Stacey Swimme

Innovative Thinking On The Sex Industry & Social Justice

Archive for the category “Sex Work”

10 Years of Fighting Violence Against Sex Workers

Image In 2003 I was working as an exotic dancer in San Francisco. I liked the work. I didn’t like the management as much. I resented the financial structures that defined my relationship with the house and the poor maintenance of areas of the facility that were primarily utilized by the dancers, our dressing room and the women’s restroom. I didn’t have a problem stripping for money; I just wanted better conditions in which to do my work. My privilege as a white, adult, cisgender woman created a relatively safe experience for me as an exotic dancer.

While I was dancing I was also taking classes at a local liberal arts college. I enrolled in courses with titles like “Women, Sex and Money” and “Activism for Social Change.” In some classes I found myself defending sex workers of all stripes against ridicule and judgment when topics of exotic dancing and sex for money came up. We viewed films like Hima B’s “Straight for the Money” which examined the experiences of lesbian women who have sex with male clients for cash. We took a field trip to a local movie theater to view a feminist-made porn that focused on full-figured women. Despite these unique looks into the sex industry and the women who work in it, some of my classmates still seemed to feel a divide between women who do sex work and women who don’t.

Outside of school I was organizing. I had been meeting other women who worked in various parts of the sex industry. Robyn Few and I started the Sex Workers Outreach Project with the intention of mobilizing sex workers into a fight for justice. Later in 2003, Gary Leon Ridgway was finally convicted after 22 years of getting away with the rapes and murders of dozens of sex workers and young runaways in the state of Washington. As the news of his trial and sentencing spread sadness and fear among our community, Dr. Annie Sprinkle had the idea of holding a ceremony to honor the lives of his victims, who were easy targets for him because of the stigma and oppression they faced as young runaways and poor women, most of whom were women of color. SWOP joined forces with Annie and created the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers on December 17th, 2003.

Ridgway, better known as the Green River Killer, famously said that he targeted women living and working on the street because he knew he could kill as many as he wanted and get away with it. Predators like Ridgway are opportunists who use society’s prejudices against poor people, people of color, transgender folks and sex workers as a cover for getting away with abuse and murder. Laws that penalize sex workers who engage in prostitution exist to reinforce the state’s oppression of racial and gender minorities and deny these groups their right to safety and economic security.

Today, on the 10th Annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I’m reminded that my struggle for better working conditions is in many ways a privilege. And the privilege of that struggle drives me to work as an ally for the deeper struggles of resisting hate and oppression. December 17th is an opportunity for me to stand up and honor all of the sex workers who’ve been harmed or died due to violence. And it’s an opportunity for me to declare solidarity with people of color, transgender people, migrant workers, low-wage workers, poor women and mothers who aren’t just negatively impacted by the bad laws and poor working conditions affecting sex workers, but are engaged in a broader struggle. Not just a struggle for worker and civil rights, but a struggle for their lives.

Tauriq Moosa Up For 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Award

Tauriq Moosa wrote  a great article called The Moral Significance of Sex Workers and People With Disabilities over at

That article has now been nominated for a Quark in the category of Philosophy.

I’d love to see the important issue of sex workers and disability get more attention. Please go vote for this article before 11:59pm New York time today!

And if you’d like some more info on a professional approach to serving clients with disabilities, check out Touching Base. Touching Base is a Sydney, Australia-based professional training program for sex workers. I had the pleasure of attending their 1-day seminar back in 2008. I’d love to see this kind of program become available to sex workers in the US!

Sex Workers and Clients Can Stop Human Trafficking (6 of 6)

Excerpted from a post I contributed at Sex In The Public Square on February 25th, 2008.

Sex Workers (and their clients) are Part of the Solution

Smoke and mirrors people… Look over there so we can violate you from over here. That’s how power works. Sex workers have a lot of experience in observing and actualizing the art of power. Sex workers have a lot to teach us. We all lose because sex workers are silenced.

Those who lose most of all are the people who actually are trafficked for labor in many forms. Billions of dollars are allocated so that regional and federal task-forces can cruise the web looking for ‘trafficked’ women. The results of these hunts produce thousands of misdemeanor arrests of US sex workers, costing tax payers millions in administrative and incarceration expenses- but they produce very little that actually serves the needs of trafficking victims.

When the sex industry is not criminalized, there is little incentive to employ those who don’t wish to do the work. Trust me, thousands of women are quite happy to work as prostitutes, there’s no gap in available service providers to meet the far over-exaggerated demand that is reported. The underground nature of some areas of the sex industry are a breeding ground for corruption and labor abuses. Keeping sex workers and their clients criminalized leaves them without routes for reporting violence, suspicious behavior or anything that suggests abuse.

Forced prostitution is not sex work. It is rape. It is in the best interest of all for those who do not wish to do sex work to have an avenue to get out of the industry that includes practical solutions and resources for a sustainable and independent life. Sex workers want to contribute to these solutions and it’s frustrating that when a sex worker is happy with his/her work they are accused of being part of the problem. Arrest-tactics, social stigma and compromised personal safety limit the ability of sex workers to participate in effective action.

Practical Solutions

Another Way is a list of 10 ways that as consumers in North America we can minimize our role in promoting the demand for cheap labor and our impact on the environment and economies of developing nations.

Sex workers have to acknowledge our role in consumerism and we have to make decisions with our money that are aligned with our values. Sex workers are uniquely positioned to make an economic impact because our income is often directly connected to the same corporations that are profiting from cheap labor. We have a responsibility to take that money back into our communities by buying local, buying fair-trade, supporting labor organizing of immigrant workers and joining in human rights projects that are working to raise awareness about the true nature of human trafficking.

This is a big, huge problem. I wish that I could just make 10 bullet points as a checklist for sex workers to end human trafficking. None of the solutions are going to be easy. I certainly am not as accountable as a consumer as I should be. This is an area that requires us to be very conscious about our decisions, to look at our daily lives and truly evaluate what sort of changes we can make to improve conditions on this planet. I think real change will require a collective sense of compassion that is seriously lacking in the world. US citizens are not the only consumers that are driving the demand for cheap labor. This is a global matter and I think that US sex workers need to consult our global community to seek out more solutions.

Sex workers will not be included in these conversations without putting up a fight. Those who believe that all commercial sex work is equal to rape won’t acknowledge us because we disprove their theories just because we exist. Those who work in any form of health/prevention services can’t or won’t work with us because their funding is tied up with the anti-prostitution loyalty oath.

There is a systematic effort to keep us silent and to censor those who support us. We challenge all of the imbalances of power, gender and authority that the anti-trafficking industry rests delicately on. We’re also an easy scapegoat. People are more than happy to believe that consenting adults in the sex industry are causing human trafficking, it means they don’t have to question their own role in the demand for cheap labor.

To end human trafficking we have to appreciate the very nuanced and complex nature of this problem, we have to be willing to look at the root issues and we have to stop scapegoating sex workers.

Ethicist Reports: Prostitution is Not Harmful

Aspiring philosopher and ethicist Ole Martin Moen of The University of Oslo, Norway published a paper last week entitled “Is Prostitution Harmful?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It seems this question has been asked repeatedly in many academic and social environments. Moen’s 8 page response to this question revisits many of the same tired arguments that academics, activists and feminists have already discussed ad nauseam, however, he has a fresh framing of a few perspectives that I find are useful to repeat over and over again until academia, feminism and society at large are able to accept them as truths, despite their moral and philosophical resistance to the facts. I’ll highlight some of them here and if you’d like to review the full article, here’s the PDF.

I believe food and sex are related, if not directly then metaphorically. Regarding casual sex and the “cheapening” of sex if not for romantic purposes, Moen writes:

When a romantic couple dines at a lovely restaurant, their eating might well be romantically significant for both parties. What is, biologically, the mere satisfaction of a nutritional need is given deep personal meaning because of its social and psychological setting. It is not clear, however, the advocate of the ‘casual view’ might argue, that one degrades eating as such and destroys one’s capacity for appreciating romantic meals if one has earlier engaged in ‘casual eating’ or has been ‘eating around’, occasionally catching a cheap hotdog on the run. If this is right, then engaging casually in an activity that has the potential for romantic significance needs not destroy that activity ’s romantic significance on other occasions. If we accept this, then we would need a separate argument to explain why casual sex destroys sex even though casual eating does not destroy eating. (Page 2)

There’s a tendency to believe that the harm done to sex workers is from an acute, strictly defined group of men who exploit, rape and beat sex workers. It’s rarely acknowledged that entire societies are actually responsible for the outcomes sex workers are subjected to:

A client cannot rightfully beat up a prostitute any more than he can beat up a hairdresser or a plumber. (It is true that in many societies, violence against prostitutes is taken less seriously than violence against non-prostitutes. That, however, should speak against those societies, not against prostitution.) (Page 5)

And this:

…imagine that we were all brought up told that good girls are not hairdressers, that many of our common derogatory terms were synonyms for ‘hairdresser ’, and that most people, upon seeing a hairdresser, would look away. Imagine that hairdressers had to live in fear of social exclusion if friends or family found out how they struggle to make ends meet, that no one would knowingly employ ex-hairdressers, and that landlords would terminate housing contracts if they discovered that their tenant is a hairdresser. Imagine that most hairdressers had to work on the street, in cars, or in the homes of strangers, and that if their work were organised, it were organised by criminals offering no work contracts, no sick leave and no insurance. In such a society, hairdressers would very likely suffer significant harms. There would be two reasons for this. Most obviously, the social and legal maltreatment would be a heavy burden to bear for those already engaged in hairdressing. Less obviously, but statistically just as important, the maltreatment would skew the sample of who become hairdressers in the first place. If hairdressers were maltreated, then only (or almost only) people who were already in serious trouble would find it worthwhile to become hairdressers. As such, if hairdressers were treated the same way prostitutes are treated, we should not be surprised to learn that hairdressing correlated with depression, suicide attempts, drug abuse and so on—even if, as we all know, hairdressing is not a harmful occupation. (Page 8)

Elsewhere in the paper Moen acknowledges that there are some risks associated with the profession, but demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the harms, then he closes with the synthesis of his argument: that if the role of prostitutes in society is compared to the role of homosexuals in society, we can see that social harms far outweigh occupational risks and change can indeed lead to better conditions for sex workers:

In less than two centuries we have, in large parts of the world, ended slavery, given men and women equal rights, and accepted homosexuality. It is important to remember, moreover, that these changes were made possible because some people dared to be a little utopian and abstracted away from their present context. We can all too easily hear the voice of someone opposed to homosexuality half a century ago proclaiming that homosexuality is deeply interrelated with various complex social and psychological factors (such as youth uncertainly, depression, exploitation, rape, disease, drug abuse and unstable families), that these form part of what homosexuality is, and that trying to assess homosexuality apart from them is hopelessly utopian. Today, we are glad someone dared question their assumptions and look beyond their immediate social context in their assessment of homosexuality. If my arguments in this paper are sound, we should approach prostitution in a similar manner, and be open for the possibility that prostitutes are harmed, not because prostitution is harmful, but because society at present seriously wrongs prostitutes.  (Page 8)

Overall I applaud Moen’s report here and I hope it’s reigniting some more creative debates in academia around the issues of prostitution and social stigma. I’d especially like to see more academic explorations that question how societies or specific groups within societies benefit from, and therefore have a vested interest in, maintaining and propagating myths that keep sex workers at a second class status.  In particular, looking at societies’ need for a group to embody a symbolic demon to loathe and fear and make suffer. To achieve real change, we desperately need a better understanding of the motivations and incentives that drive not only the prohibition efforts, but also the apathy from those who have no moral objection to prostitution, while at the same time having no moral objection to the ostracism of sex workers.

CatalystCon Comes to the West Coast!

I am so excited to be a presenter at CatalystCon this month! Dee Dennis, one of the organizers who brought MomentumCon to the Washington DC area for the past two years, has set her sights on Long Beach, CA for the weekend of September 14-16. From the website:

CatalystCon is a conference created to inspire exceptional conversations about sexuality. It is about reaching out and stimulating those who attend to create those important conversations in their own communities, changing how we as a society talk about and treat sexuality.  It is about stimulating the activist that is within all of us and sparking transformation in the way our friends, neighbors, children and even politicians discuss one of the most important aspects of humanity.

Whoa! That’s a tall order to fill. For any of us who’ve been doing activism and social change in the field of sexuality, we know that we’re facing an uphill battle here in the US to change how we as a society talk about and treat sexuality. Fortunately, this conference is organized by a deeply talented woman who has pulled together an all-star lineup of sex educators and gurus, marriage & family therapists, sex workers and activists who will blow your mind! In addition to sessions and socials, there’s a pre-conference party called Glory Hole hosted by the Pleasure Chest and a CE seminar led by Dr. Marty Klein.

I’m most excited about the Sex Worker-only private mixer happening prior to the opening plenary. People often wonder why it’s so important for sex workers to have private space in these conference environments. We deal with an extreme degree of alienation, isolation and discrimination. Even among a super sex positive crowd like those who attend CatalystCon. It’s not because people are jerks. It’s usually just because people don’t understand how difficult it is to live a closeted life where your professional identity invites unwanted attention. Many sex workers want to be able to discuss business or personal issues with each other in private as a means of protecting their ‘vanilla jobs’ or their families. And often, men with completely harmless intentions end up bombarding us in our “off” time with their needs and interests. So frankly, it’s just easier to not acknowledge our sex worker identity during the main conference and focus on making those important connections in a private environment. We’re fortunate that Dee and the Catalyst crew understand this need and have risen to the occasion to support us.

Of course, you won’t want to miss my session for sex workers and loved ones “When Someone You Love Is A Sex Worker” on Sunday 9/16 at 10:30am. I hope all you partiers can either get up early or just stay up all night and make it to an early Sunday morning session!

Here’s a sampling of some of the other sessions I’m excited about:

Reid Mihalko will be leading a fab session called “When To Give It Away and When To Charge For It: Knowing Your Worth, Assessing Others’, And How To Make Ends Meet As a Sex-Positive Professional” I know many of us struggle in this area. Sometimes it’s hard to reckon the value of our sex educating services in a society that so undervalues authentic sexual information.

I’m finally going to meet one of my all-time heroes, Mr. Buck Angel who is leading a session called The Buck Angel Effect

Sure to be a controversial session, Paying for It: How Client Stigma Impacts the Sex-Positive Movement will be led by the lovely Sabrina Morgan

Allison Moon brings us Creativity for Radicals in which she “explores the politics, privileges and identity issues endemic to creating art. In this interactive talk, Allison will deconstruct notions of “privilege guilt” into useful components for creativity, discuss the intersection between art and social justice, deconstruct activist skill-sets to turn them into useful tools for the creation process, and share methods for distilling passion from conflict to turn activism into relevant art.”

And there are dozens of other amazing sessions that you don’t want to miss at CatalystCon 2012! If you haven’t registered yet, please do soon before registration closes on Sept. 13. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

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