Thursday, September 20, 2007

"The prostitute problem": sex work and self-determination

I have a conflicted relationship with The Bilerico Project, a group "LGBTQ" blog that includes a polyphony of nonprofit hacks and other members of the blogsoisie, as well as the periodic revelation (I am also a contributor). But I started sobbing when I read "The prostitute’s day in court,” one of The Bilerico Project founder Bil Browning's posts from the other day, and learned that residents from his neighborhood association attended a court hearing to ensure that a woman arrested multiple times for prostitution do jail time. These residents were successful, and the woman in question will now spend approximately 218 days in prison. Over seven months in prison. Can people think about that for a moment? What will that mean for this woman's life?

This issue is extremely personal to me. I supported myself for 12 years as a whore, and the practices, politics and cultures of sex work have been crucial to my understanding of and engagement with the world. Sex work has enabled me to structure my time and finances in order to move cross-country half a dozen times, live in half a dozen cities (and a dozen apartments), write two novels (both with sex work as a central theme), edit four anthologies (one about sex work), go on five book tours, help to start several activist groups, and become involved in innumerable direct action activist projects. Equally important, sex work has helped me, an incest survivor searching for home and hope, to negotiate the perilous intersections of sexuality, intimacy, lust, self-worth, longing and desperation with integrity and charm. Sex work has given me the space to envision radical queer alternatives to the violence of the status quo -- in relationships, activism, identity, desire and self-expression.

Has this been messy? Of course! Do I regret any of it? Well, sometimes... But the point is that everything I've learned over the last 15 years (or almost everything, anyway) comes from an active participation in radical outsider queer cultures that have always intersected, overlapped, and interwoven with sex work cultures -- from high-end dungeons to the quickie blow job in the car, Talk to a Model to "massage," streetwork to the kept boy/girl lifestyle.

And everywhere I've lived (but especially in New York and San Francisco), I've witnessed and struggled against the violence of pro-gentrification "neighborhood" associations that always see the annihilation of public sex and sex work cultures as paramount to the success of their urban removal projects. In New York, a group called "Residents in Distress" (RID) aggressively seeks to eliminate queer youth of color, hookers and other “undesirables” from sections of the West Village where these cultures have survived and thrived for decades. In my current neighborhood in San Francisco, a group of property owners and merchants calling themselves Lower Polk Neighbors (LPN), started by a pair of architects who opened their business/home on a notorious drug dealing/hustler block, across the street from a porn shop and virtually next-door to a homeless shelter, now decries the presence of -- gasp -- hustlers, hookers and drug dealers. What was one of their first things they did for the neighborhood? Shut down the needle exchange.

Neighborhood associations like RID and LPN don't actually care about the safety, health, or well-being of anyone except those owning or patronizing gentrification businesses or speculating in real estate. The violence in these neighborhoods is not coming from sex workers desperately trying to make a living in the public pageantry so familiar to the urban sensibility (and now so threatening to the suburban values of urban dwellers). The violence comes from groups like the Irvington, Indianapolis neighborhood association who find it more important to send a hooker to jail for seven months than to ascertain her needs.

To check out the comments responding to this post on The Bilerico Project, click here.


Kathleen Bradean said...

Where is everyone supposed to go? The "not in my neighborhood" sounds benign on the surface, but where are those people who get pushed out supposed to go if every neighborhood drives them out? What was that story where the old west town put their "undesirables" on a stagecoach and sent them out of town? As I recall, that ended badly.....
Criminalizing poverty isn't the answer.
I'm all for making prostitution legal.

Julia said...

I'm glad that I wasn't the only person who was really upset by reading that on bilerico!

I was really disappointed with them. Thank you for writing about it.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Kathleen, you're so right -- and many cities still give homeless people bus tickets to get out of town so that the cities don't have to provide any services. And of course prostitution should be not only legal but decriminalized (Nevada brothels are an example of legal but not decriminalized, where organized crime/government still exploits sex workers to an extreme level).

And Julia-- I, too, am glad that someone else was upset -- thanks for the support!

Love --

Jen Cross said...

this is a gorgeous and sad post, Mattilda -- thank you so much for putting it all out there! I'm so greatful for your interweavings of ideas and politics, emotions and manifestations.


mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Jen, so great to hear from you over here in the blogosphere -- thanks, as always, for all your insight and support!

Love --

piers gaveston said...

Thank you for a brave and insightful bit.
In addition to being the world's oldest profession, hooking may be the original subject for journalists. Perhaps this is because the two activities are so closely related.
I would refer you to this piece by Large Tony. LT is a Tennessee country boy with a huge dick who lives with his granny, and is a counterpoint to your story.
As for whether or not I would want body renters to work in my front yard...I have mixed feelings about this. I have always lived in the suburbs, and have never had to deal with it. I do live near a small airport, and am amazed at those who move here, knowing what is next door, and then complain about the noise. I think this might be a good analogy for those urban pioneers who move into red light districts and seek to clean them up.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Thanks, Piers -- I love both the journalism and airport comparisons...

Love --