I was…trying to create a voice for women who had actually been in prostitution within a framework that was largely made up of activists who hadn’t and who didn’t particularly want the opinions of those who had. – Jill Brenneman
This is the conclusion of an interview which started Monday; if you have not read it please go back and read that part first, but be warned that the first two parts are the most graphic, disturbing narrative I have yet published or am likely to publish again, and I must caution sensitive readers to consider carefully before proceeding. Today’s installment also contains one intense passage, but if you’ve read the others you should be able to handle this one.
Maggie: So due to Christine Stark’s resignation, you found yourself in charge of Escape immediately after you embraced harm reduction; what happened next?
Jill: Less than a month after International Day of No Prostitution, I sent a public press release and also modified the Escape website to advise that we were now modifying the existing operational model and bylaws to make harm reduction a major component in our ideology and services. Christine resigned entirely from the organization and the radical feminist and anti-trafficking communities were quick and very strong in their condemnation of adding harm reduction. They demanded my termination or resignation and there was an abundance of criticism, hate mail, a death threat and efforts to get me dropped from scheduled speaking events. I reached out to the sex worker rights movement, and though I expected a very negative response given my activism over the previous 3 years the response I actually got was supportive, warm and open. That same month Christine and I and another member of Escape fulfilled a contractual obligation to make a presentation in Washington, DC at a Justice Department, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention conference. When I arrived, the moderators spoke to me about what they had been told about my “conversion to pro-prostitution” and gave me a list of topics and words that were banned; it said “harm reduction” was a banned topic, “sex worker” a banned term. I still used both in the first breakout session and was advised immediately afterward that my input had been excluded from the record and that my services were not needed for the remainder of the event. I was fine with that, and I flew back to Minnesota, brought in new members with a harm reduction and/or sex worker rights viewpoint and refused to sign the anti-prostitution oath attached to a $10,000 grant offer (which cost us the grant). In 2006, what had once been Escape officially became an autonomous chapter of SWOP called SWOP East.
Maggie: What amazes me is how incredibly ignorant the “antis” are, and how much they want to remain ignorant; most activists have been directly affected by whatever it is they’re trying to fight (people who join MADD have usually lost love ones to drunk drivers, etc), but it seems most of these anti-prostitution crusaders don’t have even secondhand knowledge of sex work. Their opposition appears to be entirely academic and based on fallacies and lies. Would you say that’s a fair statement?
Jill: I would say it is entirely fair. For the most part they are ultra second wave feminists who have taken it to an extreme. It’s like their goal is to impose their ideology onto the world from an angle of a political tyrant. Dissent is not tolerated. They are easily threatened by activists with actual experience in the sex industry; they view them as damaged, unreliable and essentially good only for doing the footwork in whatever battle they are wrapped up in. Donna Hughes used to whine about how taking on the issue of prostitution had so harmed her career and how we, meaning those who had been prostitutes, didn’t appreciate it. Nikki Craft said she hated prostitutes. Others said they wished they had been prostitutes because they would have the experience without being fucked up like we were and have their academic credentials for credibility. Of all the former sex workers I did activism with on the anti side in the late ‘90s, all but one have left or have been driven out of the anti movement. Most gravitated to sex worker rights or harm reduction or left activism on the issue entirely.
The antis encourage lies, which they call “re-framing experiences”, to make their point. As difficult and extreme as my experiences were, they wanted me to re-frame them, meaning add things that didn’t happen to make it worse.
Maggie: Eventually, you returned to sex work, but this time as a consenting adult in charge of your own life. Obviously that happened after you broke with the antis, but what inspired you to go back to a type of work that must’ve had some terrible associations in your mind?
Jill: I returned to sex work in 2009. Just a month prior, desperate for a job after the flight attendant job ended with the airline going bankrupt, I accepted a position as a valet parking attendant for a local hospital. It was 3/10 of a mile run for each customer’s car in the parking deck. At 43 years old, I lasted 9 days running roughly 8 miles a day before seriously injuring both knees on a misstep from a curb to the pavement. Both knees required surgery and long rehab, and the workers comp carrier paid $106 dollars a week which didn’t even cover the rent. Needing money and having very limited options I met with a local escort service that agreed to market me as 34 rather than 43 and I started taking outcall clients. My years of counseling had paid off as had my time in the sex worker rights movement, because I found that I could set boundaries with the clients and that it wasn’t as it had been with Bruce. I wasn’t a slave this time. I couldn’t care less how the clients felt. The deal usually was one climax or one hour, with very few exceptions; I found that I had no stomach for the longer sessions that some wanted even though it was more money. Sometimes I had to catch myself as falling into the slave mode still wasn’t that far a jump from the present moment. But it worked, although I often felt dejected that I was a prostitute in my 40’s. Somehow I’d envisioned a different picture for my 40’s.
The true challenge came in July of last year when I was violently raped and assaulted by a client whose full time job was as a Federal Air Marshal. Being handcuffed again, having someone hold a trashbag over my head until I stopped resisting and being forced to swallow the used condom as his point to fully ensure that I understood that he was alpha. The rape set me reeling emotionally, and the past flooded back. A few days later I flew to Vegas for the Desiree Alliance Convention but was non-participating; I was emotionally lost and mentally affected by the concussion he had inflicted. Rather than attend breakout sessions or speeches by my friends and colleagues, I was lost in flashbacks and had difficulty determining reality and separating the present from the past. I became suicidal and spent time getting prescription meds from my psychiatrist faxed to a pharmacy in Vegas. I think a close friend that I was sharing a room with realized how far over the edge I was because despite my protestations they wouldn’t let me be alone.
Maggie: From your writings I can see that by September at least that depression had turned into anger.
Jill: After I physically recovered I felt a strong sense of rage. It fully struck me when the escort service called me and asked me if I would consider a date with the air marshal again even though I had told them what he did. They said he praised me and offered more money to have me again. I was powerless to do anything to him because he was law enforcement, I am a prostitute and as such, I likely would be the criminal to the police. I had no evidence because he made me swallow the condom. But ultimately my anger is at abolitionists who fight so hard to keep prostitution criminalized. Criminalization denied me any hope of justice and protected a rapist from prosecution just as it had when I was a runaway teen. Their criminalization efforts and their faux rescue ideology are as much to blame for the rape as the rapist himself; criminalization gave him a blank check to do what he wanted to. It reminded me just how easy it was for a client to reset the clock and turn me back into a slave captive to his violence, with the alleged rescue/feminist abolitionist movement cheering the whole process as saving innocents. All of us doing sex work remain in danger because of criminalization and because of the “work” of the abolitionist movement. I realized on the flight back from Vegas how easily anyone at the convention, any one of my sex worker friends and allies, could be quickly reduced to where I had been without recourse, with no legal protection and with an alleged anti-trafficking movement helping enforce the victimization.
While I’m still doing sex work because I need the money and lack other options, my sense of safety is compromised. I’m haunted by the fact that it happened before and can easily happen again. I realize how close I still am to being the devastated teenager lying on a cold cement floor unable to move from the pain of violent rapes and physical and sexual assaults, yet chained to that floor for the visual stimulation of a predator. I feel like those same chains are still there, they still rattle, only now they are invisible, they are instead criminalization. That criminalization is advanced by academic activists who have never been on that floor and are doing their “work” not because they care about saving anyone but because it advances their careers and gives them an ideology in which they can claim moral superiority and starve their “enemies” of human rights…enemies who are sex workers trying to make a living.