Profile: Dr. Jill McCracken - scholar of gender and sexuality
Dr. Jill McCracken is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in rhetoric; writing studies; sex work; and gender, sexuality, and feminist theory. Her research interests include the rhetoric of marginalized communities, in particular, sex work & sex trafficking; public policy; gender; violence against girls and women; ethnography & participatory research methods; and civic engagement.
Find her here: https://jill-mccracken.com/
I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jill McCracken. I found Dr. McCracken while I was researching sex-positive and sex work-positive organizations in the Tampa Bay area. One particular organization I was interested in researching further was SWOP - Tampa Bay or Sex Workers Outreach Project. Dr. McCracken is also the co-director of SWOP Behind Bars.
SWOP is "a social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy." And, SWOP Behind Bars "strives to support and build relationships with individuals most affected, and work to provide incarcerated sex workers with information, connection to individualized, comprehensive case management, and to acquire skills they need."
Two very important organizations! Now, read my interview below.
(Lindsay - Sex Ed and the City) Can you tell us a little about your educational background and how you got involved in the work that you do?
(Dr. McCracken - SWOP)
I have my PhD in rhetoric and I've done a lot with gender and sexuality studies. I was actually a religion philosophy undergrad major, and I brought English into the mix. And then I knew when I started doing research I liked the idea of rhetoric (be)cause it combines language and ideas and philosophy, but it also connects with material reality, like how our lived experience is created and how we actually can create our lived experience or recreate it in certain ways. So when I went to grad school I started looking at different projects for my dissertation. I actually worked on a different project for a year and it didn't pan out. It's a long story. Well actually I was working on it, it was on reproductive policy and technologies in India that you would be interested in.
Here: I didn't ask a question, but Dr. McCracken speaks on her setbacks and how she was able to utilize them to obtain her ultimate goals.
While I was doing that, I started learning they have huge sex worker rights and groups over there. They have, I'm always going to get the initials wrong. You can look it up. (Editor's note: Turns out there are a lot of sex worker groups in India. Here are a few: NNSW, SANGRAM, VAMP) 65,000 sex workers in India. And they work against trafficking. They do a lot of community organizing, and so this was back in 2002 when I started learning about this.
When I didn’t get the funding for that project, I told myself I should create I'm like just do a research project in my own language.
That was the main reason why I didn't get the funding because we were translating their languages into English. So I told myself to create a research project in your own language and learn how to be a really good researcher before you try to go into some other cultures. So, I redrafted my whole dissertation proposal and it was based on street-based sex work. I chose street-based sex work because I'm very interested in power and bodies and gender and sexuality and race and how all of these things interact.When I looked at people who were engaged in street-based sex work, aside from people who were victims of trafficking. That was right around the time, the late 90s & early 2000s when I think we all started a lot more about trafficking. My goal was for that project was to look at how language shapes the material conditions of street-based sex workers' lives. How does our language actually impact how we understand street-based sex workers?
I realized I've always been, but I wouldn't have named it at that time in this way, a community-based researcher where I want the research to emerge from the community.
Lindsay: How did SWOP USA come about?
I had gone to Desiree Alliance, which was a sex worker conference. It's led by sex workers. Incredible. I met Robyn Few who was, she's no longer with us, unfortunately, but she was one of the founders of SWOP USA. We became good friends and I got involved in the 501(c)3. But, sex workers often don't want to put their real names on the paperwork. I was willing to put my name on the paperwork and was the founding treasurer. I was on that board for a long time. And I learned a lot. I think because I chose to give back in that way and because I always did want to hear from sex workers. I always wanted to center their voices and say, what is it that they think?
Lindsay: What did the sex workers say about their work?
Dr. McCracken: Of the 17 women I interviewed for my dissertation research, the majority would not have chosen to be there. If they could do something else, they would have. There were a couple that loved it. And then there were a couple that had been forced by their boyfriend or something like that...they weren’t always clear about the circumstances.
I learned a lot by being an activist. At the same time, I was a researcher and that helped me to see different perspectives.
Lindsay: What was your book called?
Dr. McCracken: It's called Street Sex Workers Discourse.
I looked at a decade worth of newspaper articles and analyzed where the word prostitution, came up and how is was being used and how would the layperson see prostitution? And then I went and interviewed the people that work closely with sex workers, street-based workers, and then I interviewed the workers.
Lindsay: Did you get perspective of how they feel labeled? Like being labeled as like the term prostitute and how they felt about it?
Dr. McCracken: We did talk about that. Although I think it's interesting because I think we all have a tendency to tell the stories that we know people expect to hear. Because I'm a single mom, what you might think being a single mom is. I wanted the women who I interviewed to know they didn’t have to tell me the story they think I want to hear.
Lindsay: So how did SWOP Tampa Bay come about?
Dr. McCracken: And then I came here (St. Pete) for my job and there really weren't any organizations here that worked primarily with street-based sex workers or sex workers.
on the East coast. And I was still involved with SWOP USA, which is national. And then I was involved with Desiree Alliance, so I was on their board for a while. Susan Lopez, who was one of the founders of Desiree Alliance, moved down here and we decided to start a SWOP Tampa Bay chapter. We kind of just tried to keep it going as a presence online, but it's definitely the strongest it's ever been. Amber (one of our co-facilitators) moved here and really got our chapter going with consistent meetings, and Kristen (one of our co-facilitators) has had a lot to do with growing our chapter and bringing in new members.
Lindsay: How can others get involved in SWOP Tampa?
Dr. McCracken: We have a social every month for sex workers. And we like to have an ally event for sex workers and non sex workers. For instance, our event is next Thursday (Note: this event has passed since our interview, but check out the website for more!), it's at the church, and we’ve never had an event at that church. I think we're going to give a little overview of what is sex work and all that. In addition to doing that, we're going to talk a little bit about sex work and different legislation around prostitution. We are also going to do a letter-writing for SWOP Behind bars.
Lindsay: What is SWOP Behind Bars?
Dr. McCracken: So SWOP Behind Bars is a chapter of SWOP. In my academic work was working a lot with people who have been incarcerated, and we were still doing SWOP stuff. Then Alex Andrews, who I met through SWOP Orlando, started talking to me and we decided to start SWOP Behind Bars because the sex worker rights movement historically has been primarily made up of, white, cisgender, female people who are privileged. We've (SWOP and Desiree Alliance} gotten a lot of criticism for that. And so Alex and I started thinking and she said, "Let's create a chapter that focuses on people who have been incarcerated."
We didn't know what we were getting into. But it just blew up. And so SWOP Behind Bars focuses on the people who are disproportionately affected by the laws in our country. Since 2016, when we began the organization, I learned a lot about the overlap and how people are getting convicted of trafficking who were actually victims of trafficking themselves.
Lindsay: Why aren't people of authority and enforcement trying to help them rather than throw these people who are victims in jail?
Dr. McCracken: I think that has a lot to do with our culture in the sense that when something makes us uncomfortable or we don't like or understand something, we criminalize it, right? Like if you think about the war on drugs. What are the underlying systemic conditions that lead people here? I think that that's something that our culture could stand to learn a lot more about. And the same can apply to sex work.
Continuing back to SWOP Behind Bars...
We want to inform people that are incarcerated for prostitution or other related charges about the sex worker rights movement. That there is such a thing. They may not know about because they don't have access to news or the internet. And then we also want them to teach us what can we be doing, how can the sex worker rights movement learn from them. Especially from people that are disproportionately impacted by the law. And we have learned a ton!
Lindsay: Any other ways to get involved?
Dr. McCracken: You can be a pen pal. You can donate. We have a list on there that says 10 things you can do for sex workers to give back. The letter writing is really important because if people don't have a community or a network outside, sending a letter inside can be really beneficial for the individual, and it tells the guards and the other prisoners there's someone on the outside who is aware of them.
December 17 is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex workers. So every December 17th, it's huge. It's one of the biggest events of the year. We have an event to honor the sex workers we have lost to violence and draw attention to this violence committed against sex workers so that we can end it. The event link is here: https://swoptampabay.org/december-17th-international-day-to-end-violence-against-sex-workers/.
Lindsay: Anything else you're getting up to these days?
Dr. McCracken: Yes, I am a sexuality educator. The project I'm working on right now, which we're hoping to get off the ground in November, is the Adolescent Sexual Health Education and Research project. We plan to work with youth who are in high-risk circumstances, primarily people who are living in group homes or are in the foster system. We're partnering with the Guardian Ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay, and we're going to offer a sexual health education program over 12 weeks. We want to provide the education, and we also want to learn from them, so we can change or adapt the curriculum to better meet their needs We are really excited about getting this project off the ground!
Thank you Dr. McCracken for sitting down with me!
In sex health,
Sex Ed and the City