For the second session in a row, the California Legislature has unanimously passed a bill to prohibit the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women. However, uncertainty remains over whether the governor will sign the bill.
Last time, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, claiming that its mandates went outside the scope of the designated government agency’s responsibility.
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Now, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is the one who will decide the bill’s fate, but he will be getting input from the same public safety advisor held over from the previous administration.
Why does this bill matter? Consider the experience of Pauline, who spent part of her pregnancy in the Contra Costa County jail, as described by Karen Shain, Policy Director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC):
“She went to court at least 10 times, and every time she left the jail, she was shackled – sometimes around her belly, sometimes attached to another prisoner. Near the end of her pregnancy, she developed pre-eclampsia and had to be hospitalized shackled to her bed, having to ask permission from a guard every time she had to go to the bathroom.”
California does have a law on the books prohibiting shackling or handcuffing during transportation to a hospital and during labor, childbirth, and postpartum recovery. But this law has never been fully implemented, especially by county jails. According to a survey by LSPC, nearly two-thirds of counties still do not have policies that conform to the law.
The new bill (AB 568) would not only require the California Corrections Standards Authority to clarify rules for jails and prisons to follow, it would also provide broader protection from shackling to pregnant women than the current law. The bill mandates use of the least restrictive restraints possible throughout pregnancy and applies to transportation from the prison or jail to court dates as well as medical appointments. If signed, this bill would provide the greatest protection against shackling to pregnant women anywhere in the nation.
California was one of the first states to recognize the harm of shackling pregnant women, enacting its current law in 2004. After a period of time where no state regulated the practice, there have been enormous strides toward mandating humane treatment of pregnant women, especially during labor and childbirth. Today, 14 states have laws restricting the practice of shackling, mostly passed in the last two years.
As a result of lawsuits, judicial agreements also limit the use of shackles in other jurisdictions, such as New York City and the District of Columbia. The federal prison system has an internal policy to limit shackling. And federal courts from Washington State to Arkansas to Tennessee agree with women that shackling during labor, childbirth, and postpartum recovery violates their constitutional as well as their human rights.
The California bill charts a course for the next phase of state action against shackling. Will the Governor sign it into law?
You can let Governor Brown know what you think he should do here.
Homeland Security agents raided Rentboy.com in late August, seizing the escort ads website and displacing an estimated 10,000 advertisers. As with similar crackdowns on online sex work, sex worker rights groups were the first to draw attention to the politics behind the Rentboy raid.But not long after, they were joined by high-profile organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the editorial board of the New York Times. On Thursday last week, LGBTQ, civil liberties, and sex workers’ rights activists gathered outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn where Rentboy staff were arraigned, calling for charges against them to be dropped and for the decriminalization of sex work—a topic that has, for the moment, become one of mainstream media interest.
The crackdown may have felt unprecedented to some, but it’s the public’s response that’s new. When law enforcement targets sex workers and the websites they use, mainstream outlets and organizations tend to give them a pass. But with Rentboy, that script has flipped. Rentboy was a website where men sought sex with men, and as such, media and advocacy groups who don’t typically bring a political analysis to sex work responded to the raid primarily as an anti-gay attack, while also calling for an end to the policing of sex workers. Some American LGBTQ organizations in particular have rallied around the political nature of the raid—in a way women’s rights groups in the United States, when women sex workers are targeted in similar raids, have not. In fact, it might be the relative silence of women’s rights groups on the Rentboy raid that has provided space for sex workers’ rights to become the main focus of the story.
The “Pink Scare”
The Rentboy raid was the latest phase of what an anonymous sex worker, writing in the Guardian, referred to as the “Pink Scare”—an escalating panic directed at the intersection of sex work and technology. Though the focus on a men’s site is a twist, the overall agenda is not new: About one year ago, federal agents also raided the escort website MyRedBook, a site used primarily by women escorts. “Neither bust is surprising, although both landed like a punch to the face,” Charlotte Shane wrote at Jezebel. “To sex workers, it’s just more evidence of the campaign against us.”
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When law enforcement came for MyRedBook for sex work ads—and before that, Craigslist and Backpage—there was criticism, but not like this. Immediately, commentators recognized the Rentboy raid as not only an attack on civil liberties, but on sex workers’ rights, including the right to set the conditions of their work.
Perhaps this comes, in part, from the mid-August announcement from Amnesty International in support of sex workers’ rights and the decriminalization of sex work. A week before the Amnesty vote, an anti-sex work organization called the Coalition Against Trafficking Women added a raft of celebrities’ names to their letter opposing Amnesty’s proposed sex work policy before it had even been officially announced. Though the celebrity reaction failed to sway Amnesty, it did garner a response from media outlets that normally might not cover these kinds of policy changes.
Once Amnesty did vote in favor of sex workers’ rights, this attracted another wave of international press attention. Media presented Amnesty’s decision as just the latest in a long fight about sex work, framing sex workers’ position as going against “women’s groups,” as if sex workers were not themselves present in women’s groups, or were maybe even not included in the category “women.” As incomplete as this coverage was, for a moment the issue of criminalizing sex work was back in the news.
In turn, these responses primed the public to examine the impact of criminalizing sex work—rather than dwell on abstract debates—when the Rentboy raid took place. In targeting Rentboy, the New York Timeseditorial board wrote, law enforcement “shut down a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps.” Critics understood prosecuting online advertisers as an occupational health and safety concern for sex workers. As ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio wrote on the organization’s website, platforms like Rentboy “provide a safer alternative to street-based work where there is less time to negotiate safety needs and higher risk of violence from both clients and law enforcement.”
Much of the coverage also framed the shutdown as an attack on the safety of the LGBTQ community, which includes sex workers. At MSNBC, Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal and Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality wrote, “No one’s life has been improved by the raid on Rentboy, and thousands of lives—a great many of them LGBTQ—are ruined by the criminalization of sex work every day.”
LGBTQ and human rights groups placed responsibility for this harm firmly with law enforcement. “The criminal charges against Rentboy.com by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are misguided and a terrible waste of resources,” the National Center for Lesbian Rights wrote in a statement.
“It is hard to see the harm done by Rentboy.com,” Grame Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Rights Program, wrote on the HRW website, “but it’s easy to see the harm done by the raid on society at large.”
Sex Workers’ Rights as Women’s Rights
Rewind to last summer, when federal agents shut down MyRedBook.com in a similar raid. As with Rentboy, the agents served warrants against the site administrators, charging them with violations of federal law as a result of operating a website where escorts placed their own advertisements. As in stories about Rentboy, news reports circulated somewhat surreal images of federal agents removing boxes of evidence. And as with Rentboy, advertisers on MyRedBook and those in community with them were displaced, losing peer-support networks they fostered through the website. The raid was a direct hit not only to their income, but to their ability to work collaboratively, share information, and support one another without fear of law enforcement surveilling or intervening.
But where some LGBTQ rights activists and organizations joined sex workers in condemning the raid on Rentboy, when sex workers spoke out against the MyRedBook raid—a site primarily used by women to advertise to men—women’s rights organizations said nothing. Where the attacks on Rentboy were understood by activists and organizations as attacks on the LGBTQ community, attacks on MyRedBook were met with comparative silence from feminists, along with cursory reporting and little editorial support from mainstream media.
Why this gap? It could be dismissed as just the result of ongoing “sex wars” within feminism, but there’s more to it than just differing opinions on sex work. Journalists look to feminists as authorities on sex work—something feminists have played into, often to the exclusion of sex workers themselves. This is how “feminists” and “sex workers” are often pitted against each other as discrete groups. As a result, the question of “taking sides” then trumps a struggle for rights, in the media and in the movement. We saw as much in the response to Amnesty International’s vote: the media dwelled on the “controversy” of feminist groups rather than on the actual issues at hand.
What’s lost in this reliance on seeing sex work politics only through “debates” and “sides” is where sex workers fit in. It also obscures the truth: Women’s rights groups have long held a range of perspectives on sex work and sex workers’ rights. In 1973, for example, the mainstream National Organization for Women passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of prostitution. But that was by no means a unilateral decision: In No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, scholar Stephanie Gilmore notes the diversity of approaches NOW chapters took on the subject. Some San Francisco NOW members were members of COYOTE, founded by Margo St. James as the first American prostitutes’rights organization. (The term “sex work” would not be adopted until the end of the 1970s,after its coinage by sex worker Carol Leigh.) Kansas City and Dallas NOW members were also notably active in COYOTE, engaging in legal advocacy and contributing to its national newsletter, Coyote Howls.
By contrast, New York’s NOW members, like author Susan Brownmiller, promoted the idea that prostitution was intrinsically a form of violence against women, and that men who buy sex should be harshly punished. Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC and NOW New York State, continues this stance today, most recently opposing the Amnesty International decision. Terry O’Neill, national NOW president, also opposed Amnesty’s sex work stance.
Some feminist groups, like the international movement for Wages for Housework and their American chapters, have also stood with sex workers in the past and continue to do so. (I was part of one such effort, I should note, when on staff in 2010 at the Third Wave Foundation—now Third Wave Fund—we issued a collective statement in the wake of attacks on the online sex trade.) There are also many individual American feminist activists, writers, and community organizers who support the rights of sex workers, who may lack the power to issue organizational statements or to shape advocacy campaigns that influence media narratives.
Still, when it comes to standing against law enforcement crackdowns on sex workers, or supporting sex workers’ rights, silencefrom the overwhelming majority of feminist organizations is the norm. This exclusion of sex workers’ rights from feminism is supported by a range of feminist groups, not only those who explicitly oppose sex work.
There are a few reasons for this, feminist writers and organizers told me.
Some stem from what’s understoodas conflict within organizations, where silence is seen as a “neutral” ground. “I was involved in NOW between 2002 and 2012. I didn’t speak publicly in support of decriminalizing sex work until well after I had resigned from my position as a national officer in 2012,” Erin Matson told me. She’s now the co-founder and co-director of the direct action group Reproaction.
“From the perspective of someone who used to be on the inside of an establishment organization,” Matson continued, “I can say there was enormous pressure not to reopen old controversies that I was told had nearly split the organization in two. Literally I was trained to say things in media interviews/public speaking appearances like, ‘there are two sides to that question’ and avoid taking a stand. I was taught that was what ‘leadership’ meant in a divided organization; to silence myself, or be responsible for driving more members away.”
In turn, this silence can create a culture of confusion and exclusion, especially for newcomers. “I’m a third-wave feminist without the gender studies credentials,” Katie Klabusich, freelance writer and host of The Katie Speak Show on Netroots Radio, told me. “I have approached established feminist spaces—places where people from mainstream, well-known organizations and talking heads gather—without preconceived biases. What was initially surprising and is challenging to navigate as an untethered feminist is the open hostility toward sex workers in mainstream, corporate, ‘white feminism.’ It’s challenging to call out for some (I do it anyway) because it can cut ties and close doors. You can’t be sure where the hostile people are and they swarm to discredit people who support sex workers. I don’t understand where the solidarity gap comes from with feminists and sex workers.”
Nicole Cliffe, co-editor of The Toast, told me she’s “a feminist who supports sex work.” She recalled her part in “discussions of sex work legality that solidify very quickly among generational lines, obviously with a handful of exceptions on either side, and it is almost impossible to convince some older, otherwise fantastic women that being pro-sex workers isn’t some nonsense cooked up by men that young dummies like me have bought, hook line and sinker.” Sex work, she says, “is a job, and a job that the vast majority of studies suggest is substantially safer for all when it’s decriminalized.”
“For me, I came to support sex worker rights because my belief in bodily autonomy means including women’s right to be a sex worker by choice,” freelance writer and feminist activist Lauren Rankin told me. “Honestly, it’s really not hard to say that. It shouldn’t be. For mainstream feminist organizations who are trying to appeal to those in power, taking a stance in support of sex workers may be too much of a risk. (When I say ‘those in power,’ I mean those who occupy patriarchal positions of power. In the case of sex workers, that would mean police officers, conservative legislators, overzealous or sexist prosecutors, or those who occupy a role in power in the prison-industrial complex more broadly.) But we should never make decisions about where we stand as feminists based on what those in power want. That’s how we know we’ve gone astray.”
It will be “a serious black mark on the feminist movement,” Rankin continued, “if we can’t get past this and support the human rights of sex workers. It’s great that independent feminist activists support it, but without structural and organizational support, it won’t be enough.”
Feminism and Rentboy
Even as feminist organizations have remained relatively absent on sex workers’ rights, feminist analysis and action goes on. On the Rentboy raid in particular, writers and commentators have approached the story with a nuanced feminist read on sexuality and gender. They pointed out that media condemning the Rentboy raid was not without its sexist over-simplifications, particularly when contrasted with previous narratives about women sex workers.
At the sex worker-run blog Tits and Sass, Morgan M. Page observed that the media depiction of sex workers affected by the raid on Rentboy was still drawn from law enforcement’s own gendered narrative about sex work. “Male sex workers and the largely male third parties who advertise their services are … ‘running a racket,’ a ‘global criminal enterprise,’ according to the press release. They are positioned as having agency in their lives and thus are not in the pitiable condition of exploited cis women.”
To that end, “The Times board advanced the notion that the men using the site—on both the buying and selling side—were rational actors who were victimized only by hectoring law enforcement,” Lily Burana wrote for The Cut. “Leaving aside the faulty assumption that all men who professionally service other men are gay, a question emerges. Why can’t the issues concerning female providers be presented so pragmatically?”
As it stands, the burst of reactive statements and quick-hit media responses, promising as they may sound to activists, are not the same thing as a lasting movement.Some activists have raised concerns that the recent calls for support of sex workers’ rights from LGBTQ organizations in the wake of the Amnesty decision and the Rentboy raid might not amount to much. “It’s not in their DNA to actually take up a cause like this,” Yasmin Nair, a writer and activist with Against Equality, told Truthout. For LGBTQ groups to support sex workers’ rights will mean more than denouncing a raid, but re-evaluating how much sex workers are understood as a core part of their movement.
“[T]he discourse in the Rentboy.com raid aftermath has been a unique ‘privilege’ granted to indoor male sex workers, one that we need to extend to all sex workers—of all genders and races—working in all circumstances,” Katherine Koster of Sex Workers’ Outreach Project USA and Derek J. Demeri of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance wrote at the Huffington Post. Responding to some gay commentators’ claim that the Rentboy raid was “the Stonewall of sex work,” they observed, “If this is the ‘Stonewall’ of sex work, let it not be the aftermath of Stonewall where a privileged minority colonizes and benefits off the work of society’s ‘others.’”
This is a historic part of movement struggles that feminist activists share with LGBTQ activists. Like some LGBTQ activists, some feminists have also pushed back on the mainstream of their rights movement for over-emphasizing white, cisgender, and middle-class concerns.
Still, on sex workers’ rights, few women’s rights groups have yet to arrive at even the statement-making level. NOW’s own 1973 vote is mostly a memory. Individual feminists, as well as those striking out in new organizations and with their own media, continue to feel pushback from the mainstream for their refusal to treat sex work as a matter of debate. Perhaps big-F mainstream feminism will never address the exclusion of sex workers’ rights from their organizations. It may not matter, if the rest of the movement just progresses.
Meanwhile, the criminal and political campaign against sex workers continues apace, “nothing but a knot in the ever-expanding dragnet of state violence,” as the same anonymous sex worker wrote at the Guardian. “It is population control by other means, and it does nothing to improve our lives or our safety.”
In his words, “we can’t afford to lose even one more tool that keeps us alive in this economy of violence.”
Too often, news stories about people in prison or jail use dehumanizing language to describe those under government control. The term “inmate” is the most pervasive of these words; it is widely used by judges, prison and jail officials and staff, and the media.
Too often, news stories about people in prison or jail use dehumanizing language to describe those under government control. While this coverage draws attention to widespread abuses in the criminal justice system, it frequently undercuts the humanity of the people featured with derogatory phrases. The term “inmate” is the most pervasive of these words; it is widely used by judges, prison and jail officials and staff, and the media. Far from being neutral, this word objectifies and disparages people who are imprisoned. We encourage writers to jettison this term once and for all, and instead to talk about “people in prison or jail”—phrasing that emphasizes the personhood and humanity of each individual before locating that individual in an institution of punishment.
In its exhaustively reported investigative series, “Women, Incarcerated,” Rewire delved into the problems routinely faced by women who are pregnant or parenting from behind prison walls. Unfortunately, these moving and powerful stories continuously referred to the women profiled as “inmates.” Rewire is not alone in using this language. The Ms. Magazine blog and The Young Turks, both progressive outlets, use this same terminology in their coverage of shackling pregnant women and sterilization abuse in women’s prisons.
Media has tremendous power to promote and reinforce what seems normal, natural, and acceptable. Journalists can influence their readers’ perceptions by the language they use. The word “inmate” and others like it focus attention on a person’s incarcerated status instead of emphasizing that, even in prison, she is still first and foremost a person. Defining someone as “other,” in the media and other arenas, makes it more acceptable to treat people inhumanely—and for the rest of us to ignore these abuses. But language can evolve so that it addresses injustices without dehumanizing the people described. For example, undocumented people, allies, and linguists successfully pushed major outlets like the Associated Press, USA Today, Fox News Latino, and the Huffington Post to stop using the phrase “illegal immigrant,” which implied that a person’s very existence somehow violates the law and therefore that person deserves any punishment meted out.
The negative connotations of criminal justice language have real-life consequences for people who experience incarceration. As activist, educator and formerly incarcerated mother Tina Reynolds explains in the anthology Interrupted Life, the label “inmate” is “wholly dehumanizing;” it “underscores the invisibility of the human being. It undermines the self-esteem and self-worth of people as individuals, parents, and family members.” In a recent discussion hosted by the news organization The Marshall Project, organizer Khalil Cumberbatch recounts the first time he heard himself referred to as an “inmate”: “I recall feeling violated. It was the first time in my life that someone used a term—to my face—to describe me in a way that dehumanized me on so many levels.” Advocate Andrea James elaborates, “While in prison, part of the dehumanizing programming is the use of the word inmate. You are referred to as inmate 27402-038, for example, and relegated to an underclass referred to as ‘the inmates.’ It stays with you, creating a public and subconscious persona that is far removed from a person’s true identity. Inmate is a term used to reduce human qualities, separate and disparage.”
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It is no coincidence that all of these experts describe being made to feel less than human. As they attest, the word “inmate” facilitates a worldview through which prison administrators and employees objectify the people in their custody. When someone is considered inferior and undeserving, it is easier to treat her badly. It also feeds into the pervasive notion that she is lying to manipulate staff or the system, making it easier to dismiss her needs. As Rewire’s own reporting demonstrates, prison and jail employees, including nurses and doctors, frequently ignore women who say they are in preterm labor and feeling pain when they are pregnant—even when they are visibly bleeding.
Similarly, terms such as “offender” or “criminal” reduce a person solely to someone under arrest or convicted of a crime. They are no longer parents, siblings, children, co-workers or neighbors. These terms also gloss over complex realities. When people are referred to as “drug offenders,” for example, it puts the focus on the individual as someone who has committed a crime or made a “bad choice,” while ignoring the structural problem of treating drug use as a crime instead of a matter of public health, compounded by poverty and lack of access to treatment. Criminalizing drug use is a policy choice that our elected officials have made; it is neither inevitable nor eternal. In fact, some state legislators are now reconsidering this model and rolling back harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
Equally problematic, the terms “ex-offender,” “ex-con,” and “felon” continue to identify people with their criminal conviction even after they have ostensibly paid their debt to society by serving their sentence. These labels add to the obstacles people face in making a life for themselves with the burden of a criminal record, which can make it impossible to find legal employment, rent an apartment, obtain food stamps or other public assistance, qualify for a student loan, get a driver’s license, or vote. For women, many of whom were primary caregivers when they were arrested, these burdens—and the attitude that anyone with a criminal record must be a bad mother—can also make it impossible to regain custody of their children who were displaced when they were in prison or jail.
By making these points, we are not ignoring the fact that some people in prison have inflicted serious harm on others. At the same time, we also want to point out that many people engage in conduct defined as criminal, but only some get caught and convicted. Regardless of the charge or conviction, once the government takes the step to confine someone, limiting their contact with the outside community and their ability to fend for themselves, the state assumes the responsibility to provide for that person’s basic welfare. This is especially true of health care. Every prison and jail is obligated by the Constitution to provide adequate medical services to the people in its custody; it makes no difference why someone is locked up. But as documented so vividly in “Women, Incarcerated,” jail and prison staff routinely deny women health care. At the same time, jail and prison staff force women to have their labor induced for the institution’s convenience, regardless of the woman’s wishes or medical situation.
We have learned a great deal from the insights of people who have lived in prison. In our own work, we make an effort to talk about “women in prison and jail” so that the emphasis is on “women” first and “prison” second, and to convey that the status of being in prison should not define a person’s entire being or self. While being confined in prison determines a great deal about a person’s life and daily experience, not to mention her future opportunities, it doesn’t change the fact that she is still an individual human being with a personality and relationships.
Organizations are advocating a change in the ways we refer to people who have experienced incarceration. The Center for NuLeadership, a policy and advocacy center founded and staffed by formerly incarcerated people, issued an open letter calling for an end to disparaging terms to describe people who are or ever were incarcerated. The Fortune Society also advocates a “people first” approach in a guide called “Words Matter“ created for medical providers working with patients who have come home from prison.
We believe that language matters. The way we write and speak helps shape people’s perceptions about the world. Women of color coined the term “reproductive justice“ to highlight the intersection of human rights, reproductive self-determination, and social justice.Reproductive justice provides a countervailing set of values to the policing and punishment that send too many people in the United States to prison for too long, and for too little reason. As writers who are involved in both advancing reproductive justice and challenging prison injustices, we hope that our approach contributes to changes in understanding and ultimately in the public policies that affect us all.