On Tuesday at Golden Gate University, the GGU chapter of the NLG (National Lawyers Guild) organized an event entitled: "Collateral Damage: Sex Workers and the Anti-Trafficking Campaigns." The panel comprised Carol Leigh, a former sex worker and political activist; Cynthia Chandler, an attorney for Social Justice; and Stephanie Anderson, who represented St. James Infirmary, a haven for respectful and compassionate medical care for many Bay Area sex workers.
The panel showed a portion of the impressive documentary, Collateral Damage by Carol Leigh, which traced the history of prostitution and detailed the history of anti-trafficking laws. Afterward, the panelists spoke, with Anderson pointing out that during her 10-year work with St. James she had "only seen two victims of trafficking, and [she does] not personally believe that trafficking is a problem."
Then Chandler chimed in:
Prop 35 will further criminalize and stigmatize people engaging in sex work, whether doing so consensually or not. It is overly broad in its language to the point of absurdity. Through its breadth, the law gives law enforcement and prosecutors wide discretion in its implementation. I find it unlikely that a wealthy person sharing wine or pot after a fancy night out and then having sex will face prosecution. Young people of color in urban settings will be disproportionately vulnerable, however. And as such, I believe that this proposition will have grossly racially disparate impact, while being arbitrary in its implementation. Such racism and arbitrary enforcement does not make for justice in my book.
Afterward, the panel gave the floor to the audience -- and that's when things got ugly.
A Caucasian woman in the audience spoke up, asking a series of questions: How are you supposed to know if someone is being forced to work in a sweat shop? How should you go about reporting a business for gross labor violations and misconduct? And what's more, how will you know if the police are really going to help them?
Anderson lost her temper in response to the questioning. She started to scream that the woman in the audience was "complicit in supporting" something "corrupt."
She continued her tirade, saying, "How dare you think you have to do anything! Who are you? What the hell can you do to help? Why do you think these women need help, what is wrong with you?"
Another audience member interrupted the outburst, reminding Anderson that "Hey, we are trying to have a dialogue here. ... Please calm down. She is just asking you a question out of concern, no one is putting you down. Can we please have an open discussion?" the woman said.
At this point, the moderator realized she'd lost control of the event. So like any good referee, she called for a time out. It was at this point that Anderson stood up and began to throw her belongings into her bag, muttering: "I hate white people, I fucking hate white people!"
(Anderson is Asian.)
Afterwards, Anderson gave us the following comment:
I, a person who works two part time jobs, has to go and present to a bunch of entitled white people, at a college that costs more in tuition than I make in a year, and that it's somehow my responsibility to coddle, educate, and train people on how their entitlements, their judgments, casual racism, and moralistic flawed reasoning affects me, my family, sex workers, people of color, marginalized, stigmatized, and criminalized populations, and [am] expected to be grateful for the opportunity, is vile and repugnant.
Leigh, another of the panelists, told us that presenters need better training to speak on such sensitive issues.
"These are delicate issues about race and the stigmatization of sex workers," she said. "I think that 'trafficking' has so many definitions. Of course, forced labor and abuse of labor in general, including sex workers, is a serious problem. If you define trafficking as prostitution per se, which the Trafficking Victims Protection Act does, then it is problematic to take a position opposed to 'trafficking' in that sense."
We then reached out to St. James Infirmary for comment, since Anderson was there as a representative from the clinic. Naomi Akers, executive director of St. James Infirmary, told us that "while these numbers are extremely low, St. James Infirmary does see trafficked victims, and it is important that is properly represented in public forums. My understanding is that information was not presented at Tuesday's panel. And [Anderson's] opinions were not representing the St. James authority, and she was not sanctioned to speak on the topic of trafficking.
"On behalf of the organization, we would like to apologize for any offenses or insults that were made on behalf of one of our staff members and we're open to having a dialogue with the community about the issue on how to be an ally. If someone is concerned about someone being trafficked, we want to be open to helping them to be the solution and not to be demonized as part of the problem."
(St. James has confirmed that Anderson is no longer employed by the organization.)
Sabrina Morgan, a sex worker and an activist who was at the forum, said she saw venom coming from both sides.
"It felt to me that the otherwise well-spoken panelists were not expecting attendees' questions to come from an anti-trafficking framework and the tone in the room quickly became hostile on both sides," Morgan said. "If the panelists had prepared to deal with ... hostile, derailing, triggering, or difficult questions beforehand, they would have felt less attacked, and ready to present their thoughts in a way that could win the sex workers' rights movement new allies. Our activists would benefit from this type of training."
The only thing that really came out of this event is a little more evidence that people have a hard time expressing themselves without being angry when it comes to talking about hot-button topics like gun control, prostitution, and sex trafficking.
Hopefully another forum will address Prop 35, with speakers on both sides of the issue. The important thing is that people truly understand what it is they voted for last November, and why it may not be doing all the good they think it is.
Vanessa L. Pinto is a journalist based in San Francisco, best known for her blog on The Huffington Post. Her platform is multi-faceted, just like those I write about. She holds a B.A. in Political Science, with a concentration in pre-law from Cal-Poly in San Luis Obispo and is always game for an adventure...! Visit her at her blog.
For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.