Underground Economies, Radical Politics, and Unconventional Loves
My friend Meg Vallee and I did a thing at Wild Goose 2019. Here’s what we said.
So, hi to everyone who chose to join us after lunch, when you really want to nap. Thank you! Welcome to Underground Economies, Radical Politics, and Unconventional Loves. When Lia and I started talking about doing this, we didn’t want to do a typical “you should love and respect sex workers” sort of thing. We think you’re probably already there, right?
Instead, we wanted to break down the things we see in sex worker life–the life skills, the advocacy, the resilience, and the community, and see if the Church can’t learn something from sex workers.
I am Meg Vallee, formerly Munoz, and I’d like to introduce you to Lia Scholl… That is, Rev. Lia Scholl, author of I Heart Sex Workers. For nearly 20 years, Lia has worked side by side with people who trade sex for something they need—learning, supporting, advocating with and for sex workers—hoping to end the isolation, stigma, and economic challenges they face.
Lia is now the pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is newly married and an optional mom to a great teenager. She’s still a badass advocate for marginalized folks, most recently through her local Minister’s Conference, through the Poor People’s Campaign, and through her local church.
Hi! And allow me to tell you a bit about Meg Vallee. She’s a “recently unmarried” mom of four. Meg has worked the spectrum of sex work, from consensual work that she chose, to circumstantial work that helped her avoid being homeless and allowed her get the things she needed, including food and drugs, to forced sex work where she was sexually exploited, terrorized and controlled, in fear for her safety and life. That makes her both a former sex worker and a formerly trafficked person.
She the Founder/ED of Orange County Umbrella Collective, which used to be called Abeni, a human-rights-based, harm reduction-focused org in Orange County California that serves people who trade sex. In 2015, the Umbrella Collective partnered with some medical students at UCI and shortly thereafter helped launch the first needle exchange in Orange County.
Unfortunately, Orange County shut them down and now they are in a court battle to reopen and offer the services needed so desperately.
Now, like many of us, Meg has bills to pay, so in 2016, she went to work for a large military sounding Evangelical organization that will remain nameless. Terrible theology notwithstanding, Meg has had a chance to practice continued care and harm reduction in practical and creative ways.
Also, Meg helped organize and facilitate CatalystCon’s Sex Worker Summit, a SW only safe-space so that the gathered folks can learn from each other, and address the issues facing them. Ever committed to the community, she’s currently doing harm reduction work and intensive case management for people in the heart of Hollywood working with the LA Community Health Project.
And as we get started, I want to note one thing… The difference between human trafficking and sex work. This could be a long, drug out conversation, but remember it like this: there is a continuum of sex for pay that has trafficking on one side and sex work on the other, and that continuum includes a lot of factors: agency (or the ability of the subject to control their own life and situation), consent, age, violence, and even quality of life. For some, even conditions that we think would be unbearable are better than where they’ve come from.
Now Meg…. Let’s talk about the issues that sex workers face. And let’s start with the presumption that people who trade sex for what they need are at the forefront of intersectionality debates. Let’s start with why people trade sex.
The number one reason people enter sex work is economics.
How many of you know what being broke feels like?
And how many of you believe that more women than men are broke? Let’s see a show of hands. And you know why, right? They’re paid less for the same amount of work. They’re the childcare providers, mostly. Kid gets sick, who stays home? Mom does.
There are also a hell of a lot of us who are one or two paychecks away from this, right? And don’t get me started on the corporatization of these United States. Punch the clock, and if you’re late, or out of uniform, you’re gone. And there are not lots of places for women to work if they can’t punch that clock.
Throw in racial inequality, being queer, all of that–and you’ve got folks on the bottom of the economic ladder.
So folks in poverty begin trading sex.
Look, it’s not just about poverty. It’s also about living in a capitalistic regime that expects people not only to perform, but conform to social norms. Some folks aren’t any good at conforming.
The varieties of folks trading sex would likely surprise you. There are folks who work in adult entertainment because they want to, they like the work, they like the pay. These folks are incredibly fortunate and most of them know it.
But I know a whole lot more who trade sex because they have to.
There are the Trans folks who are trading sex out of necessity: They face homelessness, trauma, abandonment, rejection by family and society, and real hardship when it comes to finding employment.
There are the mothers who trade sex so they can stay at home to provide round the clock care for their children. One of my friends has a daughter with special needs, and a traditional job wouldn’t afford her the time her child needs.
There are moms who went in the adult entertainment industry who are supplementing their full-time jobs with part-time sex work, many of whom are not receiving child support. Even with full-time work, they struggle to provide for their children and pay the bills.
Some folks work in sex work because their mental health issues and physical disabilities make traditional 9 to 5 work impossible. I know a dancer who worked to pay her mother’s medical bills after a stroke. I know a dancer who worked her way through law school. I know another person who works to not be homeless and make sure her kids eat.
Y’all know, making a living is hard.
I have one friend who used to dance in a club, but got blacklisted for trying to organize and eventually sued her club for unpaid wages and unfair labor practices. She moved to escorting to support herself and put herself through nursing school, all the while living with debilitating anxiety and Bipolar Disorder. This underground economy keeps her alive and is being used to move her out of something she doesn’t want to do forever.
I have another friend who is an active sex workers rights organizer. She writes and does intensive on-the-ground-harm reduction for street based sex workers who are using drugs.She works to support herself while financially supporting work that changes the lives of others. She is brilliant and kind and passionate and is an active heroin user. Her work has been published nationally and has helped me expand our harm reduction services to those we serve.
I have another friend who survived the foster system, who was adopted into a politically fierce and religiously conservative home which left some scars. She engaged in survival sex work for years and had to endure multiple sexual assaults and beatings while working, many from the police. She now organizes for sex worker rights, has severe PTSD and some serious immune system issues. She hated trading sex and does not ever want to have to do it again, but did it to support her child and herself.
There are varieties of reasons people trade sex, and varied experiences of the sex trades. One of the most common experiences, though, is with the LAW.
Let’s talk Cops. For many of us, Officer Friendly is our friend, our protector, our ally. But not for sex workers. Imagine, the foxes protecting the hen house. We have to start with the recognition that sex work, in most places, is illegal. So sex workers can face arrest at any time.
But it’s not just arrest that sex workers fear, for good reason. When Officer Friendly is working on a case against a sex worker, it’s not unlikely that said Officer Friendly may require sex from the sex worker, either through deception (not mentioning that he’s a cop) or through coercion (have sex with the cop, don’t go to jail).
But let’s dig just a little deeper. If sex work is illegal, who protects the sex workers? Not the police. If a sex worker is raped by a so-called-date… Who can she call? Not the cops or the justice system. Sex workers who report rape are often treated inhumanely, presumed guilty, or their concerns dismissed as “theft of services.” Some are even given a choice: file a case against the rapist–be arrested. Don’t file a case–be let go.
Meg speaks, telling a story or two:
- San Diego police
- Huntington Beach PD incident
- Celeste Guap/Oakland PD
- Monica Jones
And cops lead to… drum roll please… the prison industrial complex. You know, incarceration. Probation. And Parole.
Which starts a nasty cycle, doesn’t it? Sell sex. Get arrested. Go to jail. Go to court. Go to prison. Go home. TRY to go to work. Fail. TRY to get in a program. Fail. Get broke. Sell sex. Get arrested. Go to jail…
You get the picture, don’t you?
And while we’re on the topic of cops and prisons, how about immigration? Or even better yet, let’s talk about migration. Remember Warsan Shire’s quote: “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”?
Some folks migrate to the United States because the situations at home are untenable. Some of those folks are imprisoned. Some of them are forced to have sex. And, believe it or not, for some of them, the conditions they find trading sex are better than the conditions at home.
Folks who migrate who are trading sex find themselves in that same continuum of sex for pay that has trafficking on one side and sex work on the other, and all those factors: agency, consent, age, violence, and even quality of life.
Oh yeah, speaking of immigration. Efforts to fight human trafficking have ramped up heavily and one of the greatest downsides of that has been the constant conflation of human trafficking with prostitution. Add a lack of cultural competency, racism and xenophobia to that and you basically have immigrant communities becoming collateral damage.
Anyone here know about the Robert Kraft/Orchids Day Spa in Florida? Robert Kraft is the owner of an NFL team, the Patriots and was filmed in a massage parlor. In these raids, hundreds of men have been charged with soliciting prostitution. The raids are incredibly upsetting for multiple reasons.
First, they used the Patriot Act to deceptively install cameras in the spa months prior without the owners knowing – They fabricated some kind of bomb threat and had the entire strip mall evacuated so that they could get access to the business with no suspicion. They monitored the spa and went through their trash for months, left with the assumption that because they found evidence of sperm, they must be using it for a front for human trafficking.
After the State’s Attorney busted everyone, they did not get the kind of cooperation they wanted. They didn’t offered T-Visas like human trafficking victims are. They weren’t offered social services. They were arrested and some were deported. This is similar to what happens in other law enforcement efforts such as Operation Cross Country and local stings. Those who are arrested do not have the same political, social, civil or cultural rights as citizens do and that puts them in an even more vulnerable, marginalized place.
You’re right. Vulnerability is one of the marks of sex work. We have named a bunch of those vulnerabilities. Labor disputes. Police brutality. Prison industrial complex. Poverty. Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.
But we haven’t talked about vulnerability to trauma.
I’m always struck about how much trauma informs what we do and how layered and complex it is. Some of the trauma sex workers and trafficked people face is obvious. We face violence from people who are purchasing sex. That violence can be emotional, physical, and sexual.
And then we face violence from systems: the police, the prison industrial complex, the medical industrial complex, and so much more.
We especially face violence from the systems which are supposed to be helping.
For example, you may have heard of the SESTA/FOSTA debacle. SESTA stands for “Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act” and FOSTA is “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.” These two bills, passed together in 2018, clarify our nation’s sex trafficking law by making it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking, and amends another bill, called the Communications Decency Act, making providers like Facebook liable for any usage of their platforms that facilitates sex trafficking, knowingly if they moderate for such content, and with reckless disregard if they do not proactively take steps to prevent such usage.
It was supposed to create legal accountability for online websites or advertising platforms that could, and in some cases were, being used to advertise sexual services, but it took no account of those actually being impacted.
It was supposed to reduce trafficking by removing the forums on which people advertise, but instead pushed people further underground.
It didn’t just remove online advertising, it took valuable, life-saving harm reduction tools away, and pushed people back into the arms of their exploiters, back to the street, and even made some homeless overnight.
It further criminalized people trying to survive and made friends and families vulnerable, as well.
People trading sex are consistently being judged and marginalized, and that has real world consequences. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, and much more all contribute to people having less agency and making choices they might not otherwise make. For example, human trafficking efforts and orgs are often heavily reliant on law enforcement, which can often trigger and retraumatize some people. Especially if they’ve experienced harassment or sexual assault by them.
Faith-based anti-human trafficking groups often hostile. This notion of seeing all people beyond a victim/whore narrative is hard for a lot of people in faith based communities. There is so much more gray area and nuance here, but the tendency to either rescue or ‘leave them to their sin’ seems so ingrained in Christian Culture.
Faith based organizations can often bring a lack of trauma informed or industry/survivor-informed care and structure creating a multitude of more problems. So many people “have a heart” for trafficking victims and insist on working with survivors because they feel so passionately about rescue, but this is infantising and sets up unhealthy dynamics and unfair expectations for those in programs.
And all of this is trauma. Synergistic trauma from multiple, chronic, and repeated exposure to violence. Systemic trauma, from structural, cultural, and environmental violence. Personal trauma from individual interactions. And religious trauma, from theology that is used against us, where we are vilified, marginalized, and ignored by the church and her people.
Look at each one of these issues–who is getting rich with sex work? Who is getting rich with immigration? Who is getting rich with the prison industrial complex, including the detention centers springing up all over our country? And, well, who profits if sex workers are on the outside of our structures?
You got it. People with power and money make more money and power.
You know who is NOT getting rich?
Let me backup a minute. Remember we’re talking about human trafficking and sex work, and the continuum between them. But we’re also talking about the law–that sex work and trafficking are mostly illegal in most states.
There are three ways that the law can work.
The first is criminalization, what we have in most of our 50 states. Sex work is illegal. The sex worker is the criminal, usually. And sometimes the purchase of sex is illegal, too. But not to the extent, usually, of selling sex. Who is making money? Club owners. Pimps. Traffickers. The police. The prison corporations. The anti-trafficking orgs and their executive directors. The church.
The second is legalized. This is the model we have in some counties of Nevada outside of Vegas. Sex work is legal, but within certain constraints: in brothels. They are controlled by management and the State, and both the managers and the State make money off of the sexual labor performed by the sex workers.
The third is decriminalized. We don’t have this model at all in the States–where it is not a crime to sell sex at all, nor is it a crime to purchase sex. Canada has some forms of decriminalization. And there are other countries where selling is decriminalized, but purchasing is criminalized, resulting in (from my friends’ experience) only criminals being willing to purchase sex, making it much more risky for sex workers.
Lia and I both advocate for and are working on the effort to decriminalize prostitution-related laws. It’s been a slow crawl, but we have seen efforts like Decrim NY and SB 233 in CA provide legitimacy in legal and political circles.
Decriminalization is not perfect. It won’t address most systemic injustices related to gender, race, sexual identity, economics, etc., but it can help reduce harm, risk, increase agency and remove some barriers.
We both endorse this because people trading sex should have the right not to die while surviving.
People trading sex should have the right not to be exploited by anyone, least of all those who are entrusted with legally protecting them. EX: Celeste Guap/Oakland PD
People trading sex should have the right to report rape, theft, and other crimes
People trading sex should have the right to use condoms and protect themselves without them being used as evidence against them in criminal cases. Yes, that’s a thing! And sometimes, our efforts wind up really hurting people.
Of course, we’re here to talk about what the church can learn from sex workers. What can we learn from Underground Economies, Radical Politics, and Unconventional Loves?
The first lesson, I think, for the church is to quit dealing in simplicities and tackle the complexities of life. None of us has ever had a Sunday school life, have we? We’ve all faced real pain, real trauma, real fear, real shame, and real economic problems. Why don’t we ever hear about that in church?
Even better, why isn’t that the framework by which we do ministry, not just with marginalized populations, but with all of us?
Yes! If the church faced this real world reality, then we could help one another find the resources we need to get through!
Sex workers participate in underground economies, where they barter, trade, and sell their skills, but they trade with people they know, folks who are known by people they know, which makes this really interesting underground community–where everyone can get what they need.
These underground economies and our community keep us alive when the world is not fair, when it doesn’t treat or pay women or women of color or Transgender women the same way it treats straight, white, Cis men. Listen! Sex workers were living in a GoFundMe world before there was ever an internet! We look out for one another in this underground economy.
And this radical underground community creates some badassery when it comes to radical politics.
It started when sex workers realized their collective power, and started getting together to reshape their worlds.
My first experience of this collective power was at a Desiree Alliance Conference in 2009. The Desiree Alliance is a national coalition of current and former sex workers working together for an improved understanding of sexual policies and its human, social and political impacts of criminalization’s surrounding sex work. Their priorities are building local, regional, and national leadership to constructively advocate sex workers’ human, health, labor, and civil rights. They fight for human rights and base their foundations upon equality, empowerment, and agency, and promote productive leadership roles in the sex worker rights movements and issues unique to sex workers.
What I found at their annual conference was a centering of marginalized voices, a radical politic based on equality and full inclusion, and the development of leadership skills and abilities of everyone who participated. Plus, they had a fucking good time doing it!
I continue to see that spark of radical politics in the Decrim NY work, and I know you see it locally in your work, Meg.
But when do you actually see the centering of marginalized voices in church? Where do you see a radical politic of equality and full inclusion? And does anyone talk about leadership development at church? No, no, no. I mean, seriously, we see old people centering the middle, vying for continued power, and sucking up all the leadership.
You know, I often myself in a really interesting place in terms of community. The human trafficking community that I once belonged to has essentially uninvited me to that party, because I can’t paint everyone with one brush of victim.
Because I’m a part of the faith community, there are times when I don’t always feel totally accepted in the SW community. Conversely, because of my beliefs and support of marginalized communities, I rarely feel accepted in the overall faith community. I have pockets of people who know and support me, but by and large, that’s it. I live in both worlds, with neither fully accepting me and the last few years have left me deeply aware of just how critical (in both ways–criticizing and necessary) community is.
But I see how sex worker communities have learned to come together and support each other and provide for one another in difficult times is so reflective of our earliest faith communities.
We’ve set up bail funds, we share resources, we help each other financially, we compile bad date lists and screen clients to keep each other safe, we work on legislation together, we protest and share living spaces and offer mental health support for each other. In a world that tells us we shouldn’t exist, we remind each other that we do.
Like every other community, it’s messy and hostile and fractured and dysfunctional because it’s a microcosm of the world, but when I hear descriptions of the early church and communities, I’m so reminded that it’s beautiful and touching and special. It looks like the Kingdom of God.
Ain’t that the thing? I have learned much more about what the Kindom of God looks like from the knowing and loving sex workers.
And that’s the other thing that the church doesn’t understand–and that’s the many varied and difficult and messy and beautiful ways that love exists in and through the sex worker community. How many times have I heard sex workers say that their work is an act of love? Some sex workers I know world specifically with disabled folks, so that they, too, can experience the joy of sex with another person. Strippers talk about their work as an act of friendship and love with their customers. Folks in the trade express their work as healing trauma for their clients.
Love comes in so many ways.
I also hear many sex workers doing the work of radical honesty in their relationships, relationships that can be tinged with and reliant on and consumed by the trauma of real life, but, at the end of the day, are loving relationships of mutual concern.
And so many sex workers overcoming their own biases in order to put that love into the world.
It’s holy (h-o-l-y) work.
And it’s wholly (w-h-o-l-l-y) work.
Work that the church needs to pick up, to honor, to help thrive in this world.
A re-imagined church could center marginalized voices, could create and support equality and full inclusion, and could develop leadership those who participate. A re-imagined church could add succor to our lives by providing needed resources, whether emotional, physical, or emotional–including, but not limited to money–to help us all survive a little bit better.
A re-imagined church could incarnate a different culture that doesn’t allow for exclusion, doesn’t tolerate harms, and helps us learn community accountability. This kind of community could pick one another up instead of casting one another down.
A re-imagined church be filled with joy, advocating and honoring ALL love, no matter it’s form, seeing all forms of love as an outpouring of God on earth.
And now, we’d like to hear from you. Do you have questions? Have you seen underground economies, radical politics, and unconventional loves in church or other places? Have you learned how to lead your community, or your church in it?