Talking About Sex Work: A Conversation With Mindy Chateauvert

sex work :

a term coined in 1978 by Carol Leigh, a Bay Area sex worker, to describe the myriad ways that people exchange sexual services for money (from street prostitution to phone sex, stripping to erotic massage and nude computer repair).



Melinda Chateauvert is an activist, historian and the current undergraduate studies director in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland at College Park.  Mindy visited Brown on October 29, 2014, and gave a small talk at the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center about her book, Sex Workers Unite! A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk.  The book chronicles the sex worker movement from the riots at Compton’s Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn in the late 1960s, to present day organizing that is happening across the country.  One of our editors-in-chief, Chanelle Adams, had the opportunity to sit down with her to talk about her work, and issues that she sees surrounding mainstream discourse on sex work. 


Chanelle: Just to give you an overview of where I’m coming from – There is a huge misunderstanding of sex work in Providence. Especially on College Hill, it seems very “oh this happens in our own backyard.”  Its very sensationalist, and there is not really a clear understanding {of the differentiation} between sex trafficking and sex work – because of what you were talking about during your talk about how – again – sex trafficking movements have really co-opted the rhetoric and have made it sound as though any sort of sex for money is slavery, is rape, is awful…and has made it really difficult (for us) as a feminist organization on campus to have a pro-sex work ideology, without getting these {questions like} “Well what about these massage parlors…. do you think that’s okay?” and its very difficult to separate the rhetoric…. I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to talk to you and clear up some of these misunderstandings.

You’re very knowledgeable about the history of Providence sex work because its a good case study, catching the traffic between Boston and New York. There’s also a huge bathhouse culture here as well.

Do you think that you can speak a little bit about how that happened?

Mindy: I said some of the story about how sex work came to be decriminalized at least indoors, and it was accidental.  It was the accidental decriminalization that happened in 1977, 1978 by the time it came through. That story is usually attributed to Margot..and Margot and Coyote did manage to do it.  But if we think about it more as a way the people who operate sex businesses understand what they can do and can’t do. They will push to the very limits of what they can do, and maybe they might a little bit further until they are told to step back.

There is a growth of an indoor sex work market, that happened after it became decriminalized.  But, what also happens when you have indoor markets that are decriminalized, and you don’t decriminalize outdoor markets is that usually the darker women that end up working on the street and still getting just as much police harassment and arrest as they did before, because there is race discrimination in the sex industry – wow! who would have thought!

Club owners will unwittingly defend this by saying, “customers don’t want dark women”, or they won’t pay as much, they also don’t want to make an establishment that looks like its catering to dark customers. There’s all this stuff and its very blatant in its racism, and you can condemn them for their racism and certainly there have been sex workers who have organized to call club owners out for being so narrowly defining their clientele or the people the people that they want to work  the women that they want to work – what I call the “blonde and busties.”

In terms of what has happened here in Providence, specifically – history, not contemporary – Sex work didn’t seem to be a problem for a very long time after it was decriminalized.  Certainly, it then created an opportunity for people to find jobs.  Let’s remember, in an economy as in 1970s, and into the 1980s, where there were factories shutting down all over the area, there were really very few jobs.

This is the other part that people don’t actually ever want to really think about – how sex workers are often wives who are trying to support families where their husband may be unemployed or maybe they are employed. These are the kinds of jobs that are available so sex workers are not always those young girls or young adults who are just doing this thing before doing something else, or that’s the only thing they ever do. There are a lot of women who work in clubs who are married, who have families and find that sex work is the kind of work that is the best way of supporting their family.

On the other hand, I think that one of the things that did not seem to happen, or that I have not found out or heard about, is that in other places where there have been efforts toward decriminalization – and here I speak specifically about Portland, Oregon which has more strip clubs, more public sex businesses than any other place in the country – the dancers in particular, have organized and helped the city agencies to write laws about work regulations. One of the things that happens is that sex workers so rarely get a chance to have a say over their working conditions, particularly when it comes to rules and regulations. In Portland, this has been happening in the past month, they’ve actually been sitting down with the Occupational Health and Safety Act folks, and saying these are the things that we should have and these are the things we don’t want to, and should not be, permitted to do. In other words, let’s create a situation where there is good safe working conditions for us.

And in other places there have been all sorts of actions around the dancers who particularly do the work in the clubs. Most places, the clubs routinely hire, take on dancers as contract laborers. Like any contract laborer, you are then responsible for paying for your own healthcare, your own taxes all the other things and you have to report all that. Yet at the same time, the clubs actually impose that you have to be here for this shift, if you don’t show up on this shift you’re going to be fined, and when you are working you’re going to have to pay this much to be able to work on this day.

They are workers, and they deserve every single right that a regular worker does.  So they’ve been suing and winning cases against strip club all over the country. So again, we are seeing these really interesting actions that are assertions of labor rights, that are assertions of agency, and assertions of agency and power and rights. And they are winning in these ways that we don’t hear of women winning in other work areas – which is also quite interesting. The other most interesting case – which is not a US case, it happened in New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized. There, some women who worked in a brothel just won a major lawsuit against the brothel owner, on grounds of sexual harassment.  Work that through!

Chanelle: That’s incredible. I think what is really key here – its sounds like these workers are finally being allowed to speak for themselves. Usually, the reporters talk about sex work silences them completely by speaking for the workers and describing their conditions without actually having those experiences themselves. 

Mindy: That is very true, and I think this has always been. I mean even in the case here in Providence when back in the 70s Margot decided to file suit and challenged the law. This was not a lawsuit that was shaped by the concerns of sex workers per se. This was shaped by an organization, by Margot, who had a particular legal agenda, rather than an agenda about empowering  women who did sex work. She argues that – I’m not saying that this wasn’t important – but her argument that she made in 1976 was that this was a case of selective enforcement because  the police arrested only women, even though prostitution, in both selling and buying was illegal. But the police never arrested any men. And, so she said this selective enforcement thing we need to deal with this, and this is a case of pure police sexism, and in part racism, because most of the people being arrested were black women, and other women of color.

It was an extension around that, and also, from a larger case of saying that sex work should be an issue around privacy – this is sexual privacy. You know, anticipating what eventually what the Supreme Court would rule in Lawrence vs. Texas. So, in some ways, she was trying to move towards that.

One of the things that I think happened in between there though, is that people began to recognize that privacy itself is a privilege, and not everybody has the right to privacy.  They may all deserve and have a moral and human right to privacy, but in fact, the way the world works is that if you’re homeless, you have no private home in which to have sex.  So, the people who are working on the street, you are working on the street because you can’t get into a private space to do the work.  And, so this is where I think the movement has really shifted from the 1970s and even into the 1980s, to a more nuanced argument that understands  privilege, and understands that not everybody comes from the same place, or is operating under the same circumstances.

So that’s another aspect in which things are happening. And because of that too, that recognition and acknowledgment that the rights of sex workers and people who engage in the street economies are also really changing in the ways that they are doing their activism. So yes, on the one hand, you have a group of people who are legitimately employed whether they are getting 10-99s or W-2s from their clubs, and then you have people who are working on the street, or involved in street economies – I’m thinking of a group in particular in New Orleans called Breakout, and another group in D.C. called DC Trans Coalition, DCTC, who have been confronting, negotiating and forcing the police in their cities to change their rules about the ways that they police transgender people.

Just because you are out and walking while trans does not mean that you are committing a crime. Just because you are out and walking while trans and you are carrying six condoms does not mean you are about ready to committing an act of prostitution. And these are the kinds of ways that they are taking on that kind of profiling and understanding – this is way beyond privacy, this has nothing to do with privacy. This is about the right to be out in public.

Chanelle: My understanding of the history of the activism around this really walks back and forth between the public and the private domain. As in should sex work be allowed in public or should it be taken into private realms? Are workers allowed to have that privacy, is it better for this to be out in the streets in public in terms of visibility and getting rights? No matter what,  it seems like kind of a catch-22.  If you’re a sex worker, you can’t be in the public and you can’t be in the private….

Mindy: Right. And there is an issue around safety too. Because the further underground you are pushed, the more likely you become victimized by various kinds of crime. Whether its police harassment and rape and violence, or customer fear that something is going to happen to you, or just the random person who know – “hey, you know, this person can be picked on because he or she is not going to report a crime against them because they are not supposed to be out here anyway. So these are also issues around violence that we need to also consider.

Chanelle: During your talk, you mentioned the uneasy connection between the gay liberation movement and how sex workers have been involved in that and not always acknowledged.  I’m wondering if you have anything to say about sex worker advocacy and its relationship to feminism? Has that always been a mutually respectful?  What’s the deal with that?

Mindy: Its interesting because in those early years while Margot was – as you can tell, even from that lawsuit about selective enforcement and why is it that women are being punished and not men. This is a period in which there were many organizations – mainstream and radical, feminist identified organizations and women’s organizations, that supported the decriminalization of prostitution. They argued that it should be decriminalized because women were the only ones being picked up.  In other words, they saw it as that men should be criminalized, for trying to “buy a woman.”

Obviously, that’s in quotes – there are quotes around that!!

Which obviously sets it up particularly for these end demand laws which are now being put into place, which theoretically make it not illegal to sell sex but make it illegal to buy sex. This is the new model that is going on in Boston. They’ve adopted this all – all this H.L. Hunt money has gotten on this huge bandwagon – or started the huge bandwagon, and is giving out millions of her private foundation money to police departments to end demand, in order to abolish prostitution. Now what is interesting about this, on a larger scale, or the larger geopolitics of it….an interview that I just did with the chief of the Boston police – she (the chief of police is a woman) – she said – this can’t be a direct quote, but this is literally what she said – well you know, obviously the war on drugs failed, but we’re gonna try to use that same template to go and end prostitution. You think about it – at this point in time, when we have overbuilt so many jails, which could be emptied if we actually dealt specifically with the wrongs of the war on drugs – how are you going to all those prison guards and all those private companies continuing to make money and employed, unless you find a new group of people to throw in them.

Let me also add to that, not only is Hunt donating private money to start these initiatives, but Congress has allocated lots and lots of money for local police departments – just as they did during the drug war – to set up anti-trafficking task forces. Those task forces are primarily going after massage parlors. They’re not going after other major forms of trafficking, such as in the restaurants industry or trafficking in agricultural fields where the majority of trafficking takes place.

They are using them as an excuse or as a reason to bust down the doors of places that they suspect prostitution is going on. Because they’ve also changed the trafficking laws, so that you don’t have to be an undocumented worker, you don’t even have to cross state lines. This has made it so that basically trafficking has become the new word for prostitution generally, there is no distinction made between the two of them.

Chanelle: That’s a very dangerous distinction to be lost, especially because people who would like to advocate for themselves in sex work, a lot of them women of color, a lot of them identifying as feminists, and advocating for their rights.

Mindy: Absolutely. They are speaking out.  There is a group – that had to actually disband, for a lot reasons – but one of the things that they were fearful of was that because they dealt with youth – people who were not yet adults, primarily, they were concerned that they were going to get shut down because they were engaged in trafficking because they were trying to address the needs of people, and they were themselves young kids who were dealing with homelessness, and sometimes engaged in street economies. This is two groups particularly, but one of the groups that I want to talk about is YWEP – Young Women’s Empowerment Project out of Chicago, did some fantastic work.

I talk about this in the book – the first thing they did is that these academics decided that they wanted YWEP to give them or participate in a study, and then they took their words and what they said and totally misinterpreted them to make it sound like they were all victims of trafficking.  Then, YWEP said “fuck you all” and literally thats what they said and went back a did their own research, and, as they said, girls and trans girls do what they have to do to survive.  They put together all of this information, where what they discovered in their research, talking to people, and these were people that they knew…yes there were kids that were in coercive or forced or exploitative situations.  That doesn’t mean that they had not already figured out ways to get out.

They hadn’t already figure out ways to get out…they were just waiting for that moment. They were just waiting for that – maybe they just needed like ten more dollars. Maybe they needed a bus ticket, or they needed a place to stay. And if facilitating their own self-release, their own emancipation, was what needed to happen. Not waiting for somebody to, you know, run in, bust down the door, yank them up and put them in prison until they name the person who was exploiting them and everything else which is the other model.

So it was really fabulous research that they did in understanding when people are in coercive situations that – I had to make that analogy to antebellum slavery. But on the other hand, if we look at the resistance of African Americans who were enslaved, we see all sorts of means by which they fought against those oppressive conditions. And the presumption that women – that girls, that trans people cannot – or anybody cannot or does not think about how to get out of where they are is just so dis-empowering and so wrong. It’s such an injustice to the resourcefulness of people, the resilience of people.  And that’s one of the things that I just loved about the kinds of work that YWEP was capturing and doing, and advocating for and creating – creating a means by which people could speak out, could emancipate themselves.

Chanelle: Wow.  What a resource –  Im gonna go check that out!

Mindy: Yeah, you should.  I think their website is you are priceless or you are loved … but anyway, look for a Young Women’s Empowerment Project, they have a couple of fabulous reports – it’s on blogspot, but whatever, you will find it. You should look at their stuff because they did some absolutely amazing work, but because they were afraid that the police were going to come in and say – hey you’re trafficking, you’re engaged in trafficked victims and we’re going to arrest you…{laughter} and money… you know because of course we don’t support that kind of money. Swanee Hunt would rather give money to the police and participate in a carceral feminist project rather than one that support the needs of people that are organizing on their own.

Chanelle: Thank you so much Mindy for meeting with me!

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