As in feminism, there have been a number of waves in the sex worker movement. This is due in no small part to the turnover in activists themselves, for it is they who help shape conversations as well as the agenda. In recent weeks, many sex worker activists may have read, or heard about, the traumatic story involving two sex workers, Amanda Brooks and Jill Brenneman. But what many, especially those new to the sex worker movement, may not know is just who Jill Brenneman & Amanda Brooks are. It’s a shame that such evil events, including issues of violence that many sex workers don’t wish to talk about, precipitate and necessitate a brief introduction to these two women who should be met for the wonderful work they have done, but here we are.
[This has been exceedingly hard to do. I’ve been proud to work with these women I admire and respect so much, and feel it a profound privilege to call them my friends. The dire circumstances, their lives on the line, overwhelm me with emotions… How to type & read as tears are in my eyes? Typos abound on a good day, but this..? Honestly, I can’t help but feel I am writing eulogies. And I don’t want to think about that, let alone do it. But as I love these women, care about women’s rights and sex workers rights, it seems absolutely the right thing to do ~ especially as today is the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers (#IDEVASW on Twitter).]
Jill Brenneman’s story is an amazing one, both for its place in the sex worker movement and as a personal one ~ for what can be more personal than survival?
Jill’s introduction to sex as a transaction came when she was a young teenager. At the age of 14, Jill was kicked out of the house for not having sex with her mother’s boyfriend, wound up homeless, and then became entrapped by a man who held her captive and profited off her misery, pimping her as a sex slave. He kept Jill imprisoned for years before she was able to escape. Eventually, Jill started an organization which, based on her personal experiences of violence and sex trafficking, had an anti-sex work position. But to Jill’s credit, her personal experiences didn’t limit her thinking. Due to her remarkable open-mindedness, powerful sense of reason, and a profound sense of right-and-wrong, Jill was able to see past what she’d endured and really hear the stories of other sex workers. Their realities and needs were different than she’d known. Where others might have shut down or shot those workers down, Jill used this information to reconsider her anti sex work stance and came to the realization that prohibition was not the answer to the issues sex workers faced. Jill shifted her thinking ~ as well as the focus of her organization. While victims of the sex slave trade weren’t ignored, Jill expanded the mission to include, and later focus on, harm reduction services and the promotion of sex worker rights. This shift did not go unnoticed; she would receive death threats from the anti-crowd. In spite of this, Jill went on to use her original organization’s nonprofit status to form SWOP East (and therefore properly provide nonprofit status to SWOP itself). It was there, on the SWOP East board, that I first met Jill ~ and Amanda.
The story of Amanda Brooks and her work in the movement may seem less remarkable, at least on the surface. Among other things, Amanda authored the sex worker bible series, The Internet Escort’s Handbook, and she did what many of us cannot or would not do: she went public ~ highly visibly public ~ with her activism.
Amanda made many courageous national media appearances promoting the rights of sex workers, including on the antagonistic FOX channel. In 2008, she appeared with Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t appear on O’Reilly. Not even to discuss something as non-controversial as how to put a leash on a dog. The fear of how I would be verbally abused would be bad enough, but knowing how my words could be twisted and edited to make me sound like an idiot and thereby damage the movement itself, well, that sort of thing keeps me up at night. But Amanda did it. And she did it well. Via her grace, she kept calm and cool in the line of fire, while her keen intelligence and excellent articulation kept her on point and firing right back. Indeed, her gifts were well-suited to such public media work and I’ve always sort of pictured Amanda as our version of Gloria Steinem ~ the fierce and intelligent voice of the movement, wrapped in an attractive packaging, which, combined, might just get us heard. In such a role, Amanda became the tallest nail ~ which results in taking the hardest pounding. But unflappable Amanda just kept on trucking. Even when she faced more than a bit of backlash from others in the movement. Amanda’s commitment was to the cause, not the drama.
In 2010, Jill and Amanda would dissolve SWOP East and form a new organization, Sex Workers Without Borders. Two years later, the pair would begin a saga that can only be described as a harrowing nightmare.
Two-and-a-half years later, the two continue their work for the movement by sharing their story of terror with the public. The very act of going public is not without additional risks. Yet the two present their story not only as a documented record of the events should anything (else) happen to them & they both disappear, but as a cautionary tale illustrating the issues of what can and does happen to women and sex workers in our current system.
You can participate in many events in honor of International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers ~ but I urge you to make donating to Amanda & Jill one of them. You can do so safely & anonymously via GiftRocket. All you need to do that is this email address: abrooks2014 AT hush.com.
Also, please retweet or otherwise share their story so that others may help. As Jill said in a recent interview at Tits & Sass, “Stop being an ‘activist’ and start helping us. It’s great to address issues on a macro level but the problems exist on the micro level. That is where you can really create change. Micro level activism is real help with little reward; macro level activism is just for kudos.”