published at Feminist Current September 1, 2015
Phil started prostituting at 14 when older men solicited him in New York City mall bathrooms. From there he went on to do gay pornography and live sex shows. He would send me pictures of him performing drag shows under the name Marissa (my middle name) and tell me how he got free drinks if he performed. I did not get pictures from the two times he drank so much vodka he coughed blood and spent weeks in the hospital.
Phil told me about stealing a bag of cocaine from a john and ended the story with, “Honey, this city better be big enough for the both of us because I can’t see him again.” He ran a small gay escort agency until he got arrested in a hotel overlooking Madison Square Garden.
Phil and his partner of six years, Darren, lived for years as male prostitutes in New York City. They were “rentboys” in the current euphemistic parlance. Once when I visited, Darren kept awkwardly standing around because he had gotten painful shots in the ass to cure the syphilis one of his regular johns had given him.
Phil and Darren both tested HIV positive. Darren got sick and died after a lightning fast three weeks in the hospital. AIDS can be a protracted illness, but the speed at which it took Darren shook me.
Phil kept turning tricks after learning he was HIV positive. No worried lecture from me could change his need for money, and none of my conscience-buckling at the thought of him spreading AIDS could change his reckless behavior so I supported him with the unconditional love of lifelong friends.
Philip died at the age of 32 because of men’s belief in their right to economically coerced sex on their own abusive, risky, deadly terms.
I used to brag to people with sex positive pride that I had sex worker friends who were living the good life. Doing this boosted my own sexy street cred and I consciously chose not to relay the ugly truths they told me about getting raped and getting various sexually transmitted diseases.
I don’t blame myself for the pains he went through living by prostitution and dying by AIDS, but I can’t help wondering if things might have been different if I didn’t encourage his and Darren’s prostituting all those years.
I think of Phil when I read about how legalizing prostitution is supposed to make prostituted people safer from rape and sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS and syphilis. I think of how Phil worked in the legal porn industry that has had multiple decades to demonstrate how safe legalized prostitution can be, and I think of how very weak the case for legalized prostitution becomes when positioned next to the massive failures of corporate pornographers to protect the pornstitutes in their employment.
I consider the idea that legal prostitution would reduce sexually transmitted diseases not just anti-common sense and anti-science, but also demonstrably not the agenda of the already legalized pimps, called pornographers. Pornographers have fought hard against protecting sex workers from the obvious risks of industrialized sex-product production, but free market libertarians like Graeme Reid, Eric Sasson, and Tara Burns have convinced themselves this predictable result of capitalism will be different once prostitution without cameras is made legal.
I am glad Matthew Ebert is still alive to tell his tale, and I’m glad the anonymous man writing in the Guardian is still alive to tell his tale, but they can’t bring Phil and Darren back to life so that they can tell their tales too.
I last saw Phil in a coffee shop near Madison Square Garden. He had stopped prostituting, beat his addictions to hardcore drugs, and was struggling to overcome alcoholism as he volunteered with the Gay Men’s Health Clinic. He spoke about a former john who hired him to clean his massive Westchester house, but every time the man made a sexual advance Phil refused. “It’s not worth it anymore, not for all the money he has,” he told me that last time I would see him. He told me how proud he was of the anti-prostitution work I do.
I could spend every day of my life speaking for my dead best friend and it would not put back on this Earth what was taken away by johns who put their power-playing pleasure above other people’s lives. I will spend every day of my life fighting against the sexual commodification of human beings that took the life of my best friend.
Samantha Berg is a radical feminist journalist, activist, and event organizer. Her articles have been published in progressive media for over a decade, and in recent years she has organized anti-prostitution political events in the United States and Canada. Samantha’s blog is JohnStompers.com and her website, Genderberg.com, is dedicated to Phil.
published at Feminist Current June 12, 2014
So men, what do you want to hear?
Not all men are like that? You’re not like those other men?
Let’s say I tell you men that you are wonderful, kind, heroic and humble. Will these words of praise stop the girl enslavement called “child marriages”?
If women change tactics from demanding the return of girl children stolen in Africa, if instead we engulf men in a cascade of compliments assuring men that we know they are decent and devoted, will men return our generosity by raising the average age a girl enters prostitution out of the early teen years?
So men, if it is not flattery you want from women, what are the words you want to hear? What can women say that will cause you to finally stop what you have always had in your manly hands the power to end?
Women have been forgiving of what men have done to us. We have to if we want to leave our homes. We have to forget what pornography shows us men like to masturbate to if we want to go to work or buy food while looking into the porn-soaked eyes of the men around us. We have to forget what happened the last time we went out, and the time before that, and we need to remember the times nothing happened.
I’ll remember that you are the good ones and that most violence is really the fault of madness or money. I will forgive and forget whatever it is you want of me if you tell me what you want to hear women say. Then good men like you will stop telling us how we’re doing feminism wrong, because we’ll be doing it exactly as you command.
Then men will stop the violence your mentally ill brothers and financially destitute brothers commit against girls and women.
Men will stop the violence.
Not because women have always begged men to stop. Not because women have always acquiesced to silent invisibility in the hope that men would respond with civility. Not because men haven’t kept masculinity’s vaunted promise to protect women and children.
Men will stop the violence because women will finally have spoken the word sequence whose non-utterance has kept the dignity of full personhood out of women’s grasp.
So men, enough with telling women when we speak the wrong words. What would you have women say to get men to end the violence sinking humanity’s ship, the result when something naturally balanced is forcibly tipped for too long?
You can go over Twitter’s 140 characters if you need to, or whatever Facebook’s limit is, but do try to keep it from becoming a 141-page manifesto if you can.
Just say the words and I will work tirelessly getting women to repeat them, then men will stop the violence.
Men will stop the violence.
Women will say what men want to hear and men will stop the violence.
And that will work this time.
published at Feminist Current November 9, 2012
I am thrilled that California has just passed two laws addressing the harms of the sex industry. Measure B mandates condom use in porn among other sensible workplace safety preventions for the legal porn industry, and Prop 35 increases consequences for illegal pimps, child pornographers, and sex traffickers while decriminalizing victims of commercial sexual abuse. These laws are a done deal, hooray, yet my abolitionist work on the issue continues as long as the public debate does, and people are not done talking about Prop 35.
For over a decade I have actively tried to lessen the human losses of prostitution, and in that time I’ve heard an unbelievable number of excuses against strengthening sexual exploitation laws. Sometimes I shrug it off as the universal impetus behind Woodrow Wilson’s famous quote, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” and sometimes I think less magnanimous thoughts about those who would thwart the passage of anti-rape laws.
Despite Prop 35’s predictable win – and more importantly despite my extensive history of reading specious sex industry position papers – I gave naysayers the benefit of the doubt that maybe this time they had a point. Let me share some of the excuses I’ve seen made for opposing Prop 35 (full text and summary here for reference.)
First, let’s zoom past the complaint about crowding the sex offender list because databases exist. Imagine if we set a limit on fingerprint collection because oy, ten from each person! If police truly must print out sex offender lists and scan them with biological eyes then they definitely need the extra money Prop 35 would take from pimps to upgrade past 1995 home computer technology.
Some No on Prop 35ers are very concerned about the families of convicted sex offenders. Similarly, right now in Kennebunk, Maine some prostitute-using men believe they should be exempt from having their crimes known publicly by begging mercy for what the community outcry will do to their children. Forgive me for slipping myself another easy one at the start, one where men are responsible for considering the impact of their decisions before choosing to break the law.
The flimsy boogeyman of sex workers’ families being labeled traffickers was raised in 1999 when Sweden passed its revolutionary law criminalization johns. No Swedish sex worker’s children have been charged as traffickers in Sweden after twelve years of much stronger anti-exploitation laws than Prop 35. Regardless of this reality, Feministing is sure thousands of innocent sex workers and their families will be jailed and bankrupted as they claim Prop 35 just criminalized the entire sex industry (and their families) in California.
The “locking up rapists overcrowds prisons” one has also been around since the early days of the Swedish model when naysayers predicted many nonviolent, merely ‘naughty’ men would be thrown in jail by the Swedish Gestapo. Turned out men don’t need hookers so much when there are negative consequences to their actions because soliciting reduced dramatically and few johns were jailed. Did the low jail rate vindicate Swedish model advocates? Heck no! They used the low number of jail sentences to suggest the law was unnecessary and ineffective. There’s no pleasing some people.
Melissa Gira Grant creatively made a new use for an old line that’s been shutting down discussions about porn for years when she suggested “sexual exploitation” can mean anything at all and no one can know if what goes on under that label is criminal or not. Postmodernists who say words have no distinct, shared meanings are blaspheming linguistics and manipulating language to their own ends like three-card Monte cheaters. Once upon a time there was no such thing as sexual harassment or domestic violence, now that time has passed and taken with it ignorance of how sexual exploitation harms people.
I saved the worst for last.
Behold the euphemism for child pornography that a pornsturbator at California’s Ventura County Star concocted against Prop 35, “Also, individuals could face severe penalties for very limited, indirect involvement with artistic or other creative works that later are found to have used minors illegally.”
Prostituted kids needs to be decriminalized at the very least, however sex worker groups who call decriminalization their goal have never put decriminalizing kids on their legislative agenda. It’s abolitionists who get laws passed erasing the criminal records of exploited children and giving prostituted women the right to sue pimps for damages.
Not only aren’t sex worker groups working for safe harbor laws, in addition to Prop 35 they tried to kill New York’s law from passing when it was proposed by a coalition of activists led by survivor Rachel Lloyd of GEMS. Sex industry advocates wanted the law, including the part decriminalizing kids, rejected because they didn’t like that youths could be placed in care facilities which didn’t allow them to come and go as they pleased. Variations on safe harbor laws have been passed in 13 states, leaving 37 states, leaving no time like the present for sex work advocates to get the jump on abolitionist lawmakers by pushing forth the first child decriminalizing laws they won’t protest.
Prop 35 passed with a mandate-making 81% of the vote. Eyes are watching to see how California’s authorities wind up applying the new law, and there’s always some lag time between implementation and results, but there will be results eventually. When Prop 35 follows Sweden’s lead and doesn’t result in strippers’ children having to register as sex offenders, will any of the people who tried to roadblock Prop 35 find the grace to apologize?
- Sam Berg: Words in the World of Gender Identity March 28, 2017
- Melania Trump, America’s first sex worker First Lady December 22, 2016
- Brock Turner and porn users share a culture of sexual entitlement July 22, 2016
- Dead Rentboys tell no tales September 7, 2015
- From Norway to New Zealand, pro-prostitution research is its own worst enemy November 24, 2014
- I want 140 characters which will end rape June 12, 2014
- “The City of Roses shall no longer tolerate feminism!” May 30, 2014
- Ghosts of Prostitution Debates Past October 31, 2013
- Sam Berg’s Statement on Radfem Rise Up! 2013 July 11, 2013
- Rain & Thunder Activist Spotlight: Samantha Berg, United States June 12, 2013
- Norwegian prostitution research solid like iceberg February 8, 2013
- New research shows violence decreases under Nordic model: Why the radio silence? January 22, 2013
- Who votes against decriminalizing prostituted children? November 9, 2012
- Radfem Reboot Wrap-up August 20, 2012
- Christine Stark’s “Nickels”, a tale of association January 17, 2012
- The Internet Swear Jar December 15, 2011
- Feminism and Occupy Portland November 6, 2011
- Three days of radical feminist SCUM October 25, 2011
- On the Feminists-in-Underwear Walks October 9, 2011
- Scotland: Don’t be like US May 5, 2010
- New coalition challenges the status quo of “Pornland, OR” February 14, 2010
- Extra, extra! Newspaper reporter interviews radical feminist! January 2, 2010
- Radical Feminism on the Web: The Carnival of Radical Feminists November 9, 2009
- Samantha Berg: HerStories interview October 28, 2008
- Paradigm shifts and paying for sex May 2, 2008
- The quest to be human: An interview with “Getting Off” author Robert Jensen November 22, 2007
- Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture September 14, 2007
- The New Antipornography Slide Show September 14, 2007
- Pornography, Prostitution & Sex Trafficking: How Do You Tell the Difference? September 14, 2007
- Hey, progressives! Cathouse got your tongue? July 9, 2006
- Portland at crossroads of human trafficking April 6, 2006
- “It’s up to you”: Prostitution, Censorship and Sweden January 4, 2006
- Female Chauvinist Liz: Third wave feminism through the songs of Liz Phair October 31, 2005
- The Harms of Gay Male Pornography: A Sexual Equality Perspective August 14, 2005
- Memorial for civil rights leader Andrea Dworkin July 1, 2005
- Giving the marginalized the tools to speak their voices April 10, 2005
- Sex trafficking strikes closer to home than thought November 13, 2004
- Media critics blind towards Playboy’s soft porn June 1, 2004
- All naked women are created equal January 3, 2004