On Decriminalizing Sex Work
Leila Raven is a queer mama, organizer, and prison abolitionist from New York City. She is one of the creators of the #8toAbolition platform outlining specific, actionable steps that cities can take to move toward a world without police, and she has been a founding organizer with the DecrimNowDC and DecrimNY campaigns to end the criminalization of sex workers in New York and Washington, DC. She is also the former director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), a DC-based grassroots organization working to build community-based approaches to gendered violence without prisons or policing.
"So I see the movement for decriminalizing sex work as chipping away at the carceral system, and I see defunding the police as chipping away at the carceral system, but none of it is the end all be all. The end all be all is abolition, which you know, isn't even an outcome. It's a process, like it's a practice in a way of living. It's tearing down all of these institutions that are rooted in punishment culture and building new ones. Institutions rooted in building safety and accountability."
Leila: So I see the movement for decriminalizing sex work as chipping away at the carceral system, and I see defunding the police as chipping away at the carceral system, but none of it is the end all be all. The end all be all is abolition, which you know, isn't even an outcome. It's a process, like it's a practice in a way of living. It's tearing down all of these institutions that are rooted in punishment culture and building new ones. Institutions rooted in building safety and accountability.
If you've internalized white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, or ableism, or all of the above, you replicate those same patterns. So it's, it's about abolishing all of those violent institutions and also, like killing the cop in your head and in your home.
Lianne: Today I'm speaking with Leila Raven, a queer mama, organizer, and prison abolitionist from New York City. She is one of the creators of the 8toabolition platform outlining specific actionable steps that cities can take to move toward a world without police, and she's been a founding organiser of the DecrimNow DC and Decrim New York campaigns to end the criminalisation of sex workers in New York and in Washington, DC. She's also the former director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a DC-based grassroots organisation working to build community-based approaches to gendered violence without prisons or policing. It's an incredibly timely conversation given everything that's going on in our country right now. Leila talks about the difference between abolition and reform, and also the nuances between legalisation and decriminalisation. We also talk about the demands of marginalised sex workers, and how they intersect with the movement for Black Lives Matter. Leila also shares her own personal story about being a homeless teenager who turned to sex work to survive in New York City, and her journey to becoming one of the leading activists and thought leaders in the abolition and decrim movements.
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Leila, thank you so much for being on the show and for the important work that you're doing in the world. I have so many questions for you. Mm hmm. I have so many questions for you about decriminalization and abolition, but I would love to first just ground the conversation, because those concepts can sound kind of abstract, and hear about your own personal journey around sex work and how that led you into a life of activism.
Leila: Yeah, of course. I will. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me to talk about decrim and sex work and abolition. I, you know, I got involved in the sex trade back when I was a teenager. I was growing up in New York. I had been in the foster system, had really unstable housing and so, you know, ultimately like trading sex for housing was a big part of how I was surviving. Um, so that's kind of how I got involved in activism. My first organizing experiences were really around addressing youth homelessness. So I moved to LA when I was 17 and started organizing and fundraising for local youth shelters, and doing advocacy around, you know, raising awareness about youth homelessness and also working to increase funding for housing for youth. So that was kind of how I started that work, moved to DC later and got involved in organizing around gendered violence because of personal experiences... I was in an abusive relationship for a couple of years and before that experience had always seen my experiences with violence as connected to my housing instability, which I still see as very, like, interconnected. But I think for a long time, I was like, well, if I had housing, I wouldn't experience violence and didn't fully see it as a completely separate problem. And then, you know, experienced gendered violence while housed and I was like, oh, I want to work on that. Um, so actually ended up working at an anti-trafficking organization. Seeing that as like, you know, I thought of my experience as... definitely didn't see it as trafficking, but I also didn't see it as sex work. I just saw, you know, myself as a young person experiencing homelessness, doing whatever I had to do to survive. And so working in an anti-trafficking organization, I thought at the time was a way of helping people who were actually exploited or who had worse experiences than I did. Come to find while working there that a lot of large, well-funded anti-trafficking organizations identified my experience as trafficking and that my experience was actually one of the most common, it was often young people experiencing homelessness either, you know, leaving abusive homes or rejected by their families for their over their queer. trans identities, or falling through the cracks of the foster system like me or a little bit of all of the above. And the vast majority of young people who are trading sex, don't have a trafficker don't have a third party exploiter, around 85% are working on their own. And so the whole you know, many of the strategies used by anti-trafficking organizations don't work very well. The whole the idea of criminalization doesn't actually do anything to support the people whose experiences are labeled by law as trafficking. Whether or not they identify that way. And so interestingly, I got called out on Twitter while working there, learned so much about, you know, the sex workers rights movement on Twitter. And later it, you know, shifted my work to do more organizing around gender violence and building community-based solutions to gendered violence and help to start in DC the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition and help to introduce legislation in DC to decriminalize sex work. And then later move to New York and similarly helped introduce legislation around decriminalizing sex work in New York. So yeah, so that's kind of been my journey over the past 10 or so years.
Lianne: Wow. Thank you for sharing. And when you say that you were called out on Twitter, does that mean on behalf, like you were working for an organization whose policies were actually counterproductive or even harmful and as a representative of that organization, you personally were called out and that's what started your sort of education?
Leila: Kind of. I mean, I was working at the anti-trafficking organization. And I think that I probably tweeted about some policy that Polaris, the org, was working to pass that I thought was valuable because it increased funding for youth shelters, which was like what I always cared most about that I still care very much about, making sure that young people are housed. But I think there were also provisions under that law that increased criminalization or increased funding for law enforcement. And so someone, you know, I think it was like a sex worker on Twitter said something like, this isn't helpful. This is harmful for my community. I was like, wait, what, like, you know, what about young homeless kids? And so it wasn't like, I didn't feel attacked or anything, but I learned very much from that exchange and continued to do my own reading. And, you know, continued to learn again, like that my experience was actually most common, I knew from my own experience that policing and criminalization was unhelpful. But I also started to realize that I didn't have to make compromises around like, you know, we can increase funding for housing for young people and we can make sure that everyone is housed and we don't have to say, also paired with that we increase criminalization. Because that's counterproductive and harmful. So yeah, so I had a net... it wasn't as much a call out as a learning experience on Twitter and I, you know, that job was also incredibly exploitative. It was so harmful for like, so many young people of color who were going into that work because we cared about people who are experiencing trafficking or exploitation or violence, only to find that you know, these are like opportunists. I didn't even work there full year. Um, but yeah.
Lianne: Wow. Can you talk, you know, you're giving us a sense of the cycles of criminalization and both the conditions in your case and other people's cases that can sort of that can lead someone to turn to sex work. And then, of course, the policies that put them back out on the street afterwards. So can you sort of paint a picture of that cycle for us and also tie it? You know, I'm looking at thinking about defunding the police and how those calls are coupled with investment in communities. And so what are the kinds of... you're talking about housing, what are the kinds of other policies that would help break the cycles of...yeah, that are putting people through these experiences?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, I would say housing is definitely the number one need for people who are trading sex by choice, circumstance or coercion. For young people experiencing homelessness, like I was, you know, we traded sex to access housing, we traded sex to access resources. And then later on when I was doing work with Collective Action for Safe Spaces in DC, I was working alongside a lot of trans women of color, especially Black trans women who were trading sex who experienced high rates of employment discrimination, experienced higher rates of housing discrimination and similarly, as adults were, you know, trading sex to just get their basic needs met even just pay for hotel rooms night by night. Um, and so those are you know, housing is definitely one of the top needs but also addressing like widespread discrimination and racism, transphobia in our communities. And to tie it back to the cycle, yeah, like when you are criminalized for what you do to survive after you've been shut out of every other opportunity, already, criminalization just adds another barrier for accessing resources. So for so many people who are already experiencing housing discrimination or who already are shut out of many employment opportunities, adding a criminal record sort of traps folks in the sex trade. So you'll hear from like many people who were young people in the sex trade who went on to be sex workers as adults or trafficking survivors who continue to trade sex, because that was one of the only options whether or not that was what they wanted to be doing.
Lianne: Can you unpack for us decriminalization versus legalization? There's a lot of stakeholders and legalization, like who are the people who benefit? Who are the people who are marginalized? And what are the distinctions between those two policies?
Leila: Yeah, so I'm in DC, in New York. And, you know, I think sex workers' rights organizations worldwide are really advocating for decriminalization, which is an end to to criminalizing people who trade sex to access resources, and that means ending the criminalization of selling sex, ending criminalization of buying sex, but it also means ending the criminalization of so many other activities that we don't even realize are criminalized but are associated with sex work. So for example, here in New York, there is a law against loitering for the purposes of prostitution, which we also refer to as the "Walking While Trans ban", because it's used just as a stop and frisk, primarily for Black and Latinx trans women who are, you know, profiled as sex workers and then able to be arrested just for loitering or being outside and looking like someone that a cop thinks might be a sex worker. So that's one of the laws that we're working to decriminalize, and then also, you know, housing sex workers is criminalized. So in New York the law is, I think it's it's like really archaic language, like keeping a bawdy house. And then in DC, the law against housing sex workers is keeping a house for lead persons and it's literally like, under, you know, all of the laws criminalizing sex workers, we're actually criminalizing housing, which is, you know, putting people at increased risk of trafficking and exploitation. So decriminalization is just about repealing all of those harmful laws. And legalization is about creating regulations. and so there's a legalization model, for example, in Las Vegas. The problem with legalization, and the reason that we're really pushing decriminalize instead, is that you know, when we look at the model in Vegas, there are like, a couple of brothels, but really like, I think, one or two brothel owners. So like actually many brothels, but one or two brothel owners? So, one, it's really like the owners, the bosses that have been empowered by legalization models. The other issue with it is that you know, if we're talking about young people experiencing homelessness, we're talking about trans and queer folks, especially Black trans women, people who are undocumented, those who are most marginalized in the sex trades, they won't benefit from a legalization model, because many of those regulations will shut them out. A lot of folks, people who are undocumented, for example, might not be, or people who are homeless might not be able to meet whatever requirements are set by the legalization model. And so our goal is really just to end criminalization, to just stop the harm. And, you know, I, of course, want people to have labor rights and also, you know, we might not be ready to have that conversation until everyone is housed. until people can, you know, freely move into this... migrate into this country without fearing deportation or incarceration. So yeah, so I think we have a lot of work to do before we figure out how if regulation is possible, and right now, the focus is just stopping police violence.
Lianne: Wow, what, you know, one thing that as you're speaking and as I'm thinking about, like, who are these sex workers. And something that makes it so complicated is that people enter the workforce for these vastly different reasons, right? There's coercion, like sex trafficking, their circumstance, like your story, or when it becomes a matter of survival. And then there's choice, like I have a friend of mine who went to Yale and became a sex worker because it made her feel empowered financially and erotically. And so how do these competing or, I don't know, are they competing, like where do these various circumstances needs and demands converge and diverge? How are activists and organizers navigating that landscape and what are the kind of discourse across those different factions?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, I think historically, there has been a little bit of a divide between like, you know, happy hookers and trafficking survivors. And I think even in the language that a lot of sex workers' rights organizations have used in the past, it hasn't been helpful or inclusive to say things like "sex work is not sex trafficking," when actually it's, you know, it's a spectrum. When actually, criminalization doesn't help trafficking survivors, either. I think that's something that we really need to move away from assuming, that it's only sex workers who need to be decriminalized. We also need to, you know, end the criminalization of survival. And, um, yeah, so I think there isn't... I think that there has been a divide in the past. I think that there are still some divisions. But for the most part, I don't think that our needs are in conflict with each other. You know, I think that everybody needs the same things, that we all need an end to criminalization, we all need housing, and we all need just basic resources to survive. I think we can start there. And, you know, and also I think like on on the, like anti-trafficking side, I would love to see folks better make space for the experiences of people who trade sex by choice and, you know, talk more about decriminalization. And on the sex workers' rights side, I would love to see people take seriously the experiences of those of us who have experienced violence in the sex trade, or have experienced exploitation or have experienced trafficking. Like, I think, you know, and, like, there's so much overlap in those communities, like the people who are trading sex already are those who are most likely to be trafficked and exploited. You know, people are not being snatched from one industry like if you work in the restaurant industry, that's the industry where you're most likely to be exploited, you're not gonna be exploited in the sex industry. Um, so, you know, I, I think that there has to be more awareness of the fact that like, yeah, there is a spectrum, our needs are not in conflict, and we all have to just make space for validating each other's experiences.
Lianne: Right. And decriminalization seems like a pretty universally beneficial policy.
Leila: Absolutely. And also, it's not the like, pie in the sky. And I think that's important too. I think a lot of sex workers rights organizers are like, "decrim and that's when we win" and it's like, no decrim is like harm reduction, right? For so many people decriminalization of sex work isn't the end all be all. A lot of them will still be, you know, criminalized for stealing or for, you know, fare evasion or for whatever else it is that they're doing just to survive. A lot of people... people still need housing and resources and an end to racism and transphobia. Like we still have so much work to do to make sure people are safe.
Lianne: What is the pie in the sky? Particularly around, you know, like... yeah, what is your pie in the sky? And also what would it take for our culture, like our whole paradigm around sexuality, which is what this podcast is so much about, what would a healthier relationship to sex culturally do to help access that pie in the sky? Stick a big fork in. And like what role can sex play, can sex work play in that?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, you know, it's hard to know what sex and sexuality and relationships and sex work will look like. In this ideal world, I don't think any of us really know. But I think ideally, you know, it'll be an end to capitalism, an end to prisons, an end to policing, a new framework where we build infrastructure of care, where we value care work. And I think, you know, in this pandemic, people are starting to sort of be forced to recognize the ways that like caring for each other, and healthcare and caregiving, that is essential work. That is essential labor. I see sex work is falling under that. And yeah, I think, an end to the violent systems of oppression that are dominating our lives right now and a new way of living. And I think that's what abolition is about.
Lianne: Absolutely. So yeah, that's a great transition. I'd love to talk about abolition and how why defunding is insufficient and why police reform is insufficient and some of the alternative models that are being presented actually either increase surveillance or do other kinds of unexpected harm.
Leila: Yeah, so defunding. I see that as a strategy to move us closer to abolition, but it is again, not the end all be all, it's one step. So, you know, I helped to create the 8toabolition platform. Which was a response to a campaign, which was this very, you know, it's actually still being shared a little bit, but it is this very reformist campaign that was put out by Campaign Zero and it's a lot of a lot of the stuff we've seen tried before, you know, new regulations for police departments. Warn before you shoot, banning chokeholds, things that for example... in New York chokeholds have been banned for many years. chokeholds were banned before Eric Garner was killed by chokehold, that doesn't work expecting abusers to just follow new rules isn't gonna save us. We have to understand policing is it an inherently violent institution that, you know, is an outgrowth of slavery. It was like, with the 13th amendment slavery was outlawed, except for, you know, situations where a crime was committed. And so it was just this loophole to be able to, you know, extend slavery. And now, we just yeah, we need to chip away at it. And so I see the movement for decriminalizing sex work as chipping away at the carceral system, and I see defunding the police as chipping away at the carceral system, but none of it is the end all be all the end all be all is abolition, which you know, isn't even an outcome. It's a process like it's a practice and a way of living. It's tearing down all of these institutions that are rooted in punishment, culture and building new institutions rooted in building safety and accountability.
Lianne: So do you think that the Black Lives Matter movement has done or is doing enough to address the demands of sex workers and highlight these how these complex intersecting identities make black sex workers in articularl vulnerable to harm within the conversation that's being had?
Leila: Yeah, I think that's, it's hard to say right? Like, because also like which Black lives matter?
Lianne: That's right, it's not unilateral.
Leila: I think the mainstream movement against police brutality has overwhelmingly marginalize the needs of black Trans and Queer folks, black women, black non binary, folks, I think that you see that with, you know, the fact that like, decriminalization, I think in New York in particular over the past year and across the country, we have seen more conversation about decrim, when when I first got involved in this work several years ago in DC, it was a very marginalized conversation. We're not talking about we weren't talking about it in the same way a few years ago, but when the bill was introduced in New York, I feel like there was a shift and there was a lot of mainstream media coverage and just more and more people talking about decrim. Um, so I have seen improvements. But also, you know, that's not the only way that black women and black trans folks and queer folks are, are criminalized and experience police brutality and I think that and and you know, there are organizations like the African American policy forum that has done incredible work to lift up the experiences specifically of black women with like the hashtag say her name. And also Andrea Richie with her book Invisible, No More. I think that was really important for talking about like the fact that sexual assault is the second most common form of police brutality, and the people who are most likely to be targeted are black women and women of color, especially those who are sex workers, and drug users, I think, overwhelmingly we just don't talk about violence against women as part of the issue of police brutality. And, um, you know, to a great extent, I think that's because of the ways the anti violence movement has partnered with law enforcement as a way to address gendered violence. And so many anti violence orgs or DV orgs and sexual assault organizations are funded by the state and working closely with police officers and providing just like policing and courts as the pathway to respond. And that hasn't been satisfying for survivors and so many survivors have been victimized by carceral systems. So I think on both sides, like the mainstream movement against gendered violence and the mainstream movement against police brutality are really leaving behind people who trade sex, people experiencing homelessness, people who are, you know, black and experiencing gender violence.
Lianne: Right, right. It's a concept that Angela Davis sort of outlined in Are Prisons Obsolete in this text where she spoke about how sexual deviance was criminalized. And always and also then sexual assault, assault part of the punishment for women going all the way back to the master slave relationship and why that's so problematic. And so you do see how those conversations, or rather, when they fail to make it onto mainstream platforms, tell what is happening on the margins like and also what, what do you see as someone who's been involved in this movement on the margins as it's entering mainstream? Like, what are other tipping points? How do things go viral? How do things how are these ideas entering mainstream consciousness?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think like the 8toabolition platform the way it took off, I think that was really incredible. And I think like, small interventions like that, here and there, paired with, you know, ongoing events, like books that have already like Are Prisons Obsolete was written many years ago, a lot of the same things are true now. And so a lot of the resources exist and we have to keep finding ways as organizers to lift them up whether that's like, you know, like, organizing events you know, there was a for example, last year I got invited to be on this weird panel. It wasn't weird at first, at first I thought it was great. And then later I saw the the flyer and it was like decriminalizing pimps and traffickers or something like that. That was what they titled The event and it was like this weird Apple as the image on the flyer and in the apple, like, there was so much going on. I have to show this to you later. Like, they're like seeds of the apple made up a woman's or like, you know, like breasts and like, it was a lot and then on the sides of the apple, it was like two silhouettes of men biting in. It was so much so anyway, so I saw this flyer and I'm like, I know what I agreed to. And also on the panel, it was like the Chicago sheriff. It looks like it was, it was so much so they change the terms of the event that I had agreed to be on a panel of and I was like, hey, like, this isn't gonna work for me. Let's go back to the original terms, the conversation that we had agreed to talking about, which was like two consecutive panels, one where like, folks who are pushing the Nordic model can share their perspective. And then another panel immediately after, or those of us who're working on toward decriminalization can talk about our perspective, but not like a debate, and certainly not without framing and they didn't want to change the event back. So we crashed it. We had our own event right outside at the same time, and we were handing out materials and we had speakers, sex workers and people who had experienced trafficking all of us who, you know, were working toward decriminalization or at least supported decriminalization and we did some talking outside so yeah, I think like everyday interventions to be and and also dialogue like there are so many people who are not just don't have a lot of information yet but like even me, I got sucked into the the anti trafficking movement. I went and worked at Polaris because I just didn't have enough information and didn't even trust my own experiences as enough information. I assumed that these large well funded white lead or had more information than I did and that they were operating, you know, with data, which is how they present themselves. So I think it's really easy to get sucked in. And we have to keep having conversations with folks and taking time to patiently educate folks who are not the folks who, you know, are fighting and shouting us down and out. Like clearly, like, their intention is to make us look like we don't know, right? Or we don't care about survivors, like, those are the folks who I probably, we probably can't budge. And I'm not that interested in having conversations with them. But there are so many people who would come to an event like that, um, who just don't have a lot of information, and we have to keep presenting the alternative. And so that's also the idea behind before the pandemic, I was doing a lot of canvassing and a lot of public art, just to talk to neighbors in spaces where a lot of neighbors were calling the police on sex workers. So we just wanted to talk to folks and say, like, hey, you know, these are, these are the dynamics, this is what's happening. We don't see criminalization as helpful. And also, you know, a lot of sex workers don't want to be working outside either. They want housing, they want resources. So let's actually work to solve the problems that are facing sex workers at the margins and whenever we talk to people. Um, people were supportive if people understood, understand the issues of police brutality and how, you know, once we could make the connection to how police brutality was also impacting sex workers they're like, yeah, a lot of people were like, I didn't even know that we, you know, criminalized or arrested people for having sex for money, you know, like, wow. So just taking the time to have those conversations, to do street art, to, you know, come up with like interventions when we see reformist policy platforms put out, I think all of that work and then pointing people to the resources and to the data that exists, and it has existed forever.
Lianne: And it just shows how those direct human connections if you going door to door in a neighborhood are what it takes to destigmatize and to educate. And, you know, it seems like that's a really relevant model for perhaps the only hope we have in our country right now.
Lianne: And so a lot of your initiatives right with Rethink Masculinity Safe Bar Collective have all been community-based and -led. And of course, as we're looking at transforming the criminal justice system, can you talk about the guiding principles of peer-led programs and their praxis and how those might be a blueprint for moving into an abolitionist nation?
Leila: Yeah. I mean, so like, this is how the anti-violence movement actually got it started. It was mostly peer based programs of survivors supporting survivors. And this is also how, you know, a lot of the work that I've done in the decriminalization movement has operated we, you know, we've done like grassroots fundraisers, and then we provide stipends to folks especially like Black, trans and queer sex workers who are housing insecure, to do the canvassing, to be on the front lines. And also to like participate in lobbying and that you know, on one hand folks like need resources, their real life needs in real time. And we also make sure that people who are on the frontlines of this issue are the people who are most directly impacted, who have the most information to share. So I yeah, I love building and being part of building peer-based educational programs and community based programs. The Safe Bar Collective has been, so it's still, you know, an ongoing program in DC. And also the program has been replicated in a couple of other cities like in Philadelphia and Tennessee. And, yeah, the idea, it's mostly like, facilitated by survivors who wanted to do trainings, we trained them on how to facilitate the trainings. And then they go out and many of them are also restaurant workers who have experienced sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. So then can go out and, you know, talk to folks in the restaurant industry and at bars and in nightlife spaces about bystander intervention and what we can do on a day to day basis to intervene and interrupt harassment and micro-aggressions and discrimination on the day to day. And, you know, and and the Rethink Masculinity program is very similar. It's, um, we were doing so many trainings for years. And what we were finding was, it was mostly like women and nonbinary people, sometimes queer men, but not a lot of masculine-of-center people. And so I think I like a lot of my organizing happens or starts on Twitter. I sent out a tweet and was like, you know, we're doing the training again tonight and someone asked, where are the men, so where are y'all at? And then I connected with Taheer Dakit, who leads the organization Rethink Faster Rethink and then also connected with my friend Amanda Lindemann, who was at the time at the DC Rape Crisis Center, we all sat together. And also, there were a few other men organizers who jumped in that thread. And we're like, we're interested in building something. And so we all got together. And that was sort of the birth of the Rethink Masculinity program. And it became a 12 week program for between 12 and I think we capped it out at 20 masculine-of -enter people to talk about topics like, you know, emotional labor and bystander intervention and just building healthier relationships and interrupting oppressive behaviors. And, and yeah, I think the most powerful things about both of those programs, one were like the relationships that were built, being able to practice what folks were talking about in the space with that people who are interested in practicing it. And we had a system in Rethink Masculinity that we called, like, accountability buddies. So folks would have like a partner and you know, that partner would help them be accountable to like, you know, like, whatever the assignments were or like, like sticking with the program or even just like continuing those practices beyond the program. And in the Safe Bar Collective program, and I think in both programs, too, it's like, we don't go in assuming that like, the facilitator has all of the information right, that the idea is we all have a lot of information, we all have different experiences. So Rethink Masculinity program was intentionally diverse. You know, we didn't want a group of all like, one race, one age, like there were people of all backgrounds, from the ages of 18 to I think the oldest participant when I was there was like 61 and you know, folks, were able to talk from their various vantage points. And, and you build empathy that way, because you learn about vastly different experiences directly from people who are, you know, vastly different from you. Um, so yeah, I think like peer-based programs are so important in such a shift from what I think we've seen in the nonprofit sector and even social work where there's sort of a divide between the service provider and the client. And there's this assumption that one person has more information and has to have more power in the relationship. I think that that's really harmful. And, you know, I think instead, we need to be moving toward like in an abolitionist world, disrupting hierarchies and disrupting domination and disrupting spaces where like, one person is assumed to have more information or more power because of you know, some, like arbitrary set of, like, maybe they went to, you know, got a master's degree or whatever, but that's like, I never got a master's degree. And maybe I don't have all of the information that some people in anti trafficking organizations have, but I have my own lived experience and that is valuable, like all of these different kinds of experience and expertise, I think are valuable and important. And, you know, we all have a lot to bring to the table.
Lianne: Right of course, then it has to do with also who who's having the most direct experience, right, how removed as a master's program from the thing that it's actually studying and how can we be listening to the people on the ground? Yeah, and also this, I am curious, like, Where are the men and the masculine, the masculine-centered folks, and I'm just curious, well, there's a couple things I'm going to kind of weave into a question for you to riff on. One, you recently posted this wonderful reframe about gender-based violence and shifting to the term patriarchal violence. So I'd love for you to briefly explain why that linguistic reframe is so important. And then I'm also thinking about there's the National Organization for Women's New York City chapter, Sanyo Osario, she expressed in the sentiment against complete decriminalization of the sex trade and she said, a movement to fully decriminalize the sex trade so that we normalize male entitlement to sex is not a model of equality. Right. And that represents a reductive view, both in assuming that male entitlement is what this is all about. And so this kind of comes back to again, there are these different scenarios of sex work, right where it also can be between consenting adults, and it can be about mutual benefit in some way. And so yeah, within all of that, I'm just thinking about where does patriarchy...what patriarchal constructs are part are sort of interfering with the movement or affecting sex workers. Still, what is the role of men or masculine-centered folk in this movement?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, so, one thing. So the question about like, where are the men? What I found with the Rethink Masculinity program was that so we would put out an application and we'd cap it out because we wanted the groups to be, you know, fairly intimate spaces where people could openly share, build relationships, and everyone had likes an opportunity to speak. And the demand for that program was always way more than what we could accommodate. And so, you know, on one hand, I think there really aren't a lot of programs directed at masculine-of-center people. I think our program was the only one that I've ever known of to be inclusive of transmasculine people. Um, and, uh, you know, I so I would love to see more more models like for and by men or by masc folks on interrupting patriarchy. I think obviously there is a... and yeah, there are a lot of people who are looking for resources and there just aren't a lot of resources, or they aren't lifted up as well as I would hope. And also a lot of people aren't interested in...a lot of people are like, nah, that's not my problem. So there's that too, of course, right? I'm always more interested in you know, like, how do we, how do we meet this demand for resources when the resources really just don't really exist to the scale that they they should or are needed. But then, yeah, in terms of like, the ways that especially anti-trafficking boards and many anti violence boards frame sex work as inherently exploitative. Well, actually, I'll take a step back and go back to your first question which was...
Lianne: It was loaded, that was too much.
Leila: No, I got them. So the first one was about like the reframe, um, you know, away from gender-based violence and toward the term patriarchal violence. So, I have been uncomfortable with the term gender-based violence for a few years because when you say gender-based, it comes across as like, people are being targeted because of their gender and maybe that's true. But then again, the focus is like, on the person, the gender of the person being targeted, which, in my mind is like, you know, like, as though my gender is the problem. And I'm, and that's not what it's about. We need to move away from like the focus on the identity of the people. I mean like, that matters, you know, the fact that mostly Black women, women of color are being targeted, mostly trans folks of color are being targeted by gendered violence that matters. And also, that's not the root cause of the violence. We need to be focused on, like, what are the systems that are enabling this violence? So I really like the term patriarchal violence. I have been using gendered violence for a long time. And it's working to make the shift patriarchal violence after my friends at Collective Action for Safe Spaces where I used to work and also Black Feminist Future partnered on this. This, I think, I can't remember what it was called. But they worked on this project together to come up with that term and that definition, and I think it's, yeah, I think that that helps us reframe the way we think about this issue — back to the systems that enable it and when we reframe the way we think about it, we can also reframe the way that we come up with strategies and solutions to address it. You know, our solutions to gendered violence should not be individualized. I think that we've even replicated that in organizing spaces. So like in mainstream anti-violence spaces the solution is like, report your abuser or your rapist to the police, go through the court system, which often again is like re-victimizing for so many survivors. But then in organizing spaces and and radical spaces, we've almost seen that replicated with the accountability process, which, you know, I won't... I think accountability processes can be really valuable. I think mediation can be really valuable, finding ways to talk through harm, and come to solutions that transform everyone involved, the person who caused harm the person who experienced harm the community around them, that is really valuable. But in so many cases, accountability processes are used in situations of abuse. And I don't think that that's helpful because it it ends up replicating the courtroom in our communities. And the focus tends to be on how do we transform the abuser? And it's like no, actually, that's not helpful. You know, people are going to come to the table and work to transform their behaviors when they're ready. But how do we transform the community that enabled this abuse to happen? Those are the, that's the more important question. How do we shift the conditions that allowed patriarchal violence to occur? Um, so I think, yeah, reframing is really important for helping us think through how we want to solve and address this problem. And then, yeah, we've definitely seen a lot of organizations like now in New York City weaponize a lot of that language around like violence and exploitation to to really just be paternalistic and also often very trans-exclusionary, they don't often... these organizations don't have an analysis around gender that is, you know, beyond the essentialist, like, man and woman binary. But yeah, there's this idea that like, all people who trade sex for resources are women, first of all, cis women in particular. And it's exploitative all the time. I think that, you know, I look back at a lot of my experiences, especially as a young person, especially this young person, who was trading sex from a vulnerable position. And I do think I was preyed on by, you know, many older men who saw that I was in a vulnerable position, but I don't think all sex work is exploitative. I don't think that all people who pay for sex are predatory. And, you know, I think like under under the capitalist system, like all work or most work is exploitative. So I think it's complicated. Like I don't think that sex work is uniquely exploitative. I think that's a better way to put it like anybody who like is forced to work to survive like, yeah, maybe that's fucked up as a concept. Like, maybe like there are people who have disabilities or like people, you know, like there are so many reasons that a lot of people shouldn't have like, so many awful jobs, right? It's so many bad jobs, so many exploitative jobs, sex work is not immune. Um, and also, it comes back to why are we talking about, like criminalizing this industry as a solution or even abolishing this industry. That is not how we address exploitation in any other industry, we talk about labor rights for people, we talk about, like, making sure that people have everything they need to survive. So, you know, I want to abolish capitalism. I want to create a world where people will still work, people will still do care work and all of the essential labor that we've learned is most important. Like healthcare, and yeah, care work. I think people probably will do sex work. But to create concrete conditions where work would not be exploitive, we'd have to abolish prisons, we'd have to abolish capitalism, we need a new world. It's not enough to say let's criminalize people who pay for sex. That is reductive. It also ends up mostly harming sex workers and harming survivors who are often Black women and women of color who face criminalization because of their Blackness, because of their queerness, because of, you know, poverty or homelessness. Like if we increase interactions between sex workers and police or survivors and police, especially marginalized survivors, they will bear the brunt of that. Many trauma survivors get deported when police or policing gets involved. So it's just not helpful. It's not increasing safety and it's certainly not ending exploitation.
Lianne: And I love what you said earlier about thinking about sex work as an essential work as well if it is by choice and if there are healthy conditions for it, right, that there's a whole other reframing as we dismantle all these other systems that can help actually have a healthier population at large.
Leila: Right, I think sex work is care work. I think that like even, you know, we always get this question like circulated online, what, will sex work exists after the revolution. Like first of all, like let's talk about the here and now. We're not there yet, let's let's figure it out after the revolution, but I also think, you know, I think that already, even with marriage, even with a lot of our relationships, we negotiate our needs and boundaries and and we'll set conditions for, you know, even maybe access to resources that we want. So like, yeah, I think a lot of relationships involve sex work, even if money directly isn't involved.
Lianne: Totally. Um, well as we as we look at abolishing systems, you know, I think those of us who recognize the danger of police brutality and the racist origins of policing in the prison industrial complex, you know, we get excited about the prospect of abolition, but I'd love to think about it on a practical level with you. In a case-specific, like, what is that now me and you were talking also earlier. You know, it is about transforming the abuser or the community but what about like, right now when we have, for example, the policeman who murdered George Floyd or the rapist who murdered Toyin. To allow, like, what does a non-punitive, non-carceral community justice system look like when dealing with those people?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, right now, I think like, there are so many different strategies that many of us have been trying, you know, I actually experienced an assault last year. And I've been very public about it, because I ended up organizing to remove my abuser from his role as an editor at a leftist magazine. So I you know, I think when it comes to abuse, like, abuse is about power and control and organizing is about shifting power. So I think that community organizing can be really powerful. But then after that, like ended up in an accountability process where, like, the whole group of editors basically used the process to extend the abuse. And so then, again, I used organizing, we shut down the whole magazine because then it became clear, it's like, oh, it's not just about, you know, removing one abuser as a reminder, like, it's never just one person. It's not just bad apples, it's a whole, you know, the whole system, the whole community that needs to be accountable. I think of that, you know, similarly with policing, again, not just bad apples, it's all of policing, we need to end policing so that there isn't a context where someone could murder someone, um, you know, like with someone with a gun and the power of the state, to oppress our communities and harm our communities in real time. I think a lot of people are calling for incarceration of the killers of Breonna Taylor and the killers of George Floyd and all of the folks who have been murdered by police and I feel very complicated about that, and feel the same way about like, with survivors of gendered violence. And so you know,
Lianne: Patriarchal violence...
Leila: Yeah, like when it comes to like the needs of survivors, I respect every survivor's right to make decisions about what will lead them to safety, healing and justice. And so if the families are calling for incarceration or if a rape survivor calls the police, I don't think that we should be taking options away. You know, and I respect and support people's right to access justice in the ways they seek. And also, I think it's important for us to keep educating people about all of the other opportunities, they are all of the alternatives, all of the different ways that we can seek justice. So I think community organizing can be a really powerful tool, removing people from the roles that they have used to abuse others, whether that's like removing the officer from the police department, ideally shutting down police departments, defunding, you know, defund the police department that killed George Floyd and that killed Breonna Taylor. Um, so I think taking power away from abusive institutions is really important. Taking power away from, you know, people who cause harm, removing them from roles where they can continue to cause harm. Um, and, you know, and I yeah, I don't oppose any response to patriarchal violence, my first experience with domestic violence, like I was actually arrested in 2012. Because I, you know, like, grabbed a knife in response to abuse by my partner, and we were both arrested. And so, you know, I don't judge people for stabbing their rapist. I don't judge people for taking a baseball bat to their rapists' head. Whatever you do, whatever feels healing, whatever makes you feel safe. I support it. And all so we have to know like, um, especially as marginalized survivors, so many of us have been criminalized for the strategies that we've used to be safe. And so I continue to try to hone new strategies and I think community organizing can be really powerful. I support call outs.
Lianne: I see how, how the systemic change to sort of prevent more bad apples can be as part of the abolitionist agenda and also how you know, again, when we're talking about sure, survivors of rape who've had to stab their abusers ,like yeah, of course abolish. But then like what should happen to Aaron Glee for example, who's the alleged murder of Toyin?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, again...
Lianne: It's not that black or white...
Leila: Yeah, no, exactly like it's um, it's horrifying. It's heartbreaking, like so many of us were hit so hard by Toyin's death, because yeah, like so many of us have, like been in, like... just yeah, it hits so close to home. And ultimately, where I stand on all things is whatever maximizes our safety is what I support, like centering the need, and when the survivor has been killed, it's like what? Yeah, I don't know. There's no... I can't say whatever Toyin wants, because we don't know. Yeah.
Lianne: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, it's complex. Well, I just have two more questions for you. So one is, we've been seeing the peaceful protesters being attacked and abducted by federal troops. And while those who've been targets of police brutality have long understood the extent to which the police act as agents of state violence rather than protectors of civilians, for many these recent violent encounters highlights the dangers of a military state. And so a lot of the discourse around defunding or abolishing the police is happening at the state and local levels. But now we're like seeing this threat of potential martial law and seeing Congress just pass the spending bill that's increasing military spending while cutting unemployment benefits. So what might the abolitionist movement teach us about how to react to this unprecedented presence of federal troops? And how might the platform be extended right now on a national level?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, with #8toabolition, we include not only police departments. ICE, you know, the military, and involuntary commitment in psych wards and nursing homes. You know, abolition is the end to all of these violent institutions. And it's also you know, abolishing carceral logics in our everyday lives, so many of us, in large or small ways, uphold the power of the state to oppress our communities in it, you know, when we call the police on our neighbors, I say we... I've never done this. We but not me. No, I'm just kidding. But like, no, I'm not. But anyway, um, like I do. When communities call the police on their neighbors, or even like punishment in the home, like I try as a practice to, um, you know, I don't use punishment with my child. I reject like, all kinds of carceral logics and try to, you know, communicate and like use dialogue and future-oriented and reflective approaches to help her learn to change behaviors. I think that's what we will need. It won't be enough to disrupt all of these institutions if all we know is how to replicate those oppressive behaviors in our everyday lives, because then our, our new institutions are going to do the same thing. And I think that's what we've seen actually with a lot of even grassroots organizations or leftist organizations. If you've internalized, you know, white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy, or ableism, or all of the above, you replicate those same patterns. So it's, it's about abolishing all of those violent institutions and also, like killing the cop in your head and in your home.
Lianne: I wonder if this what's happening with the troops right now will actually bolster the abolitionist movement because it can help people who maybe otherwise would not understand or have actually themselves only felt protected before, because they haven't been targeted by race or been protected by privilege to understand like, what that direct encounter with power and the abuse of power really means.
Leila: I definitely think more people are learning about abolition than I would have ever imagined. Abolition and defunding the police have become mainstream concepts. And I think it's it's beautiful to see people come on board and to better understand these issues and understand the inherent violence of policing and carceral systems. And also, um, you know, we've already seen opportunists swooping in and watering down the messages of abolitionists or like, you know, we're already seeing panels that call it abolition, but actually what you're talking about is police reform. And this is exactly what we saw happen to intersectionality a few years ago, you know, it became a mainstream buzzword, but people were using the word but weren't learning how to practice it. So I think that's the next step. Like really helping people develop practical skills to embody abolition and also recognizing that we're still going to see abusers, we're still going to see people who are going to take the language and they know better. And maybe they've been through all the trainings, and they're just getting to be better abusers, and that's fucked up. And we're gonna have to disrupt and deplatform them.
Lianne: Well, lastly, I'd love for you to just talk about how sex workers have been hit by COVID. And what kind of mutual aid networks have developed, and also how listeners can support both the decriminalization movement and mutual aid on the ground mutual aid efforts right now?
Leila: Yeah, so I'm here in New York, and there have been a lot of great mutual aid efforts. I think No Justice, No Pride in DC is running in a mutual aid effort. So I definitely would direct people to give there...I think DC just doesn't get the same level of love and attention that sometimes big city cities like New York get, but it here in New York, DeCrim New York partnered with BYP and we started the Black Mutual Aid Initiative. And we were able to give out, you know, I think it was over $250,000 in direct cash to black New Yorkers. Um, I think like, for a lot of people, the work has continued, you know, especially like street-based workers. I, you know, a lot of folks were already doing this work because they had no alternatives, no other options, and they continue to do this work. I haven't heard of anyone in my circle who's doing street-based sex work or getting sick, which is good. Um, but that's not to say that it's not happening, I just haven't, haven't encountered it yet. Um, so a lot of people are still working a lot of people transitioned if they were able to, to online work. And I think that uh, you know, obviously is definitely safer. But yeah, not not everybody had the luxury of social distancing, especially people experiencing homelessness, people who engage in street based work for their survival. There weren't enough like, this city ended up kind of late in purchasing hotel rooms for people who, many people experiencing homelessness but not everyone, policing continued, people continue to be arrested, harassed by police and incarcerated during COVID despite the fact that the rate of infection at Rikers was at at one point I think like 70 times higher than the rate of the...80 times higher than the national rate. Um, so you know, this situation was still bad and exacerbated by the you know, the conditions of the pandemic and increased pandemic related policing. And also a lot of people continue to do whatever they had to do to survive. Mutual aid, I think was really helpful for a lot of people what, what I found helpful was actually, so initially, when we were starting our mutual aid project, we were like, well, we can't give anybody more than $600 because of like tax, for tax reasons, we would have to like fill out a W-9 and we're like, we're just trying to give people money. And, um, those restrictions, or that that restriction was lifted. So actually, we were able to give people more than that, which was really great, but ultimately, like, we were distributing, usually around $200 per payment, and then people could come back and get more if they needed more, which I think most people did, um, and recognizing that that's not enough to survive on. So still aid was helpful for people you know, to support some basic needs, but it wasn't like, yeah, I think it's just like a like, here's another small cushion. And we'll like keep trying to give you these cushions as much as possible like just, but I think it was really powerful to be able to like, suddenly mutual aid became sexy. Like sex workers, especially Black and brown, trans and queer disabled sex workers have been doing mutual aid year round. Like, already sex workers have been shut out of state systems, like we've talked about, and don't rely on the state for survival. And so, um, I think that we had an advantage in that way. Because we weren't learning something new. We were building on existing systems. Like I had talked about before, like, we were already doing mutual aid through our canvassing, we were already working to find ways to give people money directly to meet their real needs. Um, and this time, like, yeah, more people were giving to mutual aid funds. So that was cool. And, and really helpful. Um, but yeah, through the Black Mutual Aid Initiative, we were able to give out about $250,000. And right now the initiative is actually on pause. Again, because there was an assault in, you know, in our organizing space, like it actually happened before the mutual aid project, but one of the people who were involved in our project turned out to be someone who sexually assaulted too. Well, we found out about two at first, then we found out about two more people in our organizing spaces. And so it's just a reminder, like, our movements against state violence must also be movements against gendered violence at all times in our organized spaces. We're continuing to see this behavior replicated. Our movements are continuing to be disrupted by patriarchal violence. And so now we're doing a lot of internal healing work you know, we were able to remove the the rapist like fairly quickly, but yeah, there's a lot of healing work that needs to happen and and I raised that just because I think, you know, we can't just keep sweeping it under the rug. I think it's just important to keep talking about the fact that even in our movement spaces, Black trans and queer women who are keeping the work going are facing patriarchal violence from our own fucking comrades. Wow.
Lianne: Well, thank you so much. In terms of hierarchy, I feel that I this was like day one of my Masters in sex worker rights and abolition movement, and you've, you're so knowledgeable and so the depth of your experience really shines through and I'm really grateful to you for highlighting so many of these issues for our listeners.
Leila: Oh, thank you so much. And thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation and for your fantastic questions. We covered so much ground
Lianne: I know, we actually got through like, yeah, everything.
Well, I'll give you back to your six year old daughter and I hope that the orange soda hasn't made her too hyper. I did have a question, which was, you're speaking about all of that, as in the past tense. I'm in like California where we are very much still in the pandemic. So are you speaking that way because just, yeah. What is the past tense in terms of like the what is the state of COVID on the ground right now?
Leila: Um, things are actually starting to open up here. But no, I say I'm using past tense because our over the last couple of weeks, I've focused, I've redirected a lot of my energies away from mutual aid and towards survivor support. So I'm on the survivor support team. And the next step will be yeah, figuring out those internal healing...this is all very new. Figuring out like what is internal healing look like and also, I think that it'll be good for us to learn to figure out at the beginning of any any organizing initiative, any project, any coalition space that we do, how are we going to respond to harm when it happens here? How are we going to be ready? And how are we going to build safety for organizers as we work to build safety for our communities? So yeah, that's where we are.
Lianne: Well, I'd love to have you back one day then to talk about what what that looks like, what internal healing means. And yeah, how survivors get to sort of reclaim eroticism, reclaim power and reintegrate with society, because I think that's equally important and fascinating and want to make that part of the conversation as well.
Leila: Yeah, definitely.
Lianne: Yeah. Well, thank you. I will link to anything that you send me to link to. I will. Yeah, if you could send me a bio that would be awesome. And I'm just again, so grateful for your time.
Leila: Of course, you know already.
Lianne: If this episode turned you on, you can show your support by rating and subscribing to the show. It actually makes a really big difference in helping other people find us, we're still a new podcast, and it's easy to get lost in the ether of the world wide web. So if you find value in these conversations and you think other people would be enriched by them, you'd be doing a great service to us and them by rating and subscribing. You can also follow and interact with us on social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all the things, although you won't yet see me dancing on TikTok. Yet. Eros is all about being in relation, and so it would mean so much for me to hear from you, so that I don't feel like I'm in a one-sided relationship with my microphone, which is its own kind of Eros. Special thank you to Ben Newfrat for his relentless generosity and virtuosity in creating original music for the show and mixing the entire first season, and just for being an all-around mensch, as my bubbe would say. Thank you to my fantastic research and development team: Ayla Khan, Casey Odesser, Sasha Carney, and to Ashri Harishankr, who mixed and edited this episode. If you're interested in joining our team of erotic activists, we still have a few positions open, so please reach out. Stay sexy, folks.