Sasha: Dispatch from a sex work conference in Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA -- Holy fuck, is it ever hot in Las Vegas in July.

Like you-could-fry-an-egg-between-your-tits hot. But it's a dry heat, as everyone says. It's dry, and for some reason that does make it somewhat more bearable -- on the hair anyway. God, my hair looked good in Vegas.

I'm not going to lie to you -- I did not want to leave Toronto. My life exploded about two hours before I had to be at the airport, and since I'd spent the past year with my life exploded while on planes, in airports and faraway places (I am now an expert at bawling my face off in foreign cities), I was kind of flipping out. Being triggered, as the womenfolk say. But I got on the damn plane. Because, come hell or high lesbian drama, I had to get to a hooker convention in Sin City.

The Desiree Alliance is run by volunteers, led by sex workers. It's a network of communities, individuals and organizations across the States involved in harm reduction, direct services, political activism and health services for sex workers. Their conference, now in its fourth year, attracts sex workers and their allies from across North America and some from overseas.

We were all put up at the Tuscany Suites, a bewildering-even-when-you're-sober maze of villas intended (I think) to replicate the famously stunning region in Italy. Having never been to Tuscany, I cannot attest to the authenticity of the overwrought, Botticellian decor, but as keynote speaker Kirk Read said, "I defy you to find another hotel in Las Vegas with an autumnal colour palette." A fall vibe for all us fallen ladies and gents. Nice.

Girl troubles aside, I was pretty crabby about the potential tone of the conference. I am bored shitless watching sex work get chewed over by academics in a manner that behooves the careers of academics more than the careers of sex workers. I am also bored shitless with academics becoming sex workers to lend credibility to their research as academics studying sex work. (They're called hobby hos.)

And seeing as how I've been pimping out my stripping career in my sex column and onstage for longer than I was actually a stripper, I am kind of one of them. I guess that's why they bug me.

Did I want to sit around with a bunch of privileged, able-bodied white women talking about being part of the great lineage of sacred whores? Barf.

The first keynote address was an encouraging indication that navel-gazing from the ivory-assed tower was not to be the prevailing theme. Joycelyn Elders was once the surgeon general of the United States, the first African American to hold this post and only the second woman. Dr. Elders advocated exploring drug legalization and supported contraceptive distribution in schools, but when she suggested, during the Clinton administration, that masturbation was a healthy expression of human sexuality, well, then she had gone too far. She was fired. Elders opened the conference by speaking effusively on the integral place of sex workers in society, and was utterly charming, to top it all off. To the religious right's argument for abstinence that condoms break, Elders says, "Yes, they do, but the vows of abstinence break far easier." See Dr. Elders' full speech.

Things took a rather smug turn in a talk by Reverend Pam Vessels, a clergywoman who works the mean streets of Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. Reverend Pam regaled us with her intimate, hard-won knowledge of street lingo and the intricate social codes of bitches, hos and pimps. It was all very The Cross And The Switchblade meets Magnum, P.I., and I was fuming by the end because if there's one thing that really pisses my pants, it's when Christians think they can take their patriarchal, virgin/whore bullshit and try to make pals with their casualties.

So I told her. And she looked at me with the matter-of-fact bliss of the pious but groovy outreach worker and told me that churchgoers yell at her as well, so she's used to opposition. For the record, I wasn't yelling.

Another stellar keynote address was delivered by Norma Jean Almodovar, who wrote the book From Cop To Call Girl. Almodovar went through hell and back after she did just what the title of her book suggests. Her speech made clear what all sex workers know: in most cases, the scariest part of working comes not from violent clients but from exchanges with unrestrained authority. She lucidly pointed out the hypocrisy of police being paid to have sex with prostitutes as a method of entrapment. If the definition of sex work is accepting money for sex... well, then, you connect the dots. She also apprised us of a common acronym in the LAPD for a crime scene where a prostitute has been found dead or murdered: NHI -- No Humans Involved. Chilling shit. Her full speech is here.

The standout keynote speaker for me was Deon Haywood from Women with a Vision, in New Orleans. Her discussion of the criminalization of sex workers under a 200-year-old piece of legislation called The Crimes Against Nature Law that's been revived in post-Katrina New Orleans can be seen at here.

Sex workers in New Orleans are now being charged as sex offenders -- putting them in the same category as active pedophiles and rapists and preventing them from getting federal funding to go to school. This puts women who want to exit sex work and get an education in an impossible situation. (And speaking of higher learning, I found out at one of the few academic presentations I did attend that snowballing is much different than snowball sampling. Much different).

On my last night, I joined a group of about 40 sex workers from across the United States and Canada in a demonstration on the Las Vegas strip for decriminalization. Long-time whore and activist Carol Leigh handed us protest placards -- ones I'd seen in so many photos over the years.

A mat was laid out and a woman began doing acroyoga. (Google it -- it's incredible. I found a class in Toronto at the Yoga Sanctuary, and I am super-stoked.) I joined her, and as she lifted me above her head, carefully working my ass under her feet and somehow getting me into lotus by the sheer power of her legs, I raised my arms and yelled to the police and the group of gobsmacked tourists who stopped to watch our ragtag crew amidst the crushing neon cacophony, "I love sex workers!"

I came back feeling sturdy again, galvanized by my sisters and brothers in this long-maligned and deeply misunderstood business. Sacred whores? Fucking right.

Ask Sasha: [email protected]

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