It has to go way beyond the decriminalization of sex work

An Interview with Caty Simon

by FEY MARROW

Fey Marrow and Caty Simon are local organizers.  In this conversation, Fey interviewed Caty about the stigma and criminalization of sex work.

F: If you are talking to the average “progressive” person, what would you want them to think about or understand in terms of their way of relating to sex workers? What are ways of humanizing sex work and the ways we view it as a systemic form of employment?

C: It has been a while since I have to talked to your average progressive person off the street about this. One of the reasons why I run a site by and for sexworkers and why I organize with sexworkers is that it tends to just infuriate me, the amount of privilege involved in being able to distort this issue so completely.  There’s a slogan: “sex work is work”; but as a leftist when I say sex work is work, I mean it from a labor rights perspective of saying that work is also fucking shitty, you know? A couple things I would say: firstly, I think there is a lot of mystification around sex work as some sort of psychological problem or deviance which just seems like laughable considering that if any of these progressives were asked why somebody else picked the job, they would understand that the reasons were structural. I guess that is the way that I would like people to understand that “sex work is work”—that we are not doing this because we have daddy issues. We are doing this because we like to make money. And for many poor women, many queer and trans people, especially queer trans women of color, for many marginalized people, this is a kind of work with low barrier to entry where you can make a lot more money than a lot of the other options, and it is really that simple.

Unfortunately, lots of the time, the sexworkers’ rights movement for the past couple decades has had elements of sex positivity and this desire to make sure people didn’t conflate sex work with trafficking, and that takes a lot of nuance away from the conversation. There is a spectrum of choice and coercion in sex work just like there is a spectrum of choice and coercion in any other field of labor. I don’t want to use the word “slavery” because it is appropriative—but capitalism holds the potential for wage labor to turn into coercion at any point in time. One of the valid arguments that we have always made is that it is very easy to sensationalize sex trafficking when forced agricultural and domestic labor trafficking are so much more widespread. Another one of our very glitzy sound bites, but one that has a lot of tooth to it, is that you don’t eliminate all housework and you don’t eliminate all agricultural work because there are so many thousands of millions of people who are held in agricultural or domestic labor trafficking.

But trafficking is a lot more prosaic than people think it is. The incredibly racist and sensationalized caricature that people make of the idea in their minds, where the shadowy man of color steals a white virgin off the street, originating back to the days of the white slavery panic in the 19th century—that’s not what happens. Trafficking is usually what happens when a sexworker is having her labor rights abused or a sexworker gets into a domestic violence situation. That is someone who was already doing voluntary sexwork for the most part. The issue here is not the sexwork but the conditions under which it is done. If it doesn’t satisfy people as much conceptually to think “oh maybe the solution is to give sex workers agency,” to allow her to do sexwork in the way she’d like, and to do something to rectify the labor rights abuses, that is not as satisfying of a concept as “let’s rescue her from this miserable life.”

The lobbying done under anti-trafficking pretences both globally and nationally usually results in incredible harm for trafficking survivors, voluntary sexworkers, and people whose situation is some sort of grayscale in between those two things. For example, with SESTA_FOSTA since they didn’t consult any actual trafficking survivors—the largest service provider association for trafficking survivors in the U.S. actually opposes this as do so many trafficking survivors in the sex workers right movement. (For reference, SESTA-FOSTA—Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act—are bills that were signed into law on April 11, 2018. ) As did even the department of justice’s anti-trafficking wing—they wrote an open letter against SESTA-FOSTA. But since they weren’t actually taking any input and since the law was framed as an anti-trafficking law, it was bipartisan catnip for them. And since nobody wants to be constructed as pro-trafficking, they passed it almost unanimously. But it is an “exacerbating trafficking law,” a “pro-trafficking law,” because by taking away people’s advertising platforms and thus making it more difficult for us to operate and protect ourselves. When the sex workers rights organization in San Francisco reports that there are four times as many street based workers on the street now as there were before, when people have been driven into homelessness because of the different earnings and because of the loss of the means of advertising, that is when they become so much more vulnerable to trafficking.

There is a special class of predators that preys on street based workers because they are that much more vulnerable.  And even more directly, when you take away a person’s means of advertising, that creates a perfect opening for a pimp to get involved. The sexworkers’ rights movement has now nationally been receiving so many reports of people being texted by their old pimps or texted out of the blue by pimps saying “the game has changed now, you need me now baby.” Unfortunately, for a lot of people that might the best of a lot of bad choices.

Right now, it needs to be a workers’ rights movement and a workers’ rights movement should be focused on those who most need to rectify their situation as workers.

F: I think you already spoke to this, but I am just curious about talking about the complexities of being trapped in sexwork because I know that is a trope that really does smooth over a lot of these vital nuances that you are speaking to. At the same time, I know from my own personal experience from having a lot of close friends that a lot of people do get economically dependent, especially when people are facing houselessness, or are disabled, or don’t have access to other forms of income, it can become a thing where people don’t really feel like they have options of other types of work to do.

C: I think that the only thing that traps people in sexwork is stigma, like a lack of better options to begin with. And I don’t want to obscure that people have very varied experiences of sex work. In the ‘90s and then in the aughts, when I actually became part of the sexworkers’ rights movement, there was really unfortunate tendency for us to focus on cis white middle class women who were “empowered” by the job. As if the only way to make it a valid workers’ rights movement was to say that we were somehow enriched and empowered by the job, which is ridiculous.  Nobody sings the praises of mining when asking for better safety equipment. At that time people would tell me to stay quiet about harm reduction and drug use because that is exactly what the anti-trafficking industrial complex wants to hear about and that is exactly what they will smear us with.

F: I want to clarify that I am not trying to point us towards the idea of sex work being a sad pity story.

C: Even the most marginalized sexworker is not a sad pity story either. People’s lives are fucked up but they are exercising agency in doing the best thing they know how in really horrible situations, which are just as horrible if they are not doing sexwork.

F: We are talking about something that I have already tried to publicly speak about which is the ways that, because sex work isn’t really actually put in the realm of work, it is still kind of seen as a tragedy or that the work itself is somehow the issue versus the surrounding circumstances. But it can be tricky to speak to the surrounding circumstances as a unified front because they vary so much depending on individuals situations.

C: Although in my work right now, in my work in local organizing or national organizing, I’d like to focus on—and this is what I wanted to expand Tits and Sass’ lens to include—more viewpoints of marginalized sex workers. Because we have certainly heard enough from this happy hooker media image. We don’t need one more memoir by a cis white woman who did sex work for a few years and then returned to tell the tale and has all sorts of amusing and titillating anecdotes to share. Right now, it needs to be a workers’ rights movement and a workers’ rights movement should be focused on those who most need to rectify their situation as workers.

The treatment industry and the criminal justice complex, because they are so intertwined, decides what the problem areas are in your life and decides what behavior that should be rewarded looks like and what is bad behavior.

F: How do you see the medical industrial complex and the understandings of trauma impacting the lives of sexworkers in your organizing? I don’t necessarily mean that sexworkers are traumatized, but I am just thinking about the interplay between the diagnosis given by the medical industry, drug treatment programs, and sex work as kind of institutional systems that overlap.

C: Sex work is seen as a symptom quite often.  Even making the choice to do sex work pathologizes people and certainly in the case of drug using sex workers, it is very difficult for someone to get away without being multiply diagnosed when you are in that situation. Whether or not you subscribe to the biochemical model of mental illness, I personally have an agnostic viewpoint towards mental illness as I think a lot of the mad movement slash consumer-patient survivor movement does. For me it is about what model of people’s emotional extremes works for them best. Unfortunately, the biochemical model has such dominance as a discourse and is so universalized that it squeezes out any other helpful models of understanding emotional extremes and trauma. Can you repeat the question briefly?

F: How do you see the medical industrial complex, drug treatment programs, and understandings of trauma to impact the lives of sexworkers?

C: For one thing, in the case of drug-using sex workers, because there is such little focus on evidence based treatment or on harm reduction in this country, there becomes this dark binary choice between getting clean and using. Then the sexwork that you are doing which may or not have predated your drug use is by the treatment industry immediately inextricably connected to your drug use so it becomes a “using behavior” when actually it is your economic survival mechanism and it is one of the few things that you can easily have access to earning with. I see this with a lot of marginalized drug using sex workers, and I have faced this myself sometimes—you don’t have a choice on how your own life is interpreted. You don’t have any agency over what it looks like for you to improve your life.

The treatment industry and the criminal justice complex, because they are so intertwined, decides what the problem areas are in your life and decides what behavior that should be rewarded looks like and what is bad behavior. Drug use may or may not be a huge problem in your life. But you are more likely to be arrested for it if you are working on the street. Sex work may or may not be a problem for you. But again, you are more likely to be arrested for it if you are a drug user and houseless and working on the street. If you go into withdrawal and they put you in jail and they decide to section 35 you, as they do in Massachusetts with opioid users, then those become the problems that you are supposed to be dealing with.

F: What is the sectioning process you are speaking about?

C: A section of Massachusetts General Law can be used to involuntarily institutionalize/psychiatrically imprison someone.  For instance, someone can be sectioned using Section 12 of Massachusetts General Law.   The criteria needed to be involuntarily institutionalized for Section 12 is if you are a danger to yourself or others. But unfortunately in the past few years, in the past five to seven years I would say, sectioning has expanded mightily as a legal technique to include opioid users since drug use can be interpreted as you being a danger to yourself. Section 35 of Mass General Law, which was passed in 1970 and was originally a legal way to involuntarily institutionalize/psychiatrically imprison those diagnosed with mental illness, permits a person to be involuntarily institutionalized for alcohol or substance abuse. A medical professional can section you for 72 hours, and then a judge will decide whether you can be sectioned for longer. That is how they are imprisoning a bunch of people who actually haven’t been arrested for a crime.

What often happens around here actually is that street based workers will be arrested for common nightwalking—that is a 19th century statute, Section 62,  that is actually now unconstitutional and that never actually makes it into court because the judge would just throw it out immediately even though it is still in the books. It restricts your rights to assembly. It is really simply about being a woman out on the street walking. It is often connected to condoms as evidence too. A typical night walking arrest will be that a woman is walking out in an area which is known as an area in which prostitution takes place and they’ll find more than three condoms on her person and they’ll use that as evidence, as probable cause for the arrest. But, they don’t actually take it to court.

What it is really, is that the arrest itself is punishment for the drug-using sexworker because they know that they will probably confiscate any of her money as earnings. It is unlikely that she would have $40 to bail herself out anyway. Then, they especially like to do this on Fridays, so then you are in jail for the weekend. Then you are withdrawing, agonizingly, all through the weekend in jail and that is what the punishment consists of. But recently they have been combining these absurd and unjust nightwalking arrests with sectioning. Once you are withdrawing in a cell, then your withdrawal becomes proof of your drug use. Then a medical professional can judge you to be a danger to yourself. Then you go over to some horrible state run psychiatric facility. Actually, there was a long article in The Atlantic the other day about how men are actually still being held in prison when they are sectioned around here. The MA legislature ended that practice with women in 2016. It doesn’t really matter because the psychiatric facilities that they usually take people to when they are sectioned are really indistinguishable from jails and prisons. Sorry, why did we start talking about this?

F: We were talking about the medical industrial complex and I wanted to clarify the laws you were talking about educationally, as a point of reference for people to know what is happening in their own state.

C: I think I was talking about how the treatment industry and sex work and pathologization all sort of combine. I mean, one of the problems is that there is no middle ground. If you are supposed to be “getting straight,” then you are supposed to be getting the kind of low income work that you can’t make a living wage on that led you to sex work in the first place, because otherwise you are engaged in “using behaviors” and your probation officer will likely send you back.

F: How have the SESTA-FOSTA bills impacted local sex workers and sex work as an industry at large?

C: We haven’t been impacted by SESTA-FOSTA so much locally in the middle term right now. There was a huge scare when a bunch of ad platform sites first went down after SESTA’s passage in March, culminating in the Backpage seizure in April—people lost their homes and the motel rooms they were living in because they couldn’t earn, and we started to see indoor workers turned out into street work for lack of any other option. Then things seemed to settle for a bit locally as both clients and escorts found the few ad platforms that remained or the opportunistic new sites that rose up to fill the vacuum that Backpage left.

So, for now, we as a community here are doing ok, but who knows what will happen when SESTA is actually enacted in January. Then it won’t just be sites self-policing by changing their terms of service to exclude sex work related speech, even re legal sex work, as well as sexual material in general (larger general sites like Instagram, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, etc.) or shuttering themselves (ad platforms, escort boards, and harm reduction/client reference checking sites for sex workers—too many to list) in a preemptive attempt to shield themselves from the law. Sites will suddenly be civilly and criminally liable for all sex worker user content by users on their platforms—that’s what SESTA does. And the law will apply retroactively. So we’ll see even these new interloper sites come down then because they won’t be able to afford the liability. There will be no U.S. sites for us to use. Perhaps enough sites hosted offshore will emerge for us to have an advertising network, but even the law around that is murky.

Nationally, large cities like San Francisco and Seattle are still reporting four times as many street workers as before, with more visible pimp presence on the stroll and younger workers.  The sex worker community as a nation—both criminalized workers and cam and porn workers, because these preemptive shutdowns are affecting legal workers through the cam sites and payment processing sites as well—has not yet recovered from the economic blow SESTA dealt. As of April, just anecdotally, we as a national sex worker community had heard of one person who’d taken their lives because of this legislation, 15 sex workers have gone missing after not calling to check back in after leaving for work, and a few people raped and assaulted at gunpoint. There were probably so many other cases we didn’t know about then, and so many that have piled up since.

And SESTA is changing things on an even more subtle level—for example, clients are now able to dictate the market because of this atmosphere of scarcity and low earnings. So a lot of people feel forced to show their faces in their ads right now—that’s a local phenomenon too—because there’s client pressure to do so and they don’t feel like they can compete in the market otherwise. So not only is our economic well-being, our homes, our safety, and our survival affected by SESTA, it’s also diminishing our quality of life in quieter ways like making it impossible for us to retain our confidentiality.

What do I want sex worker communities to receive from mid to upper class white people? First of all, I want you to listen to us. Read sex worker writing.

F: Thank you so much for taking time to speak to these issues. I want to name all of your unpaid and unrecognized labor and speak to the fact that I want to see more cultural forums exist that prioritize these kinds of exchanges. I also want to acknowledge that you should be taken seriously as an expert and compensated as both of us are getting paid minimally for this article, because these issues are not prioritized by mainstream media. This speaks a lot to your points about agency and power.  

What sorts of things would you like to see for sex workers communities to get support from mid to upper income white people? How do you see neoliberal institutions, particularly nonprofits, utilizing ideas of benevolence and “help” to take away or distort sex workers’ agency?

C: Well, for one thing, a lot of nonprofits assume the ultimate goal is exiting sex work. They assume that that’s the goal every right thinking person would have rather than helping us maintain ourselves in sex work or exiting sex work depending on what works best for us.

And many of these well-funded anti-trafficking organizations who lobby for policies which hurt both trafficking survivors and voluntary sex workers and everyone in between just use both sex workers and trafficking survivors as props, as walking sad stories rather than people who can make decisions and analyses and lead movements. When confronted with a trafficking survivor with agency—who doesn’t fit the nice, white, quiet victim model—they turn away. Where were all those major anti-trafficking activists in the case of Cyntoia Brown? Not a whisper from Julie Bindel, Gail Dines, Melissa Farley, and company. Trafficking survivor and sex worker activist and author Laura Lemoon wrote a brilliant piece about this phenomenon at the national media site by and for sex workers which I co-edit, Tits and Sass.

It has to go way beyond the decriminalization of sex work.

What do I want sex worker communities to receive from mid to upper class white people? First of all, I want you to listen to us. Read sex worker writing. Stop assuming when it comes to us—don’t give credence to the distorted statistics of the anti-trafficking discourse and instead read the work of trafficking survivors in the sex workers’ rights movement and the work of sex worker organizations internationally.  And stop inserting yourself—we don’t want YOU to leverage us to improve your career by writing a research paper on us or writing a book about a fictional sex worker character based on your salacious and distorted idea of what we might be like. (Sarah Mann, another brilliant Tits and Sass contributor, goes into this topic in further detail in an amazing manifesto on the site entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Study Sex Workers.”) Why not boost sex worker written fiction and sex worker researchers instead?

We need you to respect our confidentiality and our space. We could use your money for our peer run programs as well as your non-monetary donations, maybe even your labor, but we don’t necessarily need you to have access to us for your own slumming needs.

F: In your pieces of writing, you talk a lot about the dehumanization of sex workers, specifically low-income sex workers who are facing addiction. What kinds of cultural and political changes do you think need to happen in order for these forms of oppression to shift (on both a micro and macro level)?

C: It has to go way beyond the decriminalization of sex work. It’s about how the sex workers’ rights movement also has to become a prison abolition movement, a no borders movement, a low-income rights and fair wage/universal income movement, a harm reduction movement, and an ending the drug war/decriminalizing all drugs movement. And so many paradigms need to be challenged—I mean, right there—you say “facing addiction”, instead of “low-income sex workers who use drugs” or “who use injection drugs,” when not all of us feel benefited by the addiction model so universalized by the 12 Step approach.

Because sex work is a really intersectional issue in that it’s a low-barrier income source for a lot of different kinds of marginalized and criminalized people. So there would need to be a change on so many fronts of oppression for such people in order for this dehumanization to end. When someone is stigmatized and criminalized as a sex worker, they’re not just dehumanized as a sex worker, but there are classed, gendered, race-based, anti-drug user, misogynoir, transmisogynist and etc. stigmas also at play that will intertwine with that whorephobia.

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Caty Simon is co-editor of titsandsass.com and a member of a local drug-using-street-worker-led sex worker harm reduction task force/support & organizing group. Donate here.

Fey Marrow is an ex sex worker who is an organizer and cofounder of the Western Mass Prison Abolition Network. They are interested in healing justice, and building alternatives to institutionalization.

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