A Statement About Sex Work, Sex Workers, and Sexual Assault

9 09 2006

UBUNTU was born in the aftermath of the March 13, 2006 rape of a Durham, North Carolina black woman by members of the Duke University lacrosse team. UBUNTU is a women of color and survivor-led coalition with both individual and organizational members. We prioritize the voices, analyses, and needs of women of color and survivors of sexual violence. We are women, men, transgender people, and people who do not fit into the gender binary. We are people of color, multi-racial, and white. We come from throughout the Triangle area and have roots both within and outside of the United States. We are sex workers, students, and community members. We are workers. We are lesbian, gay, bisexual, Two-Spirit, questioning, queer, and straight. We are young, old, and in-between. We come from a broad range of economic, geographic, spiritual, and political backgrounds. The name UBUNTU reflects a commitment to a traditional sub-Saharan African concept, which roughly translated means, “I am because we are.”

On March 13, three Duke University lacrosse team captains hosted a party at their home, attended by most of the team’s members. The players arranged for two exotic dancers to entertain them, but provided false information: they told the booking service that dancers would perform at a bachelor party for five men. When the dancers arrived they found more than forty drunken men–mostly members of the Duke lacrosse team.

The rest of the events of the night in question are hotly contested. There was racial harassment of the two dancers as they performed, both of whom are black women. All the lacrosse team members there that night, but one, is white. According to the police warrant, after the dancers discontinued their performance because of the men’s aggressive and intimidating behavior, three men forced one of the dancers into a bathroom. There she was held against her will, beaten, strangled, gang raped, and sodomized for thirty minutes. When the women were finally permitted to leave, a neighbor reported hearing one of the men shout, “Thank your grandpa for my cotton shirt!” – a hateful remark of particular weight coming from a student at an elite university founded by one of the largest and most wealthy slave-owning families in Durham’s history. In our town, many residents have long family histories stretching back to the times of slavery whose grandparents did in fact pick the cotton that spawned the enormous wealth of the southern white aristocracy.

A police search of 610 Buchanan turned up four red fingernails belonging to the victim, (typical when a woman is forced to physically defend herself. They also found her make-up bag, cell phone, identification, a single white stiletto with a six-inch heel, and $400.00 in cash (all in twenty-dollar bills).

From the beginning, the news outlets’ choice of words defined the people within the case. Many articles and stories referred to the survivor only as a “stripper,” ignoring that she is also a mother, an honor roll student at North Carolina Central University (an historically black university, also located in Durham), and a military veteran. In contrast, the references to her attackers as students and athletes seemed truly unfair and designed to arouse suspicion about her credibility. Just as racial stereotypes and coded language shape the way we hear news on a daily basis (typically linking criminality and black men), undue focus on this woman’s job also plays into the stereotypes that many people have about sex workers.

Unfortunately, it is not only Rush Limbaugh (who called her a “ho”) or David Yeagley of FrontPageMag.com (“She was literally asking for it, for whatever happened anyway.”) and those of their ilk who have excused the alleged crimes based on the survivor’s occupation. Recently, in an interview John Hope Franklin gave on National Public Radio, he said just that. This is particularly disappointing coming from a man who is a celebrated black writer and historian, civil rights advocate, Duke Professor emeritus, and Chairman of the advisory board for One America: the President’s Initiative on Race. In the interview Professor Franklin said, “I’m not sure how much you ask for it if you’re going to get out there and be a stripper. The case gets to be a little weaker when you’re talking about someone who is engaged in that profession.”

The ugly commentary we heard all over the media following the rape, reflects an undercurrent of thought that many Americans would not normally feel free to voice that says black women and sex workers are not “people of note” (something Yeagley actually said to describe the survivor). As a result, a defense strategy that poses the lacrosse players as men capable of racial harassment, physical intimidation, and robbery, can expect that these same men will be seen as credible witnesses when compared to a black stripper. This is deeply painful for those of us either currently or formerly engaged in sex work in Durham. One UBUNTU member who is a former sex worker and rape survivor wrote:

When I began to think about and really process this, I had to acknowledge to myself that the survivor of the Duke Lacrosse rape was raped because she was a sex worker, which makes her just like me… Rape is seen as acceptable because she was a sex worker — according to that logic she and [I] are alike and both “un-rapeable.” And does that mean? [T]hat when I was raped it somehow [didn’t] count?

On April 5, a March 27 search warrant for the residence of lacrosse player, Ryan McFadyen, was unsealed and posted on the website TheSmokingGun.com. Among other details, the search warrant includes an email message sent by McFadyen with disturbing and violent content. The email was sent exactly 36 minutes after the survivor met police in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store and first reported that she had been assaulted and raped (1:22 am). This is what the message said:

“tommrow night, after tonights show, ive decided to have some strippers over to edens 2c. all are welcome.. however there will be no nudity. i plan on killing the bitches as soon as the walk in and proceding to cut their skin off while cumming in my duke issue spandex.. all in besides arch and tack please respond41”

“41” is Ryan McFadyen’s jersey number. Many were especially disturbed to learn that he attended the Duke campus’ Take Back The Night rally on March 29. He told a student newspaper reporter that, “I completely support this event and this entire week. It’s just sad that the allegations we are accused of happened to fall when they did.” Duke’s annual “Sexual Assault Awareness Week” began on March 27. McFayden’s supporters claim this proves his email is simply a joke because his appearance at the rally is incompatible with someone who could actually be violent towards women.

On June 30, newspapers reported that Ryan McFadyen was readmitted to Duke without sanction. A letter from Duke Vice Chancellor Larry Moneta to University President Richard Brodhead, detailing the terms of his suspension and reinstatement was released to the media. Apparently, Moneta also considers McFayden’s email about mutilating and killing strippers a “joke.” McFayden’s suspension from Duke, has been explained as a precaution to ensure his safety, not as a disciplinary response. He is not required to undergo counseling, no public apology is requested,–and he will play on the reinstated lacrosse team.

In Moneta’s opinion, sending this email, while “given the context of the time” was inappropriate, does not even rise to the level of what they consider disorderly conduct. Larry Moneta sweeps the terrorism of McFadyn’s email aside. He takes McFadyn’s stated intentions at face value and welcomes him back into the fold. Certainly, this is not the only possible interpretation of McFadyn’s mimicking of the pathological ravings of a serial killer in the movie American Psycho. What is a “joke”? When does a “joke” turn into a threat?A “threat” into terrorism? For us, the vile email was just not a joke. It’s not that it was misinterpreted; it was never funny to begin with.

The power dynamics reveal a different interpretation, one that reveals the email as an unveiled parade of dominance, a shove-it-in-their-face reminder of who’s in charge for all of the men he sent it to. It’s more like a postcard of a lynching, than it is like a knock-knock joke. Postcards of lynch scenes were widely popular during the heyday of lynching in the Jim Crow American South, parading the charred and mutilated remains of victims as momentos available for pennies at storefronts all over the South. White Southerners bought these either to keep for posterity or to mail to friends to far away to come out for the show to share in the spectacle. It seems more likely to us that the idea that it was a “joke” came later, when the shame of an excessive display of misogyny and dominance became a little embarrassing and had big consequences.

The power dynamics also require an analysis of the intersections between racism and social perceptions of sex work. UBUNTU’s work to end sexual violence targets those situations and people we know are most vulnerable to sexual assault. As women of color and sex workers, we know that we represent groups of people that are made more vulnerable by cultural perceptions that say we’re throwaway people and declare open season on our bodies. Those that prey on us are aware of how society regards black women and sex workers and choose their targets accordingly.

This summer, two white men Jeremy Sweat, 24, and Dustin Evans, 21, were arrested and charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, and attempted murder in connection with the alleged attacks on two black women in Manning, South Carolina. According to Lt. Tommy Burgess of the Clarendon County Sheriff’s Department, Sweat explained his choice of black women for victims saying, “[a black woman is] someone society wouldn’t care about, wouldn’t be missed,”

Beyond these dramatic examples, sex workers of color are often abused by clients according to racist fantasies. As one UBUNTU member explained, “As a dancer myself, it was not uncommon for customers to refer to me on stage by racial epithets–both by those perversely turned on by patriarchal ideas about “exotic women” and by those who I had made angry in some way as a more intentional form of verbal assault.”

The consequences for sex workers of color may be greater in terms of community acceptance and stigmatization. Scholar Elizabeth Higgonbotham coined the phrase “the politics of respectability” to describe how racial oppression can be broken down if oppressed folks are just respectable enough. Basically, people of color who engage in stigmatized behavior are seen as reflecting poorly on their people and disparaged for their actions. The politics of respectability most certainly enters the Duke rape situation when we see community leaders like Jesse Jackson offering to give the survivor a full-ride scholarship to pay for the remainder of her education so that she does not have to strip. While it is certainly a wonderful thing that a single mother of two no longer has to worry about how to pay for school, the gift confuses the issue. The problem is not that she was stripping. The problem is that she was raped.

The same politics of respectability plays out within activist communities, making sex worker rights advocacy difficult to be vocal about. It is our sincere hope that by being vocal and visible UBUNTU will be a coalition that is able to cut through some of the theoretical debates about the sex industry and feminism and actually be a welcoming community and support base for sex workers. The experience of speaking out about the Duke rape case and dealing with the politics of respectability within activist spaces was a frequent point of discussion for UBUNTU members. As one member said, “I am afraid that no one will listen to us or want to listen to us because of our histories with sex work and that people will see us differently…I also feel angry. I believe we come to live out loud, and our silence will not protect us – as [Audre] Lorde always says – and that if I am silent, then I am also saying that it is okay that she was raped because she was a stripper.”

UBUNTU’s work is centered on ending sexual assault. When we look at sex work and this case in particular, we see that there are many connections between sex work and sexual assault that make sex workers more vulnerable to attack, less able to report attacks, more likely to be discredited in the process of criminal investigation and trial, and less able to draw on support of their communities.

For some of us who are current or former sex workers, it is clear that a traditional feminist take on sex work (All sex work is harmful to women–period.) does not address any of these issues, or empower sex workers in any way. For this reason, two former sex workers and sexual assault survivors in UBUNTU developed a political education workshop to address these issues while discussing the particular needs that sex workers and former sex workers have in the healing process as survivors of sexual assault. Our coalition members really responded to this workshop and it has grounded our work in an internal politics that puts sex workers’ dignity, humanity, and right to safety at the forefront of our work to end sexual violence.

It is clear to us that our Sister Survivor was attacked because she was a sex worker, and that her attack (even among those in the public who still believe that one happened) is very often justified because of her work. “Occupational hazard”…”What did she expect?” “When you’re in that line of work…” –The justifications go. For us this is unacceptable, all rape demands outrage.

As we look toward the future of our work together as UBUNTU, we take inspiration and direction from those who came before us, in particular women of color and Third World women’s organizing. One of our coalition’s artistic responses has been the performance of Audre Lorde’s Need: A Chorale for Black Women’s Voices. Written as a raw depiction of violence against women in 1970s Boston, Need continues to speak urgently about sexual violence against women of color, and has allowed our coalition to bring these issues into the community and open up meaningful dialogues.

The work of the Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbian feminist activists that met and conducted direct action campaigns for five years in Boston during the 1970’s, provides our newly forming coalition with a framework around which to build a community that stands against sexual oppression on every level.

We see intense parallels between the way women of color and black lesbians mobilized in Boston around the murders of black women in 1979 (although those women were organizing around violence against women beforehand). Just as UBUNTU has begun to do, the Boston response involved the quick release of small publications, organized poetry events, and the engagement of existing community organizations.

When our group formed early in April amidst the media blitz of emerging reports about the March 13th attack, healing was an especially urgent need. Healing sessions are opportunities for members of our coalition to speak about their experiences and feelings in safe spaces, without the moral judgments and shaming that can make opening up and healing from sexual assault difficult for many people and especially intimidating for current and former sex workers.

In order to raise awareness about the history and current realities of sexual violence, the UBUNTU education working group has chosen to use “NO!”, Aishah Simmons’ groundbreaking film about sexual violence in African-American communities. UBUNTU works collaboratively with another local organization, Men Against Rape Culture (MARC) to provide workshops about sexual assault for local colleges and communities.

In response to the announcement of Ryan McFadyen’s reinstatement to Duke University, UBUNTU wrote an opinion piece that has been submitted to several local papers and is featured on our organization’s blog (http://onecommunityofmany.blogspot.com/). We felt this was necessary because both callous joking about sexual assault and dehumanizing sex workers support cultural acceptance of rape. We also began a flyering campaign that targeted Duke’s campus and our communities (these can be found and printed at our organization’s blog).

Early in April UBUNTU members put together a poetry reading and evening of music as a fundraiser held at a local restaurant and bar. Members of UBUNTU have hosted panel discussions about our work at activist conventions such as the Southeastern Radical Queer and Trans Convergence and the Southeast Social Forum. Recently we have been meeting with local community leaders and organizations to form bridges that will support our advocacy and service to communities. We are developing relationships with health care providers who specialize in service to local prostitutes. We are working to make connections within the sex worker organizing and advocacy communities and networks that exist nationally.

In thinking about the politics of respectability in terms of changing dynamics within the activist community a more fundamental parallel arises. In the 1970s black lesbians were absolutely marginalized in the “black” (straight) and “lesbian” (white) and feminist (heterosexual/white) movements of the time. But the murders of these black women created a moment in which black lesbians and the analyses they put forth about what it really means to love black women (on a social level) became legible to “other” local community organizations. This crosscut economic and political issues of violence in oppressed communities where before hardly any of these folks (especially the straight, black folks) would have identified black lesbians as allies.

Similarly, our work comes at a time where there has been an emergence of leadership by women who are involved in the sex trade as a local and global struggle. This moment is an opportunity for our work to make connections between the communities we are working with and the power and the importance of the analysis that sex workers and former sex workers are bringing to the table. It is our chance to really envision a community that stands against sexual oppression on every level.

As it was important for Audre Lorde and the women of the Combahee River Collective to reclaim their voice from the masculinists who first framed the issue of violence in a proprietary way, encouraging women not to leave the house without male supervision (as if that would solve the problem of being murdered by men in your own community!), we also reject the moralism that criminalizes our Sister Survivor for having her job. As a community, as UBUNTU, we will continue to push an analysis that stands for her (and our) survival and dignity.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: