Thursday, May 24, 2007


Service providers discuss ways to improve outreach to sex workers

by Joanne Zuhl, Street Roots Contributing Writer

Leslie Bull: Poet, performance artist, filmmaker, graduate student, sex worker. No, not sex worker - ho. Career ho. Successful ho, and one outspoken activist of a ho.

"I never really got out, things just changed," said Bull. "I started trading sex for drugs at age 15. At 20, I turned my first trick for money. I was off drugs at the time and hooked up with an old-school pimp who taught me the basics of the trade. I looked really young and fresh. I worked bars, escort services, and the street. Sometimes I made a lot of money, up to $500 per date.

"I kept working (hoing), mostly alone but sometimes with a pimp, off and on for the next 12 years. I did it all, from high-class call girl to homeless junkie ho, and lots in between. My longest time homeless and working the street was three years. I left the streets at age 32, got my G.E.D., and ended up graduating from PSU. All through college I wrote about being a street ho. I ended up getting my work published by Emi Koyama (, making a video with Penny Arcade and Ariel Lighteningchild titled, "on being a junkie ho in sex worker world," and performing on two national tours with the "Sex Worker Art Show." For me, along with being employment, hoing is a state of mind I don't feel I will ever leave, or ever want to."

Bull is now lending her experience and advocacy to the Sex Worker Outreach Coalition, a new network of advocates using a harm-reduction model to improve the lives of people in all aspects of the sex industry, formal or otherwise.

Still in its formative stages, the Sex Worker Outreach Coalition's mission is not one of salvation but of service, making sure needs are met without the social prejudices and preaching that can keep sex workers from seeking assistance with such matters as health care or escaping violence.

For Bull, the importance of this coalition can be summed up simply: "To stop the hate."

To date, the coalition boasts members from the Portland Women's Crisis Line, Legal Aid of Portland, Cascade AIDS Project, YWCA of Clark County, Outside In and the Bad Dateline, among other affiliations.

"What we've seen over the years is that there just isn't much in the way of direct programming available to commercial sex workers," said Wayne Centrone, medical director of the Outreach Program for Outside In. "What little programming is available seems to be incongruent. It's not connected and there's no one agency that acts as a bridge building between all of the other agencies."

Liberating Ourselves Through Understanding Sexploitation, or LOTUS, has come and gone, as has Danzine, both groups that worked on behalf of people in the sex trades to access services. The Lola Green Baldwin Foundation is one of the only programs in Portland specifically serving people in the industry, however, it is not a member of the coalition at this time.

For the past year, Outside In has conducted a pilot project with Cascades AIDS Project to deliver health care and other services directly to the hardest to reach populations. The organizations staff a 38-foot mobile van along 82nd Avenue, complete with a physician, medical assistant, social workers, syringe exchange services, and a pharmacy. Clients to the van include sex workers who prostitute along the 82nd Avenue corridor.

"They've been ostracized by society," Centrone said. "We don't' really know what to do with them. It's a criminal activity, so you can't walk into an emergency department and say, 'I'm a sex worker.'"

According to Centrone, workers with this pilot project found overwhelmingly that clients seeking services are looking to make a change in their lives but lack the personal advocacy skills to do it on their own.

As the coalition develops, members hope to incorporate the involvement of people in the industry to identify and address the needs of sex workers from all walks of life.

"Our objective is to find out what the needs of the community are and to let them know we're here should there be any experience of domestic assault or violence," said Melissa, an advocate for victims of sexual assault and outreach worker with the Portland Women's Crisis Line. (Given the nature of her outreach, Melissa did not want her last name used, to protect her safety.) "It's becoming more and more apparent to us that using a harm-reduction philosophy is going to be the best way to make sure that everybody out there is getting services they deserve."

The Portland Women's Crisis Line began as a rape hotline back in 1973, but found it was receiving as many calls related to domestic violence. In 1975, the organization adopted a new mission to serve women and children who were victims of domestic and/or sexual violence and/or sexual violence. The organization also provides direct services to people engaged in, or affected by the commercial sex industry.

The sex industry runs the gamut of occupations and activities, Melissa said, spanning legal striptease acts in a club, to prostitution, escort services and "lingerie modeling." It also includes survival trade, the trading of sexual services for basic needs, such as food and shelter, or alcohol or drugs.

"It's a population that has been historically really marginalized and felt excluded from a lot of those services that are out there," Melissa said. "There is just a history of feeling judged. There are some programs out there that would not be able to continue to support someone in the sex industry if they found out that that is how they support themselves."

That stigma has become a deterrent to seeking assistance, Melissa said.

"What I see is that that is just reducing the chances that people who really need services are going to get them," Melissa said. "Everybody deserves to have the same things available to them, regardless of what their choice in profession is, or what they're life circumstances are."

Melissa emphasizes that experiences in the sex industry are different for everyone. Sex work has become synonymous with abuse and violence, and that has established a sweeping victimization of people in the industry, whether or not it applies to every individual. The violence is absolutely real, she says, and sex industry workers are at a higher risk, but the combined identity of sex worker and victim is pushing people underground and away from the services that can help them.

Bull says she wasn't victimized by prostitution, "I was victimized by rapists, beaters, haters, momos, thieves, and cops, but not by hoing."

Bull said she reserved a special animosity for tricks that wanted to "save" her, and ran from the do-gooders trying to put her out of business.

"As for the do-gooders, they might as well be the police," Bull said. "I wanted nothing to do with them, as their goal was to shame me and starve me out in the name of making me "good." I was "good" if I worked at Wal-Mart or scrubbed floors for minimum wage, but "bad" if I sold sexual favors for 10 times the money. My "badness" could only be cured by the do-gooders and the dreary, menial-labor poverty they wanted to make of my life."

Leslie Peterson, primary trainer for the Portland Bad Date Line, says the industry is driven more by economics and social issues than sex. The Bad Date Line collects reports on violent customers in the sex industry and distributes them in a monthly publication to raise awareness among workers.

"The Sex Worker Outreach Coalition is forming as we speak, so what its goals are and what it's going to accomplish are still unfolding," said Peterson. "I think that having different service agencies being able to communicate and share and build something together is going to really help respond to people's needs. People who are doing this activity are misunderstood, and I think it's going to be helpful for different reasons, to help us better understand how to serve people doing these activities."

Today, the oldest profession is changing with the newest technology. Street walkers who used to advertise and make connections on the streets are now able to line up a week's worth of work by cell phone and Internet. From an outreach worker's perspective, this affordable, ubiquitous technology has actually further isolated the most at-risk workers in the industry.

"You can hop from cab to cab and never be seen by an outreach worker," said Dennis Lundberg, program supervisor of the Yellow Brick Road street outreach program, a project of Janus Youth Programs. "Arranging this work through technology, you're just as vulnerable, but you're now isolated from people and agencies that might be there to serve you."

Lundberg works with homeless youths and people on the streets who are youth-identified, up to 27 years old. Most of the youths are in denial about their work, and many are using drugs to deal with it. As a result, the risk for getting hepatitis, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections runs high. Here again, however, the stigma surrounding their activities prevents many from seeking help on their own.

Lundberg, who attended the initial meeting of the coalition, said he would like to see sex workers involved in setting the agenda.

"I think nobody really understands the needs of sex workers like sex workers," Lundberg said. "There needs to be a place where their voices can be heard, where they can be part of an ongoing dialogue. There really needs to be a safe forum for that dialogue, so that they're not busted every time they speak out."

In the absence of an effective advocacy on behalf of sex workers, the city has followed a misdirected course of penalizing behavior, according to Centrone.

"Creating drug-free zones and prostitution-free zones allows us to not look at them as people," Centrone said. "And the lack of advocacy allows these things to happen. There wasn't anyone continuously monitoring the radar screens. Criminalizing behavior only creates criminals. These are people who deserve just as much an opportunity to gain the skills and create the life they want as any one of us do."

In the end, the problem isn't sex workers, Centrone said. The problem is poverty, exploitation, poorly funded and poorly staffed mental health services, a lack of access to alcohol- and drug-treatment programs, and limited resources to meet the needs of people.

"When a person finds them self on the street, they didn't just wake up and say I'm going to walk downtown and be a sex worker. It's a series of events. When we criminalize something, we negate that series. Life's not an event, it's a process, and little steps in that process are often the key."

Believing that trading sex for money is harmful to women is a morality issue, Bull says, and if someone thinks prostitution is wrong for religious or other reasons, they shouldn't participate. But when people blame prostitution for rape and the mistreatment of women they let the real perpetrators off the hook, she says.

"And if prostitutes are raped more often than other groups of workers, doesn't it stem from the hate; i.e., people believing deep down that prostitution, and by association prostitutes themselves, are wrong, shameful, harmful, and so on, even when this belief takes on a very "liberal" or "progressive" tone. These attitudes end up giving the rapos permission to rape, beaters a reason to beat, the cops a license to brutalize and harass, and the people a justification to turn their eyes from the violence.

"The current environment in amerikkka for prostitutes leads to the creation of Green River killers, forced labor, high-risk working conditions, self-hatred, broken families, legal persecution, etc. When women are made to believe hateful things about themselves, it makes them easy prey for abuse. Prostitution does not cause this abuse; abusers do! In order to help we must first recognize what we've been taught about prostitution and why. Who does the hate serve, who benefits, who loses?"

This article originally appeared in Street Roots April 1, 2006

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