The dangers of intersectionality politics

Background

The webinar was called ‘Intersectionality of sex worker rights, trans rights and the United Nation Universal Periodic Review’.

This is the first time I’ve ever covered the sex worker lot, and I’m pleased to report they are every bit as nutty as gender identity ideologues. Indeed there is often a crossover between the two and I signed up to this as I had only ever heard about ‘sex work’ activism from the side of gender identity ideology discussions before.

The webinar was hosted by Penelope Saunders from Best Practice Policy, with contributions by the Outlaw Project, the Desiree Alliance and the Black Sex Worker Collective.

They were discussing the USA’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to be conducted by the United Nations, due on 9 November 2020. You can read more about the Universal Periodic Review here. UPRs take place once every 5 years, according to Saunders, and they were hoping their recommendations about sex workers and trans rights would be heard, and had been working on it for about 18 months.

Here is a link to the recommendations that the United States accepted at its last UPR. Below is a screenshoot of recommendation 86, note that it refers to ‘transsexuals’ and ‘sexual workers’. Also interesting is Recommendation 112 – referring to gender identity.

Screen shot from US Dept. of State

And here is the version of Recommendation 86, presented on the webinar, which refers instead to ‘trans people’ and ‘sex workers’.

Recommendation 86 – bastardised version

Regardless the US accepted that it had more to do for the LGBT community, especially on gender identity – an impressive result for the various LGBT NGOs who undoubtedly argued for these points. It seems it was also implicitly accepted that LGBT people and sexual workers are linked to each other.

The title of this paper, co-authored by Saunders, is ‘Using Human Rights to Hold the US Accountable for its Anti-Sex Trafficking Agenda: The Universal Periodic Review and new directions for US policy‘. Yes, you read that correctly. It features the following quote from fellow BPPP member, Darby Hickey, who apparently addressed the UN Human Rights Council:

It is critical that the government work to systematically involve sex workers in policy decisions that affect them. Specifically… eliminate federal policies that conflate sex work with human trafficking, investigate and prevent human rights abuses perpetrated by state agents against sex workers, and examine the impact of criminalisation on our communities.

Quote from Darby Hickey’s speech to the UN Human Rights Council, 18 March 2011

Presentations

First to speak was a woman from the Black Sex Worker Collective. She felt that closing the notorious backpage.com had harmed sex workers, failing to admit that it was a source of trafficked women. She told us she was a performance artist, writer, dancer and that the Collective was also a philantrophic arts organisation which provided support to black sex workers. She had been involved in advocacy work for ten years, and ‘sex work’ (she’s a burlesque dancer currently) for the last twenty. The organisation is active in New York and Berlin (presumably the latter is a business link, rather than a cultural one).

She claimed that 90% of the arrests made for prostitution were of black women and wanted to see an end to racist profiling. She didn’t give the source for this statistic. She also claimed that PayPal were suspending the accounts of sex workers, even those engaged in legal sex work (i.e. people like herself, a burlesque dancer) and that the money in the accounts were being permanently retained. (I note that a member of the Collective is successfully using Patreon for business.) She claimed that high street banks were doing the same and that the online activities of black people and sex workers were being tightly restricted by Facebook, especially if they tried to do any fundraising.

Which is funny because when the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) were being read, Google and Facebook tried to stop the laws from passing. These bills allow sex trafficking victims to sue the websites who have facilitated their trafficking. Later rival communication companies joined with civil rights groups to back the law.

The Collective wanted the repeal of SESTA and FOSTA. It was really difficult to find any articles or simple explanations of what SESTA and FOSTA were about, as so many entries come up in relation to repeal, so I have to rely on the Wikipedia entry, but essentially both laws provide trafficking victims with extra protections needed specifically in relation to the internet.

The Collective also wants sex workers to be able to report police misconduct freely and that ‘state sanctioned theft from sex workers must end’.

Cris from the Desiree Alliance focused on the issues of immigrant sex workers and had written a letter to the Mexican government, urging them to make a recommendation to the UN. Three hispanic women and one trans-identified man involved in prostitution had been murdered by a US Border Patrol Agent, Juan David Ortiz. Cris wanted to present this as if it were state sanctioned violence, but failed to mention that prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for this serial killer.

Cris made some very good points about the truly lamentable wall building and subsequent immigration policy bought in by the Trump administration, but nothing jumped out at me as particularly cruel to ‘sex workers’, unless you used the optic that these were trafficked women and girls instead. She called for:

  • investigation of police practices, alleging that transgender sex workers were being targeted,
  • Border Protection to be held accountable for violence perpetrated by its agents,
  • remove prostitution as a grounds for removal from the country and allow applications for citizenship,
  • the impact that the border wall between the US and Mexico would have on wildlife.

Monica Jones is responsible for the phrase ‘walking while trans‘ and is a black trans-identified male, who describes himself as a sex worker, and runs the Outlaw Project in Phoenix, Arizona. He wanted sex workers to be recognised as key workers. During the pandemic sex workers hadn’t be able to access the stimulus package offered by government and had been shut out of places where they might do business (bars, hotel lobbies, etc) and that this was compounded by the prohibition of advertising online. Sex workers didn’t just provide sex, they were also therapists.

Jones went all Scientological as he explained that trauma is stored in the body over a long period of time and that this had impacted the lives of black people, given their history, and had resulted in a distrust of doctors, and in particular had hastened their deaths during the COVID pandemic. Jones opined that sex workers hadn’t been provided with PPE and felt that N95 masks should be made available (i.e. the ones health professionals need to wear during surgery or treating COVID infected patients).

Jones complained about police profiling of trans-identified men and made a comparison to the Jim Crow Laws. Black trans-identified men were being killed at a higher rate due to ‘interpersonal violence’ (a euphemism if there ever was one). Despite this disclosure, Jones said that paying for sex was a human right, citing the example of the disabled and so on. Jones thought that sex workers should get access to Covid-related stimulus packages, and he wanted the end to the policing of trans people, especially those in sex work.

Saunders wrapped up, saying that at the last UPR she and others had gone to Geneva and spoken to people face-to-face. The US does not need to accept the UN’s recommendations but Recommendation 86 was accepted, but in her opinion hadn’t been acted on and claimed that SESTA and FOSTA had put lives in danger. The word ‘whorephobia’ was uttered.

BPPP has written about why they think sex trafficking laws are harmful, and it essentially boils down to claiming that black people will be targeted and that trans people will be misgendered. They also have a statement on the upcoming UPR, which again claims that black and transgender people are victimised by the laws and that it prevents sex workers from congregating. It also calls to defund the police.

Q&A

SESTA/FOSTA is inspiring anti-sex worker movements all over the world, what should sex worker movements do in response?
(Question asked by person identifying as he/him & they/them.)

Cris responded that everyone was jumping on the Nordic Model bandwagon (which criminalises the buyer). She argued if you criminalised the buyer then the seller would also be targeted and that they would be pushed further underground. She claimed that an anti-trafficking organisation had said that 1 in every 130 people were being sex trafficked – ‘we have to hold these people responsible for their fucking numbers and for the way they market and advertise the Nordic Model’. Um, okay.

Saunders said that human trafficking discourse was often a smoke screen for militarising police and that it was to smooth the way to accept human right abuses. She wanted us to ask, when considering anti-trafficking organisations, who is being funded here? Asked yourself why the police are being given military grade weapons?

She also felt that SESTA/FOSTA restricted freedom of speech and limits sex worker freedom to organise (which must explain why her webinar was accepted on the most popular ticketing venue and why putting in key words like ‘naked’ and ‘sex’ brings up any number of obvious online sex services).

Since child sex trafficking is often used a smokescreen to punish adult sex workers and the rescue industry is a mess, what are the legit organizations that work against child trafficking?

Saunders was momentarily tongue-tied as she worked herself up to tell some really big lies – contact your local LGBT organisation, they are often better at assisting young people, she said, ‘however it can be quite problematic because there has been such a failure to provide services to trans youth’. However, when those organisations do work well, they do manage to get trans youth into housing, etc. Look beyond organisations with ‘trafficking’ in their name and go to progressive immigration organisations instead as they often better understood border control violence. ‘If you’re working with a group that says “child sex trafficking” in its title or mission, you should ask them what they’re doing, because often it is a smokescreen to violate the rights of other sex workers’. Of course, sex worker rights’ groups do great work in this area.

Another said ‘follow the money’ and said that anti-trafficking organisations tout ‘children, children, children’ and gave a sprawling answer suggesting to me that they might not be entirely sober. It was alleged that such organisations held the youths ‘hostage’ and that a lot of the time such organisations were ‘faith-based’ and added ‘nothing wrong with that I guess’. Fostering such children was pushing them into ‘third party organisations’ (aka sometimes known as loving caring families – the horror).

For feminist groups who are working on Beijing+ 25/26 and the Generation equality Action Coalitions, what is your advice to us? These are important meeting that set the global normative framework for gender justice across all areas.

Here is a link to the above described conference held by the UN department for Drug and Crime. I really find the point of it perplexing and it makes me think that the UN really needs to shelled out.

Saunders said that BPPP did not have the correct status so could not present statements to the United Nations and urged people on the call (all hidden by the way) to include BPPP in their reports. Many groups she knew were working towards getting this status. She urged them further against ensuring that such spaces didn’t become ‘anti-prostitution spaces’. Although the UN had not shut its doors during the pandemic, transgender leaders from her coalition had been denied access as they were misgendered when they tried to access the building. Another black trans disabled person had found it very hard to enter the building because there were no wheelchairs available (why didn’t they arrive in their own, if it was an essential need).

With a final plea for funding, and a reminder that lines of communication were being frequently taking out by nebulous forces (if they don’t answer their phone, try their email, if they don’t answer that then try something else), the webinar ended on a bombshell as a comment was read out that children were being stolen at the border and sold into international sex rings.

What’s going on? What do ‘trans rights’ have to do with ‘sex work’?

The answer is they have nothing to do with each other. Obviously. However, the conflation allows anyone in an LGBT network group or diversity role, in a non-profit, non-departmental body or any governmental department (or even private business come to think of it!) to claim seminars like these have relevance to the LBGT community and that they might attend it. In turn it allows shills to make real headway into public policy areas, piggy-backing upon the much better funded, more well respected, more copious, LGBT lobby.  You can repeat this formula for all aspects of intersectionality politics.

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