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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

No amount of intuition from one’s training and experience is a substitute for the basic laws of light and physics.

The absurdity of malum prohibitum “crimes” is amply demonstrated in this WWII propaganda video, in which the US government encourages farmers to grow cannabis (specifically hemp, but even that was illegal for decades).  The video was contributed by Jesse Walker and the links above it by Emma Evans (“porn”),  Charles Hill (“works”), Mike Chase (“clone”), Tim Cushing (“taunts”), Kevin Wilson  (“Australia”), and Mike Siegel (“water”).

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I’m going to assume most of you, even those with English degrees, are unfamiliar with the term “counter word”.  It’s a linguistic term; a counter word is a word or phrase with no current intrinsic meaning, which is used to signal one’s membership in the in-group who use that word.  “Counter” in this sense means a counter used in a game, such as a poker chip; it has no actual value outside of the game, but it is used to participate in the game.  Two examples from my younger days both came from television commercials for hamburger chains; one was from this 1992 commercial for Rally’s:

The ad was so popular that soon everyone (at least on the Gulf Coast) was running around yelling “Cha-ching!” at every available opportunity.  At first it was mostly used appropriately, as a way of saying something was expensive (“I paid $100 for these sneakers.” “Whoa, cha-ching!”) but it soon turned into an exclamation of victory or appreciation for an insult (something like the way people use “Oh, snap!” now), and within months, due to somehow becoming associated with the New Orleans Saints football team, it meant nothing at all; it was just something people would randomly exclaim to show that they were “cool” and in on the joke.  At the nadir of this absurdity, a local used car dealer actually exclaimed “Cha-ching!” at the end of one of his television commercials, apparently unaware that to anyone who remembered the original ad he was implying that his autos were badly overpriced!  The other example, which perhaps more of you may recognize, was from a 1984 Wendy’s ad:

As with “cha-ching!” it didn’t take “Where’s the beef?” long to go from an expression people used to mean something like, “What’s going on?” or “Are you kidding me?” to signifying nothing more than, “Hey, I’ve heard other people saying this, aren’t I cool?”  This isn’t a phenomenon of my lifetime; soon after the turn of the 20th century the phrase “23 skidoo!” went from meaning something like “let’s make tracks” or “scram!” to meaning, as in the other examples, essentially nothing; it was printed on buttons and pennants and people would shout it at each other in greeting as they did with “Cha-ching” over 80 years later.

If you’re wondering why I’m bringing this up now, it’s because the phrase “human trafficking” has become nothing more than a political counter word.  In the ’90s, it was generally used to mean the smuggling of people across borders in defiance of immigration restrictions, but by the turn of the century governments and anti-immigration groups had subtly twisted it to mean only exploitative smuggling practices (which they of course represented as all of them), and it didn’t take long for the exploitative labor situations migrants often ended up in to be rolled into the term.  Prohibitionists started representing all migrant sex work as a form of “human trafficking”, and the US government soon obligingly negated the agency of all underage sex workers by defining them as “human trafficking victims” whether they actually migrated, were coerced or were treated in any way which could even tangentially intersect the previously-understood meaning of the term “trafficking”.  Certainly, the shift in meaning of the term “drug trafficking” from meaning “drug smuggling” to mere “drug selling” is parallel and probably intertwined with this broadening and thinning of the meaning of “human trafficking”, but the latter became far more nebulous than the former ever did; by 2012 I had identified 23 different meanings of the phrase “human trafficking”, 11 of the phrase “trafficking victim” and 12 of the slur “human trafficker”.  In the past five years those related phrases have become broader and far more vague, and are applied willy-nilly to anyone and anything “authorities” or prohibitionists want to restrict, censor, spy on, interfere in, attempt to ban, or inflict violence upon.

“Human trafficking” (and especially “sex trafficking”) have become nothing but authoritarian counter words; they have lost their original meanings as surely as “23 skidoo” and “Where’s the beef?” did.  I therefore call upon all activists, allies, and well-meaning people in the so-called “anti-trafficking” movement (and yes, there are some, such as GAATW) to stop using the term unless there is no other alternative.  If you mean “exploitative labor conditions”, say that.  If you mean “forced prostitution”, say that.  If you mean “underage survival sex”, say that.  If you mean “smuggling undocumented migrants”, say that.  A phrase used to mean everything means nothing at all, and a phrase that means nothing isn’t a useful term for serious adults; it’s a fad for the immature and silly.

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inannaMost of you probably already follow me on Twitter (and if you don’t, you should).  But while Twitter is a very powerful tool for publicity and activism, tweets are intrinsically ephemeral; though they do actually continue to exist indefinitely, they’re very difficult to find after a few days.  Therefore, I hope you’ll forgive me if, when I write a string of tweets that I think are particularly important, I republish them here for more attention ad greater permanence.  On January 14th, in response to the widespread fear in our community due to the Backpage takedown, I tweeted out the following message; it isn’t long, but it expresses a truth I think it’s very important that whores remember in these trying times.

Our profession truly is the oldest one on Earth.  Older than the pyramids, older than cities.  Older even than Homo Sapiens.  The US as an institution is just a toddler, albeit one of those toddlers we read about that gets ahold of a gun and kills their parents.  We have survived the fall of empires and the disappearance of whole peoples. We have survived fire, flood, famine, pestilence, war and every other disaster.  We have survived persecution, pogroms, confinement in brothels, literal slavery, mutilation & even burnings.  We will survive this too.  Read what the ancients wrote about us. We are the mothers of human civilization; it couldn’t exist without us.  And these so-called “leaders” know it.  They’re petulant children who resent their debt to us and are acting out violently.  But like all children they have a short attention span, and when some new shiny toy or victim to torture catches their attention they’ll leave us alone.  What we need to do is to survive until then, and to keep fighting to be heard and recognized by good people who will stand with us.  But no matter what, we WILL survive.  And our tribe will exist when The USA is nothing but a thing kids learn about in history, then forget.

We are as eternal as the sea; our enemies are mere insects, who annoy for a season and are then gone.  In order for them to win, they would have to completely destroy human sexuality; in order for us to win, all we need do is practice the patience and courage which we have in abundance.  And though it’s difficult to remember that in trying times, it doesn’t even matter if we do or not because even if we as individuals forget, we as a group will survive and triumph nonetheless.

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When I say by any means necessary that would be up to those in charge.  –  James Tomes

It recently came to my attention that Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been uploading full episodes onto YouTube, so to call attention to that I’m going to feature their treatment of Prince of Space, one of my favorite so-bad-it’s-good movies (though it pales in comparison to the Starman movies).  The links above it are from Radley Balko (“necessary”), Mike Siegel (“sirree”), Jesse Walker  (“gaslight”), and Mark Bennett (“smug”).

From the Archives

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Inside of the White Slave TrafficWith Backpage in the news so much, and various government actors vomiting out so many egregious lies about it, I thought it might be a good idea to recap how this whole shitshow developed from its roots in the previous “sex trafficking” moral panic to the present political circus.  See, while the politicians want you to believe that Backpage is some sort of magical pimp machine the likes of which has never been seen before, the truth is that Backpage ads are the end result of a slow and steady progression of advertising starting roughly a century ago, just after prostitution was criminalized in the US at the height of the last go-round of hysteria over “sex trafficking” (or as it was called then, “white slavery”).  Once brothels could no longer operate openly, escort services appeared, while some women chose to frequent hotels and such and others preferred to take out personal ads in newspapers.  Once the alternative weeklies appeared in the 1960s, the latter approach became far more popular; escorts were able to be more blunt than they could in major newspapers, though not remotely as blatant as they later became once those weeklies went online.  Even the name “Backpage” is a tribute to the site’s origin as an online version of the back pages of alt-weeklies, where the classified ads (including escort ads) were located.  In fact, the only important differences between the online version and its print ancestors are those directly related to the differences between the online medium and the print medium, such as ease of access and speed of both posting and reply (ask a whore who worked prior to the late ’90s about going to one’s PO Box to pick up actual paper letters from clients answering one’s ad, requesting appointments days or weeks in the future).

So when Craigslist first appeared in 1996 as an online classified ad site, it was a foregone conclusion that whores would post ads in its classified and massage sections, just as they had in newspaper sections.  It wasn’t any kind of “revolution”; it just sped things up and made them more efficient.  But whenever a new technology is involved, you can be absolutely sure the Puritans and Luddites will insist that it’s the source of all manner of new evils, and that it will surely bring about the end of civilization (usually by corrupting women and harming children, naturally).  It took them over ten years, however; though Craigslist had a dedicated “erotic services” section by 2002 (I’m not sure of the exact date it was added), the “sex trafficking” fetishists, at that time far less numerous and vociferous than they are now, did not really begin to take note of it until sometime after 2005.  That was the year bureaucrats from the San Francisco Department of Public Health embarked on a campaign to blame the site’s personals section for a rise in syphilis among gay men, using the typical government argument that adults are so stupid and passive that they need to be “encouraged” or “facilitated” by some corporation or communications medium to do things like have sex.  The blame-game seemed to attract the attention of the “sex trafficking” fetishists, and by the following year they were starting to put pressure in the site to “do something” about their favorite imaginary problem.  A group of 40 state attorneys general demanded that Craigslist facilitate pigs’ attempts to arrest sex workers (under guise of “stopping “trafficking”, naturally) and the site responded by requiring a working phone number and charging a fee to post in the erotic services section (to keep underage people out).  Of course, that wasn’t enough; the following year Craigslist renamed the section to “adult services” while prohibitionists blathered about how much money the company was making from the fee they had forced it to charge.  Finally, in 2010 the site shuttered the section, putting up a “censored” bar over the link to it, and advertisers either migrated to Backpage (founded in 2004 specifically as a competitor to Craigslist) or went back to advertising in the personals & massage sections as they did before the “erotic services” category was established.

Drunk with their victory, the prohibitionists immediately turned to Backpage; within weeks of Craigslist’s defeat they sent a similar letter to the one they had sent Craigslist, no doubt expecting a similar reaction.  Instead, they got a fight which has gone on for over six years, with Backpage winning at every turn for the simple reason that the government’s demands are blatantly unconstitutional.  But the evil don’t stop being evil merely because they’re wrong; faced with repeated defeats in their attempts to take legal action against the company, government prohibitionists decided to simply take illegal actions instead, ranging from Tom Dart’s threats against credit card companies to Senate “hearings” of the same sort previously held to intimidate moviemakers, comic book publishers and the music industry.  Then in October, California attorney general Kamala Harris upped the ante by committing the blatantly criminal act of arresting the CEO and both owners of Backpage and filing charges against them that she absolutely knew were illegal for her to file.  Naturally, a judge slapped her down, and she replied by filing even more ridiculous charges, shitting all over the dying protection against double jeopardy in her quest to be a hero to fanatics.  Exhausted and facing the prospect of an infinite succession of similar nuisance charges from criminal tyrants the courts seem unwilling to charge or even rein in, Backpage finally followed in Craigslist’s footsteps and censored its adult ads one week ago today.

But while the mainstream reaction to Craigslist’s defeat was largely a collective yawn, the same is not true this time around.  While Craigslist’s resistance and eventual surrender was generally conducted rather quietly, the war on Backpage has been extremely noisy and impossible to ignore; as a result there have been many articles about it already.  The best of these, as usual, is by Elizabeth Nolan Brown; David Meyer Lindenberg of Fault Lines and Mike Ludwig of Truthout, both strong and dependable allies, also wrote on the topic, and Alison Bass ridiculed Nicholas Kristof’s predictably-ridiculous take on the subject.  Sex workers are coming together to help each other find alternative advertising resources, and other groups such as free-speech advocates and anarchists are chiming in as well.  Backpage has vowed to continue the fight, and I certainly hope they do, because as soon as they stop struggling the prohibitionists will need to find another advertising site to turn into a monster.  Their campaign of eternal outrage needs a target for its hate, or else it means the end of all the accumulation of money and power which is the true aim of this ugly anti-sex crusade.

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The government concedes it presented no evidence.  –  9th Circuit Court

We’ve all seen American propaganda cartoons from the Second World War, but here’s an interesting twist: a Japanese propaganda cartoon from 1936 in which the evil Mickey Mouse bombs Japan and is defeated by Japanese cartoon characters.  Like so many interesting videos lately, it was called to my attention by Jesse Walker; the links above it were provided by Rick HorowitzEd KrayewskiJason KuznickiTim CushingEmma EvansKevin WilsonDave Krueger, and Tim Cushing again, in that order.

From the Archives

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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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