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Dr. Laura Agustín, author of the blog The Naked Anthropologist and the book Sex at the Margins, the seminal work on “sex trafficking” hysteria (in which she coined the term “rescue industry”), has written The Three-Headed Dog, a novel  dramatizing the problems faced by migrants.  It’s another way of introducing readers to the issues the “sex trafficking” paradigm attempts to paper over, which Dr. Agustín has studied for over 20 years and understands in a way very few others do.  I recently read the novel, and Dr. Agustín graciously agreed to answer some questions about it.

MM:  Sex at the Margins has been and continues to be a work of major importance to the sex workers’ rights movement; I know it really helped me to shake off the dualistic thinking about “willing” vs “coerced” sex work, and it’s invaluable in getting people to look at their preconceptions around why people (especially women) leave their original home countries to work.  So why did you decide to write fiction instead of a 10th-anniversary edition?

LA:  The essence of Sex at the Margins doesn’t need updating, by which I mean women’s migration to work as maids or to sell sex, the use of smugglers, the rise of the Rescue Industry.  Someone else can document the growth and proliferation of that last, if they can stomach it, but the core ideas haven’t changed.  I wanted to write stories to reach people who don’t read books like Sex at the Margins and who only hear about the issues from mainstream media reports.  The Three-Headed Dog provides a way to learn about social realities and be gripped by stories at the same time.

MM:  I write fiction myself, so that makes sense to me.  But what made you choose the crime genre?  Why not do a “straight” novel?

LA:  Crime seemed like the right frame, because everyone thinks smuggling and undocumented migration are at least technically crimes – leaving the idea of trafficking out of it.  I am a fan of some kinds of mystery writing, and the formula of a detective who searches for missing migrants provides infinite opportunities for all sorts of stories and characters.

MM:  I think you just started to answer one of my questions!  At the end of the book several questions are unresolved, and I would have liked to know more about Félix, the detective.  Is this the first of a series?

LA:  I’ve got too many stories to tell for one book.  The Dog was getting long and complicated, so I decided to make it the first in a series.  In the detective genre it’s common for some questions to remain dangling, and readers know they can learn more in the next installment.  If I’d been writing 150 years ago I might have done weekly installments in a magazine, as Dickens did with The Pickwick Papers.  In the next book, which I’ve started, Félix’s search takes her to Calais and London.

MM:  I was very intrigued by Félix, and it seems to me that she might be based on you.  Would I be correct?  And are any other characters based on people you know?

LA:  The characters created themselves in my mind out of the many thousands of migrant friends and acquaintances I’ve had in my life.  Including myself.  But they sprang forth and told me who they were.  I identify with much of Félix’s character, but I identify with much of the smuggler Sarac’s character, too.

MM:  I like that Félix has some history of sex work, and that she still seems to be comfortable taking gigs that dip into the edges of sex work.

LA:  She certainly was a sex worker during the European tour she did when younger with her friend Leila, who now lives in Tangier.  I think she still takes sexwork gigs when it suits her. I expect she’ll tell us more about that in the future.

MM:  Not many novels have well-developed and nuanced sex workers as major characters, and when we appear as minor characters we’re mostly there to be rescued or murdered.  But these characters, even the minor ones, are much more developed than that.  There was one character, Marina, who was clearly intending to do sex work, but what about the others?  I couldn’t be sure.

LA:  This is Marina’s second time sexworking in Spain.  Félix looks for two other characters in spas (massage joints) in Madrid, and one of those is adamant about not intending to be a maid.  They’re Latin Americans who belong to a long tradition of working in indoor businesses like bars and flats, or sometimes in the street.  They arrive with contacts and some prior knowledge of what they’re getting into, so it’s a serious problem when the smuggler makes them de-plane in Madrid instead of Málaga.  Of the other characters, Promise, the Nigerian, planned to sexwork in the street, and Eddy, the boy who goes missing, doesn’t intend anything but is moving in that direction.

MM: It seemed to me that their ending up in Madrid was a very big issue, even beyond the lack of connections.  Is Madrid so very different from Málaga?

LA:  Yes, Madrid is a harder place, a capital city and centre of echt-Spanish culture.  Málaga is on the Costa del Sol, crossroads for many kinds of migration, smuggling, tourism and crime.  It’s a long stretch of coast that ends in a point only 32 kilometres from Africa across the Mediterranean Sea.  Nowadays many non-Spanish Europeans from colder climates have homes there in quasi-closed communities.  The coast is by no means a piece of cake, but it’s not a cold, self-important northern city.  Personally I feel a great sense of history there and lived in Granada during the years I worked on Sex at the Margins.

MM:  So it’s a good place to find jobs that aren’t strictly legal?

LA:  This is about informal economies that exist in parallel to formal ones (which means they’re included in government accounting).  Informal economies are even larger than the formal in some developing countries.  In Spain it is not illegal to sell sex, but undocumented migrants have no right to be in the country at all, much less work there.  The same is true when they get jobs in restaurant kitchens, on construction sites, picking fruit and working as maids and cleaners.  The informal economy rolls along, the jobs are available and migrants are more or less glad to get them despite the clandestinity.

MM:  And as you discussed in Sex at the Margins, it’s this informal economy that’s depicted as “trafficking” nowadays, even when there’s no coercion involved per se.

LA:  The group that arrives by plane at the beginning are undocumented migrants.  They’ve got papers to show at the border: passports and tourist visas.  Fakery was involved, and these young people are planning to get paid work, so they’re going to misuse the visas.  A guy who’s part of the smuggling travels with them.  The project is based on the migrants getting jobs and income so they can pay back debts they or their families took on when they bought travel-agency-type services (known in crime-circles as smuggling).  Technically they’re all committing crimes, but to the migrants they feel like minor crimes, given the well-known availability of jobs when they arrive.  Everyone knows people who’ve done it and sent money home.  Do smugglers sometimes resort to nefarious practices?  Of course; it’s an unregulated economy.  But if smugglers want to stay in the business they guard their reputation.  Word spreads.

MM:  I’m sure the rescue industry folks would find fault with the fact that the book isn’t about people “rescuing” these migrants from their smugglers.

LA:  I wrote this book out of love, not as polemic.  I’d have to get paid very well to devote myself for long to analysing moral entrepreneurship; I don’t find crusader-figures interesting.  I don’t see the world in black-and-white, I like ambiguity and shifting ground.  In Félix’s interior life, questions of helping and saving play a part, but she refuses the rescuer-role.

MM:  And really, even the villains aren’t the mustache-twirling cardboard characters so beloved by those who promote the “sex trafficking” narrative.  I’m thinking about Sarac, the smuggler, and Carlos, the sex club owner.

LA:  The smugglers are squabbling amongst themselves and not very appealing, but they aren’t monsters or driving anyone into bondage.  They charge for their services.  Sarac worked as a soldier/mercenary, now does “security” and is involved in people-smuggling.  He wants to do something new, but not pimping.  Carlos operates hostess clubs in Madrid.  Those are not illegal, but he may employ illegal migrants.  He’s part of an established tradition, and he makes good money on the women’s work.

MM:  I think American readers have some very confused ideas about the sex industry and migration in Europe.  Do you think The Three-Headed Dog will appeal to them and help clear up some of those misconceptions?

LA:  Undocumented migration and working in underground economies are worldwide phenomena no matter what local culture or national laws prevail.  Ways to earn money by selling sex vary in the details, but sex workers recognise each other across national borders and talk about the same problems and solutions everywhere.  Sometimes places where laws are uglier provide more opportunities.  Since the migrants are working illegally in Spain they have a lot in common with all sex workers in the USA, right?

MM:  True; all of us are illegal here, whether we were born here or not.  Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers that I haven’t thought of?

LA:  Yes, I want to point out that even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can still buy the Kindle version of The Three-Headed Dog and download a free reading app right there.  And you can read more about sex industry jobs here at my blog.

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I don’t read much recent fiction, so it’s not surprising that I’m unfamiliar with T.J. Corcoran’s work.  He is, however, apparently familiar with mine, and a couple of weeks ago he reached out to me to ask if I’d be willing to host an excerpt from his new book (with a link to his Kickstarter at the end).  The subject matter (an anarchist society & a celebration of the “live and let live” philosophy) certainly fits here, so I said yes; judging by the blurbs he sent along he’s a controversial figure even in libertarian circles, but he isn’t the first controversial guest columnist I’ve hosted and he certainly won’t be the last.   

2064, Morlock Engineering office, Aristillus, Lunar Nearside

Mike groaned. “Wam, I do not need another fucking problem right now.  The Veleka tunnel issue still isn’t resolved, we’re behind schedule on rubble clearance because that last fucking load of bulldozers are somewhere in a orbit instead of down here where I need them, the damned Boardroom group -”

Mike realized that Wam’s eyes were wide and he stumbled to a halt. “I shouldn’t be venting at you. OK, what’s going on?”

“Problems with the Bao Johnson deal. One of the security contracts we own now is Leon’s Poker House.  A few hours ago some Mormons smashed up the place and threatened the working girls.”

“We agreed to defend Leon’s?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Leon’s, right next to all the new Mormon arrivals?”

Wam sigh. “Yeah.”

“Let me guess. We didn’t pick which gigs we took – Bao hand picked them and gave us his dogs?”

Wam winced, embarrassed. “Yes.”

“Fucking great.”

Wam was silent.

Mike sighed. “Not your fault, Wam.  What do you need from me?”

“We signed the version four security contract, so we’re responsible for adjudicating who smashed up the casino and threatened the hookers, then collecting damages.”

“That’s easy enough – the Mormons, right?”

“Yeah, we’ve got video.  But we’re not actually set up as a security firm.  We don’t have an investigator or a negotiator.  There’s no process, Mike.”

Mike rubbed his eyes, then pinched the bridge of his nose.  “You’re too polite to say it, are you?”

Wam held back a smile.  “Say what?”

“Too polite to say that this idea of using the First to pick up a security gig was idiotic.  That I got us in over our heads.”

Wam’s smile started to show. “I wouldn’t say idiotic…”

Mike waited for the other shoe to drop.

“…but I might be persuaded to say ‘not very well thought out’.”

Mike nodded. “Fair enough.”

“…or I might use the phrase ‘spreading yourself too thin’.”

“OK, I get it-”

“…or perhaps ‘a distraction when you should be’-”

Mike raised his hands and feigned warding off blows. “Stop kicking a man when he’s down.  What do I have to do?”

“Watch this video, then go talk to Mark.”

On the screen the virtual camera first focused on the marchers coming down the street, banners high.  The point of view kept retreating as the marchers advanced.  Confused Chinese immigrants stepped out of the way.  The sound slowly ramped up and the chants became louder.

Wam froze the video. “Here, on the left is Mark Soldner, LDS branch president -”

Mike sighed.  “I know Mark.”  He rubbed his eyes.  “Oh, do I know Mark.  Go on.”

“The facial recognition software has names for most of the others in the crowd, and the majority of them are all living in apartments owned by Soldner Apartments or in homes sold by Soldner Homes.”

Wam fast forwarded through twenty minutes of chanting and picketing.  “And here the first rock gets thrown.”  Then the crowd streaming inside and overturning poker tables.  Wam paused the video.  “I’ll give the Mormons one thing, they’re polite even as they’re busting the place up.  Did you catch how they said ‘please’ when they asked the gamblers to step back from the tables?”

“OK, so now what?”

“You’ve got to negotiate with Mark directly.”

“It’s never simple, is it?”  Mike sighed.  “Can you arrange a sitdown with Mark?”

“Already set up.  Three o’clock today, his place.  Address is in your phone.”

2064, Soldner Apartments office, Aristillus, Lunar Nearside

Mike stepped into Mark Soldner’s office.  Mark looked up from a stack of paperwork, saw Mike and smiled.  “Give me just one second?”

Mike nodded and looked around.  The place was nice – nicer than his own office, at least.  Carpeting underfoot, a large walnut desk, three flags on the wall behind.

Mark signed the last sheet, and then stood up and extended a hand.  “Sorry about that, Mike.  Thanks for coming in.”

“I’ll get to the point – ”

“The casino issue.”

Mike nodded.  “Exactly.  We’re insuring them, and the damage you folks caused -”

“Mike, let me cut to the chase.  You and I agree that initiating violence isn’t the right way to settle disputes, right?”

Mike blinked.  Was Mark going to apologize and pay up that easily?  “Right.  So -”

Mark held up a finger.  “This wasn’t our first protest – did you know that?  We’ve been out there every Saturday for three months.  But even after knowing how we feel – about our homes, about our community, they stayed in business.”

Mike’s face clouded and his hope that this was going to be easy disappeared.  “That’s irrelevant, Mark.”

“No, it’s very relevant.”

“The point is that you destroyed someone else’s property.”

Mark shook his head.  “We did a little damage, but it was symbolic.  The important thing, though, is that we did it only after the casino started things.”

Mike narrowed his eyes.  “Started things?”

“High Deseret was a decent neighborhood before the casino moved in -”

“Mark, this is a tangent.  The casino said said you initiated the trouble, and as far as I can tell the video backs them up.  Unless you’re going to suggest that the casino started the violence -”

“Absolutely I am.  They ran a casino in an area where they weren’t wanted.  That disrupted an entire neighborhood.  It’s not physical damage, but the violence to the integrity of a community -”

Mark saw Mike rolling his eyes, and stopped.  “Mike, I give up.  I thought I could talk sense with you, make you understand where our families are coming from, but I see I can’t.”

“That’s right, you can’t.”  He balled one fist.  “So let’s get to the point:  you owe damages.  And you’re going to pay them.”

Mark’s eyes narrowed.  “Mike, you don’t want me to pay up.  What you really want is for your revolution to succeed.”

Mike stared at him.  “What?”

“You’re disgusted with the false authority and socialism that’s been rising on Earth for the past few decades, and you want to start a new society.  A new country.  I’m in agreement with that.  We’re allies here, Mike – with just a few tactical disagreements.  And like all good allies, we can work out those disagreements.”

“What are you saying?”

“The war is here.  We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.  Do you know that quote?”

“Don’t be cute.  What’s your point?”

“My point is that if you and I are in alliance, we can fight a Revolution, and maybe win it.  But if we’re fighting each other over petty stuff like poker and prostitutes…then you and I are not in alliance.”  Mark paused and looked Mike straight in the eye.  “Let’s be brutally honest here.  You need me more than I need you, Mike.”

Mark stood and stuck out his hand.

Mike looked at the proffered hand.  “The cost of you helping out the Revolution is that I let you drive Leon’s Poker House out of business?”

Mark kept his hand out.  “They don’t have to go out of business.  They just have to move somewhere else.”

Mike stared at Mark’s extended hand.  The revolution was probably doomed even with Mark’s help.  But it was almost certainly doomed without it.

Mike hated himself for it, but he started to raise his own hand.

But if he compromised and sold out a small business, then what was he standing for?  Freedom…as long as someone richer, someone more powerful didn’t want the infringe on it?

And what was he compromising?  Not his own freedom.  No.  Someone else’s.  Is that who he was?  Someone who sold out the small fry and gave special privileges to political allies?

He felt his hand falter.

If he didn’t take this deal, he’d probably lose Mark from the Boardroom Group – and he might even have him defect entirely.  The threat to negotiate a separate peace was unlikely – but not impossible.

And if Mark signed a separate peace, the revolution would fail, and he, Javier, Darcy – everyone – would end up dead or imprisoned.

He had to make this deal.

But what precedent did it set?  If Mark had free rein to smash up any bar he didn’t like in his quest to build what he saw as a decent society, where did it end?  Zoning?  Minimum wages?  Undesirable, but people could live with that.  But would it end there?  First one compromise, then another.  How long until drug prohibition?  How long until no-knock raids, email surveillance, confessions under torture, asset forfeiture?

No.

Mike let his hand drop to his side.

“Mike, I’m not asking for much, just -”

“You’re asking for everything.”

Mike pulled out his phone and dialed.  Wam answered on the second ring.  “Wam, I need men outside Leon’s casino.  No, not guards – I want a full fire team.  Armed and armored.  And cut a check to Leon for the damages; we’ll eat this one.”

He hung up.

Mark looked taken aback.  “Mike, let me ask you to reconsider – the Revolution needs us.”

“Yeah, Mark, it does.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to sell out someone else’s freedom.”

Sound interesting? You can contribute to his Kickstarter!

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Though I’ve been aware of Whoretography for some time, the release of her e-magazine inspired me to ask her to contribute a guest column and she graciously obliged me.  I encourage you to explore her website, to buy a copy of her e-magazine and to help support the project via GoFundMe.

whoretography1I am addicted to photography; it’s a lifelong obsession of mine that began as a 2-year-old with the death of my father.  When you lose a parent as a baby, the only connection you can form with that parent is through imagery.  The last photograph before his death, the only one of us together, him proudly sitting on his 1970s motorbike.  His death sparked my purpose in life.  Now I am a documentary photographer, masters student, sex worker & activist interested in challenging the victim-centered nature of sex worker imagery on-line and how photography is instrumental the online sale of sex.  I know my father would be proud of me.

I bought my first camera when I was 12 and I have never been without one since; even when I was homeless for 18 months, I refused to sell my last camera.  My mother evidently thought photography was just a phase adolescent girls go through, because I was not permitted to study photography at secondary school; I went on to graduate with an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Genetics, Post Graduate in Criminology and a Graduate Diploma in Small Business Management.  I put photography to one side in this period, prioritising an institutionally-defined career in criminal justice, and I moved countries; I sold and traded cameras to pay rent, tuition and one-way tickets to London and Paris.  Finally, in April 2005, I followed my passion and become a full-time photographer; I also started as a sex worker the very same day.  And because photography is so ingrained in my psyche, I eventually managed to make sex work about photography too.  I simply refused to follow the photographic rules which dictated that in order to sell sex, I must photograph myself naked or semi-naked and bent over a table clutching my tits.  So, to stand out from the blowjob crowd in an industry that demanded the use of photography, I said no to selfies and soft porn boudoir imagery and instead harnessed the power of pop culture and iconic imagery to sell the essence of the girlfriend experience.  My reasoning was simple; I am not selling my body, so why do you need photographs of my body?  This initial rebellion against sex industry photographic expectations kick-started my fascination with the role photography plays in the online transaction of sex.

whoretography0212 years later, I am now an award winning published photographer, a sex worker and a master’s student undertaking research in sex work activism through the Whoretography project.   It’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly Whoretography began, but it was somewhere between realising I was in the business of a photographic conspiracy in which my camera was acting as an agent for the falsehood of couple cohesion and intimacy, and the idea of documenting paid-for sexual intimacy as the antidote to the visual falsehoods of wedding photography.  Whoretography sits nicely at the intersection of images, technologies, society and the sex worker rights movement.  It’s the first academic, ethnographic and creative platform dedicated solely to understanding the role photography plays in sex work via self-publishing as an artistic practice.  The objectives frame a body of creative work that takes the form of a collection of soon to be published photo and artist books, zines and the recently launched Whoretography E – Magazine.  My visual activism is about exploring a set of research questions through a mixed methodology approach designed to challenge the prevailing ideology of sex-work and to present to the viewer an alternative perception of the industry and its participants.  I wish to stop the over-simplification of the lives of cis, trans and non-binary sex workers, and to challenge current imagery that encourages the sense that the only way of interpreting the lives of sex workers is to see them as ripe for “rescue”.  This narrow and particular visual representation of male oppression reproduces a politics of pity that is embedded in the visual representation of sex workers; it suggests only pity makes sense as a political, social and cultural response.

I work within the photographic genre of found imagery, with other peoples’ photographic material and written documents.  The material for Whoretography is sourced using cyberethnographic methods; however, online interactions alone are insufficient to develop a deep understanding of the visuals of the sex worker online community.  So I’ve conducted offline research consisting of qualitative interviews with internet based sex workers, and their customers in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States of America.  Found photography allows for an editorial style in which I can act as both as editor and author; this is not common when working with sex work imagery.  Standard approaches to visually representing sex workers include photo-voice, wherein sex workers themselves create the photographs (typically of their workspaces), and photo-essay; the publishing world is awash with photo essays that, for example, take a sneaky look inside brothels.  I wanted to avoid these visual clichés.  Working with found images means constructing new narratives from seemingly unconnected photographs to provoke critical dialogue about sex work and present an alternative view of sex work.  It allows me to take the discussion of sex worker imagery from the realms of the sex work community and place it in the wider community.  Fundamental to this goal is deconstructing the visual vocabulary of sex work imagery online to investigate the overarching questions, “Is it possible to reclaim the word ‘whore’ through creative practice as research?” and “What role does photography play in contemporary online sexual consumption?”  I have an interest in ensuring photography is relevant in the fight for the full decriminalisation of sex work.  We must celebrate the fact that sex workers are now image makers; we must challenge the exclusion of sex workers from online visual spaces; and we must talk about the posthumous humiliation of sex workers via the standard practice of releasing morgue photos.  The prohibitionist war on sex work is underpinned by their belief that their photographic rhetoric is photographic truth, and we must name the game when it comes to the middle-class masses being in an uproar about the apparent gentrification of sex work via some mythical photoshop gentrification tool.

whoretography03I wonder if I have made this article sound too clinical and academic, but it has not been an easy two years.  I have an overwhelming sadness for some of what I have seen; people’s understanding of sex work is based on a carefully constructed visual lie.  The media are in cahoots with exclusionary bullies to peddle that lie, and it bloody royally pisses me off that middle-class feminists seek to deny sex workers access to the digital revolution and visual online spaces.  I undertook a Master’s Degree because I was seeking a better theoretical understanding of my craft, and in stepping away from weddings I unwittingly stumbled across my life’s photographic purpose.  I am committed to setting up a visual activist platform and sex work-positive publishing house.  I have amassed over 20,000 images and a lot of what I have seen makes me cry.  I have seen child abuse victims marketed as teen sex workers; prohibitionists create rescue images with a tonal quality reminiscent of colonial missionaries “saving the natives from themselves”; the publication and subsequent outing of sex workers by newspapers; the dire consequences of the pixilated face in propelling stigma; and the shaming of sex workers as a police tactic to help in the gentrification of up and coming hipster neighbourhoods.  The way people have weaponised the camera as a tool of violence against sex workers is in marked contrast to the way we use the camera as an agent for couple cohesion in wedding photography.  I am on a mission to shift the political landscape of sex work by forcing people to understand its visual landscape.  Photography is currently used to silence the intentions, actions and feelings of sex workers and to make their lives more precarious; we need to change this, and I hope you will help me to make this happen.

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Dr. Kate Lister runs the wonderful, informative and entertaining Whores of Yore Twitter account, and when she recently decided to start a website to go with it I invited her to tell my readers about it.  Kate’s mission is much the same as mine: to demystify and destigmatize sex work by improving communication between sex workers and the general public.

whores-of-yore-logoLast month, on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (2016), I launched the Whores of Yore website; it was the culmination of a year’s hard work on a wonderful project that took me completely unawares.  Whores of Yore grew out of a Twitter feed, that grew out of a research project on medieval sexuality, that grew out of a PhD into women and medievalism.  I am a post-doctoral researcher at Leeds Trinity University (UK) and was reading into medieval attitudes surrounding sexual sin, when I found a London court record from 1340 of two “notorious strumpets”; Alice Strumpette and Clarice la Claterballock.  I thought that was just wonderful.  The wry wit in the aliases made me laugh, as I am sure they were supposed to.  But, beyond being funny, the fact that such names would be adopted said more about sex work in the fourteenth century then many academic texts I have read; there was a real humanity to it.  I started the Twitter feed @WhoreofYore to share snapshots of history like that.

I had not foreseen any interest in the feed, but very quickly the followers grew and online articles began to be published about the content.  I started getting feedback from followers who were reacting to the material I was posting in ways I could have never predicted.  Twitter is a great leveller; your voice is on an equal footing with everyone else, and the feedback is instant.  In the beginning, getting daily, uncensored and anonymous feedback about your work is daunting, but I learnt to listen, to respond and serve.  I do get trolled, but follower feedback also made the feed better; it encouraged me to break away from a western focus, include more trans voices and bring in a daily dose of #HistoricalHottie (photographs of handsome men from history to balance up the eye-candy on offer).  But, what changed my research was that Twitter allowed me to engage directly with the sex worker community.  Suddenly, the history I was researching was no longer dead and buried; it was correcting my terminology on Twitter, and calling me a cunt when I got things wrong.  Without realising it, I had been guilty of viewing sex work only through a historical, academic lens; it wasn’t real to me.  But when a sex worker from Australiawhores-of-yore-screencap made contact with me to say she enjoyed the feed, but please could I stop using the word “prostitute” and use “sex worker” instead, I finally got it.  History is powerful because it frames contemporary debate, but it is not to be archived away and accessible only to (well meaning) academics; it should engage with lives today.  I was using the word “prostitute” in a clinical, academic way, but that perpetuated narratives that exists outside of historical research and the ivory tower.  That was the moment that I saw a project that could make history relevant to contemporary issues.  I wanted @WhoresofYore to facilitate an active process of feedback, reciprocal communication and attribution between sex workers, historians, activists, and anyone else who had a view to express.

As sex workers are stigmatised, often criminalized people, historically, they have had little opportunity to speak without intermediaries.  Rather, their stories and voices have been assumed by journalists, activists, and academics (like myself – the irony is not lost on me).  However, with the advent of social media platforms, this is rapidly changing; social media has allowed sex workers a public voice, a space to engage with those speaking for them and about them, like never before.  Online sex worker communities have been formed, alliances made and agendas set.  “Nothing about us without us” is the mantra of the sex worker rights movement; the web and social media provide a platform for the sex worker voice to be heard, and invited academics to genuinely listen to the group they research.  I wanted to build on this dynamic with a website and further bridge the gap between academic, historical research, and the sex worker voice; I hoped the website would create a space that enabled a process of democratisation and facilitate a discussion, rather than a lecture into the study and history of sexuality.

I wanted the website to feature articles on the history of sexuality and sex workers, but to retain an emphasis on sexuality and contemporary voices.  To that end, I created a several article sections: sex history, sex talk, sex worker voices, LGBT History, politics and the law and an interactive timeline of sex workers throughout history.  I put out a call for article submissions on the Twitter feed, and articles started to roll in.  I have been extremely fortunate and BASIS Yorkshire (a charity who work with street sex workers and some of the most vulnerable members of the sex work community) have agreed to write a monthly blog about their work.  BASIS is very private and protective of the people they work with, so to be able to facilitate a space for them is a real honour.  I also have a sex therapist, Drew Lawson, who is regularly blogging on the site and answering all kinds of questions about sexuality.  I work with the archivist at Delta of Venus, the web’s largest collection of vintage erotica, to bring a selection of historical pornographic images.

kate-listerBut, this is only the beginning.  So far, the project has been entirely self-funded, but I am looking into investment to grow.  The project will expand to include podcasts, vlogging and interviews with historians, activists, members of the sex work community, and those who feel they are marginalised by their sexuality.  The history of sexuality will be placed side by side with sexuality today in the hope we can join up some of those conversations.  The purpose of this archive is not to create a goldfish bowl for others to stare into, but to provide a platform and invite people to share their experience and story; if you have an article to bring to the conversation, please email me.  Shame and stigma are broken down through conversation, and when we listen to one another; I hope that’s what this project can play a part in.  As Shannon L. Alder once wrote, “Never be ashamed of who you are.  True shame always belongs to the person that enjoys being ashamed of who you are.”

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Eva Keene is an independent escort in Las Vegas; she’s a moonlighting maven with a PhD and a passion for following the yellow brick road and peeking behind the curtains.  You can also follow her on Twitter.

backpage-shame-gameThe arrest of Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer earlier this year highlights the contested nature of—and mechanisms used for—exchanging sexual services for money, much like the raid on MyRedbook.com in 2014, the raid on RentBoy.com in 2015 and the raid on TheReviewBoard.net early this year.  The anti-trafficking narrative propagated by popular media anti-sex work activists stands in stark contrast to the “sex work as work” narrative expressed by many independent sex workers.  We need look only as far as Twitter to see heated debates about privacy, safety, and unabashed opinions about individuals involved in various aspects of the sex industry.  Yet, while discourses about the exchange of intimacy and/or sex for money have come to form part of the contemporary metanarratives about class, gender, morality, economics, power, and politics in American society, many of these conversations are over-simplified and under-representative of sex worker experiences.  This results in misleading public narratives about the nature of sex work, including those countering characterizations of “controlling pimps,” the “pathetic john” or the “coercive client.”

Aside from review boards, social media platforms such as Twitter and personal blogs serve as outlets for these discourses, or lack thereof.  One that caught more attention than usual was a comment I tweeted on September 28th: “I don’t sell sex.  I sell an experience; an opportunity to be honest, vulnerable, unjudged, in which eroticism is celebrated.  It’s different.”  For most people, my tweet was apparently taken at face value; a heartfelt proclamation of my philosophy and the service I offer.  For others, I imagine it could have been interpreted as an insensitive perpetuation of the whorearchy—a tiered system that communicates a positional hierarchy among sex workers.  Despite receiving affirmative like after like, my critical mind started rolling not long after posting the comment, and the part of me that’s sensitive to classist posing among online sex workers began analyzing my own statement.  Is selling an “experience” really any different from selling sex?  Was I insinuating there’s something wrong with selling sex?  My initial self-criticism was interrupted shortly thereafter by a realization that had been largely lost on me until this point:  This—the voice of middle-class sex workers—is a voice we hear amongst each other in the echo chambers of social media, but it’s not one we utilize well enough in public discourses about sex work.  Like it or not, if anyone can help change attitudes about sex work and sex workers, it’s the privileged “elite escorts” who have the clout to do it.  In a society that associates status and class (even if it is a relative hierarchy of class within an otherwise discredited group) with having a “worthy” voice, the lady who charges $400/hour stands a higher chance of being listened to or taken seriously in the public domain than women who work outdoors or primarily through sites like Backpage.

My realization about the potential impact privileged escorts’ voices could have in public discourse about sex work and sex workers’ rights was further solidified when I stumbled upon an article, “The modern john got himself a queer nanny”, in Feminist Current.  The author makes one point we should pay attention to, one on which I contend disputants on both sides of the fence can agree:  prostitutes’ narratives matter.  This major point of divergence, then, is about which prostitutes’ narratives and why.  For example, Ekman refers to the recently published book, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, to push her anti-prostitution agenda.  The stories are horrific, but they are no more representative of the totality of sex workers’ experiences than a book entitled Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Thriving in the Sex Industry.  The problem is, nobody has published a book like the latter.  Ekman’s expose also seeks to vilify the female academic—the alleged “sex buyer’s nanny” and supposedly misguided feminist at the forefront of international sex work discourse, accused of disrupting “pure” feminist efforts by strategically diverting attention from the sex buyer to the erotic provider.  However, let us not ignore the fact that the female academic Ekman vilifies might very well be a sex worker herself.  Lisa Ordell, Tara Burns, Zahra Stardust and our hostess are just a few examples of women who have worked both in the sex industry and as scholars; I know that many, many more do so using stage names and aliases (points to self).  As such, the voices of middle class sex worker/scholars who refuse to characterize clients as inherently harmful (or inherently anything) emerge from experiences in the sex industry that are just as legitimate as the stories pushed by anti-prostitution crusaders.

The anti-prostitution narrative is far from germane to all manners of sex work, yet it is applied indiscriminately as if all women are either trafficked or victims of patriarchal false consciousness.  But if we accept Ekman’s myopic argument about growth of the survivors’ movement, then we must also acknowledge the growth of the sex worker rights movement, and we must seek to incorporate these voices into dialogues that improve conditions for all sex workers.  Contrary to what feminists like Ekman might have us believe, recognizing sex work as a form of labor doesn’t preclude us from considering issues such as exploitation, labor market segregation, and inequality.  To the contrary, the failure of policy discourses to recognize sex work as work actually impedes the development of initiatives to improve labor rights and working conditions (Pitcher, 2014).  These issues—as opposed to vilifying academics and clients—are the ones we should be focused on.

The only “john” Ekman recognizes is, “the man who will command and expect his every whim to be catered to, but will not take responsibility for what he does.”  She is clearly drawing a stereotype from one locus of the industry, and is it any surprise?  Anti-prostitution rhetoric paints an image of the sort of man who pays for sex (never mind companionship), and those narratives go largely unchallenged by any counter-narratives from within the industry.  Why?  In large part, because middle class sex worker stories are not being widely shared, let alone in ways that could benefit all sex workers.  This has to change.  Ladies, do you actually like your clients?  Talk about the men who pay you for whatever consensual services you provide, without compromising their anonymity.  Write blogs.  Create sex worker-led organizations that show public appreciation for, rather than denigrate, the gentleman you see.  Tell the world, even if it must be through a pen name or alias, that clients are real people too.  Gentleman, please consider the role you play in the industry as well.  Do you speak up against misogynystic words or behaviors when you see them, or are you content to let bygones be bygones?  The latter is certainly easier, but at what cost?  What butterfly-effect consequence does inaction have on the women you appreciate in the industry?rick-pettit  I certainly understand the risk associated with publishing a blog like Rick Pettit’s “My Name is Rick, not John” and wouldn’t expect 99% of the gentleman I see to dare such a brave task, but I hope that a certain amount of mindfulness and intentionality would at least prevail in its stead.  As a very wise client reflected back to me once, “You’re much more of an advocate than an activist,” and he couldn’t have been more spot-on.  I’m much too much of a relativist to feel comfortable telling people what they “should” do, instead preferring the approach of empowering people to make the best possible choices for them.  But the fact remains that if we want sex work to be regarded as legitimate work, we need to be willing to speak about our work, and we have to help change the popular narrative that paints clients as abusive miscreants.  Because even if you never advertised on Backpage, the public opinions and policies that underlie its demonization do have impacts across the entire spectrum of sex work.

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Desmond Ravenstone is an activist and organizer with more than thirty years of experience, from his student days at Oberlin College, to the marriage equality movement in Massachusetts and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.  Knowing his reputation, I was very pleased when he became interested in organizing clients, and his efforts with COSWAC have exceeded my expectations. 

anonymous-clientIf I ever met Swanee Hunt, one of the leading prohibitionists in this country, do you know what I’d say to her?  “If you’re so concerned with stopping trafficking and moral uplift, there’s another area where you need to focus your efforts.  So many selfish and negligent people feel that it’s okay to pay off some stranger to act as surrogates in a vital relationship.  Sometimes they find some untrained, underage girl whom they can pay a pittance.  Other times, they connect with some ring that lures unsuspecting young women from other countries on the promise of ‘seeing the world’, only to be trapped in a house to satisfy their demands.  Clearly, this must be a form of trafficking.  After all, no one dreams of having to care for another person’s child.”  Many folks would find it offensive to have babysitters, au pairs, and nannies called “victims of human trafficking”.  But I’d also wager that parents would feel personally offended at being called “selfish and negligent” or compared to slave keepers.  They would argue rightly that, with the complexity of their lives and needs, they have important reasons to hire someone to watch or care for their kids.

The same holds true for sex work clients.  Some have been in loving relationships lasting decades, only to suddenly find themselves alone due to divorce, abandonment, disease or death.  Some have escaped abusive relationships and are now struggling to regain confidence and trust.  Some have difficulty finding intimacy due to disability, poor socialization, or questions about their own sexuality.  And some just need cathartic, pleasurable release without the baggage of expectations or judgement.  Knowing that isn’t enough, however; prohibitionists have painted a black-and-white picture of clients as heartless predators to be persecuted and shamed.  It’s time for clients to speak up, and to work together with sex workers for change.  That is why CoSWAC – Clients of Sex Workers Allied for Change – was started.

It began with Maggie’s July 18th blog post on the recent “johns sting” in Seattle, and her battle cry for clients to begin speaking up more for decriminalization.  As a longtime activist for sexual and personal freedom, I responded quickly; soon others joined in, and we began online discussions on how to get clients organized.  It was decided that launching a website, to provide information and a contact point for interested clients, was the best way to start.  As we began our plans, Dan Savage echoed Maggie’s call to arms at the end of August, so it was decided to speed up our efforts and launch the site as soon as possible.  Within two weeks, the CoSWAC site was public, and already attracting attention.  The most distinctive element of the website is a page where clients share their stories.  While they are predominantly from hetero male clients in the United States, there are also female and gay male clients, and stories from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.  These stories shatter many of the prohibitionist myths around commercial sex, revealing an important dimension to our understanding, including narratives of emotional healing.

Ultimately, we hope to go further.  Right now, a smaller group is working on the process of creating a more formal structure – board, advisory body, and a framework for local groups.  We hope to encourage and empower more sex work clients to come out of the shadows, and work with sex workers and other allies towards decriminalization and other common goals.  As we grow and network with existing groups, we hope to provide more resources towards this end.  So, if you are a client, we encourage you to connect with CoSWAC.  Visit our website, and bookmark it to stay updated.  Share your story among the growing number being sent to us.  If you’re interested in helping us to build, let us know through the contact page.  Keep educating yourself on the issues around sex workers’ rights, and share that knowledge with those around you.  CoSWAC is here to provide a vehicle for clients to engage in the effort for the human rights of all involved in the commercial sex industry.  Get on board and pitch in!

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I recently became aware of Science Hooker, and I was so impressed I immediately asked her to do a guest column.  She was able to achieve what in my youth I wanted to achieve, but couldn’t, and that makes her even more awesome in my estimation.science-hooker

Fucking science.
Science does not need to be dry.
Safe.
Boring.
Middle and upper class.
Clean.
Even though people fitting these values dominate it.
Serve my science as a double shot in a sleazy bar.
“What was your name again?”
Learning and ability is not about background.
It’s about will, thought, curiosity, stubbornness and passion.
Science Hooker is about science for ALL.

Nerves jostle my stomach stepping onto the podium, adjusting the mic.  Hundreds of academic faces, mostly white, mostly men, mostly upper middle class, peer at me from the cavernous dark.  Mars rover tools.  I’m here to talk about Mars rover tools, about how ultrasonics enhance performance.  The focus envelopes, I calm…. begin.  A significant part of my confidence in academia traces back to me fucking for a living.  Honing those social skills.  Escort, prostitute, courtesan, whore; the label has never seemed important.  I remember perching on the radiator in a cold Edinburgh flat, nervous energy bubbling through me and a client due to arrive any minute.  The doorbell chimed, the focus enveloped, calm… begin.

I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed about escorting.  Why should I?  There was so much learning.  So much living. I was an escort in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was studying part time at the Open University of Scotland, a truly fantastic institution for social mobility.  I gained a 1st in a geoscience BSc and was half way through an MSc when offered a PhD with the UK Space Agency, investigating the loss of the Mars atmosphere into the rocky crust and what lessons we can take from this in respect to climate change on Earth.  I’d never studied full time, nor physically attended an institution.  The integral snobbery, bigotry and discrimination is real.

Many academic peers are surprisingly religious, mass on Sunday sort of thing.  Their attitude to open discussions of prostitution backgrounds is full of the usual “saddening”, “terrible” and “disgusting”, coupled with trite ignorant sentiments such as, “Well, at least that is behind you know, or I hope it is, otherwise I don’t know what to say”.  The idea that there could be any positive life or value within the confines of escorting is anathema.  The message clearly announced that sex workers do not belong in academia unless they are very repentant, and acknowledge that their life was very sad, and how grateful they are to have transcended into the academic’s world.  Fuck conforming to fit in with this scene.

Science Hooker is my reaction to this elitist, insular environment of privilege.  It started in December 2015 as website, Twitter and Facebook platform where I simply shared fun science, but with an “escort” slant, which probably tasted daring and risqué to most academics.  The few thousand followers were mostly academics.  Yet, the project has evolved since the early days, becoming less timid.  A regular blog slot was provided by The Huffington Post, with a relatively free hand regarding content; this has been a powerful platform to engage larger audiences.  Following a Huffington article I wrote on prostitution, the House of Commons invited me to a panel discussion on reforming prostitution laws; it suddenly felt like Science Hooker could make an impact.  A short film was produced as a Cairn Productions-Science Hooker collaboration about my science research.  Thousands of academics followed, hundreds of professors; but still, I felt Science Hooker was pointless in a way.  Sharing academic content with academics is preaching to the converted.  It is not outreach.  It is not real science communication.  Added to this, a dozen other platforms are doing the exact same format of science dissemination.  I found myself asking: why am I doing Science Hooker?  What is the goal?  Where is it going?

The answer is still forming.  Fermenting.  Recently, large numbers of sex workers have followed, sharing their content, thoughts, jokes and issues.  I am glad of this demographic shift.  Interestingly, the extent I engage with the sex work community correlates with a proportionate decline in academic followers; a price worth paying, but informative about attitudes, and reinforcing my previous conclusions.  There has been a mixture of positive and negative reactions to Science Hooker.  Recently an academic pulled their copyright and association with a mineral reference book I had been working on with other students because they had stumbled over Science Hooker and my escort history.  This was no loss, academics are plentiful; we simply replaced his contribution and took the incident as a perfect example of bigotry and exclusion in the sciences for those from alternative backgrounds.  At the other end of the spectrum, Science Hooker recently got nominated by a post-doctoral fellow for the Annie Maunder medal from the Royal Astronomy Society for public outreach.  Science Hooker generates impact, disparagement, respect, hatred, encouragement and dismissal in a messy bundle of reactions.

Science Hooker ethos has always been about making science accessible and understandable to all, yet the tangible application of this goal is difficult.  How does one achieve this in any concrete sense?  Initially the accessibility I had in mind was all about explaining science, but now I feel it has morphed to include smashing down ivory walls of the academic tower, or at least graffiti them up a bit; highlighting discrimination, denial of access and judgemental hatred to sex workers in relation to formal science, education and academia.  A new project on the drawing board just now is called “Ask a scientist!”  I am collecting a network of scientists from a wide range of disciplines willing to answer public questions in a 1-1 personal way.  There will be two functions.  Anyone will be able to search for a scientist from a database, read about their history and motivations, their area of research and contact them directly via email.  Alternatively, people will be able to ask a question on the website, and any scientist can choose to respond and answer it, or not.  Possibly different scientists will forward different viewpoints and a conversation will develop.  I hope so.  Once this has been trialed successfully, it would be interesting to create another database called “Ask a sex worker”, again, with the aim of developing conversation, connection and mutual understanding.  I firmly believe it is through knowledge of each other that stigma dies.

The university is ending my funding soon, and I won’t have finished the PhD in time.  I don’t know what will happen, with me, or with Science Hooker.  I may even return to escorting.  Life is uncertain. I am unpredictable.  Science Hooker is fluid.  We can all only play with the cards in our hand, make a difference where opportunity and circumstance allow. So why not visit Science Hooker?  See what it’s all about.

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