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Kris
December 18th, 2004, 04:45 AM
December 18, 2004

Long Silent, Oldest Profession Gets Vocal and Organized

By MIREYA NAVARRO

Shelby Aesthetic, a landscaper and writer in Huntsville, Ala., said she worked as a prostitute throughout her teenage years but never knew of a "sex workers movement" until last year, when she caught a performance of a touring art show where prostitutes performed and read short stories and poetry.

"I had done sex work for years and I had never talked to anyone about it," Ms. Aesthetic, 25, said. "I didn't know there was anything out there."

As often happens, a cultural interest opened doors to a social movement, this one involving "sex workers" and their supporters. In a new wave of activism, many prostitutes are organizing, staging public events and coming out publicly to demand greater acceptance and protection, giving a louder voice to a business that has thrived in silence.

In Huntsville, Ms. Aesthetic - who says that is her real name - recently formed a chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a California group that itself was created from an organization in Australia last year, and is collecting statistics on prostitution arrests.

At the Center for Sex and Culture in the hip South of Market area in San Francisco, prostitutes meet in support groups, hold fund-raisers and plot their next political move after having lost a ballot initiative in November that would have eased police enforcement of prostitution laws in Berkeley, Calif.

In New York, they are readying the first issue of a magazine for people in the sex industry for spring publication. And on the Internet, prostitutes have found a way not only to find customers but to find one another. They have formed online communities and have connected with groups in other countries.

Despite the country's conservative climate, the ultimate goal for some in the movement is decriminalization, a move opposed by other former prostitutes who see the business as inherently exploitive and degrading.

For now, though, the activists see ways to push ahead on goals shy of decriminalization, like stopping violence, improving working conditions, learning from foreign efforts to legitimize their work and taking some of the stigma off their trade.

"We call ourselves the rebirth," said Robyn Few, a former prostitute who heads the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP) and led the ballot effort in Berkeley, said of the current incarnation of the prostitutes' rights movement.

Such a movement has long existed in liberal urban centers like New York and San Francisco, where there is an infirmary for prostitutes named for Margo St. James, the founder in the 1970's of one of the best-known prostitute groups, Coyote (for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). But the Internet, coupled with a younger generation of women willing to speak out as current or former prostitutes and tougher federal law enforcement are giving momentum to a more broadly based movement, some of the women said.

Ms. Aesthetic was among organizers of the second national Day of Remembrance yesterday to honor murdered prostitutes. In New York, former and current prostitutes gathered outside Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park to read the names of the dead. After each speaker read her segment, the crowd of about 20 people, some holding candles, said "whores' lives are human lives."

Prostitutes and their advocates say the illegal nature of their business makes them a target of violence because a majority of them do not report crimes for fear of being arrested or because they are ignored.

"There are safe ways to work," says Carol Leigh, a longtime advocate for prostitutes' rights. "It's only a risk when it's illegal."

Those who study prostitution say there is a wide range in types, from streetwalkers to high-priced call girls, and in the working conditions they face.

"Some people are doing very well," said Juhu Thukral, a lawyer and director of the Urban Justice Center's Sex Workers Project in New York City, which offers legal representation to the women and researches the field. "Others are really doing it out of desperation."

Advocates of prostitute rights contend that it is a viable source of income for many women and that sexual activity between adults for money should be treated as any other form of legal labor. Ms. Few, 46, who is on probation for conspiring to promote prostitution, and others say their ultimate goal is to remove prostitution altogether from criminal codes, rather than confining it to legal brothels, as in Nevada.

But opposition to that agenda is just as strong among many other prostitutes. Norma Hotaling, a former prostitute and founder of one of the best known groups working to help prostitutes leave sex work, the SAGE Project in San Francisco, said that while giving prostitutes legal rights might help some women "build a business and make money," it would also feed into the worse consequences of commercial sex.

Ms. Hotaling said that there was a connection between those who hired prostitutes and those who sexually exploited children and that there was damage to the spirit of women who had no other options for a livelihood.

"It's not just women's rights," she said. "We really haven't talked about what it means to increase the demand and legitimize the buying and selling of human beings."

But some of those working to help prostitutes leave their business see allies in those speaking out for sex workers. Celia Williamson, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Toledo in Ohio, said common ground could be found on calling public attention to the violence and lack of social services faced by streetwalkers, the most vulnerable of prostitutes.

Ms. Williamson says her research shows that most of these women are victims of "sadistic and predatory" violence by customers, and scores suffer from drug addiction and mental illness. Last September, Ms. Williamson organized a conference to help spur a national strategy to deal with the problems.

"Mostly we're sick and tired," said the social worker, who is chairwoman of the advisory board to an outreach program for prostitutes in Toledo. "Prostitution is like domestic violence 20 years ago. Nobody wants to talk about it. Police officers have a lot of discretion. There's no institutional support."

Few people predict that prostitutes are anywhere near obtaining legal rights, but some experts note that there are gains to be had if the movement perseveres.

Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University and the author of "Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography and the Sex Industry," said realistic goals included training police officers to respond properly to prostitutes' complaints. The police could also steer resources from revolving-door arrests to referrals to social service programs, he said.

"There's some discretion," Mr. Weitzer said.

In the meantime, some of the women continue their political work.

At the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco, Alexandra Lutnick, 26, a research coordinator for the program, said the infirmary not only offered health services but also collected data "to inform policy."

"We can be discounted and ignored as sex workers," said Ms. Lutnick, who has worked in the trade, "but if you go into it as an organization that's seen 500 participants in the last year and 70 percent of them are saying they're being harassed by police, then it's harder to dismiss."

Ms. Few said her ballot measure was just the beginning. "We're not quiet," she said. "We're moving forward. We're not just prostitutes around here."

Janon Fisher contributed reporting from New York for this article.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company