Word Trav­els: The So­cial Net­work Sex Work­ers Built Chanelle Gal­lant

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - TRAVEL - by CHANELLE GAL­LANT il­lus­tra­tions by LAURA BERGER

“This fall I was on the corner and some of the girls told me about a guy who’d been threat­en­ing trans girls with a knife. They gave me his de­scrip­tion and what his car looked like. A few days later, I was fin­ish­ing outreach and the same as­sailant ap­proached me, threat­ened to hurt me, and bran­dished a knife,” says Mon­ica For­rester, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Trans Pride Toronto and long­time sex-work ad­vo­cate. “I de­bated call­ing the po­lice due to their stance on trans peo­ple and sex work­ers, but I was shaken up and thought, I’m tired of this shit, so I de­cided to call them. Se­cu­rity cam­eras caught the whole thing, but the cops are say­ing that they can’t do any­thing about it. The threat might get more se­ri­ous—next time he might stab or kill some­one—but the po­lice don’t pro­tect pop­u­la­tions they don’t deem im­por­tant. So I’ve warned

Sex work­ers know that when in­for­ma­tion trav­els, they get to make their own de­ci­sions about how to move about, while stay­ing safe and get­ting paid.

the com­mu­nity on my own Face­book page and on Trans Pride Toronto’s page, in­clud­ing a video I took of this guy’s build­ing. I’ve de­manded a copy of the po­lice re­port so we can keep push­ing them.” Sex work­ers are al­ways or­ga­niz­ing out­side the sys­tem— largely by pro­vid­ing each other with crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion that flows be­tween friends and col­leagues on­line, in the club, and on the street. They use pri­vate Face­book groups, on­line ad­ver­tis­ing plat­forms, and peer-run or­ga­ni­za­tions. In­creas­ingly on so­cial me­dia (“ho Twit­ter”), sex work­ers share ev­ery­thing from ref­er­ences for clients, tips on good or bad work­places (like agen­cies and clubs), re­fer­rals for safe busi­ness con­tacts (like non-rapey taxi driv­ers), ad­vice on safety when see­ing a new client—and, of course, thoughts on how to make more money. They check in on each other, warn the com­mu­nity if there’s a preda­tor in the area, and cre­ate “bad-date lists” that re­port ev­ery­thing from sketchy or inap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior to scams, ha­rass­ment, or as­sault. When sex work­ers travel, they gather lo­cal in­for­ma­tion about clients and cops to watch out for; if they are racial­ized mi­grants, they also need to know how to deal with bor­der-pa­trol of­fi­cials in­tent on keep­ing them out. As Elene Lam, di­rec­tor of But­ter­fly: Asian and Mi­grant Sex Work­ers Sup­port Net­work, ex­plains, “The im­mi­gra­tion process ef­fec­tively screens out ev­ery­one but white peo­ple with money, and some poli­cies specif­i­cally tar­get racial­ized mi­grant sex work­ers. They need ex­tra in­for­ma­tion so that they can make their own de­ci­sions about where they want to live and work.” Sex work­ers do this even though al­most all in­for­ma­tion shar­ing about sex work is il­le­gal, and the sharer will face es­pe­cially harsh pun­ish­ment when that in­for­ma­tion helps a sex worker cross a bor­der. In ev­ery ju­ris­dic­tion, at both the state and fed­eral lev­els, there are laws that make com­mu­ni­ca­tion about sex work (be­tween sex work­ers, be­tween sex work­ers and third par­ties such as bosses, and be­tween sex work­ers and clients) il­le­gal. In­creas­ingly, laws call this “aid­ing traf­fick­ing.” And sex work­ers do it any­way be­cause they know that when in­for­ma­tion trav­els, they get to make their own de­ci­sions about how to move about, while stay­ing safe and get­ting paid. Sex work­ers aren’t the only ones who need this kind of in­for­ma­tion. Re­mem­ber last fall’s “Shitty Me­dia Men” list? It was a sim­ple spread­sheet, a pri­vate crowd­sourced doc­u­ment that named men in me­dia who had al­legedly com­mit­ted sex­ual mis­con­duct and abuse. It re­lied on anony­mous con­tri­bu­tions (to avoid re­tal­i­a­tion), didn’t re­quire ac­tion from a judge or cops, and iden­ti­fied be­hav­iors rang­ing from “inap­pro­pri­ate/un­com­fort­able” to “re­peated as­sault” so women could avoid men who might es­ca­late into more se­ri­ous abuse. The list was only ac­tive for about 12 hours be­fore its cre­ator, Moira Done­gan, took it down, and it still caused an up­roar. Done­gan lost friends and her job, and pre­emp­tively outed her­self rather than let­ting oth­ers shape her story. The Shitty Me­dia Men doc­u­ment was just a bad-date list for women in me­dia and jour­nal­ism—what’s so scan­dalous about that? The scan­dal is that women of priv­i­lege like Done­gan are hav­ing a mo­ment. As writer Kristi Coul­ter asked in an es­say about misog­yny and al­co­hol: “Is it re­ally that hard, be­ing a First World woman?” In­creas­ingly, the an­swer is yes. Be­cause while power, money, and priv­i­lege do re­duce the risks of vic­tim­iza­tion to women and femmes, they aren’t enough. There is al­ways the groper on the sub­way, the boss who ex­poses him­self, the co­worker whose texts go from sim­ply in­nap­pro­pri­ate to overtly threat­en­ing. And then there are the hus­bands. About a third of mar­ried women have been co­erced into sex by their male part­ner, and 13 per­cent have been raped by their cur­rent part­ner. Women are find­ing out that even the might­i­est among them are not pro­tected. The Shitty Me­dia Men list is abut­ted by the names of all the cor­po­ra­tions, boards of di­rec­tors, and hr de­part­ments that looked the other way while men abused their power. What would our lives look like if we aban­doned the per­sis­tent sex­ist myth that men and mas­cu­line peo­ple only di­rect their abuse at those who pro­voke it—that our safety can be as­sured through our sex­ual re­spectabil­ity? What if in­stead we rec­og­nized sex­ual vi­o­lence as a col­lec­tive prob­lem and started or­ga­niz­ing our own sex­ual safety like sex work­ers? This would re­quire re­fus­ing one of the cen­tral tenets of pa­tri­archy: the idea that men are safe and that sex­ual abuse is

What would our lives look like if we aban­doned the per­sis­tent sex­ist myth that men and mas­cu­line peo­ple only di­rect their abuse at those who pro­voke it—that our safety can be as­sured through our sex­ual re­spectabil­ity?

ex­cep­tional, re­served only for “bad girls” who pro­voke it. This poi­sonous idea is why when women and femme sex work­ers are as­saulted or killed, po­lice of­ten re­fer to them as liv­ing “high-risk life­styles.” And for the most part, ev­ery­one nods, think­ing, Well, what did she ex­pect? But as some women are just dis­cov­er­ing, mere ex­is­tence is what’s “high risk” for women and femmes. So what hap­pens now that, for so many women, this il­lu­sion of con­di­tional safety has been shattered? Many “re­spectable” women are dis­cov­er­ing the strate­gies that sex work­ers use—which are ac­tu­ally the same ones used by all women out­side the charmed cir­cle of priv­i­lege. It’s not like do­mes­tic work­ers who are be­ing sex­u­ally ha­rassed or as­saulted can just go to hr: Sex work­ers and other marginal­ized women—mi­grants, women of color, In­dige­nous women, and trans women—do not la­bor un­der the fan­tasy that their em­ployer, gov­ern­ment, law en­force­ment, or any other in­sti­tu­tion will pro­tect them. Done­gan cre­ated her list for the same rea­son sex work­ers do: In an un­equal so­ci­ety, ev­ery­one needs in­for­ma­tion about those who abuse their power. On its own, it isn’t enough—com­mu­ni­cat­ing in­for­ma­tion places lit­tle to no re­spon­si­bil­ity on abusers, and there is no en­force­ment mech­a­nism—but it is prac­ti­cal. Cur­rently, all in­sti­tu­tions de­signed to pro­tect us from abuse (es­pe­cially the po­lice) of­ten cause more harm to sur­vivors than abusers do. So why was the Shitty Me­dia Men list lauded as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fem­i­nist act while sex work­ers’ bad-date lists are a crime? In nearly 15 years of sex-work ad­vo­cacy, I have never heard a main­stream fem­i­nist call a bad-date list “ex­plo­sive, rad­i­cal, and pro­duc­tively dan­ger­ous for women,” as Done­gan de­scribed hers. In­stead, fem­i­nist faves such as Ka­mala Har­ris, Rashida Jones, and Glo­ria Steinem have all backed mea­sures that shut down the on­line venues sex work­ers use to swap in­for­ma­tion and screen cus­tomers. In the name of “stop­ping traf­fick­ing,” sex work­ers’ screen­ing lists are raided, seized as ev­i­dence, and shut down; their own­ers are sued and charged with traf­fick­ing or pros­ti­tu­tion of­fenses (as though those were the same). In Fe­bru­ary, the U.S. Congress voted to pass the Fight On­line Sex Traf­fick­ing Act (FOSTA) and the Stop En­abling Sex Traf­fick­ers Act (SESTA), two pieces of leg­is­la­tion that make any­one run­ning a web­site that con­tains com­mu­ni­ca­tion about sex work— in­clud­ing screen­ing tools—sub­ject to up to 10 years in prison. The po­lice (and their fem­i­nist stans) in­sist that they are the right­ful pro­tec­tors of sex work­ers. It’s a cruel irony. The courts want to shut down sex-work web­sites to try to force sex work­ers to rely on po­lice for their safety. With­out their self-man­aged com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools, sex work­ers face a choice: take the risk see­ing clients with no in­for­ma­tion or make no money. It’s a prob­lem that all women and femmes face—and not just at work. Years ago, I started dat­ing some­one new to town. Shortly there­after, a femme ac­quain­tance warned me that my date was re­port­edly abu­sive in his last city. I didn’t know much about his his­tory, but when I brought it up to him he

took it se­ri­ously and used all the right lan­guage about jus­tice, heal­ing, and trans­form­ing trauma. I be­lieved him be­cause what I wasn’t warned about is how skill­fully he wielded fem­i­nist and ac­tivist lan­guage as a weapon. So I em­braced the story he told: We were cre­at­ing the world we wanted to see, one in which we break cy­cles of abuse. But it didn’t work out that way. He punched out his best friend. His ex said he had stolen her aca­demic work. He be­came con­trol­ling and phys­i­cally in­tim­i­dat­ing. He put me down, and told me that I was crazy and imag­in­ing things while he lied to me. I fi­nally left him, but two women he dated after­ward told me sim­i­lar sto­ries. Af­ter our re­la­tion­ship ended, I felt ashamed. How could have I have been so weak? A few peo­ple cau­tioned me that I needed to be stronger next time and learn to set bet­ter bound­aries. But I re­al­ized that the so­lu­tion to abuse isn’t in­di­vid­ual, it’s col­lec­tive. I’d seen how sex work­ers cre­ate a com­mu­nity that ex­plic­itly trades in­for­ma­tion, in a non­judg­men­tal and con­fi­den­tial way, and how that in­for­ma­tion trav­els and fol­lows those bad dates when they re­lo­cate. What if all the in­for­ma­tion about my ex had come with him when he re­lo­cated? I would have made dif­fer­ent de­ci­sions, and sooner. I don’t want my safety to be de­pen­dent on be­com­ing a su­per­woman with per­fect in­tu­ition and bound­aries. I need help from oth­ers. My story is not unique. The ma­jor­ity of women will ex­pe­ri­ence some sort of sex­ual or in­ti­mate abuse in their lives. Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is still the lead­ing cause of in­jury to women. Mur­der is the num­ber-one cause of (non-ac­ci­den­tal) death among African Amer­i­can women, and most of those mur­ders are com­mit­ted by cur­rent or for­mer in­ti­mate part­ners. Turn­ing down a man’s sex­ual ad­vances can mean im­me­di­ate re­tal­i­a­tion, es­pe­cially for work­ing-class women of color and trans women. We all need a com­mu­nity that knows how to re­spon­si­bly share in­for­ma­tion so that even when we move around, we have the right in­for­ma­tion to pro­tect our­selves. But this isn’t our real­ity yet. Why don’t more peo­ple out­side the sex in­dus­try or­ga­nize against the dan­gers of sex­ual or in­ti­mate abuse in the way that sex work­ers do? It’s not be­cause sex work­ers have more re­sources or sup­port. In part, it’s be­cause so many women out­side the sex in­dus­try still be­lieve that sur­vivors are re­spon­si­ble for the abuses com­mit­ted against them be­cause they stepped out­side of re­spectable be­hav­ior and “should have known bet­ter.” Sex-work com­mu­ni­ties are of­ten more re­silient against these mes­sages. “Straight white cis guys are re­ally the ones who lead the cru­sade that women lie and sex work­ers lie, but sex-work com­mu­ni­ties don’t re­ally have those men in them,” Linda Tsang, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Mag­gie’s: Toronto Sex Work­ers Ac­tion Project, ex­plains. “The men who are in the sex-work com­mu­nity are also sex work­ers so they

“I’ve never ques­tioned a worker about a bad date,” Tsang says. “There’s no rea­son to lie about an as­sault.”

un­der­stand—they know that men are not safe. The rhetoric and bull­shit of straight cis men doesn’t in­fil­trate to the same ex­tent. It’s not that men are the only per­pe­tra­tors or that women don’t dis­be­lieve women some­times, but that layer of op­pres­sion doesn’t ex­ist in our com­mu­nity in the same way.” It’s why sex work­ers be­lieve sur­vivors. “I’ve never ques­tioned a worker about a bad date,” Tsang adds. “There’s no rea­son to lie about an as­sault. The rea­sons peo­ple doubt sur­vivors don’t ex­ist in the sex-work com­mu­nity. Most of us just don’t be­lieve the myths about men and safety.” Sex-worker fem­i­nism shows us that our safety and free­dom should never be con­di­tional, and that we have to come to­gether—on the corner, on­line, at marches, and be­yond—to pre­vent sex­ual abuse and re­sist its in­sid­i­ous ef­fects on us. As For­rester puts it, “It’s re­ally weird how we look at sex­ual as­sault and what is deemed ac­cept­able and who is deemed to de­serve jus­tice. Women are too crit­i­cal of them­selves and how sex­ual as­sault hap­pened. The sex-work com­mu­nity—with its sup­port and in­for­ma­tion—is what has let me see that sex­ual as­sault is not our fault, and that no woman de­serves vi­o­lence.”

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