NO HUMAN INVOLVED
When some one is locked up, we on the outside may start to lose contact with them because the barriers to communication are so great. Letters are returned, phone systems broken, sometimes we don't know where are loved ones are at all. The institutions can keep meticulous records, however, and from these pages we get echoes of the humanity trapped behind these walls.
July 1995, report from a CSO at Perryville Prison
Subject: IM Powell 1094416 Missing Store
On the above date and approximate time I was sitting at the picnic table with [an inmate] when she told me that IM Powell had shopped today and had bought "one case of soda and almost a full net bag of food." She then explained that Powell had given all of it away to various people... I went to Powell's room and asked her if she had shopped today. She confirmed that she indeed had bought the case of soda and an almost full net bag of food. When asked what was left of her purchase all she had was one jar of peanut butter. All the rest had been given away. She claimed she owed a small amount to other inmates and the rest she gave away or was asked for it. She did not think it was strange not to have anything left because she had "made a lot of people happy."
Some chalk, an open spot in a park and a whore. Or many. That’s what comprised last Sunday’s exhibition of performance art in Washington Square Park. Named, “Whore in a Box,” the event’s name reflects the motives behind the spectacle. The goal was to invite the public to come over and ask question of and make statements about sex workers to their faces. This sort of in person, one-on-one conversation facilitated the compassion and connection that is often lost in the world of protest.
Instead of yelling through a microphone in a mass group (which, at times, can be quite effective), this form of personal activism produced genuine connections that allowed those with stereotypical views of sex work to engage in conversation with sex workers to understand the industry from a genuine human perspective.
The event was conceived and led by the Black Sex Worker Collective, with the support of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, Best Practices Policy Project, Glits Inc, and the Outlaw Project on June 2nd to commemorate the work done by French Sex Workers in 1975. The “Whore in a Box” idea was created by Joy, a representative of the Black Sex Worker Collective. The event was conducted between Washington Square Park and the steps of Judson Memorial Church, and the use of performance art as a way to resist against systematic oppression caught the eye of many walking bye, producing some unique conversations.
Akynos, the founder of the Black Sex Worker Collective shared the conversation she had with a pedestrian who came by to ask the “whore in a box” a question. “He came into the conversation voicing every stereotypical comment made about sex workers,” she observed. The man referenced trafficking, violence, and disease in his critique of sex work. Not only are these tropes the most commonly referred to when discussing the industry, but they are predicated on a scrutiny that applies to sex work and is largely void in conversations about other industries.
Akynos discussed with him how the “trafficking” trope is overused when it comes to sex and underused when it comes to other forms of trafficking, such as trafficking within the food and factory industries. People turn a blind eye towards other forms of trafficking but hone in on its presence in sex work. Akynos elaborated on this with a comment about the media, saying “the media doesn’t always represent the other side of the sex work industry, and that is the side of those people who don’t feel coerced or forced into sex."
The conversation concluded with the man sharing that even he had seen a sex worker once or twice. His mind had been opened by the interaction with sex worker rights organizers. Akynos viewed this conversation as “ good and insightful,” as she felt that this “man on the street” accepted her occupation and the interaction with her “very well.” Filmmaker and activist PJ Starr voiced a similar conclusion to the event at large, saying that “because of the way the action was set up, people could make a real connection.”
Other conversations were held with passersby, including local students. One student was so moved by the dialogue she had with Akynos that she felt compelled to act. She offered to volunteer and intern with the Black Sex Worker Collective, a much needed infusion of support and energy for the summer.
After four hours in the over 90 degree heat--and a symbolic storming of Judson Memorial Church to recreate a photo of the 1975 protests in Lyon--the demonstration concluded. Akynos reflected on the event saying their “message was taken [by the public] really well.” She added that she was “happy to have taken the route of performance art to bring awareness to sex work and the industry in general.” This creative platform, as opposed to a megaphone protest style, brought about interpersonal connections facilitated dialogues that would have otherwise not been possible.
Beyond a way to gain presence and educate the public, the Whore in a Box was a powerful coalition of diverse leaders within the sex worker community. Leadership from five different groups were present at the event, each individual coming from a very different background. There was representation from cis-men and women, transgender individuals, immigrants and queer bodies, each of integral importance to their organization and sex work activism in general. The diversity of this event and within the organizations that sponsored it is a remind of the importance of heterogeneity within activism. To approach the issue of sex work without an intersectional lens is a disservice to the cause. Sex work (and all types of work for that matter) is not done by any one kind of person. Activist groups should seek to reflect this workforce diversity in their organizing to ensure that the group is accessible to everyone and all individuals feel welcome.
Report back by Dayna Beatty for No Human Involved
“We were at our wits end. We were sick of going to jail, of being abused. Do you realize that the police would sometimes let their dogs loose on us?”
The opening line to La Revolte des Prostitutuees succinctly explains the feelings and experiences of French sex workers in the late 20th century. The documentary, produced by Eurydice Aroney and Radio France Culture, details the eight-day, nationwide strike by French sex workers in 1975. In response to years of horrific treatment, executed by police, French sex workers took action against the oppression and violence they experienced on a daily basis.
In their efforts, the sex workers of France found an unlikely ally: Father Louis Blanc of the Church of St. Nizier. When plans to occupy the church of St. Bonaventure went awry, it was Father Blanc who redirected the sex workers to the Church of St. Nizier. With his cooperation and some quick footwork, the protest was relocated and the safety of all those involved was secured. Father Louis Blanc was also instrumental in spreading the efforts beyond Lyon, by encouraging other priest to cooperate with the protestors.
While the work of sex workers in Lyon is the most well known and created the original movement, similar events occurred across France. Notably, in Paris, 200 sex workers protested in the Chapel of Saint Bernard.
Eight days after the start of the strike, police were instructed to remove the striking sex workers from locations across the nation. However, this end was just the beginning for sex workers across the globe. Movements all over the world have taken inspiration from the events of 1975, some mimicking the church occupation, others creating their own form of peaceful protest. An event organized by the Black Sex Workers Collective in New York on June 2nd--beginning at noon--will take inspiration from the work of the French sex workers in 1975. Members of the sex worker community and allies will gather at Washington Square Park in New York City and symbolically storm Judson Memorial Church. Later, this action will join a protest in front of StoneWall a few blocks away.
International Whores Day, also known as Puta Dei, is June 2 to commemorate the original strike and occupation by French sex workers in 1975. Across the word, June 2nd is a day of celebration, advocacy, and protest. At the time of the sex workers’ strike in France, they had the support of the Catholic Church. Today, sex workers are joined by allies from different standpoints, backgrounds, and lifestyles. The human rights of sex workers cannot be ignored. Join the cause in your local community in solidarity with sex workers to denounce the violent and oppressive systems that make their lives difficult.
Posting for No Human Involved by Dayna Beatty.