By Kristin Bender
Monday, July 25, 2005
As a federal bill to crack down on sex trafficking awaits congressional hearings, sex workers are circling the wagons and standing up for their livelihoods. One self-described "unrepentant whore" is offering a seminar on law and safety in Oakland, Calif.
SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)--Carol Leigh is a self-described "unrepentant whore" who wrote a book by that name.
She also calls herself the dean of academic studies at what she has dubbed "Whore College," a one-day seminar that ends with a graduation ceremony complete with diplomas and a rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance."
So far there has been one seminar--held in May, in conjunction with the week-long San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Art Festival--which produced 40 graduates. Leigh is planning at least two more seminars early next year.
The seminar was taught by about a dozen instructors; an attorney, several sex workers and an author of a book about how to make over your sex life.
Those who paid the $40 admission heard from the lawyer about their legal rights. (Sex trafficking, they were told is not defined as sex workers taking a cab across town or flying to another state to see a weekend client.) They also picked up such practical tips as how to read a search warrant, how to have bail reduced and how to make sure a public defender actually defends them.
Robyn Few, a 46-year-old former high-end prostitute who now runs the Sex Workers Outreach Project in San Francisco, says initiatives such as Whore College are needed to help sex workers protect themselves and to pull the business out of the shadows, where it is often misunderstood and easily attacked.
(Few is the woman behind last year's Measure Q in Berkeley, an unsuccessful ballot initiative to decriminalize prostitution by directing police to make it their lowest enforcement priority.)
Some sex workers are dismayed by the new Bush administration rule, announced earlier this month, that requires health groups and other nongovernmental organizations fighting HIV and AIDS abroad to actively oppose sex trafficking and prostitution or give up federal funding.
"Prostitution is not a positive for the people who are involved in it. The vast majority of people, globally, do not find themselves there by choice," Kent Hill, acting administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the Associated Press.
Leigh, however, said the rule would hinder the effort to combat HIV and AIDS. "This policy reflects moralistic, antiquated approaches to epidemics and will do more to harm society than help," she said. "Those who are best at reaching sex workers are peers, other sex workers . . . To insist that these organizations have anti-prostitution policies means that sex workers' organizations can not be eligible for support to help other sex workers fight HIV."
Looming in the political background, meanwhile, is legislation--introduced in April and awaiting hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee this summer--combating a range of commercial sexual activities by targeting and reducing demand.
The End Demand for Sex Trafficking Act would allocate $45 million between fiscal 2005-2007 to fund programs to prosecute sex traffickers and purchasers of unlawful commercial sex acts and provide aid for victims of sex trafficking.
Proponents say the law would protect those who are already living, economically and socially, on the margins of society.
Studies cited in the bill show that more than 70 percent of female inmates in U.S. prisons were first arrested for prostitution. Supporters of the bill say prostitution and sex trafficking--which they liken to slavery--bring with it sexual and physical assault, suicide, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases and post traumatic stress disorder.
Among those against the bill is Kimberlee Cline, a 24-year-old Bay Area escort.
"It is going to give federal money under the guise of protecting women, but that is not what it's about at all," said Cline. "It's about harassing girls who are consensually engaging in sex. I think it's unpatriotic. It's taking resources away from much more important matters."
Few criticizes the law as an attempt to make policy without the input of those that the policy will directly affect.
"We already have laws in place that can be used to protect children from abuse. This law is poorly written with definitions so vague that it can be used to target adult pornography and the legal brothels in Nevada. Most people think of trafficking as something that people are forced into. The language of this bill makes a cab driver taking a consenting adult prostitute across town to see a client a trafficker," Few said.
Should the bill pass, Cline said, it will further marginalize prostitutes, making them more likely to engage in risky behavior and also making programs such as Whore College that much more important.
The bill has the energetic support of the San Francisco-based Standing Against Global Exploitation. Testifying in support of the bill, Executive Director Norma Hotaling said that her nonprofit organization serves more than 350 women and girls weekly and most have been sexually, emotionally and physically abused in the sex work trade while being arrested time after time.
"This is a long time coming . . . " said Hotaling, who founded the organization 10 years ago. "There is a lot of power and control and money and a lot of conditions that we don't recognize that keeps secret the rise of prostitution and trafficking of women and children."
Meanwhile, Leigh has put safety--protecting sex workers from HIV and AIDS and other trade hazards--at the core of the Whore College syllabus.
At the May kickoff session, Cline, the 24-year-old Bay Area escort, offered a lesson on how women can protect themselves from disease while performing oral sex. (Clients--all clients--must wear condoms each and every time, she said.)
Later that day, Y.F., an instructor and sex worker who teaches self defense and did not want to be fully identified, taught students how to defend themselves against, or flee from, an assailant, an all-to-common risk for prostitutes.
Many of the students--women ranging from their 20s to their 50s--were concerned about making more money. To that end, the program offered advice on the best places to advertise (the Internet is highly recommended), how to write ad copy and how to create a Web page.
Leigh said she launched the class after attending cultural events and sex-worker classes in other cities. Courses similar to hers are offered in Tucson, Ariz., Portland, Ore., Montreal and Taipei, Taiwan. Hers, however, is the only one calling itself Whore College.
Few, who has known Leigh for several years, did not teach or attend Whore College classes, but is a strong advocate for the school. "Classes on how to make yourself safer and healthier are important. Whore College is something they can enjoy and ask questions without the threat of being exposed politically."
Kristin Bender is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.
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