Monday, July 23, 2012

Criminalized for Carrying Condoms

Due to the hard work of activists, increasing attention is being paid to the epidemic of police harassment, profiling, brutalizing, and often murder of young Black and Latino men, who in cities like New York are stopped at rates greater than eight times their representation in the overall population. Last week, a special report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) shed light on another group targeted by the police: sex workers and those who police think “look like” sex workers, often transgender women.

The report, Sex Workers at Risk: Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in Four US Cities” was the result of interviews with over 300 people, including “nearly 200 sex workers and former sex workers as well as outreach workers, advocates, lawyers, police officers, district attorneys, and public health officials”, in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

HRW’s report points out an absurd and dangerous contradiction: while city health departments hand out tens of millions of free condoms each year, proven to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, city police departments are using the possession of condoms as evidence against those at some of the highest risk for HIV and other STDs: sex workers. 

A study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that 14% of male and 10% of female sex workers in the city are HIV-positive, compared with 1.4% citywide. 

The law in many places, including New York State, both prohibits prostitution and is vague enough in its definition of related offenses that HRW considers it “problematic from a human rights perspective, in that [the laws regarding loitering] grant police wide latitude to engage in unjustified interference with lawful activities short of actual solicitation [for prostitution]. Such laws enable arbitrary and preemptive arrests on the basis of profile or status, rather than criminal conduct.” 

In other words, police have free rein to stop-and-frisk those they believe to be sex workers, and can then arrest them if they find condoms on them, and use that as evidence in charges for prostitution. This is a recipe for widespread profiling on the basis of race, clothing and gender identity. And it amounts to punishing sex workers and others for taking steps to protect their health and that of their partners.

By using possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, and harassing and arresting suspected sex workers on this basis, the police are contributing to the HIV/AIDS epidemic as many sex workers have stopped carrying condoms, or do not carry enough. 

Anna E., a sex worker, told HRW: “Am I afraid to carry condoms? Yes I was for a long time. When I was working on the street, I felt like I could only carry two or three, not a lot when I went out…”

Alexa L. said: “I use condoms. I take a lot of care of myself. But the police affect our ability to carry them. Sometimes I’m afraid and have not used them. I am very worried about my health.”

This is a direct assault on the health and well-being of sex workers, and on public health more generally. Studies have found that between 15-20% of men in theUnited States have purchased the services of a sex worker; these men, and sex workers themselves, have other partners who are then placed at greater risk.

HIV is not the only danger. STDs such as Chlamydia, which if undetected can lead to infertility, and HPV, which can cause cervical cancer, are much easier to spread and can cause permanent damage and even death.

As the report shows, the harassment of sex workers and those perceived by police to be sex workers on the basis of condom possession is just the tip of the iceberg. For sex workers and transgender women, who are frequently profiled by police as being sex workers, contact with the police often means verbal and physical abuse (including rape), extortion, fines, and for undocumented immigrants, deportation.


The criminalization and stigmatization of sex work, which is illegal in 49 US states, provides the context (and an important pretext) for police abuse and harassment.
In general, sex work is not by any means a victimless phenomenon. Millions of women, including young girls are the victims of sex trafficking, kidnapped and forced into sex work or sex slavery, their earnings enriching organized crime syndicates who terrorize and brutalize their victims. 

Others are compelled by discrimination and economic necessity to engage in sex work when they otherwise would choose not to. This is especially the case for transgender women. A survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality found that 16% of transgender respondents had been forced to engage in sex work and/or sell drugs or other illegal activities for survival purposes. This is as a result of widespread discrimination against transgender people, who face incredibly elevated rates of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.

However, it’s important to note that there are sex workers who choose to engage in sex work as freely as anyone else chooses to work a job under capitalism. 

Also, sex workers are not simply passive victims, as often portrayed, but workers who can and do organize to fight for their own interests, including the decriminalization of their profession.
Sex workers themselves are organizing for decriminalization, and should be supported. Beyond that, arguments in favor of criminalization as a way to protect sex workers fall apart when one looks at who is charged with enforcing the laws, and what are the actual outcomes of enforcement of laws banning anti-prostitution.

The HRW report points out that in 2011, the NYPD made just over four thousand prostitution-related arrests. Of these, 64% were arrests of alleged sex workers (for “prostitution” or “loitering for prostitution”), and 29% were arrests of “johns” who patronize them. Just 35 arrests were made for sex trafficking (0.9%), and 6 for compelling prostitution (0.1%). 

Sex workers themselves are the target of nearly two-thirds of all arrests, and like the war on drugs, the vast majority of arrests are for “street-level” crimes, while the pimps and sex traffickers for the most part go free, making up just 1% of prostitution-related arrests. 

Rather than protecting sex workers, an encounter with police is often likely to lead to victimization and abuse. Police frequently commit crimes against sex workers that are far worse than the misdemeanor charge they arrest them for.

A fact sheet by INCITE! entitled “Policing Sex Work” points out that a “2002 study found that 30% of exotic dancers and 24% of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist. Approximately 20 % of other acts of sexual violence reported by study participants were committed by the police…extortion of sexual acts in exchange for avoiding arrest or further violence, public strip searches, physical violence, as well as overtly sexist, homophobic, racist and transphobic verbal abuse of sex workers by police officers are an all too common experiences for indoor and street-based sex workers.”

Sexism and transphobia intersect with racism in such a way that Black and Latina sex workers, especially transgender women, face the highest rates of abuse and brutality at the hands of the police.

According to the NGLTF report, 38% of Black transgender people who have encountered police reported having been harassed by police, 15% were physically assaulted, and 7% were sexually assaulted.

And undocumented immigrants face the added fear of deportation following an arrest, especially given the implementation of “Secure Communities,” which involves increase cooperation between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.

The HRW report confirms this. Brenda D. told HRW that:

“I went into a car with a person. He said he was a police officer and said ‘if you help me I’ll help you.’ He said he wanted oral sex. He showed me a badge. He said if I didn’t have oral sex with him he would call the police and arrest me for prostitution.”

Tara A., a transgender woman, told HRW about her experience following an arrest:

“I spent 24 hours in Central Booking in Queens. Just 24 hours in hell…you have to go in an area with men. It’s not just being arrested…men were insulting me, saying ‘faggot.’ I felt discriminated when they took my fingerprints, they put on gloves, like they were disgusted. They made fun of me, the police officers. Sometimes I’d walk by the men and they’d say ‘you’re pretty.’ The police officer would say ‘she’s not a woman, she’s a man.’"

The criminalization of sex work, and the stigmatization attached to it, means that sex workers live in the shadows, in fear of exposing the abuse they face, whether from the police or from johns, pimps or sex traffickers. Decriminalization would not solve all of the problems facing sex workers, but it is a precondition for them to win meaningful rights as workers.


The realities exposed by HRW’s report illuminate another important point: conquering the HIV epidemic is not just a matter of handing out free condoms or educating people on how to have safe sex. Although these are important steps, deeper institutional and societal change is needed.

Dealing with the HIV epidemic requires addressing the factors (unemployment, poverty, homelessness, legal and de facto discrimination, transphobia, sexism, etc.) that force people to put themselves at risk in order to survive.

It is going to take the self-organization of the oppressed, in this case sex workers and transgender women, joining forces with others (such as the broader Black and Latino communities) who are also targeted by the police.

And ultimately it will require the dismantling of the racist, sexist, anti-LGBT, and xenophobic system of mass incarceration of which the routine harassment of small-time “offenders” like drug users and sex workers is simply a gateway to a lifetime of second-class status.

These are all goals we should keep in mind, but we are a long way from achieving that. For now, the growing movement against racial profiling and brutality should stand with sex workers and transgender victims of police brutality.

Walking around with a pack of condoms (or a dime bag of weed) should not mean risking being targeted, humiliated, and/or brutalized by those supposedly charged to “protect and serve.”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Daniel Tosh: STFU

Most people reading this are probably aware by now that Comedian Daniel Tosh, who hosts the Tosh.0 show on Comedy Central, has been under fire recently for a rape joke he made while onstage at the Laugh Factory comedy club.

The account of the woman targeted by Tosh was posted on the Cookies for Breakfast Tumblr, here.
It’s worth quoting the woman’s account at length:
So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didn’t appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” 
I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.
After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing I needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.
Since then there have been calls for Tosh to be fired from his job at Comedy Central, including a petition on that has garnered nearly 20,000 signatures as of this writing.

Tosh issued a mealy-mouthed apology, tweeting “all the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize,” and an explanation that “the point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies.”

The owner of the Laugh Factory, for his part, has contestedthe woman’s account of what happened that night, including what Tosh actually said.

I’m sure that in the coming days more people will come forward with accounts of what it was exactly that Tosh said about rape, gang rape, and what he thinks should’ve been done to the woman who called him out for his sexist jokes. Maybe someone was taking video.

I’m not going to write about that here, because at the end of the day I don’t think that the case against Daniel Tosh rests on what exactly was or wasn’t said the other night at the Laugh Factory. However, if in fact Tosh, jokingly or not, called for the gang rape of a woman in the audience at his comedy show, I believe that he crossed a new line, far beyond even the one he has repeatedly crossed in terms of joking about rape.

In that case a petition is a step in the right direction, but more protest is in order. I’m sure that those who organized the Slutwalks, and others, can think of creative ways to ensure that Tosh, and those who give him a platform, get the message that advocating or making light of rape will not be tolerated.

This is not an isolated incident. As Amy Odell points out atBuzzFeed, “Daniel Tosh has been making rape jokes for years.” Not only that, but in a particularly fucked up segment on his show, he encouraged men to sneak up on women and touch their stomachs without their consent, telling them to “Make sure she's aware that you are in fact feeling a roll.”

Fans of Tosh, who are disproportionately young men (and millions of people watch his show), then went out and did just that, posting their videos online.
Not only was Tosh encouraging his fans to assault women (which they then did), but the whole basis of the “joke” was making fun of women’s issues with low self-esteem and poor body image, a product of a sexist society that upholds unrealistic beauty standards that encourage women (and more recently some men) to hate their bodies.
Tosh, a straight white man, has made a (lucrative) career out of making sexist (as well as racist and homophobic) jokes, with a hit TV show and stand-up success, particularly on the college circuit.
He has claimed that while he is “not a misogynistic and racist person…I do find those jokes funny, so I say them.”
Whether Tosh the private individual is sexist or racist is irrelevant when Tosh the public figure is profiting off of sexism and racism.
(As an aside, George Wallace, the staunch segregationist, was not always the racist icon he would later become. In 1958 he was endorsed by the NAACP in his run for the Democratic nomination for governor in Alabama, against a racist endorsed by the KKK, who Wallace had opposed. After losing, Wallace ratcheted up the racist rhetoric and rose to prominence, stating that “I will never be outniggered again.”)
Regardless of Tosh’s personal views, his sexist act has a real impact on the world, one he should be held accountable for. Of course, the men who filmed themselves touching women inappropriately, and a rapist who watches Tosh.0 or another sexist show, are responsible for their actions. But it’s also the case that sexists are not created in a vacuum; they are products of a sexist society, the sexism of which pop culture plays an important role in reproducing.
Rape is very common in our society, especially among college students, who have long been a key component of Tosh's audience. Various studies have shown that between 20-25% of women in college will be the victim of rape or attempted rape, most often by someone they know. Obviously, a culture where rape (and the importance of women’s consent in sex) is not taken seriously contributes to this epidemic.
So this whole controversy is about a lot more than whether or not you think rape is funny. The question is, does Tosh’s humor contribute to rape culture, or does it meaningfully challenge it?

Unless Tosh challenging it (and it seems pretty clear that he isn’t in any substantial way), he deserves to be challenged for profiting from it.

Tosh is not an idiot. He must know that a big segment of his audience consists of men who have and will rape women. Anyone who has been to a few college parties knows that when a popular comedian plays a show in front of a large audience at a college, there are going to be people in the audience who will go to a party that night with the intent of getting a woman blackout drunk so they can rape her. By profiting off of warming these men up with a set full of rape jokes, Tosh is contributing to a culture that allows rape to thrive.

Finally, I should note that I’m actually a fan of stand-up comedy. I do think that jokes about taboo subjects can be funny. Actually, I think that humor can be a way of using art to positively engage a broad audience on issues of race and class (Dave Chapelle and George Carlin come to mind).

For example, I laughed at this routine about racism by Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani. It's funny because it's clever, but also because the comedian is talking about their experience as a VICTIM of racism, and the racist/racism is the butt of the joke. It does more to undermine racism than it does to promote it. I haven't heard a similar rape joke, but I'd imagine it'd be possible for a female comedian to pull something off along similar lines.

Or this bit from Dave Chapelle, that takes on the issue of slavery. I find it hilarious, and I don’t think it’s offensive because he is using humor to expose the hypocrisy of the United States government, both in the past and today.
The problem with Tosh telling sexist (or racist, homophobic, etc.) jokes is that he is a rich, straight white guy who is telling these jokes not to challenge oppression, but to profit from it. When he makes light of raping women, he's making light of something that he cannot in any way identify with (and thereby shed some light on) in a way that does more to promote rape than challenge it.
He is not the target of rape, and he can't identify on a personal level with those who are, nor is that what he's attempting to do. He, as well as the young men who make up the core of his audience, have no idea what it’s like to face sexist harassment every day when they walk down the street, or go to school or work. The vast majority have no idea what it’s like to be raped, or to live in fear of rape when they go on a date or walk down the street or across campus at night.
So instead of dismissing the woman who called Tosh out for his sexism as a “heckler” and joking about gang raping her, Tosh should listen to the women (and men) who are outraged by his violent sexist “jokes” and try to see things from their perspective.

And until he does, wouldn’t it be hilarious if supporters of women and women’s rights make sure (through a mic check, perhaps?) gets the message loud and clear, wherever he goes? And put it online?

Just kidding.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Freaking out grandma (by advocating barebacking/rawdogging)

The global youth revolt has helped to topple regimes in North Africa, and has shaken the 1% all over, most recently in Montreal and Mexico. From struggles against dictators in North Africa and the Middle East to battles over the right to education in the Americas and Europe to strikes by young workers against sweatshop conditions in Chinese factories to struggles against austerity and the power of the banks in Europe and the United States, the youth are rising.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and one wouldn’t help me if I did, but I’m willing to bet that when the history books are written, at least those written by our side, a rejection of the status quo and the will to fight for a better world will be defining characteristics of a generation of young people coming of age in a world that offers them little hope of a future.

Not so, according to the folks at, who claim that “if anything can be said of our generation, it’s this: We want sexy back.”, a slick website that dubs itself “the revolt against contraception in marriage” (complete with the Ron Paul-esque use of a backwards ‘love’ in ‘revolt’) is an absurd yet dangerous attempt to tap into this rebellious spirit in order to promote monogamous sex, without contraception, within the context of marriage.
Basically, they use slick web design and graphics based off of internet memes to promote pseudo-science that blames contraception and sex without marriage for all that is wrong in our sexual lives (and then some).
According to, raw dogging it is the solution to all of the problems that distort sexual relationships in our society. You see, they, “a group of college kids,” have “narrowed all the wackness down to its primary cause: The widespread use of artificial contraception.”
The “wackness” consists of “sky-high rates of divorce, abortion, and STDs; a world bored with sex and bored with romance; a world in which more and more people are turning to pornography to find sexual satisfaction; a world in which 1 in 5 women report being sexual assaulted, and the human body — the sexiest thing in the universe — is used to sell cars.”
They’re right about some things: STDs are indeed “wack” (in that they can have significant negative impacts on health and disproportionately affect poor people, women, LGBT people, youth, and people of color), millions of people are sexually and romantically unfulfilled, the bulk of the porn that’s out there is sexist, degrading and exploitative, and sexual assault and the objectification of women and the commodification of sex is fucked and needs to be changed.
(An aside: if you can overlook the sinister for a bit, the site, stuck in a time warp where kids think Justin Timberlake is cool, call things “wack”, and think it’s fun to “freak out your grandma” with your advocacy of barebacking, will elicit more than a few chuckles.)
However, divorce and abortion, as well as access to contraception, are all gains of struggles for women’s rights that should be defended.
First, take divorce. Rising divorce rates can be, and often are, viewed as evidence that today’s marriages are somehow getting worse, as opposed to those from the supposedly idyllic 1950s when most people lived happily ever after. You know, when popular television shows featured jokes about domestic violence as their tag line ("one of these the moon!").

More likely, they reflect a reality where the entrance of women into the workplace and the social and political gains of the women’s and LGBT rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s (and since) has allowed more women to escape abusive marriages they would previously have been trapped in. And the reduced stigma of divorce has allowed unhappy couples to split without facing social isolation.
Divorce is still an unnecessarily complicated and expensive procedure in the United States and in many countries around the world. For example, it was only in 2010, with the passage of a law in New York State, that no-fault divorces became available in all 50 states.
Rising divorce rates are better seen as evidence that the institution of monogamous heterosexual marriage is not a positive norm that everyone should aspire to. It might work for some, but over the past few decades more and more people have found themselves newly able to escape it and have jumped ship or avoided marriage altogether. A central component of struggles for LGBT and women’s liberation is the right to live outside of the heterosexual nuclear family if one so chooses.
Secondly, access to abortion and contraception are essential for women to control their reproductive lives, and by extension their own bodies. If women do not have access to abortion and contraception, they cannot control if and when they have children. And given the fact that the burden of raising children still falls disproportionately on women, as well as the obvious (they’re the ones who carry the fetus for 9 months or so, which any woman who has ever been pregnant will tell you is no simple feat), if women cannot control reproduction they cannot participate as equals to men in society. Reproductive freedom is not sufficient for women’s liberation, but it’s certainly necessary.
Behind all of their rhetoric about “rebellion” and “[starting] a revolution,” at the core of what is advocating is the turning back of key components of women’s rights.
And, although the site is far from open about its religious motivations, is the project of Marc Barnes, a popular Catholic anti-abortion and contraception blogger who goes by the name “Bad Catholic.”
He promotes a kinder, gentler, hipper sexism: “Towards abortion doctors, nurses, and clinicians, we must couple our anger with sadness -like a father who learns his teenage daughter is sleeping around. Anger without sadness is not love.”
Barnes is a talented young man with what I believe to be a profoundly sexist world view that he justifies using religion. Barnes, with his attacks on Planned Parenthood (which he accuses of promoting “gendercide”) and groups like Catholics for Choice, is clearly a soldier in the war on women.
And he is turning his talents towards using slick social media strategies to covertly spread this dangerous worldview to an unsuspecting public, much like the Kony 2012 campaign by “Invisible Children” used their video and website to promote evangelical imperialism under the guise of aiding child soldiers.
Still don’t believe that Barnes is a sexist pig? Check out his blog post “Why Cougars Scare the Living Crap Out of Me,” a Panglossian nightmare that seemingly attributes the beauty of young women to their capacity to reproduce and that of older women to their ability to hug their grandchildren.
Then there is his blog post on 1flesh, “9 Reasons Ovulation is Pretty Much Witchcraft,”where he feels the need to issue this disclaimer before going on to attempt to express his admiration for women (which he bases on their ability to ovulate, again reducing women to the ability to reproduce): “I’m a dude. Being such, I’ve always had a rather inflated opinion of myself when it comes to the battle of the sexes. (I just find it difficult to believe that anything can approach the beauty of being able to effectively pee while standing up.)”
The post has to be read in full to appreciate how obnoxious it is, but this gem stands out: “Women’s self-esteem takes a dip when they’re ovulating — they’re much more aware of guys looking at them. (We are, by the way, and it’s your fault. You just went through a magical, good-smelling, better-looking, sweeter-sounding, space-time-warping sorcery. What in all hell else are we supposed to be looking at?)”
Did I mention he opposes gay marriage? And masturbation?
While may seem too ridiculous to take seriously, it is part of a backlash against women’s rights that stretches back to the heyday of the women’s rights movement (for example, the Hyde Amendment, which denies women federal funding for abortion, was passed just three years after Roe v. Wade). This is a backlash that continues to pose a real and growing threat and will only be defeated with a revival of a grassroots movement that demands women’s liberation.

And they pose a threat not just to women, but to all of us who are sexually active.
As Katie J.M. Baker pointed out in Jezebel’s takedown of 1flesh:Groups like 1flesh love to blabber on about how contraception success statistics are bullshit because people don't know how to use condoms properly, but they always ignore the oft-proven fact that abstinence-only education — the idea that it's oh-so-simple to wait until marriage —DOES NOT WORK AT ALL. And that's why the movement is more than a laughable attempt to make antiquated notions of sexuality relevant. 1flesh should be held accountable for more than its lameness.”
While Mr. Barnes may have good intentions (emphasis on "may"), at best he lives in a dream world where people will be convinced by clever internet memes to abandon masturbation, condoms, birth control, and abortion, wait to have sex until marriage, and then live happily ever after in holy, monogamous, heterosexual matrimony.
Here on planet Earth, human beings who are denied sex education and access to condoms have unprotected sex and become infected with STDs, including HIV. Women denied access to birth control and abortion seek to terminate their unwanted pregnancies in back alleys and die by the tens of thousands as a result.

There is nothing sexy about that.