A few weeks back I sat down for an interview with San Francisco transplant Eric Barry on his Full Disclosure podcast. Eric and I talked about the evolution of the sex industry in Chicago, as well as some more amusing tidbits from my days as a sex worker- Full Disclosure
Just returned from a week at the Desiree Alliance conference in Vegas, where it was great to re-connect with old friends and make some new ones. Amazing to see how this movement has grown in just a few years and that there’s still sex workers motivated and dedicated to community organizing. For those that saw me at the conference, you most likely were handed a card about my new project, AIT Research, which has been about 2 years in the making and has finally come to fruition. This was originally a partnership between myself and a few activist friends who wanted to develop our own nationwide research survey on human trafficking in the sex trades. Since then, one of our original partners has dropped out of the project, but along with SWOP-Michigan’s Crysta Heart, we’ve created a platform to promote and develop sex worker led research that we hope will uncover some “truths” about our industry, as opposed to much of the biased research about the industry that comes from outsiders.
Our first AIT research project, The Erotic Labor Market Survey, or “ELMS” focuses on human trafficking in the various erotic labor/sex industries and was launched last week. With this survey, we hope to gain more accurate stats on how often trafficking occurs in the industry and whether or not workers, clients, and staff of industry establishments are properly educated on how to respond to trafficking situations when they are confronted with them. This project was our own direct response to the trafficking PSA that we created in 2012. One of the conversations that came out the the writing process of that video was that we create a survey for not just sex workers, but for clients and other industry personnel (staff at strip clubs/escort services/porn companies, etc.) on whether or not the can identify a trafficking victim and how they would respond if they did come across one. As we stated in that video, WE are the ones most likely to come into contact with individuals in coercive situations, yet because of the wall between us and most anti-trafficking organizations and efforts, there is little knowledge and education being done about what to do about it. Additionally, as we know many trafficking statistics are likely to be overinflated, but the only way we can get good accurate data of our own is to do our own research from inside the industry. We are working with the Social Science Research Center at DePaul university on this project who helped us re-write some of the language to get us approved by the Institutional Review Board there. For those not in academia, IRB’s monitor research projects involving human subjects to protect them from physical or psychological harm.
Guess what Melissa Farley? We can collect data too!
So this is why I’m hounding everyone to help us with this project…Take the Survey! Then tell your fellow co-workers, clients, and other industry friends. It’s for current or former workers or clients, but we ask that you keep responses to US-based experiences only. Yes, I know surveys are annoying, especially when you’re a sex worker being hounded by college students and academic types who want to “study” you, but we assure you that this is being done with the full participation and direction of sex workers, which we need more of. “Nothing about us, without us” is and will forever be our motto.
I’m hoping to create some banners for promoting the survey on other websites, so once we get some of those, I will post them up here.
The ELMS survey will stay open for a year, until July 2014. After that we will likely do a write-up and presentation on the results.
Imagine it’s a Monday morning, you’re a bit groggy and headed to work on the bus, you sit your ass down, look up at the ads that line to top of the bus and you see this…
Of course you knew you could get rich working in prostitution! But in small print it says “Pimps keep the profits, while prostituted women pay with their lives.” Well then, it might be better to be a pimp right?
Or how about this…You’re walking down Michigan Avenue with your children, ages 10 and 7 and see a sign on a bus shelter that says “Prostitution. There’s Nothing Victimless About it”, prompting your 7 year old to say “what’s prostitution?”
Or worse, you pick up your elderly parents at the airport and on the highway a large billboard reads “I don’t know anyone who pays for sex.” Underneath that, in small print, it says “Yes, you probably do.”
Mortifying and offensive, right? This is all happening RIGHT NOW in my hometown of Chicago. And I am aghast.
“The Ugly Truth” is a new advertising campaign for the End Demand Illinois campaign that was created by the Voices and Faces Project, an organization that works with survivors of sexual violence. I just attempted to make a phone call to Voices and Faces, but they don’t have a direct phone number, just a hotline for arranging speakers that goes to a third party. I admit I don’t know much about this organization, but I do see they are based in Chicago seem to have a lot of money to throw around. Or at least someone connected to them does.
Yes, this is an expensive ad campaign that posts these signs all over the city of Chicago from now until June, once again imposing their morality on unassuming Chicagoans, most of who probably don’t think much about prostitution on a daily basis, but now have it in their face wherever they go. I can’t help but think of what the money used for all this could’ve better done for these so-called “survivors” they always talk about. Provided oh-so-needed housing? Paid for groceries and rent for these prostituted women so they wouldn’t have to prostitute themselves? How about buying a new car for some of these prostitutes so they don’t have to sit on a bus or an El train with all this bullshit nonsense up in their faces?
But no, once again these over-funded prohibitionist organizations show their true colors by showing that they are only interested in preaching “ugly lies” to an unsuspecting public that are now blushing in embarrassment when being forced to view these signs when mingling with friends, family, co-workers, and worse yet, children and teens who have something to giggle and be ashamed about for the rest of the day. Why not put photos of half-naked and abused white women on there to really hammer the point home?
This is not the first time this has happened here. A few years ago, there was a public billboard campaign that was just as creepy, with signs reading “Did you just pick up my daughter tonight?” pictured with a mans hands in handcuffs. You can only wonder about people’s initial responses to those… “well if you were a better parent, that wouldn’t have happened!” I believe those were created by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, on organization you’d think that would have more pressing issues to work on, right?
All this comes at a time when The End Demand campaign in IL is doing something commendable (yes, I am gagging as I say that) in promoting a bill (SB 1872) that will eliminate felony prostitution from IL and lowering the penalty for prostitution to a Class A misdemeanor (it is currently a Class B). While it’s not decriminalization, it is a step in the right direction, even though it is motivated by the belief that “all sex workers are victims” and need a break.
We do need a break. A break from this type of rhetoric promoted by do-gooder feminist types that refuse to listen to individuals who have worked in the sex trade unless they have a sob story to tell that includes a pimp or a trafficker and abusive johns. Anything less is just not the “ugly truth” apparently. Still, what I find even more disturbing is the willingness of some of these individuals and organizations to take part in even the most exploitative of media dramatizations on prostitution. Last evening a friend texted me to express her disgust after catching an episode of MSNBC’s “Sex Slaves” series. This one was called “Sex Slaves in the Windy City” and featured the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force performing arrests on prostitutes and johns in a Schiller Park motel room. I’d seen the episode before and was equally horrified by it…not only did they the show the busts going down, but they showed the full faces of all the prostitutes that were arrested and conveniently blurred out the faces of the cops and the johns who were arrested. In one scene, a john is given a ticket after his arrest and let go with a warning while a prostitute in another room is taken down to jail and forced to undergo an intervention with Brenda Myers-Powell, a former prostitute who now works closely with law enforcement and the End Demand Illinois campaign. All the arrested prostitutes were forced to do interventions with Brenda and even if they admitted they were working on their own and didn’t want or need help, Brenda hinted that they may not take the help now, but they’ll be back eventually. Because who doesn’t want to be rescued? And really, what other jobs would be waiting for these women after having their faces shown on a national television show (that is re-run over and over again) being arrested for prostitution?
It’s all a big publicity stunt. Let’s force the public to shed a tear about this issue so they’ll throw money at us and we can launch even more misguided publicity stunts and turn “rescuers” like Powell into minor celebrities. Meanwhile, the voice of consenting sex workers are being ignored again because “if you don’t have anything negative to say about prostitution, don’t say it at all.” Compare this campaign to SWAAY’s struggle to get a pro-sex work billboard put up in Los Angeles or The St. James Infirmary’s rejection of their “Someone You know is A Sex Worker” campaign billboards by CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel because of the use of the terms “sex work” and “sex worker.” Apparently, when your message is a positive one about sex work, it’s not acceptable to advertise but somehow “Get rich. Work in prostitution” is. Sometimes folks don’t read the small print, you know?
Incidentally, I just called the 800 number listed on the advertisements to complain and got the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The girl who answered the phone was very nice and apologized that I was offended, but had little knowledge of the “Ugly Truth” campaign. Instead, she said “sometimes people advertise our number and we don’t have any control over it.” So you’re saying you didn’t consent to having this number published on these signs? Hmmm…
As great as it would be to have enough money to launch a counter-campaign, I believe that people shouldn’t be forced against their will to have messages about prostitution in their faces while enjoying their morning coffee or taking their kids to school. When people are mature enough to read up on the facts themselves or talk to actually people involved in the sex trade, then they can gather the “truth” for themselves. But the ugly truth about “The Ugly truth” campaign is it’s all a bunch of lies.
It’s been awhile since I’ve visited here, but now’s as good a time as ever to start blogging again. Yesterday the news that SWOP-USA co-founder Robyn Few had passed away after her long battle with cancer. While most of us knew it was coming, I was still sad that I never got to see Robyn one last time as she traveled around a bit on her goodbye tour this summer. She was such a huge presence, a firecracker of a lady, that it was hard for her not to make an impression on someone.
I remember the first time I had met Robyn was at the 2008 Desiree Alliance Conference. She was already undergoing chemo for the lymphoma and was wearing a funky wig to cover up her bald head. Stacey Swimme introduced us when I arrived at the conference space at it was like meeting an old friend. I begged her to do an on-camera interview for my new advocacy website and after the conference wrapped up for the day, we snuck into a lounging area at the space and I was able to get her to tell her background story and a bit about how SWOP was formed. Here’s the video-
During that conference Robyn was staying at a hotel in the Belmont/Clark area of Chicago, an area known for its nightlife and popular shopping district, but also know as a stroll for transgender sex workers on weekends. One evening while returning to the hotel, Robyn witnessed some cops harassing some of the sex workers in the area and called them out on it, telling them to leave them alone. The cops took a liking to Robyn after chatting with her awhile and the next night came back to the hotel’s front door looking for Robyn again. What resulted was a group conversation with myself, Robyn, Renegade Evolution, and a few other activists and the beat cops, who insisted they thought it was stupid for prostitution to be a crime and that they rarely bothered “with those types arrests.” (partly true-it’s mostly vice cops that do pro arrests) Even the CPD cops loved Robyn and her fiery attitude!
Later that year, we congregated in Washington DC on December 17 for a March on Washington, a dream on Robyn’s that many activists pulled together to help become a reality. On the evening before, we had a sign making party at Different Avenues and Robyn was helping paint a sign for me saying “Stop Wasting Taxpayers Money Arresting Prostitutes.” At one point she exclaimed, “Oh no, I spelled prostitutes wrong!” and we all got a big laugh out of it before repainting the sign. The march had a decent turnout (despite congress being out of session) and Robyn led the whole way, yelling into the megaphone and facilitating the after march speeches. My favorite moment was at the very end, when two police officers came up and she asked if they were planning at arrest her before they declared they had nothing to arrest her for. You can see it at the tail end in this video of the Washington DC march-
In 2010, she was a keynote speaker at the Desiree Alliance Conference in Las Vegas, and a slideshow of photos put together by Carol Leigh played after her speech. It was a great moment at the conference for by then she was very sick and it was clear that her days were somewhat numbered. Here’s the video of that presentation-
The last time I saw Robyn was at the SWOP National retreat in northern California in 2011. She was in great spirits and made time to meet with the reps from every SWOP chapter and talk to us about our issues (and there were many), dreams and goals for the future, and her expectations for us. A lot of the newer members were just meeting Robyn for the first time and she greeted them Robyn-style…handing them joints from her own personal stash. In the evening, everybody got naked and jumped into the large hot tub, drunk, high…you name it. Pot brownies were passed out and I retreated to my cabin and laid on the floor, stoned, while my cabin mate started panicking a bit. It was pretty potent stuff.
I know I’ll miss not seeing her again at these sex worker gatherings anymore. RIP Robyn. You were one of a kind.
Sooner or later I’ll get back to blogging eventually, but I’m too busy to even breathe these days. In addition to organizing this sex worker film fest for August, I took over as host of “The Chicago Sex Tours” for the Discovery Center (like the Learning Annex). My first tour is next Sunday…who knows how it’ll go..but I have an awesome co-host in Jay Very, founder of Tongue -in-chic gallery here in Chicago.
Other projects in the works-
* Development of large scale industry questionnaire regarding trafficking w/ Megan Morgenson
* Partnering on PSA’ s on youth/sex worker harassment with local youth activist organization Gender Just
Sadly, I woke up to the news today that Tura Satana, star of my favorite film of all time Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has passed away. That film, and Tura’s character Varla has been such a huge inspiration to me over the years since I first saw it as a college student. I’ve dressed as Tura at parties, used “Varla” as my original dominatrix name, and a few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet and interview Tura at an art event here in Chicago. Really neat lady, very friendly and appreciative of her fanbase. I still have the interview, slightly unedited, but hopefully I can find time time to cut it as a tribute to her.
At that event, another filmmaker cut this awesome tribute to here which I watched over and over. Love it!
And this? Just my favorite scene in any film ever.
I released my new video today, a PSA that addresses those who aim to fight sex trafficking, which seems to be such a such a hot button issue these days. About a month ago, the idea to do a PSA came to me while taking a shower…seriously…and I got so excited about this that I emailed nearly all the activists I knew, asking for their input on this. Writing it was somewhat of a frustrating process, which involved several brainstorming sessions that had us veering in different directions and not finding a clear focus on who our audience was. Originally, my goal was to create a PSA aimed at sex workers and clients on what the best way to report a case of suspected trafficking was, but this became a bit of a challenge that we still haven’t resolved. I still intend to make that PSA, but it will most likely require another brainstorming session.
After a long night of wine drinking, arguing, and back and forth discussion, one of my favorite people and activist buddies (Love this lady!), Megan Morgenson, and I churned out the script for this PSA, targeted at groups fighting trafficking that often conflate all sex work with trafficking. A big inspiration for this was the press release written by the amazing Kimberlee Cline (who appears in the video) “Sex Workers Stop Traffick.” With permission, we used some of the statements included in that, as well as others contributed by various folks active in the sex worker rights movement. So this was truly a collaborative process, and I had the script proofread and looked over by various respected leaders and longtime champions for sex worker rights.
Most of my friends are getting a bit tired of me hounding them to be on camera for my various videos, so I really must extend gratitude for everyone who agreed to be on camera for this and read the pre-written script with little time to memorize. Since I myself am too chickenshit to go on camera I really have to give props to everyone who participated.
The truth is that sex workers and our clients are the ones most likely to come across trafficking victims in our field, but it becomes this “us vs. them” battle in finding ways to lend support for these victims. Hopefully this is a start in helping anti-trafficking organizations and sex worker rights organizations working towards resolving some if these issues.
So looking back at most of my recent posts on this blog, I’ve come to realize that I rarely blog about my work in the industry anymore, rather more about my activism and other sex work related news. However the current rash of “faux” sex worker bloggers and industry “dabblers” that then claim to be experts on all forms of sex work has got me thinking that I need to be sharing my stories of the REALITY of sex work. No disrespect y’all, but it seems for such a maligned profession, sex work has become awfully trendy over the past few years. Everybody wants a piece of the pie so they can sell their salacious story to the highest bidder or gain the most followers on Twitter. It’s all so boring to me.
And who am I? Let me re-introduce myself for those who don’t know. I’ve been a sex worker for over 12 years, in a variety of capacities. I started out as a dominatrix, moved on to escorting (which I prefer) and also do sensual massage, as well as some casting and camera work in porn. For the most part, I love the work and have very few complaints about it or my clients, whom I rarely bitch about. The truth is nowadays I have very little to complain about regarding my work in the industry. Has it always been like this? No. I have had quite a few negative experiences in my years as a sex worker and almost exclusively, those experiences were when I was working for other people. Managers, agents, agencies, pimps, panderers, whatever you want to call ‘em, these people are almost always fuckin’ lazy assholes who seek to profit off women’s work.
This brings me to a situation that I dealt with about a month and a half ago in which I was dealing with a young girl who had been working for an escort agency out of Des Moines, IA. She called our hotline from the lobby of a motel and said the agency had flown her in from out of town with the promise they would pay her travel expenses back home. She’d been taking calls at the motel all week and after each client left, a gofer for the agency would come and collect all the money, leaving a small amount for small expenses like meals. She had told them earlier in the day that she was ready to return home, but they stopped taking her calls and refused to bring her the money she was owed or provider her with funds to get transportation home. Yeah, it was a fishy situation, but the agency seemed to prey on young girls with very little experience in the industry, who didn’t know any better about how a decent escort agency would be run. She’d never worked independently before, didn’t know how to advertise for herself. When she finally got someone from the agency on the phone, they said they planned to “pick her up and drive her to another city to work.” These people basically had a mini-trafficking operation being run through several states and one look at their website (a free WordPress blog, no less) showed what kind of creeps they really were. They had a “bad escorts” page with photos of about a dozen women that had supposedly “ripped them off”, but the reality was most likely these ladies had taken their money and never looked back, like I was trying to encourage this girl to do. Over the course of two days, with a lot of help from others in this community, we had gotten the agencies website pulled, their Paypal account frozen, and got this girl on a bus back home. Regretfully, it was a loooong two days for this girl, who ended up placing a lot of hotline calls but finding virtually very little resources for a trafficking victim in a smaller Midwestern city. And it made me think back to my agency days where a worked for people who promised the world, but instead played games with your livelihood.
Soooo, back to the beginning. I became interested in this type of work through a roommate I had who’d returned to Chicago and found work as a pro-domme in a dungeon that was run out of the basement apartment of a disgusting, obese submissive with an uncanny resemblance to Tiny Tim. He’d call our house numerous times a day and leave messages on our answering machine or engage me in conversation if I picked up. When i lost my job as a dog walker, I inquired to him about working there and he told me to come on in and meet him. After a brief conversation, he proceeded to lay under my feet and smell my toes, later giving me $75 with the promise “that he would out me on the schedule.” After weeks of phone calls, he never did and just played phone games with me…and my roommate, who quit working for him and had to press charges against him for phone harassment after her called her up to 20 times a day for several weeks.
I still was intrigued by the work and wanted to try my hand at it, so I then went to work for one of the largest “commercial” dungeons in town, a well-known operation her run by a pseudo-mobster complete with a neck-warmer haircut, Mike Ditka-moustache, and a framed photo of a stack of money in his office (like one of those you’d win at a county fair). By this point in time, hundreds of women have worked for his operation over the years and most of the stories remain constant. This guy was a d-bag to a “t”, but it seems over the years his behavior has gotten more and more abusive to the pro-dommes that work for him. When I was there, he was just a jerk who recorded our conversations and videotaped sessions without the knowledge of clients, and instilled ridiculous rules and regulations for behavior on our downtime. He also tried to tell the women who worked there that we couldn’t hang out together on our days off for fear that we would talk shit about him and his operation in our socializing. Of course we would. I finally quit in a huff after he threatened to “suspend me” (like in high school?) when I offered a disgruntled client a free enema as part of his session. Apparently, he just couldn’t part with $50 in a gesture that was intended as a good faith measure. If anyone in that dungeon deserved a good ass-whipping, it was him.
Another dungeon I worked for was managed by the boyfriend of the namesake dominatrix, who told us we needed to split our tips 50/50 with the house, a ludicrous request if there was one. While him and I had some major personality differences, I was lucky to walk away from that establishment fairly unscathed. Sadly, a few of my friends who worked for him at a later time were sexually assaulted by this man, who at last report now appears to be practicing law in the suburbs somewhere.
Oh, and the escort agencies. Where should I start? See, when I started out, there was no internet advertising, or at least I wasn’t privy to it. The upscale escorts worked for agencies that advertised out of the phone books or in weekly publications that ran adult classifieds, Er, kinda like Craigslist. It was common practice for escorts to work for a few agencies at one time, in order to maximize your potential to see clients on any given night. Many agencies accepted credit cards. Some ONLY accepted credit cards…a sure way to control the escorts money by allowing them to fine you for things like not answering a call, showing up late, or any old reason they could find. Paydays were erratic and usually involved meeting some random person late at night or in a out-of-the-way location after numerous phone calls were placed. Most agencies took a 50/50 split at that time, meaning if you did a call for $300, you got $150 of that. Whenever I hear agencies complain about being ripped off, I remember how I’ve been ripped off by nearly every agency I worked for. I certainly don’t shed a tear for them.
One agency would hire two drivers to pick up all the girls on call at 6pm and require us to drive around with them all night long, until 3AM, dropping girls off to calls in various faraway locations in the suburbs all night. Some of the escorts never received a call and just rode along, sleeping in the backseat until we were given a green light to go home. The phone operator was crass and abusive to everyone and I later found out they were notorious for not paying on credit card calls. I never did receive my check from the one call i did for them, nor did I continue to work for them after the one night of hell I went through.
Another agency refused to pay me for several jobs I did after I stayed a few minutes over with a client and didn’t “call out” at the exact 1 hour mark, thinking I had collected money on the side from the client for an extension. This was typical protocol for agencies…another reason for guys who don’t like “clockwatchers” to use them. If you ran five minutes over, they wanted the client to pay for a whole second hour.
Or the Canadian guy who wanted the escorts to run to the bank the next day and deposit the money into his bank account who accused me of being “on crack” because I didn’t make my deposit the next day. I remember reading a news article some time after I stopped working for him about how his agency got busted up and the cops had obtained the bank account information from one of the escorts who got arrested. Still, he remained in business, manning the phones from Canada where it was unlikely he would ever face arrest here. Many of these people were pretty clever in running their operations in different cities than the ones they resided in, leaving them free from any sort of accountability of anything ever happened to the escorts working for them (physical harm or LE wise).
With the exception of the agencies that were run by former sex workers themselves, most of these were run by lazy-ass guys who probably had pimp fantasies and thought running an escort agency would be a cool way to make some extra dough by doing as little as possible. They had no understanding of what the escorts went though, expected you to show up to calls at the drop of a hat, see asshole clients, and then meet with them so they could collect their cut of the money as soon as possible. For awhile, I ran my own small agency with the intention of treating the workers how I would’ve wanted to be treated on the job, but in the long run, it just made more sense to me to strike out on my own as an independent.
The best thing the internet did for sex workers was allowing us to stop depending on these pimp-like agents and establishments and work independently. We no longer needed these people do do our advertising, answer the phones, and pretend to do some sort of screening process that we had little knowledge of. While agencies still exist, they are becoming more and more a thing of the past, and yet those that are still in existence are still pulling shady shenanigans like the situation I dealt with last month. Whenever I can, I encourage young workers to strike out on their own, but many times those that are new to the industry feel more comfortable working with an agency to arrange all their appointments and do their screening. I can understand the need for this, as I did it for years. However, unless the agency/establishment someone is working for is treating them fairly and with respect, I tell people to walk away. These places need workers more than the workers need them. Once the “training wheels” are off, sex workers should work for themselves. Let’s stop putting money in the pockets of disrespectful, abusive assholes who we don’t need anyway. We CAN and SHOULD be running this show ourselves.
In addition, one of the reasons I’m against legalization of prostitution is that the brothel systems we have in place here in Nevada are generally as exploitative as the illegal agency models that I worked for. All one has to do is watch an episode of “Cathouse” and see what a pimp-like asshole Dennis Hof is, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing is legal. Friends I know who have worked in the brothel system say the same things. The owners instill all sorts of rules and regulations and workers are treated no better than if they were working illegally. So obviously, a decriminalized system that would allow workers to work independently is the only way to go. I could never work at a brothel and I’ve already worked for enough of these establishments to know that the people who run them are full of shit.
So yes, I understand that people love to hear the sex worker sob stories and I do have quite a few. My life hasn’t always been peaches and cream and while I’ve never been physically abused, I have had experiences that have been emotionally and psychologically abusive. I found a way to eliminate those from my life and never will I work for any type of agent, manager, or establishment in this industry again. This is what made the difference from me being a scared, depressed sex worker to a emotionally stable and fully independent worker who loves what she does.