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.)

MARCH FOR A HAPPY ENDING! END RACIAL PROFILING AND PATRIARCHAL, MORALISTIC TRAFFICKING HYSTERIA

Asian profiling and racist marketing

Asian profiling and racist marketing, a $20,000 printing and mailer project

MARCH FOR A HAPPY ENDING!
END RACIAL PROFILING AND PATRIARCHAL, MORALISTIC TRAFFICKING HYSTERIA

!!URGENT CALL TO ACTION!!
PEOPLE OF ASIAN DESCENT and OF all ethnicities and nationalities!
Sex Workers and allies! Immigrant Rights activists! –Please vote YES ON PROPOSITION K!

WHEN: MONDAY, NOVEMBER 3rd 6pm,

WANTED: lion head masks, lion dancers!
Asian Drummers (taiko?), horns, kazoos and signs!
PLEASE CALL 1-877-776-2004 x5 for info or if you plan to show up!
BRING A RED UMBRELLA. IT IS GOING TO RAIN!
MEET UP POINT: O’Farrell and Polk streets
march through the Tenderloin, stop at Asianweek’s offices (who slated a No on K), and end at the park in Chinatown..

PROTEST RACIAL PROFILING OF ASIAN SEX WORK VENUES IN THE NAME OF “STOPPING TRAFFICKING.” PROTEST THE RACIST REPRESENTATIONS of the [anti-prostitution] Asian Sex Slave campaigns! There have been 0 convictions of human trafficking in San Francisco since 2006, but Gavin Newsom was present during the raids of 17 massage parlors where he rescued an allegedly underaged girl from forced prostitution.

STAND TOGETHER IN SOLIDARITY WITH VOLUNTARY ASIAN SEX WORKERS IN SAN FRANCISCO AND BEYOND WHO DEFEND THEIR RIGHT TO LIVELIHOOD. In Cambodia, in 2008 an anti-trafficking policy change resulted in overnight criminal status of sex workers and drug users to be imprisoned in detention camps, malnourished and abused by authorities until their families can afford bail. The prisoners are detained in the same detention camps used during the reign of Pol Pot. This is all in an effort to prove that they are cracking down on child trafficking. NO ONE SEEMS TO BE FINDING the REAL TRAFFICKING VICTIMS so they arrest and imprison voluntary sex workers.

Decriminalization makes it safer for everyone involved and helps to uncover underworld conditions that breed trafficking and exploitative prostitution. DO NOT BELIEVE when HARRIS & NEWSOM SAY they have any of our communities’ best interest in mind.

PROTEST the exploitation of the sad victimized Asian female victim. The Asian woman/girl that seeks rescue is the ultimate submissive stereotype. WE, ASIAN SEX WORKERS OPPOSE THE PRETTY WOMAN PATRIARCHAL RESCUE MISSION IDEOLOGY, KAMALA HARRIS! GIVE US RIGHTS NOT RESCUE!

Sex workers of Asian descent have been misrepresented by Western colonialism since the Gold Rush days of Chinese prostitutes in San Francisco. Criminalization of Sex Workers and their clients is NOT necessary to find TRUE trafficking victims. Criminalization of sex workers makes them MORE vulnerable to labor abuses, workplace violence and MORE vulnerable to making compromises in STD/violence prevention.

“My name is Mariko Passion. I am an artist, a woman of color and a community activist locally and globally. I live and do sex work in San Francisco, please vote YES on Proposition K!”

*****I HAVE BEEN SO FIRED ABOUT THIS ISH!****I can’t believe that a place so anti-racist with a such an organized Asian American community would allow this type of media campaign!

Also read:

The CONTROL OF REPRESENTATIONS and POLICIES regarding the BODIES OF ASIAN FEMALE SEX WORKERS

Proposition K on RH Reality Check

SF’s Proposition K: Changing the Landscape for Sex Workers

Sienna Baskin and Melissa Ditmore on October 28, 2008 – 8:00am
Next week, San Francisco voters will vote on Proposition K, which would prohibit the use of public funds to enforce laws criminalizing prostitution, and mandate that police investigate crimes against sex workers. The passage of Proposition K would change the landscape for sex workers in San Francisco in critical ways. First, by removing police officers’ power to arrest sex workers, it would reduce sex workers’ vulnerability to all of the abuses of that power sex workers currently experience: police profiling and harassment, sexual harassment and assault, rape, and extortion of sexual favors under threat of arrest by police officers, and entrapment.

Continue reading

Call for Volunteers Phone Banking.

Proposition K in San Francisco was put on the ballot by Sex Workers to Decriminalize Prostitution! We have until November 4th to try and convince as many voters as possible on why they should vote Yes on Prop K. We need your help calling voters in San Francisco! All you need is a phone (we have a script), and some time on your hands (you can do this from home or anywhere). Simply call or email Tara to get set up for this:

831-295-0034 or tara@swopusa.org

This is a public call for help, please send to organizers and your general list!!

Detained at University of San Francisco for passing out prop K flyers

“You in the cowboy hat. Stop right there. We need to talk to you.” said university cop#1, cop #2 took my campaign cohort Slava to the side and started to question us about this so called “disturbance” someone had called in to complain about on campus.

I knew that I had not done outside of my first amendment rights so I was mellow and calm.

“Can I see your ID?” cop #1 said. Damn, I just got through discussing with my lawyer that you DO NOT have to show any police officer your ID unless you are being detained or arrested.

Apparently, we were being detained.

Continue reading

SWWET School for Johns

Saturday, 9/20, 11 am — 5 pm — SWEET JOHNS’ SCHOOL

S.ex W.ork E.nthusiasts E.ducation and T.raining School 4 Johns is a 6 hour seminar about interacting with Professional Sex Workers. It’s presented for clients, and people interested in becoming clients. S4J deals with all aspects of professional intimate encounters, including but not limited to: Erotic massage, BDSM, erotic dancing (stripping). We will have Professional Providers (including a pro from Nevada), Medical experts, Legal experts, and some demos of professional interaction. Co-sponsored by BAYSWAN and the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project.

At the Center for sex & Culture. 1519 Mission near 11th, San Francisco, CA.

$20-50 sliding scale, please RSVP at mail (at sexandculture.org and put Johns School in the header.

Add Matt Smith of the SF Weekly to the Salacious Sex Work Reporting Blacklist

At the Desiree Alliance this summer in Chicago, there was much discussion around media and one of the ideas that was brought up was to create a blacklist (and a good list) for reporters and interviewers who cover sex work-related issues.

Well I’m starting by adding Matt Smith of the SF Weekly to the blacklist based on this article. Not because it was an article that doesn’t support Prop K or sex workers rights per se, but because of the use of ridiculously sesationalized phrases like “blowjobs-for-badges” and his general tone of discrediting sex workers, their self-reported hardships, and any research conducted by people who have worked in the sex industry about sex work.   He spends the entire article tearing down Alix Lutnick’s SWEAT study, (as well as mis-spelling her name and the St. James Infirmary) and the idea that cops may regularly solicit sex, either as a bribe or as a client, from sex workers, and then only comes in at the very last paragraph to admit that possibly this phenomenon is worth looking into (based on the testimony of a public defender, who as someone who only works with sex workers from the outside is the only person he’s willing to believe on the matter, certainly not anyone who’s ever been in the industry themselves.)  Anyway, for somebody criticizing research techniques and demanding “hard science” this is dirty, sloppy, biased reporting and I don’t think Mr. Smith deserves the privilege of further interviews.

Nina Hartley and Margo St. James host Prop K Benefit Party! (plus easy donation button!)

Sexual Politics and Sexy Politicos
Hosted by Nina Hartley, Margo St. James, Sadie Lune, Scarlot Harlot, Carol Queen (and many more!)
Friday, Sept 19th,
8 PM-midnight  Sliding Scale from $20-$100 to benefit Prop K
September 19th, 2008
Center for Sex and Culture
At 1519 Mission St. San Francisco (In Between 11th and South Van Ness)
Come early to join Margo at the St. James Infirmary Open House @ 5:30 PM
just down the block at 1372 Mission St
Friends,
I wanted to send you this excellent op-ed which appeared in our paper today.  I also link a very bad editorial against us at the bottom of the page, which is not accurate (of course).
We set up a donor button on YesOnPropK.org, so do visit if you are so moved…even $5 will help towards printing, but $20 or even more would help even more…

Performance Art for Sex Worker Rights at the SFMOMA

On Thurs, Sept 11, I have been chosen to perform a 1-minute piece at the SFMOMA as part of Tony Labat’s project “I WANT YOU” based on the old Uncle Sam Army recruitment posters.
Not only is it just *thrilling* that I will be performing at the MOMA, but there is a competition (which I need your help with!) and a good cause (‘aint there always) attached to this prestigious event.

There will be 50 1 min. performances on Thursday, and the audience members will vote for FIVE (5) winners, who will have portraits and copies of their monologues printed on posters to be placed all over SF during election week.
My performance is about Sex Worker visibility and ending stigma, and also about voting for Prop K. It could really make a difference for a lot of sex workers and make a big impact if posters (paid for by the SFMoMA!) with my message were placed all over San Francisco right before the voters took to the polls. I love using art for politics and politics for art.  In the name of ART, SEX WORKERS RIGHTS, FAME and SEX-POSITIVE POLITICS, please come out to the SFMOMA on Thursday night and vote for me!  Lady Monster and Tara Jepsen and Beth Lisick will also be performing, and remember 5 of us can win!!!!

Live Competition
Tony Labat’s I WANT YOU

Jason Mateo, Emcee; music by Veronica Klaus
Thursday, September 11, 6:30 p.m.
Phyllis Wattis Theater
$10 general; $7 SFMOMA members, students, and seniors.
Tickets are available at the museum (no surcharge) or online at sfmoma.org/tickets (surcharge applies).

On September 4, individuals can deliver one-minute monologues in solo auditions at SFMOMA. A week later, on September 11, fifty contestants chosen by the artist on the basis of these preliminary auditions will appear before a live audience and a host of documentary cameras. At the end of the evening, the audience will choose five winners. Poet and activist Jason Mateo, program director at Youth Speaks, will serve as emcee for the evening, and chanteuse Veronica Klaus

will provide musical interludes between monologues and during post-performance vote-counting. Winners will have their images and monologues printed on an “I Want You” poster, to be put up around the city in the week leading up to the presidential election. Participants will also be featured in Labat’s new video project, I WANT YOU, screening at SFMOMA on November 4th (election day) and December 2nd.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

http://www.sfmoma.org/press/pressroom.asp?id=372&do=events

Jeffery D. Klausner, President of California’s STD Controller Association Supports Prop K

Jeffery Klausner authored a well-supported article in today’s SF Chronicle, in response to the Chron’s own editorial board’s terribly written and ill-advised article denouncing Prop K that was printed in yesterday’s Sunday edition. While readership of the Sunday paper is much higher than that of the weekday editions, and the paper’s official stance is not one of support; today’s piece, which I believe references Alix Lutnick’s SWEAT Study, is helping with damage control by shedding a sensible light and some real facts on the issue.

Today’s Article

Proposition K to Decriminalize Prostitution in San Francisco Endorsed by the Democratic Central Committee

When Scarlot Harlot put out the rallying call, we listened.

With only two days notice, a sizable group of sex workers, allies, and supporters showed up last night to the public testimony meeting of the DCC to solicit endorsement for the newly named Prop K. Each speaker had one minute to plea their case ranging from endorsing Eric Quezada for District 9 Supervisor (that advertising worked on my susceptible mind; I heard his name so many times I’m sold!) to a large group of mostly Asian high school students and their teachers testifying to the  importance and positive impact on students’ lives of the Junior ROTC. That was an amusing intersection for sure, as well as a depressing eye-opener; apparently the only way these children are learning life skills, self-confidence, structure, as well as getting male African American role-models (mentioned several times as 75% of the JROTC counselors or teachers or Sargents or whatever the term is are African American men) is through this military based model.

Anyhoo, the hos came out in force and had a consistent string of voices heard throughout the beginning of the clusterfuck that was the sign-up process (There was literally a yellow legal pad and a first-come, first served policy for signing up to speak, which meant that all of the speakers for all of the topics petitioned were all mixed together, and adults are not necessarily sensible nor fair about this sort of thing).  Our opposition; including Melissa Farley and her cronies, did not show up until about half way through the speakers and were still outnumbered by the impassioned assemblage of well-spoken supporters by quite a margin. Maxine Dougan videotaped the proceedings, and among the speakers were: Robyn Few, Patrasha, Lady Monster,  Maxine Dougan, Melissa Gira, Scarlot Harlot, Scarlot Harlot’s mom, Violet Palmer, Bacchus (representing the client’s perspective) as well as many other sex workers, the founder of the City Clinic, a number of lawyers and several other articulate, professional looking men to lend that special brand of validity to those who need  articulate, professional looking  men to believe the good word. I spoke and passed out several of the “Brief Lesson on San Francisco’s Historic Whores”cards,  which detail some of the contributions of sex workers throughout SF’s history.  These flyers were made for the Sex Worker Pride Float and available at the Desiree Alliance Conference in Chicago, and the panel seemed to enjoy reading them throughout the proceedings.

Despite two incidents of furor over our presence, the panel listened more or less intently and seemed to take us fairly seriously, in fact at one point one of the panel members asked for a copy of the legislation from us but no one hand one on hand.  The first incident was when a panel member spoke in the middle of the public testimony to the chair, informing him that as the chapter of the DCC for the city, they really had no jurisdiction over the prostitution decriminalization issue and were obliged to follow the lead of the decision of the California DCC, or something to that affect. Basically it seemed like this gentleman just did not want to hear any more about the measure and wanted to let us know we were barking up the wrong tree, though many of his colleagues made “what the hell is he talking about!?” and “oh, gimme a break” faces at his interruption. The second incident, which seemed somewhat juvenile, occurred after one supportive speaker brought up the point that statistically there were likely several former sex workers and former clients on the panel who couldn’t speak up about their position based on stigma. This broke the proceedings for a moment so that the majority of the panel could have a could chuckle over that ‘improbability’ and jokingly speculate, accuse and lay false claim to their involvement in the industry as sexual laborers or consumers.

At about 10pm I got the call from Scarlot that the DCC had decided to endorse Prop K, created by the Erotic Service Providers Union,  with a 18-12 vote in favor. Currently Prop K is also endorsed by the Harvey Milk Club and the Lawyer’s Guild.

I was so proud of us, thank you to all those who came and all those who spoke, we are working to set a crucial precedent.

Historical Ho’s Take to the Streets! SF Sex Worker Pride Float!

We are working on putting together a contingent and “float” for this
year’s SF pride parade on June 29th, with the support of the Center
for Sex and Culture and the St. James Infirmary. During last year’s
very successful historic sex worker bike tour, Sex On Wheels,
organized by Jenny Worley, Sadie learned that in the Barbary Coast
days, before the turn of the century (1900, not 2000) brothels would
parade their girls down Market Streets in carriages as advertising.

Prostitute Pride Parade! Between 1849 and 1906, madams and sex workers from each of San Francisco’s brothels would pile into open carriages and drive up and down Market Street to advertise their businesses and show off their fabulousness. This Saturday afternoon prostitutes’ parade was a San Francisco establishment from the gold rush until the great quake.”

Our vision is to create a nostalgic homage to our predecessors with a
contingent of sex workers (all genders and genres welcome!) dressed in
vintage lingerie and transported by trolley as well as traipsing and
strutting while throwing rose petals down Market St.
The goal is to bring some visibility to sex workers, especially queer
sex workers while giving a little history lesson to the invaluable
role sex workers have played in building this city; as well as looking
gorgeous and sexy, having fun, and who knows, maybe even inadvertently
advertising!
The trolley is all taken care of, and will fit up to 25 sex workers,
but there’s still a bunch more to do to make this gorgeous image a
reality!

If you are interested in helping, please contact Sadie at
sadiewantsawife@gmail.com.

Preference for the riders on the trolley will be given to those who
who help and volunteer before the day-of the parade. Other contingent
participants are welcome and we’ll have space to walk alongside and
behind the trolley.

Sex Workers need your drawers!

We also need donations of lacey undies and vintage-esque lingerie to clad ourselves, (but barely) so that the float is accessible and any worker who wants to join us will have an awesome outfit to wear.
Please donate your fancy lacey/frilly undies (especially in pink, black, red and purple) and vintage-style (1840’s-1930’s) lingerie for all genders to the Sex Workers Pride Float!
Too small for that corset? Haven’t worn bloomers in years? Always dreamed of seeing a fabulous person-of-the-evening donning your unmentionables? Give ‘em to a good cause, to promote queer/sex worker visibility and SF history.

If you know someone you think would *love* to get involved, please
forward this to them!