It is “Suicide” to Ignore Sex Workers

Pamela Merritt

How would AIDS service organizations in American cities respond if they had to sign the anti-prostitution pledge required of PEPFAR grantees? What impact would that pledge have on Americans at risk for HIV infection?

William Smith's excellent piece on the impact the PEPFAR prostitution pledge is having on HIV/AIDS prevention work in Kafue, Zambia made me wonder how my home city of St. Louis, Missouri, would respond given the same conditions and limitations. Would an HIV/AIDS service organization (ASO) err on the side of caution or the true fulfillment of their mission? And what impact would those choices have on my community and my city?

HIV/AIDS is a global disease and St. Louis, like all cities, has residents at risk for HIV/AIDS infection and residents who are HIV positive or have AIDS. Also like most cities, St. Louis has prostitution.

Remove Zambia and insert America…remove Kafue and insert St. Louis…and the PEPFAR prostitution pledge still won't make sense because building a program that says people will have access to HIV/AIDS education, prevention and contraception unless they are prostitutes will never make sense regardless of where those people live.

I can't figure out if, by denying funds to groups that provide prevention outreach to sex workers, PEPFAR is trying to punish sex workers or terrorize people considering becoming sex workers. Either way, the prostitution pledge assumes that sex workers are less than human and outreach promotes prostitution. Both assumptions are wrong. Sadly, it is all too easy to attach different standards to the care of strangers far away in Africa. But Americans don't have to travel to examine the impact and need for outreach to commercial sex workers communities.

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I reached out to two local St. Louis ASOs, St. Louis Effort for AIDS and Williams and Associates, Inc., to find out what kind of HIV/AIDS prevention outreach they are doing to commercial sex workers and what they think of the prostitution pledge recipients of PEPFAR funding have to take.

Williams and Associates, Inc. seeks to "provide preventive health education, disease prevention, health promotion and care services that address the health disparities of minorities in the St. Louis Bi-State region, with particular regard to African-Americans." African-Americans comprise 51 percent of the population of St. Louis city and the offices of Williams and Associates, Inc. are located in the heart of predominately black North St. Louis city. The organization is funded by private foundations and receives some federal funds indirectly through the state.

Since being founded five years ago, Williams and Associates, Inc. has done outreach to the sex worker community. With a staff of four and several local volunteers, the program provides information on the importance of negotiating safer sex with clients. They provide testing and condoms and recruit people to participate in group programs designed to build self esteem.

When I asked Chief Executive Officer Erise Williams for his thoughts on the importance of HIV/AIDS prevention outreach to the sex worker community he said, "I think prevention is very vital. When we talk about HIV prevention we are really talking about risk reduction. I think it is very effective for this population because each time they engage in sex they are putting themselves at risk. You have a group of people who are putting themselves at risk more so than the average person. Any prevention we can do to reduce risk, change behavior and change lifestyle is a good thing. It has become more challenging because HIV prevention has become more political."

And then I asked Mr. Williams how he would feel if he were told that he could not do prevention outreach to the sex worker community or that doing such work would put his funding at risk.

"It would be suicide to be asked to not do outreach to sex workers. True, we have a significant number of HIV cases in St. Louis but I think it would be worse if we did not do prevention outreach."

St. Louis Effort for AIDS is the most comprehensive ASO in the metropolitan St. Louis area. Founded in 1985 by a group of concerned volunteers, Saint Louis Effort for Aids (EFA) provides education on the prevention of HIV/AIDS and comprehensive support services for those affected by the disease. Cyrano Jones of EFA works with commercial sex workers in St. Louis three days a week using a mobile testing unit. The unit varies the days of the week and strives to provide services during the day, afternoon and evening.

Jones says that most mobile outreach clients depend on prostitution as their sole source of income. If they have a substance abuse problem EFA will try to lead them to treatment. If they are in need of treatment services, EFA will provide them, and if they need assistance developing life skills, EFA will also help with that too.

Most importantly, EFA creates a risk reduction plan to help empower individuals to seek safer and healthier lifestyles.

"I feel I'm making a difference," said Jones, who has been doing prevention outreach to commercial sex workers since 1989, "The numbers are coming down and people are more educated about the virus and protection."

The women of my family have a saying that no cook should take a dish to a potluck she wouldn't serve her own family. Similarly, the US should not require pledges of organizations in other countries it wouldn't require of organizations here at home. The prostitution pledge only works to stigmatize sex workers and keep them separate from their communities and the HIV/AIDS service organizations there to serve them. People are not empowered through condemnation and communities are not empowered by this pledge. It's time to remove the limitations of the prostitution pledge and allow for comprehensive prevention outreach to commercial sex workers abroad.

Culture & Conversation Media

From ‘Mouseburger’ to Media Icon: Bio Traces Rise of Cosmo Editor Helen Gurley Brown

Eleanor J. Bader

Helen Gurley Brown was a publishing giant and pop-culture feminist theorist. But according to her latest biographer, she was a mass of insecurities even as she confidently told single people, especially women, to take charge of their sex lives.

Like all of us, Cosmopolitan magazine’s longtime editor Helen Gurley Brown lived with conflicting drives and desires. But Gurley Brown’s ideas and insecurities had a public platform, where she championed sex for singles while downplaying workplace sexual harassment and featured feminist voices while upholding the beauty ideals that made her own life difficult.

A workhorse who played hard, Gurley Brown, who died in 2012, is presented as an often contradictory heroine and an unexpected success story in journalist Gerri Hirshey’s new 500-page biography, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown.

Helen Gurley Brown’s life and example—almost a classic Horatio Alger “rags to riches” tale—affirms that the American idea of surmounting humble origins is sometimes possible, if improbable. But Gurley Brown’s story also illustrates both personal grit and endurance. Wily, willing to take risks, and sexually audacious, she might be a questionable role model for 21st century women, but her amazing story, as told by Hirshey, will nonetheless inspire and entertain.

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Born in 1922, Gurley Brown led Cosmopolitan for 32 years. She moved the magazine, which had been published continuously since 1886, from relative obscurity into the limelight. Known for its brash cover chatter and how-to articles on heterosexual man-pleasing, Cosmo is the world’s highest-selling women’s magazine, with 61 print editions. Its long history—alongside Helen Gurley Brown’s personal story—offers a fascinating window into the intersection between U.S. publishing and burgeoning 20th-century feminist ideologies.

Hirshey (whose earlier books include Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music and We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women in Rock) presents Gurley Brown as a mess of pushes and pulls: insecure, brilliant, bold, self-effacing, loyal, independent, jittery, and frugal to the point of deprivation. Indeed, Hirshey’s revealing and detailed biography describes the pioneering editor as someone hungry for experiences; a sophisticated New Yorker with deep roots in rural America; and a writer of guidebooks who had trouble taking advice. In short, Helen Gurley Brown was limited by a host of personal issues, but that did not stop her from trying to push societal boundaries and shatter sexual propriety.

A native of small-town Arkansas, Helen’s childhood was marred by tragedy. Her father died in an accident when she was 10; several years later, her older sister, Mary, contracted polio, which left her partially paralyzed. Helen’s mother, Cleo, was overwhelmed and often depressed. Nonetheless, she scrambled to keep the creditors at bay, and the family lived in numerous decrepit rentals during Helen’s childhood.

Poverty was not the only obstacle Helen faced. According to Hirshey, “By the time Mary and Helen were school age, Cleo had begun her steady warnings that pretty girls got the best in life.” While Cleo never used the word “plain” to describe her offspring, it was clear that she did not think them comely. Helen was devastated. What’s more, the fear of being unattractive dogged her for her entire life and she had multiple surgeries to correct “flaws.” She also starved herself and exercised compulsively—and would likely now be labeled as having an eating disorder—to keep her weight at an unwavering 105 pounds.

Her success, Hirshey writes, was the result of luck, tenacity, and sheer chutzpah.

It started in the 1940s, shortly after she finished high school and secured the first of a string of secretarial jobs. During her tenure as a typist and stenographer, Helen cozied up to her male bosses and slept with some of them.

“It was the first time she truly observed and understood that sex is power,” Hirshey writes. “Helen had come to realize that sex was a surprising and thrilling equalizer between the sheets.” Gurley Brown pooh-poohed the idea that people should wait until marriage to have sex and had no problem dating men who were cheating on their wives. The same went, Hirshey writes, for racists and overt anti-Semites. Since she was giving a large part of her earnings to her mother and her sister, it was the size of a man’s bank book, rather than his politics, that evidently curried her favor.

Nevertheless, being a mistress had a downside, and Helen’s diary reveals that she felt like a “little bird … expected to stay in her cage, always available yet always alone.”

Her fortunes turned shortly after her 26th birthday, when she became secretary to Don Belding, chairman of the board at prestigious ad agency Foote, Cone, and Belding. Belding paid Helen $75 a week and treated her like a long-lost daughter; she considered him a surrogate father.

Alice Belding, Don’s wife, took a particular interest in Helen and, after reading something she’d written, persuaded her husband to give Helen a chance as a copywriter. He did, making her one of the first women to break into the field.

Meanwhile, there were men. Lots of men. “Certainly, men love beautiful women,” Hirshey writes. But Helen realized that when “the lights went out, Miss Universe might just as well be the poor, sooty match girl if she couldn’t make him shout hallelujah.” She loved the power sex gave her, but was hurt during a group therapy session when another participant dubbed her a slut. “Spoken with venom, it had the effect of a gut-punch,” Hirshey writes.  Still, it proved clarifying for Helen, allowing her to formulate the idea at the heart of her 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl: There is nothing shameful about unmarried people having sex as long as it’s consensual.

Helen met David Brown, a high-profile movie executive, in 1958, when she was 36. David was 42, twice married and twice divorced, and had no interest in returning to the altar anytime soon.  This was fine with Helen. Nonetheless, as they spent more and more time together, they formed a strategic partnership. Yes, there was love, but Helen Gurley craved financial security, which David could provide. They wed in September 1959.

At that point, David suggested that Helen take a professional detour and write “a guidebook of sorts for single women.” Hirshey reports that he envisioned “something along the lines of ‘How to Have a Successful Affair’” and ticked off possible subjects, including how to snare a guy and dress for conquest. He also wanted the manual to include concrete sex tips. Helen loved the idea and the pair began to work on it, she as writer, he as editor.

Sex and the Single Girl told the truth as Helen saw it. Hirshey notes that the book was meant as a practicum, “and was never intended as an overtly feminist tract. Systemic change was not at all on her radar; she addressed herself to bettering the small, quotidian lives toiling within the status quo, of those, herself included, she would come to call ‘mouseburgers.’ Sexism was not even in her vocabulary.”

Her message was quite simple: Sex needed to be decoupled from marriage. As for gender roles, she was fine with women playing coy. In fact, she explicitly advised women to go out with men only if they could pay for everything, from dinner and drinks to “prezzies.”

There were of course, detractors, but Sex and the Single Girl sold millions of copies and made Helen Gurley Brown a household name. She appeared on countless TV talk shows and was the first woman featured in Playboy’s famous centerpiece interviews.

In the throes of her success, however, David was offered a job in New York and the couple decided to leave California, where they’d both lived for decades. David, Hirshey reports, knew that Helen needed to work, “that Helen unemployed would be Helen unhinged.” Together, they developed a prototype for a monthly women’s magazine that would popularize and expand upon the ideas in Sex and the Single Girl. They called it Femme and floated the idea to every publisher they knew. No one liked it.

Eventually, Hearst Corporation suggested “superimposing” the format on one of the corporation’s least successful publications, Cosmopolitan, with Helen Gurley Brown at the helm.

It worked, not only boosting sagging sales but catapulting “The Cosmo Girl” to prominence. Sexual freedom, Gurley Brown enthused, was in–but apparently only for heterosexuals, since the magazine rarely acknowledged the existence of same-sex relationships or bisexuality.

Nonetheless, the first few issues tackled then-risqué themes, as these titles suggest: “The Bugaboo of Male Impotence”; “I was a Nude Model (and This is What Happened)”; “Things I’ll Never Do with a Man Again”; “The Astonishingly Frank Diary of an Unfaithful Wife”; and “How to Make a Small Bosom Amount to Something.”

As the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s took hold, Cosmo flourished, albeit steering clear of covering racial unrest, the Vietnam War, or the counterculture and anti-militarism movements. Likewise, if Gurley Brown had any thoughts about the civil rights or peace movements, Hirshey neglects to mention them. She does note that for Helen, “readers of color scarcely registered.” It’s too bad this is not probed more deeply in Not Pretty Enough, and why the editor remained above the fray—was it fear, disinterest, or hostility?—remains unclear.

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s did capture Helen’s interest, though, and she considered herself a devout feminist, with a particular passion for promoting reproductive rights. She wrote numerous articles about the need to overhaul abortion policies pre-Roe v. Wade, openly declaring that “it’s a shame that girls have to go to Mexico or Europe to be operated on.” At Cosmo, she cheered the arrival of the birth control pill in 1960; hailed the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut that gave married heterosexuals access to birth control; and was exuberant when Eisenstadt v. Baird gave unmarried couples the same right to control their fertility in 1972.

Sexual harassment, on the other hand, was befuddling to her. Remembering her days as a secretary, she dubbed slaps on the ass and sexually suggestive comments to be harmless fun. “When a man finds you sexually attractive, he is paying you a compliment,” she wrote in a monthly Cosmo column. “When he doesn’t, that’s when you have to worry.”

Small wonder that Kate Millett picketed Cosmo for its “reactionary politics” or that Betty Friedan slammed it for its sexism and preponderance of inane articles on keeping men happy.

Despite disagreeing with these thinkers, Helen Gurley Brown marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in August 1970 and published articles written by prominent feminists as the 1970s unfolded.

Then, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Gurley Brown stepped in it. In early 1988, Cosmo ran an article that minimized the possibility of heterosexual transmission of HIV and made it sound as if straight women were immune from infection. Equally horrifying, the author, psychiatrist Dr. Robert E. Gould, was overtly racist. “Many men in Africa take their women in a brutal way,” he wrote, “so that some heterosexual activity regarded as normal by them would be close to rape by our standards.”

Oy. Readers were aghast, and Gurley Brown was roundly and deservedly criticized. Even Surgeon General C. Everett Koop weighed in, saying the article did “such a disservice” by suggesting that the risk of contracting the virus was low for heterosexual women. Hirshey reports that, inexplicably, the article was never retracted or corrected.

By this point, however, Helen was showing signs of dementia—she had periodical temper tantrums in public and was becoming less reliable and sharp—so Hearst Corporation brought in several new editors, albeit without firing Helen. She continued going into the office until shortly before her 2012 death. She had done paid work for 71 years.

Hirshey’s sources range from primary documents and in-person interviews with people who knew Gurley Brown, including Gloria Vanderbilt and Barbara Walters. Correspondence and recorded talks between her and friends such as Jacqueline Susann and Joan Rivers provide incisive, funny, and poignant anecdotes. These interviews give the book reportorial gravitas and intimacy. And although Hirshey had only a passing acquaintance with her subject—she had interviewed Gurley Brown decades earlier for an article about marriage proposals—she nonetheless manages to show Gurley Brown as a regular Jane who spoke openly about her nagging doubts.

Many readers will feel as if they can relate to Gurley Brown’s struggles and triumphs. Throughout the book, I felt sad for her, but also wished we’d met.

In fact, I closed the book wanting more; among other things, I wanted to better understand what it was like for her to move between near-poverty and the upper crust. Did she feel like an impostor? Did her lifelong conviction that she was not pretty enough or smart enough keep her from feeling connected to others? Did she ever feel truly secure?

Perhaps Gurley Brown’s self-doubts are what kept her from becoming arrogant or abusive to others; even those who hated Cosmopolitan or were frustrated by her racial and political blind spots admired her kindness. Similarly, these doubts did not prompt her to disguise her eccentricities—among them, pilfering from petty cash and always taking public transportation rather than cabs. Indeed, whatever Gurley Brown felt about her own appeal, Hirshey’s biography presents Helen Gurley Brown the woman as quirky, humble, and utterly fascinating.

News Economic Justice

Wage Theft on Capitol Hill: Cafeteria Workers to Receive $1 Million in Back Pay

Michelle D. Anderson

“Most struggle to afford life’s basic expenses and pay their bills; they shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect their hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled,” said David Weil of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Hundreds of people who work in cafeterias that serve U.S. senators and their legislative staffers on Capitol Hill will reportedly receive $1 million in back pay in connection to a United States Department of Labor wage theft investigation.

According to a Washington Post report, 674 food service workers will receive their owed compensation. The back wages break down to about $1,500 per worker.

Officials from the department’s Wage and Hour Division last week said an investigation had revealed the workers were denied prevailing wages that contractor Restaurant Associates and subcontractor, Personnel Plus, were obligated to pay under federal labor law.

Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency that runs the United States Capitol Complex, had contracted the employers.

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The Labor Department said Restaurant Associates and Personnel Plus violated by the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act (SCA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by improperly classifying workers so that they could be paid wages for lower-paying jobs and by requiring employees to work prior to their scheduled starting times.

One cafeteria worker told the Washington Post in January that his hourly wage dropped to $13.80 an hour from $17.45 after his job title changed from “cook” to “food service worker.”

The employer also failed to pay required health and welfare benefits and violated SCA, which applies to every U.S. government contract valued in excess of $2,500, by failing to adhere to the law’s record keeping requirements.

David Weil, the department’s Wage and Hour Division administrator, said in a statement last week that restaurant industry workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. economy.

“Most struggle to afford life’s basic expenses and pay their bills; they shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect their hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled,” Weil said.

The division is reviewing its findings to determine whether it will keep the Restaurant Associates from securing any more contracts with the federal government.

Labor Department spokesperson Joanna Hawkins told Rewire that the case is still open. She said SCA requires contractors guilty of this violation to be debarred unless the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division recommends otherwise “because of unusual circumstances.”

Restaurant Associates spokesman Sam Souccar told Rewire in an emailed statement that the misclassifications were largely attributable to “administrative technicalities related to our Associates’ evolving day-to-day work responsibilities, which in some cases crossed multiple job categories.”

Souccar said the company has since corrected the problem and was “100 percent committed to ensuring classifications [were] accurate going forward.” He also said Restaurants Associates valued its contract with the Architect of the Capitol and implied that the company wanted to continue working with the federal government.

Robert Guiney, president of Personnel Plus and Just Temps Staffing, disagreed with the Labor Department’s assessment. He denied any wrongdoing.

“Restaurant Associates admitted responsibility for the whole thing and they pay our employees,” Guiney said in a phone interview with Rewire. He declined to comment further.

Guiney said the Labor Department had given his company, Personnel Plus, a “clean bill of health,” according to a Courthouse News Service report.

Hawkins said Restaurant Associates is the prime contractor on the government contract in question. She said it was the company’s responsibility to formally advise subcontractor Personnel Plus of the SCA requirements.

“In this case, Restaurant Associates failed to do so. Restaurant Associates took responsibility for that and agreed to pay the back wages owed to the employees of Personnel Plus. Nonetheless, Personnel Plus also failed to pay all of its workers for all hours worked which resulted in additional back wages,” Hawkins said.

Paco Fabián, a spokes for Good Jobs Nation, an advocacy project of the Change to Win labor coalition that focuses organizing federal contract workers who work for low wages, told Rewire via phone interview that policy changes will help prevent wage theft violations.

He cited three labor-related executive actions signed by President Barack Obama, including one that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

“It sort of kicked off an increase in minimum wage across the country because he led by example,” said Fabián, who noted that the cafeteria workers remain without union representation.

Fabián said policy changes should aim to create a system in which the most ethical bidder, rather than the lowest bidder, will be awarded a government contractor. Lowest bidders are more likely to engage in wage theft violations, Fabián said. “We want to create a system that gives preferences to companies that provide living wages and benefits and to freedom to form unions without retaliation,” he said.

Joseph Geevarghese, director of Good Jobs Nation, said in an emailed statement the recent $1 million award was the result of activism. In recent years, U.S contract workers and allies have gone on strike and filed legal multiple complaints.

“This shows that when workers act, workers can win,” Geevarghese said.

Last year, for example, more than two dozen Senate aides brought their own lunches to work and boycotted meals being served on Capitol Hill during a union drive among the cafeteria employees. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was among those to join the boycott, according to Al Jazeera.

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Harry Reid (D-NV) are among lawmakers who have shown support for reform on behalf of the food workers. Reid has said the federal government should stop working with the Restaurant Associates, according to an Associated Press report.

Geevarghese urged Obama to sign the Model Employer Executive Order that was recently added to the Democratic Party platform.

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