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Providers Mourn DC Madam’s Death

[SF Gate] The death last week of Deborah Palfrey, the “D.C. Madam,” put a sad end to the story of a businesswoman who fought the system and lost.

After offering her phone list of Washington, D.C.’s elite clients to anyone who would publish it in exchange for legal defense money — and seeing the subsequent “apology” of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and resignation of Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias — the 13-year madam was convicted by a federal jury on all counts she faced and was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

Unlike outlets like Salon who still insist on calling Palfrey a “female pimp,” reactions on blogs have been overwhelmingly sympathetic. Political group blog Liberty Guys called Palfrey’s situation, “A victimless crime … until the government steps in … She never harmed anyone by supplying willing female companions to willing clients … I guess now the feds can claim that prostitution does indeed claim victims.”

The business of prostitution is indeed legal in certain parts of the United States. Recalling the Prohibition days (13 years during which the sale, manufacture and transport of alcohol were banned nationally and alcohol-related racketeering, crime and corruption were rampant), we could say that Palfrey had the unfortunate situation of being caught providing services in a “dry state.”

According to Karly Kirchner, a San Francisco escort and high-level contributor to popular sex work blog Bound, not Gagged, Palfrey’s death and the senselessness surrounding the entire situation have been felt both locally and nationally. Kirchner explains,

“Providers everywhere have been struck with this news. Whether it was suicide or murder, this is a terrible tragedy. It’s been too much for some to handle. I’ve noticed that several women have taken down their sites, announced that they are no longer seeing new clients and/or announced that they will no longer participate in community boards since Palfrey was found dead. We’re all talking about Brandy Britton, who was once employed by Palfrey and was also found hanged last year. Lots of people are commenting about how sad this is, providers are very deeply affected right now. Others, in addition to solace, are expressing rage at the hypocrisy. And some of us are scared. Once Palfrey’s agency was shut down, those clients surely moved on to other agencies or independent providers. Some people’s businesses exist exclusively to service the powerful and elite just like Palfrey did. Her death is a wake up call in a lot of ways.”
Kirchner tells us that despite the anger, sadness, and confusion among the nation’s sex worker communities, it’s mostly still business as usual with clients. “Most of us and our clients are not professionally impacted. This situation has made very few clients afraid to seek services, although at least one woman told me that she feared her business was slow because of Palfrey’s death being all over the media.”

I talked to Kirchner after Palfrey’s private suicide notes had been released and plastered all over Fox News. Even now it seems that the sex work communities are never going to be able to trust information about Palfrey that didn’t come from her directly — especially the circumstances surrounding her death. “Most of the discussion happening on message boards and in private circles of both providers and clients is the same everywhere: People are debating whether there could have been foul play.”

Kirchner continues, “Other people are calling those people conspiracy theorists. More neutral people are saying things like, “I wouldn’t usually believe a conspiracy theory, but this is just too fishy.” It is being discussed everywhere, though.”

Regardless, sex work organizations across the United States are focusing on larger issues around Palfrey’s death, and have issued a formal statement as a group, saying: “We — prostitutes, strippers, pro-dommes, porn stars, sex experts and allies — extend our sympathies to all of those hurt by this most recent chapter of the ‘Pink Scare,’ in which oppressive legislation and social stigma partner to generate hysteria around what, for us, can prove to be simply a decent way to make a living. The circumstances surrounding Ms. Palfrey’s death suggest that Americans reconsider the current state and federal policies that govern sex work, as well as the stigmatization and sensational treatment of those who participate in this industry.”

How the sex-work world works is a fascinating mystery to many; never is that more obvious than when a so-called sex scandal hits the headlines. And the story of the D.C. Madam unleashed a multitude of scandals, with many opportunities for stigmatization and sensational treatment — namely of one “female pimp.”

When the stories break, suddenly, we’re awash in hypocritical Senatards and double lives a-plenty. Only recently have sex workers been given a voice in all of this. Most likely, that’s because now they have blogs and vlogs and MySpace pages, so when some sensationalized media monger calls porn star Sasha Grey a “victim” or “poor little girl” — again — media consumers can now Google up Grey’s vlog and decide for themselves.

When Grey was featured on “The Tyra Banks Show” with other sex workers, by the end of the episode Banks was seen comforting a 16-year-old prostitute on stage who was sobbing and obviously a broken person (at least while on the show). Meanwhile, Grey sat in the audience being ignored after she wouldn’t admit to some “deep seated” issue as the catalyst to entering the porn industry. Afterwards, with her video camera, young Web-savvy Grey had a much needed and sobering last word on the media stigmatization she suffered.

Looking for the silver lining, I asked Kirchner if she thought there could be a positive outcome in anything surrounding Palfrey’s death. She replied, “This is another issue being discussed among (sex work) providers. Some of us are hopeful that people will be outraged by this to such a degree that it will inspire new action and new voices working to improve the lives of sex workers. But most of us are skeptical, putting our heads down and focusing on our personal needs right now. I’m hopeful that if we can all be supportive of each other while we’re recovering from the shock and create accessible support systems for sex workers who are moved to action, then it is likely that we’ll see more providers becoming vocal about the injustice of prohibition.”


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