COMES NATURALLY #56
Spectator Magazine - March 7, 1997
(c) David Steinberg
ICOP '97 and the Movement for Prostitutes' Rights; Annie Sprinkle's Latest Gems
The 1997 International Congress on Prostitution
The 1997 International Congress on Prostitution, coming up March 13-16 in Van Nuys, promises to be an important milestone in the ongoing movement for prostitutes' rights. Chaired and organized by James Elias and Vern Bullough of the Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge, and by Norma Jean Almodovar, Director of COYOTELA, the Los Angeles chapter of the main U.S. organization for prostitute rights, ICOP '97 will bring together current and former prostitutes, researchers, academics, law enforcement people, legislators, legal experts, educators, service providers, and prostitution activists from around the world. There will be some 55 concurrent workshops and five plenary presentations at which presenters will talk about a wide variety of prostitution-related issues, as well as an evening of entertainment, an art show and a gala International Hooker's Masquerade Ball. ICOP will provide a rare, indeed unique, forum in which issues related to prostitution can be discussed from a thoughtful, supportive, primarily non-judgmental, and stereotype-free perspective. Most significantly, prostitutes and other sex workers have important opportunities to speak for themselves about issues relevant to them.
This may not sound like such a big deal. Indeed, if this conference were about almost any other issue, it would have already occurred ten times before this. There are conferences focusing on major social issues every day, and conferences that bring together workers in various fields and industries are just as common. Not so sex work and sex workers. In this culture -- indeed, more generally throughout the world -- nothing is straightforward about prostitution and prostitutionrelated issues. The simple existence of a well-organized, "serious academic arena" (as ICOP describes itself) in which prostitutes and prostitution-sensible academics and social workers can speak to each other and to the world about issues related to sex work is simply something that has never happened before. If the conference goes well, it will be an important leap forward for the new and growing movement, both in the U.S. and abroad, for prostitutes' rights.
To Finally Have a Voice...
While there have been various social movements over the years purporting to express concern for women who work as prostitutes -- most notably the disastrous social reform movement in England in the late 19th century led by Josephine Butler -- it is only in the last 25 years that prostitutes have begun to organize and to speak for themselves. The first contemporary organization of prostitutes speaking on their own behalf was COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), organized in San Francisco by Margo St. James in 1973. Since 1973, COYOTE's goal has been to draw attention to abuses against prostitutes by police and the entire legal system, and to raise consciousness nationwide on the real issues and conditions of sex work and sex workers. For many years COYOTE's lavish Hookers' Balls raised money to support its efforts, bringing prostitutes and their supporters together in a fun-loving, creative, joyously outrageous context that quickly became a sociallyapproved part of San Francisco's cultural landscape. Organizations of prostitutes and other sex workers sprang up in other U.S. cities -- most notably New York's PONY (Prostitutes of New York) and Atlanta's HIRE (Hooking Is Real Employment) -- and in other countries around the world.
In February, 1985, the First World Whores' Conference was held in Amsterdam. Some 75 prostitutes, ex-prostitutes and invited prostitution rights advocates from the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Germany, England, Sweden, Canada, and the United States produced the World Charter for Prostitutes' Rights -- the first manifesto written by prostitutes to express their concerns and put forth their demands. The conference also created the International Committee for Prostitutes' Rights, an ongoing organization dedicated to advancing prostitute rights issues.
Among other things, the World Charter seeks to "decriminalize all aspects of adult prostitution resulting from individual decision," "eradicate laws that deny freedom of association or freedom to travel to prostitutes," and "guarantee prostitutes all human rights and civil liberties, including freedom of speech, travel, immigration, work, marriage, and motherhood, and the right to unemployment insurance, health insurance and housing." It demands that prostitutes be allowed to "provide their services under conditions that are absolutely determined by themselves," that "prostitutes must have the same social benefits as all other citizens," and that "criminal laws against fraud, coercion, violence, child sexual abuse, child labor, rape, and racism" be enforced independently of whether these acts are related to prostitution. The Charter declares proudly that the International Committee for Prostitutes' Rights is "in solidarity with all workers in the sex industry."
Assuming Prostitute Legitimacy
The Second World Whores' Conference followed shortly thereafter. It was held in the hallowed European Parliament in Brussels, October 1-3, 1986, bringing together prostitutes and prostitutes' rights activists from around the world in new numbers and in new elegance, including the European Parliament's facilities for simultaneous translation into several languages. The proceedings of the Second World Whores' Conference are documented in the wonderful book edited by Gail Pheterson, A Vindication of the Rights of Whores, published in 1989.
Through the Second Whores' Conference, prostitutes and prostitutes' rights advocates gained a new level of legitimacy and new recognition from the international press. Both the Congress itself and Pheterson's book, provided an opportunity for prostitutes who had never before had an audible public voice of their own to define their own issues and to speak in their own terms. Sex workers also had the opportunity simply to meet together and to break the numbing isolation so many sex workers experience as a result of their extreme social stigmatization.
As Gail Pheterson notes in the opening chapter of her book, "for those present the Whores' Congress felt like a milestone. It is almost unprecedented for prostitutes to speak on their own behalf and on behalf of other oppressed people in a large well-publicized forum. It is also almost unprecedented for non-prostitute women to work as equals with prostitute women in shared struggle." Judith Walkowitz, the well-known feminist historian of prostitution, pointed to the significance of prostitutes standing up for the legitimacy of their work and for their entitlement to simple human rights. "Never," she said, "have prostitutes been legitimized as spokespersons or self-determining agents, not by those who defend them against male abuse and not by those who depend upon them for sexual service. It is a radical political stance to assume prostitute legitimacy." As Margo St. James put it, "it is such a thrill, that's the only word I can think of, to be here and to finally have a voice... We are here to forge alliances, to list our grievances, and to work for change... in our lifetime, let's hope.... I see this as the beginning of a mass movement that is long overdue."
We Are All Whores
The movement for prostitutes' rights has significance that reaches far beyond those women and men who actually earn their living by providing sexual services to others. Prostitution and the way that prostitution is socially regarded, regulated, and suppressed are social phenomena that lay bare any number of important larger issues -- most significantly the way that this and other cultures feel about sex in general, and about the general power relations between women and men. It is because sex itself is so widely feared and suppressed that prostitution is consistently addressed not as a social and economic issue, but as a moral issue. And it is because fundamental male supremacy over women is still -- despite the advances of feminism in the last thirty years -- such a basic reality at all levels of society, that prostitution is addressed not as a gender power issue but as an issue of legal suppression combined with various forms of condescending concern for the male-defined welfare of presumably fallen and desperate women unable to make sensible choices for themselves about how they wish to conduct their lives.
Ironically, the contemporary feminist movement, which might be expected to champion prostitutes' rights as part of the struggle to free women from patriarchal control, has largely chosen to define prostitution instead as being exploitative of women by its very nature. Adult women who freely choose to work as prostitutes (or as strippers, sexual entertainers, and lap dancers) are conflated with women and girls who are coerced into sex work against their wills. Protestations by women who affirm that they truly want to do sexual work are dismissed as evidence of these women's confusion and desperation, since it is assumed that no right-thinking, self-realized woman could ever say any such thing. Never mind that prostitution offered women a way to be economically independent of men long before any other forms of employment were open to them. Never mind that prostitution offered women a way to take control of their own sexuality long before anyone had thought of the phrase "our bodies, our selves."
The whore stigma is not reserved for those specific individuals who exchange sex for money. Anyone, or certainly any woman, can be called a whore, or thought of as a whore, just for being too sexual, or unconventionally sexual, or by breaking social conventions about sexuality in any way. When Gail Pheterson organized her Bad Girl Rap Groups in 1984, the women who came spoke of being stigmatized as whores for a variety of reasons, most of which had some connection with being sexual beings:
"getting raped, being smart, having an abortion, being a lesbian, sleeping with lots of men, talking too much, running away from home, getting divorced, leaving my children, being an unwanted child, having a child without marrying, hanging out with the wild girls in school, being Jewish, having an affair when I was married, leaving the Catholic church, going to a college that didn't have a curfew, getting beaten by my husband."
In this sense we are all whores -- or seen as whores -- those of us who do not conform to the rigid standards of repressed sexuality that the dominant culture holds up as The One True and Proper Sexual Path. (If you are reading this paper, that means you, bunky.) Actual working prostitutes carry the weight of the whore stigma for the entire society, and the scorn, abuse, and ostracism directed at whores serves the purpose of reminding every woman and man, girl and boy, who might be tempted to express his or her sexuality in some kind of richer, more self-fulfilling way of the punishments that can and will be meted out to those who stray from the sexually conventional fold.
Interfacing Worlds and Perspectives
ICOP '97 will be a different sort of event from the World Whores' Conferences in Amsterdam and Brussels. Its purpose is not specifically to bring whores together, but to bring working prostitutes together with academics, service providers, law enforcement personnel, and others so that there can be an interchange of ideas and perspectives. The conference is aptly subtitled "an interface of cultural, legal and social issues."
It is, in this way, significant in its own right as an opportunity for prostitutes and non-prostitutes to begin to talk to each other, to work together, and together to gain better understanding of and work for change around the many issues raised by prostitution and other forms of sex work. The lineup of workshops is overwhelming in its scope, with seven hour-and-a-half sessions running simultaneously, each one offering input from several presenters. There are 55 workshops being offered over two and a half days, with over 200 individual presentations. So many things to say; so little time. The only problem may be that nothing gets said very thoroughly. But just having all the issues out on the table in one gathering, and having prostitutes and prostitutionfriendly people from so many disciplines talking to each other with the blessing of a respected university and the interest of the greater press, is a major accomplishment.
This reporter will be there with bells on, and report back in my next column.
Loce and Kisses from Annie Sprinkle
XXXOOO: Love and Kisses from Annie Sprinkle is our favorite pleasure activist's latest contribution to the world -- this one a two-volume collection of sixty postcards embodying some of Annie's most wonderfully surprising photographs, pontifications, and general support for the free pursuit of pleasure wherever it grows and however across the social grain that pursuit of pleasure may run.
Over the years, as you may well know, Annie Sprinkle has, in her own words, been a porn star, pin-up model, performance artist, sex-positive feminist and new-age sex guru. She is also an imaginative, funny, and crazily wise photographer who enjoys poking fun at the pleasure-fearing world around her, using her images to confront anti-pleasure types with their own confusions, and to offer a way for those who are more pleasurably inclined to laugh their way free from their anti-sexual social training and inhibitions and to revel instead in their straightforwardly erotic, sexy, pleasure-seeking selves.
XXXOOO includes sixty different postcard images, accompanied by various levels of commentary, to delight the mind and the spirit. There are a good selection of vulva-adoring photos (including several of Annie's "Muff of the Month" series), portraits of a dozen or two of Annie's many incarnations, and tributes to sex radicals and performance artist of all stripes and persuasions. Not to mention collected vintage Annie Sprinkle whimsy, and such didactic gems as "Annie Sprinkle's 101 Uses for Sex" and "40 Reasons Why Whores are My Heroes." There is an Aphrodite Award card ("for sexual service to the community"), Annie's recent "Mrs. and Mrs. Silver-Sprinkle" wedding photo, and two Sex Soup recipes.
And you can even send the postcards to your favorite friends (or to your enemies for that matter) as there are smaller versions of the cards that remain when you tear their larger cousins out. In her opening letter, Annie exhorts all of us to become Pleasure Activists simply by sending the cards out into the world. "Spreading pleasure is what life is all about," Annie reminds us. "You can help change the world," she advises, "by mailing these to your friends and lovers." Of course, you will also then get to see what happens when you send perfectly legal but extremely outrageous material openly through the mails. "Imagine," Annie says, "how many Postal Workers will get to touch and enjoy them too! Maybe they'll be offended and refuse to send them. Maybe they will decide that you are sending pornography over state lines and give your name to the FBI. Or maybe they'll take them home for personal use, possibly relieving some of that workplace stress and preventing future postal worker gun rampages."
XXXOOO is available from Gates of Heck Publishing, 954 Lexington Avenue, #118, New York, NY 10021. Only $11.95 for each set of 30 cards and commentaries. Fun for the whole family.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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