The Atlantic’s CityLab: How D.C. Finally Stopped Punishing Sex Workers for Carrying Condoms

CityLab: Washington, DC

The Atlantic’s CityLab is publishing a series I reported while on book tour, on sex work and policing in America. My second story covers policing and discrimination in Washington, DC:

In some District of Columbia neighborhoods, the Metropolitan police pass out business cards decorated with a rainbow-hued row of condoms. “Individuals are allowed to carry as many condoms as they want,” the text reads. “There is no ‘three condom rule.'”

“People can’t believe it,” says Darby Hickey, a sex worker rights and trans rights activist in D.C., who is currently working for a member of the D.C. Council. “They take photos of the cards,” she tells me. “And they’re like, ‘you can’t believe what I just got from the police, check this out’ and they text it or they tweet it – trans workers, sex workers, people who get profiled by the police.”

New series on sex work and policing for The Atlantic’s CityLab

CityLab, The Atlantic

The Atlantic’s CityLab is publishing a series I reported while on book tour, on sex work and policing in America. From the series introduction:

I spent the spring between a handful of U.S. cities toting around a bag printed in gold with BIG BROTHEL IS WATCHING YOU. In TSA lines and hotels, I turned the words toward my chest. As wedded as I was to my gear, I couldn’t risk a hassle. I didn’t know how much those guards and attendants were accustomed to what they’d consider the sexual underclass – even though the people who inhabit it move about those same spaces, too. I didn’t know how long I’d be afforded a moment to explain: I was on business, but not that kind, and if I was, what does it matter?

What will follow over the coming days are a series of stories from the American cities whose sex work economies, laws, and human rights advocates I detail in my new book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. There is no sex work without the city, though you aren’t likely to see much overt evidence of that today. Unless you’re a potential customer or a member of law enforcement – men whose business it is to look – people who sell sex might be invisible to you. But even in a state of crackdown, sex workers have always been able to find one another.

Playing the Whore, UK Tour

The World’s Oldest Procession wrapped its first US leg this week, and in a few hours, I’ll be off to London for two weeks of readings, talks, and assorted uprising.

Observer, Melissa Gira Grant

The Observer ran a profile ahead of all this, with a new excerpt from the book.

At the University of Brighton on March 26, I’ll be in conversation with Georgina Voss, on sex work and labor

The London launch of Playing the Whore is Thursday, March 27 at Foyles, where I’ll be in conversation with journalist and author Laurie Penny.

I’ll speak as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas on Friday, March 28.

Conway Hall will host a talk on March 30.

Sunday Papers Live will have me presenting also on March 30.

I’ll be joined by the English Collective of Prostitutes at the University of London Union on March 31.

The Edinburgh University Feminists will host me on April 1.

We’ll close out the UK tour at the University of Glasgow Art School Bar on April 2.



Whores at the barricades

Caty and I got into lively conversation last night (well, we were already in it) when these photos from Sunday’s demonstrations in Turkey started flying around Twitter and Facebook. This one’s been shared about 5000 times from this post, and then was tweeted (and translated from a sign with the same slogan) on Twitter:

“We’re whores, and sure these politicians are not our kids!”

Caty put it to a Turkish-speaking friend on Facebook, who offered this translation of the sign, which is a little different:


“We whores are sure that Tayyip is not our son.”

The reference for the shirt and sign’s pushback is the insult “son of a whore,” one of those slurs of contamination (your mother is worthless, ergo…). You see and hear it at these demos sometimes without a thought, particularly the thought that maybe, the woman in the t-shirt with the red umbrella marching side-by-side with you might be a whore. So here she is speaking back.

And, using the same words as sex workers at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol occupation in 2011 to do so, when they had to confront the same:

…we decided that we absolutely had to have a pedagogical, and not just militant, approach. We try to make protesters aware that some of the language and slogans they use are profoundly misogynistic, even if they don’t mean them to be. People tend to call such-and-such politician a “son of a whore”, for example. In response, a group of sex- worker activists began holding posters that read: “Excuse me, but I’m a whore, and I can assure you these politicians are not my sons.”

We try to use humour and dialogue, not so much to change the actual words people use, but to get them to reflect on negative gender stereotypes and their impact on society.

This one says: “Let whores govern, since their sons have failed us”

I remembered a more explicitly nasty variation on the whore-as-capitalist-collaborator meme that popped up at Zuccotti Park, again in the pose of anti-austerity critique:

"MY money's no whore."

Heaping such blame is both anti-worker and misogynist, and props up claims that capitalism and patriarchy are somehow driven by prostitution (which predates one, if not both). If it exists at all as its own special dirty category of money distinct from all that other virtuous money, “whore money” – the actual money made by whores –  is a stop-gap for many struggling in the crisis, not the crisis itself. Never mind the fact that whores are more likely than most other workers to keep money outside of a bank, due to banks’ own discriminatory policies and fears of attracting scrutiny that could in turn attract police attention. (Also, is ball-licking here posited as awesome or exploitative, and can you have it both ways, even rhetorically? Cool story, protestbros.)

(That’s a sticker, by the way, stuck up on “the red thing,” Occupy Wall Street’s iconic homing beacon. To throw more signs, etc. on top of this, it was the day Judith Butler came to speak at Zuccotti, and the park was so packed we couldn’t even find her, just ten feet away.)

But in Zuccotti Park, as in Puerta del Sol, as in Gezi Park:

Sex workers stand w/ all workers

Whores have long been at the barricades, even when they didn’t announce themselves. Forty years ago this Sunday, the prostitutes of Lyon did so under their own banner, and occupied a church in protest of the police, an action now regarded as the birth of the modern sex workers’ right movement:

And also this weekend, French sex workers union STRASS with members of Doctors of the World offered this message in solidarity (h/t, Luca):


(Mega h/t to @kitabet on Twitter, who translated and circulated the original images from Turkey, who pointed out that if the park that inspired these protests was destroyed, trans sex workers would be among those displaced. Many “development” projects in global cities have been nothing but tarted-up “clean streets” campaigns, resulting in, and certainly in the case of Times Square’s re-development, intending to cause the isolation of sex workers from their work, homes, and communities.)


@mexber on Twitter comments, “I don’t have any hard evidence but I am pretty sure that frase was used in the early 00’ protests in Argentina.” He finds this photo from Mexico City in 2004:

Que nos gobiernen_ juzguen y cuiden las putas_ que sus hijos nos han fallado

The banner reads, by his translation, “Whores to power. Their sons have already failed us.”



It’s official: I just got the domain renewal notice, as reliable a memory trigger as any. I won’t run down the whole first year, but I do have a few remainders to share, items that didn’t get enough attention here (though I may have posted them elsewhere), highlights and high marks I want to carry with me into year two.

I was invited to be a guest on a houseboat named for Nancy Boggs, a madam who kept a floating brothel. Nancy was docked in the Rockaways, and after Sandy, is almost certainly lost.

Over the last weekend in May, I headed up to Montreal (thank you, the indomitable Sarah Jaffe, for making this happen) to witness the massive street protests which had grown out of weeks of student strikes, and in response to their attempted repression.

We learned a whole new set of protest conventions, from casseroles (trading the inescapable mostly-white-people-drums of marches for the simultaneously more familiar and more German industrial sounds of banging the pots and pans from your own kitchen)…

…to the habits of the Anarchopanda, who stands on the front lines of marches with students and cops.

I profiled Anarchopanda and his protest politics for Wired.

By coincidence, that same weekend saw the funeral for Montreal’s red light district, which has been targeted by politicians and developers to be cleared and converted to fancy lofts affordable to no one who currently lives and works there. The protest and procession was led by burlesque performers, sex worker allies, and artists. (And thank you, Seska, for tipping me off.)

In July, I spent almost two weeks on the road, between Washington DC and Dallas. In DC, I covered the International AIDS Conference, the first in the United States in twenty years, for The Nation. Though President Obama lifted the HIV travel ban, effectively allowing the conference back to the US, sex workers and people who use drugs are still not permitted visas to enter the US.

Those who could come from within the United States (no small feat, either, at such an expensive conference) and those who risked being turned away at the border to enter protested the opening of the conference, and took part in a large march to the White House alongside hundreds of other activists fighting the criminalization of people living with AIDS.

I was a guest on Democracy Now, talking in part on the failures of criminalizing sex work, drugs, and HIV. They also highlighted the Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata, where sex workers held their own satellite AIDS conference.

12 hours after leaving DC, I was on a plane to Dallas to cover Glenn Beck’s rally/revival at Cowboys Stadium, “Restoring Love” for Citizen Radio. I talked socialism with the tailgaters (Glenn Beck Parking Lot!), and overheard revolution at the megachuch. And I met the man who makes Glenn Beck’s custom jeans line.

At the end of August, I took off to Louisiana for a week to visit with friends in New Orleans and with the boyfriend’s family, and I did not write a word.

(I did start reading the first and only book of fiction I read all year, which I still haven’t finished, The Crimson Petal and the White.)

Most of my best end of the year news is still under wraps. Two pieces I’m especially proud of writing this year will come out at the first of 2013. And in December, I was made a contributing editor at Jacobin, whose staff and associates have been a huge critical influence all this year.

Here’s the last – in addition to those above, my favorite pieces that were published in 2012:

Happy Hookers,” for Jacobin tops my own list.

Hey Ho! Backpage Protesters Hit Village Voice on the Hottest Day of the Year,” for The New York Observer/Betabeat, contains the most improbable protest chant of the year.

My explainer on California’s Prop 35 (for RH RealityCheck), one of the harshest new anti-prostitution laws passed this year, was my most widely-read piece of 2012.

Organized Labors’ Newest Heroes: Strippers,” was my first piece for The Atlantic, on the last fifteen years of strip club organizing in the US (and with some of my favorite interviews of the year – Mariko Passion in particular).

I collaborated with photographer Fette Sans on an illustrated story about sex and loss and trains for Abe’s Penny, the remarkable postcard-based literary journal.

ACT UP and Occupy joined up for an action in New York City, marking the 25th anniversary of ACT UP’s Wall Street protest. I reviewed the new documentary on ACT UP, United In Anger, through that action, for Waging Nonviolence.

My only personal essay of the year appeared at Rhizome, reflecting on and documenting a performance project I launched in early 2012, called What Price Love?

The Peoples’ Library of Occupy Wall Street brought a lawsuit against the city of New York over the seizure and destruction of their collection during the November 2011 raid on Zuccotti Park. I spoke with some of the Occupy Librarians and members of their legal team for Truthout.

I lent some historical POV on the backbone of the internet to a Vice/Motherboard documentary Free The Network, on a radical tech project to take back the physical infrastructure of the internet.

When the Village Voice tried to break up with their sex ads (for the second or third time this year?), I demanded we “Socialize Backpage” for Jacobin.

I wrote for Glamour quite a bit this year, which is really best enjoyed in print and on your lap. Fave: asking men about their kinks, which got a MMF threesome into this venerable ladymag. (Thx also, Ms. M.)

And for “DNA Database for Men Who Pay for Sex?,” for AlterNet, I finally got to interview anti-prostitution darling Melissa Farley. To date, this is the only time I have interviewed someone who called me back the next day, unsolicited, to continue.


December 17: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Nine years ago, I observed the first vigil of what would become the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Sex workers, friends, and family from Sex Workers Outreach Project invited us to gather outside San Francisco City Hall. Over the first few years, there were so few of us standing in that circle that we could all make eye contact across its diameter.  (I couldn’t find any media coverage of 2003. The San Francisco Bay Guardian covered the 2011 vigil in San Francisco.)

Here’s a photo that I love from San Francisco in 2008, the last year I lived there. It’s by Steve Rhodes. We had taken the vigil that year to the steps of the police station, then marched in the streets past the Federal building to St. James Infirmary, the sex worker run community clinic.


I first met St. James staff at the vigils in 2003, 2004. I got to go to work there in 2006, and stayed for two years. When I look at the photos from this march, I remember how easily defiant we were – taking the streets, no cops to harass us, unimaginable now. And in many ways, it will feel like how I said good-bye to that community, as someone within it. In a few months, I’d move to New York, retire from sex work, and focus on work as a journalist and writer. From then on, when I went out to cover sex work marches, vigils, and actions, I was greeted first as press. I met people who never knew I did sex work myself. There’s benefits to that, that I hope make me better at the job I do now.

This morning, close to a decade after we first gathered in San Francisco, I woke up to YouTube messages from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, Facebook updates from New Orleans and Providence and Los Angeles, and tweets from a march in Kenya. I read this post from Anarchafeministwhore, hitting that hard note that this day does: fighting violence against sex workers might appeal to people – even people who consider themselves allies – who mostly see sex workers as victims. Will those allies support sex workers who also want to fight violent systems? The police who ignore violence, the social service agencies who stigmatize, the rescue industry concerned more with their own numbers games, the so-called “rights” activists who still see jail as a solution to injustice?

In the industry I’m in now, I know very well that I’m part of one of the many systems that has done tremendous harm to sex workers, who daily publishes the names and addresses of people arrested on suspicion of being sex workers, who helps feed money and public support to the rescue industry without asking enough critical questions, who gets acclaim for doing all of this. So I ask myself questions rooted in values from sex worker communities: How can I take care of myself? How can I find ways to resist? How can I do no harm?

Tonight, people will gather for 2012’s vigils. I’m not sure yet, but I’ll probably be home tonight, observing privately, and writing and listening to this.

“Happy Hookers”


“…happy hookers, says Kristof, don’t despair, this isn’t about women like you – we don’t really mean to put you out of work. Never mind that shutting down the businesses people in the sex trade depend on for safety and survival only exposes all of them to danger and poverty, no matter how much choice they have. Kristof and the Evangelicals outside the Village Voice succeed only in taking choices away from people who are unlikely to turn up outside the New York Times, demanding that Kristof’s column be taken away from him.

Even if they did, with the platform he’s built for himself as the true expert on sex workers’ lives, men like Kristof can’t be run out of town so easily. There’s always another TED conference, another women’s rights organization eager to hire his expertise. Kristof and those like him, who have made saving women from themselves their pet issue and vocation, are so fixated on the notion that almost no one would ever choose to sell sex that they miss the dull and daily choices that all working people face in the course of making a living. Kristof himself makes good money at this, but to consider sex workers’ equally important economic survival is inconvenient for him.”

That’s from Happy Hookers, my critique, in part, of feminism’s departure into special-white-lady-ism, and a critique made possible by one fundamental text.

Thanks to Bhaskar and Peter over at the Jacobin for working with me on this. And thanks to Sarah Jaffe and Mike Konczal, also, for the late Thursday night thinking-and-drinking that inspired it in the first place.

Occupy Oakland Patriarchy outing people in the sex trade?

An important follow-up to the demonstration that activists organized under the banner of Occupy Oakland Patriarchy held outside an anti-prostitution conference in Oakland last week—Emi Koyama, who writes extensively on anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigns, responds:

…in the statement announcing their protest/disruption, [Occupy Oakland Patriarchy] prominently use a quote from my article in Bitch magazine, identifying me as a “sex worker and activist”…

While I do not make secret of my history in the sex trade, I use discretion as to when and where I refer to myself as a sex worker for my safety–not just safety from violence, but from prejudice, discrimination, and police surveillance.

It’s a distinction that might not make sense to people who haven’t done sex work. It’s one that I’ve fought with, as well: when writing about Backpage and Ashton Kutcher for the Guardian (UK) last year, I didn’t explicitly come out as a sex worker in my piece, which angered some people in response to it, who felt I should have (as if that alone explained away my criticism?).

Posting Emi’s response here gave me pause for a minute, too. I don’t necessarily want to amplify the original posting that Emi is calling out. But I do think it’s important to amplify Emi’s concerns and to ask activists, even those who aim to support sex workers, to understand the risks that can come with being known as a sex worker.