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"Repeal the War on Whores and Drugs!" Margo St. James Takes Down America's Sexual Hang-Ups

Forty years in the hustle, a Q&A with sex worker activist Margo St. James.

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Before [COYOTE leader and cofounder of the National Task Force on Prostitution] Priscilla Alexander went to work for the World Health Organization, it was her idea to start the St. James Infirmary. We were on the cutting edge of what needed to be done. Today at the Infirmary, sex workers and their families can come in and get medical care, [STI] testing, peer counseling, needle exchange, and hot meals and clothes. We put out a handbook [the  Occupational Health & Safety Handbook]—it’s an inch thick—with all kinds of information for sex workers. 

I think the movement is incredible here and abroad; there are more groups around the country than when COYOTE was in its heyday. There are so many other groups doing good work, like  SWOP [Sex Workers Outreach Project] and HIPS [Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive] in Washington, DC Holland’s got a great group, the  Red Thread [De Rode Draad]. Sex workers have found a more humane and respectful way of protecting other sex workers. Arrests are not how you protect people.

Even though sex workers are making great strides in healthcare advocacy, last year many, including St. James Infirmary allies, were banned from entering the country and attending the 2012 International AIDS Conference. What are the biggest obstacles to giving sex workers a voice in aids and public health policy?

There’s still so much hypocrisy. Under the Bush administration, [Randall L.] Tobias, the man in charge of distributing money from USAID to health clinics around the world, demanded a pledge from the clinics—some run by sex workers—that they say they were against prostitution before they were given any funds. He resigned when it became known that he was on a DC madam’s customer list. “To Buy Ass”—that’s what I called him! He was such a hypocrite.

What still grabs me is police using [the posession of] condoms as evidence against sex workers. They didn’t do that so much before, but now the bastards are doing it in a bunch of major cities! It doesn’t say much for supporting safe sex. Or showing some common sense and empathy.

Do you think portrayals of sex workers in pop culture and the media have improved over the last 40 years?

The old Western movies are much more caring toward women than the current crap on the TV or movie screens. The media portrayals of sex workers in reality shows or movies, they’re still keeping women in a net. Usually women die in the movie, or they get arrested, or they’re brutalized by their pimps. They show sex workers being punished. Why don’t they ever show the cops hassling them instead?

The mainstream press, when they do cover sex work, is square and nobody really complains about it. The underground newspapers write our stories, but they don’t get the corporate money, and they fold, like  $pread.

So what do you think is the best way forward for sex-work policy in the United States?

Bottom line, we need to engineer a repeal of the war on whores and the war on drugs. These prohibitions are the mechanism by which racism and sexism are maintained. Examining these bad laws will show clearly how stigma is used to disenfranchise minority women and men, especially.

You can’t divide economic injustice from sex-worker injustice. The two go together. The men and women on the streets are the ones who are going to be hassled by the police. I think we need to look at that, and we’ve got to leave the policy answers up to the sex workers. The criminalization of marginalized people is the problem we need to fix. As far as getting funding and having good healthcare, getting rid of the stigma on women and others, decriminalization would result in better funding and the end of dividing women. Even if people don’t think decriminalization is the answer, increased fines, penalties, and prison terms like in [the recently passed California ballot initiative] Proposition 35 aren’t the answer, either.

 
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