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Archive for the ‘Guest Columns’ Category

In “Bad Advice”, a man was concerned about losing the image of his wife’s body as the years rolled by with no sexual contact with her.  Several readers noticed I didn’t say anything about that aspect of his question; the truth is, I didn’t feel I could answer it because men are much more visual creatures than women, and I honestly wasn’t sure what I could’ve said that wouldn’t have sounded either Pollyanna or dismissive, so I left it alone.  But one regular reader has had similar experiences himself, and last week he sent me this short answer and told me it was OK to share it.

Maggie gave me some excellent advice over 6 years ago in “On a Mountaintop”.  I took that advice, and am very glad that I did.  Seeing sex workers brings touch back into my life, affirms my sexuality, and makes me feel more whole.  My mind is more clear and focused, my mood brighter, my outlook better.  It’s been a wonderful set of experiences and I have no regrets.  But I can tell the man what will happen, or at least what happened to me.  This rejection of a man’s sexual being, coupled with his continued love and desire, creates a wound that never heals.  It’s been 10 years since I last had sex with my wife, but when we are watching a movie or TV show and a romantic scene is shown, it can penetrate my armor; when the scene suggests a happy and fulfilling sex life between an older married couple, it pierces my heart like a hot needle.  There’s nothing a sex worker can or should do about this; I am responsible for my decision to stay and endure this occasional injury.  Long term marriages are complex things, with economic and familial ties and obligations, vows and trusts and all manner of complications known only to the couple.  I have no advice for the man who wrote, just the knowledge that he will probably experience the same pain.

Here is a wound that never will heal, I know,
Being wrought not of a dearness and a death,
But of a love turned ashes and the breath
Gone out of beauty; never again will grow
The grass on that scarred acre, though I sow
Young seed there yearly and the sky bequeath
Its friendly weathers down, far Underneath
Shall be such bitterness of an old woe.
That April should be shattered by a gust,
That August should be levelled by a rain,
I can endure, and that the lifted dust
Of man should settle to the earth again;
But that a dream can die, will be a thrust
Between my ribs forever of hot pain.  –  Edna St. Vincent Millay

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I’ve followed Cathy Reisenwitz‘ work since I started this blog, yet somehow we’ve never had a guest column from her!  So when I saw that she’s started a new newsletter, I jumped at the excuse.

It’s a tragedy of feminism that so many of us are stumped by a very easy question:  Is sex work a choice?  Ask any current sex worker and they’ll tell you:  Sucking dick for money under patriarchal capitalism is as much a choice as cleaning toilets.  But one pays a lot better.  Is being a housewife a choice?  If your view is that society worships motherhood and despises ambitious women, then obviously those forces will influence women’s choices.  But an influenced choice is still a choice, something many radical feminists don’t like to admit.  Radfems like to straw-man arguments for female autonomy as choice feminism.  But when the women in question have power, suddenly the question changes.  While downtrodden and oppressed women aren’t allowed to make their own choices, women in positions of power are afforded unlimited options.  I find a particularly interesting example of this “choice only for the powerful” phenomenon in feminist author Jill Filipovic’s treatment of presidential hopeful Kamala Harris.  While Filipovic equivocates about sex work and choice feminism, she asks for nuance when considering Harris’s choice to use her powers as a prosecutor to deprive women of the choice to engage in safe sex work.

Harris’ record as prosecutor reveals a woman who is more than happy to use the criminal justice system to keep other women from engaging in sex work without fear of violence, arrest, or imprisonment.  Harris arrested Backpage.com executives and illegally charged them with pimping and conspiracy, then after a judge threw out the case Harris filed nearly identical charges in another California court; the First Amendment Lawyers’ Association described the maneuvers as “a gross abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”  Harris fought Backpage and continues to support FOSTA in the name of fighting human trafficking, yet everyone from Amnesty International to the World Health Organization says that decriminialization leads to lower rates of sex trafficking.  Despite this, Harris has consisently sided with prostitution prohibitionists and supported police raids of sex workers.  And while San Francisco Bay Area police officers were committing actual sex trafficking, Harris and her office pretended it wasn’t happening.  Jill Filipovic is quite aware of the “Kamala Harris is a cop” meme, but has a more nuanced take.  In a recent op-ed, Filipovic asks readers to consider the competing interests Kamala had to take into account when making choices as a prosecutor (if Harris hadn’t defended the death penalty she risked alienating politically powerful police unions; if she hadn’t fought the California anti-overcrowding court ruling the state would’ve missed out on slave labor, etc).  I’m not sure how to justify her choice to become a prosecutor in the first place; as Joe Biden pointed out in the recent Dem debate, “I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor.”  Filipovic is able to see Harris’s choices through the lens of a woman navigating a minefield of racism and sexism while also balancing careerism and her own conscience, yet when it comes to sex workers, all that nuance is reduced to “choice feminism.”

In Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex, Filipovic writes, “[In Utopia], sex would be a fun thing, a collaborative thing, always entered into freely and enthusiastically and without coercion.  Of course women should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, and of course there are many sex workers who aren’t trafficked or forced into the trade.  But that smacks a bit too much of ‘I choose my choice!’ feminism, which I find to be incredibly intellectually lazy.”  What’s really incredibly intellectually lazy is to spend hundreds of words apologizing for a woman who chose to arrest and incarcerate sex workers and make their jobs less safe to bolster her own career, and then dismiss the fight for sex work decriminalization as “choice feminism.”  Are sex workers not doing the best job they can considering there are negative consequences to every position they could take?

A look at my own experience with sex work may be helpful in illustrating this.  From the time I walked the aisle at a tent revival and confessed my sins and gave my heart to Jesus at five years old, I’ve always been a true believer.  I’m not sure if I ever signed a purity pledge, but I might as well have.  I met my favorite high school boyfriend at a good old-fashioned Southern Baptist abstinence retreat, and I lost my virginity at 22, on my wedding night.  As I pulled away from religion, my husband drew in; by the time I said I wanted a separation four years in, he said he’d only see the pastor and his wife for marriage counseling.  I studied her perfect highlights as they refused to talk about the problems in our marriage until my relationship with Jesus was fully addressed.  Sometime between the divorce and today I got paid for sex for the first time, because once you see that traditional marriage is just one long, nominally exclusive mutually beneficial arrangement you really can’t unsee it; then the question becomes how long, and how exclusive, do you want the arrangement to be?

I was a sex work activist before I was a sex worker, because a feminism that doesn’t include self-ownership is no feminism at all, and women don’t own our bodies if we aren’t allowed to rent them out.  Contrary to the carceral feminists, I don’t believe any kind of consensual sex should involve arrest or imprisonment.  In what universe can a woman consent to cleaning a toilet for money under capitalism, but not to sucking dick?  Such a conception is utterly infantilizing, superstitious, and antifeminist.  It’s not despite my femimism that I support sex work decriminalization; it’s because of it.  Whoring has always been one of the only ways a low-born woman could rise above her station; sex work enables more women (and men) than you’ll ever know who don’t have trust funds to pursue social justice, music, comedy, and acting.  Or writing feminist screeds, in my case.  I’m neither proud nor ashamed of having done sex work.  If I had been a great sex worker I’d be proud, but I wasn’t; I didn’t find most of my clients interesting and I’m bad at pretending.  Yet I found sex work empowering even though I didn’t like doing it; maybe it’s my libertarian showing, but I tend to believe more options are better than fewer.

I’ve been writing about feminism, sex, and capitalism for the past ten years, mostly at Sex and the State; in that time I’ve changed my thinking on everything from abortion and sex work to the social safety net.  My writing is thinking aloud and learning in public.  I’m honored to have learned from women like Maggie, who turns the “prostituted woman” trope on its head; far from being abused or oppressed (except by cops and an overinvolved state), no one could prostitute Maggie except Maggie herself.  I’m still a true believer — evangelical as the day is long — but what I’m preaching has changed quite a bit.  I invite you to join my sex-positive libertarian feminist tent revival, by subscribing to my daily email.

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Last week Alex Andrews of SWOP Behind Bars asked me to spread the word about this serial predator, or more specifically the effort to bring him down.  If you have information and would like to talk to the lawyer she describes below, please Twitter DM SWOP Behind Bars or see the lawyer’s contact info below.  If you’re not on Twitter, I can forward your email to Alex.  I’ve also attached all the info on this monster people have shared on Twitter; his email address and physical address are here, and a few of the many phone numbers he’s used here.  As you can see, there would be more than enough had he not cunningly chosen to target a group cops consider subhuman.

Joey the Player has been a predator in the sex worker community for many years; barely a month goes by without a horror story of his assaulting an unknowing provider.  Just last week there was an incident in Las Vegas.  And of course since sex workers were kicked off the internet in the FOSTA debacle, its been really hard to continue to warn each other about dangerous and abusive clients.  And because of criminalization – we can’t go report these horrific assaults to police because they would probably put a target on us, rape us themselves or do some kind of harmful cop shit that would make our lives harder than they are.  His victims  have been working on a strategy for a long time and SWOP Behind Bars wants to support their efforts, especially since most of his crimes have taken place in New Jersey and NYC.  If you have been victimized by this sleaze or have information and would like to talk (pro bono) to the lawyers, please contact Noam (nbiale@shertremonte.com) or Anna (aestevao@shertremonte.com) or call 212-202-2600.

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Meagan works for Prostasia, the organization which sponsored the Bay Area screening of The War on Whores, and I met her in person the day of the screening.  She interviewed me for Prostasia’s podcast (see below), and when Jeremy Malcolm sent me the link to the video he also included this essay Meagan wrote, which I found so sweet and touching I asked for permission to share it.

Why Maggie McNeill is My Hero

There are a lot of good reasons why Maggie McNeill should totally be your hero.  I mean, she’s brilliant, well spoken, sexy as all get out, an outspoken advocate for civil liberties, sex worker rights, sex positivity, child protection, the list goes on.  Basically, Maggie is the feminist we need if not the feminist we deserve.  But that’s not why she’s my hero.

Allow me to tell you a story.  Just to set the scene, it’s a Tuesday in the Bay Area.  My boss and I have had the pleasure of hosting Maggie all afternoon and evening.  She was kind enough to do an interview for Prostasia’s Podcast Sex, Human Rights, and CSA Prevention, then we all shared a lovely dinner and cocktails.  That was followed with the Bay Area premiere of The War on Whores, and we all capped the night off with lovely conversation and pie in a little diner near her hotel where we were dropping her off.  But on the way from screening to pie, there was a spot of bother on the freeway; a large plastic garbage can had wedged itself under the car and for a moment we feared we’d popped a tire.  So we pulled over and got out to investigate.

Now, it’s worth noting that I don’t drive and have a deep mistrust of cars, despite accepting them as a necessary means of transportation.  So I’m standing on the side of the road with my boss and Maggie, and she comes to the conclusion that if she and I stand on the garbage can while he backs the car up slowly, our combined weight will keep the can in place so we can free it from under the car.  I dunno what you always thought a day with a (in)famous sex worker would be like, but friends, this isn’t what I had in mind…Anywho, Maggie, who is super brave, btw, and I stand with a foot each and most of our weight on the can and the car is backed up slowly.  The closer the wheel got to our feet, the more I started to panic; directly to our backs were cars rushing by at freeway speed and directly in front of our toes was a car tire.  So, some part of my brain is aware that in my professional capacity, I should have probably had Maggie stand at the side of the road, away from the scary cars, and done this myself, because good hosting and whatnot.  But I’m apparently a giant baby, so instead of honorably protecting our guest, she casually coached me through this ordeal as I whimpered and had trouble forcing my body to keep my foot in place.  Her plan worked perfectly, but during the last stages she kept her foot on the can and it started dragging her a bit (she’s been in heels and a slinky evening type gown this whole time, btw).  So before I know what I’m doing, I think I wrapped my arms around her to make absolutely sure she didn’t go down as the center of balance changed.  I’m pretty sure she was in no danger of that, and it was a dorky overreaction on my part.  Hi, my name is Meagan and I was a huge dork in front of Maggie McNeill several times in a day and she was nice to me anyway.

The thing is, anyone can cultivate a reputation, and social media makes it easier than ever to build and perpetuate propaganda.  But these silly, random, slightly dangerous moments in life where people have to just be people to get through it, reveal a lot more about a person than their press does.  Like I said, there are a lot of good reasons to be a huge fan of Maggie.  Her social work, her “social” work, her writing, her documentary, her body, her mind, her fantastic makeup and fashion tips, how incredibly down to earth she is when she really doesn’t have to be…but I will always be a big fan of Maggie because of one very random, very silly, very human moment on the side of the road, headed towards San Francisco.

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This isn’t a question; it’s the kind of letter from a reader which lifts my heart and inspires me to keep fighting for what’s right.  The last paragraph at the bottom was my reply.

I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you are doing.  I recently lost my virginity (at the age of 23) with an independent escort, but I was extremely nervous, and I felt awful the whole time because I believed I was doing something horrible.  The woman explained her work to me very rationally and assured me that she was doing this of her own free will, but I still felt so bad that some nights I could not sleep.  During the following weeks I read as much as I could about sex work, especially testimonies from workers themselves and, little by little, I realized that this was honest, good and decent work.  After finding your blog I felt liberated from my guilt and decided that this is the life I want to live.  I still want to look for a romantic relationship with the prospects of making a family, but now that I have “found” sex work as a way to fulfill my needs in the meantime, I feel so much calmer.  I no longer see sex as this dark, secret hush-hush act; I’ve been with one other sex worker since then, and I can say without a doubt it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my adult life.  I know it’s an act and that the girl is putting on a performance, but it was so sweet and kind.  The people who work in this industry are saints in my book and should be treated with the utmost respect.  Thank you for everything.

Thank you so much for writing this; I’m so glad you were able to throw off that awful guilt.  The “authorities” want people to feel bad about pleasure of any kind (ever notice that the only things they claim are “bad for you” are those that bring pleasure?) so you’ll work harder and they can manipulate you.  But that’s no way to live; as you’ve discovered, thinking for yourself and trusting your own experiences rather than what “authorities” tell you leads to a much fuller, more rewarding life.  I hope you continue to have great experiences with other sex workers in the future!

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When Jae and I started dating four years ago, she wrote a poem for me that I dearly loved.  Actually, I should say she composed it for me, because she never actually wrote it down.  I asked her to do it a few times, but after her accident she couldn’t clearly remember it all; she’d occasionally come out with snippets of it, but the whole seemed to elude her.  I had given up hope of ever hearing it all again, but last year she started regaining large chunks of lost memory, and after I published “Bird of Prey” (which was inspired by her) she promised she would work on bringing the poem back up into consciousness and writing it down for me.  Then on Christmas day, she handed me a little scroll…and there it was, very close to the way I remembered it.  Naturally, I asked if I could share it, so here it is; I hope you like it as much as I do even though it isn’t about you.

Snake Mama

She’s got the click-clack of high heels hitting blacktop.
She’s got sarcasm dripping from the edge of her tongue.
She’s got the body of a Venus, and a mind tougher than shoe leather.
She’s got naked pictures of herself floating about the city;
She’s got no problem with that. She curves like the beauty of the open road.
She’s got that edge…you know, that edge?  That leather cuffs in the back of
The top drawer of her dresser, unspoken yet well-used kind of edge.

She’s a certain kind of woman, like a Goddess in a Teacup, and
She was born with a flask of rebellion-and-kindness cocktail
Strapped high on her right hip-bone.
She’s armed with words that can wound, and words that may hurt, and
She wields them like band-aids on a battlefield.
She oozes courage when she does that…
She’s a red-lit woman ready to be seen, and
She’s got precious elements of your anatomy tied up and quivering in her fist.
And it’s unlikely you will even try to get them back.

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Melissa Mariposa is an escort and owner of Red Umbrella Hosting; she has also established and improved several other sites to help other sex workers, since our options have been steadily shrinking due to the war on whores.  I asked her to write an introduction to these sites because I’ve seen too many shady operators attempting to capitalize on the panic the US government has intentionally sown in our community.

As someone with an IT background, I knew as soon as FOSTA-SESTA passed that our web presence was in trouble.  Many mainstream web hosts have officially prohibited sex work related content while actually looking the other way, but I thought this might cause a shift towards enforcing those policies — as under FOSTA-SESTA, they become liable for that content.  Without hesitation, I cancelled my next 2 tours, acquired an offshore server, and was up and running before the weekend.  I spent most of my spring both migrating and rebuilding sites from the Internet Archive for those that had lost their free sites without warning, and as I was plugging away, I started to notice a change in ad sites.  EROS was making huge policy changes but staying silent (remember they had been raided six months prior by DHS and which we still do not know what is going on), TER had excluded US providers entirely, P411 was announcing “upcoming changes”.  It seemed our ad market was slowly folding one site at a time.

Then Backpage happened; they operated flagrantly with their servers in Arizona and we all paid the price.  While having an offshore setup does not make you immune in itself, there are definitely ways to maintain anonymity — otherwise  Pirate Bay would not have an almost 20 year running time.   There is a right way to do things, and Backpage did not do it.  At all.  And what I’ve since discovered (to my horror) is that none of the big ad sites in our industry were following the path laid out by internet pirates before us; no one is following best practices for a grey market site.  Not one site.  Most of them are hosted in the US, or they use Cloudflare which is a service that is in no way safe for sex workers.  The most well known escort ad sites grossed in the millions; Backpage made $135 million in 2014 alone, and sites like P411, TER, and EROS are also unquestionably in the 7 figure club.  I naively thought that these multimillion dollar businesses that get so much from us at the very least had a qualified IT person who understood the nature of what they were doing; I was wrong — and in retrospect, I was really fucking stupid to think that.  This was a sharp reminder of what I already knew:  No one is here for us, they’re here to make money off of us.  Sex workers aren’t exploited by our clients, we’re exploited by these sites, and some of the worst actors in this industry have been owners of some of the highest grossing sites.  Why do we put our money in the pockets of pimps and panderers?  Because they make us feel like we have to.  They aggregate false ads from our real ads on other sites, draw our clients in, we think that’s where clients like to look, so we make ads there and give them our money.

So I started looking around for legitimately offshore provider-run ad sites.  I was tired of putting my money in the hands of opportunistic dudebros, people who wanted to make a fast buck and should have known better, but didn’t.  I want to put my money in the hands of qualified women in IT who know our industry, know security, and who work to help us.  What I found was Have We Met, which had been around since 2016 (I was a beta tester, as I love the concept) but with strict policies that hindered them in the pre-FOSTA market.  I decided to reach out the owners (a provider and her partner) and they took me on as a silent partner.  I started implementing small changes to policy and pricing, and after a few months they asked if I would be interested in acquiring ownership of the site.  I happily accepted, and after some restructuring, Have We Met became what it is today:  A place where a provider can create a profile with their stats, website, and photos, and list themselves for free in up to 20 areas.  They can also write one single ad which is automatically listed in whatever areas they choose to list their profile; so if you’re touring 10 cities, you just add those cities to your profile, set up your ad, and the ad is automatically listed in those 10 cities when a client searches for providers — no expiration date.  Have We Met isn’t just an ad site — there is also a dual sided verification feature.  The provider and the client  are both asked eight basic, non-intrusive, non-sexual questions about the encounter involving subjects like punctuality, safety, and hygiene.  This is a checkbox only system with no room for textual fantasies of illegal activity.   After the verification is complete, it shows up on the provider’s profile to show future clients that others have found her to be clean, safe, reputable, and pleasant to be around.  Clients can pay a small fee to show verifications on their profile.  The questions clients are asked seem more helpful than what a simple “whitelisting” or “okay” provides, and I also felt this would provide a nice alternative to reviews whilst providing the assurance clients seek from them.  A “review” on the legal exchange of time for money and nothing more.  Verification without incrimination.

Meanwhile, I decided to also build a simpler site, something familiar which everyone knew the feel of, which could be completely managed from a smartphone because I know a lot of providers who don’t use computers anymore except to advertise.  So SWAN was born:  A familiar-feeling classified system where everything from searching to ad building can be done from the tiny computer in your pocket.  Ads are free, and all upgrades are under $10 (and you just so happen to get $10 credit free when you sign up for the site).  Like Red Umbrella Hosting, these sites require no ID to advertise and take no personal information to get started; they both offer free advertising, with optional paid upgrades with three methods of anonymous payment: physical gift card, crypto, and money order via mail.  I do not wish to tie your work life to your real life in any way; I don’t want your drivers license or pictures of your face with your work name written on it.  Those measures, used by other sites, are overly intrusive and unnecessary.  I have tried to approach building these sites from the angle of, “What do I as a provider want?” as well as asking others.  I welcome all feedback — positive and negative — on all of my offerings so I can continuously improve them.  I want to make tools that people want.

When FOSTA-SESTA hit, some of the popular blacklists began “cleaning up” entries that had titles such as “rape”, changing them to “bad date”.  In fear that we would no longer have an unadulterated blacklist, I set up OurList; I also have a site launching this week called Relax With Me, which you’ll just have to wait and see about (I will tell you that it involves advertising and another non-vulgar alternative to traditional reviews, and will also be free for providers).  Coming up in 2019 there are two large projects on the horizon for my company Trystworthy; Michael Fattorosi has speculated that within the next year our social media options will be gone, and I agree.  So I have been working with another developer on how to best start and implement a new social platform (NOT Mastadon) and am hoping to open something by the end of the first quarter at the latest.  The other project is completely under wraps for now, but you should be hearing something soon; it’s completely different and totally unrelated to any other offering I have and I am beyond excited.  My goal going forward is that I want to continue to offer useful tools to providers in this industry affordably, reliably, and transparently; all sites I build are fully functional for providers without a single dollar invested, and optional upgrades are exactly that:  Optional.  Advertising should not be your biggest overhead, a headache, or something you dread thinking about; it should be the easiest part of your job, and that’s what I am striving to do.   These sites are labors of love for an industry that has given me my entire life.  Building tools for the future is the best way I feel I can “give back”, and I will continue working towards this goal for as long as I draw breath.

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