Is there such a thing as prohibitionist feminism? In January, a reference to supporting sex workers’ rights was briefly removed from the website of the Women’s March on Washington. “Intersectional feminism is the future of feminism and of this movement,” said Bob Bland, one of the event’s co-chairs. “We must not just talk about feminism as one issue…” Leaving aside the question of whether Bland understands what intersectionality means—sex work prohibitionism is a political stance, not an identity or a social position—can feminism, a social-justice movement for women’s equality and human rights, encompass the belief that women should be prohibited from engaging in sex work through the brute force of the criminal law, no matter the consequences?
It is probably true that many women would support stricter anti-sex work laws than now exist on paper… It is probably also true that some of those women support other feminist goals, like equal pay, more women in political office, and stronger action against domestic violence and rape. But does that mean the women’s movement should soft-pedal or even drop its support for decriminalizing sex work?
…Like it or not, sex workers’ rights are at tremendous risk right now. A political movement that doesn’t defend them and promotes instead some vague notion of “unity” is bound to be weak tea to the women who are the movement’s strongest activists. After all, nothing prevents prohibitionist women from being active in other feminist and progressive causes…
My own view is that people are complicated and mix up their politics in all kinds of ways. A woman can believe that women are equal to men and also that no woman should ever sell sex. She can be anti-sex work for herself, in other words, and many pro-sex workers’ rights women are. But rights and personal ethics are not the same. I just don’t see how restricting and criminalizing sex work, bullying women out of the business, and pushing lies—that sex work will always give you post-traumatic stress disorder, make you diseased, or lead to a life’s worth of misery—are compatible with respecting other women’s right to make their own moral decisions in an area where people disagree strongly and probably always will.
Allow me this appropriation of Jessica Valenti’s column, who said it first re: abortion:
So you’ll excuse me for laughing off recent suggestions that feminists embrace “anti-sex work” women in the name of inclusivity. You don’t get to feel bad about being banned from the treehouse when you’re in the middle of setting the trunk on fire.
If anti-sex work legislators or so-called “abolitionist” feminists were interested in decreasing the number of women who sell sex they’d be enthusiastically supporting worker organizing, living wage jobs (including legal access to work for undocumented women), and truly affordable housing and healthcare. They would fight to end the police profiling of women of color and transgender women. They’d be introducing legislation to protect women’s rights to work free from violence and exploitation no matter what job they do.
But they’re not. And they won’t. So let’s not fool ourselves – these next four years are about fighting for what’s right, not searching for the nonexistent distraction of common ground.
A video archive of my July 2014 talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society:
The history of the American red light district is quite brief – from railroad signal lights to hotel bathroom selfies – and clouded in myth. Soon it may be lost. In this talk, journalist Melissa Gira Grant (author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work) will reconsider how communication technologies shape sex-for-sale, proposing that sex work has merged with the network. We’ll surveil the police, missionaries, media, and politicians who created and command this space, and discuss what we can learn from how sex workers have remained a step ahead.
The history of the American red light district is quite brief – from railroad signal lights to hotel bathroom selfies – and clouded in myth. Soon it may be lost. In this talk, I will reconsider how communication technologies shape sex-for-sale, proposing that sex work has merged with the network. We’ll surveil the police, missionaries, media, and politicians who created and command this space, and discuss what we can learn from how sex workers have remained a step ahead.
The talk is at capacity, but will be livestreamed beginning at 12:30 PM EDT.
The tour continues to Washington, DC, where on March 14 I’m giving a keynote at CatalystCon and on March 15 will be leading a workshop on The Work of Sex Work.
Brooklyn Law School presents a panel on Sex and the Law on March 17, where I’ll be discussing sex work and labor.
In San Francisco, The Booksmith will host a reading and signing on March 19. On March 21, at the Center for Sex and Culture, I’ll be the guest on a special live recording of The Whorecast podcast with host Siouxsie Q.
In Los Angeles, Stories will host a reading and signing on March 22.
Researching sex worker politics and movement history for my book led me first to Carol Leigh’s wonderful archives, and then to what I only realized upon digging through dozens of boxes had become my own. (You spend ten years going to protests, conferences, clubs, brothels, and brunches with other sex workers, and you will amass a beautiful collection of paper.)
As I pack my materials back up into my archives, I’ll post pieces of my collection here.
It’s only fitting to start with a program for Carol Leigh’s own Sex Worker Festival, which continues on in San Francisco. In 2007, it coincided with the Desiree Alliance national sex worker conference, for a week of workshops, performances, films, and parties.
These programs funnel men arrested for buying sex (or trans* women misgendered as men, as well as queer men, who are arrested for selling sex) into classes meant to prevent them from buying sex again. Researchers Rachel Lovell and Ann Jordan authored a thorough report on how these programs work, and more to the point, why they don’t actually work.
Another detail of evening events.
The Roaming Hookerfest featured a project I collaborated with Norene Leddy on back in the day, The Aphrodite Project, a GPS-enabled platform shoe connecting the wearer to a private support network, over which they can share their location as a safety measure. Under the heel, the platform also housed a shriek alarm and video screen. Platforms were never meant for mass manufacture; we created a DIY kit for anyone to make their own. We talked about putting a mini-projector into the platform (a suggestion from artist Natalie Jeremijenko) so being part of this guerilla projector mobile movie fest was perfect.
I’m using first names because I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time together – on subway rides, on airplanes, in bed. Even at the peep show. That’s right: the first time I heard your voice, I was in blue leopard print lingerie, thumbing through the radio dial, and since it was a Saturday morning and customers were out doing better stuff than looking at naked girls (perhaps listening to your show?), I had the luxury of an uninterrupted hour with you for my first time. It was great. I loved your strange, slow pauses and carefully casual enunciation. In retrospect, it was a lot like the speaking mannerisms I had to adopt to be heard by the customers through the glass.
You already know part of this story. Back in 2010, your production manager Seth Lind (I can’t even type that without hearing it in your voice) emailed me and asked if he could run a photo of me doing a drag tribute to you on the This American Life blog. It was totally great of him to ask, and so perfectly full circle: I had started up a podcast in that peep show, the first podcast from a peep show ever (hey, it was 2005, we were first at everything, and rubbing elbows with you in iTunes was always a thrill – like that time my show was the #1 show three weeks running in politics, religion, and business? heady days!), and now, you wanted to recognize this tribute I made to you and your show (and for a calendar raising money for sex workers to speak up in the press and produce their own media!). I was smitten before, and now I was honored.
I hope you don’t mind the intimate tone here, but you know this: radio is perfect for creating intimacy. All those voices can just go about anywhere you invite them to, bringing in stories you never expected to even want to hear, let alone hang out with the engine off (or the peep show curtain pulled shut) to finish. Those of us who make a life out of telling stories, we do it because we all at some point had to fight to have our stories heard and understood. Even though these days more and more people have tools available to them to share their stories (podcasting, blogging hey!) the media playground has never been a level one. The odds are still stacked against anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of the mainstream tracks. Because no matter how cool the toys we have available to us are in this ever-expanding media playground, some kids will always have bigger lawyers.
This is what’s troubling to me, this thing where Chicago Public Media has (on your behalf) sent its recess monitors on the producers of This American Whore. I first heard about their show (where else) on Twitter, where they were using the handle whorecast. I thought, oh wow, it’s another podcast called whorecast!That was what I called mine! But this is totally great. They are doing what I don’t have the opportunity to do right now – no longer working in the sex industry, I don’t get to hear the amazing real life stories they do. So even if they are using a name that’s close to what I used to use, I’m so glad for them. It feels like a tribute. Our collective editorial storytelling calendar is tight, and resources are scant – I’m glad to have anyone pick up stories and give them their due.
I was going to send this to Seth, who was also cool enough to invite me onto his show, Told, and tell stories about my time in sex work. (How do you follow Kevin Allison doing a story about losing his anal virginity to a cucumber? With a butternut squash.) But then I thought it really should go to you, because you’re how this all started for me, anyway. You were there for me on late nights and way too early mornings in that peep show, where I followed your media-making maxim for beginners to be willing to be really terrible at it for a while, to give yourself as many years as it takes to figure out how to even tell a story. I’d like to think my peep show paycheck was the journalism internship I could never afford. It gave me the cash to cover those critical years to be terrible and get better. And while I was at the peep show, I went from writing on my own website, to being published in the (much missed) $pread magazine, to getting my first job as a reporter. It’s been almost ten years since I first went to work at the peep show, and I’d like to think I know how to tell stories (finally! I had pieces in Reason, Dissent, and Glamour in the last month, and I honestly don’t know a single other person who can say that). So thank you.
But – even though I first invited your voice into my life when I was half-naked and under (some really cheap-ass) red lights? I would never mistake your show for a show run by and for sex workers.
Can you let your lawyers know?
Thanks, your fan –
ps: When I asked Torey Malatia what the lawsuit would cost, he said “it’s $20 for a 2.5 minute show.”
Update, February 6, 2013 / 7pm
Ira Glass responds:
It’s recently been reported in the press that we’re asking the podcast This American Whore to change their name. There’s been a suggestion that we’re singling them out because of their content. We’re not!
I’ve listened to This American Whore. I find them charming. It’s an interesting podcast and a window into a world that’s very different from my daily life, for sure. I’m glad they’re out there making these and hope they continue.
But the way trademark law works is that we or any business with a trademarked name has to protect that name. If you don’t take action when you hear about people knocking off your name, and get them to stop, you can lose your trademark rights.
Whenever we find out about any podcasts with names similar to ours, our lawyers review what action would be appropriate. Some names and shows are parodies, which are a protected class under the law. Some have audiences that are so negligible that they pose no trademark threat.
Last year, we had an issue with a podcast called This American Startup, and they eventually agreed to modify their name. In the past we’ve taken similar actions which didn’t get press attention. There are some other shows and podcasts out there still with names similar to ours that our lawyers are planning to approach. This American Whore is not being singled out.
I wish them the best. Make more podcasts! I’ll keep listening! If I lose this job and become a sex worker, I hope you’ll have me on as a guest. Just change your name.
I’m finally reading a raft of sex worker memoirs I should have years ago, but didn’t. Those that populate the current pile follow the same arc: good white girls gone wild, took clothes off for money, “explored” their “bad” sides, “learned something.” They represent four decades of personal writing about sex work. They aren’t even all that inaccurate. They’re just more representative of what editors like than what sex work is like.
The book I am waiting for is the one where the author admits that sex work didn’t actually make her “interesting,” or radical, or different. That she crossed no great line.