“From the brothels to the strip clubs, from the jack shacks to the streets, criminalizing, stigmatizing has been society’s way…there’s power in a sex workers union!”
So began the first Sex Worker Summit in the South with a rousing song composed and sung by Stella Zine (watch her performance on NCHRC’s vimeo webpage), a former strip club dancer from Georgia. The song captured the spirit and message of the summit, held December 2nd in Asheville, North Carolina, which aimed to address issues of criminalization and marginalization among sex workers and to bring interested parties together to look for common solutions. The one day summit featured a diverse array of speakers, including current and retired sex workers, advocates, religious leaders, nurses, harm reduction organizations, academics, social workers, law enforcement personnel and other service providers.
The summit kicked off with personal stories from Stella Zine and Hawk Kinkaid, a retired male escort and founder of Hook Online, about why and how they got into the sex trade, and continued with a discussion by Megan McLemore of Human Rights Watch on the criminalization of sex work, particularly the alleged arrests of sex workers for carrying condoms. The morning wrapped up with Jill Brenneman’s graphic and heart-wrenching personal account of her life as a 14-year-old runaway forced into sexual slavery. Jill eventually escaped, and after many years battling post-traumatic stress disorder and health complications, turned back to sex work, this time voluntarily, to pay her mounting medical bills.
“Clients are allowed to brutalize sex workers because of the laws we have,” said Jill. “Who could I turn to when I was beaten and raped? The police? To them, I was the criminal.”
Afternoon panels included information on Kelly’s Line, an Our Voice of Asheville initiative to allow brutalized sex workers to report “bad dates” through a phone line, followed by tips for conducting outreach to sex workers, information about online escort service and social media advertising, drug use among sex workers, and how to incorporate sex worker programming into your agency or nonprofit.
With over 85 attendees from all over the South and an atmosphere of mutual respect and openness to new ideas, the summit was a success that many hope will be duplicated in years to come. NCHRC would like to thank all the summit attendees and the press and bloggers who covered the event including: NYC’s Village Voice; Asheville’s the Mountain Express; the Associated Press; ABC TV-Asheville; Franklin North Carolina’s Daily Journal; Columbus Indiana’s The Republic; Blue NC; The Daily Kos; Jessicaland; and The Honest Courtesan.
Testimonials from Summit Attendees:
“The Summit on Sex Work in the South was an amazing, energizing experience! Over and over again throughout the day I heard people say, 'I can't believe this is actually happening! I can't believe it's happening here! I can't believe it's happening now!' There was a really amazing vibrancy in the room -- you could feel people connecting and learning and gaining strength and community from one another.” – Loftin Wilson, NC Harm Reduction Coalition’s Organizer and Transgender Advocate.
“How wonderful it was for me to offer the blessing at the Summit on Sex Work in the South. It is a rare opportunity to join the work of being healthy community in such a gathering of diverse and gifted people whose goal it is to care for neighbor as self and to care for the welfare of the whole community. We who participated in the spirit generated in mutual respect and shared wisdom have been reenergized to continue in our work to advocate for the safety and wellbeing of those who are engaged in sex work.” – Reverend Jenna Zirbel, Rainbow Community Cares, North Carolina.
“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!” – Jessica Land, sex worker rights advocate from Tennessee.
“Everyone has human rights- including sex workers and people who exchange sex for money, favors or survival,” said Megan McLemore, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The summit was a great opportunity to discuss ways to improve the health, safety and dignity of people whose voices need to be heard.”