One of things I recall very clearly from my incarceration in New York twenty-seven years ago was that large numbers of sex workers were continually arrested. During my six weeks at the New York Women’s House of Detention, I was struck by the fact that judges were much more likely to release white prostitutes on their own recognizance than Black or Puerto Rican prostitutes. Nearly ninety percent of the prisoners in this jail—-some of whom were awaiting trial like myself and some of whom were serving sentences—-were women of color. The women talked a great deal about the various ways racism was manifested in the criminal justice system. They talked about the way race determined who went to jail and who stayed in jail and who did not. During the short time I was there, I saw a significant number of white women come in on charges of prostitution. Most of the time they would be released within a matter of hours.
Because of the problems many women faced in attempting to raise bail, we decided to work with women in the ‘free world’ who were organizing a women’s bail fund. The women on the outside set up the structure and raised the money and we organized women inside. Those who joined the campaign agreed to continue working with the bail fund on the outside once their bail was paid by funds raised by the organization. Quite a number of sex workers became involved in this campaign.
The continued criminalization of the sex industry is in part responsible for the expanding numbers of women entering jails and prisons. This phenomenon of exponential expansion of incarcerated populations is a part of the emergent prison industrial complex. Not only are jail and prison populations increasing at an incredible rate, capitalist corporations now have a greater stake in the punishment industry. More prisons are being constructed, more companies are using prison labor, more prisons are privatized. At the same time more women are going to prison, more spaces are being created for women and, as a result, ever-greater numbers of women will be going to prison in the future.
In my opinion, the continued criminalization of prostitution and the sex industry in general will feed into the further development of this prison industrial complex. The dismantling of the welfare system under the so-called welfare reform law will probably lead to a further expansion of the sex industry as well as the underground drug economy. The criminalization of the sex industry will therefore help to draw more and more women into the prison industrial complex. There is a racist dimension to this process, since a disproportionate number of these women will be women of color.
In the age of HIV and AIDS, it makes no sense to continue to construct social circumstances that increasingly put women at risk. The work that C.O.Y.O.T.E. has done over the years has been extremely important. In this respect, Margo St. James is a pioneer. I have read about the work that you have done at the Lusty Lady in organizing with SEIU, Local 790. Hopefully, the work you are doing will become a statewide and national trend. Certainly if unions such as yours continue to organize and if the women’s movement and other progressive movements take up the demand for decriminalilzation, there will be some hope.
SB: Do you recall what kind of discussion was going on around the time of the feminist movement in the 70s regarding sex workers?
AD: During the earliest period of the women’s liberation movement, the most dramatic issues were sexual violence and reproductive rights—-in other words rape and abortion. Issues relating to the sex industry were raised in the context of the discussions around sexual violence. For example, there was the debate regarding the Minneapolis statute outlawing pornography, which tended to divide many feminists into opposing camps for and against pornography.
That polaization was a rather unfortunate development. But at the same time these debates led to very interesting questions about what counts as pornography, which opened up new ways of thinking and talking about sex and erotic practices. The definition of pornography as assaultive, objectifying and violative of women’s autonomy and self-determination was strategically important, because it allowed for a distinction between what was exploitative and violative on the one hand, and what was an expression of agency on the other. These discussions laid the ground-work for moving feminist discourse on the sex industry outside of the vexed framework of morality.
extraits d’une Interview d’Angela Davis par Siobhan Brooks, à lire en intégralité ici http://www.bayswan.org/eda-sf/pages/angeladavis.html