The Worlds Oldest Profession and the International Sex Workers Foundation
It may not be the rough and tumble Teamsters Union, but the Sex Workers Foundation is in the front lines of the battle to change the perception of prostitution in today’s society. They do it with the power-packed left hook of awareness and information, guided with the finesse of art and culture.
The Sex Worker today is a member in good standing of what is lovingly referred to as “the world’s oldest profession”. I profess to be a big fan of that profession, and when I was living on the streets at the tender, yet not-so-innocent age of 15, I was more than a causal observer of the subject, and not always just an observer. It was scene out of a dream sequence, girls, boys, trans-gendered alike, all jockeying for position on the curbs and corners. Some were junkies, but most were just trying to get by.
The street prostitute’s image is one of a stage show with a curtain slowly rising to reveal the actors in their place. The curtain is lovely, sexy, red velvet with gold brocade, and as it rises the stage becomes awash in a blast of red lights. The play begins of tawdry sex in back alleys or in the backseats of a car, you know, a real wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am experience. Then the chorus line of call girls comes in, those who occupy the upper tier of prostitution’s food chain. They have a certain allure that transcends the image of the sex worker on the street corner, who takes her John to a one-hour motel room with stained sheets and liberates his libido with loving labia hard at work on overdrive to compete the pleasure task for its fee.
The image of sex workers in today’s society is changing for the better, and quickly. Just what is a sex worker anyway? A prostitute? Yes, but that field covers numerous categories of those engaged in activity of a sexual nature, including strippers in nightclubs, prostitutes, massage parlor workers, adult film actors and actresses, private dancers, telephone and Skype sex calls, nude models for photography and video and of course, everything else on the internet streaming private sex acts and activity.
It is unfortunately, also the subject matter of many lewd jokes and commentary by a somewhat Neanderthal mentality that is pervasive in American society. Add that with a touch of ‘holier-than-thou’ religious fervor and a bit of government censorship and prosecution, and you have an outlook as outdated as the horse-and-buggy. A more enlightened attitude is growing as more tolerant and educated cultural practice begins to emerge. There is a Darwinian evolution in thinking that is beginning to take shape and build a strong foundation for the future and acceptance in society for this important, yet maligned, segment of workers who cater to extreme visceral human needs and desires.
On the flip side of the sex-coin, there are issues of child prostitution and forced sexual slavery, which is a worldwide epidemic. There is also an issue with the violence that is perpetrated against prostitutes by their pimps or deranged clientele. This violence is not only harmful, but can be deadly. Add all this to the list of venereal diseases, and you have a highly combustible environment for any sex worker. The sex worker gives us pleasure and gratification on many levels, and in return, they are often the collateral damage that decimates a community through violence, deadly disease, drug addiction and criminal activity.
Today, there are many organizations that help sex worker gain an education, as well as a reality check, but one group, the International Sex Workers Foundation for Art, Culture and Education goes further than this. It is one of the leaders in fostering a safer environment for sex workers by facilitating workshops and education, as well as aid to those who wish to leave the profession to pursue other careers in society. After all, in my minds eye the sex worker is both artist and creative performer. Strippers and burlesque performers have become legendary from Josephine Baker to Betty Page, and there is even a Burlesque Hall of Fame. It doesn’t get any more mainstream then that.
I recently spoke with Norma Jean Almodovar of the group International Sex Workers Foundation for Art, Culture and Education. She provided insight on the organization’s mission as someone who works in the sex worker community.
“ISWFACE was founded in 1997, after I was the co-chair and co-sponsor of the 1997 International Conference On Prostitution (ICOP) with Cal State University Northridge. I felt that sex workers needed to take control of the research about us, because frequently the academics who studied us did nothing with the information which could be useful to change the laws which prohibit our work”
“Our mission is simple, to challenge the perceptions of who sex workers are, and to educate society about our lives, as well as show the truth about us: to serve as an educational resource center for serious research and other information about prostitution and sex work in order to provide the public with access to these academic reports and studies; to foster, perpetuate and preserve an appreciation of the art and culture created by and about sex workers as many of us are artists, film makers, photographers, sculptors; to establish and maintain a permanent collection of art including, but not limited to paintings, sculpture, photos, writings and other related archival materials created by and about sex workers, past and present, throughout the world, as well as provide space for their display, both through regular exhibits throughout the world and through the creation of a cyberspace museum; to educate the public about sex workers, their art and culture; to provide economic alternatives and opportunities for creative, artistic sex workers, to enable them to transition out of prostitution and into another profession if they are so inclined. Unfortunately, we have not raised enough money to make that happen. We are outside the current ‘politically-correct’ thinking and many potential donors are afraid to make tax-deductible donations to us for fear of retaliation from rabid anti- trafficking groups, but we still try to contribute or otherwise assist corporations, organizations and institutions in the fields of health care, law enforcement and education through the dissemination of accurate, timely information relating to this important social and political issue.”
In regards to prostitution’s legal standing, Almodovar says there are already enough laws on the books regarding prostitution. ISWFACE wants full de-criminalization, and not necessarily legalization as that would lead to more regulation of their work. Almodovar says emphatically “There are already enough laws, which cover any and all aspects of criminal or civil violations of the rights of individuals. So, no ‘regulation’ of prostitution, but all sex-workers have access to and must abide by all laws to which all other workers are subject. Child prostitution? We have statutory rape laws, enforce them!”
As for abusive pimps and clientele, Aldomovar says “We have laws which cover violence against the individual – wives, lovers, employees, etc. and we should enforce them. Can someone’s boss or customer legally harm a woman who is not a prostitute? Of course not, so why have laws which apply only to prostitutes? If a person is a victim of ‘sex-trafficking’ then that person ought to be able to go to the police and file a criminal complaint, just as all other victims of all other crimes are required to do before the cops will being an investigation.”
Believe it or not, hand jobs and fetish play prevent the spread of disease, and satisfies certain elements of clientele at the same time. Talk about safe sex. A good whipping may leave a red bottom, but free of STDs! Aldomovar explains this factor. “There are so many different types of sex-work within prostitution that each group has different issues relating to health. For example, sex workers who give ‘happy endings’ don’t need to worry about STDs or condom use, but because they are using their hands in a repetitive manner, they are at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome. Those, whose practice is primarily ‘fantasy or fetish’ sex, also don’t have health issues such as STDs. There are not any diseases that I am aware of which can be spread by spanking or tying up a client and making him beg to be whipped. At the end of a session with such a client, the client is ordered to masturbate… same for clients with foot/ high heeled shoe fetishes… there is no intercourse, no oral sex- just masturbation, so no diseases. For those who have regular intercourse with a client, condoms are a must, and those of us who have used various techniques with our clients teach other sex-workers how to put a condom on a reluctant client without his knowledge. Some of us teach other sex-workers to behave in such a way that they can entice a client to put a condom on himself. However, because we are outlaws, there are no formal educational classes for this, as it could be construed as ‘pandering’ or ‘encouraging a person to commit an act of prostitution.”
Changing a community’s outlook on prostitution is not accomplished by merely passing out a flyer. It’s much more involved, and can be fun as well as an enlightening experience for everyone. “That’s what our art and film festivals are about- to give the community an opportunity to interact with us in a non threatening environment. We also give lectures at colleges and universities so that students can meet us as ‘real human beings’ with lives and families etc. ISWFACE is a co-sponsor of a number of events such as the biennial Sex Worker Film Festival in San Francisco, hosted by BAYSWAN, as well as the traveling one woman show written and performed by Cameryn Moore ‘Phone Whore’.”
One of the arguments many raise regarding prostitution is that it brings in an element of heightened criminal activity. Aldomovar disagrees. “In a criminalized system, the criminal element is already in the neighborhood- if it is street work. Street workers constitute a very small minority of all sex-workers who do prostitution. What changes is that instead of being a criminal who cannot call the police and ask for help, people who are victims can go to the police. Many sex-workers work out of their homes already. They are discreet so their neighbors are unaware of their ‘criminal’ activity. Decriminalizing prostitution will make it possible for those sex workers who do work from home to no longer have to worry that their landlord can force them out of their apartments for engaging in sex work- because currently the cops can threaten landlords with asset forfeiture laws if the landlord doesn’t evict the ‘known prostitute.’ In some cases where landlords may know of the ‘criminal activity’ of their tenant, they extort the sex worker for free sex, just as the cops do. In other countries where sex work isn’t illegal and sex workers who wish to work outdoors can do so, more cities are providing safer areas for them to work, and at the same time, keep them out of residential areas so the neighbors are not impacted by their work.”
Then of course there are some who ask “what’s in it for me?” In the case of certain areas where medical marijuana is legal, the growers’ organizations benefit the towns and counties where it is grown by providing a cash flow of revenue, once hidden in the ‘underground economy’. As they go mainstream, you can find them side-by-side as respectable as the local bank or bakery. Aldomovar talks about the economic benefits of decriminalized prostitution including generated revenue, as well as municipal funds that are saved by eliminating the costs of criminal prosecution. She said, “While not all sex-workers pay taxes, most people don’t realize that many sex-workers already do pay taxes. The IRS doesn’t care how you earn you money- they just want a piece of the action. Sex-workers who earn above average incomes want to use their money to provide for their future. To be able to buy property, one must have a tax base to do so. You must show income and expenses to get loans, etc. So while there are those who do not pay taxes, and it would be helpful to the community if those who do not currently pay them could legally pay taxes, the greatest benefit to the community would be the resources that are no longer squandered on setting up sting operations by law enforcement.”
Aldomovar asks the big question, why spend money arresting consenting adults? She also has the answer to that very question. “It seems to me that the above examples are of as much benefit to a community if prostitution were no longer a crime as being able to tax a group of workers. No one is helped by arresting grown women/ men/ transgender sex workers or their non violent, non abusive clients, employers and associates, because if the sex worker did not charge for their activities, they could legally engage in multiple acts of sex with as many strangers as they like. The voluntary exchange of money does not create any crimes- but the prohibition of such an exchange causes all sorts of problems.”
There is still long road ahead for sex-workers before there is total acceptance in our somewhat archaic society. Aldomovar talked extensively about the roadblocks that they have to surmount. “Unfortunately, the prostitution abolitionists’ crusade against alleged ‘sex-trafficking’ has brought more intolerance against our profession and those who use our services than we saw even 20 years ago. Back when I started as an activist and sex-worker in 1982, I thought surely we would decriminalize prostitution within the next five years. Not only did we not make progress, we are going backward. The punitive laws which are being passed in state after state to ‘combat sex-trafficking’ are so draconian and evil that the ‘crime’ of which I was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for committing would now put me in prison for 15 years to life, with a requirement of a lifetime sex offender registration. The radical feminists and evangelicals have been quite successful in their campaign to conflate sex work and sex trafficking. Most of the public doesn’t have the time or interest to do their own research on this, and so when the media tells them that there are ‘over 30 million victims of human trafficking world wide, even though a year ago, another source said there as 2.4 million, and yet only 46,570 confirmed victims worldwide – victims of all sorts of labor trafficking- have been identified. No one bothers to ask where they got this guesstimate and on what it is based… because many people already view prostitution as immoral or exploitative and they simply allow themselves to be persuaded that we are all victims. Sadly, this allows for police departments to impose ‘jail or Jesus’ diversion programs on prostitutes who may be, like I am, atheists. Faith based organizations receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federal government to ‘rescue’ us poor sinner. Law enforcement agencies are given huge grants to find victims- even if there are no victims to be found.”
There are many big businesses and special interest groups that lobby Congress on a daily basis, and of course it all takes big bucks. Unfortunately, there is no national lobby for prostitutes, but individual sex workers in states are encouraged to contact their local officials. “Unfortunately, we do not have money to lobby anyone. We do our best to encourage sex workers in each state to contact their elected officials (who may also be their clients) and explain to those politicians why these anti- trafficking laws are so harmful to sex workers. We are attempting to raise money to file a lawsuit against these laws, just as our colleagues in Canada have done. Their case is before the highest court of the land and we are hoping that the court upholds the lower court decision. My website, www.policeprostitutionandpolitics.com, has so much more information and material.”
It is truly, the world’s oldest profession. When it comes to sex, nothing can be more creative or artistic than a good fetish romp where spanking is considered sexy discipline, oral sex is given by a mouth that can rock the world, or intercourse with a sex worker who can make a vagina erupt with the force of a volcano. It’s not only the world’s oldest profession, but also one where creativity itself is explosive. They are human beings, all of the females, males, and the transgendered who give momentary pleasure and sometimes pay the ultimate price themselves, through disease, addiction, prosecution and death. All while we quietly walk away, having shelled out hard cash for a few moments pleasure at their expense. The prostitute of today is not only a creative artist in bed, but there are other hidden talents they may have that only need to be discovered. In the world of the arts such as film and other visual arts, poetry and literature, or in bed, it may be all in the hip action, but with the addition of an artistic outlook, changing social morals and public education, sex with a prostitute can be a moment of Monet, as well as true sexual poetry in motion.