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.