The War on Whores: The European Conference 2005: Sex Work, Human Rights, Labor & Migration
You may not know it, but there’s a world-wide war on whores. And George W. Bush is leading the forces, just like he is in Iraq, where the death toll mounts daily. All over the world, he has tied United States financial support to his agenda of making prostitution a crime, with willing sex workers and the clients criminals. I found this out recently at the European Conference 2005: Sex Work, Human Rights, Labor & Migration in Brussels.
For years there’s been a raging debate between abolitionists who want to make all exchange of sex for money (whether voluntary or not) illegal; and sex workers who view the willing exchange of sex and money as a work issue, not a moral issue. The abolitionists, many of whom have never had sex for money, often contend that any exchange of sex for money is slavery. The sex workers, all of whom have exchanged sex for money, are adamant that they should be able to make money in the sex business if that is their choice. And they insist that they should be able to do it in safe, sanitary conditions, with the same rights as any other worker to ply their trade.
Abolitionists have often used the trafficking issue (the international buying and selling of sex slaves) to cloud the voluntary exchange of sex for money. Many claim that if sex work is decriminalized, trafficking will flourish. However, the fact is that in America, sex work is illegal, and there is much trafficking. In the Netherlands, sex work is legal, and there is much trafficking. Furthermore it is clear that by focusing so much energy on criminalizing willing clients and buyers in the sex business, these resources cannot be used to fight real sexual slavery.
Traditionally people in the sex business have not had a voice in how we are treated. We are jailed, deported, beaten, silenced. Academics, social workers, lawmakers and do-gooders have spoken for us. And we’re tired of it. That’s one reason this conference was organized: so sex workers can speak for ourselves about the deadly serious issues that are at the core of the debate about sex for money.
Here’s what happened to me at this historic gathering. On Thursday October 14th I arrived sleep deprived at the Mercure Royal Crown Hotel in Brussels, Belgium for the. Excited, thrilled, yet terrified that I would be shunned and ostracized for being an ugly American stupid white breeder man. This is what it’s now like for an American abroad. Even as I arrived, my fears were quelled as I was greeted sweetly and immediately put me to work assembling documents. I was quite pleased to be put to work, as I come from a long line of beasts of burden, and as an ex-whore, I live to please.
As I stuffed manifestos into whore-red folders, I heard my old friend Scarlot Harlot downstairs practicing a speech in Russian. Apparently “bitch” is “bitch” all over the world. Why did I travel 6,000 miles to be here? “Connect. Celebrate. Challenge.” That’s what the folder said. Challenge the world’s perception of sex workers, prostitutes, whores. Attitudes, laws, policies, rights to work safely and move freely. Connect with my European sex worker friendly brothers and sisters. Celebrate good times, come on!
In the conference room, 75 or so current and former sex workers and allies congregated, mingled and chilled. Art hung on the walls: rentboy photos eating breakfast; line drawings of whore heroes; transgender warriors and brave streetwalkers. And in the corner was Scarlot Harlot’s Whore Store. For the whore in all of us.
My earlier trepidation now seemed ridiculous. I communed with sex workers from Russia to Washington. Suddenly I was face-to-face with the one and only Margo St. James, legendary icon activist and all-around hot mama. I have, of course, heard stories about her for years. Even performed at benefits for St. James Infirmary and Coyote (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), sex worker institutions she co-founded that provide help with medical, mental, professional, legal, financial and compassion needs in my San Francisco. It’s slightly odd to finally meet someone you’ve admired for so long. And such a relief when she is so smart, funny, down-to-earth and mad sexy. We talked about SF’s history as the sexual capital of America, the Hooker’s Ball, Dizzy Gillespie, cokeheaded lawyers and crooked-ass cops. I thought how odd it was to travel to Brussels to meet a legend from my own hometown.
First night a big group of us went out to dinner. Picture the scene: 17 sex workers dropping in on a nice unsuspecting Brussels restaurant at 10pm Friday night. A Scottish lap-dancer sat next to me. Apparently the women in Scotland pay a deposit before their dance shift, are required to do a couple of stints on stage, then do their lapdancing in a booth, which is carefully monitored by a closed-circuit camera. No touching policy is strictly enforced. So there is a real sense of safety in the workplace. Juxtapose this with SF, where I recently spoke to a lap-dancer who told me the woman have to pay to work, and if they don’t make the $300 they’re charged for a night, they lose their money, goodbye, sayanora, tought luck, baby! And in the booths she descibed, which woman are often forced into, the door is locked, and they are left unprotected. Coersion, rape and forced sex often ensue. And the cops don’t care, cuz they’re often the customers. Again I am embarrassed to be an American.
On the other side of me was an English sex worker man I’d been corresponding with electronically. Part of the joy of this conference was putting faces to e-mails. He was charming in a way only the English can charm, and whip-smart, with a fascinating story: from evangelic angelic English school/choir boy to wildly successful hustler.
Finally I dragged my raggedy ass to bed at 2am and slept until 5am, when my brain popped open and started gyrating wildly around the room. Sadly I was unable to find any way to stop it. Next thing I knew it was 9am, and I crawled like a dazed Kafka cockroach down to the conference room.
An absolutely radiant sex worker woman living now in the UK was decked out in a sexy boustier type deal, with a big feather headress flapping exotically on her head. She instructed us to blow up the red balloon on our seat, write something on it, bat it around the room, grab another, and write something on it. It was grand fun. And a beautiful sight, watching 99 luft ballons flying around the room, with all those whores batting them about.
Favorite things I saw on a red balloon: “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can rent some for awhile,” and “Practice random acts of kindness.”
Then they were popped:
BOOM! BAM! BANG!
We were then addressed by the committee who put the whole conference together. What an enormous undertaking: getting everyone here, translating everything into four languages, picking a clear agenda everyone could agree on. The most basic goals were laid out:
· Creating a network for sex workers and allies to share information easily and instantly
· Getting sex work addressed as a labor issue, and working to get sex workers rights to free movement and safe work, with dignity and respect
· Drafting and ratifying a manifesto and a declaration to state our needs and desires
It was stressed that people who want to make money from sex of their own free will should have the same human rights as everyone else: protection from harm and harassment, sanitary working conditions, a living wage, freedom of movement. But often when sex work is legalized, prostitutes are forced to register, often with their home addresses. They are given mandatory health tests, and often this information is made public, causing stigma and sometimes violence to be heaped on the worker. Many times they are taxed outrageously, and can have their children taken from them with no recourse. Of course where sex work is prohibited, the workers have no rights at all, and can be abused by clients, employers, and the police, which sadly happens all too often. To view the issue as a labor/human rights/migration issue seemed a good start in improving the world for people who want to work in the sex industry.
In the afternoon I attended a Network Workshop. The idea is to create an international network where information of all kinds can be exchanged instantly and freely. The problems inherent are enormous and obvious: no money, no existing infrastructure, too many languages, every country with different customs and laws, so many workers underground and inaccessible, shadow players in a dark dangerous game. A sex worker who lives in French told a horror story of an African woman working in Paris in deplorable conditions. When she complained to the government, they assured her they would help. Instead they used the information to swoop down on the area and make massive arrests, deporting many many women who were working there without documentation. And nothing could be done. The French sex worker reflected that if there had been a network in place, perhaps the sex workers could have been warned.
Next was a media workshop, which I had agreed to help facilitate. It was distressingly depressing how many of my fellow sex workers had media whore horror stories. One transgendered sex worker living in Norway told about being interviewed extensively, then getting quoted in the paper in a tiny box with a huge unflattering picture above and a caption that read: “WHORE REFUSES TO PAY TAXES!” Time and again the media portays us as sadsack immoral slut dregs-of-society losers, or sex freaks in miniskirts bending into car windows. A general theme emerged: Control the interview, plan and rehearse your message, and deliver it kindly, nicely and relentlessly. And as with all whore work, it if feels weird or bad, JUST SAY NO!
On to the Manifesto. A statement of needs and desires by sex workers themselves, not policy makers, social workers, or deluded do-gooders who have no idea what it’s like to actually do the the work. The Manifesto addresses everything from working conditions, to migration, to labor practices, to securing basic human rights, respect and protection. So many of these conferences devolve into pointless theorizing and painful in-fighting. But here is a real document with real substance written by real sex workers.
Another joy of this conference: the conversations you would never ever have anywhere else. After we rehearsed for the show we were going to put on, a new stripper friend said, “Please don’t tell anyone about the buttplug, I want it to be a surprise.” I assured her that no word of the buttplug would pass my lips. And I was true to my word.
At the group meeting Sunday morning, a sex work expert reported that new German legislation doesn’t decriminalize sex work, but now it is tolerated. Sex workers are expected to sign contracts if they work in houses. But there is much mistrust, and many workers don’t want to sign them. Part of the problem is that the workers don’t know about changes in the law, so they’re in the dark about their rights. Legally, it is not against the law to run a house of prostitution in a residential neighborhood, but because of ignorance and stigmatization, many houses are being closed down. And in every sector their are small variations in law. Apparently in Germany, politicians and government officials are so ignorant about how the sex business works that they tax sex workers when they aren’t even employees. A pleasure tax is also levied on sex workers, who are not allowed to deduct legitimate expenses. So they often have outrageous tax bills. And with the change in law also comes a crackdown on migrant workers, who are deported, even though many have nowhere to go, and face horror stories when they are dumped back in the home lands. On the positive side, the law is a start towards legitimizing sex work.
A presentation on migration and trafficking followed. Apparently there’s a great discrepancy between what is actually happening in the world, and the hysteria that is presented by abolitionists and the media. Yes, of course there are slaves of all kind being trafficked in the world, but all too often the reality of migrants willingly exchanging sex for money is ignored, and the worker suffers for it. This makes it all the more difficult to track down real traffickers who are using humans as slaves. Only when governments acknowledge and respect the right to travel and trade sex for money will migrant sex workers get the rights and protection they desperately need and deserve.
An Italian sex work legend, who for many years has been studying human and sexual rights, as well as discrimination and persecution among woman and the transgendered. Sex workers, she said, are perceived as victims, and stripped of all rights and abilities to determine their own fate. Sex workers and migrants are the subject of racism, violence and abuse. The perpetrators are not pursued or punished. The message was: This must end.
A sex worker expert who now live in Swedish presented the new Swedish model of controlling sex work. Apparently, for better or worse, the Swedes believe that the whole world should adopt their social policies, so they are madly going around trying to get every country under the sun to run sex work the way they do. The only problem is: What they do doesn’t work. Their idea is to arrest and prosecute the client. Which is better than arresting and prosecuting the women certainly, but the point is, why are they arresting willing buyers or sellers at all? The feminist-driven Swedish government argues that criminalization will empower women, making them less susceptible to being talked into the business. And their theory is that trafficking will be stopped. However, the reality is much different. Sex workers can no longer afford to be choosey about picking clients, since the clients are fewer, scared and edgy. So often times only the violent, extreme buyers are left. And if something does happen, the clients, who used to be able to help police, now no longer cooperate for fear of being arrested themselves. Undocumented workers are shipped out. Police clandestinely film sex workers, trying to collect evidence against buyers. Sex workers are now loathe to carry condoms, which can be used as evidence of having sex for money. And in Sweden, the government will not listen to the sex workers themselves. But the Swedish expert said he is bound and determined to “stop the virus from spreading” and urged us to help stamp out this terrible policy, which tramples all over human rights of sex workers.
Gail Pheterson and Margo St. James then gave a presentation, complete with pictures and text, about the history of the sex worker rights movement. They have had a wonderful partnership as academic/sex worker, and this reflected in their beautiful give-and-take rapport. They said that from the beginning they didn’t back away from words used to denigrate prostitutes, which is why they called the inaugural event, The First World Whore Conference. This was in 1985-86. Twenty years ago. From the beginning, prostitute rights and women’s rights seemed to them intrinsically linked, and they’ve been working (with varying degrees of success) for years to get feminists to understand this, and have sympathetic support for sex workers. “We are all for rights of sex workers and against violence, exploitation and slavery.” Gail and Margo did a very interesting thing from the beginning: they dressed up civilian allies as whores so that no one could tell the difference. We are not who you think we are. We are not freakish amoral monsters. We are brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. We live next door, up the street, and down the hall. Looking at Margo and Gail, it was impossible to tell who was the academic and who was the ex-whore. They quoted Norma Jean Almodavar: “There’s a difference between politicians and prostitutes. There are some things prostitutes won’t do for money.” I laughed. We all laughed.
Ana Lopes and George Martin talked about starting a sex woker union in the UK. Ana got a job in the sex industry, liked the work, but was frustrated that she was stigmatized, had no labor rights, and was treated unfairly, with no recourse. So she and fellow sex workers met in her apartment, with no money, no resources, and formed the International Union of Sex Workers. They put up a website, recruited more members, and went about making themselves into a valid union. After being rebuffed by many many organizations, they contacted the George Martin and the GMB. They found they had much common ground, and joined forces. They wanted to establish sex work as legitimate labor, thus helping with training, individual benefits, legal representation and rights, as well as better working conditions. And now they have actually made a recognized union. Forcing people to see sex work as a labor issue as opposed to a moral issue. And in giving invisible sex workers a face and a structure to be seen and heard. Ana and Martin were inspirational indeed. Sex Workers of the World Unite!
Sunday night was the party/performance, at a nightclub in Brussels. The place was packed to the rafters with sex workers and allies in all their feathery finery. Wigs, slits, tits, stilleto heels, big hair, short skirts, silk, leather and lace. By the time the show started the atmosphere was electric, like being in a cloud just before a lightning storm. After two beautiful poems by two beautiful French sex workers about activist warrior Gristeledes, Scarlott Harlot, looking like a cross between Mae West, the Statue of Liberty, and a Madame at a Brothel in Heaven, brought the house down with her unique blend of vaudevillian sloganeering.
Stop the Wars On Whores!!!
Outlaw Poverty Not Prostitutes!!!
Keep the Government Out of My Underpants!!!
Solitair has legs longer than I am, a black river of hair running down her impossibly long back, huge spotlight eyes that shine on high beam, and when she paraded onto the stage to the tune of “I Like the Way You Move” in a tiny purple see-through teddy, a hot shiver ran through the room. Lean lithe and lovely she played the crowd like it was a violin and she was Itzak Perlman in a purple teddy. And when she bent over and moved her G-string to reveal the butt plug, I was gratified that I had not revealed her secret, because the stunned pindrop silence, full of gaping mouths, stolen breath and bugged-out eyes, was priceless. To shock this crowd took some doing, but Solitair did it in spades.
I was next, and as I looked out at all those beaming sex workers faces from all over the world: the rentboys and ladyboys, the whores and the hustlers, the disenfranchised and the reviled, the hated and the desired, the objects of revulsion and lust, I was overcome by these people, who had all traveled many miles to be here, to try in some ridiculous way to make the world more fair and humane and safe.
I have done my show, or bits of it, almost a hundred times, on three continents. This was the only time I have been translated on the spot into Russian and French. Strange and amazing to say a line, then wait and hear my words in Russian. Then French. I had been a little worried that it would be too long and too weird. But for me it accentuated how we were doing something global, and yet incredibly personal. In my show I portray a client who was a tantric sex expert. My piece climaxes when she has the mother of all climaxes. I’ve always said that Orgasm is the ultimate international language, and this proved true on that Sunday night in Brussels. It felt like we all came together in a celebration of sex work and being human.
Gypsy Charms, my new Scottish stripper friend, had asked me to play a client getting a lap-dance from her. After the dance I was to yell at her, growling gruffly about what bad her body was. To me this illustrated a subtle part of sex work that I felt over and over when I was in the business, that no one had really discussed at the conference. How clients inflict their sexual pain on the sex worker. How as a whore I absorbed so much sexual illness from my clients. As a race we seem to suffer so much sexually, and sex workers are a well into which the world dumps its sex misery. In the piece, I was told to reach up and touch her, which is strictly forbidden. When I did it, she reached back and slapped me. The crowd reacted audibly, happy to see an abusive client get some of his own back. I thought of the men standing outside the booths in Amsterdam, drunk and screaming horrible degrading things at the women behind the glass, laughing like sadistic barbarians.
After the show an amazing DJ ripped some crazy mad tunes, with all manner of Afro/Latino/Eurotrashing rhythms thrown into the pot to create a tasty stew. Boys danced with boys. Girls danced with girls. Boys danced with girls. Girls danced with boys. Trannies danced with everybody. It was a slamming jamming euphoric release.A celebration.
Monday morning, blurry-eyed but bushy-tailed we loaded into buses and headed for the European Parliament. By this time I was so sleep deprived I felt sure that if my head weren’t tethered to my body, it would float away like a red balloon. As we approached the huge gleaming glass and metal structure of the European Parliament, its modern majesty made it feel like we were about to enter a center of money and influence. We had to get individuals badges and go through the metal detectors, adding to the effect that something terribly official, and potentially dangerous, was happening here. It was a fabulous contrast: all of us queer birds dressed like bureaucrats and politicians rubbing elbows with all the straight-laced button-down bureaucrats and politicians. The room where our meeting took place looked just like you see it on TV. A table with microphones on a platform in front of many long curving tables with microphones, going back 30 deep, with chairs for about 250 people. Around the perimeter, behind glass partitions, sat the translators from a dozen or so countries. Nice gig, I thought, sit around and wait for somebody to speak in your language, hope they’re not too longwinded, then hang out in the European Parliament.
Entering this room was surreal. Made everything seem more real and possible, because after all, here we were, in the very seat of social power, where laws are changed, compromises are hammered out, and policy is made. An official from the Green Party, which sponsored us, spoke about how much we have in common. We both want to stop violence and abuse, and get rights in place for all sex workers. The funny thing is, you could not have picked this Green Party politico out of a line-up of sex workers.
An Italian member of the European Parliament showed up. He was attentive, energetic and seemed like quite a sharp fellow. He talked about putting the sex work struggle in the broader historical context of the struggle for human rights by any underrepresented, oppressed, reviled, stigmatized and beaten down group. The Italian Parliament said he was going to take our Declaration to other politicians so they can study it, and make changes accordingly. He said he was on a committee that was responsible for spreading democracy and human rights all over Europe, and that he was going to push our agenda of civil rights and the fight against repressive punitive laws and regulations. Most importantly, he thought that making sex work seen as a profession would be a huge step. He suggested we hook up with other organizations to build our power base, and to find specific violations to draw attention to the larger issues. Then he did something amazing. He actually signed our Declaration. Right there in front of all of us. Out in the open. In the European Parliament. When our Chairperson asked him, he said he would sigh it, “Very happily.”
When ten basic demands were read by sashed sex workers, a chill went through me, and a feeling of triumph spread through the room. Stop criminalization, prejudice, violence, ignorance, cruelty and abuse, to ensure that people can work and move free and easy, proudly and with dignity.
Afterwards I thought what we really should do is film our members having sex with all the major leaders of Parliament, then blackmail them into giving us what we need. Hey, by whatever means necessary.
WARNING: If you ever eat in the European Parliament, DO NOT have the salad. The green beans were wilted, the corn tasteless, and the shredded carrots a disaster.
So now we had to load into a bus and go to the Street Demonstration. If you’ve ever tried to move 150 sex workers through the European Parliament you know how difficult that can be. Somehow we succeeded. Then suddenly there we were on the steps of the Brussels Stock Exchange. I thought ruefully of all the bankers who rent us, then revile us.
We were all given red umbrellas, and as we assembled with them on the steps, it was a beautiful sight, like a field of blooming poppies with sex worker flowers growing under them. A huge banner read:
SEX WORKER RIGHTS = HUMAN RIGHTS!!!
Instantly it was a mob scene, as onlookers gawked and gaped, glued to the spectacle of the whistle-blowing whores dancing and chanting: “VOUS COUCHEZ AVEC NOUS, VOUS VOTEZ CONTRA NOUS!!!” You sleep with us, you vote against us!!!
Journalists hungrily buzzed about with notepads, microphones, movie and still camera, hunting for the nectar of the right angle to make the news.
Suddenly there were sirens, and the police showed up. My first impulse as an American was that they were going to arrest us. Great! I thought, this is the best thing that could possibly happen. I saw us on the front pages of the London, New York, Los Angeles Times, on the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera:
150 SEX WORKERS ARRESTED IN BRUSSLES!!!
Alas, sadly, they were only there to keep the peace. After about 45 minutes, we took off through the streets of Brussels, a police car clearing the road for us. It was a joyous celebration, and a challenge to the public: we’re here, we’re not who you think we are, and we’re not going away. Globally and locally. As we moved through the streets of Brussels singing and chanting with our red umbrellas and our banners, we were cheered and waved at by walkers, drivers and passersby. I also heard that a couple of Belgians saw us and said, “They should all be killed.” They should all be killed. They should all be killed. We passed a group of boys, 8-10 year olds, on bicycles. They started cheering and shouting sweetly with boyish enthusiasm, staying with us for quite a while, having a fine old time. I smiled as I thought that maybe when they grow up they’ll have an image of sex workers as fun, smart and political, instead of uneducated, drug addicted wretches of society.
On the march, one of the member of our contingency was passing out cards for our organization. She gave one to an onlooker, who looked at the card, then looked at us, and asked what the card said. Our member translated: “These are sex workers.” Onlooker looked at the card, looked at us, and asked, “What’s a sex worker?” Our member explained, “People who work in the sex business, like prostitutes and strippers.” Onlooker’s eyes went wide: “Ï am a stripper and a prostitute. And and transsexual. May I join you?” Our member said we would love to have her. She introduced Onlooker to one of our own transsexual sex workers, and they walked arm-in-arm through the streets, telling each other their life stories.
Yes, of course, there is much to do, the situation is dire, but I for one, left excited, encouraged and inspired. From the streets of Brussels to the European Parliament, our voices are being heard.
TOP TEN LIST FROM THE EUROPEAN CONFERENCE 2005
- European Parliament member signs official sex worker demand document
- Whore Manifesto created and ratified
- Margo St. James and Gail Pheterson stroll us down hooker activist Memory Lane
- 10 sex workers read our needs in European Parliament
- Hearing whore stories from around the world
- Demonstrating on the steps of the Stock Exchange then dancing in the streets
- Meeting sex workers from Greece, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Scotland, England, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and God knows where else
- UK strippers
- Sharing a room with tantric massage expert
- Getting my ass squeezed by a lesbian, a gay man, a straight man, a straight woman, and a transsexual all in one day
As an added bonus, I have included a list of things I think every activist should know. Enjoy!
10 COMMANDMENTS OF ACTIVISM
- If thou marcheth in the streets, weareth comfortable shoes
- Talketh not for more than three minutes if thou hast nothing to say
- Putteth the needs of the group before thine own
- Forgeth not thine business cards
- Getteth contact information from everyone thou meeteth
- Eateth apples instead of candy
- If thou hast a roommate, tryeth not to snoreth
- Listeneth more than thou talketh
- Findeth solutions instead of bitchething about how bad everything is
- Smelleth good
David Henry Sterry