Comes Naturally #57 (April 4, 1997):
The 1997 International Conference on Prostitution: A Milestone in the Growing Movement for Prostitutes' Rights


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COMES NATURALLY #57
Spectator Magazine - April 4, 1997
(c) David Steinberg

The 1997 International Conference on Prostitution: A Milestone in the Growing Movement for Prostitutes' Rights

Proclaiming the Humanity of Whores

It is the first conference of its kind anywhere, any time -- a coming together of over 500 prostitutes and other sex workers, prostitutefriendly academics, social workers, researchers, journalists, and prostitutes' rights advocates -- under the auspices of both a state university and an organization of prostitutes -- to address a seemingly endless list of issues related to the reality of prostitution as a social, economic, and historical phenomenon.

Of the people who attend the 1997 International Conference on Prostitution, more than half will be offering papers or talks of their own. Probably half are prostitutes or other sex workers -- predominantly women -- people who are or have been "in the life" in one way or another. It is not your average gathering of conference attendees. It is, all at once, what one participant delightedly calls "a gaggle of whores," and a sober-minded collection of academicallybased intellectuals -- and the resulting tension between eros and logos, independence and cohesion, anarchy and order, Isis and Yahweh, has been the major emotional dynamic during the year-and-a-half process of pulling the conference together. It is a tension that continues as a palpable undercurrent throughout the long weekend, an undercurrent that erupts more than occasionally into open hostility.

The conferencers come from literally around the world to a comfortable, non-spectacular, remarkably accommodating hotel two bus rides removed from Los Angeles International Airport. They come from Malaysia, Thailand, China, the Philippines, and Japan; from Nicaragua, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Kenya, and South Africa; from Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, and Norway; from Britain, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada; from all parts of the U.S. Among other things, this conference is the gathering of a tribe -- a tribe of social outcasts, people who have been castigated and stigmatized, punished, attacked, and frequently murdered because they cross the boundaries of socially approved sexuality, because they embody by their existence the schizophrenic love-hate relationship societies around the world maintain with sex itself.

But for this weekend and in this place for once they will not be the outcasts. For once they will not be relegated to the margins, to the periphery, to the least desirable parts of town. For this weekend for once they will be the center, the dominant force around which all the other people will have to orient. For this weekend they will have a room, and a culture, of their own. For this weekend no one need be afraid to speak their name.


Whore Carnival

The conference begins Thursday night with "Whore Carnival: A Festival of Sexual and Social Insurrection," a light-hearted program of playful and sexy entertainment featuring a broad sampling of conference participants. Bubu Momocca Momocca and Akira from Japan do a tongue-incheek educational guide to 16 sexual positions whores can use with clients to keep them under control and to be sure to keep their condoms on. Carol Queen does an excellent rendition of her sexy (and insightful) Live Nude Girl peep show strip. Leering, cigar-smoking Leo de Janeiro does his own strip, revealing himself to be Grand Opening! proprietress Kim Airs. Annie Sprinkle amuses everyone with her classic Bosom Ballet, her full breasts dancing to the strains of the Blue Danube Waltz. Carol Leigh sings her famous protest song, "Bad Laws," while a collection of performers parades around the stage holding up whores' rights slogans.

Julia Query, Lusty Lady's fiery union maid, does a stand-up comedy routine worthy of network television. ("What does a Jewish hooker say? 'Call me or I'll just sit here in the dark.'" "I had a client who paid me to do a golden showers scene. Now every time I pee for free I feel gypped.") Vic St. Blaise plays some of his beautifully lyrical compositions on the piano. And beautiful Jade Blue brings down the house with a moving, imaginative, and powerfully erotic dance/reading that combines an absolutely liquid sexual/sensual presence with an emotional verbal plea not to be condemned for her sexuality.

It is indeed "Ho's Night Out," and it puts the prostitutes' contingent squarely in charge of the conference emotional landscape.


Down to Business

Then bright and early Friday morning (8:00!), it's down to business as the multitudinous array of plenary and workshop presentations begins. The conference includes no fewer than 275 presenters at 59 concurrent workshops and six plenary sessions, including a keynote address by Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the U.S. Surgeon General Clinton fired for advocating that we talk to children in a sensible manner about masturbation.

At the various workshops, issues relating to prostitution and other forms of sex work are addressed from historical, sociological, economic, anthropological, spiritual, public health, and legal perspectives; through presentations of personal stories and reports, well-documented academic papers, and complex statistical studies. In contrast to the way prostitution is bandied about in the sensationalizing media, here the emphasis is on seeing and understanding the simple reality of prostitution as a social phenomenon, and on addressing significant issues in the lives of sex workers, issues defined as significant by the sex workers themselves. Rather than moralizing about how horrible prostitution and prostitutes are, the focus of this conference is to describe and develop perspective on prostitution in a thoughtful, nonjudgmental, supportive way.

Some workshop highlights:

Speaking on "Prostitution's Place in History," Elizabeth Clement describes how passage of prohibitionist legislation in New York at the turn of the century unintentionally transformed the nature of prostitution there. At the turn of the century, most New York prostitution occurred in women-run brothels, highly exploitative of the prostitutes. Then the New York legislature passed the Raines Law, a prohibitionist attempt to control bars and saloons. Now liquor could only be served publicly if a bar was part of a hotel. Not surprisingly, bar owners bought or created a myriad of small hotels, covering their mortgage payments by renting out rooms to neighborhood prostitutes. Suddenly it was possible for women to be prostitutes independent of the brothel system and still have protection from police and violent clients. In contrast to the brothels, at the Raines Law hotels, prostitutes got to keep all the money from their clients, even getting a share of profits on rooms and drinks. A prostitute could earn $30 a night -- a lot of money at a time when the average wage paid to women for non-sexual work was $6 a week. The exploitative brothels that had dominated the commercial sex scene in New York in 1900 disappeared entirely by 1914.

In her paper, Clement describes the "casual and neighborhood feel" of the Raines Law sex bars, where clients could sit around and drink with the working women before (or entirely separately from) being sexual with them. Men who couldn't afford a room were routinely allowed stand-up sex with women in the corners of the bar, and there is one report of a bartender asking a woman to help a deaf mute man make clear what kind of sex he was looking for. The atmosphere, clearly, was one of friendly mutual support.

Indeed prostitution was very much an accepted part of daily life in working class New York neighborhoods. Even candy stores and ice cream parlors were places where prostitutes were allowed to hang out, waiting for clients. Interestingly, prostitutes often took care of the neighborhood children while they waited -- giving them useful legitimacy if police came sniffing around while providing neighborhood mothers with what was essentially free day care. When a prostitute went off with a client, she simply sent the children home, picking them up again when she was done. A far cry from today's attitudes about prostitution to be sure.

At a workshop on "Sex Work, Sex, and the Disabled," sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen describes her experiences working with a variety of disabled people. She calls on fellow sex workers to deal with disabled clients with particular care and sensitivity, noting the work she herself has had to do to become comfortable with such complexities as catheters, urine bags, bowel comfort, and muscular spasms in a sexual context. (She learned from painful experience, she says, not to go down on a client whose leg spasms can seriously rearrange her jaw, or to put her breast in the mouth of a client whose spasms could equally hurt her.) A sense of humor is important, she emphasizes, as well as some real sexual creativity -- as when she put the arm of a spasming cerebral palsy client on her clit until she came, showing him that he could do something for her sexually, as well as her doing something for him.

Fred Cherry, a 71-year-old man who suffers from chronic malabsorption syndrome speaks proudly of being a client of prostitutes since he was 30, and of the "genuine love relationships" he has had with many of the women he sees regularly. Tuppy Owens, organizer of Britain's annual Sex Maniac's Balls (raising funds to "help handicapped people find love"), talks appreciatively of "sex angels" -- neighbors, friends, and hospital staff who masturbate people who are unable to masturbate themselves. (She speaks of one man whose arms were foreshortened, his hands essentially coming out of his shoulders. "Do you masturbate with your feet?" she once asked him. "Of course," he replied, "but hands are better.")

At a workshop on "Bad Laws and Worse Consequences," journalist Wendy McElroy analyzes the harmful effects of laws, many inspired by feminists, founded on the assumption that no self-respecting, rightthinking woman could ever turn to prostitution by choice. McElroy notes that in its early days, COYOTE, the first prostitutes' rights organization, enjoyed the supported of feminists, including Ms. magazine. But in 1985 the feminist movement reversed itself, shifting its attention from calling for respect for prostitutes and their conditions of work to advocating an end to prostitution entirely. The original feminist slogan "a woman's body, a woman's choice," notes McElroy, became instead "a woman's body if she makes the right choice." (COYOTE/Seattle director Catherine La Croix is more pointed in her criticism of anti-prostitution feminists. "If I hear one more woman who looks like she hasn't fucked in years saying that I shouldn't do it for money, I'm going to be nauseated," she proclaims.)

At a workshop on "The Male Client," University of Houston researcher Elroy Sullivan reports that in his study of client demographics, 18% of men reported having paid a woman for sex at some time in their lives. He notes further that the most significant single determiner of whether a man has hired a prostitute is whether he has been in the military. (Maybe all those prostitution abolitionists should turn their attention to doing away with the standing army.) Outspoken client spokesman Hugh Loebner calls on clients of prostitutes everywhere to come out of the closet and make themselves known, even as gays, lesbians, and other sexual outcasts have done in the past. Speaking of gay activists, Loebner notes that "by speaking, nay shouting, out they gained their freedom. Now it is our turn."


Joycelyn Elders Meets the Most Famous Madams in the World

A plenary panel on "Notoriety in High Profile Prostitution Cases" brings together what conference organizer Norma Jean Almodovar calls "a talk show host's dream" of well-known prostitutes and madams, including Xaviera Hollander (the Happy Hooker), Sydney Biddle Barrows (the Mayflower Madam), COYOTE founder Margo St. James, Atlanta organizer Dolores French and, from Britain, Helen Buckingham and Cynthia Payne, both subjects of notorious prostitution busts there. Each of the women speaks of the importance, and the emotional cost, of publicly affirming their sex work, and of appearing publicly to undercut some of the stereotyping of prostitutes as faceless victims and losers. Norma Jean Almodovar emotionally raises the hope spoken again and again at the conference, that "some day there will be a world where you all accept us for what we are." "Why does it frighten you so," she asks," to know I've a mind of my own and don't need your permission to live or to love or to be? And if I tell you I don't care any more if you call me a whore, what will you call me now?" COYOTE founder Margo St. James notes that when she recently ran for city supervisor in San Francisco, her opponents attacked her credibility by claiming that she had not ever really been a prostitute. "So you can see," she laughs, "that we're winning" the battle to destigmatize prostitution.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders provides a powerful emotional boost to the conference by the stature of her presence as keynote speaker. She speaks out strongly and unequivocally for decriminalization of all prostitution between consenting adults. Criticizing a society "more interested in bedroom law than board room law," she declares, to the overwhelming applause of everyone in the audience, that "if two consenting adults choose to have sex, that should be none of the rest of our business.... We've got to go about decriminalizing all aspects of adult prostitution."


Beyond the Written/Spoken Word

In addition to the workshops and plenaries, stereotype-busting depictions of prostitution and prostitutes are offered in other forms. An "International Sex Worker Art Exhibit" -- including "photos, paintings, sculptures, words and other fine art created by and of men and women in the sex industry" -- is shown throughout the conference. Its goal is "redefining societal labels, slurs and stereotypes" of prostitutes. "Strippers We Support You" reads one poster from Australia. "Honest Trade, Legal Tender: We're Soliciting for Change" reads a poster of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. A beautiful 19th century drawing shows Mrs. Wyatt Earp -- you guessed it: a working girl -- to be one beautiful, sexy woman. A poster from a Montana "Whores Union," dated June 1, 1905 establishes fixed prices for various sexual services, lest prostitutes competitively undercut each other. ("Common old fuck" went for $1.50 in 1905; "pudding jerking, tasting or sucking" for $2; "three up, one down, two shots" (whatever that is) was $4; and "all night well crammed" $5.)

There is also a continuous showing of "videos and films by and about sex work and sex workers," with over twenty video productions by a wide variety of artists, including Annie Sprinkle's "Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop," Joseph Kramer's "Fire on the Mountain," Carol Leigh's "Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitutes," Veronica Vera's "Portrait of a Sexual Evolutionary," "Prowling by Night" from Toronto's Maggie's Outreach Project, and "Street Sex" by Carol Jacobsen.

And of course there is the 1997 First International Hookers Masquerade Ball, (a "Margo St. James tradition") giving all conference participants a chance to dress up and have fun (although nudity of any sort is strictly prohibited).


An Important Step Toward a Destigmatized Future

The conference was certainly not without its mishaps and conflicts. One sex worker came halfway around the world only to find that the paper she was to deliver had been taken off the program without anyone telling her. Conference participants from Latin America, many of whom spoke only Spanish, were angry that translators that had been promised them never materialized. The final plenary event -- what was to have been a unifying moment with an eye to cooperative work in the future -- degenerated into a nasty row when conference organizer Vern Bullough, anxious to begin the final plenary, cut off the presentations of Latin American sex workers in the middle of their talks. Confronted by the angry Latinas, Bullough reportedly said "Tell them to go to hell" and unilaterally declared the conference over.

Despite these problems, all in all the conference was a roaring success as an opportunity for prostitutes and prostitute activists from around the world to gather in one place, network, feel the strength of their growing numbers, and have a rare opportunity to speak to each other and to the world about prostitution issues in their own voices. Press coverage of the conference was substantial, including local newspapers, wire services, local and network television, a host of mainstream magazines such as Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Penthouse, Rolling Stone, and the National Review, and of course a wide variety of alternative magazines and papers.

It is an uphill climb, but all around the world the prostitutes' rights movement is growing, and as word gets out about what is happening, more and more sex workers can be expected to understand that they really can organize together around the issues that are most important to them. Of course it is still true, in this country as well as abroad, that most people when told about something like an international conference on prostitution -- an international conference of prostitutes -- simply laugh in disbelief. But prostitutes are not the first social underclass to demand full inclusion and citizenship in the body politic. Women, people of color, factory workers, farm workers, students, people with physical and mental disabilities, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals all have had to band together and fight for the right to be treated as first-class citizens, legally and socially. All were once considered somehow subhuman; all were ridiculed when they first began demanding full respect as human beings. Some of these groups are now so included in the mainstream collectivity that we have forgotten they were ever outsiders. Others are still struggling their way toward real social acceptance. Add whores to the list. It may take a long time, but the times do seem to be a-changing, and the 1997 International Conference on Prostitution is both a consequence and an instigator of that change.

[Souvenir posters of the 1997 First International Hookers Masquerade Ball, designed specially for conference by noted erotic artist Olivia de Bernadinis, are available for purchase: $13.35 (unsigned); $38.35 (signed) postpaid from COYOTE/LA, 1626 N. Wilcox Avenue, #580, Hollywood, CA 90028. Make checks payable to COYOTE/LA.]

[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 eronat@aol.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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