The Oldest Profession’s Newest Trick

Norma Jean Almodovar is a self-described activist, but she isn’t selling tickets for a Darfur benefit concert or raising awareness about global climate change. Almodovar represents the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture, and Education (ISWFACE), an organization run exclusively by current and former prostitutes.

ISWFACE seeks to convince the general public that prostitutes are active members of society, in ways different from their traditional role.  talented sculptor, Almodovar showcases her art at many ISWFACE events, like the biennial Sex Worker Film and Art Festival in San Francisco. Other ISWFACE prostitutes in the festival perform in concerts or comedy routines. If the idea of sculpting, singing, joke-telling prostitutes comes as a surprise, then Almodovar has achieved her goal: “We aim to use these events to put the general public in non-threatening positions such as art shows, film festivals, and cultural events,” Almodovar told The Yale Globalist. She wants the general public to “see prostitution in ways different than how the religious right and radical left feminists portray us.”

ISWFACE is a prostitution union, and not the only one of its kind. Like most unions, prostitution unions advocate for their members’ basic rights and living conditions. Unlike most unions, however, they must overcome accusations of depravity, immorality, and lawlessness.

The task is not an easy one, especially considering that prostitutes and politicians have never made good bedfellows. More than anything else, the politics of prostitution is largely about staying as apolitical as possible.

Going against the tide

The movement began during World War II in Honolulu, where soldiers anxiously awaited battle and the gender ratio was 500 men to every woman. Business looked as good as ever for the world’s oldest profession.

While prostitution was officially illegal, the infamous Hotel Street district, through which 30,000 servicemen passed each day, became a place where 8,000 men were serviced each night. The army, fearful of falling morale, tacitly condoned the Hotel Street brothels and pressured local police to leave them alone. Yet, when the local police nevertheless began to crack down on the brothels, the prostitutes did something unprecedented—they went on strike.

It was an immediate success, since the prostitutes exploited the enormous demand for their services to guarantee that they could work freely. The army, desperate to preserve morale, stepped in and negotiated with the local police to relax their enforcement. The Honolulu prostitutes also established an important precedent. Instead of aligning themselves with any political party or ideology, they only sought to protect their own liberty and improve their own standard of living.

This model was repeated throughout the world, most often led by ex-prostitute Margo St. James, who founded a prostitution union called C.O.Y.O.T.E., or Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, in 1973. C.O.Y.O.T.E.’s creation was spurred in large part by the feminist left’s political rejection of prostitution. Feminist theory holds that prostitution is little more than sexual slavery—women, who in general own less property and make less income than men, are forced to sell their bodies for sex in order to survive under the capitalist system. C.O.Y.O.T.E. rejected that position (and accordingly, feminist activists have adamantly opposed it and other prostitution unions), contending that sex workers were little different than other workers, and that the industry should be decriminalized and regulated.

Despite the challenges posed by the feminists, C.O.Y.O.T.E. remained surprisingly apolitical and confined itself largely to public relations. Occasionally, it would also support the creation and organization of international prostitution unions. It held a Hookers Masquerade in which rich donors mingled with masked prostitutes. It also organized a concert called the “Ladies of the Evening at the Improv,” in which prostitutes and porn stars showed off their artistic skills and performed comedy routines. Ron Jeremy was even said to have played piano for one event. C.O.Y.O.T.E. also contributed to the World Whores charter, which outlined the principles that serve as the basis for many international prostitution unions.

These apolitical acts were not designed to change the laws as much as they were designed to change perceptions. C.O.Y.O.T.E.’s actions helped spur the creation of countless state and local prostitution unions and sex worker advocacy groups, as well as international heavyweight NGOs such as the International Prostitutes’ Collective. Today there are major prostitution unions in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. In the U.S. alone there are 14 major unions operating on either the national, state, or local level. While the public may not widely support prostitution unions, through the actions of C.O.Y.O.T.E. the sex worker community certainly does.

The Political Balancing Act

Since C.O.Y.O.T.E. was founded, prostitution unions have only taken political stances when presented with active opposition. Generally the prostitute union’s apolitical nature discourages most strong opposition to it, but there are rare exceptions, as when opposition emanates from powerful U.S. political forces.

Catherine Healy knows how powerful those forces can be. She is the National Coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), which was founded in 1987 with largely apolitical goals. Its primary role was to help New Zealand’s government maintain the health levels of New Zealand’s sex worker community.

She told the Globalist that her organization was threatened by American feminist Melissa Farley, founder of the U.S.-based organization Prostitution Research and Education. The group is known for its extreme anti-union positions. ISWFACE’s Almodovar, for instance, claimed that Farley and her group have “taken information they have gathered completely out of context in order to fit their personal agenda.”

In the early 1990s, Farley set her sights on New Zealand. “When Farley heard about us, she came to New Zealand and started lobbying legislators to change the laws,” Healy said. This was problematic for the NZPC: “When you are a small country you don’t want to be seen as going against the tide.” In response, Healy’s organization adopted a far more political bent by maintaining contact with important federal legislators

Yet the NZPC stills maintains it apolitical roots. “We do not tie ourselves to any political organization,” Healy said, “The organization comprises people who have many political affiliations.”

A Matter of Survival

C.O.Y.O.T.E. is now largely defunct, and its advocacy efforts are replaced by organizations with less overt aims at combating society’s stigma against prostitutes and prostitution. Norma Jean Almodovar, in addition to being the head of ISWFACE, runs the largest remaining C.O.Y.O.T.E. branch in Los Angeles. She keeps it going for the few members who remember the organization from its late 1980s heyday.

Almodovar throws her passion into ISWFACE, hoping her efforts there can finally and permanently destigmatize prostitution. The organization often holds art festivals and conferences at California State University at Northride. Speaking of prostitution, she said, “The word originally meant beloved one.” She added, “And it wasn’t until the Christian religion corrupted the concept that it became a pejorative description of a woman who would not and could not be ‘tamed.’”

The idea of de-stigmatizing prostitution—originating with C.O.Y.O.T.E. in 1970s—still defines the union movement today. Many efforts aim at empowerment, and one example is $pread magazine. Officially for sex workers and the sex industry, the magazine provides the sex worker community with a single source of news in touch with their lives and concerns. $pread’s executive editor, Eliyanna Kaiser, told the Globalist of the importance of her magazine to the lives of its readers. “Sex workers tend to be isolated, so $pread creates a dialogue between people who do the same work and then decrease isolation.” In a manner characteristic of the entire movement, “the editors do not take a position, it is important for sex workers to have a forum to speak for themselves.”

To de-stigmatize prostitution, the prostitution union movement has settled on an effective formula: remain apolitical. Kaiser put it simply, “We can’t afford to be crazy sectarians. When a group is so hopelessly disenfranchised, remaining apolitical is a matter of survival.” Kaiser also commented that for the first time “other journalists have noticed the work we’ve done and come to us as an authority while generally destigmatizing the industry.”

Remaining apolitical means that friends will be made much more readily than enemies, and, with as few enemies as possible, prostitution unions hope they can slowly combat stigma and preserve their longevity. If they are ever to move on to wider advocacy measures, they will do so only when they have a stable foundation on which to build.

Will that ever happen? The NZPC is a case in point. It was able to take a more political stance once it was legitimized by government support. This can serve as a simple and effective model for any marginal advocacy group. Other marginalized movements, such as those which hope to legalize drugs, support illegal immigrants, or enfranchise minority sexualities, would be wise to understand why prostitution unions remain apolitical. Thus far, it has been the prostitutes’ most successful trick.