Lessons from Las Vegas’ sex workers’ conference
Wed, Aug 4, 2010 (3:05 p.m.)
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of monthly columns taking a thoughtful look at sex, written by UNLV womens studies professor Lynn Comella.
Standing on a dais behind a lectern, Amanda Brooks, 34, looks taller than 5 feet, 7 inches. A black skirt hugs her hips, a pair of glasses frames her face, and a slight Texas drawl wraps around her words.
Brooks is poised, articulate and yes, sexy. As she leans into the microphone she launches into a discussion about sex laws and the police treatment of sex workers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, places that have quasi-legal and legal arrangements regarding prostitution. Her delivery, and the depth of her knowledge, is impressive.
Brooks has been a sex worker most of her adult life. She is an escort, an activist, a frequent media commentator and the author of The Internet Escort’s Handbook, a series of resource guides for women interested in escort work. In July 2008, tired of reading books about sex work that were not written by sex workers, Brooks got the idea to travel the world to learn more about sex work in different legal and cultural settings. She packed up her house in Las Vegas, moved her things into storage and embarked on a journey that has made her part world traveler, part amateur anthropologist.
Fresh from a 20-hour flight from Singapore, Brooks was one of more than 275 people—sex worker rights advocates, health-care practitioners, sex educators, legal experts and academic researchers from across the globe—who gathered in Las Vegas last week for the fourth Desiree Alliance Conference, “Working Sex: Power, Practice and Politics.”
The Desiree Alliance Conference is the only recurring event of its kind in North America—a conference organized by and for sex workers. “The goal of the conference has always been to create a forum where sex workers have a voice and to bring diverse groups together to recognize commonalities,” said Susan Lopez, co-founder of the Desiree Alliance and chairwoman of this year’s conference.
For five days, conference attendees, including prostitutes, Internet escorts, strippers, web models, telephone sex operators and professional dominatrixes, people of various ages, genders, and walks of life working in both the legal and illegal sex trades, networked and attended workshops designed with their professional and personal needs in mind.
Almost anything a sex worker might want to know about professional development, harm-reduction, sex worker organizing and public policy was there for the taking. How to screen clients? Check. Manage finances? Check. Safeguard personal privacy? Check. Internet advertising? Outreach services? Legal issues? Check, check, check.
Since the start of the sex workers rights movement in the United States in the 1970s, one of its biggest priorities has been to advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution and to humanize the experience of sex workers. Sex worker rights advocates contend that criminalizing prostitution (the dominant legal model in the United States, with the exception of Nevada’s legalized brothel system) does more harm than good: It fosters violence, stigma and misunderstanding; forces prostitution underground, which makes it difficult for workers to seek legal redress for nonpayment of services or workplace violations; is costly and selectively enforced, disproportionately targeting street workers and members of already disenfranchised communities.
According to Lopez, all people should find common cause with the sex worker rights movement. “At the very least sex worker rights are about the oppression of women. Despite diversity within the sex worker rights movement, the word ‘prostitute’ is still associated with women. And women, especially women of color, are the most frequently arrested and prosecuted.”
Adult film star Nina Hartley wondered aloud during her keynote address what it would it be like if sex workers could make a living without the fear of arrest, and if the stigma surrounding sex work, which keeps many sex workers in the closet, was eradicated. Hartley argued that it is essential for sex workers to organize in order to provide for themselves what other sectors of society fail to offer, including supportive health-care and legal services.
Brooks knows first-hand what it is like to be part of an outlaw culture defined by myths and stereotypes. A native of Texas, she started stripping in college (she holds dual degrees in English and photography). Several years later, at the age of 26, she began working as an Internet escort. Not only did sex work put good money in her pocket, but it allowed her to be part of a world that had fascinated her since childhood, a world filled with the kinds of adventurous and free-spirited women she had previously only read about in books and magazines.
When Brooks started escort work she felt she had found the ideal job. She was successful, happy and well compensated. But she also found that there was a lack of resources available that answered the kinds of questions she had about escort work. Over time, she learned how to screen clients, develop effective marketing strategies, cultivate a work persona and maintain her sexual health and personal safety, information that would eventually become the basis for The Internet Escort’s Handbook—a series intended, she writes, to “encourage escorts to be smart in what they do and do it well.”
Paige, a transgender sex worker from Texas who holds a graduate degree from a prestigious university, had searched in vain to find resources about how to do online escort work safely and ethically. Discovering The Internet Escort’s Handbook was a revelation. “I immediately bought the first book and devoured it in a morning,” she told me. “The book made it possible for me to avoid dangerous mistakes I might have otherwise made.”
Although The Internet Escort’s Handbook was written for a heterosexual female audience, it offered Paige the kind of “how to” guide she was looking for. “It was a perspective you would expect to find in an introduction-to-business course.” But more than this, she said, it presented sex work as a valid choice and a legitimate business. In a society where sex workers are often reviled, Brooks’ nonjudgmental and affirming message was empowering.
Brooks, like many people I spoke with last week, has found inspiration, support and a community of like-minded people in the sex worker rights movement. “My relationship with the movement,” Brooks told me, “is one that I treasure.” It has given her access to information, a network to learn from and entry into other activist organizations around the world.
What would she say, I asked, to people who might be quick to dismiss her experience as a white, educated, middle-class sex worker as the exception rather than the rule?
“I am not,” she responded, shaking her head. “If that’s what they think, they haven’t talked to women. I have.”
It is this point, perhaps more than any other, that goes to the heart of the sex worker rights movement: Sex workers must have the chance to speak for themselves, to humanize sex work and to have a place at the proverbial table when it comes to policy decisions and academic research that affect their lives and their livelihoods.
As Hartley summed up, “There is a need to listen to women’s voices and stories in order to make sex workers’ lives better and safer.”