Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.
– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” 1993
Vladimir Putin’s not-so-secret police wiretapped a strategy meeting between Russian LGBT activists and Western NGOs in St. Petersburg last month — then played the tapes on TV, as proof of a conspiracy. That’s no surprise. What’s surprising is that the Western NGOs didn’t expect it. “Soviet-like surveillance” (to quote the indignant condemnations) is nothing new in Russia. The Soviet security establishment didn’t ever curl up and die. The only innovation is that recently, instead of using the recordings for blackmail or prosecution, the regime hands them over to pet media for a public smear campaign. But everyone knows that tactic already; during the 2011 anti-Putin protests, “grainy videos and audio recordings” were “leaked to Kremlin-friendly tabloids by security and law-enforcement agencies,” in “a concerted Kremlin effort to discredit and divide their opponents.” The organizers really should have seen this coming.
The truth is, those of us who work on sexual rights internationally don’t always take our own issues seriously. We assume evil politicians don’t truly fear us — that they’re merely manipulative or opportunistic, using homophobia, whorephobia, or misogyny as trumped-up distractions from “real” concerns. We don’t grasp our own power, or get that governments may see these issues as the real ones: that states could spend massive resources on repressing sexual dissidence with the same anxious fervor they devote to crushing separatism or stifling political dissent. Persuaded of our unimportance, we deprecate the actual dangers. But if that ever was justified, it isn’t today. The Obama administration’s broad and occasionally unhelpful ardor in playing tribune for LGBT groups worldwide, for instance, feeds fears that these minuscule movements are actually agents of alien geopolitics, hives of foreign subversion. And the US government’s own success in violating anybody’s and everybody’s privacy only encourages imitation, and revenge.
Everyone should worry about privacy. And you especially need to worry if either your work or your life contradicts society or law. You may run an NGO, or you may be an individual activist in a small town. You may be a queer checking Grindr in a country where gay sex is illegal; you may be a sex worker using Gmail to hook up with clients. You need to think about how you can protect your communications from prying ears and eyes — whether parents, roommates, or police.
Technologies are available. Yet most people don’t use them. There are three broad reasons for reluctance:
a) They’re slow. Secure browsers like Tor are a little lumbering; encrypting e-mails is a hassle. All I can say is, it’s less of a hassle than getting your group closed down, or winding up in jail.
b) Come on, why would they come after me? See above. They may already be after you. But even if the cops haven’t noticed you yet, there are plenty of accidental ways to attract attention. Suppose, earnest HIV activist, that your laptop’s stolen — and when the police recover it, they discover that illegal porn video you downloaded. Suppose, mild-mannered sex worker, that one of the clients you’ve been e-mailing works for Human Rights Watch — and is constantly watched and spied on in your country. There’s no lack of ways you can fall afoul of surveillance.
c) Transparency is a virtue. On principle, a lot of human rights activists don’t try to hide from state surveillance, because, they say, they have nothing to hide. This is noble, but not workable. You may not have secrets, but people who trust you do. Members of your organization, people who come to you for help, may expect confidentiality — and may feel betrayed if you don’t safeguard what they share. The landlord who rents to you, the guy who sleeps with you, the cleaning lady who scrubs the kitchen, could all get swept up in any scandal — smeared, shamed, or hauled into court. You have a responsibility to protect those around you and those who depend on you.
What follows are some steps to protect your electronic privacy, arranged roughly from the simplest to the most complex. I don’t claim to be an expert – the resources are gleaned from my own reading and use. If you have suggestions, or if you see something that won’t work, tell me in the comments or through email. Privacy is like safer sex. There’s no absolute safety, only relative protection. Everybody has to gauge their own levels of acceptable risk. Keeping abreast of changing technologies for both surveillance and safeguarding is vital. The best way to protect your information is to be informed.
Things you can do:
1. Clear your browser’s history. Browsers store copies of the web pages you visit in an area called the cache. Moreover, many pages automatically deposit a little turd of information called a cookie on your computer, which lets them recognize you when you return. Both these allow anybody with access to your computer to reconstruct what you’ve been viewing. I know dozens of people whose families or bosses have uncovered their sexual orientation simply by checking the browser history.
If you use a computer that anybody else might share, whether at home, at work, or in an internet cafe, you should clear the browser history regularly, preferably after each use. It’s not perfect — ultra-skilled geeks could still figure out what you’re been doing — but it frustrates most intruders. Good guides to how to do this, for the most common browsers, can be found here, and here, and here.
2. Realize that Facebook is not your friend. Facebook causes too many headaches to count. But this one is really serious.
Go to the search bar and just type in: “Gays in [your country]” — you know, as if you were looking for a group, or a page describing the local scene. What you’ll get will be quite different:
There’s a parable here about identity construction in the digital age. Facebook automatically takes the button that asks you what gender you’re interested in — one that a lot of people click in fun, or assume to refer to friendship rather than sex — and translates it into being “gay” or not. More ominously, though: The results you’ll get won’t be limited to friends, or friends of friends. You’ll get a list of every man who’s “interested in men” in [your country] and who didn’t bother to make that particular part of their profile private. It’s convenient if you’re gay, and looking for an alternative to Grindr. It’s also convenient if you’re a policeman, and homosexual sex is illegal in [your country], and you’re looking for a way to track down or entrap the guilty and throw them in jail.
This is all the upshot of Facebook’s new “Graph Search,” a terrifying new feature that puts security on a bonfire and lights a match. It allows you to mine the deep structure of the site — to pluck information out of profiles that, as profiles, are invisible to you. It’s a “semantic search” (unlike old-style Google); it doesn’t just take the words you enter literally, it tries to infer what you mean — hence the leap between “interested in men” and “gay.” It’s nasty and clever and it doesn’t give a fuck about your safety.
It’s called “Graph Search” because semantic search builds “a graph of information for the user that pulls insights from different formats to create an over-arching viewpoint related to the original query” … blah, blah. More simply: Facebook employs the little bits of data — “likes” and “interested ins” — from all those profiles to map out commonalities between its customers. But this isn’t really done “for the user,” though it’s sold to you as a way to share lovingly with your loved ones and learn lovely things about everyone. It’s done for Facebook and its advertiser-clients, to divvy up users by their desires and assemble a picture of diversified markets open for advertising and exploitation.
There’s a whole Tumblr blog highlighting the information, from eccentric to creepy, that Graph Search can turn up. You can look for “Employers of people who like racism”; you can root out “Mothers of Catholics from Italy who like Durex condoms.” But folks whose private lives put them in danger won’t laugh. “Graph Search” makes state repression easy. Human rights advocates ought to give Facebook hell. The search unearths, for instance, 258,285 results for “Men who are interested in men in Iran.” Somehow this has failed to elicit any objections from the usual obsessives over the Islamic Republic (they’re all on Facebook right now, busy searching for “Men in London who like men and like to read press releases”). But if an enterprising religious policeman in Tehran figures out how Graph Search can further the torture business, Facebook will have blood on its hands.
What can you do? The only way to remove yourself from Graph Search is to make sure that each item of information on your profile is marked “private.” To repeat: the universal privacy setting that could sequester your whole profile is gone now. You’ve got to do this step by step:
a) Go to each item in the “About” section of your profile, and if there’s anything you don’t want strangers to see, either delete or change it, or make sure the privacy setting is limited to “Friends.”
b) Check on every photo you’re tagged in. If you didn’t post the picture, its visibility depends solely on the privacy settings of the person it belongs to. If you don’t want it seen or searched, ever, you’ll have to remove the tag.
c) You can review all the comments you’ve made on Facebook by going to your Activity Log — sort it by Comments (look on the left side). If you’ve commented on somebody else’s photos or timelines, you can’t change the privacy settings — but if you don’t want the comment seen, you can delete it.
d) You can still change the privacy settings globally for all the old posts on your timeline. Click the gear icon at the upper right of your screen; select Privacy Settings. Under “Who can see my stuff?” you’ll find the option to “Limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends of friends or Public.” That’ll let you make them private at one fell swoop. Another option there allows you to review all your past posts if you want to decide on them one-by-one.
There’s a good overview of these methods here.
3. Use Tor. Tor is a downloadable bundle of software that includes its own browser. When you use the browser to access the Internet, the information you receive or send bounces through a global network of thousands of relays — thousands of other computers — and is encrypted over and over. All the encryption makes it very hard to intercept the data in transit; the rerouting makes it almost impossible to find its origin. All this means that unfriendly eyes can’t detect your location, or trace your posts or visits or messages back to you.
The chart shows how. Ordinarily, if Alice up there sends someone an email or accesses a web page, those on the other end can find out the Internet address she’s using. However, if she uses Tor, the recipient (“Bob” down below, or any watchers on Bob’s end) can only see the address of that last relay, or proxy, in the extended network: not Alice’s own.
Tor (the name stands for The Onion Router, representing the layers of protection that an intruder would have to peel away) was developed by the US military, and the State Department still funds its nonprofit promoters as a way of supporting what America otherwise opposes, Internet freedom. But it’s so independent and impenetrable that (according to national security documents Edward Snowden leaked) even the US government is intimidated; they call it “the king of high-secure,” anonymous Internet access. It’s open-source, meaning a team of elves is always at work to fix any vulnerabilities. Like most open-source projects, it has a cooperative and collective spirit. In fact, you can volunteer your own computer to serve as one of the relay points — though I don’t recommend this, because if the system ever is cracked, you could conceivably be held liable for anything illegal other users might send through your terminal.
There are three main limitations:
a) Tor is not fast. All those relays slow things down. Moreover, Tor blocks plugins like Flash, Quicktime, and RealPlayer, because they can bug up the browser and reveal your real address. You need a special fix to get it to play YouTube videos.
b) Obviously, it won’t conceal your identity if you log into e-mail or any other service. It’ll just hide what Internet address you’re writing from.
c) If your government knows where you are to begin with, it could still find ways to get at your computer and any information you’re sending from it. Similarly, Tor can’t protect what’s on the computer or server at the other end, the one you’re communicating with. Only the transmissions in between are encrypted and secure. Look at that chart again: Tor doesn’t encrypt the last stage of traffic, between the “exit node” (the last relay point) and the target server. If you want to be more secure, you need to use so-called “end to end” encryption such as PGP (below), which encodes your messages from the point you create them until the intended receiver reads them.
Nonetheless, Tor remains a crucial tool if you want to browse the Internet anonymously. Download it free here.
4. Encrypt your hard drive. You should protect yourself on your own end by keeping all or part of your computer encrypted. Anybody unauthorized who tries to open it — a hacker, a policeman, a thief — won’t be able to read the information you store in encrypted files. The data can only be made readable with a “key” — that is, by entering a code that activates decryption. So the main thing is; never give away (or forget) your key.
No encryption system is perfect. Governments — particularly the resourced and intrusive ones, like the US, China, or Israel — are always looking for ways around the codes. The US National Security Agency spent billions on what it called “an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies.” This included $250 million a year bribing corporations — sorry; I mean “actively engag[ing] the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make them “exploitable.” Paying them, that is, to put holes in the stuff they sell. A quarter of a billion buys a lot of cooperation. Microsoft, for one, now has a policy of providing “intelligence agencies with information about bugs in its popular software before it publicly releases a fix.”
The lesson: Don’t waste money buying “proprietary,” corporate encryption systems. You have no way of knowing whether they’ve obligingly built a back door into their ramparts for US spies to pry. (And you don’t know whether the US has shared those Trojan portals with your government, if it’s an American ally. Or, if it’s not, perhaps your local spies have managed to copy US anti-cryptography shortcuts: Americans seem better at stealing others’ secrets than concealing their own.) Paradoxically, open-source software is safer precisely because its code is out there on the net for anyone to see. If a government tried to insert malware or sneak in a weakness, somebody probably would notice. And it “is in a constant state of development by experts all over the world” — meaning that a lot of beautiful minds are fixing and fine-tuning it all the time.
Here is a helpful list of five trusted file encryption tools. Many experts recommend TrueCrypt, which works with Windows, Mac, and Linux, and is free. (Reportedly, Edward Snowden used it to smuggle information on his hard drive.) It can encrypt files, folders, or whole drives. It can hide encrypted volumes for additional security. It does “real-time encryption,” meaning it decrypts and encrypts material as you work. This simplifies things for you; true, it can slow your computer’s speed somewhat, but not much — “the performance penalty is quite acceptable,” one independent review found. You can download TrueCrypt here.
5. Encrypt your emails. Email encryption is like riding a bicycle. It’s difficult to explain it to those who haven’t tried it, without making the doer sound either superhumanly agile or insane. (“Mounted upon the high saddle, commence revolving your legs in circular and rhythmic motion, an agitation that simultaneously ensures the balance of the inch-wide wheels and propels the mechanism forward ….”) Describing it is way harder than doing it. Bear with me, and try not to be too terrified, while I try.
First, background and basics. The standard form of email encryption is named “Pretty Good Privacy,” or PGP. Phil Zimmermann invented it in the 1990s. Cryptography, he wrote, is “about the power relationship between a government and its people. It is about the right to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of political association, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom to be left alone.” The anti-war and anti-nuke movements were his particular passion, and he intended the tools for them. “PGP” has since been trademarked by a company selling a proprietary variant, but there’s a range of free, open-source versions; one, called GnuPG or GPG, is available here, and others are at the International PGP home page.
E-mail encryption relies on a sender and receiver sharing tools that let them both encrypt messages and decode them.
These tools are called “keys.” When you install the program, you’ll be asked to set up two keys — strings of characters that perform certain tasks. You will have a public key, and a secret key. Anybody can use the former, but the latter will carry a password so that only you can activate it. You must share the public key with your interlocutors — anyone who wants to send you an encrypted message needs to have your public key first, because that’s what will encrypt it for them. And you’ll need that person’s public key to write her in return. People who have PGP on their computers can communicate easily as long as they have each other’s public keys.
So let’s say Faisal wants to send you a note. Faisal will use your public key, which you’ve given him, to encrypt the message in a code that’s readable to you alone. Though your “public key” performed the coding, the message is far from public: that key is cyber-twinned with your secret key, so that only your secret key can decode what it says. You’ll reply using Faisal’s public key, in a message he can only decode with his secret key. You can also apply your secret key to “sign” that message digitally, so Faisal will know it’s authentically from you; it’s like a seal on an old-fashioned letter, showing that nothing’s been tampered with in transit.
Several things make all this extra cumbersome.
a) You can only communicate with people who have both the software and your public key. So you’re obviously not going to encrypt all your e-mail communications — just the sensitive ones with folks who share your line of work. Some commercial “key authorities” compile online directories of users’ public keys, like phone books. Rather than relying on those, though, you’ll probably form circles of colleagues and co-conspirators who share each other’s public keys — “web of trust” is one term for this, a phrase that manages to combine Zen touchy-feeliness with faint paranoia.
b) You can only use PGP on the computers where you have it installed. If you get an encrypted message on your phone, you won’t be able to read it till you’re sitting at the computer that has your secret key. If you’re travelling and left your laptop behind, you’re screwed.
Email encryption is complicated, though once you and your correspondents get used to it, things will seem more natural and routine. Its advantage is that it safeguards information through the whole process of transmission — end to end, unlike the partial protection Tor offers. You can find more detailed descriptions of how to use it here and here.
6. Go off the record. Millions of people worldwide used to entrust Skype with their long-distance intimacies and secrets. We now know, though, that the corporation has routinely handed over recorded conversations to the US and Chinese governments.
Off the Record (OTR) is a safer alternative. It’s a system, somewhat similar to PGP, for encrypting instant messaging over most of the major chat networks. Yet it’s much less cumbersome than PGP, and lets you communicate quickly in real time. Do not confuse OTR with the “off the record” feature in Google’s own instant messaging service, which is only as secure as Google itself — that is, not very; US state security, after all, has figured out how to trawl data from the giant corporation’s communications links. OTR encryption is really off the record, and offers you important protections.
To use OTR, you’ll need to download and install an instant-messaging client: either Pidgin or Adium. Pidgin is a free program that lets you chat with friends over the Google, MSN, Yahoo!, Jabber, and AIM networks. Adium is very similar, but specifically made for Mac. Adium has OTR built in. For Pidgin, you just have to add a special OTR encryption plugin.
From there on, it’s quite simple. All that’s required is that the person you want to chat with also have Pidgin or Adium, with OTR activated. OTR does two things for you: It encrypts the conversation, and it also lets you verify your messaging partner’s identity. (This verification formerly required exchanging a “fingerprint,” a trimmed-down version of PGP’s public keys, but recent versions of OTR simply let you use a previously-agreed-on secret word.) OTR encrypts your messages almost automatically: the two sets of software swap the necessary codes and mumbo-jumbo pretty much without either of you humans noticing.
OTR has one additional advantage that PGP e-mail doesn’t. For each chat session, the software creates a unique encryption key, then “forgets” it once the chat is over. This means that if your OTR account is compromised — if, for instance, somebody steals your computer with your chat program on it — nobody can recover and decrypt any past conversation. Effectively, those fleeting words are gone forever. This is called “forward secrecy,” and it bestows the peace of mind that forgetfulness fosters. (In PGP, by contrast, someone who obtains your private key could decode every single encrypted e-mail you’ve saved.)
We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.
– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” 1993
In the early 1990s, I taught for two years in Romania. The apartment I lived in had been the American lecturer’s residence since the mid-1960s; microphones riddled it, so many that at night I thought I could hear the wiretaps faintly clicking like sickly crickets, and I got an electric shock when I touched one particularly wired stretch of wall. The last Fulbright professor who’d served before the Revolution told me how he and his wife decided, in the cold November of 1989, to host a Thanksgiving dinner for their Romanian colleagues. It took them days to find a starved excuse for a turkey; then they faced the dilemma of making stuffing, when no vegetables graced the market at all. They’d spent a day in the kitchen debating the difficulty, till someone knocked at the door. A little man hunched outside, bundled against the wind. Springing into speech, he hinted that some colleagues — well, cousins, who intimately attended to matters about the flat, had phoned him regarding a problem here that, perhaps for a fee, needed fixing. He gestured vaguely at a tall-antennaed car parked (as it was always parked) down the road. “I understand,” he said, “that you are discussing how to stuff a bird. I can help. I am a licensed taxidermist …”
It was funny, and not funny. When I lived there the city still roiled with ethnic hate and nationalist hysteria. As a gay man and a human rights activist, who visited prisons on most off days, I was an object of exceptional interest. The secret police called in a friend of mine, and interrogated him about every syllable of our conversation the night before in my living room. They warned him I would recruit him into “a spy ring of Hungarians, Jews, and homosexuals undermining the Romanian nation.” I went to the United States for a couple of months that summer. Showering in the cramped bathroom in my father’s house, I started talking idly to myself, then stopped in terror: Had I repeated a secret? What if they were listening? The surge of relief when I realized there were no ears around was as if a dam burst behind my tensed muscles. I realized the constant and intolerable pressure I’d lived under for a year, always watched, always overheard.
The same year I settled in Romania, 1992, a few radical computer geeks in San Francisco started a mailing list that eventually grew into the Cypherpunk movement. Loathing of state surveillance drew them together, and a belief that technology could forge tools to resist. Their ideology was a remarkable faith that code should be public and knowledge shared so that people could stay private and intimacy stay intact:
Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and since we can’t get privacy unless we all do, we’re going to write it. We publish our code so that our fellow Cypherpunks may practice and play with it. Our code is free for all to use, worldwide. … We know that software can’t be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.
Cypherpunks deplore regulations on cryptography, for encryption is fundamentally a private act. The act of encryption, in fact, removes information from the public realm. Even laws against cryptography reach only so far as a nation’s border and the arm of its violence. Cryptography will ineluctably spread over the whole globe, and with it the anonymous transactions systems that it makes possible.
There’s a lot of our world in that manifesto.
Electronic technologies “allow for strong privacy.” But they also destroy it, at least when states and corporations wield them. I used to feel innocently sure in the US that the listening ears weren’t there; I wouldn’t feel it now. That watchfulness, inculcated in the bone, is the condition we inhabit; that no-man’s land is where we live.
The struggle between computer and computer, to see and not to be seen, is the new arms race and Cold War. Unless you want to drop out, turn Unabomber and settle in a cabin with the wires all cut, paranoiacally interrogating and torturing your carrier pigeons, you have to take a side. Choosing the technologies of privacy is about as close as you can come to choosing freedom. Yet it means living walled in by technology’s protections. The tension won’t go away.
I wish some Egyptian Joan Didion could visit El-Marg. She might turn this dry outcropping of Cairo into a fear-saturated landscape like the dismal suburbs of Los Angeles: “an alien place,” as the writer sketched those badlands in one essay,
a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.
I’ve been to El-Marg once or twice, out on the far northeast edges of the megacity, and I remember dust everywhere, enough to outdo Didion’s sallow, itchy ambience. The neighborhood is too close to the desert, and nothing keeps out the onslaught of sand that grinds itself fine against window and wall and skin. But there are no mountains and there’s little wind; none of Didion’s rattlesnakes crepitate in the drives – there are no rattlers in Egypt, just impudent mongeese that hurry hunchbacked along the streets like donked-up rats; and you come away impressed not by sullen, repressed California housewives dreaming of adultery and insurance money, but by the prevalence of men, particularly young ones, slouching and strutting and parading down the unswept streets. It’s a shaabi neighborhood, a word sometimes translated “popular” and sometimes “working class,” but carrying other, deeper connotations: down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, the country transported to the city on migrants’ backs. The place has the resentful pride of poverty, but none of the thwarted aspirations that fester in Didion’s bourgeoises. Nobody aspires. The local dreams seem leaden, not golden. The main hope is simply to survive in an economy and country where that gets harder all the time. Fourteen or more men are in jail there tonight, for something connected, somehow, to this hurt and troubled manhood.
The story appeared on October 12 in Akhbar el-Youm, a state newspaper, describing arrests that probably happened the day before.
The niyaba [prosecutor] ordered the [continued] detention of the manager and specialists and workers at a health center that was open for perverts [shawazz] only, in El-Marg. He also ordered the detention of 14 men who were caught practicing immorality [fahesha] inside it, and the closure of the establishment.
Information had been received about the center’s illegal activity, and that it welcomed perverted men and boys to practice immorality in its rooms. The investigation has proved the information correct; the center was raided, and 14 men were caught, in positions that are against religious precepts.
Also, the management staff were caught along with a large quantity of pills and sexual stimulants. It emerged that the center only engages in this illegal activity in return for payments of between 50 and 200 pounds [$7-$28 US] for one encounter.
The defendants confessed in front of Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, the chief El-Marg prosecutor, that they had been frequenting the center to practice immorality [fahesha]. The niyaba ordered their detention and referral to the forensic medical authority, and ordered the center closed and the evidence preserved.
The “health center” turned into a “medical center” by the time this reached the English-language Egyptian press. It has remained so now that the story has started to enter the international LGBT media.
Actually, the establishment is — was — neither. I have at least one friend who has visited. It was a small gym and sauna, converted from a private apartment and operating as a business for years. It’s well known in the surrounding streets; when my friend went there about three years ago – before the Revolution – and asked directions, the neighbors said “Oh, the hammam!”, or baths, and pointed the way. The entry fee was 25 pounds back then. It’s unlikely the price has gone up eightfold in the interim, so the figures the police gave (with the strong suggestion of prostitution) are probably nonsense. There is a good chance that the “pills and sexual stimulants” the police found are vitamins, or even steroids.
The gym sounds, and perhaps was, a little upscale for a district like El-Marg: so poor and so insulated from so much of Western consumerism, with the exception of universal values like Marlboros and Pepsi. The arrests certainly call into question the celebrated thesis of Joseph Massad: that the “visible” people experiencing, indeed mischievously inciting, persecution for “homosexuality” in Egypt are “Westernized upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists.” There aren’t too many people like that around El-Marg. On the other hand, a different kind of consumerized identity, built not around sexuality but around masculinity, has been creeping into places like El-Marg for well over a decade now. It comes from movies and magazine ads and it consists in a cult of the sculpted body, perfected from nature’s raw materials, designed to elicit admiration quite apart from anything it does, any useful work or wonders it performs. A longstanding fetish of health and exercise in Egypt dates from the colonial period – periodic pushups helped show that “natives” could be as strong and self-sufficient as their masters. Yet it was largely confined to the upwardly-pushing middle classes, as Wilson Chacko Jacob has demonstrated in an intriguing study. Only more recently has working out, and a fullblown Chelsea version of it at that, become a defining feature of shaabi manhood.
Something of the change can be sensed just with a glance at two Egyptian movie stars and their physiques. Farid Shawki (1920-1998), nicknamed the “King of the Cheap Seats,” was an idol to working-class audiences for decades, playing poor heroes who fought against injustices imposed by a rogues’ gallery of rich villains. He was an unwieldy lug with a rectangular body that made him resemble a walking refrigerator (a luxury item his characters certainly couldn’t afford). Mohammad Ramadan, a 20-something kid from Upper Egypt and now a major sex symbol, also plays noble prole roles, but by contrast has the kind of torso that – well, in every movie he misses no opportunity to take his shirt off: “Lunch, habibi?” “Yes, but it’s so hot in here …”
It’s like the transition between John Wayne and Channing Tatum: between a laconic masculinity that held its energies in reserve, lest they be harnessed or exploited, versus one that shows itself off compulsively and indeed exists to be seen. The way the poor devour this new image in Egypt may have something to do with how the shaabi classes are increasingly invisible to the privileged and powerful. The rich and even the middle class retreat into guarded shopping malls, gated towers, and remote desert developments with the poor safely locked out. The conspicuous development of delts and abs is also a defiant way to say, I’m here, if only as an object of desire. It also perhaps reflects the economy of underdevelopment: a feeling that muscles are no longer for labor – there are fewer and fewer jobs as the economy spirals downward – but for show. Maybe there’s an element of resistance to it (look at Mohammad Ramadan’s menacing weaponry, above), but mostly it seems to be resignation to a different kind of exploitation. It’s a grim admission that your existence is really only useful as a spectacle. This kind of masculinity-for-display inevitably carries homoeroticism with it, but a particularly unsettling kind: the pumped-up muscles make one an object, not an agent, and imply vulnerability along with the visibility, the paralyzed passivity of a pin-up photo. Mohammad Ramadan is not an action hero. He seems quite credible, in fact, playing a victim.
The consumerized body, its class implications, its cross-cultural incursions – have any of these drawn Joseph Massad’s indignant attention? I think not. I don’t know whether any of the arrested men in El-Marg are “gay” or not, or what they were doing when caught “in positions against religious precepts” (a remarkably inclusive phrase). I am inclined to guess, though, that the visibility of this suspect masculinity finally roused the antagonism of the neighborhood; and that is why the police were called, and how they ended up in jail.
Friends of friends of mine know some of the men. (Although “14” is the figure that’s made it into Western press reports, this is only the number of the clients arrested – it doesn’t seem to include the “manager, specialists, and workers.”) The prosecutor ordered them held for four days, but that may be renewed. They’ve been sent off for forensic anal examinations, which are intrusive, abusive, and inhuman treatment. They don’t yet have lawyers. Human rights organizations are overburdened with the arrested, the tortured, the disappeared since the military takeover. Some informal networks are trying to see what we can do.
Back in June, when three days of massive demonstrations gave the military the go-ahead to overthrow President Morsi, most of my gay friends in Cairo flocked to the streets, first in protest, then in celebration. But nothing had gotten worse for LGBT people under Muslim Brotherhood rule; nothing has got better since it ended. Same old, same old. It’s still true that the worst persecution LGBT people have faced in Egypt, possibly in the whole region – the three-year, continuous crackdown from 2001-2004, when police probably arrested and tortured thousands – was inflicted under Mubarak’s secular dictatorship. It had virtually nothing to do with religion. Indeed, the aged caudillo was arresting and torturing tens of thousands of Islamists at the same time.
What has been consistent since the Revolution, despite the several changes of government – military, Islamist, military again – is that the police want desperately to win their reputations back. Under Mubarak, the vast majority of Egyptians passionately loathed the police: they were the contact point where ordinary citizens faced, and felt, the corruption and arbitrary power and abusiveness of a regime that had lost its sense of limit. And after February 2011, the cops finally had to give a damn that they were hated. In fact they largely disappeared, fearing for their safety and even lives if they offended an empowered populace. Since then, they’ve looked for ways to recuperate credibility – mainly, by showily harassing anybody the man in the street might despise even more than a man in uniform. Since the coup, the police go after Syrians, Palestinians, and other foreigners, because the wave of State-fostered xenophobia makes them applause-inducing targets. But it never hurts to announce that you’ve picked up a few suspected homosexuals. What better paints you, corrupt and immoral though you may be, as a defender of the nation’s morals?
One night last February, I got a call at 4:30 AM. A small gaggle of gay men had been standing just after midnight in a square, in the tony Heliopolis neighborhood, that’s known as a cruising area. A police car pulled up to harass them; two of them, feeling their post-Revolutionary oats, argued with the officers. They got arrested, while the others ran. One other guy who bravely went to the police station an hour later to ask about their well-being also found himself arrested, though the cops quickly let him go. Before that, though, the badges threatened him that he’d join his shawazz pals in prison. The word spread fast, by phone and text message, across Cairo’s gay communities. There were fears the prosecutor would slap charges of “debauchery,” or homosexual conduct, on the two men; fears, too, that they’d be sent off for the dreaded anal examinations. By 6 AM Ramy Youssef, a young Egyptian human rights activist, was standing with me in the shivery egg-blue dawn in front of the police station. Under various pretexts, we argued our way in, and persuaded the commander to let us see the men. One had been severely beaten. They were set free a few hours later – largely, I think, because we let the abusers know somebody was watching; but before I left, I asked the commander, in my most oozily ingratiating manner, whether the police found it increasingly difficult to work since the Revolution. “Definitely,” he said, spreading his hands imploringly. “And I hope you will tell the world that, as these cases show, we are still trying to do our job.”
Will this change? Not until the police are changed – until Egypt’s security sector is reformed; and neither military nor civilian governments have shown the slightest interest in that. The current junta, led by Generalissmo Sisi, has even less incentive to embark on any reforms than Morsi, who should have mistrusted the police (after all, they persecuted the Muslim Brothers for decades) but imagined he could employ them against his enemies. And military rule is never friendly to alternate ideas of manhood (or womanhood, for that matter). It exalts its own proprietary version of gender: a thoroughly traditional one, the old Everyman style of patriarchal authority, impatient of any perversion or extravagance. “We’re all Sisi,” the propaganda tells the public, and anybody who doesn’t look safely, nondescriptly, heterosexually Sisiesque enough will be in trouble. The fourteen or more men now in jail are victims because they seemed, in some fashion, different. They’re among many victims of the pressure to both believe (in the secular cult of Sisi) and conform.
It is the eve of Eid el-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice in Islam. The holiday commemorates the faithful Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail – a story that ended, as Jews and Christians know from their own versions, with God’s merciful forbearance, permitting the prophet to spare the boy’s life. Tonight as I walked in downtown Cairo, all the alleys felt festive almost till the curfew impended. In a run-down street near the High Court, small kids played on the sidewalk around a prostrate and unhappy-looking goat, which in a few hours would play its part as the substitute sacrifice. Ibrahim offered up an animal in grateful exchange for the divine indulgence, the value God placed on human life. There are no substitutes in Cairo these days. It’s human life that’s sacrificed. The whole country looks more than ever like a scapegoat.
In early 2001, Oprah Winfrey made a famous appearance at Madison Square Garden, for “V-Day,” Eve Ensler’s enormous, $1000-a-ticket benefit for feminism. What happened is etched in many memories (there were cheaper seats, too), but I’ll let Ms. Magazine describe. Oprah performed “Under the Burqa,” a kind of inverted ”Over the Rainbow” about a foreign land:
a heart-wrenching, spine-tingling story written by Ensler to personify the daily terror and misery of women’s lives in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s harsh gender apartheid rule. Oprah Winfrey gave an “Oscar-winning” performance to the piece as she described women in Afghanistan crying out in pain with no one to hear or acknowledge their suffering, because in Afghanistan life for women under the brutal Taliban hardly exists. An Afghan woman wearing the all-inhibiting burqa appeared as vocal sounds of pain and agony filled Madison Square Garden.
The woman crept up behind Oprah over the stage. As the audience gasped over the misery-murmurs soundtrack, Oprah turned and lifted the burqa off her. Thundering cheers! The tableau of liberation was entrancing. It told us that freedom lay in the hands of Westerners to give; that we were the voices, the hands, the absent lives, of others; and that the gift would be easy, like Superwoman getting a phone-booth makeover – “the ‘hey presto’ transformation of suffering into strength with the flick of a hem,” as Noy Thrupkaew wrote. This was imperialism lite, no boots on the ground; all you needed was a celebrity and a portable article of clothing. Just over six months later we all would be at war, and while these lessons may not have been too useful for the travails ahead, they were remembered. Eleven days after the September 11 attacks, CNN aired a film on the burqa in Afghanistan; it became its most-watched documentary ever. Six weeks later, Laura Bush would assure the nation that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” If the fight turned out longer and harder than expected, still the image and ideal remained, an emancipation embodied in omnipresent Oprah and hence impossible to escape, through all the ravages of Fallujah and Bagram and Abu Ghraib. One of the sponsoring organizations for victorious “V-Day” was a group called Equality Now.
Equality Now, founded in 1992, is a US organization fighting to diffuse worldwide the waning impulses of absolutist Western feminism from forty years ago. It campaigns for reproductive rights but, even more militantly, against pornography and prostitution. It’s also been exceptionally good at publicity, particularly by recruiting that kind of American celebrity who believes their fame is an anointing – that they can use it to liberate the tired, the poor, the war-torn, and also the wrongly dressed and inappropriately employed. Julia Stiles! Joss Wheedon! Glenn Close and Oprah! Equality Now is at it again this week, with a campaign aimed at the drab and unexciting UN; no institution is intrinsically unsexy, and already the publicity machine is starting to roll. There’s a campaign page at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, headlined “Call to Arms”; there are the endorsements from the famous and the only-slightly-faded. The aim is to roll back more than a decade of progress at the UN, and around the world, in safeguarding sex workers’ health and safety.
The campaign stems from a year-old letter that Equality Now organized to Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As Prime Minister of New Zealand, Clark oversaw the law reform that decriminalized sex work in her country in 2003. FInding her unreceptive to their solicitations, Equality Now called for public protest. They want you to write to UNDP, UNAIDS, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Women, but the gist is simple: Damn the evidence. Get me rewrite!
[We] express great concern about two recent reports on efforts to prevent HIV within the commercial sex industry: the Global Commission on HIV and the Law report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (“Global Commission Report”) released on 9 July 2012, and the UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (“Asia Pacific Report”) released on 18 October 2012. … [W]e are deeply concerned with both reports’ incomplete and misleading information regarding the effects of decriminalizing prostitution and surrounding activities.
The two reports linked above are ground-breaking work. The former, by 14 distinguished jurists and experts including former Presidents of Botswana and Brazil, examines the role of the law in promoting or impeding effective responses to HIV/AIDS. The latter surveys 48 countries in the Asia / Pacific region, investigating how their legal regimes around sex work affect both health and human rights. Two aspects strike Equality Now as especially noxious.
ONE. The reports called on governments to “Decriminalise private and consensual adult sexual behaviours, including same-sex sexual acts and voluntary sex work” (Global Commission Report, p. 9). The Asia Pacific Report found that criminalization of “sex work or certain activities associated with sex work … increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination, limiting access to HIV and sexual health services, condoms and harm reduction services, and adversely affecting the self esteem of sex workers and their ability to make informed choices about their health” (p. 1).
TWO. The reports called for a clear distinction, in policy, law, and public understanding, between sex work and sex trafficking, “which are not the same. The difference is that the former is consensual whereas the latter coercive.”
Criminal sanctions against human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of minors are essential—but the laws must clearly differentiate these activities from consensual adult sex work. (Global Commission Report, p. 29)
The Asia Pacific Report said laws that conflate “human trafficking and sex work and define sex work as ‘sexual exploitation’ contribute to vulnerability, generate stigma and create barriers to HIV service delivery”.
The unwillingness or inability of people to recognise that people can freely decide to engage in sex work means that sex workers are often automatically labelled as victims of trafficking when they are not. Often sex workers are portrayed as passive victims who need to be saved. Assuming that all sex workers are trafficked denies the autonomy and agency of people who sell sex. (pp. 3, 15)
“We respectfully request that you re-examine the findings and recommendations included in these two reports,” Equality Now writes in civil UN-ese, meaning: Retract these conclusions, or else.
Equality Now is an eradicationist organization. They believe all sex work is exploitation, and hence “trafficking.” They want prostitution eliminated. To this end they’re trying to press the so-called “Swedish model” on the UN; they claim it “addresses demand by decriminalizing the person in prostitution and criminalizing the buyers and pimps.” This sits rather strangely with the headline they chose for their campaign, above: “Keeping Prostitution Illegal.” In fact, though, that is what the “Swedish model” is about. It decriminalizes the “person in prostitution” about as much as traffic laws decriminalize the person in speeding car. The brothel raids and the stings on johns trawl up sex workers, not just clients, in their nets; police pick out and pick up sex workers, photograph them, stamp stigma on their lives; and there’s always a battery of other policies and punishments — loitering and solicitation laws, civil forfeiture, seizing cars and homes, even taking children — that can be used to drive women out of sex work. Melissa Giri Grant notes,
A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago … revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers [as opposed to clients and others], with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. This is during the same years that [eradicationist activists] lobbied for the Illinois Safe Children Act, meant to end the arrest of who the bill describes as “prostituted persons” and to instead target “traffickers” and buyers through wiretaps and stings. Since the Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
The Global Commission report charges the Swedish model with “Victimising the ‘victim.’”
The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) has answered the claims Equality Now made in its letter; I won’t recap its arguments here, save to note that Equality Now repeatedly misrepresents and distorts the results of studies. (For example: Equality Now asserts a government report in New Zealand found “no great change” in sex workers’ access to health services, and use of safer sex, in the wake of of law reform. But the government report actually says something quite different — that effective, and sex-worker friendly, “HIV/AIDS prevention campaign that ran in the late 1980s” had already generated across-the-board improvements, hence the room for positive change was small. Meanwhile, a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Otago in Christchurch found that decriminalization had made sex workers more willing to choose and refuse clients, a right the reform law specifically guaranteed them — the numbers who felt they couldn’t do so fell from 63% in 1999 to only 38% in 2006. They were also readier to report abuses to police, and in general more empowered about the conditions of their work.)
I will make two points, though. One is that Equality Now cultivates a rhetoric of care built round the idea of “Listening to Survivors.” Listening is admirable; but in this case, it becomes an accusation against any and all opponents: those other people, the ones you’re listening to, aren’t real. Thus, one eradicationist cites a “survivor” approvingly:
To support decriminalising the sale of sex would be to support prostitution itself. … I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalised, it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.
This is a moral rephrasing of the old Marxist claim of false consciousness: your class position, or in this case your sin, invalidates your voice and deafens my ears to your inauthentic pleas. Moreover, the audible “survivors” aren’t so audible in the end. They fade into placeholders for institutions that can, and will, speak on their behalf. The letter to Helen Clark bemoans that ”If the drafters of the reports – in particular the Asia Pacific Report – had consulted with a broader range of stakeholders, including anti-trafficking and women’s rights organizations as well as trafficking survivors” — well, everything would have been different. In essence this means: Do nothing till you hear from me. In fact, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law held seven regional dialogues and reviewed 680 written submissions in its work. The Asia Pacific report draws on extensive consultations with advocacy groups, including sex worker groups, in the countries it analyzed. Integrating usually-unheard voices into the conversation is likely to rouse acute institutional anxieties; but you really can’t just claim those voices were never there.
Listen to Carmen, fools. And now can we just pretend these “reports” you published never happened?
The second point is that, while Equality Now talks the talk of protecting the helpless against exploitation, its concerns flow from a different point where morality and politics, respectability and power, meet. Ninety-seven organizations signed the letter to Helen Clark; but while most of them seem dressed in the appealing-looking garments of sober feminism, quite a few are wearing a burqa underneath. For instance, Ruhama, a powerful Irish “anti-trafficking” group, sounds awfully progressive, opposing prostitution because it’s so “deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.” Ruhama, though, is a front. Behind it lurk several Catholic religious orders which, for decades, imposed forced labor and virtual slavery on “fallen women” in the notorious Magdalene Laundries. Moral rigor and a quest to recover political authority drive its campaigning, not indignation at the gendered injustice its parent groups enforced for years.
There’s a history behind this power quest. Anthropologist Laura Agustin argues that the earnest focus on “prostitution” as a social problem in Britain’s 19th century came with the emergence of middle-class women as a group who needed occupations, purpose, and identities. “Social critics and philanthropists constructed an identity for ‘the poor’ in general, and ‘prostitutes’ in particular, which necessitated intervention, at the same period when the same critics, in need of and desiring employment, designated themselves as peculiarly suited to intervene.”
Philanthropy came to be seen as an appropriate sphere of paid employment for middle-class women, who designated themselves as those authorised to care for a group of working-class women they designated prostitutes. Both groups were engaged in the search for livelihoods and a degree of independence during the development of industrial capitalism. In the new ‘prostitution’ discourse, both figures, the victim and the rescuer, belonged to a new vision of society in which good conduct was linked to bourgeois, domestic marriage and family.
What Agustin doesn’t say [in this article, I mean; see in the comments, below, for references to places where she's drawn out the implications!] is that this vision of “intervention” paralleled other interventions in the larger, political sphere: imperialism, militarism, the projection of British might, the growth of a governing class of males whose identities were built on intruding in other countries and morally recuperating other peoples. Deviant within and barbarian abroad were matching objects of colonial improvement.
Elizabeth Bernstein has pursued these ideas in a contemporary frame. She argues that “antitrafficking activism,” as practiced by both feminists and their faith-based allies, “has been fueled by a shared commitment to carceral paradigms of social, and in particular gender, justice … and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state.” You fight the enemies of your version of liberation, at home and abroad. You need the big guns on your side; feminism turns to the State. The battle requires the government to flex its muscles, through its police under the streetlights of Chicago as much as through the soldier boys in the alleys of Kabul. It’s no coincidence that Equality Now defines its demand for protests to the UN as a “call to arms.” It’s no coincidence that eradicationist Gloria Steinem, touring India and pressed to explain why she refused to dialogue with sex worker activists, fell back on a strange anti-Blitzkrieg rhetoric: “The truth seems to be that the invasion of the human body by another person – whether empowered by money or violence or authority — is de-humanising in itself. … [P]rostitution is the only [job] that by definition crosses boundary of our skin and invades our most central sense of self.” Does she mean all prostitution is rape, or all penetrative sex is? Shouldn’t we defend against an invasion by any means necessary — police, armies, the full panoply of power? Indeed, isn’t the best defense maybe just invading something ourselves?
It’s no coincidence, either, that both the war-cry against uncivilized and misogynistic Muslim peoples and the clamor to crack down on sex trafficking met in the receptive embrace of the Bush administration. Bush is gone, of course. But the powerful impulses are both still there. And their common feature, the guilty secret of their involuntary incursions, is still there too. The objects of rescue, the victims of intervention, don’t get to lift the veil of their own volition, or speak for themselves.
The niqab is back in the news these days. Banned in France and Belgium, it now faces prohibition in part of Switzerland. It’s a hot topic in Britain, where a Liberal Democrat minister called for a “national debate” on whether the State needed to “protect” women from veilish wiles. One right-wing British blogger drew an analogy I found illuminating, like a white phosphorus flare. It’s all, in the end, about State power, whether embodied in laws or bombs:
While the two situations are not directly analogous, there are, nonetheless, noteworthy similarities between the objections made to humanitarian military intervention in foreign countries and the objections made to state intervention in the matter of the niqab. Concomitant similarities can be observed in the arguments in favour, which speak to a common impulse.
Opposition to a niqab ban is frequently undergirded by a suspicion of State power as irrational and indiscriminate as anti-War hostility to American power — in neither case is it conceded that power can be harnessed for benign, progressive or utilitarian ends. … The wisdom of intervention in either case may be disputed, but the motivating humanitarian impulse in both cases is the responsibility to protect and should be debated as such.
In other words, you must concede the principle that the State has an absolute right to intervene (“protect”) in either case; the only permitted argument is about the pros and cons of particular interventions. The females who choose to cover their faces, and the peoples who slave away in oppression while unable or unwilling to resist, are equally incapacitated children, whose very muteness demands a decision-making power located somewhere else. Confronted with a woman, “a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time,” who says, “I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength,” the man sees nothing but mind-forged manacles:
Coercion does not necessitate physical imprisonment, and religious authority exerts a particularly pernicious hold over those taught from birth to accept it without question.
The blogger elects to remain veiled in anonymity, so all I know is he’s one of the pro-war, Islam-fearing fans of the neocon website Harry’s Place, a type that’s done so much to damage British public life. In an interview with Norm Geras — co-author of the invading-things-is-fun Euston Manifesto — he declares that “I dislike any ostentatious displays of religious or political affiliation. Slogan-bearing badges and t-shirts, religiously observant haircuts, dress codes and iconography of any kind.” One senses further prohibitions down the pike. The sinister beauty of power is that it corrupts even before you have it; just the scent, the fantasy of it, intoxicates. And the same spirit that drives you to enthuse over stripping women of their veils, or herding them into Black Marias on a moonless evening, is the spirit that informs imperial dreams of imposing one-size Mao jackets on the unisex masses, toppling statues and towers, Rumsfelding it over subject peoples like a Roman titan. Your idealism? No vaccine against megalomanhood. Human rights activists are hardly immune to State-worship. The whiff of power deranges their brain cells no less than anybody’s.
And, as long as we’re talking about power: a colleague noticed something interesting over at the New School for Social Research. The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy is offering a practicum for students to do research, in a project for Equality Now. “This project would analyze the legalization of prostitution and formation of sex workers’ rights groups. … Equality Now seeks to better understand the movement to legalize prostitution and form sex workers’ rights groups in order to refute arguments for legalization and lobby for adoption of the Nordic Model instead.” The students will:
Examine the history of sex workers’ rights groups in the following countries and answer the questions below: Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Philippines and the United States (particularly in Nevada)
- What is the history of the formation of sex workers’ rights groups in these countries?
- Who are the groups, what are their funding sources, and where is the influence on their policies coming from (for example is a larger international NGO working with them)?
- Are the sex worker’s groups pushing for legalization in those countries where it is not already legalized? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
- In those countries where it is not legalized, what are the local women’s rights groups in these countries saying about legalization? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
“Please keep in mind that this is a confidential work product developed for Equality Now and not intended for distribution or publication.” OK, don’t put it on the website where a Google search can turn it up, then. Now, it’s obvious what this is: it’s what we call oppo research, trying to figure out what your foes (bad people “inured to the wrong” of prostitution) are doing. Many organizations dabble in this at one point or another, though they don’t usually call on students at a distinguished university to help. But this is where the power question comes in. I don’t like the tone of the questions — the funding sources, the suggestion of foreign influence. Most sex worker groups are poor and marginal. In countries where sex work “is not legalized,” the organizations’ very existence is often endangered. Even where sex work is at least partly legal, they’re still stigmatized as advocating immorality, and any number of contrived crimes from promoting public indecency to spreading pornography to running a brothel can provide excuses to shut them down, and even jail their members.
So what exactly is this information going to be used for? Has the professor (a good guy, I think, with a history of work on migration issues) who’s overseeing the practicum asked Equality Now? Has the New School put safeguards in place to make sure its students’ research will only be used for ethical purposes, and will not endanger the safety, human rights, or freedom of sex worker advocates and activists? The school is asking its students to monitor sex workers’ groups for an NGO that really doesn’t like them. And the school needs to be answerable for any consequences. The history of power politics around sex workers’ rights and freedoms is too acute and recent — and the possibility of even inadvertently endangering people is too strong — for an academic institution to pretend this is purely an academic question for very long.
NB. A comment (below) states that the Milano School is not part of the New School for Social Research but a parallel institution to it within the overall New School structure. Sorry for the confusion.