The Pink Scare: Of Ms. Palfrey and Sex Panic


Dylan Wolfe – Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK),
Michael Bottoms – Sex Workers Outreach Project – New York City (SWOP-NYC),
Susan Blake – Prostitutes of New York (PONY),
Desiree Alliance,

The Pink Scare: Of Ms. Palfrey and Sex Panic

New York, NY – The activists at Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), Sex
Workers Outreach Project New York (SWOP-NYC), Prostitutes of New York
(PONY) and the nationally-based Desiree Alliance are saddened that Deborah
Jeane Palfrey, also known as the D.C. Madam, passed away on May 1st in an
apparent suicide. 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.  From New York to California, daily reports
of Pink Scare-fueled police busts, e-stings and raids, even at legal
venues like strip clubs and dungeons, have reached a fever pitch. These
oppressive patterns regularly marginalize and terrorize our communities,
with barely a headline to show for the mass arrests. In contrast, coverage
of high-profile cases include yellow journalism exposés published at the
expense of sex workers’ privacy, dignity and livelihood. In an interview
with Lori Price, it was Ms. Palfrey who said, “Without question in my
mind, escort and adult service businesses. . . are being used as the new
weapon of choice in American politics.”  The public figures implicated in
this type of case often receive little more than a slap on the wrist and a
second chance from a forgiving public.  Ironically, among the exposed we
regularly find the very same lawmakers and other insiders who claim to
protect people from vice through moralizing legislation.  Former State
Department official Randall L. Tobias was a Palfrey patron, though he
implemented the abstinence earmark in programs such as the President’s
Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and, with it, the
“Anti-Prostitution Pledge” that has resulted in diminished funding for sex
worker-run organizations. Annually, our government spends millions in
taxpayer money to apprehend and prosecute participants in the sex trade,
while more effective policies like harm reduction-based approaches,
including the multiplication of living wage alternatives, are dramatically

In both the highly-publicized scandals and under-documented daily
struggles, many sex workers now face financial ruin, emotional hardship
and social opprobrium at the hands of the Pink Scare simply because their
work, though it takes place between consenting adults, may be illegal and,
to some, may be offensive.  In two instances associated with Palfrey’s
case, Ms. Palfrey and her former employee, Ms. Britton, oppressive laws
and stigma cost the implicated their very lives. Why did Ms. Palfrey die?
In response to this question, an activist with the International Union of
Sex Workers wrote, “Whether she died by her own hand or her suicide is a
cover for murder, she has been killed by the state.”  Given the highly
political nature of these events, SWANK, SWOP-NYC, PONY and the Desiree
Alliance call for an independent investigation of the circumstances
surrounding Ms. Palfrey’s untimely death. Furthermore, we, as activists
and advocates, would like to stress in this instance that the
criminalization of sex workers and our labor only drives us further
underground, making us and our dependents more vulnerable to client and
police violence, and even death, as we are further isolated. The
unfortunate events of the D.C. scandal bring many of these broader issues
into sharper focus. It is high time that we challenge the morals and laws
that harm so many, so deeply, with so few gains and so many lives

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