Our Bodies, Our Business. 1989. Reflections on a film.
George Stamos and Andrew Sorfleet are owed a debt of gratitude for making Our Bodies Our Business, a film about sex workers rights activists at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal in 1989. It is wonderful to re-live these amazing moments, although for me they were still pretty vivid because they were so momentous. I still remember meeting Carol Leigh in a bathroom as she was putting the final touches to her amazing costume. Carol invented the term ‘sex worker’ and as Scarlet Harlot she went on to use her creative genius and boundless positive energy to struggle for sex workers rights for the next three decades. I remember Diana Alan, transwoman and nurse fantastico, striding toward the microphone in a huge conference room to take down a panel of eminent epidemiologists and trailing in awe behind Val Scott and crew as she advertised blow jobs at the top of her voice among the stands of governments and pharmaceutical companies. Having come from the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, which had existed for some years as a small lobby group meeting in my living room until we received sexual health funding in 1983, linking up with these like minds was truly unforgettable.
What had faded in my memory was how angry and scared we were in 1989. The film, and the longer footage it’s taken from, captures some of the many kinds of anger and fear taken to Montreal that summer. Everyone had deaths on their minds – our friends, and our own if we slipped up. ACT UP New York came by bus, fearing they wouldn’t get over the border and worried about people getting sick. For sex workers in the Global North much of the fear was grounded in the ugly history of disease control and prostitution. This was compounded by the fact that many of the epidemiologists who were at the conference warning that female sex workers now posed an enormous threat to the future of humanity were from the very same institutions who had in the past recommended human rights violations and tortured sex workers in the name of venereal disease control. Danny Cockerline called the scapegoating of sex workers in the least ambiguous language I’d heard then or have since – ‘that jerk Jonathon Mann…talking about the number of female prostitutes infected.’ Sadly, Danny didn’t live to see that Mann was the least jerky we were going to get. I also loved Danny’s speech about why he was pleased that male sex workers were not paid much attention at the conference. That’s a position I bet you’ve never heard.
I had also forgotten how marginalised we were. We were not invited or subsidised and as you can hear, sex workers’ abstracts were not accepted. Andrew Hunter reminded us that he sold the car his Dad had recently bought him to drive to university. 18 year old George heard about the conference from Danny who had recruited him to distribute condoms in the working alley, in Toronto’s gay village. We were on the outside demanding a ‘seat at the table’. It’s fun to see scientists seeing the ‘nothing without us’ principle at the session on female sex work dominated of male scientists (and their apologists – get Judith Cohen’s line about being pleased that men were interested in researching sex workers!) We had no plans for careers in the as yet unformed AIDS industrial complex. As Val and I reflected recently – ‘we had nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, we really didn’t give a shit.’
I had a front row seat on the process of being ‘bought in’ because I organised sex worker delegations at many subsequent International AIDS Conferences. Protests continued but changed. In 1994 we protested Japan’s ban on sex workers entering the country and successfully demanded that an abolitionist scheduled to deliver a keynote speech on sex work give over half her time to sex workers. In 2002 in Barcelona we protested mandatory testing and co-ercive HIV prevention. Over the years panels increasingly included a sex worker or, more likely, an ally from a sex work project and eventually a sex worker would give a plenary speech. The organisers gave us a space in an exhibition hall and ended the rabble rousing by specifying where and when each interest group could protest. The ‘protests’ became set pieces and of course the fear and anger subsided with effective treatment. What we didn’t anticipate was that the price of inclusion would be losing some of the heady autonomy of 1989. Sex workers would increasingly be recognised as legitimate participants via health NGOs and once ‘inside’ they would be agreeing with dominant AIDS discourses rather than challenging them. And large public health NGOs would increasingly influence the ‘sex workers networking zone). Empowerment Lite. ( Scott Long’s recent article about this process in the context of LGBT advocacy is well worth a read)
The arguments for decriminalisation and recognition of sex work as work had been freshly articulated not long before at the first global meeting of sex workers in Brussels organised by the International Committee of Prostitutes Rights (ICPR). What we did see perfectly well in 1989 was that HIV would provide us with an opportunity to take the campaign for decriminalisation of sex work to a broader audience. Our hopes were fulfilled to some extent (not least because aforementioned ‘jerk’ was actually a human rights visionary who supported us!) and over time more and more health agencies joined our calls for law reform. We soon discovered that governments don’t care what UN agencies or liberal public health agencies say. And we would be in for a long wait for any country to decriminalise sex work while dozen of countries increased penalties; conflated sex work with trafficking; extended criminalisation to clients and introduced mandatory HIV testing and severe penalties for sex workers living with HIV.
I watched the film in 2 minute grabs interspersed with breaks to shed tears for lost loved ones or recover from excruciating embarrassment. (OMG my accent) It took time for more detached reflection. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the fifth AIDS conference was the quality of the research, which Val described as shoddy. That was generous. This was obvious even to someone like me who had, at the time, done no more than few classes on research methods at university. We heard research bound up in stigmatising and flawed assumptions, lacking control groups and decent sample sizes, and blind to clients and broader social and economic factors.That’s changed. But not much.
Another interesting point which Andrew Hunter raised in the film was that we heard peer outreach, needle exchange and safe sex education for sex workers presented as the innovative new strategies of health experts fully three years after sex workers had already articulated and implemented them. We must have been too busy doing it to write it up in the Lancet. Oh, hang on…I doubt I knew what the Lancet was then.
Much could be said about the history of the sex worker rights movement and its entwinement with the AIDS industry over the years. But an issue this film clearly throws up is that the sex worker activists who went to Montreal were white people from countries that were destined to provide the prevention and eventually treatment that would minimalise HIV epidemics in their countries. Seeing Our Bodies Our Business bought some into focus that those minimalised HIV epidemics in rich countries would be known as ‘concentrated’ meaning that ‘only’ high risk people such as sex workers, gay men and injecting drug users would suffer. Nevertheless this exclusion of people of colour nagged and many of us spent the next decade working to make space for sex worker voices from Global South into the sex workers rights movement (albeit via the HIV industry which is another story). But as striking as our whiteness is in the film, the lack of sex workers from the Global South in 1989 wasn’t our fault. It was the fault of the governments, health agencies, and conference organisers that supported thousands of people to go to these conferences. None of them seemed to have thought to bring sex worker along. There should not have been a discussion about sex workers in Senegal without Senegalese sex workers, but since there was, good on Carol Leigh for questioning Senegal’s repressive disease control model. In fact, many professionals from the Global South lined up to tell us that women in their country didn’t sell sex unless forced so they weren’t sex workers and our human rights analysis didn’t apply. ‘Yeah right mate,’ I would’ve said, in that excruciating accent.
In Montreal we developed a strategy of telling all researchers and officials to ‘bring a sex worker next time.’ Importantly we also hooked up with development agencies like ENDA Senegal who engaged with the application of human rights to sex work and were keen to learn more from sex workers at home. ENDA did indeed did bring a sex worker next time. Smarajit Jana a health researcher from India also took up the challenge, turning up at a conference with a small army of sex workers. That too is another story, but not mine. It’s the story of the Sonagachi project in Calcutta.
There is a final lesson from this film. George found it in the Concordia University library amongst several hours of unedited footage donated by ACT UP NYC, chased up permission to use it from the filmmaker who shot the footage Catherine Gund and Andrew Sorfleet happened to see an opportunity to fund the editing process. In other words, a very hit and miss process. I’m one of a dozen or two activists from that time who have boxes and boxes of historic material in various states of order under beds and in attics. Some are stored in local archives and a few people, like Carol Leigh and the wonderful Norma Jean Almodovar in Los Angeles, have kept up with electronic archiving. When we were young and beautiful it didn’t occur to us that we might get old and die and these jewel boxes of text and image would be headed for various dumps around the world along with long forgotten leather trousers and padded shoulder jackets. We need a strategy for this now, just as we needed a strategy for influencing the response to HIV in 1989. History matters.
Entry filed under: research.