Saturday, October 2, 2010

How you like them: APLE

To watch the show without having to read my ramblings, click & watch Shaka Talk #14, with our guest Tracy Ryan from APLE Hawaii, which stands for "Arresting Prostitutes is Legal Exploitation". If you do read on, please remember that much of this blog is mostly my own personal feelings. Tracy's words, and those of the other advocates of sex-workers' rights, are in "quotation marks", so if you read something uppsetting, don't punish them for something I wrote.

Regrettably, I think I've uppset Tracy myself. I'd already flaked on her a few months prior, which made me scared to even invite her back to the show. But she was so gracious when I apologized, and even kinder when I asked if she'd like to try once more. I hope she subscribes to the notion that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Behind the scenes, as Edna & I tried to work with internet videos of Tracy and other sex-workers' rights advocates, we couldn't seem to format them right. I was bummed out. I wanted to include these women in our show because they had some important things to say. Plus, I so admire them for their bravery and the hard work they've taken on: speaking on behalf of sex-workers, a segment of our population whose rights and basic humanity are quite forsaken.

So as the day of our interview rolled around, I decided to just transcribe & read some quotes from these activists. Then after reviewing the episode with some friends, we agreed that my live readings just seemed to fall flat. Plus the lack of b-roll images or video to add to the conversation, made the show just a lot of talk. I know the subject we're covering is sort of controversial, but the depiction of it was pretty dry. I felt it needed another dimension, to make my contribution a little more interesting.

Edna & I decided to shoot me in my room, impersonating the women from the videos, and cut them into the show, post-production. The sound & picture quality leave much to be desired (as does my actressing), but I like the way our cut-aways break upp the visuals and pacing of the show. My apologies to the women if they were less than flattered with my re-enactments. I meant it as a grateful tribute for all they're doing, but I'll admit my performances weren't award-worthy. Still, I meant no disrespect nor offense.

The episode opens with my quote of Tracy Ryan, from a talk she gave in someone's backyard (in Kunia, I think it was). It's from, an Idea Exchange where guest speakers give a speech on various topics, with differing social/political points of view. Afterwards, the group assembled discusses the topic over pupus & such.

This night Tracy was invited to discuss two sides of the prostitution issue: Sex workers who want to unionize & work for better labour practices, and "Radical Feminists" who've based their mission to abolish prostitution on horror stories, that they've generalized to be the universal experience for everyone in the sex trade. Tracy mentions current rabble rousers, PASS (the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery), whose intentions sound deceptively noble. However, PASS as a hole fails to consider the possibility that not every sex worker (whether male, female, or transgender) is a victim, nor is every customer or agent of a prostitute abusive. They cannot acknowledge such, because it could cost them their funding. Meanwhile, their antics just further marginalize people who are just doing what they can to get by.

I doubt this well-meaning collective had made a Pact Agreement to Stay Stupid, but I was reminded of the legendary Fuckin' Angry Ignorant Lesbians, and how they aggressively try to silence voices that don't regurgitate their own skewed findings. Such missbehaviour totally discredits PASS, IMHO.

Still PASS has taken an aggressive stance against prostitution, misterogynistically focusing their fury mostly on the johns & pimps. I agree that if someone is abusive towards anyone, punishment is in order. But severe penalties upon men, just because they're willing to pay for sex with no strings attached, is not the best way to end the suffering of anyone, even if it makes an organization a lot of money. Instead of ending sexism, they're just reversing it and cashing in.

Now back to our show...

Shaka Talk - Tracy Ryan part 1 of 3

"There are women who are coming from within the ranks of working prostitutes who want to have prostitution decriminalized and want to be able to form associations. Maybe not labour unions per se, but various types of associations for their own protection, for public health, and things of that nature.

The existence of these groups is not welcomed by the Radical Feminists because if such a group exists, of women who are prostitutes who wanna have labour rights, that's sort of evidence that they can't be slaves. I don't know of any time when we had slavery in this country, when slaves went out picketing. Slaves don't go on strike, they don't organize unions, that's not how it works.

The fact is that, again: There's no generalization. There's no typical prostitute, There's no such thing. Anymore than there's a typical man, or a typical woman, or a typical john, or a typical black person, or a typical republican... Nobody deserves to be put into a class that somebody else decides they can define, and go forward with a prejudice in terms of everyone in that class. Everyone deserves to be treated as an individual and own their own truth about their life, and the problems and joys that they encounter."

APLE and other sex worker rights activists, operate under a non-judgmental premise of self-empowerment, working to reduce the harm sex workers face, due to how they make their living. Such harms include being harassed, getting arrested, going to prison & having a record, plus as Tracy puts it: "the difficulty in seeking redress for any type of abuse that may have been perpetrated upon you, when you're illegal yourself." This I interpret as alluding to the fact that an abused prostitute is basically one screwed bitch, because people who sell sex are dehumanized by society & it's laws. The court system is a theatre where these attitudes are acted out. There's rarely a happy ending.

Harm Reduction believes:
Tracy believes that the best way to insure justice for everyone is to "decriminalize prostitution for the sex worker and for her customers." And I agree. Public disdain toward people in a compromised position, only further worsens their troubles. Punishing someone for making a living, not only doesn't solve their issues, but stigmatizes them with an arrest record. And when a prostitute's customers are threatened with arrest, how is she thus being helped? Does attacking the male libido, prevent a girl from going hungry or help her pay her rent? Furthermore, the less chances someone who is being pimped has of bringing their abuser money, the more chances there will be harsher abuse.

Giving women, and other sex workers the credit & respect to be able to make their own decisions, would be very helpful in protecting the rights of everyone. Tracy points out that a Muslim nation like Bangladesh has an organization with thousands of sex workers as part of its membership. Who better to empathize and understand these people's needs, but their peers? Yet such organizations in the United States face opposition, because of their members' illegal occupation. As if their basic needs of food, clothing & shelter don't matter, unless they stop doing whatever they have made the choice to do to fulfill those needs - or have no better choice to do - or have no choice in the matter at all.

What I never fully knew, until Tracy told me, is that prostitution was "de facto legal in Hawaii during the1930's and upp to September of 1944", meaning "there's a law on the books, but even the police and government ignore that law." Before that time, brothels (aka whorehouses) had been tolerated, but when attitudes changed in the 1910's & 1920's, the brothels were closed, and prostitutes had nowhere to turn to but the streets, to encounter their customers. Citizens realized they preferred such business be relegated to a zone, so the brothel owners were invited back to the River Street area in downtown Honolulu.

From 1930 to 1944, the Honolulu Police Department relegated & operated around 10 brothels. To separate the social classes, the women couldn't own a car, go to Waikiki, or even have a boyfriend! A blatant sign of the times was that local and/or Black guys couldn't patronize many of the brothels, for they catered mostly to White military guys. (eww). The girls put upp with such corruption & abuse, because they had the chance to make a lot of money, then could just leave town.
But during World War II, the women were stuck on the island, with no chance of escaping such restrictions on their freedom. So in 1942, they decided to unite in protest, and went out picketing the H.P.D. headquarters with signs, striking to demand better conditions for themselves. The U.S. military became very uppset, for the strike affected the morale of the troops. Since Hawaii was under US Martial Law at the time, the police department gave in to military pressure, and granted some of the prostitutes' demands for more freedoms & fairness. Unity & sisterhood got the Man to give these women more rights.

Shaka Talk - Tracy Ryan part 2 of 3

Tracy continues that after the war, the local community closed the brothels in 1944, with hopes of cleaning upp their image, and inviting tourists back. But they didn't close down "the vice district". Upp until the 1970's, sexual entertainment, gambling & drugs were basically tolerated in Chinatown Honolulu, until landowners realized they could make more money if they re-developed the area. But now that the yuppies & hipsters have all but gentrified downtown, the situation has become one of conflict between those seeking "vice", and those who wish to get rid of it.

We don't go too far into solutions for this situation, but as I write this, I get a little nostalgic for the first time I smoked crack. It was in a porn shoppe uppstairs on Hotel St, with some guy who let himself into my peep booth, just because I didn't lock it. Since I already had my pants down, he offered to give me a hand to make upp for the intrusion. I said ok, but first he pulled out a sooty glass tube, with some kinda steel wool at the end he was lighting, while he puffed on the other open end. He then passed it to me. I grabbed the utensil and sucked it, as he grabbed my unit and sucked it. I'm probbly embellishing, but why not: I timed my money shot to the last few seconds of the timer on the video screen. We were both impressed with each other's performance. He told me he drove a tour bus, which I believed, 'cause he had on the shirt & nametag. I probbly lied about everything from my name (usually I say Erik), to my sexperience level ('Ok, I guess I'll try it').

I go back to that place sometimes to dance. The only booth there now is the deejay booth. There's no porn, but now it's got some cool art on the walls. All kine people go there now too, 'cause it doesn't smell, and you ain't gotta be shame as you exit onto the main strip. Next time you're at 39 Hotel, reminisce about my cracked out BJ. (sigh)... or is it (swoon)...? or maybe [(swallow) he not I! (I'll never forget: he told me "you came for a month")]? But I digest...

We return to Bangladesh, and Tracy cites statistics that the Durbar group employs 65,000 sex workers as part of their outreach program. Through their efforts, they report they've been successful in fighting AIDS, bringing down the number of underage sexworkers "from about 25% in the 1990's, to about 3% percent today."

Unfortunately, while Tracy acknowledges that the US is a very wealthy & generous country, to receive USAID funding, outreach and public assistance programs must take an "anti-prostitution pledge." Money is only given to groups who promise not to provide services to anyone involved in prostitution. Therefore, the people who were receiving help before this rule, were no longer cared for, nor given access to resources. How does shutting out someone who needs help, show them that you care? Tracy describes the situation:

"The US is on a moral crusade to abolish prostitution. And as a result, a lot of the best organizations in the world which are dealing with the very issues, are being de-funded by US sources.... at the same time the US, since the Bush Administration, has been looking for anyone who has kind of a moral crusade, and funded them, these faith-based, people. I have no problem with faith-based issues. I believe in faith myself. However my problem is that, a lot of times groups and organizations that are out there, may have a nice moral, faith-based attitude, but they have no real understanding of prostitution, the sex industry, they're not street-wise, they have no...background in social work. And these groups are the ones now, that are lining upp to get money, where professional groups, that have all of these qualities, are fighting for every last dime. This is very bad for the people who are being serviced."

After her statement, I referred to the group Durjoy Nari Shangho, in Bangladesh, and how their programs to make life easier on poorer residents were punished by the USAID's Anti-Prostitution Pledge. Closed are the places their clients would come to learn about HIV prevention & receive health care, among other things. It is one of their members, Hazera Begum, whom I quote in the video snippet that appears in the show. She gives an emotional testimony in the "Taking the Pledge" video above, about how denying sex workers help, has damaged their community:

"The monthly condom distribution rate used to be very high, but since the closings there is less access, so sex workers are not using as many condoms. They distribute fewer each month. After the USAID funding stopped coming, when all of our centers closed in December of 2005, some girls came in just to utilize our child care center. When they would come in, they would say, we need to talk to someone. We need condoms. We need many things- like education, so we can practice safer sex.

We are really in trouble. Since we have been forced to close our centers, we have lost our community, we are nowhere now. If feels as if our family has been broken, because our sex workers are street-based. They are just floating now. The only homes they had sometimes was when they would go with a client for a few hours while working. The rest of the time, the only home that they had was the drop in center. Closing the centers is like losing their homes, their meeting places, losing their health clinic, school, losing everything.

They are forced to run from person to person, from organization to organization, trying to communicate these problems: 'What do I do? Where can I go? Where can I eat, sleep, take a bath, use the toilet?' This is the painful situation we are in now that all of the centers have been closed. I believe this is what a broken heart feels like."

Shaka Talk - Tracy Ryan part 3 of 3

I did have this graphic ready the day we interviewed Tracy. It's the logos of some organizations I've blogged about before which serve to protect, defend, inform, and/or entertain those involved in the sex industry. Some, like $PREAD magazine, are no longer around, but even the sites that haven't been uppdated recently, contain some helpful articles and links. Tracy explains that these groups work based on the fact that you can't generalize every prostitute's situation. They provide services to help sex-workers become better-informed (whether it be about their rights, abusive situations, or disease prevention), and thus safer.

I try to make the comparison to M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Just because some people wind upp the victims of drunk drivers, M.A.D.D. isn't out there trying to make alcohol illegal. Nor is there a campaign just to punish people who want to drink.
What about the trafficked people who wind upp in garment factory sweatshops? Should we outlaw clothes? designers? or just the people who want to wear them?

There's been talk lately that pimps have turned to the internet to find customers for their girls. As a result, Craigslist was pressured to shut down its Adult Services forum on their homepage. While the company hasn't officially reported the reasoning behind the censorship of their site, the debate has been wide-ranging: from law enforcement losing an avenue to hunt down abusers; to making the problem invisible, and therefore, foolishly feeling that it's disappeared. Outta sight, outta mind.

But Stacey Swimme, of SWOP Sex Workers' Outreach Project, is concerned about the people who were using the site as a way to make a living. She worries that since they've lost a major means of meeting customers, how are they getting by now?

"Regardless of how many free speech sites we're going to try to shut down to stop prostitution, you're not doing anything to solve the real problems and issues facing people who are working in the sex industry, separately from people who are forced into sexual situations that they don't want. You're not serving either of these two groups of people. And actually hearing them, and acknowledging that they both exist, and have different issues, will produce more results than just this campaign so people can get their names in the paper."

I accidentally say 'faces in the paper' in my imitation of Ms. Swimme, and even get her name wrong during the show. I apologize. But she points out the false heroism behind this stunt, because the people who would need help, have now been displaced, and their lives disrupted. Someone who reluctantly sells sex - either by force or as a last resort - is now in the same predicament as someone who has willfully chosen to be a sex worker: customers will be harder to reach, and therefore, so will income.

Tracy doubts the credibility of these Craigslist haters, because of their mistreatment of evidence, and the suspect research techniques they employ, including quoting statistics or findings out of context, as well as their avoidance of evidence. They've also used their wily ways to word a purported 'anti-trafficking' bill, to create a very broad definition of the term trafficking, as well to implicate almost everyone in the sexual entertainment industry, as traffickers.

According to Tracy, Senate Bill 2045 includes language accusing strip bar operators of acting as traffickers. The intention of this bill is not to go after prostitutes, but seeks to arrest anyone acting in a managerial capacity with sex-workers (pimps, brothel madams, escort agency), while uninterested in the burden of having to prove there was any abuse. Tracy mentions the terms "force, fraud, and...enticement", being used as charges against alleged offenders, but questions how enticement could be equated with force? Although the misguided bill was passed by our legislature, it was heavily opposed by law enforcement, and the professional outreach community, and eventually vetoed by our Governor.

As with most passionate people, Tracy could talk for days about any facet of this issue. With just a few minutes left of our show, we finally get around to what can be done to help prostitutes who either want to get out of the business, or who would like to stop being harassed by the public & police:

"The things that need to be done for women who are victimized:
You need to have protection when they testify against the people who are abusing them.
And you need to be careful about doing other things which make things more dangerous. Like going after their johns.
If you go after the johns, what you're doing is you make it more difficult for them to meet their quota with their pimp. If they have a drug habit, they turn to stealing. It's a bad idea."

With that, we ran out of time. But enough said.

What I take away from this conversation is:
If you want to help people who are in a bad situation, include them in the solution.
Consider the agenda (money? attention?) of people who claim to want to help, but refuse to listen to the alleged victims.
Instead of attacking the behaviour, seek to root out the cause which leads people to bad decisions or predicatments.
Don't generalize that everyone fits a generalization you've created, and then treat them as if you know what's best for them.
Protect abused persons when they are acting to punish their abusers.

Should poor people quit making money, because some members of society don't approve? Should a wealthy, worldly woman stop making money, because some people in the same line of work are being exploited? Should anyone be forced out of a job because of the possible risks involved, or third party attitudes, that do not concern the worker?

As with any occupation not everyone thoroughly enjoys sex-work; however, as with other jobs, occasionally the benefits make the sacrifices worthwhile. For some, one misfortune may outweigh another. Either way, it's work. A means of making a living. Sometimes, it's the better option for someone who has few to choose from. Maybe it's the best option at a given time. Whatever the individual's reasons, respecting their decision or living condition, and working with them to keep improving their life, instead of judging them for living it, is the best way to approach the task of helping someone.

Thanks to Tracy, and everyone who sticks their neck out to speak upp for sex-workers. For further information, please check out the following links: stands for Arresting Prostiutes is Legal Exploitation. teaches ways of encountering less harm in a given situation. Like using a condom to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Kinda like wearing a seat belt to avoid further injury in a car accident. Or like using sunscreen to avoid skin damage. My favourite Harm Reduction suggestion to people who can't leave an abusive mate: if you know you're going to be abused when they come home, meet them in the bedroom or someplace with softer surfaces, instead of the kitchen with hard counters, and possible weapons available.

Sex Work & Human Rights Media Toolkit by the Urban Justice Center is full of comprehensive information concerning sex work, and the false arguments intended to help people trafficked into prostitution. I hope to see it printed in pamphlet form soon.

Their sex workers' outreach is now represented by where through the use of "human rights and harm reduction approaches, the Sex Workers Project (SWP) protects and promotes the rights of individuals who engage in sex work, regardless of whether they do so by choice, circumstance, or coercion." They've published a report about the use of raids to fight trafficking in persons", wherein at about page 25, women involved in such raids recall them being harmful to them psychologically and physically.

How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers and Other Abusive Scumbags by Danah Boyd, via Huffington Post

The Prostitutes' Union by Madhusree Mukerjee via Scientific American explains how sex-workers united can help themselves

Prostitutes on Strike: The Women of Hotel Street During World War II by Beth Bailey & David Farber, a 4.19MB pdf, via Radical History Review 1992 is a cool uppload from a old book, outlining the successful protest organized by Honolulu brothel workers, to attain more freedoms for themselves, under class & race separatism during WWII.

Senate Bill 2045 and APLE Hawaii's comments on PASS's proposals in the bill. The bill was re-written after it was first read by legislators, who unknowingly passed it without learning of the changes. Law enforcement, and social workers working in outreach to those the bill pretends to help, spoke out against the bill, and Linda Lingle vetoed it.

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