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 in feminist journal Rain & Thunder issue #56, Spring 2013
Laurel Long took the time to interview Samantha Berg, a generation X radical feminist and anti-pornstitution activist. Berg was a lead organizer for Radfem Reboot, an all-womyn gathering held in Portland, Oregon in July 2012.
Laurel Long (LL): How did you discover radical feminism?
Samantha Berg (SB): A woman once wrote that her feminist process was: liberal, feminist, pro-sex feminist, radical feminist. My radicalization process looks a lot like that, landing on radicalism in my mid 20s.
The first change was realizing that being feminist is believing in women’s liberation as per the femin- part, but it’s equally grounded in the suffix -ist marking someone who takes action. Usually there will be overlap in what serves all women and what serves me, but I’m speaking in the deepest philosophical sense of committing oneself to bettering the lives of all women.
Then I began reading and openly identified as a feminist. Soon I learned enough to realize my use of and support for pornography (strip clubs, other pornstitution) fit under pro-sex feminism, and I accepted that. The shift from pro-sex to radical took about two years beginning to end. I hadn’t been applying my feminism to pornography for all the usual reasons like acceptance from my porn-using partner, the thrill of being a baddie bad girl who used a boy thing, all those twirly emotions that collide around sexuality.
I was becoming more radical in other areas of my life. Still a porn user, I moved from NYC to Portland, a city famous for its unconventional politics and booming prostitution industry. I continued my poverty-relief campaigning while honoring my feminism through pro-choice activism. These forces came together in actualized practice when I began to find myself turned off by the idea of using pornography from 1) a feminist viewpoint 2) an anti-corporate control over media viewpoint 3) a sexual health educator’s viewpoint.
In the longer version there are the people I’ve loved who suffered from and lost their lives to prostitution, but I’ll skip that personal portion of the narrative for now. This is the part where I find through the internet that there are other feminists who feel about pornstitution the same way I had come to feel about it. They also turned out to be anti-corporate, anti-war, pro-environmentalism and pro-alternative politics, just like me. They called themselves radical feminists and after more reading I decided it was a fitting term.
LL: Some women have said that discovering radical feminism saved their lives. Would you say this is true for you?
SB: I wouldn’t say that’s accurate for me. Anti-pornstitution activism gives me purpose and pride and it makes me feel less crazy in a world where the insanity of male supremacy lords over us all, but it didn’t spark renewed life in me. The people in my life who have cared for and supported me are the ones who “saved my life,” radical feminism is the love that I’m able to give back now that I’m in a safe and trusting place.
LL: What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing women today?
SB: Corporate media exploitation of women’s fears and insecurities. From movies to music to the internet, my generation of women consumes images produced by others (almost entirely men) at a greater rate than ever before. We’re drowning in a sea of woman-negative media that would be hard to stay afloat in with rafts, and we don’t have those. As we struggle uphill to procure basic tools like critical analysis and freedom from unwanted media intrusion, corporate psychologists work harder to worm into the subconscious minds of the most dubious, skeptical media consumers.
LL: One problem women with your politics face is finding other women with similar politics. How many other radical feminists do you know near where you’re located?
SB: There are about a dozen radfem acquaintances in the Portland area. I’ve worked with them on and off for years on specific protests and projects.
Lately there’s been a resurgence of anti-prostitution energy as housewives, businesswomen, and retirees are coming together to address the Pacific Northwest’s especially large problems with rape slavery. They are my friends and colleagues, but most wouldn’t call themselves radical feminists. No matter, they’re targeting johns and talking honestly about porn, which makes them more woman-centered than the poseurs of popular feminism.
LL: Are you active on the feminist blogosphere? Does this help keep you sane? In any case, what else do you do to maintain as much sanity as possible in this f-ed up world?
SB: Yes and yes. Fighting back is the healthiest thing a shit-upon woman can do. I make no claims to having maintained my sanity.
LL: What is your vision for change in the next 5-10 years?
SB: Nordic model all the way, baby. Mandatory health protections for pornstitutes and strippers. Actual application of laws that are supposed to keep pornography away from kids.
LL: What do you wish you had known five years ago?
SB: The johns, the johns, the johns. Stay on target. Capitalists and apologists will do everything to talk about anything but the johns.
LL: This is your moment! What would you like to say to young women today?
SB: The situation is grim, but we have the solution. Susan B. Anthony watched as nation after nation passed women’s suffrage, and in my lifetime I’ve seen the same global sweep with the Swedish model of prostitution. We are living through an exciting and productive time to be a radical feminist.
LL: I’m curious to know more about the Radfem Reboot event held in July 2012. What were the successes?
SB: Feedback has been that Reboot was a particularly congenial event as such political gatherings go. I’m a veteran of anti-trafficking and pro-women conferences, but I haven’t clocked as many years as some of the women who told me how pleased they were with the overall civility of the weekend. Personally, I’m most proud of the behind-the-scenes chaos being handled well enough that attendees were none the wiser.
LL: What would you do differently if you held the event again?
SB: Honestly, it was the conference of my dreams and I wouldn’t make any big changes. This was my chance to do a radfem conference Bergstyle and I’m pleased as a peach with how it went. The speakers were women I wanted to learn from, the breadth of topics was impressive and favored my anti-pornstitution interests by design, and friends I’ve been collaborating with for years flew across the planet to give me hugs. Organizing Radfem Reboot made me feel so useful, respected, and loved that it would be greedy to ask for more.
LL: Is there anything that came out of the event that would be good for Rain & Thunder readers to know about?
SB: Preliminary plans for more conferences would probably be of most practical interest to readers and I’m sure the details of those are forthcoming, so I’d like to share a more spiritual anecdote.
There was one woman who participated not because she was a radfem or knew anyone there, but because she lived down the street from the venue and stepped inside to use the bathroom Saturday morning. Seeing our large gathering of only women, she took a seat and wound up staying through Sunday night. The Portland sisterhood grew by one and once again I felt vindicated in every way about radical feminism because our advanced theory workshops spoke to the soul of a woman simply passing through. At our most philosophical we don’t stray from the axis of real women’s lives and truths.
That’s the first story I tell non-radical feminist friends when they ask how my conference went, but my favorite story came out of Saturday night’s group activism. Alas, that one can only be told in person so you’ll have to get yourself to the next radfem gathering and ask me or another woman who participated about it. I promise it’s worth the travel and lodging costs.
Laurel Long is a 26-year-old radical feminist activist who first “met” Sam Berg through her fantastic online website www.genderberg.com When not engaging in radical feminist activism, Long works as a sexual assault and mental health crisis counselor.
- 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