Sex work, drugs, stigma

My friend and colleague Akim Ade Larcher, originally from St. Lucia in the balmy Caribbean but now working in cold Toronto, finds Canada colder than it should be. Blamelessly placid though the country may appear, a chill still surrounds those whose bodies are different, or who, even more seriously, do things with their bodies of which the state disapproves.  Akim writes,

In Canada, the word stigma is associated with sex workers, drug users, prisoners, HIV positive people, gay men, Blacks, sex offenders to name a few. I wanted to explore the concept of stigmatization … and see whether I could capture how the criminalization of sex work and drug use increases risks and harms.

Purple orgasm

He’s now trying to raise funds to mount an exhibit of photographs and literary texts showing the persistence of stigma and the power of criminal law in Canada. Take a look at the website, which looks fantastic, and particularly the videos. Let him know what you think, and contribute if you can.

Amazing sex workouts for students!

Indian sex workers protest state repression

I just noticed that when you type “sex work” into Google, the first thing it tries to steer you to is “Amazing Sex Workouts for Men.” What is going on here? Come on, screw the algorithm, this can’t really be the number one thing inquiring minds are looking for. Surely Google is just terrified of becoming the new Craigslist.

Which at least leads me to what I wanted to talk about. Here’s a sex worker commenting, a year ago, on who was affected by Craigslist’s decision (not very well enforced) to drop sex ads:

Now that Craigslist has removed their Adult Services, we can assume that all the “exploited” women of the world can breathe safely. But what about all the women who happily and voluntarily advertised their erotic services on Craiglist? …

Really, the women most affected by the shuttering of Adult Services are all the “non-pros” — college students and young women freelancing in the sex trade for extra money. “It was the safest, easiest way for an independent woman to earn a little extra cash doing something she already enjoyed — without the risks or rigmarole that can go along with being a ‘pro,'” explained Vita, a 30-something, Ivy-leaguer who used CL between, and sometimes during, the low-paying “real jobs” her MFA afforded her.

Despite the fact that the Attorneys General claim the site was a source of “misery” for “women and children victimized by these ads,” I couldn’t find anyone who actually used CL’s Adult Services and agreed. The greatest threat to sex workers is when they don’t have the ability to screen or have a say in the clients they see. …

Of all the sex workers — professionals and freelancers — we talked to, none of them said they ever felt personally threatened or unsafe from a Craigslist encounter. … While a woman might decide that standing on a street corner, waiting to be propositioned for sex was too risky, answering an online ad from someone offering 150 roses for a blow job at a nearby hotel might not be such a bad thing. The beauty of Adult Services, compared to other listing sites such as Backpage or CityVibe, was that a provider was in total control over how much information she wanted to share.

I’m interested in this because another article has gotten a lot of buzz in the last few days:  “Sex Work to Pay Off College Loans? How the College Debt Racket Sucks Young People Dry — And Led Many to Occupy Wall St.” Written by Melissa Gira Grant, a former sex trade worker herself, it starts with a young man who’s part of the New York protests: 

“My loans are $1,300 a month,” he said. “My rent is $1,300 a month. My salary is $2,600 a month. You can see the problem. So I work as a prostitute for food and utilities.”

The article is really quite good. Cutbacks on student loans, and increasing rapacity on the part of educational institutions themselves, are making it impossible for kids to get a degree that essentially is the sole entry to employment in the U.S.  Grant quotes a leader of the movement to forgive student loans, in a summing-up:

“By turning education into a commodity where the students must personally bear the full costs of an educational system that, in fact, benefits all of society, not just the students themselves, we’ve shifted the ever-increasing burden of skyrocketing tuition costs down the socio-economic ladder onto those who can least afford to shoulder them. Couple that with a job market that’s been utterly decimated by the irresponsibility and greed of those at the very top, the underlying reasons for the Occupy Wall Street protests start to come into focus.”  

But what has this got to do with sex work?

Actually, aside from the scandalous intro, nothing in the article does. It’s about economic exploitation, not sexual shame. And that should be the point.

I’ve known plenty of middle-class students — starting in the 80s — who dealt with the skyrocketing costs of an education advertised to everybody but priced to the kids of the rich, by doing sex work on the side.  I’ve also known plenty of students who waited tables in restaurants or cafes, did “tutoring” for richer kids, translated texts ranging from the dumb to the dull for pennies a word, drove taxis, or other menial jobs, to get by.   I can tell you who felt more exploited. Sex work, entered into with proper protections (see the quote above) and a clear-eyed set of goals, paid more and offered more independence.

Of course, the downside was that you could get expelled if the school authorities found out about this rampant immorality, or you could go to jail.  But this was a matter of regressive laws, repressive policing, and oppressive social attitudes.

What the headline of this article in the otherwise unimpeachable Alternet suggests, is the still-surviving sexual puritanism of part of the Left. I’m willing to bet Grant herself wasn’t responsible for the slant; but some editor saw an easy way to score shock points on Occupy Wall Street’s behalf. That’s wrong. It distracts from actual concerns. The real issue is twofold:

  • the lack of support society provides for equal educational advancement, which drives students away from study and into a variety of ill-paid, exploitative work;
  • and the state and social oppression that makes some of the best-paid work available illegal and unnecessarily dangerous.
Come on, guys. Get your priorities straight.

After Demi, the demimonde

Ashton Kutcher seems intent on being the anti-Charlie Sheen. He hopes to start a movement against guys who buy sex. Not content with eschewing prostitutes, he wants every male to do so, and thus deprive sex work of its lifeblood of cash. His excess of virtue hasn’t prevented a split with Demi Moore, but it’s probably manna to his PR people.

Melissa Gira Grant discusses why his twittery campaign hurts, rather than helps, women.

Meanwhile an interview with a Canadian feminist deals, somewhat superficially, with her conversion to supporting decriminalization of sex work. Although the private sale of sex is technically not criminal in Canada, “communication in public for the purpose of prostitution” (among other ancillary acts)  is — leading not only to rampant prosecutions for personals ads, but to a general furtiveness about sidewalk whispers, and possibly some nervous discussions among buyers of TV time for the Conservative Party. The Ontario Supreme Court recently found this unconstitutional; the decision is under appeal.  Stephen Harper’s government wants to strengthen sanctions against sex work. The existing ban serves only to jail women and johns for the crime of speaking. Its sole advantage to the national interest is that it helps keep Charlie Sheen out.