Thursday, June 14, 2012

No Arrest for the Weary

On Sunday, June 17th, I will march in silence with thousands of other New Yorkers who are fed up with police brutality, stop-n-frisk racism, and the routine harassment of young men, LGBT folks, and (increasingly) women of color. I'll march as a woman of color, an immigrant, a socialist, an educator, and - yes - as a sex worker.

Why should sex workers - strippers, more specifically - give a shit about this march, and join me for it?

For starters, the legal system we have is, at its core, about economics. More specifically, a larger atmosphere of 'neoliberalism,' the reigning economic system in which nebulous 'market' forces are presumed to be the best arbiter of the fate of humanity, in which the 'public' sphere quickly disappears, in which blame - for poverty, criminality, marginality - is to be doled out strictly to individuals for their own personal failings instead of to a system of capitalism that's failed them.

This might explain why corporations like the CCA have actually been buying state prisons and operating them! Yes, a private corporation, with a goal of turning a profit, merges with a system that (we're told) aims to keep those on the outside safe and reform those on the inside. But no, the CCA and other private entities have benefited from incarceration of (mostly poor, non-white) young people. To keep their revenues a-rollin' in, they've lobbied and even had some buddies elected to office, campaigns aimed at introducing Draconian laws and law enforcement. Gotta be tough on crime - those prisons won't make any money if they're empty, will they? Meanwhile, those of us who work in the sex industry - walking the fine line of legality and criminality - are thrown into the mix. Those of us who have experienced a raid, an arrest, or worse for consensually selling sexual services know just how much of a numbers game law enforcement is. That's probably why your lawyer and everyone else present when you got arrested encouraged you to take a plea deal, even though you insisted you were innocent. (After all, no one told you sitting on a guy's lap during a lapdance could technically count as prostitution...) It's what they call "maximum throughput" - the prison industrial complex can only be profitable if it's massive, if it cranks people through it enough to be the kind of growth machine capitalism needs.

Notice how these ginormous prisons are usually in rural, white towns? Many prison towns, usually all-white, were plunged into a terrible type of poverty when they lost their jobs after deindustrialization (thanks again, neoliberalism!). Those jobs were not lost, just sent somewhere else where brown folks can do the work dirt-cheap because their government is giving the US a huge blowjob and keeps labor and environmental regulations super-low to attract dollars. What fortuitousness that mega-prisons could occupy such a convenient niche: at once incarcerating now-redundant workers of color from urban areas (can't have 'em roaming the streets, can we?) and employing poor white folks who'd otherwise be unemployed - as prison guards, food service workers, medical staff, etc. So these poor white folks - who'd largely do well allying with people of color around economic injustice - are now given a token of authority over criminalized people of color. The divide & conquer circle is complete...

As sex workers, we are fodder for the business of criminalization. No one knows exactly what constitutes a violation of the law in terms of 'sexual contact.' Stripping and pornography are legal, provided that money is not being exchanged for sexual services...Wait, what? Isn't stripping for cash a sexual service? Where is the line of legality drawn, exactly? We've all had customers blow a load in their pants during a lapdance (and if you haven't, Goddess bless you, child) - is this tantamount to giving a happy ending massage? Can I be hauled away, labeled a "prostitute," and lose my teaching job as a result? Would I even have time to investigate these issues if I were hauled to central booking in the middle of a shift at work and urged to take a guilty plea to avoid legal costs I can't afford? Would I accept a criminal record permanent enough to affect future career prospects, custody battles, and housing?

My first year stripping, I had a late night customer buying tons of lapdances, begging me for a blowjob in the champagne room. I refused, and his offer became more and more generous. By the time he realized I wasn't going to do it, he'd spent all that money on lapdances while he'd tried convincing me. After the lapdances were done, he flashed me a police badge. He told me I did the right thing, not taking him back there. I had another customer who was going through police academy confess that he'd seen over 200 sex workers during his lunch breaks. I had a retired-cop-turned-strip-club-bouncer confess to me that, during his career as a detective, he made several arrests because he "didn't like the way the person looked." (A very thinly veiled racist statement, since he quite often cursed out "niggers" without much hesitation.) Yes, these are the police who will raid our clubs, banking on the fact that we don't know our rights, and have so few to begin with. These are the police who serve and protect Bloomberg and his cadre of Wall Street cronies and criminalize more and more of us with impunity. These are the police who shot and killed Ramarley Graham, beat the hell out of peaceful Occupy protesters, spied on Muslim students and businesses. The same police who, with each day that passes, get more authority over enforcing immigration law. The same police that can decide that, if you are carrying a condom on you, it can be used as evidence against you in a prostitution case.

The time is running out to raise hell about this issue. How many more diligent mothers will be stigmatized for work that allows them to support a family? How many trans sex workers will be felt up in "gender investigations" by police on the streets of Jackson Heights? How many more university students will be arrested or beaten for simply protesting a tuition hike? Dancing girls, this issue is ours. Let's do this.


  1. Brilliant, empowering and inspiring words. You're my heroine...

  2. A very thoughtful and insightful analysis. I suppose you have a fairly unique perspective to bring to this, with your background as a woman of color, a worker in the sex industry, and an advanced student. This is one of the best discussions I have seen about the need for workers in the sex industry to make common cause with other oppressed communities. I also appreciate that you draw in an example of how white workers are victimized and, at the same time, given an incentive to become enemies of urban poor people of color.


    (With all that praise, you must have anticipated that there would be a but)

    What is missing from your analysis is a mention of how the weakening or, should I say, destruction of the power of the labor movement has contributed to some of the abuses you describe: in particular the privatization of prisons and the movement of good jobs paying decent wages to other countries where workers of whatever color can more easily be exploited in more extreme ways.

    The Labor Movement?? You mean those fat old white guys who lined their pockets with workers dues? I realize that many activists, people of color, and "liberals" still have that stereotype. Like most stereotypes, this one has its kernel of truth. When the labor movement was powerful, may of its leaders used that power to line their own pockets and to keep down those people who they did not regard as their constituents.

    But that is not the entire picture. Some labor leaders also marched with Dr. King (who, I hope, is one of your heroes). Some labor leaders supported Cesar Chavez in building a movement for Chicano farm workers. The fat white guy in the expensive suit is not the face of the labor movement today. Today, there are many (perhaps not enough) women and people of color in positions of leadership.

    More fundamentally, however, a strong labor movement meant that there was an established institution with political power other than the owners of capital. Like any powerful institution, it could be narrow minded, selfish and greedy. Its leaders sometimes joined in the oppression and exclusion of minorities. However, those leaders were forced, by the nature of their position and the source of their power, to support the interests of their members: the interest in jobs that provided a living wage, decent benefits and safe working conditions. this may not have been the only or even the main focus of some labor leaders, but this was an interest that they had to serve by virtue of the nature of their jobs.

    1. I didn't finish

      The result was that we had a government that had to serve interests other than the interests of the wealthy. And members of minority groups benefited. Perhaps not fairly, but many African Americans were able to provide a decent living for their families from working in union jobs. Improved safety regulations that were enforced benefited all workers. (Okay, maybe not sex workers. But that just means the sex workers, as has happened on occasion, have to demand a place in the labor movement, and the labor movement has to make a place. There are workplace laws on the books that would provide some protections for those in the garment removal industry, if those laws were enforced).

      With a weakened labor movement, one political party can serve exclusively the interests of the wealthy, while the other party only has to throw occasional crumbs.

      I cannot join this march, as I am not in New York and I'm aging and tired and discouraged. Protests are important. But at the end of the day, there have to be institutions with the power to at least somewhat balance the owners of capital.

      I hope to read your report about the demonstration.