Report: Summit on Sex Work in the South
When I think about sex work in the south, two things come to mind immediately, things firmly implanted during my childhood. The first is hearing Dolly Parton on the radio when I was 7 or 8 years old, talking about how she modeled her signature look after a prostitute in her Tennessee hometown: the hair, nails, and flashy dresses. For some reason, a reason I don’t understand even now, I fell in love with her right then and there. The second thought is of Reba McIntyre’s song “Fancy”, which tells the story of a young girl from Louisiana whose “momma turned her out” in hopes that she could make a better life using her God-given assets: “Just be nice to the gentleman, Fancy, and they’ll be nice to you.” The message was clear, and I loved Reba the first time I heard that song, though the reasons for that are a little easier for me to grasp when I look back. (Yes, I just said I love both Dolly and Reba. I’m not ashamed of those facts. Ironically, my mom had cows named Dolly and Reba for a long time. One of the two is dead now, but the other is still living, though I can’t recall which one of the two remains. And, yes, my mom has pet cows. I’m definitely from the South!)
When I first head about the Summit on Sex Work in the South, sponsored by NC Harm Reduction, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I mean despite how prevalent the subject is in Southern popular culture, it’s not a topic we talk about much down here. But when I saw the amazing list of people who were scheduled to attend—Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project, Sex Workers Without Borders, Women with a Vision, North Carolina Sex Workers Alliance, Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS), Human Rights Watch—I knew I had to go.
One of the most exciting things for me was the chance to spend time with Jill Brenneman, who is currently leading Sex Workers Without Borders. Jill and I met shortly after I moved from NYC to North Carolina, and I hadn’t seen her in over a year. We worked together on the Sex Workers Outreach Project-East for a few years, with her as the Executive Director and me as Board Chair. The Summit was on Friday in Asheville, NC. Jill and I met up the night before and shared a hotel room. (We found these lovers in the bathroom waiting for us.) After dinner, we took a mundane trip to the bank which quickly turned into an event due to navigating Asheville’s insane roads, then spent many hours catching up in our room. I’d have made the four-hour trip to Asheville just to spend that time with Jill.
The Summit itself, however, was nothing short of amazing. After a word from Reverend Jenna Zirbel from Rainbow Community Care, Jenna Mellor from HIPS welcomed everyone with a much-needed dose of her infectious energy. Really, I’m happy HIPS has that gal working for them because I’m sure she’s a gem providing outreach services. I could have listened to her talk all day, and that was certainly the right way to start the day. Hawk Kinkaid from HOOK Online and Stella Zine followed with their own Sex Worker Stories. Hawk is just flat-out fabulous. I had a HOOK card posted in my office at FROST’D in NYC for years.
Megan McLemore from Human Rights Watch then discussed Criminalization and Advocacy. I learned that she’s collecting information of incidents where condoms are used as evidence against sex workers. (If you know of any such incidents, please contact her: email@example.com)
Next, my dear friend Jill Brenneman gave an unforgettable presentation on human trafficking. She’s the only person I know who can give a brutally honest recount of her own experience as a victim of human trafficking and make the audience laugh repeatedly, which some of you probably already heard me say on my own Twitter feed. Lucky for you, you can watch the full video of her presentation. Jill never ceases to amaze me, and I am endlessly grateful to count her among my close friends.
The presentation on sex worker services in Asheville, provided by Sarah Danforth of the Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project and Laura Hickman from Our Voice, is one I would love for all of my sex worker activist colleagues to see. Of course, they talked about the sex worker outreach we’re all familiar with, but they also talked about Kelly’s Line , an initiative I’d love to see happen nation-wide. In fact, if anyone has ideas about, or would like to work on, making this happen across America, please count me in and get in touch!
After lunch, I sat on a panel about sex worker risk reduction and sex worker outreach, along with Robert Childs from NC Harm Reduction, Jenna Mellor from HIPS, Hawk Kinkaid from HOOK Online, and Bob Scott from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. (I know there were a couple more people on the panel as well, but I don’t think they are the same people listed in the program and I didn’t take notes on names.) I loved hearing about others’ experiences, and I won’t lie, I thoroughly enjoyed talking about my time at FROST’D, when the organization still focused on street-based sex workers.
Following the panel, I was lucky enough to present with Hark Kinkaid for the Hooking Up Online presentation. I talked about social media, Bound Not Gagged, and $pread, and Hawk talked about how male workers use online media. Hawk and I turned out to know several of the same people, and as I said before, it was great to meet someone from HOOK because I’ve been a fan for so long. (I’m always incredibly nervous giving presentations, although this was the easiest so far. It was also a little daunting to know that I was being filmed, and it definitely changed what I said.)
The day ended with discussion on sex work and drug use and a round-table on incorporating sex worker programming into your agency. Thoughts from Cyndee Clay, Executive Director of HIPS, in both of those discussions were very eye-opening, but since Cyndee wasn’t comfortable offering all of her thoughts on camera, I’m not comfortable summarizing them here, except to say that the radical feminist, anti-sex work, anti-trafficking machine is terrifying. I am sincerely afraid for the future of sex worker programming. I’m also afraid that the aforementioned machine may already be staking clams in my city, which really just makes me more interested in establishing roots for sex work positive initiatives here.
So, as I’m trying to make my way in my new Southern town, the Summit on Sex Work in the South was truly invaluable for me. I ended the day having dinner in Asheville with Stella Zine, Vanessa Darling, and Vanessa’s partner, Sarah B, which was a perfect end to such an incredible day.
It’s still kind of hard to believe that this summit even took place. Sex Work in the South isn’t a topic you’ll hear too many people talking about, and you especially don’t see events focused on the topic. I hope it was the first of many such events to come, and I also hope to be there for every one!