Tag Archives: prostitution

Rest in Power: Margo St. James

announcement of a May 1, 2021 memorial for Margo St. JamesLaurie and Debbie say:

Margo St. James died in January 2021, after leading a remarkable life. She fought the uphill battle of decriminalizing sex work and recognizing women’s (and all adults’) rights to choose prostitution, as well as other forms of sex work. She began her tireless advocacy for women’s rights to our own bodies in 1972, when she held gatherings of the cleverly named WHOM — Whores, Housewives, and Other Mothers.

She is best known for COYOTE — Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. Clearly, she had a gift for naming organizations. COYOTE was one of the founding resources for the St. James Infirmary, an active San Francisco “peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers of all genders.” The bio of Margo St. James on the SJI site says:

She said that she founded COYOTE in response to police treatment of prostitutes and to feminists’ contempt for them. At the time she founded COYOTE, she was in touch with the English Collective of Prostitutes and with Selma James, who’d recently founded Wages for Housework. Flo Kennedy, a black feminist lawyer and founder of the Feminist Party, who Margo said taught her to “kick-ass and “did the most to turn me out” (clearly meaning inspiring Margo as a political activist) and was a very early decrim advocate who explained that, “I just don’t see that women have such fascinating jobs, for the most part, that a job that pays ten times as much as most others should be outlawed.” [book: Color me Flo]

St. James’ name became synonymous with the cause now known as “decrim.”

COYOTE gave legal help to sex workers, published COYOTE HOWLS newspaper to over 60,000 subscribers, and successfully fought to overturn city policies. She attended national and international women’s conferences, testified, and lectured. She pushed decriminalization onto the political agenda and led an international movement to decriminalize sex work.

She ran for a supervisor position in San Francisco, endorsed by the Mayor, but didn’t win. She convinced Cecil Williams, a prominent San Francisco clergyman, to host the annual Hookers’ Ball. The Atlantic Monthly published a feature on her, saying “no public relations expert could do more for prostitutes than Margo St. James has done with COYOTE.”

Mary Reinholz, writing at The Village Sun, draws a direct line from St. James herself to the people continuing her work today.

History repeats itself. St. James was always a controversial figure in the feminism of her time. She may have had Flo Kennedy and many others aligned with her, but she also faced a great deal of “feminist” opposition from the faction that believes that all prostitution is exploitation, and all women who sell their bodies are forced to do so.

Today, the National Organization for Women still opposes decrim, and specifically a 2019 bill in the New York State legislature. The current executive director of NOW-NYC is quoted as saying:

“When the sex trade is decriminalized, demand increases, and in an unregulated market, predatory men who pay to have sex with poor women become law-abiding citizens. That’s not progress, it’s doubling down on male privilege.” However, due in no small part to the movement Margo St. James embodied, even NOW-NYC and Gloria Steinem, support a bill which would decriminalize prostitution, but keep laws against pimps, brothels, and “related sex trade operatives.”

Men who pay to have sex with poor women are effectively “law-abiding citizens” now, and have been so for longer than St. James was working to change hearts, minds, and laws. Men are not prosecuted for paying for sex work. In addition, although NOW-NYC didn’t bring up the specter of human trafficking and child endangerment in this quotation, many opponents of decrim use that argument, even though they know we could erase every law against prostitution off the books tomorrow, and there would still be a robust body of law protecting children and anyone under age in any state from exploitation, grooming, and victimization. Margo St. James was a crusader for the rights of adults, mostly women, to do what each of us chooses to do with our own bodies–and have the opportunity to use the laws to help them stay healthy, safe, and out of jail.

We remember her as the hero she was.

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What the War on Sex Workers Doesn’t Do

Laurie and Debbie say:

cross-posted on Feministe

Melissa Gira Grant has an excellent article in Reason this week, laying out exactly what’s wrong with the war on “sex trafficking,” which is conducted largely by women who identify as feminists, and how and why it is really a war on sex workers. The last paragraph of the article is especially powerful:

If we are going to call attacks on reproductive and sexual rights a “war on women,” then let’s talk about a war on women that has actual prisoners and a body count. It’s a war on the women engaged in sex work, waged by women who will not hesitate to use their opponents’ corpses as political props but refuse to listen to them while they are still alive and still here to fight.

Grant unflinchingly sets out what “feminists” are doing in the name of fighting sex trafficking, and how unwilling the leaders of this movement are to support actual sex workers.

Let’s be clear at the outset. Grant is not, and we are not, supporting actual trafficking, sex work involving minors, or anyone being forced into sex work against their will. The pressures on women (particularly, as Grant notes, minority women and trans women) to go into sex work are complex; alternatives can be very difficult to find.

Some activists view calling the cops to “rescue” people from the sex trade as the model of a successful human rights intervention. They don’t count their victories by the number of people they help; they count them by arrests.

…Feminists once offered a powerful critique of the criminal justice system, but that argument has faded as they have found power within it. Not surprisingly, they have found conservative allies along the way.

In redefining sex work as an issue of bad men doing bad things to enslaved young women, anti-prostitution activists have recast themselves as liberators instead of scolds, while simultaneously making their message more attractive to the social conservatives who have at times distrusted them. The conservative Heritage Foundation has taken up the cause of “fighting sex trafficking,” though mostly as a way to beat up on the Obama administration and the United Nations for not adopting even more punitive policy. …

None of this is new; in fact, the historical pattern has often been documented. Grant sets it out clearly and unambiguously as yet another front in the war on women.

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is respectable. It allows feminists to get a foothold in the halls of power, to be listened to by the kind of people who spend the rest of their time waging the war on women, to be funded by Warren Buffett, to see laws they argue for pass.

Not that respectability has ever gotten women or any other marginalized group anything we really need or want ….

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is a way to reify and strengthen race, class, and cisgender values, because it essentially says “I would never voluntarily have sex for money, therefore any woman who has sex for money must be a victim, a moral failure, or both.” Thus, the women who hold this position get to have their penetration and eat it too: the sex they have is fine, but the sex prostitutes have is disgusting and deserves to be illegal.

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is anti-woman. The anti-trafficking activists refuse to listen to sex workers tell their stories:

Oversimplified portrayals of trafficking can have devastating consequences for those who are trafficked. “When I am vacating prior convictions for survivors,” says [Melissa] Broudo [of the Urban Justice Center], “I view it as a legal hurdle if it’s someone who isn’t a cisgender [nontransgender] female minor at the time. And it shouldn’t be that way.” Broudo concedes that “you need people to understand that trafficking exists.” But she adds that “awareness isn’t enough, and awareness campaigns can have negative consequences. … People think we need to arrest more people, and that’s incredibly detrimental. And unfortunately, when there is more money and a mandate for arrests, that will often result in sex workers who may or may not have been forced into sex work being arrested.”

Sex-worker activists have long voiced this concern, not to protect the sex industry (as anti-prostitution campaigners claim) but to protect themselves from the violence of arrest and the violence that results from widespread social stigma and discrimination. Defenders of sex workers’ rights want to stop those arrests, while the feminists who should be their natural allies are pushing for more.

Another aspect of the anti-women nature of the movement is clarified particularly by Gira’s anecdote about Gloria Steinem:

Gloria Steinem held court in the brothels of India as part of a humanitarian junket sponsored by … Warren Buffett’s money: $1 billion… Steinem came away from her visit with an astounding proposal: What would really benefit the women who worked there—whom she described to the Calcutta Telegraph as “prostituted,” characterizing their condition as “slavery”—would be to end sexual health services and peer education programs in brothels, programs that have been recognized by the United States Agency for International Development as best-practices HIV/AIDS interventions. Steinem described the women leading those health and education programs as “traffickers” and those who support them “the trafficking lobby.”

Finally, anti-sex-trafficking “feminism,” while claiming to target men, actually takes attention away from men and men’s crimes against women:

A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago conducted by the Chicago Reporter revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers, with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. … Since the [Illinois Safe Children’s] Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

The energy that should be spent fighting rape culture, drawing the lines that show why incidents like the one in Steubenville are not “isolated” and not “boys will be boys,” changing the way we think and talk about rape, reproductive justice, abortion, employment rights, and child care (to name just a few topics) is instead being spent putting women into jail. The energy that should be spent listening to people in the sex trade, learning what they need, helping them make themselves safer, combating racism and classism in sex work is instead being turned against sex workers.

To be a feminist, one should actually care about the lives of women.