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“The gift that kept on giving”? Sex workers speak for themselves Sudhir Venkatesh

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With permission from our colleagues at SWOP-NYC and SWANK we are pleased to re-post the commentary below about research ethics and sex worker rights in New York city.

Sudhir Venkatesh has already had more than his allotted 15 minutes, but his most recent appropriation of sex workers’ lives gives us—sex workers, people in the sex trade, and allies—a moment to reflect on unethical researchers who have not yet realized that they are as much under the microscope as we are. New media and new forms of organizing building on at least 40 years of struggle for rights, means that the studies “revealing” the “secret” lives people in the sex trade are read and critiqued by members of those very same communities. Gone are the days where sociologists can effectively pretend that they speak for “silenced” or “silent” groups of people. The people who were once described as “deviant”, the drug users, the prostitutes, the “queers”, all the people whose communities were once considered a “playground” to provide the “raw materials” for academic research—the “gift that kept on giving” according to Sudhir— are not and in fact have never been compliant and silent.

SWOP-NYC and SWANK—two organizations lead by sex workers and their allies in the NYC area—have significant questions about the “research” carried out by Sudhir Venkatesh. In January 2011 members of our organizations were shocked to read a piece by Venkatesh in Wired Magazine. Here he made many outlandish, salacious, and false claims about the experiences of sex workers in NYC including suggestions that sex workers “always” carry “extra panties” with them to sell to men as souvenirs and that escorts “keep working to pay for clothes and shoes” even though they are “beaten, twice a year on average”.

We wondered about veracity of Venkatesh “findings”—he said he had “followed” 270 sex worker subjects in NYC but none of our membership had ever been contacted by him nor knew of anyone who had been—so we carefully examined the investigations he said he had done with sex workers over a ten year period. We found that his “research history” simply did not add up. Claims in articles online, in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and on the Freakonomics blog regarding the dates, locations and numbers of people in his research were wildly inconsistent. His conclusions, for example about large numbers sex workers advertising on Facebook, were easily shown by other researchers and commentators to be incorrect. Other conclusions such as the fiction that “there’s usually a 25% surcharge” to have sex without a condom not only bore no relationship to reality but also endangered sex workers and public health programs working with them.

 We were so concerned by what we uncovered that in October 2011we wrote a letter to the Columbia IRB to the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (IRB) and to the Sociology Department asking for some clarity about Sudhir Venkatesh’s research. Specifically, we asked for the research project titles, dates of research, and IRB approval numbers for each of the years he claimed to have conducted research while at Columbia University. We also wished to make Columbia University’s IRB and the Sociology Department aware of that the research appeared to create additional harms and risks for sex workers in the New York area. Our action is an example of the degree to which communities of sex workers have organized and the degree to which we will question research that we find harmful. We are no longer a “gift that keeps on giving” for Venkatesh, we are a community that speaks for itself.

 But clearly we need to educate the media more about this issue. It is not so much our worry that respected publications such as The Guardian and Mother Jones have seemingly accepted that Venkatesh’s current book has some validity—though we certainly encourage these and other media outlets to be more diligent in terms of speaking to the communities supposedly “spoken” for by Venkatesh in the future—it is that Venkatesh’s whole body of work regarding sex work and other informal economies is bankrupt. And Venkatesh is simply an extreme example of an older form of sensationalist, inaccurate “research” which is becoming less and less relevant in the world today. People in the sex trade have done their own research—excellent examples are community based research by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project and the Alliance for Safe and Diverse DC—and new relationships based on mutual respect after some soul-searching about the impact of power differentials on “the researched” are now emerging all across the United States. This is the real story we wish would be covered in the media if journalists can wean themselves off from the tantalizing (yet completely fallacious) fantasy sold by people like Venkatesh.

“there is no denying us our rights”: A conversation with Cris Sardina of Desiree Alliance

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Cris Sardina, photo by PJ Starr (2010)

Cris Sardina, photo by PJ Starr (2010)

Cris Sardina is a co-coordinator of the Desiree Alliance along with Sharmus Outlaw. She had just had a chance to watch A Kiss for Gabriela this week at her current home base in Tucson, Arizona and was most inspired by Gabi’s contention that “we cannot build a movement hiding under the table.” Cris first got involved in sex worker rights organizing in 2006 after attending the very first Desiree Conference. She has worked her way from the community’s grassroots to coordinate one of the US movement’s best known organizations and describes herself as “one of the people that Desiree Alliance represents.” The Desiree Alliance held its fifth conference in July 2013—The Audacity of Health—in Las Vegas.

A Kiss for Gabriela: how was the conference?

Cris: Organizing a national conference was an enormous learning process. It you were to have asked me in 2010 when I was involved in Desiree committees that I would learn how to organize the entire conference, I probably would not have believed it. But Desiree gave me the opportunity to take the lead. We had terrific organizing team, and this year we had more people of color in organizing positions and as lead organizers.

During the week of the conference, I didn’t get to see the whole picture. I was behind the scenes, speaking to management at the hotel, and working to make sure that people had what they needed. But when I did take a breather, I saw attendees talking, laughing and enjoying one another, in deep discussion, starting new connections and renewing old friendships.

Kiss: what were some of the issues discussed during the conference?

Cris: We had an outpouring of applications to present at the conference and we had to create more panels to ensure that key issues were represented. We had a great deal of interest in discussing the impact of anti-trafficking campaigns. This is not a new issue for sex workers but people are now getting more involved in analyzing the nature of anti-trafficking initiatives because much anti-trafficking work is really harming US sex workers. For example, I coordinated a panel with speakers Emi Koyama and Suzi Q that described these issues in detail making connections with the impact of race, class and migrant status in terms of how trafficking discourses affect communities of people in the sex trade. The conference agenda started out with a full day session on anti-racism/anti-oppression. We had a lot of good feedback about how this set the tone of the conference and we incorporated AR/AO throughout the conference via caucuses.

An important part of sex worker rights organizing is community building and community care. During the conference we planned safe spaces, so people could go, chill out and connect. We offered a “whores bath,” massages, facials, yoga and swag bags. And the entire conference included comprehensive childcare because our kids are also part of who we are. During meal times, the kids came into the conference space from the childcare room and sat at their own table, they were included. Including our kids reinforces in us that we are human beings—we have children and families—it is part of our rights based agenda to defend our right to be parents. 

Kiss: where is organizing heading now that the conference is over?

Cris: I am looking forward to seeing where the momentum of the conference leads us. A lot of people said the conference was life-changing for them, as it was life changing for me in 2006. With social media we can continue our discussions and focus on the different regions of the US. Sex worker rights work is intersectoral. We are going to delve more into transgender issues, to coalition build with trans and male sex worker communities. Our work is deeply for social justice in its most unifying form. By this I mean that our activism is much broader than sex work, yet the reason we are fighting on these broader fronts is because these issues are affecting sex workers.

Kiss: Is there anything else that you would like to explain to an international audience about organizing in the US?

Cris: We are fighting everything and on all fronts… criminalization, trafficking laws, we are fighting on every social injustice issue and we are still are relatively small movement with a lot of need for support. We need our national and international allies. I would like to tell the world that we can and will get a lot accomplished. If we continue the way we are going, there is no denying us our rights.

 

highlights from Desiree 2013 (Viva Las Vegas)

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In light of recent debates in Brazil over the rights of sex workers to keep “rights in health” campaigns, spending July 14 to 19, 2013 at the 5th Desiree Alliance conference was inspirational. The conference focused in on health rights reclaiming and claiming the “audacity of health” through “sex work, health and politics.” During the week conference participants spontaneously organized a demonstration on the Las Vegas strip publicly protesting violence against sex workers in the name of Petite Jasmine (a sex worker  murdered by her ex, after a battle over custody of their children) and Dora Ozer (a young transgender woman murdered by an abuser who posed as a client).

In her keynote speech opening the conference Miss Major reminded the crowd of hundreds attending the conference that transgender communities are most subject to policing and are most disenfranchised from services. Prisons tear trans families and communities apart and this must end.  Activists from California and Arizona hosted a standing room only panel and community discussion of how sex workers approach parenting, find love and build families that resist stigma and challenge the kinds of violence that took Petite Jasmine’s life. Persist Health Project out of New York city presented new emerging harm reduction approaches organized by a community health partnership, staffed by people with experience in the sex trade and their committed allies. We learned about a new network of service providers in Chicago, building on the excellent work of the NYC PROS Network.

The conference seamlessly meshed activism and art, with the arts track showing a wide variety of films including A Kiss for Gabriela. Latinas were out in force for our discussion and to send Gabriela this special kiss.


YouTube

 

Audacious sex workers arrive in Las Vegas

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Members of the Kiss for Gabriela team are packing their bags and heading to Las Vegas this week for the 5th Desiree Alliance conference, the Audacity of Health: Sex Work, Health and Politics.

A Kiss for Gabriela will be screening on Wednesday July 17 at 5.30 pm, and we will be collecting a whole bunch of new kisses for Gabi at the screening. There is still time to register for the conference, but hurry, you don’t want to miss the panels, the parties and the organizing for rights.

“we never gave up our power”: a conversation with Naomi Sayers

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Naomi Sayers is an Indigenous feminist from the Garden River First Nations, just east of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, who has also worked as a sex worker in the north of Canada. Naomi shared with A Kiss for Gabriela that some of her current work advocating for the rights of Indigenous people in the sex trade springs from a 2012 workshop organized by the sex worker organization Maggie’s in Toronto on public education and challenging stigma. After attending the workshop, Naomi started telling her own story using her own words and sharing about her own experiences in sex work, challenging the messages she had heard for so many years from authority figures–counselors, doctors, nurses, and the justice system–that indigenous women are victims and incapable of deciding what is right for them. Below are some of her thoughts on deconstructing the stigma that comes with sex work or being a sex worker, especially being an Indigenous sex worker. Other resources, including Naomi’s historical analysis of the policing of Indigenous peoples in Canada via anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking legislation, are available here. Naomi blogs on many issues at Kwe Today (Kwe means woman in Anishinaabemowin, her indigenous language).

A Kiss For Gabriela: What are the key issues for the communities of Indigenous people in sex work?

Naomi: There are so many complex issues that surround the experiences of Indigenous sex workers. I can’t speak for all Indigenous sex workers, but I can speak on some issues such as racism, prejudice, and negative stereotypes. It is these issues that need to be addressed when talking about the rights of Indigenous people, and not just in the sex trade, but in any context. Once we address the racism that is almost inherent to some organizational values, practices, or policies, then we might be able to adequately address the rights, or lack thereof, of Indigenous people.

The major issue for the community of Indigenous people in sex work is, therefore, racism. At the root of this racism exists colonialism. Colonial systems and institutions penetrate Indigenous peoples lives on a daily basis and are still prevalent today. Colonialism is not a thing of the past. Resisting colonialism isn’t anything new either. Resistance against colonialism has been occurring since colonialism began. We don’t name racism for the sake of our own being because we already know it exists and it still occurs today, even among the most developed institutions or individuals. We call it out because it is a part of colonialism. You cannot have one without the other, and the two are still present today.

A Kiss For Gabriela: How are Indigenous sex workers organizing for their rights?

Naomi: Organizations that are doing work with respect to Indigenous sex workers’ rights include Maggie’s in Toronto, POWER in Ottawa, and a myriad of other sex work organizations in Canada. A couple of other organizations that come to mind are the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) and Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS). The work that they do around addressing colonialism is amazing! They have been actively involved in the recent Bedford case supporting sex workers through statements on the NYSHN site and FSIS has supported the decriminalization of the trade through their presence at protests and via presentations. NYSHN has been particularly proactive in deconstructing conservative anti-human trafficking discourses, prioritizing self-determination and that groups or individuals speak for themselves rather than being spoken for. All the organizations mentioned here have collaborated to create an excellent tool box  promoting “what works for sex workers” in terms of rights-based services, advocacy, and community building.

A Kiss For Gabriela: Are there any misconceptions about Indigenous sex workers that come up again and again? And how can these be de-constructed!

Naomi: We need to challenge this colonialist ideal is that Indigenous people, especially women and girls, are victims and that we need to be saved, not from society but from our own selves. Additionally, there is the whole image that we are alcoholics or substance abusers, and according to this stigmatizing portrayal, we are incapable of making life choices. These misconceptions are rampant within the media. Kristin Gilchrist, co-founder of FSIS, has explored the media representations of Indigenous women and concluded that, “ if a victim is judged to have deviated from patriarchal notions of appropriate feminine behavior by drinking/using drugs, dressing provocatively (or not conservatively), and especially if she engages in sex for money, she is likely to be constructed as, at least partially, responsible for violence against her” and that “Aboriginal, the women were labeled as “high‐risk,” implying that violence occurred because women put themselves at risk because of their bad choices.”  Again, at the heart of these images exist racism, prejudices, and negative stereotypes, and naming the misconceptions for what they are, racism, we can begin to deconstruct them. It is about turning the colonial lens and perspective back onto the colonizer. It is taking back the power of labeling and defining one’s experiences. Perhaps more accurately, it is about taking away the perceived power that the colonizer assumes for him/herself to accomplish his/her own individual/institutional goals. And, I emphasize perceived because we never gave up our power to begin with!

Whore Logic tonight (in the District of Columbia)

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Is it possible for a whore to be a happy self respecting intellectual? This question will be answered tonight as our good friend The Incredible, Edible, Akynos presents “Whore Logic” at the Art Center in Washington D.C. (1231 Good Hope Road SE)  as part of the DC Black Theater Festival. The burlesque performance, incorporating spoken-word pieces, is a semi-autobiographical tale about being a woman at the mercy of society’s narrow views about the expression of female sexuality, how it pertains to intelligence and happiness, and what it means to be a victim of abuse. During the performance The Incredible, Edible, Akynos will ponder how race and class impact the experience of this woman who is on a journey to discover the “joy of using her pussy for power, [and] to pay her rent.” Whore Logic is part of The Incredible, Edible, Akynos’ campaign to dismantle negative perceptions of sex work and to challenge the notion that the work is easy and mindless. Akynos’ asertion that it is possible to be a “happy hooker” while challenging a “sexually repressed society” resonates with the approach used by Brazilian sex workers as described by Gabriela Leite in our video archive (these videos and more are also included as “extras” on the Kiss for Gabriela DVD).

Tickets for tonight’s show are available at http://www.eventbrite.com/event/6554678219, and Akynos asks that the public remember that “Whore Logic” is an adults-only performance beginning promptly at 9 pm. Those wishing to get a taste of the show can view the preview for one of the show’s successful runs in HollywoodFor more information on just how incredible and edible Akynos is, and to keep up to date with performances, news and events, visit her website, follow her on Twitter @akynos, and ‘Like’ her on Facebook.protest campaign APPS

Two Victories for Sex Workers’ Rights: The anti-prostitution pledge declared unconstitutional and condoms can no longer be used as evidence of prostitution in New York

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This past Friday, June 20th , was a historic day for sex workers’ rights. The Supreme Court of the United States, in a decision of 6-2, ruled that the anti-prostitution pledge, or anti-prostitution loyalty oath, violated the First Amendment of the United States constitution. On the same day, the “No Condoms as Evidence” bill passed in the New York State Assembly, meaning that condoms can no longer be used as evidence of prostitution-related offenses. Both of these decisions are an outcome of years of sex worker activism, in the United States and in Brazil.

The history of the anti-prostitution pledge, and sex workers’ fights against it, dates back to 2003. The pledge was a clause in the 2003 United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act (legislation that authorized the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – PEPFAR –  funding), and required that any organization receiving money from the United States government  have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution.   In addition to further stigmatizing, disrespecting, and marginalizing sex workers, the clause also went against scientific evidence and NGOs’ best practices that had proven the importance of involving sex workers as equal partners in HIV prevention – one of the cornerstones of the Brazilian model in the early 2000s (something recent events here show has changed drastically).

At the time the clause was passed, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was implementing a large HIV prevention project in Brazil in partnership with the Brazilian government and NGOs, including several sex worker rights organizations in the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes. The Network led a large and successful mobilization against the clause, and in June 2005, Brazil received wide-spread international attention for being the only country worldwide to take a strong political stance and publically refuse to follow the policy, thereby rejecting over $40 million dollars of restricted USAID funding for HIV prevention.  Sex worker activism against the clause and its ramifications continued internationally in the years that followed, and earlier this year, Gabriela highlighted the importance of the fighting against the clause as one of the main ways that people could support the sex workers rights movement in the video filmed for the documentary DVD.

The court case challenging the constitutionality of the pledge was led by the Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., Pathfinder International, InterAction, and Global Health Council in 2005 – all groups that had worked for years in HIV prevention in partnership with sex workers.  The case challenged the pledge as violating their rights under the First Amendment, and argued that it had serious public health implications by obligating organizations to have discriminatory and counter-productive policies to HIV prevention. The Court’s decision however only applies to organizations based in the United States – organizations receiving US government in other countries would still need to adhere to the clause to receive funding.

The passage of the No Condoms as Evidence Bill in New York also represents an important step forward for HIV prevention and sex workers rights. Prostitution is illegal in the state, and up until this past Friday, condoms could be used as evidence of prostitution-related offenses. The bill was introduced by Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Assembly Member Barbara Clark and supported by a coalition of over 70 organizations.  For the past several years, sex worker rights groups in New York have advocated for its passage,  and produced research showing the  negative effects of the policy on sex workers’ rights and health.  In the statement from the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition (available here) celebrating the bill’s passage, Audacia Ray, of the Red Umbrella Project, stated “As a former sex worker and a current advocate, I welcome the passage of bill A2736…Many community organizations use the free NYC condom program, but increasingly people in the communities we serve are not taking advantage of free condoms because they fear that they will be stopped and frisked, and that condoms will be used against them.”

The removal of policies and practices that violated sex workers’ rights and went against both scientific research and effective HIV prevention programs is a victory worth celebrating. May these be the first steps away from conservative and criminal policies that have dominated discussions on prostitution and towards policies that promote sex workers’ rights as protagonists not only in HIV prevention, but also of their lives.

Thank you to Carlos Laudari,  Senior HIV Prevention Consultant at Pathfinder International,  for information on the case and resource suggestions in English.

Additional Resources:

Read the breaking story in Beijo da Rua about the pledge

Broader implications of the Supreme Court decision in terms of free speech

US Press:  New York Times, Washington Post

Center for Health and Gender Equity 2008 policy brief

Network of Sex Work Projects statement on the case (April 2013)

 

Support the actions of Brazilian sex workers from anywhere in the world

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There are many ways to support sex workers in Brazil who are fighting the Brazilian government’s decision in early June 2013 to first veto and then drastically alter an HIV prevention campaign that had been developed by the Department of STD/AIDS/Ministry of Health in partnership with sex workers earlier this year. After abruptly ordering the rights based materials to be taken offline the government relaunched the campaign with sanitized and adulterated materials several days later. The government  removed slogans about rights, citizenship, and positive affirmations of the profession from all campaign materials replacing them with fear based messages such as, “AIDS still has no cure” and leaving only slogans that refer to condom use.

Sex workers in Brazil have released statements critisizing the government’s actions both as separate NGOs and in a powerful joint statement from the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes. Davida’s newspaper, Beijo da Rua,  today has reported that the sex workers that appeared in the campaign are sending cease and desist letters to the Ministry of Health revoking their releases for using their images and demanding the immediate suspension of the campaign materials in which they appear. The Ministry has now taken the campaign offline, and the fight continues to request that the Minister be forced to resign, and demand that prostitutes’ voices be heard and respected.

International pressure is incredibly important and effective in swaying political decisions. Activists and allies around the world can help support Brazilian sex workers actions:

Protest Campaigns Made by Brazilian Prostitutes in Response to Censorship

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“I’m happy being a prostitute. Down with censorship in Brazil! We exist! Equal rights for all professions.”

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“I’m happy being a prostitute. Down with censorship in Brazil! We exist! Equal rights for all professions.”

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“I’m happy being a prostitute. Down with censorship in Brazil! We exist! Equal rights for all professions.”

cartaz-apps sou feliz

“I’m happy bring a prostitute. I’m a citizen, and I only do it with condoms.”

 

 

 

Fighting Back: Beijo da Rua reports powerful response to censorship from prostitutes involved in HIV prevention campaign

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Today, Davida’s newspaper, Beijo da Rua,  reported an exciting turn of events in the protests and mobilization against the Minister of Health’s decision to veto and then drastically alter the HIV prevention campaign for prostitutes: sex workers involved in the campaign will send cease and desist letters to the Ministry of Health, revoking their releases and demanding the immediate suspension of the posters with their images. In their letters, prostitutes “allege radical changes in the original campaign, which rather than privilege confronting stigma and prejudice as a STD and AIDS prevention strategy, only focus on incentivizing condom use, (thereby) transforming it into a sanitized and decontextualized campaign'”. The story quotes Luzarina, who appears in the campaign and is also the Coordinator of the Paraiba Prostitutes Association (APROSPB) in João Pessoa: “I went one week without working to participate in this workshop, thinking that it would construct something new that would contribute to all of us, and today, I am embarrassed of the result.” She continued that, “I am a citizen and whore and I have the right to express my feelings. I am happy being a prostitute.”  Need they say anything more?

 

Source:  www.beijodarua.com.br

Please see earlier posts on this blog for more information about censored campaign.