“Behind Closed Doors:” Bringing Sex Workers’ Struggles into the Open
By Kari Lydersen
Infoshop News (news.infoshop.org) | May 9, 2005
“Behind Closed Doors,” a study recently released by the Urban Justice Center in New York City, documents what most any sex worker could have told you long ago, but which the general public and policy makers are still slow to catch on to.
It’s just a job.
And along with health and safety concerns specific to sex work, the most pressing issues facing sex workers are the same ones facing increasing numbers of middle and working class people across the U.S.: a lack of access to affordable housing, health care, labor rights and other basic needs. “Behind Closed Doors” focuses specifically on sex workers – female, male and transgender – who work indoors, meaning not on-street prostitution, which has been the subject of more studies and outreach. The subjects work in venues where they are at risk of arrest, including as escorts and in brothels, dungeons or gang clubhouses. Many also have or do work in legal sex work venues such as strip clubs and massage parlors.
The workers interviewed and the authors hope that the study, which is being heralded as the first of its kind in the country dealing with indoor work, will make progress in helping people view sex workers as a significant and legitimate part of the labor movement and one whose needs and rights should not be ignored. These conclusions bolster the findings of other significant studies on sex work over the past few years, including 2001 studies by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Center for Impact Research in Chicago.
“The thing that came out even more clearly in this report (than in reports on street-based prostitution) was the economic drive,” said Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Worker Project at the Urban Justice Center. “67 percent said they couldn’t make a living doing other work, like waitressing, domestic work and retail. Many actually had other jobs, and were supplementing them with sex work. People talked about really concrete goals they wanted to reach with their income from sex work, like paying for school, opening a gym, getting a real estate license. There tends to be a perception of sex workers as immoral people doing something you or I would never do, but the reality is they’re your neighbors, people just working and trying to get by.”
While sex workers face the same daily challenges as other wage-earners, it is even harder for them to ensure their workers’ rights and human rights are respected, since they are in constant fear of arrest for their work.
“It’s hard to even have a meeting because you don’t know who could be an undercover cop,” said Thukral.
There have been several energetic and high-profile organizing campaigns among sex workers over the years, including the unionizing of dancers at the Lusty Lady club in San Francisco, the group COYOTE (Cast Off Your Tired Old Ethics) on the west coast in the 1970s and the group Prostitutes of New York (PONY) which has been around for decades. But overall the level of formal or even informal worker organizing in the sex industry is very low, largely because of the criminalization of the work. Celeste, 31, who started sex work about 10 years ago after struggling to get by working retail, said in an interview that because of pandering laws which make it illegal to provide information about prostitution, it is risky for sex workers to even offer their colleagues advice over the phone.
“If someone calls PONY and asks how can I be safe, we can’t even tell them anything because that would break pandering laws,” she said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Organizing among sex workers is also inhibited by the same factors that affect other transitory and independent workers, like street vendors, taxi drivers, day laborers and even freelance writers and artists. Many workers are self-employed, and those who work for employers may have little contact with other employees and also risk retribution for organizing. If the work is illegal, of course they can’t go to the National Labor Relations Board or other government bodies for recourse if they are fired or harassed for organizing. Many also don’t plan to be in the business for long.
“They don’t see themselves as sex workers, they only plan on doing it for a few months,” said Celeste. “Even if a few months turns into a few years.”
Celeste got involved with sex worker activism in the mid-1990s when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani started shutting down adult businesses. She was working in strip clubs at the time, and said the management did not look favorably on worker activism.
“They tried to prevent me from organizing marches, they wouldn’t let me put fliers up in the dressing room,” she said. “It was very paternalistic, don’t worry your pretty little head about this, we’ll take care of it.”
Thukral noted that one of the main conclusions of the study was that sex workers are desperate for more opportunities to network and gain support from their peers. While most respondents in the study said they do get support from other sex workers in the form of advice, client referrals, shared clothing or money and moral support, there is a real need for more structures to allow them to form communities.
The study focuses on relationships with employers, including escort agencies, pimps and a gang leader who pays several women to work as prostitutes in a gang clubhouse. Employers generally take a high cut of pay, 50-70 percent in the case of escort agencies. Some employers including escort agencies were reported to treat their employees well, while others – pimps, traffickers and the gang leader – were known to beat and intimidate the sex workers.
Homer King, a former pimp in Chicago who now speaks about the industry in hopes of reforming it, said in an interview in 2004 that he and other pimps brutally beat and abused the women working for them as a matter of routine. He also said he would keep all of a woman’s earnings and then dole out clothing and spending money to her and pay for her housing, in a paternalistic situation that made it extremely hard financially and emotionally for women to leave.
“It was like the Roach Motel,” he said. “You can check in, but you can’t check out. This was a business I was running, and this was about power. I would do whatever necessary to hold onto that business, to hold onto that power.”
Celeste, who worked in strip clubs and for an agency before becoming an independent escort, said she would never work for someone else again.
“As an individual I was able to set my own schedule and screen my own clients, so I could screen out guys I didn’t think I’d enjoy spending time with,” she said. “And I could make the same amount of money seeing half as many clients, because I wasn’t paying the agency.”
However Sasha Simonitch, who did sex work before becoming an organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said last year that she found it impossible to be an independent escort because of a highly organized power structure in Las Vegas.
“There were certain people who had to be paid off, certain bartenders and otherpeople who ran certain areas, and I wasn’t doing that,” she said. “I was doing things on my own. So I was arrested. It was really bad.”
Celeste noted that the growth of the internet has made it much easier for escorts to communicate directly with clients, and with each other.
“The internet completely changed things,” she said. “Now you don’t need a madam or someone answering the phone. We can meet clients directly. And I can be friends with an escort in Portland or Canada or England. It also increases safety because if there’s a problem with a client people can tell each other about it over the internet.”
As in the mainstream labor market, racism and classism in the sex industry are also a given. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless found that women of color working as prostitutes earn significantly less than white women, and generally work in parts of the city where they are much more likely to experience violence.
Also mirroring the mainstream market, immigrants make up a significant part of the sex industry. Sex work is especially appealing for undocumented immigrants since they can work for themselves or for employers who won’t ask for papers. However the constant risk of arrest is even more intense for them, since arrest will likely also mean deportation. Though discussion of sex trafficking usually focuses on Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, there are a significant number of women trafficked into the US against their will or on false pretenses to work in the sex industry. A number of women involved in the Behind Closed Doors study were trafficked. Some of them didn’t know they would be forced to work as prostitutes, and some knew the nature of the work but didn’t realize the majority of their money would be taken from them, essentially keeping them in debt slavery. The trafficked women were afraid to go to authorities or return to their home countries since they knew their traffickers and feared retribution.
Some immigrants also feared persecution based on their sexual orientation or transgender identity if they returned to their home countries. A transgender person said he would have been disowned by family if he remained in his home country as a woman. Others couldn’t come out as gay in their home countries. Some of the respondents reported they came to the US in search of sexual and personal freedom, and sex work was one pragmatic way to remain and make a living here.
“A woman from Japan said there is no place for single women in Japanese society,” said Thukral. “She was able to be more independent here.”
Studies and advocacy regarding sex work have to strike a balance between exploring the harmful effects and dangers of sex work while also acknowledging that many see it as a viable option which they want to be able to legally pursue. Most sex workers and advocates including those interviewed in Behind Closed Doors want to see the industry decriminalized, with networks and support available for those who want to stay in sex work and resources and job training available for those who want to leave. Celeste said one of her dreams is to run an organization helping people leave sex work. For the past three years she has been mostly retired, seeing some long-time clients but working in academics.
“Sex work is what helped me get to the place where I am now,” she said. “It paid for my school. It gives women from working class backgrounds opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
The full text of “Behind Closed Doors” can be found at www.urbanjustice.org.
Kari Lydersen writes for In These Times, LiP Magazine, the Washington Post and other publications out of Chicago and is a youth journalism instructor with the Urban Youth International Journalism Program. She recently published a book on Common Courage Press called Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-US Immigration in the Global Age. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org