michael j. morris


The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Yesterday evening I was honored to have the opportunity to participate in a vigil for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers at Femina Potens Art Gallery in San Francisco. In addition to being present for the vigil itself, I was honored to be included in a press conference preceding the event on behalf of my blog. I came to San Francisco to experience and write about Love Art Laboratory‘s current exhibit “Sexecology: Making Love With The Earth, Sky + Sea” (currently on display at Femina Potens). Although this vigil was not an official event of the Love Art Lab, I timed my trip in order to be present for this important cause. I am pleased to be able to contribute to the “press” surrounding the event.

I have considered and reconsidered how I might want to document this event, while still pertaining to what I consider to be the mission or creative platform of this blog. What makes the most sense to me is to relay what I found striking, what will stay with me, what I found to be of importance. This relates mostly to ideas, perspectives, and theories surrounding culture, violence, and sex work(ers). Statements or ideas may not always be credited to specific speakers; that was not the way in which I was engaging with the event. I won’t be detailing the rich history of this event or its spread and international implications (more can be read about the history and founding of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers here). Instead, I will offer ideas, quotes, and paraphrases that emanated from the community in attendance, while recognizing that any community is constructed from a complexity of intersubjectivity, a collection of individuals, and that any one of these ideas that have stayed with me originated in a specific individual even as it became expressive within and of the community.

I will briefly offer context. The gallery is a beautiful space, currently filled to the brim with work by Elizabeth M. Stephens and Annie M. Sprinkle (Love Art Lab) addressing sexecology (or ecosexuality). Chairs were set up facing the back corner of the gallery where there had been erected a simple altar for victims of violence against sex workers. Signs with provocative statistics surrounding violence in this industry/community, red prayer candles in memorial to specific victims, red umbrellas that would fulfill a further function later in the evening, and a collection of flowers comprised the altar. In attendance (introduced at the press conference) were Annie Sprinkle and co-hostess of the evening Kimberlee Cline, Madison Young, executive director of Femina Potens, and Carol Queen, noted sexologist, co-founder of the Center for Sex and Culture.

The press conference gave us the opportunity to hear and discuss issues surrounding sex work, violence against sex workers, the implications of violence throughout our cultural infrastructure, the complexities of the community which is identified as “sex workers,” and the relationship between the the movement for sex workers rights and the LGBT rights movement.

from left: Madison Young, Annie Sprinkle, Kimberlee Cline, Robyn Few, and Carol Queen

The vigil itself took the form of an informal ritual. Carol Queen opened the ritual with a stunning invocation honoring the Goddess, Her sexual power, creative potential, and presence. This invocation was followed by the reading of names of sex workers who have been murdered in 2009, read by hostesses Kimberlee Cline and Madison Young. This was a list of women, men, transgendered, and unidentified bodies, of all ages, from around the globe. After reading and honoring those who have been lost, the ritual shifted to an open mic for anyone who wanted to share or express. Some told stories, some offered poems, others shared their personal histories in sex work. Annie Sprinkle closed the ritual with guided breathing experience, breathing in the love and connectivity and support of this community and taking that into ourselves to bring back into the world. Having this vigil opened and closed in such sacred yet open and inclusive “liturgies” added a specific tone to the event, alluding to a kind of community practice that spans bodies and spirit, that contains space for our differences and diversity rather than being formulated on a sacredness that abjects/rejects an other as “profane.” This was to me significant in understanding both the extent of violence in our culture and the(a) form of resistance to this violence. The next phase of the vigil was a “solidarity stroll” from Femina Potens to St. James Infirmary, which provides “compassionate and non-judgemental healthcare and social services for all sex workers while preventing occupational illnesses and injuries through a comprehensive continuum of services.” Those of us participating carried the signs, candles and umbrellas that previously adorned the altar in the gallery. It had a sacred feel as we became the bearers of these implements, a mobile “altar” of human beings. It was also a time for community, people talking with one another, hearing one another’s stories, making connections with people who had previously been strangers. This was the conclusion to the vigil.

on the Solidarity Stroll

Emerging from this structure and community were so many profoundly relevant ideas and perspectives surrounding sex work and the culture in which it operates. To begin, there is the breadth of what sex work includes, and the complexity that such diversity entails. “Sex work,” as discussed throughout the evening, signifies professions including street prostitution, indoor prostitution and escort services, work in the porn industry, strippers, exotic dancing, erotic massage, etc. It includes professions in which sex, whatever its form, is, at least in part, that for which one is being paid. This diversity presents its own difficulties. During the press conference, Madison Young and Carol Queen discussed the tensions and divisions that can exist between these professional subsets held tenuously together under the umbrella of “sex work,” making a unified and cohesive politically activist community even more difficult. Rather than recognizing the similarities and affinities that may unite these professionals as the foundation of a coalitional political identity, emphasis is lost on distinctions. As Queen put it, the strippers can always say, “Well, at least I don’t fuck them.” I describe these infrastructural tensions and divisions because conceptually I think they are expressive of one of the fundamental issues surrounding violence, both against sex workers and within our culture at large.

Similar to the expansive nature of the designation “sex work,” another function of the evening was exposing the expansive and pervasive nature of what constitutes “violence.” This was a profound realization for me, considering that which serves as the foundation for violence as implicit in the violence itself. Addressed were the perhaps obvious forms of violence: murder, rape, assault, abuse, battery, physical and emotional trauma. But also addressed were what might be seen as the more subtle aspects of violence: porn companies that prohibit the use of condoms, the lack of sexual education for those entering the sex work industry, the lack of compassionate medical and psychological care for sex workers, without judgement or assumption, the defamation of character suffered by those in sex work, the laws in this country the prohibit sex work, making reporting violence effectively impossible (this double-bind of the illegality of sex work is perhaps one of the most profound contributing factors to violence against these individuals, discussed further below). One speaker specifically addressed the “violence of shame, the violence of having to hide.” This was striking to me. Shame has been a recurring subject in my creative work for some time. For my purposes, shame is an interpersonal experience in which one’s experience of oneself is compromised or contaminated by one’s perception of the Other’s perception. A culture of shame is familiar territory within the LGBT community (one of many similarities between these two sometimes overlapping communities), but what was a substantial shift for me was the recognition that the society or culture that propagates shame might be considered a culture of violence. The foundation of shame is judgement, or at the very least the perception of judgment. Put simply, that it is not okay to be who you are, either in whole or in part. A culture of shame emerges when the social assumption is that in difference and diversity there are correct and incorrect ways of being. A culture of shame emerges when diversity and difference are not celebrated, when their distinctions are used to separate and divide rather than unite. This makes me think of a presentation that Norah Zuniga Shaw gave concerning “Synchronous Object for One Flat Thing, reproduced” in which she emphasized counterpoint as a system of recognizing diversity and difference as the superficial organizational structure, supported by a deeper unity of purpose and intention. She presented this not only as a potential way for looking at dance, but also for considering society, culture, and community. My thought is that a society which looks for sameness and uniformity, in which diversity is potentially unacceptable, which proliferates shame surrounding difference, is a society in which violence is implicit.

I question that occurs to me is “To what degree do we celebrate difference? How ‘different’ is still acceptable?” I think the answer is perhaps simple: to the degree that the difference itself does not produce violence.

One of the commonalities or deeper unifying organizational structures within the “sex worker” community that was discussed was the “sex-positive” movement. It is perhaps here, from perspectives of sex and sexuality, that this culture of shame and violence emerges. “Sex-positive” is a loosely defined term, but what it hopes to promote is the perspective that sexual expression is good and healthy, an essential aspect of our humanity and being. It is in response to cultures that cloak sexuality in secrecy, shame, restriction, repression and suppression [there is certainly space here for an intertexutal discourse involving Michel Foucault’s rejection/genealogical reformulation of the “repression mythology” surrounding contemporary sexuality, responses to Foucault’s work by authors such as Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (among others), and the vast literary history of “sex-positivity” emerging from the feminist “sex wars” of the 1980s (including such texts as Pleasure and Danger: exploring female sexuality edited by Carole S. Vance from the papers presented at the 1982 conference “Towards a Politics of Sexuality” held at Barnard College. This discourse is, of course, beyond the scope of this reflection on a specific event, but it is worth acknowledging that these issues are complex; they have not only been discussed by many great thinkers, but there is still space for yet more discussion and discourse.] I dare say that while there has certainly been progress, American society and culture continues to be less than “sex positive.” Sex is addressed in the public and political arenas as a moral issue, a religious issue even. Once sex is considered in these terms, diversity and difference are less likely to be celebrated. These are the arenas in which homosexuals are considered deviants, whores are considered criminals, in which sex carries a narrow definition and in which expressions of sex and sexuality that extend beyond this narrow definition are deemed inappropriate. They become targets of condemnation, shame, and thus violence. I believe that this is the predominant, mainstream culture within our country, a site of struggle for any individual or community that exists outside of the mainstream, or predominantly accepted, definition of sex and sexuality.
This was not the culture represented at last nights vigil.
Sex work was discussed as an expression of giftings, “undervalued gifts of robust sexuality,” overwhelming compassion and generosity, a deep capacity for creativity, healing, and love. Sex workers were described as heroes, super-heroes, priestesses of the Goddess, who make their living opening themselves, completely, becoming vulnerable and sharing love and energy through what they do. These giftings, this openness, this generosity and sharing is part of what makes this community susceptible to violence.

With this honoring of sexual difference, sex as positive, and diverse sexual expression came an emphasis (or re-emphasis) of the source and site of violence, not in these professions themselves, but in the conditions of these professions that are produced by our culture of shame and violence. For instance, because prostitution is illegal, prostitutes become susceptible targets to violence; the violence cannot be reported without the targets themselves becoming implicated in the crime. Medical care is compromised due to cultural mindsets that there is shame or indecency in these professions. Stigma is attached to the persons of these professionals, potentially compromising their social standing and personal relationships. Because the difference and diversity that this community represents is not celebrated, the conditions this community faces become compromised and compromising. The violence emerges not from these individuals, not from what they are doing, but from the society and perspectives in which they are operating. And, no, it isn’t as simple as changing the laws, although this would/will be a profound shift in our culture. Amsterdam and New Zealand both have regulation for legalized prostitution, and violence still persists in these countries. The shift must be deeper, a shift of perception, and a value for the diversity of sexuality, sexual activity, sexual identity, and sexual expression.

One speaker made a statement that I found to be a striking summation of this plight: “Human rights are human rights; they don’t stop at sex work.” This could be said about so many communities and individuals that face violence based on actual or perceived difference. Human rights do not stop at our differences. They are pervasive. The right to own, honor and express one’s own person, one’s own body. The right to happiness. The right to love and have that love recognized. The right to explore and express the uniqueness of individual identity without fear or shame. Too often difference and diversity are denounced as destructive; this is fear, and eventually hate. Those who are perceived as different or deviating from the regulatory norms of culture are dehumanized, deemed less than human, by effectively denying them these fundamental human rights based on their differences. What I suppose I am proposing or supporting is a shift of consciousness as the “end to violence,” recognizing diversity and difference, and celebrating them as not only essential to the fabric of culture, but as a fundamental human right.

The vigil last night was both solemn and celebratory. Solemn in memory of those who have suffered the effects of violence in our culture, and angry at a society that, if not condones, does nothing to prevent such violence. Celebratory of difference and diversity, because it is in this celebration, in this shift to recognizing a deeper pervasive unity in the uniqueness of human and sexual expression, that the potential to end violence resides.

Advertisements


International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

This just came across my feed on facebook. I hope to be in San Francisco for this week in December and will hopefully be able to participate in the event Annie is organizing there. Here is a bit about the event:

“December 17th is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This event was created to call attention to hate crimes committed against sex workers all over the globe. Originally thought of by Dr. Annie Sprinkle and started by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle Washington. International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has empowered workers from over cities around the world to come together and organize against discrimination and remember victims of violence. During the week of December 17th, sex worker rights organizations will be staging actions and vigils to raise awareness about violence that is commonly committed against sex workers. The assault, battery, rape and murder of sex workers must end. Existing laws prevent sex workers from reporting violence. The stigma and discrimination that is perpetuated by the prohibitionist laws has made violence against us acceptable. Please join with sex workers around the world and stand against criminalization and violence committed against prostitutes.”

If you would like to read more about this event/these issues, please visit the Sex Workers Outreach Program website:
http://www.swopusa.org/dec17/

 

Here is a list of ways to participate that Annie wrote:

“Absolutely EVERYONE is invited to participate. Here’s how:
1. Organize (or attend) a memorial in your town. Simply choose a place and time to gather. Invite people to bring their stories, writings, thoughts, related news items, poems, lists of victims, performances, and memories. Take turns sharing.

2. Hold (or attend) a candlelight vigil in a public place.

3. Do something at home alone, which has personal meaning, such as a ritual memorial bath, or light a candle.

4. Call a friend and discuss the topic.

5. Send a donation to a group that helps sex workers stay safer. For example, some teach self-defense or host web sites that caution workers about bad Johns.

6. Go to the Sex Worker Outreach Project’s, http://www.swop-usa.org, read it, and add something to the site. Do let others know about any planned Dec. 17 events by listing them on the SWOP web site.

7. Spread the word about the Day to End Violence Towards Sex Workers and the issues it raises; or blog, email, call, send a press release, or forward this text to others.

8. Go to Washington DC. This December 17, 2008 there will be a National March for Sex Worker Rights. People will converge from all over to take a stand for justice and safety. Info at http://www.swop-usa.org

9. Organize a panel discussion about violence towards sex workers. Procure a community space and invite speakers like sex workers, police, and families of victims.

10. Create your own way to participate.”

 

I have burgeoning ideas about the field of sex work in this country, but I don’t have time to expound upon them at the moment. The fastest summary is this: at present, laws in this country prohibit prostitution and sex work. The logic behind this seems questionable at best, but includes rational that prostitution is detrimental to the individuals that engage in the profession. Prostitution continues with or without the sanction of the law. Because of the existing laws that make sex work illegal, the violence committed against sex workers cannot be reported. The legal system that condemns sex work because of the danger it presents to those involved in it is contributing to the continuation of that violence. Of course these issues are more complex than this, and certainly this is an issue surrounded by moral controversy, but at some point I think I realize that these are individuals suffering from violent crimes (assault, battery, rape, and murder), and because they are engaged in a profession that is currently illegal, that violence continues. The logic becomes circular. And I want to see violence prevented.

 

Lastly, NPR’s “Intelligence Squared” did a debate show addressing the issue of paying for sex. You can read about the show or listen to the podcast here.

I hope you consider supporting an end to violence against sex workers and take some time to engage critically with this issue in our nation.