Since 2003 December 17th has been marked as International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. It's a day to try in some very public ways to have a different conversation about sex work. One that is neither salacious nor shameful. One that has nothing to do with whether sex work as an employment category is good or bad and everything to do with the individuals, workers of all ages and all genders, who experience an unbelievable, and times unbearable, amount of every day violence in the course of trying to live their lives and do their jobs.
Every year I say the same thing, and I think it bears repeating: sex workers are part of your life. Even if you don't know it, they are. And this year, if you aren't going to attend a December 17th event, but you'd like to do something or inform yourself a bit more about a part of your world that you may not know much about, check out this great project, Dancers Are Special, from a group called We Are Dancers NYC. It's a print resource, a sort of know-your-rights-workplace-safety- manual that they want to make available in multiple languages. It may seem simple but can make all kinds of small differences.
I wanted to know a bit more about the project and the group behind it so I asked some questions of the fabulous Mona Salim, a social scientist and stripper born in Mumbai and a member of the We Are Dancers Collective.
So I know you are dancers because your group is called "We are Dancers" but can you tell us a bit about your group, how you came together and the project you're currently working on?
I heard from a friend about a group of current and former New York City dancers who were trying to meet up regularly for brunch and to talk about stripping-related stuff. At the time, I'd been dancing for about three years in Manhattan and Queens clubs. I came to a few very intimate meetings about stripping, where a small group of us got to talking about know-your-rights information, clubs, money...but mostly we were talking about how, despite our offers of free brunch and Metrocards, it was really difficult to get dancers together to talk about this stuff. In spite of e-mail blasts, Facebook pages, and blog posts, "Brunch and Bitch" (as we called ourselves) only assembled a small group of dancers for our regular brunch get-togethers. This led us to a much larger conversation about how women who strip are not necessarily "strippers" (or don't identify as such), savor their days off from work, and (for those and likely many other reasons) may not be drawn to a monthly brunch around the topic of "stripping." What felt more pressing to us was a way to get our "Brunch and Bitch" info out to dancers across the city, even those who weren't compelled to join our regular meetings. Our small group had all been acquainted with a "Dancers are Special" booklet that had been distributed in the DC area some years back by a grassroots group called Different Avenues and were really inspired by the content and layout of the innovative project. We wanted to do something similar for dancers here in NYC.
Will the print brochure just be a hard copy of your website? If you already have all this information on your website, why produce paper copies at all?
Our website and print version of Dancers are Special may overlap somewhat in content and audience, but they won't be identical. We realized, as we were putting together what we hoped would be a booklet to distribute at strip clubs, that a lot of topics we wanted to discuss - for instance, sexual health, birth control, and employment law - may not be "welcome" topics in a stripper's work bag. In the instance of a club raid, for instance, it doesn't seem farfetched that a stripper having a pamphlet on STI testing at work could be used as evidence against her in a prostitution case (after all, condoms are used that way!). Furthermore, a booklet that explicitly highlights the ways dancers should protect their rights as workers may (depending on the atmosphere of the club she works at) jeopardize her relationship with management. We certainly didn't want our project to cause any trouble for the people whose hands it ends up in!
The website will clearly and comprehensively address all subjects, and is designed to evolve and accommodate concerns that arise, and the booklet will direct dancers to the website should they desire more information. A big part of the funds we are seeking will be used to making sure we get into as many NYC strip clubs as possible and offer dancers a small tip along with our print booklet. Once we get a copy of the booklet into someone's hands, they're almost certain to at least glance through it. In this way, we hope to reach an audience that may be neglected by just a web presence.
Supporting people to help themselves and help others really should be reward enough, but for those of us who need a bit more incentive to give, what are some of the rewards people get for donating to your campaign?
We are so excited about the rewards we're offering to donors. If you look at our indiegogo site, you'll see books, posters, issues of $pread, lap dance classes, an eye-catching poster, and more available to donors at various levels.
What will you do with the funds you raise? What if you raise more than your goal?
So far, our project has relied on a lot of very dedicated volunteers, including those of us who promoted "Brunch and Bitch" at strip clubs, a hard-working graphic designer, and a talented photographer. While we appreciate the work of these volunteers, we really would like to be able to pay the (current and former) dancers who take the time out of their schedule to distribute the booklets at clubs. At the very least, we expect to pay for their transportation costs and whatever club expenses (ie. A cover charge or drink minimum) is associated with the visit. We also expect much design- and print-related costs associated with making the booklet. Another really important expense is to make sure the project is accessible to NYC's non-English speaking dancers. This means translation to Portugese, Spanish, and Russian (for now! If we raise even more money, we would love to expand to other languages as well). Our goal of $5,000 is actually a very modest goal. If we succeed in reaching this goal, we will realistically only be able to visit a fraction of NYC's clubs (given the expensive cover charges and drink minimums associated with just entering some of these clubs). We are hopeful that we exceed our expectations and are able to expand our outreach effort to many more clubs throughout the city.
One of the challenges of doing a project that's for a group of people who are so socially stereotyped is that lots of people may not see how it's relevant to their lives or their values. Our own ignorance of how things like race, class, gender, embodiment shape so much of what we think of each other, and especially each "other" seems to keep us forever apart. So can you say something to all of us who are still over there, not sure why this work matters and how it's really about us and not just you?
Great question. First of all, supporting dancers specifically through this project is a way to support often times immigrant, usually working-class women, women who confront a great deal of stigma in media, courtrooms, and politics. This project validates the work that dancers do as simply a form of labor, deserving of dignity and protection like any other job. Some dancers strip because of the exhibitionist thrill, some to pay their tuition, and others because they lack documentation for other types of labor. I became a dancer after reading a great deal of sex worker rights literature and developing a feminist analysis that made me want to strip, not just because the money would help pay for school, but because I felt that putting myself in this industry was part of legitimizing the work we do. People really do think of strippers as unfit mothers, sexually immoral, or 'unskilled' workers. Sometimes, these negative stereotypes become internalized and some dancers turn this shame inward. We hope this project not only changes our city's stigma toward strippers, but also empowers strippers too! As New Yorkers, its hard to go a day without seeing a yellow cab with the image of a stripper advertising a local strip club. Clearly, us dancers ARE a significant presence in NYC. This project gives us a voice and begins an important conversation about our presence.
Check out the Dancers Are Special Project Page.
If you want to hear more from Mona, check out her informative and entertaining blog Civil Undressed: Musings of an NYC dancing girl.
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