To be clear: I am not arguing that the newly emergent forms of sexual labor that COYOTE sex workers represent are unconnected to individuals’ material conditions or to their structural locations within a social world that is characterized by increasingly profound inequalities. I am suggesting, however, that contemporary sex workers are often situated in highly complex ways vis-à-vis axes of domination and subordination (both economically and sexually) and that the forms of oppression they experience within sex work may be less severe than those they experience elsewhere.
I am also suggesting that the forms and meanings with which they have endowed their labor are connected to a historically specific set of conditions of possibility. These conditions include a postindustrial economy that has rapidly driven up the cost of living in desirable urban centers, while at the same time creating a highly stratified occupational sector (one with a limited number of time-intensive, highly paid, and hard-to-acquire professional positions, but with ample quantities of poorly paid, temporary, and part-time “junk” jobs).52 These economic developments are intricately connected to some of the ways that increasing numbers of young, urban middle-class people are restructuring their intimate lives—either by delaying marriage and childbearing until these are more economically viable options, or by defying the expectations of heterosexual monogamy entirely.
Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours, Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex, The University of Chicago, 2007, p. 108
In 1993, several members of COYOTE splintered off to found the Exotic Dancer’s Alliance (EDA), targeting their protests at unfair labor practices in the city’s erotic theaters. Partnering with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790, the women sought to combat troubling health and safety issues in the clubs as well as the implementation of mandatory “stage fees” for club employees. According to EDA activists, the stage fees effectively transformed the theaters into clandestine, pimp-managed brothels, compromising their freedom and their safety. Indeed, some of the newest crop of performers or “independent contractors” in these refurbished commercial venues were the same women who had previously engaged in prostitution on Tenderloin streets. Though tacit, the reorganization of the clubs was ensured by the construction of “private rooms” as well as through the implementation of a system of steep stage fees. The creation of private rooms in the strip clubs—cubicles featuring a bench, sofa, or bed cordoned off from the rest of the club by opaque curtains or even a door—occurred simultaneously with the sudden imposition of the stage fees, whereby dancers were reclassified as “independent contractors” (rather than employees) and were required to pay fees of up to $200 per shift in order to be able to work. Since the stage fees were often more than women would earn from an entire evening’s worth of striptease performances and lap dances, club management explicitly encouraged dancers to take their clients into the private rooms where they could engage in more “lucrative” activities.4
Rather than regarding these exploitative conditions as intrinsic to sexualized labor and fighting for its elimination (as their abolitionist feminist peers might have done), the members of the EDA instead sought to reform the industry from within by arguing for exotic dancers’ rights as workers. Numerous EDA members filed wage and hour claims with the California Labor Commission, culminating in a successful class action lawsuit against one of the largest erotic theaters in the city, the Market Street Cinema. As described by former dancer-activist Heidi M. Kooy, “The courts ruled that … employers were required to pay at least minimum wage for hours worked; and that requiring dancers to pay stage fees was illegal. The California Labor Commission later reiterated the San Francisco court’s ruling, outlawing clubs throughout the state from charging dancers for the right to make a living.”5 The trend toward the normalization and legitimation of sexual labor as labor appeared to advance still further in 1996, when the city’s only “women- owned, women-managed” erotic theater, the Lusty Lady, became the first fully unionized exotic dancing venue in the nation.6
Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours, Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex, The University of Chicago, 2007, p. 72-73
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