Sexual Politics

These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex.

Robin:

Nude Shoot: Robin Gorsline, 10/3/2017The sex police are at it again.

In a society so rife with sexual scandals involving men (and the occasional woman too) in high and powerful places it seems somehow hypocritical when righteous Senators and Representatives legislate yet one more obstacle to the safety and honest labor of sex workers.

Yet, that is what they have done, by passing the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SOSTA). FOSTA was passed by the House and the Senate passed SOSTA, and then they were combined into one law, now awaiting what seems to be the almost certain signature of President Trump (of course, with him, it’s not done until its actually done and he can’t take it back).

Here is relevant language from the bill:

§ 2421A. Promotion or facilitation of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking

“(a) In General.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.

“(b) Aggravated Violation.—Whoever, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (as such term is defined in defined in section 230(f) the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230(f))), or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person and—

“(1) promotes or facilitates the prostitution of 5 or more persons; or

“(2) acts in reckless disregard of the fact that such conduct contributed to sex trafficking, in violation of 1591(a),

shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 25 years, or both.”

US capitol buildingThe casual observer might well feel good that Congress has taken a step to stop sex trafficking. I certainly want sufficient tools to combat the horrors of forcing people to be sexual with others against their will (certainly when children are involved but also adults who are coerced into being the sexual tools of others). So, this law ought to make me feel good, right?

Sadly, no. There are two aspects to the legislation which feel especially egregious to me. First, the act conflates sex trafficking with legitimate, chosen sex work by using the term “prostitution” as that which is subject to its provisions. Thus, sex workers, not just sex traffickers, are affected by the law.

Second, the act has the very clear potential to increase risks to the safety of sex workers.  By holding web hosting companies and others responsible, and subject to jail time and fines, when they knowingly allow ads and other notifications of prostitution on their sites, the law actually can contribute to the inability of sex workers to screen clients. How is this so?

Basically, web companies and others don’t want to be involved in federal or state investigations and lawsuits due to sex-focused advertising. A zealous prosecutor can quickly make things expensive and burdensome for a company. What is the solution? Stop accepting advertising that promotes sex (prostitution in the language of the act).

Police groupAnd that is already happening. The upshot is that sex workers are forced back on the streets without ways to screen clients. Craigslist, which had closed down its erotic notices section in 2010 in response to earlier legal problems, now, as the result of this law, has closed down its “Personals” section, which many individuals who are not sex workers used for sexual hook-ups.

Which is why I speak of the sex police.

This new law, while having a commendable intent to prevent sex trafficking, adds yet one more layer to the criminalization, or at least prohibition, of consensual sex acts between and among adults (with and without compensation).

Indeed, it perpetuates the mistaken notion that the government can and should stop sex work. This is not unlike the unsuccessful campaign to end drinking by banning the sale of alcohol. Prohibition acts in the states and the constitutional amendment were passed but drinking did not stop. If that campaign were going on now, it seems likely that the advocates would, like the sex-focused Congress now, penalize online promotion of drinking alcohol.

Malachi and I have written elsewhere about sex work—see especially “Is Sex Work?” , and earlier on my personal blog I wrote “Sex Is Good. Why Is It Illegal?”

In both blogs, there is a recognition of the centrality of sex to the lives of human animals. And there is a positive valuation of various consensual ways people endeavor to exercise their sexual muscles, to live in ways that reflect their own sexual desires and attitudes in concert with willing others.

sex is divine arealrattlesnake com
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These two points—the centrality of sex in our lives and the honoring of the various consensual ways we are sexual—are base line, theological, spiritual values for me. They are grounded in my belief that every body, every single body—regardless of size, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, age, and all other ways we humans set up to draw lines around individuals and groups of people—is beautiful and reflects the Creator.  The entire universe—every human and non-human being as well as all rocks, molecules, trees, everything—is, for me, the Body of God, and each of those is valued in itself for carrying divine DNA to make that Body.

And key to this is the energy source which keeps it all going. I call that source eros, the divinely inspired and desired power of connection among us all. Sex is the opportunity for making connection.

Sex Work Is Not TraffickingSo, instead of continuing efforts to penalize people for wanting sex, we should be encouraging an openness to it, a celebration in fact of our desire for connection. Desire is not encouraged or made possible through coercion—that is abuse and rape—but through creating safe conditions that make it possible for us to explore and share our sexual selves with others.

I wish I thought the President would veto the legislation, but I know it will not be so (even though the Justice Department raised some concerns about possible restraint of speech).

We need to promote the decriminalization of sex acts among consenting adults and oppose efforts which perpetuate old attitudes about the evil of sex. Congress has failed that test, again.

Malachi:

DSC_0599Recently, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). SESTA closes the loophole in section 203 of the Communications Decency Act, in which websites were not liable for the content users produced and shared on their website. FOSTA makes online ads for prostitution a federal crime- either posting the ads or hosting the content.

Please let me be clear: sex trafficking is a horrendous violation of human rights and should be prevented and stopped. There is no equivocation on this fact. FOSTA/SESTA does not achieve this goal; in fact, it makes it harder to catch those dealing in human trafficking as they are forced to go “underground” and limit internet exchanges. So not only does this bill not do what it was designed to do, it also makes consensual sex work significantly more dangerous.

I have many friends who are consensual sex workers- adults who have been in the industry for years and continue to stay in the industry of their own volition. Some enjoy the work; others view it as a job. A friend recently pointed that out we place expectations on consensual sex workers such as “is the job fulfilling?” and “do you feel empowered by your work?” She pointed out that we do not require “fulfillment” or “empowerment” or any such conditions on other jobs- grocery baggers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, etc. Some find it fulfilling; others do it for a paycheck; she argued that requiring sex work to be considered “fulfilling” in a specific way was still placing moralistic judgement on the work. For her, it is a job; she doesn’t love it and doesn’t hate it, but it pays the bills and she’s been in the industry long enough that she has a good client base and is able to work relatively safely.

I say all this to say- consensual sex work is, like any other profession, a job. There aresex-work-is-work good days and bad days. I don’t pretend that there aren’t risks associated with sex work, but I do recognize that requiring that those doing the work feel a specific way about the work (a) continues to reinforce this idea that sex work isn’t work in the same ways we view other jobs as work and (b) makes it harder for sex worker to talk about “bad days,” because the default answer is almost always, “Well, why don’t you stop doing it then?”

One of the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA is that it shuts down online ads for prostitution- including the ads of consensual sex workers. This means that advertisements leading people to personal websites where workers are able to screen clients safely (rather than being forced to meet in person) are now illegal. This forces many workers who do not already have a client base to engage in higher-risk sex work (including, but not limited to street-based sex work and meeting clients in-person for screening). This also means that sharing information about sex work in online forums- such as exchanging names and information of bad clients, or tips for how to screen new clients- is now a federal crime.

Websites such as craigslist have already taken steps, such as shutting down it’s personal section rather than face prosecution for hosting prostitution ads. The craigslist personals section covered everything from sex work ads to people looking for random hookups local to their area. Fetish websites such as FetLife have put out their own guidelines for complying with FOSTA/SESTA, which means those who advertise the exchange of goods for sex (which sometimes includes professional dominatrices, or pro-dommes) will be subject to having their accounts deleted, and any mention of prostitution in any form will be deleted from the website- including those who engage in consensual interactions where they roleplay prostitution scenarios.

img_7426.pngThe implications of these bills are vast and with the ambiguous language, are able to be interpreted quite broadly. Conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking does a disservice to both groups- in fact, I know of no group more vocal in stopping the abuse of sex trafficking than sex workers. FOSTA/SESTA not only puts consensual sex workers in a significantly more dangerous position, and not only does it elevate safety measures for sex workers (such as online screening) to a federal prostitution charge, but it makes it harder to catch those engaging in sex trafficking, driving them offline and forcing them to create new networks that are not as easy to track as online networks.

These bills have continued a dangerous trend in online censorship of discussions of sex. It is unclear how these bills might impact things like the #MeToo movement (more on that here) or censor online discussions of sex at all (a comprehensive look at the impacts of FOSTA/SESTA can be found here). The reality is, this bill is an atrocious piece of legislation that impacts everyone- but specifically makes sex work more difficult, more dangerous, and does not protect victims of sex trafficking.

We must do more to fight trafficking and protect and support victims of sex trafficking. But measures such as FOSTA/SESTA, however good-intentioned they might be, do significantly more harm than good and do not achieve their goal. We need to look at ACTUAL measure to protect victims- many suggestions and stop-human-traffickingresources come from within the sex work community. Criminalizing consensual sex work in an effort to protect victims of trafficking not only removes the autonomy of adults to make their own decisions about their employment- never mind choices about their bodies- by conflating all sex work as a form of trafficking, but it also removes a vital, necessary resource toward ending trafficking- the resources and knowledge of sex workers who are connected to the sex industry. Sex workers are far more knowledgeable about the sex industry than those peering in from the outside with a savior mentality, and have been fighting trafficking for years, often without legal and social support. It’s time to stop criminalizing sex work and focus on supporting sex workers- which will do more to end trafficking than ambiguous, blanket-statement legislation written by those who don’t fully understand the implications of these actions.

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We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think about sex work? What do you know about it? What should government do to stop sex trafficking? And not do? How do you define sexual freedom? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Mark Your Calendar! May 9th, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

Keep Marching

Malachi and Robin each participated in the recent Women’s March in Washington, D.C. They offer some observations below.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi: 

There has been much discussion- before, during, and after- on inclusivity and intersectionality at the Women’s March held in DC (as well as the hundreds of sister marches that occurred around the world). I was fortunate enough to be present at the march in DC with my family and several dear friends and, miraculously, managed to stay with the same group of eight people.

I have many complicated feelings about the march- some positive, some negative, and some that are just observations. Because, clearly, the march was a huge success- although the standards for what makes a march successful are nebulous- and it was empowering to see so many people uniting against a common cause.

I think, perhaps, that’s the most poignant piece of the march, for me. It was not a group of people uniting FOR, but AGAINST: against oppression, against corruption, against invasive laws, against Donald Trump. But the things each person was FOR varied widely: some for pro-sex worker visibility, some were pro-LGBTQ equality, some were pro-Black Lives Matter, etc. I’ve talked some about this in other places, but when you have a collection of people whose unifying factor is what they aren’t, rather than what they are, it risks reinstating a hierarchical system that priorities of those with the loudest voices.

There were many wonderful things about the women’s march: some really powerful signs (the one that has stuck with me, for example, was the woman who carried the sign, “I refuse to be gaslighted” which, to me,

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spoke volumes about history of emotional abuse as well as the ongoing rewriting of facts coming from the political arena.) My goddaughter joining in on the chant, “Who runs the world?” “Girls!” and watching her sense of empowerment growing. Her discussions of “my body, my choice” in the car on the ride home. Watching the people I was with proudly sporting signs and buttons that spoke to the visibility of sex workers.

The march was powerful to be at for many reasons, but it was also a complicated place to be. With the exception of our goddaughter, everyone else in our group can pass as white (although I don’t know how they necessarily identify). We did not experience firsthand some of the direct harassment and erasure that I hear many POC folks talking about.

I did feel a little uncomfortable about the pink pussy hats, however. I understood the point behind them, but there is an underlying message that implies that genitals are pink (not true) and ownership of a vagina defines womanhood (also not true).

I have heard POC women say that the pink pussy hats didn’t bother them; I’ve heard others say it felt exclusionary (some knit brown and black pussy hats instead of pink). I’ve heard some transwomen say they felt excluded, and others say they didn’t have an issue with the genital-focused discussions.

Again, there isn’t an objectively “right” or “wrong” answer to this; this is

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a natural byproduct of the unifying force being “against” rather than “for.” When we march against, that ends up looking distinctly different from person to person and group to group. But I do think there are some important points from the women’s march that should be addressed.

I feel like there has been some criticism of the criticism aimed at the women’s march. Because yes, we should celebrate that it was a success and felt empowering. And it was, and we should, and many are. But I also think there is a vital part of the conversation that involved intentionally recognizing that intersectionality, while present in some aspects, felt glaringly missing in many regards- never mind that telling people how they “should” feel is an erasure of differing experiences altogether.

I think of the history of social justice movements, and recognize that there is some degree to which the freedoms afforded to one group often feel like they come at the cost to another. Many in marginalized communities have felt the sting of being told to “wait their turn.” I remember when HRC dropped gender from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act because they didn’t think they could get it passed if trans people were included, and “something is better than nothing.” Trans people were effectively told that our presence wasn’t worth fighting for, that gay rights was more important than trans rights. I have not supported HRC since then (as they have continued to have policies that I found problematic).

The criticisms I see of the march feel very much like they are coming from a place of understanding- and not wanting to repeat- the mistakes of the past. Because so often, people don’t keep showing up once they’ve gotten the freedoms that personally affect them. I truly believe that the best way to ensure freedoms for everyone is to bind together the fates of different communities and identities. Thus, we arrive at the basis of intersectionality.

None of us are single-dimensional people. We all have privileges and oppressions that contribute to our ability to navigate the world. It’s not

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that the experiences of one community are “the same” as the experiences of another community; it’s understanding that, when something impacts one community, all communities are residually impacted. It’s the essence of the quote “oppression anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.” We may not have the same struggle, but there is room for your struggle in my resistance. And if there isn’t… am I just interested in representing my own interests? To me, that undermines the purpose of social justice.

I truly believe we have to stop looking at just those issues that will directly affect our own lives and take in the broader scope of human injustice. In doing that, we can then see which solutions are beneficial to all versus which solutions only benefit us directly- and furthermore, recognize when those solutions come at the expense of another community. If white people are not willing to listen when POC say that something is harmful or damaging, then we are fueling and supporting racism. If men are not willing to listen when women say something is harmful or damaging, then we are fueling and supporting sexism. And so forth.

we-can-do-itSo do I think the women’s march was bad? Absolutely not. I felt empowered to be there with the people I was with, and I was glad I went. But I am also a white person in a sea of white faces, and I was surrounded by white privilege that didn’t directly impact me. If I let that slide, then I am part of the problem fueling racism, and I’m not interested in being a part of a group of people willing to actively ignore problematic aspects of their resistance.

There is space in my resistance for your struggle. I am against this government, against this president, and against the people who feel emboldened by his assent to power. But I am also for my communities, for my friends, for ending dehumanization and isolation. Each struggle impacts another, and we can put in the work and intention to make sure that our movements do not come at the cost of other’s freedoms. That is the kind of resistance I want to work toward.

Robin: 

I went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on January 21. I wanted my body to be counted among those who choose to resist the rising intolerance of difference and the drumbeat of injustice being encouraged and led by the new President and his minions.

revrobin2-023From the moment at 7 am when I drove into the Metro parking lot at Greenbelt station and realized it was already more than half full and that cars were arriving steadily, I began to feel the power that comes from joining my body, my soul, with others who have an ever-widening understanding of who we, as a people, a nation, are called to be (my sign below on the left, from the back page of the Washington Post of Friday).

I had wanted to beat the rush, and here I was right in the middle of it. And I was glad. The train was full when we started (Greenbelt is the end of the Green Line) and it got fuller at each of the twelve stops until Gallery Place/Chinatown where I was getting off to meet a group—especially at College Park/University of Maryland. There is something wonderfully energizing about the arrival of 20 or 30 collegians into an already crowded space—noisy, laughing, so clearly enjoying each other—that I needed right then.

As I walked about 15 minutes towards the Hyatt Regency on New Jersey Avenue where I was meeting my group from Temple Shalom, I began seeing other marches, carrying signs, many smiling and saying “Good Morning” in response to my greeting.  Two women at different moments asked to take my picture (they liked the combination of purple clergy shirt and collar and dangly purple earrings with my white beard).

we-the-peopleThe signs kept coming—more versions of the one that first caught my eye on the train, “Pussy Grabs Back”—so many creative expressions of resistance, often coupled with humor and word play. Even the edgy, angry signs seemed to carry a certain joi de vivre, such that my body and my soul began to feel much lighter than the day before.  There is life here, I thought, especially in contrast to the bleakness of the President’s divisive speech the day before (much of the media called his tone “dark” but dark is beautiful; it was bleak, no grace, no joy, no hope except if we let him do what he wants).

That is when I began to realize one of the main things that divides me, and many others, from him.

All of us that day, or at least me and most of us, carry some real and deep fear about what the next four years will be. We march because we choose to stand up and push back against those determined to undo many of the gains for justice and inclusion that have been made. And we want to make more.

The President also is afraid, very afraid. In fact, I think fear drives everything he says and does, even though he works hard to disguise his fear. The fact that he puts his name in very large letters on everything he erects (yes, erects) is, I believe, a response to his fear that he will be forgotten, disregarded, abandoned. His response to this base level fear of erasure is to make himself as big as possible. But it is all about him, even when he claims it is about other folks who feel left out or behind (many of whom have valid complaints).

trump-towerThe difference at the march is that we were there for things we care about, our own needs of course, but also because we know our needs are linked to the needs of others. So, we want to gather together to create a new world, a more just and generous world.

He wants people to gather together to honor him—hence his claim the media lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration.

Was the march a perfect vehicle for women and allies and advocates to express our determination to resist being sucked into his fear-based vortex? Certainly not.  It was not well-organized. The inexperience of march organizers showed (and in their defense, they did not have much time to build the necessary structure).

The pink pussy hats were pretty and the sea of pink could be captivating, but of course not all “pussies” are pink, and not all women have them either. I did not see and hear enough about transwomen, for example, although I was grateful to Angela Davis for mentioning them, and especially transwomen of color, several times. And she mentioned the need for solidarity with Palestinians, too. As so often, she told deep, often difficult, truths very clearly. I also was glad to be surrounded by, and participate in, chants of Black Lives Matter.

cant-build-a-wall-hands-too-smallI was uncomfortable with many of the references to the President’s allegedly small dick. On the one hand, the size of his organ is of little or no consequence and of no interest to me. On the other hand, I do not appreciate men being criticized or ostracized because of penis-size prejudice.  And I continue to wonder if at least some of his need for big buildings and large crowds is due to some body issues, including perhaps having a smaller-than- he-wants penis. I certainly know something about taking on shame about having a small one myself.

There were other troubling moments. What to do about abortion opponents? I am clearly pro-choice because I believe women have the basic human right to control their own bodies. That makes it hard for me to engage in dialogue with people who claim abortion is murder.  That language really does not allow for much room for conversation (for more than hour, I was stuck in a spot at the march where the most visible sign in the distance was one that made the murder claim—very surreal). Yet, I am inclined to try to listen to women who say this, because they have some standing in the debate as those who, unlike me and all male-bodied persons, can actually bring a fetus to maturation and delivery. The decision to deny co-sponsorship to an anti-abortion group needs more discussion before the next march.

abortion-sign-clashAnd that is one more piece of good news. Already people are talking about an annual Women’s March. We can keep doing this to help us stay energized and focused on creating the change we want and need, and opposing the change the President and other fearful people claim is necessary (the return to “good ole days” when women and many others knew their place, behind and under the control of white straight men with money and power).

Of course, much can be improved with the march—better organization, more intentional and complete inclusion, even more local marches, etc.

What’s really at stake here are bodies, the well-being of bodies, especially those more regularly marginalized and abused. I realize I carry a lot of privilege, my white male body is part of the group many of whose leaders continue to insist on the right to dominate all others. The fact that I am gay and older does not deny me the privilege that comes with my gender and my color, though in some moments those identities can reduce that privilege.

civil-disobedienceSo, what the Women’s March reminded me of is pretty basic: I need to put my body on the line more than I have been doing in the past few years. It’s time to put my body on the line with others whose bodies are already there.

Thus, I intend to show up for Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, trans siblings, immigrants, all of us affected by climate change and especially to push back against the denial of science, hungry children and families, homeless people, sex workers, Palestinians whose homes are destroyed and whose land is occupied too often by others, and certainly victims of abuse of many kinds, among others.

I hope you’ll join me. That’s how marching works. And wins.

 

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

Did you participate in a local march or action? Did you feel included or did you feel “othered” by those around you? What are your thoughts on protest in the coming weeks, months, and years? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

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Please join us THURSDAY, February 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

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Who Pays for Sexual Freedom?

Once again, the good intentions and heavy hand of law enforcement may have unintended, and undesirable, consequences.

Robin:

revrobin2-023Once again, the complex issues of sexual freedom and sexual safety are colliding. When and where does one person’s sexual desire and expression, including a public offering of their body and/or sexual services, run into society’s interest in protecting people vulnerable to abuse and violence? An answer of sorts was given recently.

A website for consumers has shut down the part of the site that made sex and bodies available for hire (click here for Washington Post news story). Backpage.com, a site similar to Craigslist, contains ads from individuals for the sale of every conceivable kind of product. Until January 9, those products included the offering of “escorts (female and male), body rubs, strippers and strip clubs, dom & fetish, ts (transsexual escorts), phone & websites, and adult jobs.”

Ads were often accompanied by explicit photos. Until 2010, Craigslist, offered similar products, but that year gave in to pressure from federal and state authorities, as well as some public interest groups, and stopped the ads. Backpage.com then became the major vehicle for those advertisers.

The Justice Department and local prosecutors claim the site not only allows but also supports sexual abuse of minors and the sexual enslavement of adults, primarily women. Congressional committees are also holding hearings and conducting investigations.

backpage-dot-comThe site, and the company that owns it, claim it is not so, and say they regularly cooperate with law enforcement in the apprehension of those who abuse and enslave others.  Advocates for sex workers complain that shutting down the ads will do nothing to protect victims, and will increase the risk of harm to the workers—because being able to advertise on line is safer than working the streets.

Malachi and I have written previously about this topic (Is Sex Work? When Does Freedom Become Oppressive?) and in general I think it is correct to say we opt for sexual freedom wherever possible. At the same time, we clearly oppose abuse and slavery, any form of bodily or sexual coercion against anyone.  We passionately believe in a God who works through our bodies and our sexuality for good.

So, this topic of the public regulation of sex is a difficult one. I for one am very supportive of public health regulation in terms of sexually transmitted disease to protect all of us against disease, certainly including those most vulnerable. And I want to throw the book at those who make their living by selling the bodies and sexual favors of people against their will, no matter the age or gender or race or nationality of the one being used.

But does removing the advertising from a popular consumer site fix anything? I am not sure. What I do know—and frankly this seems so obvious to me as to be beyond any question—is that no amount of government control will ever fully eliminate what I call sex work, and many others call prostitution. We will never end the demand for sex by some willing to pay for it any more than we will ever end the offering of it by others who like selling it and/or think it is a good way to make ends meet (either in a time of acute economic need or more regularly as a way to make a living).

stop-human-traffickingHere’s another thing I know. When politicians get into the act of speaking about sex, it is unlikely that much thoughtful, nuanced understanding will emerge, let alone be sustained.  The obsession with former President Clinton’s sex life, admittedly involving abuse of power, should be a lesson for us. And Prohibition, that noble experiment to rid the United States of the curse of alcohol, provides an important lesson in our power to stop something many people enjoy.

Those who seek to shut down sites like Backpage.com will say that they are not anti-sex but they are against the sale of it, and they are want to end the exploitation of people within vulnerable populations—children and youth, women, immigrants, racial and sexual minorities—by those who profit from that exploitation. One organization, World Without Exploitation, is focused on ending human trafficking and sexual exploitation. They focus on stories from victims as well as statistics from government agencies. Their goals are impressive, and commendable in many ways, but I am concerned with one of their key statements: “We understand that we won’t end sexual exploitation until we end the demand for prostitution. As long as there is a global sex trade, ours will be an unsafe, unjust world.”

I do not believe the demand for prostitution will ever end, if, as I assume, they mean the selling of sex to willing buyers. If that is the only way to end human trafficking then I fear it too will never end. The statement above refers most directly to the coercive use of women (and some men, too) in other countries—especially poorer countries—both for men who travel to these destinations and seek sex, as well as those who prey upon immigrants to our country to sell their bodies for the profit of those who prey.  And that can be distincti from sex work by non-immigrant U.S. people in this country.  Still, they seem to believe prostitution is simply wrong, no matter the context.

world-without-exploitationI first came across this organization when walking on a main, high-end avenue in Washington D.C. by observing a sign on the outside of a bus stop shelter (see photo). The advertisement sets up a contrast between what it calls the “prostitution myth” and the “ugly truth,” namely that anyone who thinks they can get rich through sex work is far more likely to experience violence and even death at the hands of pimps.

I do not doubt that most pimps, perhaps all, fit that picture, and that many of their victims experience horrific violation and violence. So, I am sympathetic. At the same time, I am skeptical that there are very many people thinking they can rich in sex work. Survive, yes, make ends meet and maybe help pay for college, yes, but not rich.

When I listen to and read the accounts of sex workers I also discover that many of them do not work for a pimp or anyone else for that matter. Many are solo entrepreneurs or even occasionally part of groups working together. One of the ways they are able to do this is by advertising online for themselves and not being beholden to a pimp.

I read entries from a blog, Tits and Sass, by sex workers about sex work, including their desire to undermine and correct, often by lampoon, much that is said about them. I recommend reading some of the entries (click on link above). A different picture may well emerge, as it has for me.

Long ago, I ceased judging the workers for selling their bodies and sex. I do judge those who seek to take advantage of them, most of all those who coerce others into slavery or those who take advantage of people of all ages in such dire straits they can only succumb.

sex-work-is-workLeft out of the picture often are those who buy the sex. I have no proof, for example, that our President-elect has paid for sex here or abroad, but it sure seems likely to me. He fits the profile of entitled white men often portrayed on Tits and Sass as less desirable customers, even if they, like him, have great wealth.

Somehow, while supporting the prosecution of pimps and human traffickers of any kind, I also think the sexual abuse and violation of women and men and children and youth will be reduced more by cultural changes—overcoming patriarchy and male domination and entitlement, especially (but not only) by men who call themselves white.

In the meantime, I fear for those who rely on online advertising to make their livings, to support themselves, and their children, too.  Once again, the good intentions and heavy hand of law enforcement may have unintended, and undesirable, consequences.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I’ve been mulling over the recent shutdown of Backpage’s adult advertising section. For many who are anti-trafficking, the shutdown of Backpage is being viewed as a victory in the fight to end human trafficking- particularly because some traffickers have used Backpage to advertise. For others who are involved in adult, consensual sex work, however, the shutdown has made their lives significantly harder and more dangerous.

Backpage began in 2003, when the Village Voice began publishing its classified ads from the last page of the paper on the Internet (hence, the name). The growth of Backpage, however, was predominantly due to their space for people to advertise for adult content: hookups, anonymous sex and, of course, sex work.

For clarity: there is an immense difference between human trafficking (buying and selling of individuals without their consent, often for the purpose of having sex slaves, and many of whom are underage) and sex work (the act of adults exchanging sexual favors for money or other currency). For me, personally (and I am not a sex worker), being subject to a pimp tends to (although, not always) fall under what I would consider trafficking.

It’s also important to remember that some people go into sex work because they want to and they choose to, while others go into sex work out of need and do not want to continue doing sex work. Those are also vastly different narratives, both of which are equally viable. But for those who do not see a distinction, any decrease in sex work is a decrease in Sex-Work-Is-Not-Traffickingtrafficking.

So, the argument for closing Backpage’s adult advertisement section is that it disrupts and limits the ability for traffickers to work.

I personally come from a harm-reduction perspective. I weigh the options and tend to go with the choice that minimizes harm to a community as much as possible. So I have to pose the question: does shutting down Backpage serve to minimize harm to those who do not (or cannot) consensually choose sex work? Or put another way, does closing Backpage have enough possible benefit to victims of trafficking that it is worth displacing adult, consensual sex workers?

I am leaning pretty heavily toward “no.” Closing Backpage will not stop human trafficking- it was never the sole point of recruitment, and traffickers will simply move to other places. But knowing that as a point of entry could have helped locate people who are engaging in trafficking- a point of entry that is no longer accessible. So I’m not sure how closing Backpage has helped victims of trafficking- people won’t advertise there, but they will advertise elsewhere, and finding out where that is will take additional work and time and then- what? That place will get closed down as well? New places will always pop up to replace the old, so I’m a fan of “the devil you know” argument.

So, I don’t see closing down Backpage as making any appreciable dent in the lives of those who are victims of trafficking- if anything, I can imagine it making their lives harder, if people get spooked or are worried about additional scrutiny, then abandoning and/or killing those enslaved is not out of the realm of possibility.

In contrast, I look at the lives of those who are consensual, adult sex sex work is real workworkers who used Backpage to find and screen clients. Without the resources to begin (and very carefully word) their own website, many of those who are engaged in sex work will have to find alternative methods of finding clients, or alternative methods of paying their expenses.

Alternative methods of finding clients, unfortunately, means sometimes meeting people face-to-face with no buffer or ability to screen, which makes the situation much more volatile and dangerous for sex workers. In addition, there is now a lapse (unless someone has established clientele) where they do not have income coming in, but still have bills that need to be paid.

And quite frankly, forcing someone to take a low-wage job that pays a quarter of what they are currently making (never mind shaming them for working a low-wage job on top of it) removes a person’s autonomy to decide what they want to do with their bodies. Are there economic situations in which someone feels they have no option but to turn to sex work? Yes, absolutely, and I completely support resources that help people find their way out of an exploitative situation.

But do I also know people who love being sex workers? Yes. I know people who are passionate about it, who have chosen it, who want to continue doing it, and do a lot of work and advocacy around making it safer- including ending trafficking. And I think this is the part that keep coming back to: when people who are intimately familiar with sex work and have an active understanding of how these things work- partially because their livelihood depends on it- I’m going to believe them when they tell me this is not a victory. When they tell me that this is going to make sex work harder and more dangerous for them, I am going to believe them. When they tell me that it is going to make it harder to track down perpetrators

glogster.com
glogster.com

of human trafficking, I am going to believe them. When they tell me that this, while well-intentioned, makes things worse, I’m going to believe them.

Do I want to end human trafficking? Yes, absolutely. But do I think that closing Backpage is going to have a measurable effect on ending trafficking? No. Do I think that it is going to do have an impact on minimizing the harm to those who are victims of trafficking? I don’t. Do I think this is going to make it harder for consensual adults to engage in sex work? I do.

To me, closing the Backpage advertisements is a false victory, an action that looks good but has limited measurable impact in its intended goal, and runs the risk of doing further harm to other communities. We need to take action- real action- to end human trafficking, particularly of children, but I would celebrate something that truly met that goal, and not something that feels like another resource lost to consensual sex workers.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your thoughts on ending human trafficking without negatively impacting the lives of sex workers? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, January 19th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Workshop description:

Sacred, Not Secret, Part 3: Beyond the Norm

We invite you to join us on Thursday, January 19th for the third part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On January 19, they will continue to explore non-normative relationship structures and practices, focusing this time on kink and BDSM. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of these sexual activities, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to practitioners–because do not doubt that you know and interact with them, in church and elsewhere.

Recordings of the workshop presentations by Malachi and Robin are being made available periodically.

Is Sex Work?

Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves

by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction: Last week, Robin and Malachi each responded to the open-ended question, “What is sexual freedom?” This week, we are expanding on these ideas by exploring sex work in the context of sexual freedom. Discussing our thoughts, feelings, and relationships with this complex and emotionally charged idea, we find a lot of common ground in our conclusions, even though we are coming from somewhat different perspectives.

revrobin2-023Robin:

Writing about my own emerging sexual freedom last week led me to think about the forces outside ourselves that deny that freedom. Social pressures that create sex-negativities are often created and sustained by religious beliefs and practices. Christianity, strangely for a faith built on God’s human embodiment, has much to answer for in terms of body- and sex-negativity.

But it is not just the church that uses negative judgment to control, and even imprison, sexuality and sexual expression. The legal system codifies sex negativity through legal restrictions, especially by limiting sexual freedom through laws criminalizing some kinds of sex among consenting adults.

Of course, not all legal restrictions on sexual activity are based on sex-negativity. For example, the protection of minors from sexual abuse by adults (and by adults against other adults) is absolutely necessary, as are laws against sex slavery. Those who have no, or limited, ways to protect themselves need legal protection.

pump
http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/ephemera/29385/supporting-male-sex-workers

However, based on things some gay men have told me over the years, I also know that the prohibition against sex with a minor is not necessary in all cases. Over the years, I have heard numbers of men say that when they were under age they benefited greatly from sex with an older man (or older men). This was especially evident in earlier decades when same-sex activity was so hidden, and carried far more opprobrium than is true today.  The attentions of an older man, even an authority figure, helped them claim their own sexual power and needs, and these men are grateful. As we know others had different experiences.

decriminalize-sex-work
http://theorbital.co.uk/decriminalisation-sex-workers/

But what about the buying and selling of sex, usually called prostitution? Last September, in response to the raid on the Rent Boy headquarters in Manhattan  I wrote on another blog a piece supporting the decriminalization of sex work (see Sex Is Good. Why Is It Illegal?).  I wrote this from the relatively safe perspective of an older gay man who has never paid for sex, and known only a couple of sex workers.  As I look back on that post now, I realize I felt an unconscious twinge of envy and regret: I never had enough sense of my own freedom and worthiness as a sexual being to even consider using my body that way. Now I think I wish everyone could feel free enough to consider it if they wish.

The issue seemed clear to me then, but as Emily Bazelon wrote in the New York Times Magazine on May 8, this is an emotional issue, a real hot button these days especially among women—a serious, hard-edged debate between many feminists who want to free sex workers from the work by ending prostitution and, on the other side, female (and some male) sex workers who want to have their work respected and treated as legitimate employment.

Part of the emotion is class- and race-based, as it certainly reflects the deep and powerful effects of misogyny and patriarchy. The argument for decriminalization—this is not the same as making prostitution legal and regulating it—seems to be made largely by white women who make a good living selling sex by choice (white privilege and class origins are very much in play here). Others may feel differently, especially those (mostly women and girls) who are coerced through human trafficking and other criminal forces into selling their bodies for survival (theirs and often their children). These are so often women of color, in our own nation and from oppressed and war-torn places around the globe.

It is this latter group of (mostly) women worldwide that causes many feminists, including leaders such as Gloria Steinem, to participate in the Abolitionist Movement, vigorously calling for harsh penalties on men who buy sex in order, they claim, to bring prostitution to an end. The movement draws its name from the heroic anti-slavery movement of the 19th century. And given the proportion of women of color victimized globally, it may be an apt connection.

Yet is it the same? Surely, anyone who sells the sexual use of the body of someone else without

rentboy-splashpage
http://static.lgbtqnation.com/assets/2016/02/rentboy-splashpage.jpg

free participation by that body is a slaver. But what if the person has a choice about whether to allow their sexual services to be offered for sale? Is that still slavery? And if the person offers her or his own body, and the customer pays the agreed-upon price, is that slavery? If there is no force, is it slavery?

And further, will we ever be able to end sex for sale? Should we? If a woman or man needs to make money and realizes they have, in their own bodies, a commodity that others would want to touch  and be touched by, hold and be held by, lick or suck or penetrate or be licked or sucked and penetrated by, should we deny them the right to engage in such a transaction? No law on the books is broken if people do that without the exchange of money (unless one party is below the age of consent). We say they have the right to their own bodies and the use thereof (except for some religious groups who would say it is wrong outside legal marriage).

sexworker2
http://www.sexworkeurope.org/users/turnoffthebluelight

So, it would appear that it is the money that makes it wrong.  But I knew a woman who helped herself pay for college through sex work. I have lost track of her, but she said it was actually often pleasurable and that she probably would continue after college (at least until she had enough years in her vocational field to be making better money). And I know a man who supplements income from office work by giving erotic massages that can include sexual acts—in order to help support his aging mother and extended family.

They appear to enjoy the work. I read others who feel the same way. A good place to see all sides of sex work is a blog called Tits and Sass.

Sex is a very powerful instrument of power, both to raise up our own power and potentially that of others, and at the same time a way to hold down others.  Prostitution seems to have deep roots in the patriarchal control of women in general and women’s bodies in particular. Every woman was (is) assumed to belong to some man and that man gets to determine what she does with her body and with whom. Pimps act this way, of course, but patriarchy begins with fathers and husbands who make claims on women beginning at birth and continuing throughout life. This patriarchal attitude also affects how some men regard and treat young boys  who live on the street after being kicked out of their homes for being gay.

“Speak up for all who cannot speak for themselves for the rights of all who are destitute.” Provberbs 3:18, from http://www.cre8tivegroup.com/clients/threedom

So, I hope we all agree that has to change, radically. Some change has been happening of course, thanks to the work of feminism and some allies among men, too. But so much more needs to be done. Decriminalization helps us get the focus off sex—letting consensual sex with or without money exist without penalty—and can, I think, help us focus on the real issue, namely the control of women and their bodies by men (and even other women in some cases).  Instead of penalizing people who choose to make their living through sex, we can prosecute the slave traders and pimps and criminal syndicates that violate women. Of course, this will also require that we work to eradicate social and economic conditions that often drive women into working in these ugly and demeaning conditions.

For millennia, women who stray from this system of control, especially as it has been exercised through sex, have been shamed, called fallen women, sluts, prostitutes, etc. Shame is a very powerful emotion so often connected with sex.

The effort by some women to say “No” to that shame is, for me, an example of sexual freedom. We need more women making such claims, not only about sexual activity but also dress codes and religious roles, not to mention fighting glass ceilings, etc. We, especially men with various kinds of privilege, need to help women all over feel empowered to make their own choices, just as we need all of us fighting the exploitation of all people, women, men, children, through distortions of sex that become abusive, enslaving, violent and violative.

One thing Malachi and I are committed to do is to help people talk about sex, in order to value it as a central element of our humanity, a means of holy conversation through our bodies (and not limited to our genitals).  I see sex workers as allies in this work. And I pray that together we—more than the two of us, and more than all the sex workers, indeed a growing number of caring people—can end sexual tyranny and usher in a new era of sexual joy, freedom and peace.

Malachi GrennellMalachi:

Sex work is one of those topics that I could talk about for a very long time and still barely scratch the surface of my feelings. It’s something of a complicated relationship that starts, like many parts of my sexual journey, with Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg.

I’ve written in other places about my relationship with this particular book, but Feinberg’s novel was the starting point of so much of my sexuality that it keeps coming up in these discussions. The portrayal of sex workers in that novel shaped a perspective that is different from the mainstream narrative (sex workers are all drug addicts, desperate for money, desperate in general, not given the freedom to make their own decisions, cheap and/or untrustworthy people, women that need to be saved, etc.). In fact, any generalizations I had about sex workers were completely different: I believed that they were strong, powerful people, balancing authentic relationships against the illusion of intimacy, fierce, independent, no-nonsense people who were able to work with or without their clothes on which, like the main character of the novel, awed me at the time.

Of course, I have since learned to stop making generalizations about any group- or, at least, be aware of what generalizations I am making. But my bias has always slanted in favor of sex workers, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of my friends and lovers have been involved in sex work, and it’s something that I have contemplated for many years. The truth is, although I wouldn’t consider myself a sex worker, the second cisgendered man I had sex with was someone that I was paid to have sex with, and it is recorded on film- I was paid to shoot porn. At that point in IMG_0631my life, I was considering whether I felt like I could work as female (although I had been on testosterone for several years and “passed” as male most of the time) and whether or not I could work on camera. That particular situation was unhealthy for me and I chose not to pursue it beyond that one time, but every so often, I consider whether I would be interested in working either as a professional dominant or an escort- not on camera, and not as strictly male or female, but as “myself” (at least, with respect to my gender). As a transgender person, that can be a little more complicated, and between being such a niche market and navigating legality, I haven’t pursued either of those avenues at this time…which isn’t to say that I won’t someday.

The legality issues of sex work are incredibly complicated and frustrating. Legalization ends up being almost as bad as criminalization because it creates particular parameters (read: boxes) around the concepts of “appropriate sexuality,” creating further definitions of what constitutes “real sex” and what doesn’t, and further dividing “normal sex” from alternate sexual expressions (e.g. fetishes). Personally, I support decriminalization, which would cease to make sex work illegal; however, I do not think that legalization (creating new legislation for government regulation and control of the industry) would be as beneficial.

Sex-Work-Is-Not-Trafficking
http://wwav-no.org/news-reports-continue-to-incorrectly-link-increased-sex-trafficking-to-large-new-orleans-events

In this, please let me be clear: assault is still assault, rape is still rape (and not “theft of goods” as stated by Judge Teresa Carr Deni in 2007 or Columnist Mary Mitchell in 2015). Similarly, sex trafficking (buying and selling people- particularly young women and girls- as sexual objects) is an abhorrent practice, and I am absolutely against trafficking, and think that assault and/or rape should be reported and prosecuted- but, of course, the statistics on rape cases that get reported, prosecuted, and lead to an eventual conviction are terrifying and show that, quite clearly, rape and sexual assault is already not well-handled. But let’s focus our energy and resources toward ending abuse, rather than criminalizing what consenting adults do between the sheets (whether or not there is money involved).

The truth is, there are people who are sex workers who are drug addicts. There are people who are desperate for money and are offered an opportunity to do something that is outside of their comfort zone but, out of desperation, do it anyway. There are people who are working under pimps and don’t want to be in the life anymore but don’t see a way out. Those are real, true, honest narratives that can’t be ignored. But there is also a narrative of claiming sexuality through sex work- a narrative of choosing to engage in sex work out of desire, rather than desperation. That is an authentic narrative too, but it’s one that makes us uncomfortable. We want to see sex workers as either morally bankrupt or hapless victims looking to be rescued. Why does it make us so uncomfortable that some people might choose to engage in sex work without being forced, coerced, or just inherently “bad” people?

Among many reasons, I believe that it holds up a mirror, in some respects, for many of us. It’s a brazen claiming of sexuality. It is a defiant refusal to

sex work is real work
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/290341507196812575/

buy into these ideas that we should be ashamed of our sexuality, that it should be a secret, that we shouldn’t want what we want. I don’t believe that everyone should be a sex worker- but I do think that those who are more comfortable with their sexuality, who actively work to feel confident and authentic in their sexual identities often don’t have the same visceral response to sex workers as those who have not done some of that work. It reminds me a lot of faith- those who are fairly secure in their faith tend to not need the same types of external affirmations that those who are not as secure (and have nowhere to go with the questions). When we know who we are- truly know our authentic selves, and work to reflect that image externally- I think we become a lot less concerned about what everyone else is doing and are able to simply move on with our lives.

Sex workers are not necessarily more “sexually free” than anyone else. I would argue that there is a certain freedom in wanting to engage in sex work and having the capacity to be engaged in ways that feel safe and healthy because our choices are limited by our opportunities. Last week, I stated that I think that “freedom is an understanding of the choices available, and the ability to have informed consent in what choices (and, for some, what limitations) we put on our sexual relationships.” I think this is absolutely applicable when discussing sex work: when someone is not able to give informed consent, or when someone doesn’t understand the choices available to them and is therefore forced or coerced into sex work, that is not freedom. But if someone is able to make the decision to go into sex work fully informed and consenting, then they should be free to do so, free from judgement or conviction of others.

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http://g01.a.alicdn.com/kf/HTB1GsE.KpXXXXXhXXXXq6xXFXXXT/2032173686.jpg

Conviction and legality is something concrete that we can do something about. Judgement is harder. In a world that fears, disdains, and undermines women’s sexuality, sex work is a reflection of the misogyny and patriarchal beliefs of this culture. “Hung like a porn star” is a testament to a man’s penis size and, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, penis size = importance. But most women do not talk about “tits like a porn star”… in fact, when someone’s breast size is compared to a porn star’s, it’s usually an insinuation that the woman has had implants (in this case, bigger = fake). This is one of many example of how we, as a society, continue to perpetuate these double standards, holding up men’s bodies and sexuality as a measure of importance while women are “asking” to be sexualized if they looked a certain way.

Sexual freedom can be a powerful force, and it’s important to remember that we are bound by much more than institutional laws- we are bound by social customs, expectations, and mass media that continue to feed ideas that are, at their core, oppressive and toxic concepts.  Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves… and as we become more comfortable with ourselves, we may find that we have less need to judge the lives of others.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? What are your thoughts on (or relationship with) sex work? Please share below (or at the individual sites for Malachi’s and Robin’s personal stories), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.