James Baldwin wrote, “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: she has become a threat.”
I had no idea how threatening my voice was until I started to make it heard. None of us trafficking and prostitution survivors did, until we started to write about the brutality we’ve experienced and these big players within these pimp-dominated ‘sex worker activist’ groups started to do everything they could to silence us and deny we exist. Survivor bloggers are cyber-stalked via Facebook, email, Twitter and hateful blog comments. Our email accounts are hacked and private information that could endanger us is tweeted or revealed elsewhere online. Spiteful emails about us are sent to people we work with. Supportive activists who feature our writing on their blogs are similarly swarmed with vilifying emails and comments.
I’d like to give you a glimpse of this intense cyber-bullying, using myself as an example. I’m not asking for sympathy; I want to show you what survivor activists go through when we break the silence.
I came out as a survivor online in March 2011. Almost immediately pro-sex industry men and women affiliated with the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA and other pimp-led activist organizations began emailing me and posting aggressive comments on my Facebook wall. As I got bolder I started leaving comments after articles about prostitution in major newspapers and blogs. At this point I did not have my own blog, and we hadn’t yet formed Survivors Connect Network. I was an obscure private person. Nonetheless, members of the “Network of Sex Work Projects” found me. An anonymous email brought me to this creepy thread about me on admitted pimp Maggie McNeill’s blog. Another anonymous email led me to this piece on Bound Not Gagged. Here McNeill implies that I’m a puppet controlled by abolitionists. Norma Jean Almodovar, the executive director of COYOTE LA, suggests that I might not exist. Billie Jackson, the founder of SWOP Colorado, criticizes my language. Maxine Doogan, the leader of the Erotic Service Providers’ Union states that I remind her of another troublemaker. She links to a video created by Michael Whiteacre, a lawyer and filmmaker connected with the pornography industry. The video, called The Devil and Shelley Lubben, slanders Lubben, a survivor who speaks out about abuse in the porn industry. It includes an interview with an actor who was in a pornographic movie that depicts Lubben with six men. He discusses her sexual performance. The message is clear: Make waves and this could happen to you.
These invasive tactics have only amplified as time passes. There have been numerous other creepy comment threads and blog posts which pick at me and make false statements written by people I’ve never met who are affiliated with these ‘sex worker activist’ groups. They are a constant background noise and the volume keeps increasing. Most survivors who write or speak about prostitution go through this.
Any examples I give are just splashes from an ocean of harassment. Examine these droplets:
• A few hours after the first ever video broadcast of a talk by Survivors Connect (SC) members, rich and famous Brooke Magnanti sends a tweet to her 49,900 followers, Elena Jeffreys, head of the Scarlett Alliance, an Australian sex worker group affiliated with SWOP USA, and McNeill. The tweet states that SC members are “like Operation Rescue” an extremist group known for harassing women at abortion clinics. Survivors Connect formed just four months ago. Our 48 members are all crime victims and survivors of trafficking/prostitution. McNeill blogs at Sex Workers without Borders (SWWB) with Jill McCracken, a college professor who is part of SWOP USA. No one at Survivors Connect has ever met Magnanti, McNeill or Jeffreys.
• After receiving aggressive tweets from McNeill I ask her to please stop tweeting my name. (I’ve blocked her, but if she types the @ sign before my name, I still get her messages). She ignores my request, and I repeat it many times, explaining that I’m finding the twitter swarm that’s building around her constant tweets scary. Michael Whiteacre, a lawyer and filmmaker involved with the porn industry (Remember him? He made that hit piece on survivor activist Shelley Lubben) joins the fray. I tell them their intensity is threatening, but they don’t stop, no matter how many times I ask. McNeill tweets “I want you to feel threatened so you BACK DOWN” several times. Later Christina Page, a doctoral student connected with SWOP USA, joins in. I’ve never met McNeill, Page or Whiteacre.
• As I’m editing this article I get a tweet from another stranger which contains encoded language that refers to the confidential part of my life. If I were to interpret this fully I would be revealing my location by a matter of just miles. The message here is clear: We know where you are.
This is what it’s like for survivor activists every day. You ignore it as much as you can, and then eventually these people get so extreme, threatening or outrageous that they draw you in. When this happens, I sometimes fall through the floor of my life and into the past’s deep water. I become the scared, beat up girl I used to be, locked in a room in a brothel. Then it’s hard to find my way back to the present. Resurfacing, I’ll stare into blankness for hours while my legs shake. I’ll feel hollow and my husband’s voice will seem to come from far away.
Because I’m telling you this, people from these ‘sex worker activist’ groups will tell you I’m a vicious liar. They’ll say they aren’t pimps, even though they admit owning escort services or have convictions associated with profiting off others’ prostitution. They’ll say I want to send the entire world to jail, even though I hate the US prison system. They’ll say I despise all sex workers and that I’m calling all sex workers pimps. Their reactions can seem insane but there’s a strategy behind it. This example will help me explain:
A stranger once tried to rape me in the lobby of my tenement walkup building in broad daylight. I screamed and people came to help. The good Samaritans who’d seen the incident ran off to find the police after asking some other people who’d arrived later to make sure the would-be rapist didn’t run. The man who’d attacked me began telling everyone I was his girlfriend and we were having a fight. He told them it was a private argument we needed to work out between ourselves. He said I was always accusing him of things but he loved me anyway. Remember this man was a complete stranger. But the people who’d remained hadn’t seen him attack me so they let him run away.
The would-be rapist told lies and made accusations to distract people from the wrong he’d done. Nothing he said would have stood up to scrutiny. But within the moment his strategy worked perfectly. He got people who might have helped me to forget the truth. As a result he was able to get away and likely go on to hurt someone else.
My attacker’s tactics were similar to the behavior of some members of these ‘sex worker activist’ groups. They harass survivors, then if challenged or if supporters come forward, they claim to be allies rather than pimps. They couldn’t be any more duplicitous – the truth is that suppressing survivor voices is a strategy to protect scores of billions of dollars of organized crime pimp profits.
I was trafficked in prostitution in NYC for ten years. Those of us in the life used the word pimp for any man or woman who profited from our prostitution. I have a right to use this language. All the people who pimped me were part of organized crime, some were women, all were white and most were rich.
Previously I discussed how the International Union of Sex Workers, the Erotic Service Providers Union, COYOTE, and the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP) were founded by people who’d been convicted of charges connected with pimping: pandering, conspiracy to promote interstate prostitution, and promoting prostitution. But there are lots more.
Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC) claims to represent women in the sex industry. But the SPOC recently won a case filed on behalf of two female pimps. Most women in prostitution have suffered intense violence from the men or women who exploit them, but SPOC was advocating for these predators rather than women in prostitution. The plaintiffs were SPOC Deputy Director Amy Lebovitch, SPOC Legal Coordinator Valerie Scott, who plans to open a brothel, and Terri Jean Bedford, who was convicted of keeping a bawdy house (a brothel). SPOC sought to make it legal for men and women to commercially sexually exploit others in prostitution. In bizarre doublespeak, SPOC described those who own brothels or escort services as ’employees’ of women in sex industry. We wouldn’t accept that a restaurant owner was the ’employee’ of one of his busboys, would we?
Despite the brave testimony of survivor activists from SexTrade101.com, Educating Voices, and the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, Canadian courts chose pimped prostitution for the most vulnerable, who have no other choices. The case has been appealed.
Turn off the Blue Light claimed to represent Irish ‘sex worker’ activists:
Turn Off the Blue Light is a grassroots movement ….We are a sex worker led association campaigning against calls to criminalize the purchase of sex, and for the health, safety, human, civil and labor rights of sex workers in Ireland…
But look who’s actually running the Blue Light campaign. It’s backed by convicted pimp Peter McCormick, who makes millions annually via prostitution websites, his son who was convicted of running six brothels, convicted pimp TJ Carroll, who used voodoo rituals to terrify trafficked African women, and convicted pimp Tony Linnane who was connected with an incident where a woman was “threatened with being burned alive after gasoline was thrown on her.” Mihai Selaru, who humiliated a woman he pimped by starving her and forcing her to lick his shoes, was also connected.
I’m sure there are well-meaning people working within these sex worker activist groups. I hope they find a way to continue their work in organizations free from this shocking conflict of interest. Women in prostitution deserve activist groups that don’t promote the interests of pimps or determine to silence survivors.
So what’s the solution? Pimp-affiliated groups such as the IUSW, SPOC, SWOP USA, COYOTE, the Erotic Services Providers’ Union and PONY must disband and reform as new organizations that are free of “management” members. Any organization claiming to advocate for women in prostitution that receives federal money or collects donations on our behalf must sever ties with all groups where this conflict of interest exists. Otherwise they are supporting the suppression of survivor voices.
Meanwhile we should all advocate for services to help women exit prostitution. They need safe housing, medical care, education, and trauma treatment including EMDR and mindfulness training. They are precious and they need to know we care. They will never know this as long as the academics and NGO’s continue to cooperate with organizations like the IUSW, who, bizarrely and disgustingly, invite both pimps and punters into their ranks.