Though it's a human-rights movement with roots in gay-liberation activism, the fight for rights for sex workers is much less recognized, says Melinda Chateauvert. Her new book,Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement From Stonewall to SlutWalk aims to change that, chronicling the the movement from the struggle to end police brutality to the push to change legislation. Chateauvert will sign and read from her book at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 7 at the Tattered Cover Colfax. We caught up with the author, activist and historian in advance of her visit to Denver to talk about the controversial movement.
Westword: What made you want to write this book?
Melinda Chateauvert: As somebody who has been a historian and an activist and a student of social justice movements for forty years -- and longer, since my mother started dragging me to anti-war demonstrations when I was eight -- I've always been very much interested in protest movement, both as a participant and a student. This book, to me, is about a human-rights movement. It's about a movement that began as a civil-rights movement, with people who identified as transgender and as women of color and as sex workers, and their efforts to challenge the stigmas that they faced because of their identity and to gain rights and freedom to be able to do a lot more than merely be identified as prostitutes.
Can you discuss the importance of the term "sex work" in talking about the issue?
The term was coined by Carol Leigh, and her performance name is Scarlot Harlot. Carol created that term in the early 1980s and it has now become common use around the world. There are several reasons why that term is so important, but one of the things that's important about it is that it's gender neutral, so that it's not automatically identified as male, female, transgender, whatever else. And because it's gender neutral, what it really emphasizes is that what people are doing is not having sex, but they are working. It puts work and labor and capitalism right in the center of that discussion, rather than talking about morality.
The title of your book mentions Stonewall, which is a cornerstone in the gay-rights movement. How did the night of action relate to the movement for sex workers' rights?
I start with Stonewall and a riot that preceded it three years earlier in San Francisco called the Compton's Cafeteria riot, and both of those nights of action were led or brought on by police brutality. This is about policing of people's bodies and their actions and their use of public space. At Stonewall and at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, those were places where transgender women of color and hustlers and drug addicts and drug sellers and other marginalized people - people who made their living and had friends and lovers in the street trade because they could not get access to other kinds of jobs -- tended to gather and hang out and try to get away from all of that. These were their places of relaxation. Yet every place where they gathered and tried to build some sort of community among themselves was regularly raided by the police and they were regularly harassed by the police.
One night in 1966, and as we know later in 1969, people said they'd had enough and they protested. The reason why I talk about Compton's and I talk about Stonewall and I talk about these riots is because they actually set an agenda for the movement that we still observe and need to pay heed to. They were fighting against police brutality. They were fighting against the harassment that people who are different face, not just from the police, but from the general public. They were fighting because they were people who were locked out of legitimate jobs and the only jobs they could get, or the only way they could really survive, was by engaging in street trades. That was the only way that proper society allowed them to live their lives and they were tired of it. They wanted to move beyond. They wanted legitimate jobs. They wanted to work in offices and be retail clerks or to be journalists and be all these other things, which because they were transgender, because they had a history of sex work or drug use, they were unable to do.
Is that still what the movement is about?
Much of the movement is still about that. A recent movement down in Louisiana was a case in which women who were charged with felony solicitation were forced to register as sexual offenders. Sometimes for fifteen years or longer. This was not because they'd actually committed the act of oral sodomy, as Louisiana law defined, but simply because they had offered somebody a blow job for $20. But for that crime, they were charged with felony solicitation, and the way Louisiana law worked was that a felony sexual offense meant you had to register as an offender. If you're registered as a sex offender, your driver's license says in big, bold letters "Registered Sex Offender." A lot of time you're barred from jobs -- and think about how many times you show your driver's license. That criminalization of sexuality, of gender -- of talking, even, in the Louisiana case -- are still issues we're facing that people started protesting against back in the 1960s.
Do you think the stigma has changed since the 1960s?
I think some of the stigma has changed, but I question how deeply felt that cultural change, or how long-lasting that cultural change, is going to be. I think that there is an acceptance, as we talk about things like SlutWalk, there's more of an acceptance of the idea that hey, it might be groovy to be a stripper. Or wow, that's a porn star, I should get to know them. There's some sort of interest and more acceptance of some people who engage in sex work. But at the same time, we have increased our criminalization of people who engage in prostitution or in sex work who work outside of the commercial industry, outside of strip clubs, outside of places with paychecks.
In places like Washington, D.C., and Portland and Seattle, the police can declare a particular zone a prostitution-free zone and therefore push everybody out of a particular neighborhood at any time they so declare. Oftentimes these prostitution-free zones are being declared where a neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying. I think that people are fine with thinking that there are sex workers out there, but they don't want the children of sex workers to be in school with their children. They don't necessarily want a sex worker living in the same apartment building as they do, because hey, they might bring somebody home. They don't want former sex workers to be school teachers. So there is still stigma. There may be interest in the occasional cocktail party conversation or going to a burlesque show or doing something like that, but actually to say, "Hey, my neighbor's a sex worker" -- most of America is not happy to say that.
How does SlutWalk fit into the movement?
Because SlutWalk was about police brutality. And that's the story that we didn't really hear in the mainstream media. The original SlutWalk and the original organizers in Toronto were organizing because for the year prior to the first SlutWalk, activists mostly from the LGBTQ community and folks who had gathered to protest had been constantly and persistently arrested, harassed, tracked, spied upon by the Toronto police and the Canadian Royal Mounted Police. They had several clashes and run-ins and they were just tired of it. I don't want to use a cliche like the straw, but for a lot of people this was yet another example of police stupidity, but it seemed like something that people could do something about.
The reason why it became so important, or such a global phenomenon and spread through social media as we know, sometimes I think was because of slick marketing. But they actually had no real marketing plans when they did it. Literally, Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett, the women who were most involved in this, were texting back and forth and somebody said, "Hey, let's call it Slutwalk." The other said "okay" and that was it. They thought this was just gonna be a local walk.
The other part to remember is that it was the first SlutWalk, but in Vancouver beginning in 1992 sex workers and allies and advocates had been protesting and marching against police brutality since then every day on Valentine's Day. And what they were protesting was the refusal of the police to investigate the disappearance and deaths of marginalized, often indigenous women who were working in their Skid Row. By the year of SlutWalk in 2011, an official Canadian report came out that over 2,000 women had disappeared about which the police had done nothing. One minority report that came out was a quote from one of the police officers, which was "I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire."
So when we say that attitudes are changing, the general attitude of police I don't think is changing that much. I think there are a few cops who are okay. Obviously, I don't think the entire police force in all of North America are bad, but sex workers and people who look like sex workers are easily the people who are targeted, harassed and profiled by the police and also the people who experience the most violence from the police. Most sex workers that I have talked to have said that they're more scared of dealing with a cop than they are of a client.
What do you hope that people get out of reading your book?
I hope they get an understanding that this is a movement that we haven't paid attention to, but we need to. One of the things that people should understand is that sex work is a very complicated, yet very simple issue that many different kinds of jobs and many different kinds of people engage in. Many of the issues that sex workers deal with are not unique to them being sex workers. Some of the problems relate to the fact that they use drugs. There are lots of sex workers I've spoken to who have real jobs, as in they work in retail or they're hotel maids. They do work that's very low wage so that by the 20th of the month if not earlier, because they have a kid or two kids or whatever and they have an expensive apartment, their paycheck just doesn't cover it -- so they do sex work on the side. When we talk about the problems that sex workers have or that the movement is facing, some of the issues really are getting a living wage for people.
This is in many ways a movement about living in dignity. How do you get a living wage? For others, the issues is about immigration. Sex workers who are profiled because they are perceived to be immigrants and then once they get caught up in the police infrastructure, they get asked whether or not someone helped them come to the United States and then they get labeled as traffic victims and that creates all sorts of new problems for them. This is an issue also about what people do in private and how much we are going to criminalize that. And then finally, I think this is also an issue about how we criminalize and deal with the issues around sexual health in terms of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.
In what way?
Thirty-seven states in this nation still criminalize, with a felony penalty, people who are HIV positive. That means that being HIV-positive in 37 states is a status crime. Whether you're a sex worker or not, that means that if you have sex with somebody and even if you tell that person that you're HIV-positive and even if you use every safe sex precaution and even if your viral load is practically zero and there is no evidence of transmission, people who are HIV-positive can still be charged with intent to kill, attempted manslaughter. If you are a sex worker, those penalties are automatic. It automatically becomes a felony.
What are the goals of the movement?
I think there are a lot of different goals for the movement, depending on where you stand. If you start with the original protests that came out in the 1960s and through the more famous ones, like when Margo St. James founded COYOTE, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. It was mostly a San Francisco group, although there was a chapter in Denver, and their main push at the time in the 1960s and 1970s was really focusing on abolishing the laws against prostitution on the grounds that this was something that was a private relationship between two people and that the state should not tell people what they can do.
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It came about in the same kind of way that laws were being abolished about gambling, for example. They argued that this was a privacy thing and not something on which the government should be wasting its resources to police. Decriminalization is still probably the issue for the most part, but it's important to remember that most people who are sex workers work in legal jobs. They work in the porn industry, they work as strippers, they work in places where they get a paycheck or they are working for a company that organizes their work. Most people actually work legal jobs, but decriminalization is still important because a prostitution conviction leads to all sorts of consequences later on in life. There are so many bars on what you can and cannot do.