The emergency of everyday life: What activists who care about the Russia Olympics should learn from sex workers, and why

This town's not big enough for Johnny Weir and me: Life-size wax figure of Stalin sits in his former dacha in Sochi

This town’s not big enough for Johnny Weir and me: Life-size wax figure of Stalin sits in his former dacha in Sochi

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor…
They always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

What Ogden Nash believed was good for the literary goose would surely be even better for the activist gander (that’s a metaphor, I know).  Yet once you’ve got a comparison in your head, it takes a brain tumor to dislodge it. The reigning simile these days is that Russians are Nazis. Therefore: Putin = Hitler, gays = Jews, 1936 = 2014, and the day after the Olympics = Auschwitz. The latest item is a Huffington Post piece which argues Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda law is exactly the same as Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The author proves this by replacing “homosexuality” in the new law’s text with the words “interracial relationships.” Q.E.D.

Unfortunately what his argument lacks is the other half of the comparison — a look at what the Nuremberg Laws said. Evidently the author hasn’t read them, because they say something quite different from Putin’s bill, and a single search-and-replace won’t make them identical. The Russian law treats sexualities as a kind of virus of persuasion, and restricts freedom of expression to keep unwanted ones from spreading. The German laws regarded race as an absolute divide, an unfathomable chasm in morality and biology that the State had to reflect. The Russian law is about defining and closing the public sphere; it censors what people say. The German laws ripped away both public rights and private safety: they stripped Jews of citizenship and began the process of criminalizing all relations, sexual and social, between the “races.” Race as it was in Hitler’s eyes can’t be turned into sexuality as Putin sees it.  You’ll never change the latter hatred if you imagine what it wants and where it comes from in the former’s terms.

Interspecies marriages are discouraged but tolerated

Interspecies marriages are discouraged but tolerated

But there’s no stopping comparisons. Apartheid, of course, comes in a close second to the Holocaust as a travel guide to Sochi. Just yesterday, blogger Melanie Nathan delivered a death-blow to the credentials of a scholar who studies Russian society and history. His crime? The schmuck wrote an op-ed arguing the Stoli boycott was misguided. “His voice should drown in one shot of vodka,” she says devastatingly:  “He also did not live through the collapse of an Apartheid South Africa.” Throw him off the ivory tower! It takes a South African to know the Russian soul. Indeed, Cape Town and the various Holocaust museums around the world contain the only qualified Russian experts in the world; all those silly Slavic departments should just shut down. Endless showings of Cry Freedom and Schindler’s List will teach us all we need to know. If we just mimic the non-black, non-Jewish heroes that Kevin Kline and Liam Neeson so movingly served up (“bridge characters,” in Nick Kristof’s helpful explanation, who “get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved”), tyrant Putin’s nyets are numbered.

So I give up. Or maybe I can join in myself. One comparison’s as good as another. The news today is that Putin has just released a decree (“On the use of high security during the XXII Olympic Winter Games”) that essentially ends freedom of movement in and around Sochi from January 7 till the end of March.

The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

There’ll be a “forbidden zone” — this is like a Tarkovsky movie — blotting out most of the city of 350,000 as if it were Chernobyl. Access for regular Russians will be severely curtailed. Any “meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets that are not associated with the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games” are banned during the period.

Western gays are the loudest ones sounding alarms over the restrictions. But they’ll hamstring plenty of other dissenters: human rights groups and Russia’s environmental movement, which hoped to protest the destruction the Games’ construction boom has brought. Independent TV channel Dozhd warned that Sochi 2014 will be like the 1980 Moscow Games, when barbed wire sliced up the city to keep “antisocial” elements distant.

And here’s the thing. This actually is one point where we can learn from the experience of Olympics past, and from other sporting events as well. Putin’s exclusions, though sweeping in their scope, are far from unprecedented in their nature.

Dozhd on Twitter: "Putin's ukase is turning Sochi 2014 into Moscow 1980."

Dozhd on Twitter: “Putin’s ukase is turning Sochi-14 into Moscow-80.”

The Olympics are always a chance for hosts to do some moral cleansing, and drive away undesirables by brute force. Gay activists join a long list of victims from past Games. Among the exiled have been the homeless, immigrants, drug addicts. They pretty much always include people selling sex, though. If Western gay bloggers or activists want to know what Putin’s decree will mean in practice: ask a sex worker.

Try a sex worker in London, for instance. Before every big sporting event, the same rhetoric reverberates: Prostitutes are going to take over this town.  All those repressed athletes with pent-up body fluids, all those spectators rutting! It was everywhere in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. The press trumpeted: “Vice girls hope to strike gold”! Local councillors “called for politicians and police across the capital to work together to tackle the problem of prostitution”:

There needs to be speed of action and there needs to be a London-wide response to this … It’s not legal so why are we tolerating it? I have asked for it to be a policing priority.

This could be your daughter: Notorious human trafficker (top right) eyes unsuspecting victim (bottom)

This could be your daughter: Notorious human trafficker (top right) eyes unsuspecting victim (bottom)

“Major sporting events can be a magnet for the global sex and trafficking industry,” intoned Dame Tessa Jowell, the Labour Party’s Olympics maven. “I am determined that traffickers will not exploit London 2012.” (Jowell’s husband had been jailed as a result of his lawyering for Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps a vision of the Italian lecher descending on England like Count Dracula, and making bunga bunga parties proliferate much as the Transylvanian spread toothmarks, clouded her objectivity.)

All predictable. None of it true. The same terrors, the same answers always recur. Before the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canadian advocates denounced “The shame of Olympics prostitution,” demanding a clampdown on women to restrain “the sexual desires of fans.” Germany, hosting football Babylon in 2006, braced for a “World Cup sex explosion,” “an influx of sex slaves.” But none of the influx happened. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) debunked the paranoias in a detailed report:

Prostitution abolitionists have argued that large groups of men at sporting events result in increased demand for commercial sex, and that this demand is supposedly met through trafficking women. Anti-trafficking organisations, sex workers rights organisations and other stakeholders have strongly refuted this claim.

They neatly lay out how predictions stacked up to realities:

GAATW Cost of a Rumour table

The predictions are nearly always couched as concern for “trafficked” women, but they mostly come down to twinned anxieties over nuisances to “normal” neighbors, and over the reputation of the host city. Yet, however based in fear and faked statistics, the demand to drive out sex workers is hard to resist. What major sporting events bring is not an “explosion” in prostitution, but an explosion in repression.

Repression! — not in evil Russia, but in liberal Canada and the UK, countries that value human rights, except for sex workers, who aren’t human. Local researchers found that “increased police harassment” of sex workers around the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics endangered their health as well as safety. There weren’t many arrests — this is Canada, eh — but much of the city became a no-go zone. The onslaught displaced them to “more isolated spaces away from health and support services, and increase[d] risks of violence and transmission of HIV/STIs.”

London’s crackdown was worse. In the first eight months of 2010 — fully two years before the Olympics — police carried out 113 brothel raids in the seven boroughs where contests and tourists would cluster. (There were only 29 raids in the capital’s other 25 boroughs.) This pace quickened as the Games drew near. In Tower Hamlets, police arrested 14 alleged sex workers in 2010, then 37 in 2011, and 44 in the first four months of 2012 alone! Toynbee Hall, an anti-poverty charity, said prostitutes were being “cleaned off the streets.”

Prostitutes are being told to stay away from parts of Newham … They have also been given curfews from 10pm to 6am, according to Toynbee Hall. One sex worker told the charity she was not allowed onto the street where she lived after 8pm.

Cops asked for “cooperation” from phone companies in shutting down one of the safer ways for sex workers to screen clients.

They want help targeting numbers advertised on thousands of sex calling cards that litter phone boxes throughout the capital. Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for policing, said the mobile phone numbers are a valuable resource for those behind the sex industry. He said an agreement must be reached between mobile phone networks and police … “Hopefully it will become dangerous to advertise your number in these boxes.”

Call me, call me any, anytime: Forms of sexual expression at the London Olympiad. L: Good. R: Bad.

Call me, call me anytime: Forms of sexual expression at the London Olympiad. L: Good. R: Bad.

A 2012 report by a Conservative member of the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, found that Olympics-related brothel raids were forcing more sex workers onto the streets, making them in turn more vulnerable to further arrests — and to violence. The risks of women being trafficked actually grew. As crackdowns drove sex workers out of their usual work spaces, police lost touch with (and trust from) sources who might have helped them identify abused women. (This situation was not helped by the UK’s appalling Sexual Offences Act of 2003, a product of Tony Blair’s oily moralism, which redefined “sex trafficking” to mean something other than “trafficking”: the term could now cover any travel to the UK to commit a sexual offence, whether voluntary or not.) But helping women wasn’t really the goal. Tower Hamlets Council said, “Where they [sex workers] aren’t willing to work with us, we are taking enforcement action against them.”

Two notorious international sex traffickers escort unwilling victim to their lair

Two notorious international sex traffickers escort unwilling victim to their lair

And this is nothing next to what’s happening in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro will host the World Cup in 2014, and the Olympics two years later. The latter honor fell to the city just months after Eduardo Paes, a chameleonlike center-right politician, won the mayoralty in 2008. Paes’s campaign money came from real-estate and construction magnates. They dreamed of gentrifying tenderloin territories across the Rio landscape. They’d hired Paes as a repo man, to evict the occupying poor.

Men in black: BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) soldier near convenient local business

Men in black: BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) soldier near conveniently situated local business

Even before the Olympics bid succeeded, Paes launched a massive police assault on favelas and poorer quarters of Rio, terrifyingly called Choque de Ordem — “Shock of Order.” It means semi-military invasions of whole neighborhoods to root out drug gangs as well as other illegal or informal activity: street vendors, squatters, tax evaders, people who don’t pay utility bills, and of course sex workers.  Usually, there’s a two-pronged assault. First troops from BOPE (“Special Police Operations Battalions”) attack the district and drive out or kill any dealers or leaders who offer resistance. Then the UPP (“Pacifying Police Units”) move in to deal with non-violent recalcitrants, like prostitutes, and to establish a permanent Pax Paesana in the area. With the Games coming, the aggression grows. To poorer Cariocans, the UPP are the Olympics Police.

Shock and Order police, and reporters, with an alleged sex worker in Jacarézinho favela, 2009

Shock of Order police, and reporters, with an alleged sex worker in Jacarézinho favela, 2009

Prostitution is legal in Brazil (though pimping and keeping a brothel are against the law), but Paes doesn’t care. It’s disorder, and deserves a shock. Earlier this year one judge, who acquitted detainees from a brothel raid, described a “repressive political climate rising from the adoption of hygienist measures, aimed at preparing Rio de Janeiro for the mega sporting events in 2014 and 2016.” One reporter recounted last year how

On the eve of June 14, as tourists streamed into town for the highly publicized Rio+20 [UN] Conference [ironically, on sustainable development], armed members of the Copacabana Police Precinct and Rio’s public prosecutor’s office arrived at a brothel called Centauros, in the heart of Ipanema Beach. They arrested prostitutes, management and the owner, seized documents, computers and used condoms, and walked out with $150,000 dollars in cash. The owner of the brothel spent a week at a maximum security prison. …

Rio has already shuttered 24 sex establishments in the rapidly gentrifying downtown and tourist‐ friendly South Zone neighborhoods. Another 33 venues have been threatened or harassed by the police. The Rio+20 raid included Centauros and another dozen of the most popular sex venues … It’s the biggest crackdown on prostitution in a generation.

Shock of Order = Extermination of the Poor

Shock of Order = Extermination of the Poor

Putin could hardly dream of remaking Sochi in the way Paes and the neoliberals are rebuilding Rio. They’re as drunk on eminent domain as Robert Moses or Albert Speer. 3,000 homes will die by bulldozer, their residents evicted, for a huge highway to exempt Olympic visitors from Rio traffic jams. In the vast favela of Rocinha, the cleanup started by shutting down street parties, a venue for sex as well as fun. The local UPP commander, “a kind of manager in Rocinha,” explained that “Citizenship is a two-­way street. Parties ended because they weren’t fitting the rules.” What fits the rules are rich people. “Property values have risen…. Rents are rising as well: a little room costs 450 reais ($225) per month, ­­the price of a house before the UPP.” As the poor are priced out, their homes become hotels for sport-loving tourists. In Rocinha, one posh auberge

covers four floors of a building that once had 106 apartments. Half of them were converted to rooms charging 98 reais ($49) a night. …. [According to the manager], the first shipment of tourists are due to arrive this month. “A group of 29 French people confirmed they were staying for one week. They want to see what a slum looks like.” 

Prostitutes exit for more respectable guests. The city envisions converting 60 “four-hour-nap hotels,” used by sex workers and clients, to fancy digs for Olympic spectators. Activists also face exile. “In the Cinelândia cultural district downtown, Rio’s oldest and most active prostitutes rights group, Davida, was evicted to make way for a boutique hotel by a French hotelier.”

"Meanwhile in Rio de Janeiro: Public policy, for real. For what?" "Marvellous city" is a nickname for Rio.

“Meanwhile in Rio de Janeiro: Public policy, for real. For what?” “Marvellous city” is a nickname for Rio.

Brazil’s resistance should be our inspiration. The massive protests of recent months unleashed indignation at the evictions, exclusions, violence carried out for sport and profit. Sex workers too have been on the march.

Yet in London, few powerful voices opposed the Olympic rollback of sex workers’ freedom — and certainly few LGBT activists. Andrew Boff, who’s gay, was a rarity in raising objections. By contrast, Peter Tatchell spoke out to “end prostitution around the Olympics.”

Anyone remember Carl Schmitt? If you seriously want to make comparisons to Nazi law, Schmitt really should be a starting point. A legal theorist of how democracies die, he wrote: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

I can make an exception for you, soldier: Carl Schmitt (R) with Ernst Junger in occupied Paris, 1943

I can make an exception for you, soldier: Carl Schmitt (R) with Ernst Junger in occupied Paris, 1943

For Schmitt, the key to authority (and, in equal degree, the indispensable secret weapon and the Achilles heel of democracies) was the legal ability to declare an emergency, to invent a moment or a place when law and due process stop. There, pure, arbitrary power can rule. The state of emergency is a paradox; provided for in law, it is nonetheless a “suspension of the legal order in its totality”; it appears to “escape every legal consideration.” Most democracies make allowances for an emergency to stop the democratic order, temporarily. The Weimar Republic did; the President could declare lawmaking, rights, and justice in abeyance, and rule by decree. It seemed like a useful idea at the time. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sees the ultimate form and zone of the emergency, the “suspension of the legal order in its totality,” in the concentration camp.

The emergency has become both basic metaphor and fact in our modern moment. This dates at least to 9/11, when an act of terror proffered an excuse for setting ordinary legality aside, for Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. The way that law can delineate preserves of lawlessness — much as it draws borders around national parks — obsesses both right and left. And it’s an issue everywhere. I write this in Egypt. An emergency law suspending ordinary rights and justice — allowing detention without trial, trial without evidence, military courts, sentence without appeal — has been in effect in one or another form for all but about 20 of the last 113 years. There’s a curfew now, the Cairo streets close down at 9 PM, tanks hunch at intersections, you can be arrested for wearing a beard. What Putin is doing in Sochi is simply another version: making the city an emergency zone, restricting rights of movement, putting bodies in extralegal cages, using terror as a reason.

There are people, though, for whom the emergency isn’t an exception. There are people who endure the state of emergency every day.


Sex law has never worked the way the rest of law does. It doesn’t play by the same rules or ask for similar evidence.  Law tends to see sex as an emergency where the regular principles don’t apply. 

Sex workers suffer an extreme example. They often live their lives under a police regime where due process plays little part — an Olympic repression without end, a perpetual state of suspended justice.  Provisions allowing detention without a chance of trial are everywhere. Police can impose fines on suspected prostitutes whenever they like, or curfews, or confine them to particular areas of a town. Morals campaigns in Zimbabwe and “quality of life” policing in the US carry comparable effects. “After dark,” several Turkish trans* women told me ten years ago, “if a transvestite goes out even for a social reason, they will arrest you for prostitution. Whether you are a prostitute or not, they assume you are.” To be arrested once for street prostitution in Turkey means to be placed on a register, subject to arrest whenever they notice you again: “Police have such powers that they can arrest you because the way you dress is against general morality or public health, or disrupting traffic.” Until a few years ago, the UK mandated (many ex-colonies still do) that any woman the police judged a “common prostitute” was suspect and could be arrested just for showing herself on the roads.

Walls around us: Sex worker street art, Buenos Aires

Walls around us: Sex worker street art, Buenos Aires

Street sex workers often circle in a public jail, with daily movement hemmed by invisible but palpable borders. But workers in state-regulated brothels may live in more literal prisons, where police protect public morality by not letting them out. To be a prostitute, in those regimes, is to lose the right to be seen. Why do you think your pungent spaghetti meal with capers and anchovies is called puttanesca — “whore’s pasta”? Because prostitutes confined in state-regulated brothels in early 20th-century Italy were only let out once a week to shop. To live, they needed to make a salty, preservable sauce that would last till their next allowed excursion.

Under such regimes of surveillance and constriction, you are a criminal; you don’t need to be judged guilty to become one. Proofs don’t matter, courts don’t intervene. The New Yorker recently reported on the scandal of “asset forfeiture,” by which police simply seize property from suspects who may never even be charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Alleged sex workers and accused clients are among the commonest victims.  One US state just passed a law that “permits authorities to forfeit the cash that was used in or intended for…sex solicitation”; it “applies to prostitutes, patrons or pimps.” Any money you have on you, or maybe even in your ATM account, will go to the cops.

And then, in the UK, there’s the “ASBO”: the “Anti-Social Behavior Order.” We owe this work of genius as well to Tony Blair, who introduced it in 1998. It allows a magistrate to control someone’s movement or behavior, not because they’ve committed a crime, but because they’ve done something “anti-social.” It must last for at least two years, sometimes longer. “ASBOs rely on hearsay and police evidence alone,” the English Collective of Prostitutes notes.  Liberty, the British human rights organization, explains that even though the order is served under civil law, “Breaching the conditions of an ASBO is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison … Individuals are being sent to prison for committing acts which may not be in themselves illegal.” Even if the act prohibited in the ASBO is something as innocent as playing loud music or walking through Sussex Gardens, you can be treated worse than an armed robber if you commit it. 

Sex workers and allies demonstrate against abuse by ASBO, Stratford Magistrates' Court, London, July 12, 2013

Sex workers and allies demonstrate against abuse by ASBO, Stratford Magistrates’ Court, London, July 12, 2013

“There has been a massive expansion in the availability and use of civil orders to regulate conduct outside of the criminal justice sphere,” Liberty says. And who are the targets? The Guardian reported in 2005,

Anti-social behaviour orders are increasingly being used against prostitutes as a “quick fix” way of clearing women off the streets, campaigners warn….

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers’ union Napo, said … “Some local authorities, in conjunction with police, are using them as a way of clearing the streets of people whose behaviour is undesirable, but not antisocial. The actual offence of prostitution is not imprisonable, but we are ending up with people facing up to five years in prison for it.”

The orders dictate sex workers’ daily movements. Here’s a headline: “ASBO bans Roehampton prostitute from Tooting Bec Common.”

Sarah Caldecott, who has several convictions for soliciting in the area, was given an antisocial behaviour order banning her from entering the zone for the next five years. …  Sergeant Jill Horsfall, of Wandsworth police’s Bedford Ward SNT, said: “Now she is the subject of an ASBO Sarah Caldecott should not be under any illusions about what will happen to her if she is spotted anywhere near Tooting Common.”

Contradiction in terms?

Contradiction in terms?

Restricting where sex workers can go, confining them, controlling them out of the public eye — isn’t that what the “pimps” and “traffickers” stand accused of doing? Tony Blair trafficked in women’s bodies. It taught him to traffic in terror.  His limits on civil liberties for despised nuisances foreshadowed some of the “anti-terrorism measures” he would introduce even before 9/11, allowing search without cause, detention without oversight, interrogation without check. The English Collective of Prostitutes says, “[As] with anti-terror laws, ASBOs have spawned a parallel legal system where the normal rules of evidence do not apply.”

“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.” Sex workers in the post-Blair UK, as in many other countries, carry their own Sochi about with them, shadow and burden above their heads. Yet LGBT activists who protest Putin rarely worry about the infringements of sexual freedom on their kerbs, in their own back yards.

You can learn things from sex workers’ resistance: slogans to borrow, strategies to share. LGBT advocates could look at the campaign to call out politicians on the 2012 repression in London. They might figure out how sex workers got the Greek government to back off from brothel raids before the 2004 Olympics — actually easing a law restricting brothel locations! They might take some lessons from sex workers fighting the restructuring of Rio. But they don’t.

Our Western LGBT activists lack imagination, the kind of imagination that connects you to reality. They don’t imagine sex workers as allies; don’t see their repression as relevant and urgent; don’t believe their activism entails models, their experience examples, or their lives value. Meanwhile, the injustices go on, and no athletes stand up in righteous anger, and Dan Savage and Jamie Kirchick have other things to do. The Republic of Ireland introduced the ASBO in 2007. It’s almost never been used since then, “shunned” out of some instinctive, civilized revulsion at its restrictiveness. Four days ago, though, police tried to invoke it against eight women, mostly Romanian, “to curb prostitution in Limerick.” Ireland cages women. Boycott Guinness, anybody? No.


“I feel like a citizen”: Canada’s sex-work decision

Warmer indoors, but still cold on the streets: Sex workers' demonstration in Ottawa, January 2012

Partial but major victory today in Canada’s sex-work court case. The full decision is here, and a description of the case here. From the Globe and Mail on today’s ruling:

Ontario’s top court has legalized brothels and will allow prostitutes to have security and other staff that is specifically aimed at protecting prostitutes.

In a landmark decision Monday, the court said that prostitution is extremely dangerous work where inherent risks are multiplied by laws preventing prostitutes from working together under one roof or hiring security staff. As of April 25, they can engage bodyguards or security staff.

In addition to striking down the law against brothels, the court modified a law criminalizing pimping, so that “it will remain illegal to live off the avails of prostitution, but only ‘in circumstances of exploitation.’” But:

The court left intact just one of three key provisions that had been challenged by three current or former prostitutes. It said that communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution will remain illegal. Yet, even that provision narrowly escaped being struck down.

In the court’s only point of disagreement, Mr. Justice James MacPherson and Madam Justice Eleanore Cronk argued that the communication law is unacceptable because it forces street prostitutes to hurriedly negotiate with customers without first being able to size them up.

The refusal of the three other judges to strike down the communication law will likely go a long way to still the fears of politicians and residents who worried about an influx of prostitutes overtly propositioning prospective clients in the streets. …

Activists at a Toronto organization known as Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, said the judges seriously erred by leaving street prostitutes unprotected, eking out a highly-dangerous existence on the extreme margins of society.

“The vast majority of all prostitution arrests are under the communication law,” said Emily Van Der Muelen, an assistant professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. “The failure to strike down the communication law means that the most vulnerable sex workers will continue to face arrest, police harassment, prosecution and violence.” …

The three judges acknowledged that the law may prevent prostitutes from being able to size up potentially dangerous customers before jumping into their cars. However, they reasoned that, with indoor prostitution now being made legal, there will be strong incentives for outdoor prostitutes to move into homes or brothels.

The Court, ominously, did not altogether discard the idea that eliminating prostitution was a legitimate public purpose, noted Carissima Mathen, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.  The judges simply found that the existing laws were not a means to that end. They

rejected arguments that the prostitution laws were linked by a common goal of eradicating prostitution itself. .. [They] agreed today that the provisions under attack were not truly aimed by legislators at eradicating prostitution, as government lawyer[s] had argued in the appeal.

Rather, they said the purposes of the provisions were to eliminate some of the undesirable social consequences of sex work – neighbourhood disruptions and the exploitation of vulnerable women by pimps.

According to Mathen, “The Court also said that [the objective of eliminating prostitution] could be valid; it just wasn’t borne out by the evidence here … This leaves some room for Parliament to come back with a new law that does have that purpose.”

Nonetheless, Valerie Scott, legal coordinator of Sex Professionals of Canada, told reporters: “I feel like a debutante. I feel like a citizen.”

O Canada, just out of curiosity I was wondering how much an hour for thee?

Tell it to the judge: Plaintiff Terri-Jean Bedford, a profesional dominatrix

Action Canada for Population and Development points out that on Monday, the Court of Appeal in the Canadian province of Ontario plans to release its decision on the legality of the province’s repressive prostitution laws. If not earth-shaking, this ruling could at least be street-shaking. Three laws stand under review: they criminalize pimping, keeping a brothel, and communicating for the purpose of prostitution. The last is especially egregious only because its assault on free speech should be evident; in fact, of course, it’s only one of innumerable such laws around the world. An Ontario defense lawyer explains people’s rights, or lack thereof, under the provision, and the catechistic formula makes this darkly funny:

Is it a crime in Canada to engage in prostitution or to obtain the sexual services of a prostitute? Yes.  Either stopping or attempting to stop a person in order to communicate for the purpose of prostitution or alternatively, communicating or attempting to communicate for the purpose of prostitution will be sufficient to ground a conviction for the offence. This means that both the prostitute and the person seeking the prostitute’s services can be found guilty of this offence.

What if I wasn’t successful in my attempt to obtain a prostitute’s services? It is not necessary to be successful in one’s attempt to communicate for the purpose of prostitution. Merely attempting to communicate with a prostitute is sufficient to be convicted of the offence.

What if I was asking the prostitute how much s/he charged out of curiosity and NOT with the intention to solicit their services as a prostitute? The Crown must prove as a fact that it was the intention of the accused person to solicit services for the purpose of prostitution. The accused must be “serious”. S/he must mean what s/he says and be willing and ready to carry out the transaction.    Simply being curious or joking is permitted under the legislation and is not evidence of the required intention to communicate for the purpose of prostitution….

Must there be a monetary transaction for the offence of communicating for the purpose of prostitution to be completed? No. Money does not have to be tendered for the offence of communicating for the purpose of prostitution to be complete. All that is required is an intention to engage in the sexual act.

It’s a relief that joking about prostitution is permitted, as well as simple curiosity about price ranges. It’s hard to imagine how either capitalism or democratic politics could continue without some legal leeway for the latter.

A lower court struck down all three laws in 2010. The primary rationale was that the provisions increase the dangers sex workers face. The question of personal freedom was not entirely circumvented, but the judge found centrally that “These laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” According to the Globe and Mail,

Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Himel based her decision on a broad conclusion that current laws offer little protection. She pointed at evidence that violence against sex workers is endemic – from serial killings by Vancouver farmer Robert Pickton, to missing prostitutes in Alberta and frequent violence against sex trade workers in the Atlantic region.

“By increasing the risk of harm to street prostitutes, the communicating law is simply too high a price to pay for the alleviation of social nuisance,” Judge Himel said. “I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public.”

The case could eventually head to the Supreme Court of Canada. If Himel’s ruling is upheld, however, the protection grounds on which she based it could open the way not for a general liberalization of Canadian laws, but for a shift to targeting only the client, not the sex worker — the so-called “Swedish model.”  The restrictions on sexual autonomy would simply be moved, at least formally, to the consumer.

Canada, that happy if chilly non-colonial and rights-based country, too often gets a free pass for its frequently appalling treatment of sex workers, both by and beyond the law. One reason is that its laws are not globally atypical, however at odds with the country’s professions of respect for freedom. Another, though, is that the disparity between its reputation and its record simply doesn’t register with many “mainstream” human rights activists. After all, Human Rights Watch and other players in the field don’t recognize that sex workers have any right to be sex workers. If the Ontario court hands down a progressive ruling, perhaps it might stimulate both reassessment and remedy for a persistent, wounding blindness among human rights practitioners.

Tales of the Night Fairies

Tomorrow, March 3, is International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. One of the best films about sex workers I’ve ever seen is Shohini Ghosh’s Tales of the Night Fairiesa lovely and — if one can use the term — nostalgic documentary about the sex industry in Calcutta. It pursues five sex workers, four women and one kothi (an effeminate man) through their daily and nightly lives in the city’s Shonagachi red light district. It also depicts the aspirations behind the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committe (DMSC, the Durbar Women’s Collaborative Committee) a collective struggling for the decriminalization of adult sex work and the right to form a trade union.
Shohini, the director, is a multifaceted mind and talent. Here is a clip of her in discussion with Arundhati Roy: 

ProstitutionSpeak, ideology, and death

"Moral Reform Directory" of 1839: This town is a horrible sump of abominable corruption, and here are the addresses

The God’s honest truth is, I get so depressed when I think about sex work.   Nothing ever changes. Or — well, let me correct that a little. Sex workers change.  The conditions of sex work change. The demographics of who goes into sex work change. The clients of sex workers change according to time, place, the economy, and other factors. The collective consciousness of sex workers changes. Even the laws around sex work change. But two things never change: The way the media reports on sex work, and the way Nicholas Kristof goes out in the wild to save some sex workers whenever there’s a full moon.   And the immobile persistence of these overwhelming facts cancels out all the other changes: the same way the occasional wobble in the earth’s axis, though it might produce an Ice Age or a mass extinction on the local scale, doesn’t alter the drone of the planet’s endless billions of rotations around the sun. The sun is a fixed fact; Nick Kristof is a fixed fact; and phrases like “Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” are fixed facts that will last till every newspaper and every computer chip are shreds of superheated carbon inside a red dwarf. And so it goes.

“Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” was in the headline of a New York Times article this month.

Two men dressed as women strutted in and out of the shadows cast by the moon, past the locked doors of residences, just off one of Brooklyn’s nondescript commercial strips.

One wore knee-high boots and jeans with flowery designs. He had the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen. The other was a rocker type, the bright red tresses of his wig bouncing giddily off his leather jacket whenever he peered over his shoulder into the headlights of an oncoming car.

Eight months ago, it was not uncommon to see as many as 20 scantily dressed women shimmying along the side streets near this one-block stretch of Madison Street between Broadway and Bushwick Avenue, selling sex for cash or other gifts, like drugs or alcohol. But a recent police crackdown and an influx of transvestite prostitutes have sent most of the women elsewhere — at least for now.

Who writes this stuff for the Times?  (Answer: Al Baker and Tim Stelloh.)  Who edits it? On what other subject would the Newspaper of Record slip into such purple prose, as if it were donning its own flowery off-the-rack fuck-me hooker outfits? What does it mean to have “the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen”? Does that mean she is a drag queen?  Or did he just mug a drag queen and steal his facial features?  Why isn’t the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation nailing the Times to the wall for this, instead of standing up for Ellen, who can probably stand up for herself?  Oh, I forgot: “transvestite” prostitutes aren’t respectable, unlike camera-coddled or drug-addled celebrities, and even Neil Patrick Harris could probably get away with calling them “drag queens” or, as GLAAD puts it, “tr*nnies.”

Slumming: A resembles-a-drag-queen and her manner-of-a-pimp

The arbiters of what’s Fit To Print, I suspect, fall back on such adj.- and adv.-filled language because they still think sex work would be unprintable in bald noun-verb phrases. The reigning ideology is all about hiding the fact that something very simple is happening, the exchange of sex for money. Instead, sacred horror and legal revulsion must cast their nebula over the scene, made up of purple rain and red-tressed wig and elaborate lighting effects to allow fantasies of rot and exploitation full play. Nothing in ProstitutionSpeak (or Pr*st*t*t**nSpeak) simply is itself. Everything resembles something, everything is like something, as if the jism of metaphor spills over and obliterates the outlines of thought. It’s all swept up in the “vibrancy and persistence of the old-fashioned street hustle, which in the predawn darkness of Bedford-Stuyvesant on Thursday spilled forth in all its crafty, competitive mercantile ways”:

As the transvestites walked up and down Madison Street looking for clients, a man, who had adopted the dress and manner of a pimp, followed them, sometimes at a close distance. Their parade was interrupted by a Mercedes sedan that pulled up to a traffic light; a door opened and a prostitute bolted out. The Mercedes sped away.

Is this guy a pimp?  Or did he beat one up, like the drag queen, and make off with his dress and manner? How do you know that’s a prostitute? Maybe she just stole a prostitute’s profession. Jesus, it’s a dangerous neighborhood.

And now it’s even more dangerous. Why? Well, there’s the police. Wheeling their attention briefly from the omnipresent Muslim threat, the cops, over three days in January, “made 195 arrests and seized 55 vehicles in what police officials called Operation Losing Proposition.” (That’s almost as good as Infinite Justice.) It’s hard to tell how they even identify the sex workers underneath all the metaphors, but in their hard-boiled wisdom, they manage. Here’s my favorite sentence from the entire piece:

In a separate case underscoring the ubiquity of streetwalking, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania man was arrested on Feb. 6 after impersonating a police officer to extort sex from prostitutes, the police said.

Hilarious. But why does it show the “ubiquity of streetwalking”? Doesn’t it really underscore the ubiquity of … cops? Of real cops and fake cops alike, swarming everywhere, the greatest danger to prostitutes’ health and integrity? As Raymond Chandler wrote at the end of his greatest novel:

I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.

So true. But then if you’re a cop, you probably don’t even notice that no one can get rid of you, or that anyone is trying.

The general gist of the article is that while “other crimes recede” in greater New York, prostitution-related arrests stay steady. But this isn’t surprising.   Those arrests, a fertile field for extortion, have always provided supplemental income for the police; and since streetwalkers are exposed pretty much by definition, it’s easy to nab them — and their clients. As it happens, Governor Eliot Spitzer (before he was brought down by the scandal over his patronizing a DC sex work ring) signed a bill changing the laws on prostitution in the state of New York. Selling sex remained a Class B Misdemeanor ( worth three months in jail or a $500 fine); but patronizing a prostitute, the crime and associated hypocrisy soon to topple Spitzer, went up to Class A, carrying one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. For cops, the clients have always represented a readier source of bribes, since they have both more money to offer and more reputation to save. Now they also face more risk. So it’s not surprising that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s chief target in Operation Losing Perspiration was the johns.

Protest against Raymond Kelly: We don't just spy on Muslims anymore

The article tries to put the best gloss on this by suggesting the notoriously un-cosmopolitan Commish was in fact mimicking the famous “Swedish model” — a Nordic effort to target “the point of demand” rather than the prostitute herself. For Head Cop Kelly, the guy who goes to Bed-Stuy looking for a blow job is now engaged in “human trafficking”: the slave trade in women, or in “drag queens” or “transvestites.” All this, the writers claim, “occurred after Mr. Kelly took part in a series of meetings, beginning last year, with advocates from Europe and others aiming ‘for a fairer approach to prostitution.'” But:

Some advocates for prostitutes noted that 10 prostitutes were included in the mid-January arrests, which sends a mixed message. Others, including one former call girl, said it was wrong to focus on johns because it could make those clients more nervous and less likely to share the kind of personal information prostitutes rely on to ensure their safety.

Stop that man! Marketing the Swedish model

Predictably, in letters to the Times’ editor, advocates of the Swedish model call it a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.”  Is it — even in Sweden? There, one analyst reports that, since the system began in 1999,

Police harassment of prostitutes has increased – they can be forced to appear in court to provide testimony against the client (they can refuse to witness, but they are still summoned and sometimes escorted to courtrooms), and whenever they are caught with a client, their belongings are searched and they may be frisked. Anything that police think they can use as evidence against clients (such as condoms) are confiscated. In those cases where a man was caught with a condom on his penis in the back of his car, police have used that fact to argue that he was breaking the law. This practice clearly has consequences for condom use among sexworkers. It provides both them and their clients with strong incentives to avoid using them. The law has been a catastrophe for non-Swedish sexworkers – if the prostitute found with a client is not a citizen or legal resident of Sweden, she is immediately deported; in fact government prosecutors complain that in a number of cases they were unable to gain convictions against clients because the prostitutes they were found with had been deported before they could even give a statement. This fact affects the willingness of non-residents to report on violence.

But the model’s goal is not actually to defend the rights of sex workers — in or out of the trade. It’s to pursue a project both chimerical and, in its infatuation with the radical absolute, Stalinist: the eradication of sex work altogether.   We “must work to end it — in our lifetime and forever,” Nora Ramos, of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (and “drag queens”? and “transvestites?”), instructs the Times. 

Prostitution won’t end. But the fantastic dream of its elimination will continue to inspire brutality in the inquisitional name of an erasing justice.  Since the crime leaves neither victims nor evidence behind, the quest to find and eradicate it breeds deep intrusions into personal and physical privacy, and torturous semantic reinterpretations of proof.  In Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2007, I listened to a police inspector try to justify the arrest and beating of several metis (a local Nepali term for effeminate men) the night before. The cops had inspected their penises by the light of mobile phones in search of numinous sex traces. That didn’t work– but “Of course they were engaged in immoral activity,” he shouted. “We found condoms on them!”

The same inquisitive spirit animates police from Bed-Stuy to Stockholm.  In a miraculously more sympathetic article this week, the Times writes:

When she worked the streets, Yvette Gonzales said, she frequently saw other prostitutes working without condoms. But they were not having unprotected sex at the request of their customers.

Often, Ms. Gonzales said, the police would confiscate condoms when making a prostitution arrest so they could be used as evidence. And as soon as the prostitutes were released from jail, she said, they would go right back to work without protection; or refrain from carrying condoms at all, for fear of being arrested. …

In a recent survey of 35 prostitutes conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 16 said they had not carried condoms at times because they were afraid it might lead to trouble with the police. Fifteen said their condoms had been destroyed or taken away by the police. Three of those 15 said they had engaged in sex afterwards without a condom.

Don't take the C train

For thirteen years, lawmakers have tried to push a bill through the New York legislature that would bar prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence of criminal conduct. For thirteen years, it’s died in committee. Now, it may have a chance of passage. The Times waffles characteristically on the rights and wrongs here: “Excluding certain types of evidence from criminal court is rare, but not unprecedented,” it intones. But that’s not the point: condoms aren’t evidence of criminal conduct. Even where prostitution is penalized, a woman, a man, a “drag queen” or a “transvestite” may have condoms in their pocket simply because they want to protect themselves, and be ready for opportunities. They should have them. As one judge in Manhattan Criminal Court said, “In the age of AIDS and H.I.V., if people are sexually active at a certain age and they are not walking around with condoms, they are fools.”

The New York Police Department did not respond to questions about the proposal, but prosecutors said they wanted the option of including condom evidence at trial.  “I oppose any law that would restrict our use of evidence,”  said Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. “Prosecutors in my office assess evidence on a case-by-case basis, determining what is appropriate in each situation.”

It’s a wrenching misuse of language for the anti-trafficking crowd to claim that those officials are bent on a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.”   Only the vagaries of ideology can allow such a distortion. The police and prosecutors are on the side of death.

The Rescue Industry

Kristof in Tahrir: Is that a brothel, or a KFC?

During the Egyptian Revolution, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was wandering Midan Tahrir giving the uprising his ponderous approval, I told friends that if Mubarak wanted to get at least one pesky journalist off his back, he need only give Nick directions to Clotbey Street — the capital’s ancient red-light district — and tell him there were girls who needed saving. Such is Kristof’s passion to rescue misused and trafficked women that he would have dropped everything to head there. And given that Nick permits no struggle for human freedom to go on without him, the revolt would surely have been suspended, and Mubarak would still be in charge.

Kristof is back, this week, with an attack on online advertising for sex work.  As always, his column starts with a moving personal story of a rescued woman, then moves without delay to assert this represents all prostitutes’ situations.   His target this time are the ads in Backpage and The Village Voice; he agrees with the largely-discredited Ashton Kutcher that these are fronts for trafficking.

Melissa Giri Grant and Maggie McNeill have already gone after Kutcher’s unsurprisingly unresearched claims, so there’s no need to do so here.  Kristof doesn’t even bother with evidence; he contents himself with writing, ‘While there are no reliable figures for human trafficking, the more we look, the more we find.” But his solution is invariable — raid! arrest! or in this case, censor! ban!  The online venues for sale of sex must be eliminated. Also predictable is the highly case-specific Marxism, which assumes that in this one profession people who sell their labor are reduced to inert commodities, while longshoremen or auto workers or New York Times columnists go on the market but retain full consciousness. Sex ads on the Web are “a godsend to pimps, allowing customers to order a girl online as if she were a pizza.” It’s hard, really, to see how Kristof takes an interest in political revolutions at all, since the only sphere of life where he allows any analysis of exploitation is sex.

Never mind that Web ads are in fact a primary way for individual sex workers to seek clients without the mediation of pimps. Never mind that banning them will only drive sex workers into hierarchical, and potentially hyperexploitative, structures of employment. Another consistent feature of anti-trafficking campaigns is their indifference to their own consequences. The moral purity of the campaigners is what counts, not the welfare of the “victims.”

Raiders of the lost tart: Salvation tweets

Anthropologist Laura Agustin has been a naggingly exact critic of Kristof’s for a long time, pointing out not just his errors of fact but the sheer trivializing vulgarity of his stunts, like live-tweeting a raid on a brothel. On the same day as Kristof’s latest column, she published a piece in Counterpunch, “The Soft Side of Imperialism.”  She draws the connections between the Sex Rescuers and other forms of a corrupted humanitarianism that justifies forcible interventions in the name of voiceless “victims.”

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. …

The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. … Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior. …

With justification firmly in place, the US Rescue Industry imposes itself on the rest of the world through policies against prostitution, on the one hand, and against trafficking, on the other. In their book Half the Sky, Kristof and co-author Sheryl WuDunn liken the emancipation of women to the abolition of slavery, but his own actions –brothel raids, a game teaching players to protect village women – reflect only paternalism.

What can I say? Read Agustin’s article. This is one of the central problems — curses — of the whole human rights field. Human Rights Watch used to proclaim itself a “voice for the voiceless”; I think it’s stopped, but the both the mentality and the language (which was used in Kristof’s citation for a Pulitzer Prize) persist in innumerable places. The truly victimized still have voices. They need to be listened to, not ventriloquized. The Rescue Industry only reveals the inflation of ego and the ignorance of history that infect the practice of human rights, at their most rhetorically weighted, their most emotionally addictive.

Sex trafficking: The numbers game

Maggie McNeill ties into the wildly fluctuating figures that Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and their prohibit-prostitution acolytes use to push the idea that child sex trafficking is a massive crisis in the US. Drawing on the research of three intrepid reporters, she invites us to compare

the widely-touted “100,000-300,000 trafficked children” myth … with the police arrest records of the 37 largest American cities … [I]n the past decade there were only 8263 juveniles arrested for prostitution among them, an average of 827 per year (roughly 22 per city per year).  Even if one assumes that these cities together have only half of the underage prostitutes in the U.S., that still gives us fewer than 1700 per year.  Ask yourself:  Even considering the incompetence of police departments, which is more believable: that police catch roughly 5% of underage prostitutes per year (by my estimate), or that they catch only 0.27% per year? …

Not that any of this bothers Maggie Neilson, Ashton & Demi’s “celebrity charity consultant”; she told the reporter “I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed.  While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.”  Presumably it would still “need to be addressed” if the number were 827, so why not just say 827?  Because, of course, that wouldn’t justify pouring millions down police department and NGO toilets instead of spending it on programs to help actual underage prostitutes (as opposed to phantom multitudes of “trafficked children”):  as the article explains, “…though Congress has spent hundreds of millions in tax-generated money to fight human trafficking, it has yet to spend a penny to shelter and counsel those boys and girls in America who are, in fact, underage prostitutes.  In March of this year…[two senators] introduced legislation to fund six shelters with $15 million in grants. The shelters would provide beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services.  If enacted, this legislation would be the first of its kind…[it] has yet to clear the Senate or the House.”

Two points.

  1. These people throw around numbers like so much confetti.
  2. At what dreadful point in your life, with what emotions of numbness and accidie and emptiness, with what complete lack of direction and slack limpness of the will, amid what utter failure to believe that you can possibly find a useful niche for yourself or do anything that might even imaginably have an impact on the world for some evanescent good — in what hopeless rut of existential despair do you wake up in the morning and decide to become a “celebrity charity consultant”?

Occupy sex

fist the powers that be

Branded deep in Harvard’s institutional psyche is the trauma of the 1969 student strike, when protesters occupied the president’s office and shut the school down. They were calling for an end to the University’s coziness with the US military, a black studies program, and no more expropriations of working-class housing — but beyond that, as the famous poster said, they wanted a different life, demanded “to be more human.”  In the strike’s wake, the University moved the president’s house to a far suburban street to prevent hostage-taking, delved more tunnels between campus buildings to facilitate escape, and formally invited women to join the student body, to keep the radicals distracted. Some distinguished and unnerved professors in the Department of English decided to experiment with thinking the way the demonstrators did. If you wanted to destroy Western civilization, they reasoned, where would you strike next? Naturally, you’d try to burn the card catalog of Widener Library, that comprehensive collection of man’s intellectual accomplishments, to render the lending system impotent and knowledge inaccessible to the race. So they recruited sympathetic colleagues to stand sentinel on our cultural heritage in shifts, and these tweedy, chalk-haired heroes took turns lurking discreetly around the catalogs, on guard lest some filthy longhair slip a Molotov cocktail into a drawer. I often think of this whenever I go to the reading room and see the seamless computerized system doling out books now. Barring a Chinese virus, civilization is safe.

OK, 1% inside, 99% outside. Got it?

This history helps explain the University’s inept, paranoid response to the nascent Occupy Harvard movement, a few hundred protesters demanding an institution more open to the other 99%.  The institution has closed and padlocked the gates of Harvard Yard, stationed police all round as if it were a rather cushy Supermax prison, and barred access to anyone without a Harvard ID. As a public-relations move, this tends to reinforce the demonstrators’ point, that those outside the 1% aren’t welcome there. However, it’s a reminder that the fabled, shared, rich commonality of intellectual life has nothing to do with the University as faux community.  Harvard is private property — it is, in fact, quite literally a corporation, and proudly proclaims it’s the oldest one in the Western Hemisphere.  It can keep anyone off the grass it likes. The only one allowed to occupy Harvard is Harvard itself.

I’ve written here earlier about the “new enclosures,” the increasing privatization of public space: how much of what we might think is open territory in city and suburb is actually owned by somebody. And corporations buying up the commons can then severely circumscribe our ability to speak, protest, and assemble. It’s important to remember, though, that even space that is formally, legally public — streets, sidewalks, squares — usually comes with all manner of restrictions on who is allowed to use it or to appear there. In many cases these limitations are invisible to “respectable” users, whose looks and manners don’t transgress the written or unwritten rules. But for others, they are vivid and brutal. And it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of these boundaries involve sex.

A new report by the Alliance for a Safe & Diverse DC,  “Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington DC,” shows some of these.  The US capital has passed new laws augmenting “an already stringent system of policing and “zero tolerance” for most forms of commercial sex in the city,” by restricting where sex workers can go.

The most high profile measure allows the Chief of Police to declare “prostitution free zones” (PFZs) in which officers have wide-sweeping power to move along or arrest people who police believe to be congregating for the purpose of prostitution. The PFZ concept was framed as an innovative tool to assist law enforcement in its efforts to rid the District of prostitution. In fact, the law simply legitimized previously existing arbitrary and discriminatory police actions directed at people believed to be engaging in sex work.

no girls allowed

This is fairly astonishing. A “prostitution free zone” in the city one of whose streets (K Street, if you’re from another planet) has become a worldwide symbol of corporate bribery and corruption? Shouldn’t members of Congress and similar hustlers be banned from these moral precincts, as well as the working girls? It takes chutzpah.

The inevitable way these laws work is that police arrest anyone they recognize as a sex worker (usually, anybody with a previous arrest) when they’re spotted outside the “safe zone.” One stop from a cop can be enough to restrict your mobility for life. But this is an everyday and widespread way of regulating sex work and keeping the unwanted out of sight. Taiwan, for instance, claims a brand-new law is a liberal triumph that “legalizes” prostitution in certain areas. But in fact it eliminates sex workers’ freedom of movement — and is likely to increase prosecutions.

Taiwan has legalised the creation of red light districts in a bid to regulate the sex industry, but prostitutes themselves say the new law could actually worsen their plight.

Under the law passed by parliament Friday, local governments are allowed to set up special penalty-free sex trade zones, but outside them prostitutes will still be be fined – as, for the first time, will their clients and pimps.

The constitutional court scrapped the previous law punishing only prostitutes on the grounds it was unfair.

But so far no local authority has yet said it will create a legal prostitution area, leaving streetwalkers fearing they face the worst of both worlds.

The desire to set up a segregated sexual geography runs deep. The Dominican Republic is presently debating a proposed law requiring sex workers to carry government-issued cards certifying their health status, at all times. Their work would be confined to so-called “zones of tolerance” — an old but Orwellian term — and they would be restricted to living “in establishments away from residential centers, main avenues of the city and areas that have historical, artistic or cultural significance for the country.” At  a public hearing, a neighborhood association representative bemoaned the “shame” incurred

as a result of the activity of prostitution in the place.  He also considered as embarrassing and decadent the spectacles and misconduct made by women, homosexuals, and transvestites who sell sex.

A Dominican journalist calls the proposal a “mask of hypocrisy,” a breast-beating substitute for “improving the living conditions of the population.”

Part of the political genius of the Occupy movements is that they give physical, immediate, almost sensuous expression to the sense of exclusion so many economically and politically disenfranchised people feel. They sharpen the contrast between private property and common ground, expropriation and community, the high towers of financial privilege and the cold and open street.

It’s vital, then, to bear in memory the other despised and unwanted people who have been shoved out of the commons into the alleys and the prison cells: the sex workers, drug users, cruisers, vagrants, homeless, and the rest, all those whose bodies expose them to the lash of laws that for the rest of us remain invisible and unfelt. It’s critical (even as the right wing tries to deprecate and demonize the movement as a cover for rutting adolescents to make free love like rabbits) to recall that sex is entwined with money and power as a justification for exclusion. Occupy sex!  Own up to it and own it in all its diversity of forms and pleasures. Our bodies and desires need to be reclaimed for a human future too.

Sex workers on feminism

It’s movie night!  This video, made by sex workers, features sex workers speaking out about women’s right “to choose what happens to one’s body and to control what happens to one’s body.” It’s a rousing defense of the right to bodily autonomy as well as sexual expression, and I particularly like the slinky music playing in the background.


Listen to me, not the prostitute. I said: Listen to ME!

You can't say that here: the rejected billboard

The question of UK aid linkage concerns me because of what I’ve always taken as an issue basic to activist politics: representation. Who speaks for whom? Why should people in London be accredited as honorary consuls for movements thousands of miles away? Against the interwoven obstacles of distance, borders, money, and power, how can those movements make their voices heard?

The borders are psychological, not just political, and there’s as much silence in LA as London.

Mention “prostitution” in Los Angeles and you’re likely to hear of local hero Ashton Kutcher, who campaigns against any form of sex work as human trafficking. (On the other coast, he tried to get American Airlines to pull its advertising from the Village Voice because the latter ran ads for sex work: “Hey @AmericanAir are you aware that you are advertising on a site that supports the Sale of Human Beings (slavery)?”, ran a barrage of tweets.)

Meanwhile, when a sex workers’ rights project called SWAAY (Sex Work Activists, Allies, and You) tried to buy space around LA for a text-only billboard contending that consensual sex work is not the same as trafficking or slavery, nobody would sell. “Any variation of the group’s message was banned by Clear Channel, CBS, Lamar, Regency, Van Wagner, Avant Outdoor, LA Transit Authority, and Outdoor Solutions.” This week, instead, the group is running a mobile billboard, travelling the Los Angeles streets. (Trafficking in sex? No. Sex in traffic.)

It’s not as though those big communications companies are averse to controversial subjects — prostitution included. Clear Channel already runs this sensational anti-sex-work billboard, warning johns that the morally sterling LAPD will get them:

calling all cars: sex for sale

— as well as this militaristic ad against immigration:

CBS is perfectly fine with giving space to these anti-abortion messages warning of a genocide against black fetuses:

(Of these ads, one feminist historian said: “To use racist arguments to try to bait black people to get them to be anti-abortion is just disgusting.”)

St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco comprehensive health clinic run by and for sex workers, recently faced the same problems with its own ad campaign.

“Sex workers” is “not a family friendly term,” Barbara Haux, a CBS Outdoor senior account executive, wrote in a rejection e-mail to the clinic. The company said it would reconsider, but only if that phrase was not used.

In a statement to The Bay Citizen, a representative of Clear Channel Outdoor defended its choice not to run the ads, saying that local managers review all content to make sure it meets “standards of the local community.” …

The ads feature cheery photographs of local sex workers (from the shoulders up), their family members and health care providers, images that include a woman in a fur coat, a man with a dog and a couple touching heads. The tagline “Someone you know is a sex worker” accompanies the images.

“This is about humanizing us,” said Naomi Akers, the clinic’s executive director and a former sex worker who is one of 27 people photographed for the campaign. “We’re not just the stereotype of sexual deviant. We’re everyday people.”

The ads eventually appeared on San Francisco city buses.

stop that bus before it enslaves someone

Southern Africa is way more progressive than San Francisco.  Botswana’s ex-president Festus Mogae recently called for decriminalizing sex work (as well as homosexual conduct) to enable effective anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns. His words gave support to out and vocal activists pressing for liberalization across the region.

In response, the Botswanan press has begun featuring the voices of sex workers in ways that would appall California corporations. This article in the Botswana Gazette still tends toward the patronizing, but is far more honest than Clear Channel could stand:

These women in their thirties have become friends; Barbara from Zimbabwe is the bubbly one who says she has been a sex worker for about five years, having fled Zimbabwe in search of a better life. …

The police and nurses are their enemies; they say they are harassed by the police and nurses; sometimes policemen take advantage of them because they cannot report them because sex work is illegal. “The police are always after us; they arrest us, sometimes we sleep with them to let us go. Nurses will not treat us because they say we deserve to be sick because we trade in sex. Our job puts our health at risk and this means we seek medical attention more than any other individual due to sexually transmitted infections (STI),” said Pretty.

The women cannot open bank accounts to save what they earn. “Usually we spend the cash on cosmetics to beautify our selves so that we attract more customers,” Sethunya noted. …

The women want their trade to be legalised and fully support  president Festus Mogae’s call at the recent National Aids Council that prostitution should be legalised as a way to fight the spread of HIV/Aids. …

The Botswana Council of Churches with  Kgolagano Most at Risk Populations (BCC/MAPS), consisting of approximately 1000 commercial sex worker-members have already set the pace; they help the sex workers with advice and provide them with condoms to emphasise protection at all times. (BCC/MAPS) say they are willing to help the women to quit the trade, but would only be able to do so if they had money to help the women to start up new business that can sustain them….

The women, though, sound like they’d rather organize than quit: “The sex workers believe that decriminalisation of their work would help them to be organised, and afford them with protection from the law.”