Queering Labor Showcase #2: Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Erotic Service Providers Union

ABOUT

The Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) is  “a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy” (http://www.swopusa.org/).

Most important to SWOP is ending violence, which involves the push for de-stigmatization and also policy change. The website also informs us:

“Operating in one of the most prominently violent societies today, sex workers in America experience this phenomenon pointedly in the context of their criminal status. Yet, sex workers are seldom afforded protection or recourse from violent acts committed against them because of the precarious, often graft-ridden relationship between sex work and law enforcement. Society tolerates violence against sex workers because of the stigma and myths that surround prostitution. Only until these falsehoods are corrected and sex workers are legitimized will we be able to effectively prevent and minimize the structural and occupational challenges of sex work……”

SWOP works to educate policy-makers and the public on the institutional harms committed against sex workers, and advocates for alternatives. Started on Aug. 13th, 2003 our first major action was to organize the first annual International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers in 2003 with the Green River Memorial to the victims of Gary Leon Ridgeway. In 2004, SWOP spearheaded a voter ballot initiative to decriminalize prostitution in Berkeley, CA. Some of our more recent work focuses on amending so called “protective” legislation like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 (and now its reauthorization in 2005 with the new End Demand provisions) which has increased criminal penalties and the stigma associated with sex work.

SWOP promotes proven and effective social policy approaches to the sex industry. In order to reach its goals, SWOP adopts the principles and practices of nonviolent action in order to reduce violence and achieve dignity and rights for sex workers.”

The Erotic Service Providers Union (ESPU) seeks to gain agency on behalf of all erotic service providers regarding our occupational, social, and economic rights through affiliating with organized labor. Watch this awesome clip from a ESPU fundraiser at the IWW Union hall in San Francisco to hear more about their beliefs and their project:

As they mention, they are attempting to get as many sex workers as possible into labor school to learn about their rights and how to organize.

The hugely comprehensive website offers countless links, information, videos and contacts for sex workers and advocates/researchers of sex workers. One video I found particularly compelling was recorded from a conference panel that focused on building bridges and alliances between sex workers and researchers. Candid dialogue occurred, with sex workers calling us academics out on a lot of our shit. For example, one sex worker commented, “Stop studying us, and start studying the people who hate us!” But, she commented, she knows that’s not as fun, “they’re boring.” But this point is a tremendously important one: sex-positive scholars are drawn to immersing themselves in the narratives of those modalities we find empowering, but less so in those we aren’t. Or at least I am. Anyway, it’s a good video to watch for anyone that does any research with marginalized populations. It could really be an ethnography 101 course:

Video: Building bridges and alliances between sex worker

Their mission statement proclaims:

“As a member of the Erotic Service Providers Union you will be on the forefront of

Demanding the complete decriminalization of prostitution,
Actions that empower erotic laborers to be self determined,
Political campaigns that lobby for legislation which upholds the rights of all erotic service providers and our support staff,
Organizing on a local, national and international level.
Negotiations for our wages and work conditions independently or collectively without suffering state sponsored violence, such as being arrested, exploited or ghettoized,
Campaigns to eliminate all forms of discrimination against our occupations and raise our status to first class citizenship.

Erotic Service Providers Union shall organize with organized labor, employing labor principles and strategies to form an industrial union for all erotic laborers so we can be in charge of our own destinies.

We will work to form coalitions locally, nationally and internationally with those who understand the interconnectedness of our struggle as part of all struggles for social and economic justice.

We shall promote professional and personal privacy so we aren’t forced to compromise ourselves in order to fight for our rights.

We shall demand and expect that governments, politicians, along with community and labor organizations take progressive stances, and put our organization at the center of any discussion about our industry.

We shall welcome Erotic Service Providers into our organization regardless of documentation status, country of origin, gender identity, legal employment status or lack thereof.”

ANALYSIS
The key thing to point out about both of these organizations is the way they frame sex work as labor. The rhetoric and actions employed by each group attempts to reappropriate a “deviant modality” and de-pathologize the discourse into one that is focused on workers-rights.  Inherent in these projects is the humanization laboring bodies that are not intelligible in the mainstream as legitimate working peoples.

This becomes a tremendously important project to combat the violence and abuse sex-workers endure simply because they are not considered to be workers, but rather objects. (Certainly workers are treated as objects, but the labor movement works to thwart this—and in order for sex-workers to be part of organized labor efforts, they must be articulated as workers).

Melissa Farley is well-known for her research on the dangers of sex-work. Most tend to use her research to prove why sex work is “bad.” I, however, would like to provide the following statistics (which also include data from other researchers) to show why it is necessary to make sex work more accepted, specifically as a legitimate occupation:

* One study of violence against women engaged in street prostitution found that 82% reported being physically assaulted in prostitution, and 68% reported having been raped (Farley & Kelly, 2000).
* This extreme prevalence of violence against sex workers includes both indoor and outdoor sex work –indoor sex workers were also found to be frequent victims of violence (Raphael & Shapiro, 2004).
* A study of exotic dancers found that 100% had been physically assaulted in the clubs where they were employed, with a prevalence ranging from 3-15 times over the course of their involvement in exotic dancing. Violence included physical assault, attempted vaginal penetration, attempted rape,and rape (Holsopple, 1999).
* In another study, 51.2% of women working as exotic dancers were threatened with a weapon (Raphael & Shapiro, 2004).

I reiterate: I am not using these figures to encourage the cessation of sex-work. In order to stop violence, we must build power amongst sex-workers, power that allows collective workers to demand safety, respect and security. As Judith Butler says, “[F]or [life] to be regarded as valuable, it has to first be regarded as grievable.” When sex-workers—and most commonly queer sex-workers and/or sex-workers of color—are considered dispensable, as lives not worth reporting being lost, it becomes vital to challenge the discourse that makes this acceptable.

Both of these organizations would be considered “sex-positive,” and because of that, their rhetoric around labor is infused with the body, humor, and unapologetic candidness. These are all values that are missing from mainstream labor rhetoric. In my next Queering Labor Showcase, I will examine the potentiality of this kind of rhetoric, as seen through the SEIU Lusty Lady Strip Club campaign.

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One thought on “Queering Labor Showcase #2: Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Erotic Service Providers Union

  1. Thanks for all of the great information here. I really like how you are using this blog to archive and analyze these organizations. In my own work, I find archiving in this way to be tremendously valuable–it enables me to process my thoughts and document that process for others (and for my future work).

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