LGBT and Civil Liberties Advocates Denounce Arrests of Rentboy.com Staff ,
Call for Dropping Charges and Decriminalization of Sex Work, Rally
Sept. 3rd, Noon, Federal Court in Brooklyn
In the last few months, conversations about sex work have been everywhere. Over the summer, we traveled through Spain and Portugal, where sex work and drugs, are decriminalized. Consequently, demand for illegal drugs seems to have plummeted as the state has moved from policing to framing the issue in terms of public health. If only we could do the same thing with sex work, moving it away from the moralists and police toward questions about labor safety.
It’s a question that runs through Melinda Chateavert’s Sex Workers Unite! A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk (see review below). And it runs through today’s new sex wars.
Sadly, today’s debate about sex work features too few of the voices of those from the front lines making decisions about their work and needs. Yet, the conversation takes place in contested terrain. Some see this as contested labor, others as a form of exploitation (especially when related to kids). Yet, over again the debate lacks the voices of these workers, with police and moralists setting too many of the terms of debate. “Nothing about us, without us,” is the slogan of the sex worker blog Bound, Not Gagged.
Over the last few years, raids have moved from the streets to the internet, where adds on Craig’s list and other spaces have been shuttered.
And then, came the raid of Rentboy.com, when the debate made the mainstream. As one worker suggested, “Rentboy.com was closed because the government thinks I need to be saved.” David explained:
few people have ever assumed that my choice to engage in sex work was anything other than a choice – that is, until the US government rounded up the staff at Rentboy.com, claiming that they were an “internet brothel” exploiting poor, stupid sex workers like me.
Rentboy was hardly “prostituting” me: not only did they offer community and peer-to-peer support to sex workers, but they offered us practical assistance through workshops on, for example, how to secure health care and how to file taxes. In August, they even launched a scholarship program for young men who were escorting in order to pay for school loans and other debts incurred in the pursuit of higher-education.
Last month, delegates from Amnesty International voted to support a policy that calls for decriminalization of the sex trade – including prostitution, payment for sex, and brothel ownership. After two years of research and consultation with its members, Amnesty concluded that decriminalization is the best way to reduce risks for sex workers. The organization contends that criminalizing sex work exposes male and female sex workers to arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, and physical and sexual violence – and that those results are far more dangerous and harmful than simply engaging in commercial sex work.
And rather than making us criminals – and criminalizing and eliminating the support systems that improve our safety and security – if the goal is to end sexual trafficking, then decriminalizing the work of Rentboy, as well as men and women like me, will free-up law enforcement resources to prosecute real traffickers and protect real victims.
As a grown man, capable of making thoughtful decisions about my own life, I should not be placed at risk of jail for choosing to be an escort. Nor should the men and women at Rentboy.com now risk jail and penalty because they sought to support me and my work. It’s long past time for government to engage sex workers and their supporters in an adult conversation about decriminalizing sex work, rather than an activist conversation about prostitution without us.
As my friend John Welch, explains: "There are so many different kinds of sex work. Some is coerced or forced and some is not. When people claim that every sex worker is exploited or victimized, they patronize and disempower people. People have the right to use their bodies as they want--bottom line--whether others think that use is a form of self-abuse or not. Sex work needs to be outside of the context of law enforcement. Law enforcement should focus on people who force others to do anything against their will."
A few days after the amazing ACT UP town hall about the STD Clinic Closure in Chelsea, I attended a rally decrying the arrests at Rentboy.com.
A few days after the amazing ACT UP town hall about the STD Clinic Closure in Chelsea, I attended a rally decrying the arrests at Rentboy.com.
LGBT and Civil Liberties Advocates Denounce Arrests of Rentboy.com Staff ,
Call for Dropping Charges and Decriminalization of Sex Work
RALLY: Thurs., Sept. 3rd, Noon, Federal Court in Brooklyn
New York--LGBT activists, civil rights organizations, the HookUp Collaborative and supporters will hold a demonstration this Thursday, Sept. 3rd, at Noon outside the U.S. Eastern District Courthouse in downtown Brooklyn to demand that the U.S. Attorney stop the prosecution of Rentboy.com and drop all charges after the raid on them by Homeland Security and NYPD.
We are outraged at this latest example of the abuse and selective prosecution of sex workers. We are sick and tired of this misuse of government time and money to persecute members of the sex industry. This unrelenting harassment and persecution endangers the health and safety of these workers and their clients, and disproportionately targets the poor and people of color. We demand an end to this system of criminalization.
BACKGROUND: With offices near Manhattan’s Union Square, Rentboy.com, a nearly two-decade-old website for male escorts, was raided on Aug. 25, 2015 by Homeland Security agents in concert with NYPD. The US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Mr. Kelly T. Currie, is prosecuting seven individuals for felonies in a high-profile case that quickly drew criticism around the country including from the New York Times editorial board. The call for the decriminalization of sex work has just been made by Amnesty International, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and the Transgender Law Center. Decriminalization has previously been called for by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the UN Development Programme, UN Women, and UNAIDS.
WHAT: Demonstration to protest Rentboy.com prosecutions and criminalization of sex work
WHEN: Thursday, September 3, 2015 at 12 noon
WHERE: United States Court for the Eastern District, 225 Cadman Plaza East (on Cadman Plaza Park near corner of Tillary Street; take A or C to High Street or 2 or 3 to Clark St. in Brooklyn Heights). See map here
Arriving, Bill Dobbs, one of the veterans of SexPanic!, a late 1990’s New York City sexual civilliberties group, was on hand, giving interviews. The panic over sex and bodies seems to bubble up to the surface every few years about sex,civil liberties, and how much difference of expression our democracy can tolerate.
“Is that a gun in your hand or are you happy to see me!” chimed Mark Milano, referring to the policeman with a gun, overseeing the rally.
|Shots of the author with Jim Fouratt and interviewing Randy Wicker. Photos by Erik McGregor.|
I greeted my friend Jim Fouratt, who has been part of these battles for a long time.
“You have the best sign,” he explained. We chatted about why he was here. As he explained on a post on facebook.
I carried the Gay Liberation Front banner in the decrimalize sex work demo in front of the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn because controlling one's own body was /is a core value in GLF the first multi-issue post Stonewall progressive political organization. Controlling ones body is not just a sex work issue ..What consenting adults do with their own body is their own business Not the State, not the City , not Homeland Security, not the local officials , not the police unless someone is harmed As to the Rentboy.comraid and arrest let me be clear. I don't care who you are or what good you think your service is doing, if you don't pay your fair share of taxes this can and should happen. No sex worker has been arrested as of today. This is important to state ... so far.. and we should all remain vigilant to make sure no one does unless they were one of the 7 actual employees working in a non-sex worker position at Rentboy. . Employees in this raid should be let free unless the are charged with a serious crime and or aiding and abetting the owner and his business partners in laundering money and/or evading taxes . (think Martha Stewart) . Their are important question to duscuss: .. Is prostitution estimable? Does the high cost of living make sex work more viable a survival job for young people, artists or students who are poor? Complex questions .
My friend Randy Wicker, a veteran activists who joined Mattachine Society in 1958, was on hand, carrying a sign of his friend, trans icon Marsha P Johnson.
“We should not have minor arrests for pot or sex work,” he explained. “They are never wiped clean of your record. You get arrested and you cop a plea. And you don’t get bail. But the case follows you for a lifetime. I know a man arrested for hustling, coped a plea and the arrest popped up on a background check when he was applying for a job eighteen years later. You plea guilty to get out. But you are getting marked. No student loans. Does anyone know why they did this raid?” he asked. “To me its the biggest waste of tax payer resources I have ever seen. They are cleaning up the town. Now its too clean.”
Others on hand would suggest the city was cracking down on sex work in anticipation of the pope’s visit.
“Sex workers rights are human rights,” chanted those in the picket line.
“I hustled on Hollywood Boulevard in 1959,” confessed Wicker. “I wanted to hang out in the coffee shops with the beats. I learned more that summer than I ever learned at University of Texas. They put you through hell if you are caught. I wanted to get a job after that. Inspector Seymour Pine, who lead the raid at Stonewall, said sex workers and queers are easy targets.”
Jack Waters, of Petit Versailles Community Garden, was marching with his partner Peter. He explained why he was here.
“I’m here to support human rights and to oppose the criminal targeting of sexual minorities, the scapegoating of queer identity, using queer sexuality as a perceived weak point of human liberty.”
“Sex worker rights are human rights,” reverberated through the air.
“You cannot spell homeland with ‘ho’” others retorted, adding a little sartorial splendor to the moment.
“Sex expression is free speech.!”
“Keep your laws off my body,” other chanted, an anarcho libertarian sensibility, pulsing through the crowd.
“I’m here to denounce the raid and the attack on queer sex workers,” noted AIDS activist Michael Tikili This discussion of decriminalization is a conversation that is long overdue. Criminalization puts us all at risk.” He suggested that this rally was an extension of ACT UP’s work fighting the epidemic. “We cannot stop AIDS epidemic without decriminalizing sex work. All these issues intersect,” he followed, noting this is just one part of a larger inter sectional analysis needed to get to the root of these problems.
“Lookout kids, here come the whores,” chimed in Bizzy Barefoot. “This is a subject that that is close to my heart and on all sorts of levels, many listed on this sign,” noted Barefoot, a radical faery in New York.
Finishing the rally Andy Humm and Bill Dobbs pulled everyone in for a circle.
“Its great to be with Randy Wicker, who built a community of sexual minorities,” noted Dobbs. He noted there are countless arrests each year for this. Its all part of an ongoing war on sex. There are arrests on cruisers in Prospect Park where there is no money involved. Yet, the buck stops with mayor. Today, AIDS, homeless, public space, and sexual civil liberties activists are worried the mayor is emulating Rudy Giuliani in his aggressive policing of public space, threats to close pedestrian plazas on 42nd street because of topless women, shut health clinics, and crack down on homelessness.
Randy Wicker was standing giving another interview. “Its just universal discrimination,” he explained, referring to the raid. “Discrimination against trans people, who cannot find other work. You run away from home and come to New York and find there are 12 beds for runaway LGBT youth,” who become homeless. He recalled his rebel friend’s Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, who coped with these struggles for years.
“No jobs, no bed, literally forced into the streets. Then you do a background check years later and the arrest is still there. In today’s digital world it lasts forever.”
So today, more and more people are speaking out about the need to stop the arrests, to decriminalize this work.
“I’ve never seen so many men come out to show their rage about the treatment of sex worker,” noted De De, who was standing wearing a Margo St James “outlaw poverty, not prostitution” t shirt.
Sex Work, Public Space and the Transformation of Streets
The struggle is anything but new. For many, its about work. As Melinda Chateavert, Carisa R Showden, Samantha Majic and Emma Goldman point out.
In the first chapter of her autobiography, Living My Life, Emma Goldman recalls
hearing the news that the Haymarket Martyrs had been executed: “The terrible
thing everyone feared, yet hoped would not happen, actually occurred. Extra
editions of the Rochester papers carried the news: the Chicago anarchists had been
hanged!” recalled Goldman. Despairing, Goldman went to bed. She woke the next
day, as if “from a long illness, but free from the numbness and the depression of
those harrowing weeks of waiting, ending with the final shock.” Her world had
changed and so had she.
I had a distinct sensation that something new and wonderful had been born in my
soul. A great ideal, a burning faith, a determination to dedicate myself to the
memory of my martyred comrades, to make their cause my own, to make known to
the world their beautiful lives and heroic deaths.1
Goldman saw the plight of the anarchists martyrs as her plight and cause. She
saw other exploited workers and freedom fighters in the same way. Outsiders
were marginalized by the state, yet Goldman pushed back. In the subsequent
years, she connected workers’ rights with the struggles for autonomy of bodies
from the state, noting that sweatshop workers received $6 per week, an average
wage of $280 per year. Under such conditions, why would anyone be surprised at
the specter of sex work, Goldman (who briefly worked the trade) ponders. For
Goldman, such labor is, “the direct result, in many cases, of insufficient
compensation of honest labor.”2 It functions as the only way out of a second-class
life as a sweatshop worker, a mistress or a servant. After suggesting that there was
no difference between marriage and prostitution, the U.S. government deported
her to Russia. Soon enough, she became disillusioned and began writing similarly
scathing indictments of the revolution. The Soviets deported her. In subsequent
years, her writing and activism explored the links between anarchism, labor
history, and a gay liberation activist project connecting the women’s movement,
sex work, and a line of thinking that would later be described as queer theory. For
Goldman, sex work was contested labor. So, she and future generation of sexual
civil liberties activists connected it with battles for public space, struggles against
capitalism, and global justice activism, opening up a space for engagement
between social theory and queer activist social knowledge. Countless others have
built on Goldman’s writings about the meanings of sex work.
Over and over, competing narratives shape a tension between those who view
the practice as autonomous work and those who view it as exploited labor, among
those with or without choice, active agents or victims. Borrowing from Nancy
Hartsock, we ask from which standpoint we should consider studies of sex work.
Race, gender, and class help shape what we see and how we see reality. Marx has
argued that in capitalism, there are two basic viewpoints: those who own and
those who do not—determining who are dominant and who are subordinated.
Dominant groups have no interest in knowing what is around them. Subordinate
groups, on the other hand, must have double vision so they can see both their own
realities and those of the dominant group. Standpoint theory helps us to see two
things: the importance of location and of consciousness. From which standpoint or
perspective can and should we see sex work?
Melinda Chateavert, author of Sex Workers Unite!, and the contributors to
Negotiating Sex Work, edited by Showden and Majic, all firmly suggest it should be
seen from a materialist perspective as a form of labor—that the practice is both an
act of free will and very difficult, sometimes exploitative work. Each rejects
representations of sex workers in terms trafficking, favoring of views of sex
workers with agency. Yet, the authors could have worked to more carefully
distinguish between someone moving to San Francisco after college and making
some extra money and the kid in India forced into the business as a child.
Certainly there is exploitation of sex workers, like all workers the authors
acknowledge, but Showden and Majic reject “the totality of that framework. This
contest is necessary given the near stranglehold that the trafficking and
victimization framework have on public policy making,” (p.xv). All too often
policy designs have “favored efforts to ‘rescue’ women” note Showden and Majic.
“This is most apparent in the United States, which is leading global efforts against
human trafficking” (p.xviii). The result is an array of unintended consequences
and policy formations. Hence the subtitle of their study. For example, the authors
quote Barnard Sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, who points a “coalition of strange
bedfellows” among “abolitionist feminists and religious groups” formed to “lead
these efforts . . . securing a growing proportion of federal monies for both
international anti-trafficking work” (p.xviii-xix). A “global gag” rule, restricting
programs which supported sex work and harmreduction accompanied the policy.
The impact was far reaching. Health care activists and public health officials
argued this “global gag rule” impeded HIV/AIDS prevention work by requiring
those funded by the Global AIDS Act to explicitly condemn sex work and
trafficking, thereby limiting the range of service providers, restricting those who
support evidence-based interventions, such as harm reduction (p. xix). Indeed, the
policy represents a flashpoint in a decades-long sex war among feminists.
Subverting the victim/whore debate, the various authors collected in the
Showden and Majic volume call for “a new model of knowledge production,”
(p. xxiv) favoring the voices of sex workers themselves as active agents
challenging social mores, prudery, and hypocrisy, changing cities, supporting
broad-based social movements, and helping redefine norms of public and private
space. In this respect, their efforts are successful, although the papers in the
collection would have been stronger if they focused more directly on the
complicated conflation of sex work and “trafficking.”
The best essays in Negotiating Sex Work turn to the voice of sex workers
themselves. For example, Valerie Feldman, in “Sex Work Politics and the
Internet,” quotes Bound, Not Gagged, a sex worker blog aiming at pushing the
voices of sex workers into public discourse: “Nothing about us, without us”
(p. 243). Gregor Call draws attention to a generation of sex worker advocates,
labor organizers, sexual civil liberties activists, such as Gall off Your Tired Old
Ethics (COYOTE) and the Exotic Dancers’ Alliance that have forced changes in
laws and organizational arrangements for sex workers (p.224). Some formed
unions arguing for labor rights, others called for cultural changes and rights-based
supports for sex workers. “Our Convention is Different, we want everyone to
COME,” noted a poster by Margo St James at the COYOTE “Hooker’s
Convention” of 1974 (Chateavert, p.78). In sum, both books show how activists
and sex workers themselves have changed laws and social mores.
The central claim of Chateavert’s Sex Workers Unite! is that sex workers have
been at the forefront of social justice movements for the past fifty years,
simultaneously building a movement that challenged ways of thinking about sex,
work, labor, freedom, autonomy, and urban space. FromEmma Goldman to Margo
St James, Carole Lee to Riot Grrrl and Slutwalk, this movement has linked
conversations about sex work with broad-based, universalizing discourses
favoring worker and human rights while challenging capitalism, sex phobia,
and sexual violence. Emma Goldman suggested that most everyone has sold
themselves in one form or another, especially married women. Countless sex
workers have echoed this sentiment, pushing social movements from feminism to
gay liberation and HIV/AIDS to engage questions about sex work. Yet, their
entireties were not always welcomed. Focusing on Sylvia Rivera’s calls for
solidarity among sexual outsiders, queers, gender non-conformists, and sex
workers, Chateavert shows that over the years, many in the gay liberation
movement came to favor a politics of sameness, marriage, and sexual shame,
supporting whorephobia in the guise of respectability, “stigmatiz[ing] those who
trade sex for money or support” (p. 10). She continues to argue that this is
a type of sex panic that reflects deep seated belief that identity politics and civil
rights requires weeding out members for gender nonconformity, sexual deviancy,
and drug dependency . . .. Heroes must be noble and virtuous, worthy or acceptance
by straight America. But the LGBT movement should include sex worker because
many sex worker activists are queer and some queer activists support themselves
through sex work (p.10).
Still, a generation of sex workers had their impacts on this movement, helping to
create spaces where they found respect and dignity. “They want safe spaces that
respect all sex workers, no matter where or how they work, or their class, race,
gender, or sexuality,” notes Chateavert (P.19). For three decades Rivera and
company helped organize squats and public spaces for other homeless youth,
some of whom engaged in survivor sex, found common cause, a place to hang out,
and call home.
In the decade after Stonewall, COYOTE simultaneously fought unjust laws,
built social service programs, and arranged assistance by and for those in need.
They helped change social mores and pushed the feminist movement to see that
sex as pleasure was a rightful aim. Others resisted the charge, as sex wars raged.
Still sex work advocates expanded their pro-pleasure coalition, rejecting
paternalistic calls to rescue or save those involved, supporting notions of
women’s sexual freedom in the broadest terms. “It encouraged women to be
angry about whore stigma and slut shaming for pursuing sexual pleasure or
trading sex for money,” notes Chateavert (p.49). Margo St James told Rolling Stone
Magazine in 1974: “As a woman/whore, I feel equality will never be reached until
women’s sexuality ceases to be the source of our shame—until the men are forced
to stop their pussy patrols,” (p. 49). Unfortunately, those patrols did not stop. So
the movement challenged a criminal justice system which penalized women
involved, rather than the men committing far more insidious crimes from Wall
Street to K Street,with far more significant social and economic consequences. The
impacts of the sex worker movement were far reaching, with some eleven
countries legalizing prostitution. In so doing, it had created a movement based on
human rights and cultural politics which would sustain itself for decades to come.
Chateavert’s research into the history of the movement shows that by the 1990s, a
new cohort of activists would re-engage Goldman’s call for solidarity among
social outsiders, anarchists and sex workers, queers, and kinksters. “The people
perverted, will never be converted!” they chanted when the mayor pushed for a
new anti-sex zoning law to push public sexual culture, sex and sex workers from
New York’s streets. “Guiliani scared of sex, who’s he gonna censor next?!” sexual
civil liberties activists, including this writer, screamed, linking sex activism with
struggles for social justice and free expression. While the forces of censorship
formed strange bedfellows with developers, the prohibitionist rhetoric would not
last, as the naked city found its swagger again.
New York’s latest mayor has supported efforts to decriminalize prostitution,
reducing penalties and referring sex workers to social services rather than jails.
After all, while the USA still criminalizes the practice, the sex worker movement
has pointed out that “putting the blame on ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ excuses the
criminal justice system” while “allowing police to ignore violence” against sex
workers, women, Black men, Occupiers, and other outsiders (Chateavert, p.158).
By the 1990’s and 2000’s, women pushed against this trend, simultaneously aiding
cultural efforts, diy movements, and punk shows in support of women’s selfdefense,
and discursive efforts to transform the way the world looks at sex. “I’m a
slut and I vote. So does everyone I sleep with” declared a poster by Incite on
International Women’s Day 2012. Chants of “Politicians out of my poontang” and
“Keep your government off my pussy” could be heard outside the Democratic
National Convention in 2012 (Chateavert p. 184-5). Activists with the Riot Grrrl
movement made t-shirts and underwear declaring “Girls Kick Ass” and “Girls
Rule” Through flyers and zines, punk shows, memorials for sex workers, postapocalyptic
self-help sing-a-longs, and trainings, the movement created a space
which rejected both slut shaming and violence against women. “Girls constitute a
revolutionary soul force that can and will change the world for real,” charged the
Riot Grrrl Manifesto (Chateavert, p.200). Women walked each other home after
shows and pushed back against street harassment and pushed cities to change.
Between HIV/AIDS criminalization, violence against women and struggles for
public space, the movement has expanded beyond discussion of decriminalization
and prostitution-related laws, into broader conversations about the prison
industrial complex and multi-issue organizing. “In this millennium, activists in
the sex workers’ movement are involved in many issues: harm reduction, the
defense of public sex venues, the prison industrial complex, police violence,
immigration, homelessness, welfare “reform”, the war on drugs, labor organizing,
feminist porn, HIV/AIDS criminalization, hate crimes against gays and
transgender people, and anarchist and “lavender left politics,” argues Chateavert.
“Their work consistently crosses over the not-so-neat, identity-based categorizations
that once dominated Cold War civil rights struggles” (p. 206). Sex workers
understand that crackdowns on street people, on outsiders, overlap with a
neoliberal effort to colonize and blandify the city by pushing them to the margins,
sanitizing our streets of the pulse which makes them real and vital.
After all, Sex worker rights are human rights. Today, this frame has become a
central discourse of a sex work organizing. From Emma Goldman to Slutwalk,
Sylvia Rivera to Riot Grrrl, sex workers, their supports, and overlapping
movements have reminded the world that sex overlaps with social justice in
mutually reinforcing ways. Chateavert has brought us a pulsing study.
If you would like an, engaging narrative on the history of this movement, Sex
Workers Unite is that book. This highly readable narrative is a work without peer.
City Tech/CUNY, New York, USA
1Emma Goldman, Living My Life (NY:Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1931), 10.
2Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays (NY: Dover, 1969), 180.