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Interview with Melinda Chateauvert

@Whorestorian talks social justice, leather and sex industry rights

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SPECIAL EVENT: Meet Melinda Chateauvert THIS SUNDAY in NYC at HOOK’s Meet, Greet, and Eat.

Featured photo by Todd Franson

HOOK: So much has changed in the gay world in the past 40 years. Is there a connection between gay liberation and sex workers rights?
Melinda Chateauvert: From my perspective, the early gay liberation movement wanted to abolish laws that restricted sexual freedom and let people “do their own thing” as they said in the ‘60s. Folks who did sex work, guys who hustled, their friends and lovers, led the first riots against police harassment and sweeps. But as Marx and others long ago observed, the proletariat starts revolutions, but the bourgeoisie takes them over and advocated for “reform” instead of radical change. Ironically, when the Supreme Court affirmed in 2003 that individual citizens – including gay people – have a right sexual privacy in Lawrence v Texas, the marriage equality folks seized on it. Since then, it’s hard to imagine, but sex work has become even more criminalized with the passage of anti-trafficking laws.

HOOK: Can you tell us about Sylvia Rivera? Is she a role model?
Melinda: Silvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major and all the transwomen of color who organized STAR – the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – understood that protesting wouldn’t accomplish much if it wasn’t tied to concrete demands and action. They modeled themselves on the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. And like those grassroots community organizations, STAR knew “the people,” young street hustlers like themselves, needed food, shelter and safe spaces. So they found an apartment and opened it up to anyone who needed a place to stay, no questions asked. They didn’t ask for money, they didn’t tell kids they had to stop hustling or using drugs; it was perhaps the first “housing first” or “harm reduction” shelter.

Sex Workers Unite Cover

Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk by Melinda Chateauvert

HOOK: Your book positions sex workers squarely in the middle of the social justice movement. Could you explain why? Are sex workers rights part of human rights?
Melinda: What I do in this book is to tell the history of the last fifty years of social justice movements from the perspective of sex workers. From that point of view, everything that’s a considered a social justice or human rights issue is an issue that matters to sex workers: the drug war, homelessness, LGBT youth, living wages, health care access, HIV prevention (and treatment!), the school to prison pipeline, violence against transgender people and other queers, police brutality, and so much more. And by looking at five decades of the movement, I show that activists have broadened their demands. Margo St. James, as leader of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) wanted to decriminalize prostitution because it was a victimless “crime” and a sexual privacy issue. By the 1980s, that was no longer enough, because AIDS, the anti-porn movement, and the Reagan’s war on the poor demanded a broader, intersectional analysis. A human rights framework allowed activists to tie sex workers rights with all these other violations of self-determination.

HOOK: Some reviews of your book suggest you give more attention to women sexworkers than to men. Has there been a role for men sexworkers in the movement? Do you see a role for men going forward? DO you think men will get more involved?
Melinda: Of course “women” and “men” is a bit binary, Hawk … but it’s true that there is more about women and transgender women in my book than about men who do sex work. In researching activists in the sex workers’ movement, finding men in the movement usually meant lawyers like William Kunstler or a client like Fred Cherry. There are two reasons, I think, why “men” aren’t visible in the sex workers movement. First, slut-shaming, whorephobia and femme-gender policing are most often directed at women, especially women perceived to be sex workers, and historically, when cops arrested people for prostitution, women were most often charged, and most often did the jail time. Second, when police arrested men who did sex work, they were often charged with solicitation for sodomy (it didn’t matter if it was for money or not), or with vagrancy or loitering which aren’t “prostitution” cases per se, but “homosexual” cases. In addition, from the stories I’ve been told, a lot of “gay rights” and AIDS activists financed their activism through sex work, but sex work was not at the center of their political analysis, in part because it didn’t carry the same stigma for men as it does for women.

HOOK: Do you believe male sex workers in NY suffer legal oppression? If so how?
Melinda: I think that any time the city’s mayors have curbed or shut down public sex venues – theaters, bars, bath houses, sex shops, cruising areas – male, female and trans sex workers have suffered. There have also been specific police initiatives to entrap male sex workers and/or their unsuspecting clients. These campaigns create not only fear for men in the sex industry but also shames men who want sex outside their bedrooms. It’s one of the primary reasons for the growth of online sites like Rentboy and Backpage as well as smartphone apps. But more harmfully, shutting down public sex venues exposes male sex workers to arrest, or forces migration to more obscure, darker corners of the city to evade police scrutiny. And that poses a potential for greater violence against male sex workers.

HOOK: What was your biggest discovery about male sex workers while researching this book?
Melinda: Personally, I love the story about the unnamed “red headed man” who stood up during COYOTE’s first prostitution conference in San Francisco in 1973 and asked/demanded that the movement include him.

HOOK: Where would you like to see male and female sex workers connect? Around what issue do you think possibilities for widening the movement is the strongest?
Melinda: Sometimes it seems to me that ending the stigma and shame that clients feel is our biggest challenge. I think sex workers today, whatever their gender and orientation, who are in the business by choice, have figured out how to deal with the stigma/shame/phobia that we’re supposed to feel. May not be all rainbows and unicorns, but we have communities and support groups and online discussions and other ways to connect with people. Clients don’t generally have that. Sure there’s the hetero-locker room/bachelor party/Wall Street wolf boasting that goes on, but observers would say that’s a masculine performance. Clients who regular hire sex workers don’t garner that same admiration. For the one Chester Brown graphic novel, Paying for It, there are ten “anti-punter” books like The Johns. And with the move toward the “Swedish model” to arrest, fine and imprison clients for trafficking, the climate can only get worse.

HOOK: You’ve worked with the Leather Archives and Museum. Can you share some of what your work there has been?
Melinda: I’ve been on the board of the LA&M more years than I can remember it seems. One of the biggest achievements was organizing a scholars’ weekend retreat to discuss what “leather history” means. There were flogging clubs in London and Paris in the late 18th Century; are they part of leather history? We decided yes, because they were organized for pleasure. But instruments of torture, used to force confessions from suspects or political dissidents or to punish prisoners or the enslaved could not be included. The other achievement may seem less so, but it’s been to constantly remind fellow board members and the staff that for leatherdykes and sex workers, AIDS was not the main issue of the 1980s: the Christian and feminist anti-porn movement, and their repressive efforts to impose “politically correct” sex on everyone had real consequences.

HOOK: Do you think the sense of community in the leather community holds examples for the escort community?
Melinda: As long as “community” doesn’t turn into a bingo word during title contestants’ speeches, yes there are some instructive examples. At Mid-Atlantic Leather in DC earlier this year, Hook’s Meet, Greet & Eat brought together a lot of guys who were working the event – in one way or another. Private gatherings like that provide a kind of safe space that doesn’t expect or demand the posturing that happens out in the hotel lobby. The big leather events and circuit parties can be emotionally stressful, but they began because there was a time when escorts couldn’t be so sexually open in public, and we needed space to create a community. I think Desiree Alliance conferences have become more welcoming, something that happened as a result of several guys stepping up and putting together an ad hoc panel on Men in the Sex Industry at the Chicago DA conference. It changed the dialogue and I’m glad for that.

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