enough to see the truth and reason in the arguments for decriminalization and intellectually honest enough to be repulsed by the lies and misrepresentation rampant among the prohibitionists.  She thus became an outspoken advocate for sex worker rights, and the one person whose opinion on the “sex trafficking” issue I most respect.

After Jill commented extensively on my February 7th column Amanda Brooks suggested I interview her, and I thought that was a fantastic idea so I contacted Jill and she generously agreed.  The interview was conducted mostly via email on February 11th-13th and completed by telephone on the 13th, and though Jill suggested I edit it down I have done this as little as possible because I wanted her to be free to tell her story in her own words.  Jill has read over the completed interview twice and has approved it for presentation in The Honest Courtesan in four parts, from February 21st to February 24th.  I feel I must warn you that it is not light reading; the first two parts are the most graphic, disturbing narrative I have yet published or am likely to publish again, and I must caution sensitive readers to consider carefully before proceeding.  The interview is quite long, but Jill and I both feel that it’s important to show the ugly side of the world of prostitution as well as its attractive side; our opponents are liars, but we are not.  If we hide facts which might make us look bad we are no better than the prohibitionists, and the suppressed information would then become a weapon in their hands.  The truth shines light into dark places inhabited by filth who exploit women and Jill understands, as we hope most people will one day, that only decriminalization will grant free whores the power to help the law to uncover these monsters and liberate the girls they victimize.

Voices from Sex Workers.

I haven’t posted in a while, sometimes I’m afraid to post, sometimes I’m not sure *WHAT* to post, since this site has such a wide range, and sometimes I’m just to busy to post. But mostly, as the only transgendered woman author on this site, and not having the range of writing experiences all the other authors have, I just feel overwhelmed by their awesomeness at writing. I hope to someday be as well written as them! But sometimes my insecurities with my voice get the better of me, and here I am posting again! 🙂

But I’m not posting about me, I’m posting about other people’s voices. I think one of the best parts about this blog, Bound, Not Gagged, is that we shouldn’t feel Gagged, we should be able to share our voice, and talk about the things we need to say. So let’s share some voices!

This is the best fucking job I ever had.

Why can’t we as a society have a rational, meaningful discourse about sex work, embracing all its nuances and contradictions?


These are some of my favorite quotes from Ester’s article on alternet, titled “My Life As a ‘Craigslist Hooker’: Why We Need Smart Policy About Sex Work”.

Also, Alexa has started a new site called “My first professional Sex”, where she’s attempting to share stories from many different Sex Workers, from all walks of life. You can read my story on her site here. I think the site can be summed up by her very words:

Sex workers are human beings, just like everyone else. The stigma associated with their line of work can often be quite dehumanizing. And, sadly, there are a lot of misconceptions about what brings people to sex work. I hope to show that there are a wide variety of reasons people get into sex work – reasons that are unique to each individual, reasons that are just as valid as the reasons anyone gets into any other line of work.


These are but 2 recent examples of Sex Workers taking to heart, we are Bound, Not Gagged. Thanks for speaking up, speaking out, and sharing your stories.

MTV Anti Trafficking and MTV NO exit discussion.

Below is an email from the MTV Exit campaign, which is a Anti-Trafficking organization. MTV NO Exit is a campaign by sex workers that are part of the APNSW (Asia Pacific Network of Sex Work projects). Let’s be VERY CLEAR: Those of us fighting for Sex Worker Rights, are totally against slavery, and coercion. The problem is, that most of the anti-trafficking campaigns treat sex workers as victims, and as you can see below in Cambodia, the anti-trafficking laws treat all sex work as sex trafficking. This is our main point of contention. We have agency, we aren’t victims, and we do freely choose this work.

**************** Email from MTV to NO Exit ****************

Your methods and reasoning here concerns me. It is very clear what the aims and objectives of the MTV EXIT Campaign are. We are an anti-human trafficking campaign that focuses on raising awareness of human trafficking only. That is it. Our messages come in the form of safe migration advice, general awareness of what human trafficking is, and finally, how communities and individuals can have an impact on the issue.

As far as USAID is concerned, the change in administration does not actually change the way we work, I’m not sure why you think it would.

I’m also not sure how you think “promoting human rights for sex workers” actually fits in with an anti-trafficking campaign?

I urge you to watch our documentaries, in paticular the programme called Traffic, which was produced for the Asia-Pacific:

http://www.mtvexit.org/eng/video/lucy_traf_wmp.html

In it you will see we are educating our audience about 3 forms of trafficking: labour trafficking, domestic servitude, and sex trafficking.

Firstly, we are not planning to produce another documentary like this. Secondly, even if we were then inserting a “message of non-trafficked sex workers” into this programme would be the same as inserting a message about non-trafficked domestic workers or non-trafficked workers in other industries where individuals are trafficked. Apart from diluting our message, including messages for these non-trafficked workers (regardless of type of work) just does not make sense.

Please can you clarify something. Is APNSW claiming that unless MTV EXIT — an anti-trafficking campaign that has educated millions of people about the issue since its launch in 2004 — starts to campaign for the promotion of human rights for sex workers, then your network will continue to campaign against us?

Thanks

Simon

****************** NO Exit’s Response *********************

Hi Simon,

We understand that the MTV Exit campaign is focused on anti-trafficking and raising awareness about anti-trafficking. What we do not understand is how you can honestly try to rationalize differentiating between sex workers and the anti-trafficking policies, which your campaign encourages and represents, as they directly effect sex workers. Anti-trafficking and sex workers human rights are interlinked as sex workers across Asia have their human rights violated on a daily basis in the name of “combating trafficking” Many of these human rights violators are listed on your website as sources for further information or for referral.

When you were in Cambodia and met with us the sex workers asked you for a brief time on your video to voice their issues you said no for 2 reasons. 1. It was short notice. And 2. Your USAID contract would not allow you to do so. We took reason 2 as meaning that if the contractual obligations changed, that you would be willing to include sex workers like you said you wished you could.

Promoting human rights for sex workers fits in with your campaign in Cambodia because of the vast amount human rights violations that are a direct result on the Law on Trafficking in Person and Sexual Exploitation. It would be irresponsible for MTV to not fully inform their viewers of the entire situation, especially human rights issues directly related to the cause endorsed by campaign. This disclusion would allow people to draw the conclusion that you are not concerned about the human rights violations.

I have watched all of you MTV Exit youtube videos, and was frankly offended by the way you portray women who are trafficked or at risk of trafficking as brainless twits with no common sense and no agency. The sarcasm attempted in these videos falls dead on the eyes of an informed viewer, and comes off as insensitive and derogatory. Beyond that, we have never questioned the purpose of your campaign, just the way you went about achieving it. We don’t believe that it meets the objectives you set of raising awareness whilst not buying into the debate on whether all sex work is trafficking.

Including the message of all sex workers does make sense because trafficking laws, such as the one in Cambodia, do not distinguish between sex workers and trafficking victims and therefore make all sex work illegal. Unlike labor trafficking laws which do not outlaw all other forms of professional employment. We do not believe that campaigns such as MTV Exit can be separated from the fact that it is seen as part of an anti-trafficking movement that has an agenda to criminalize all sex work. You told us this was not your intention which why our solution is to include the voices of non-trafficked sex workers.

Finally, APNSW and our member groups never asked you to start a new campaign, we asked to be included in your current one. If MTV Exit continues to promote the broader anti-prostitution/ anti-trafficking campaigns then we will continue to oppose MTV Exit as part of our larger campaign against the anti-prostitution movement.

Changing from within or not?

So I went to a Sex Trafficking panel led by the interfaith group at UCSC. The panel was comprised of a nun, a man, and a cop from the San Jose Police Department, whose position is being in charge of the human trafficking cases for the south bay counties, to include Santa Cruz and Monterrey.

It was as expected, they came from the all sex workers are victims, and one of them thought all porn == objectification, and that leads to sex trafficking (her logic is beyond me).

I was the only one trying to separate the 2 things (Sex and Sexuality) from Slavery and trafficking.

I was happy when the Cop said, there is a very miniscule amount of sex trafficking happening in this area. He also said he’s working on a case against 2 men who trafficked 2 women from Nevada to come work as sex workers. I’m not against these people, I’m glad they are fighting to end slavery. I just wish they would explore their sexuality, and come to respect sex workers, and not see us as victims.

Also tonight in Santa Cruz, the city council was voting on banning sitting on public park benches for more than an hour, and also sitting on the sidewalk, and a host of other things aimed at eradicating the less desirables from downtown in an effort to increase public safety.

These events have made me re-evaluate the best way for organizational change. Is it smart to work from outside, and try to lobby the city council to understand sitting on park benches is not bad, or that sex work is actual work, or that sex and porn is different than (and does not lead to) sexual trafficking?

Or is it smarter to try and work from the inside, to get into the government, to get on the city council, to get in with the Human Trafficking police organizations, and change from within?

I feel like I’m at a crossroads in my personal life, to see where I want my direction to go. I’m very dedicated to human rights work, and to sex workers rights, but how best can I affect social change, for my friends, brothers, sisters and be allies to others?

Perhaps the very last of my Social Change through Non-Violent Communication class tomorrow night can help me come to some sort of conclusion. I pose the question:

How best to affect social change for our movement?

MONTREAL SEX WORKER RIGHTS GROUP DENOUNCES BC SUPREME COURT RULING THAT DENIES SEX WORKERS’ HUMAN RIGHTS

This is a press release sent out from out friends in Canada.

MONTREAL SEX WORKER RIGHTS GROUP DENOUNCES BC SUPREME COURT RULING THAT DENIES SEX WORKERS’ HUMAN RIGHTS

Montreal, December 15, 2008

Today, the BC Supreme Court refused to hear a case brought forward by a group of sex workers from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver (“SWUAV”) who are attempting to challenge the prostitution laws using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Lainie Basman, of Montreal’s Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers says, “This decision is incredibly disappointing. The B.C. Supreme Court had the rare opportunity to hear a critical claim by sex workers that Canada’s Criminal Code endangers their safety and violates their fundamental right to equality. Outrageously, the Court has chosen to close its doors to one of this country’s most marginalized and oppressed groups.”

Joe Arvay, a lawyer working on the case alongside Katrina Pacey, of Pivot Legal Society, says, The government’s argument that the Court should recognize as plaintiffs only those sex workers who are presently active in sex work or who are presently facing an actual prosecution is neither sound law or good policy.”

This court decision affects sex workers all across the country. Recent years have brought attention to the human rights atrocities perpetrated against sex workers in Canada and to the large number of women murdered and missing in recent years in Vancouver and Edmonton.  Anna-Louise Crago, Coalition member, states, “In Montreal, the issue is as pressing as it is in those cities. In our city there are presently at least two ongoing cases involving men accused of the serial rape of sex workers.   Sex workers will not be free of violence or the threat of violence until we are free of the laws that criminalize our work and our lives.  The need to recognize sex workers’ rights to work in safe and decent working conditions is urgent.”

The Coalition wishes to express not only grave concern, but also its strong support for the right to address these human rights violations in a court of law.

For more information contact:

info@montrealcoalition.com

Men and The Issue of Timing- Desiree Alliance

Saturday late morning, or maybe it was early afternoon I rolled into the third day of the Desiree Alliance mid-way through the morning plenary. The room was half full and a panel of male identified sex workers were sharing the mic. People slowly trickled in, grabbed some fruit and found their seats as the guys talked.

The panel consisted of about 7 men, which was a noticeable increase from last year. They came from San Francisco, New York, and Chiacgo and maybe L.A. They were very well spoken as they discussed issues of inclusiveness, outreach and sexual orientation. When the panel opened up for questions, one of the first was from Naomi of St James Infirmary who brought up the excellent point that if we as a community want to really welcome and include the male workers, we would get up and show up for their plenary. If after a weekend night of partying the guys could be ontime and ready to present, the least we could do is be there to support and listen. Stacey Swimme, one of the very hard working key organizers responded that she was hoping that giving them the opening slot to kick off the day would show that they were valued and bring everyone else out to listen.

This made me think about the issue of timing at conferences such as these, and the message it can inadvertently send. I have never organized a conference so its easy for me to have an idea about it without full knowledge of all of the factors involved, but I know that it is complex and difficult and someone is always going to be unhappy with the position of their presentation. I think weekend mornings are naturally going to be especially difficult with our group. Its amazing how a schedule can affect the mood of all the participants: when the breaks are, what the day starts with, who gets undivided attention. I think the organizers to a fantastic job on working these things out, and that it is an ever morphing beast that will just get smoother and more fine-tuned.

Some other interesting points from the (second-half of) the “Male Sex Workers: How to Organize, Support and Advocate for Themselves in the Movement” Plenary:

-possibly there a less men in the sex workers’ rights movement because most male sex workers are gay and stigma against sex work is far less in the gay men’s community than the rest of society. As one man put it: “we (gay men) are all whores anyway” so they get more support and a sense of community.

-in response, one of the panelist classified himself in this way: “I’m me first, then gay, then a sex worker” so while he is very active in activist work, he proposes that many men may not necessarily feel the need to organize around sex work specifically as it is a outer layer of identity.

-there was a discussion about openness and inclusivity, and that they needed to start in the language and imagery of our own movement. Many of the panelist didn’t feel terribly represented or included in all of the “women”, “ladies” language and images that focus on female (often white and biologically female) sex workers. People often look at promotional material to determine whether or not an event or community or cause is “for them” and even if they are invited personally, they will not feel totally welcome or wanted if they do not see themselves represented in language and images of the group.

-another panelist shared a maxim he learned early on that helps him deal with stigma and oppression called the 3 F’s. “If someone isn’t Feeding, Financing or Fucking me, than why the hell do I care what they think? What right do they have to say anything about how I live my life? Fuck ’em!”

I can’t wait to see the groups of men and transpeople at the conference grow. It seems that numbers attract numbers and I think the more people we have from every group of sex work we have at our conference and in our movement, the stronger and more representative we will be as a force for change and helping each other and ourselves.