A SeX Worker'S
Unapologetic Doug Upp just wants to do the job he wants to do
By Ana Giliberti
He met him at his workplace. The man was Doug Upp's boss, and one day he approached Upp to say, “Are you sure you want to work here? I’m going to flirt with you.”
Upp's response wasn't indignation, but, the retort instead was: “You may flirt with me!”
Reflecting back, he says he should have quit the job. But things got serious, and the guy invited him to go on a trip to London. Next thing he knew, they were living together. Every summer, they would tour European cities, such as Budapest, Munich and Paris. His boss would buy a brand new BMW and ship it over to Hawaii. The following year, they would do the Europe tour again, and Upp would get the older BMW model.
Seemed like a fairy tale relationship, a partner, a boyfriend, Upp said. But eventually, things turned sour. The boss wanted Upp to do certain things that he didn't want to do. This boss, Upp said, felt like he could dominate him because of his money. Power struggles ended the relationship. Upp talks about his story sitting at a table at the Downbeat diner in downtown Honolulu, and I can’t help but think about so many other love stories like that, of so many other people, that just did not work out.
Except for Upp does not refer to his old flame as his boyfriend. Upp calls him his “sugar daddy.” And he identifies himself as an “occasional sex worker.”
Doug Upp (one of his various stage names) tells me he gets his dates online or by phone. Some of them are regulars that he has known for a while. He works another two jobs, as an attendant at Otto Cake in Chinatown, and in a porn shop in Waikiki. Most of his family and friends know he does sex work.
Born in California to a military family, he spent most of his childhood in Hawaii, returning to California and living in West Hollywood in the early '90s, where he had his first experience in the trade. Skating Santa Monica Boulevard one day, a man started following him with his car, later asking him if he wanted a ride. The guy offered him money, to which Upp replied: “Why? do you owe me money?”
The man said, “Yes,”
Upp replied, “for what?”
He answered, “for sucking my d–.”
Upp’s stories of his sex work come across as casual and matter of fact. He is a friendly, good-looking, tall man. Part Jewish, part Mexican. He displays a great sense of humor and laughs often. He also seems genuine in his concerns about sex worker’s rights and being a voice in the movement, often drawing a line of expertise at with his own experiences.
“Just the way I do it, is nothing like any other guys do it. I don’t even hardly do it that often. I try. I keep calling this one guy. I have one regular right now," he said. "And it is not easy finding people that are willing, that I trust, that are safe, have money.”
Sitting at a television production studio in spring 2016, dressed in drag, wearing a blonde wig, bandana, black tight dress and purple stockings with black stripes, is Upp in Diar Rhea form, or D.R., host of “Shaka Talk.”
Today’s guest is "Josh 86," vocalist of the band Black Square and the 86 list and the owner of the Downbeat Cafe in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Upp is Diar Rhea in drag, and he has been friends with Josh for many years. Dressing up in drag brings up a mix of feelings for Upp. “You are treated differently. It’s cute how men will treat a feminine person, you know what I mean? So, when they are treating you like how they will treat a woman," he said, "it’s totally different than how they treat you as a guy.”
During the show, he says the drag allows him to feel more as a performer, bringing out his fun side, so that his guests would know that anything was possible. He gets to be the “asshole,” he said, and provoke them so that they feel awkward but also not take the show so seriously.
Josh 86 and D.R start talking about drinking and taking drugs. “I haven’t done any hard stuff,” Josh says. D.R. strikes back with a: “are you hard right now?” Josh laughs, “No, I’m good.”
In recent years, the show’s tone has changed to reflect Upp’s concern for sex worker’s rights. Working two jobs, Upp spends weekends working on his other television projects or volunteering. One of our meetings took place on a Saturday at Manoa Public Library, during a meeting for Amnesty International.
The meeting meant to address some of the concerns brought by the Hawaii community in relation to basic human rights. Priorities on the list included the problems with mass incarceration and laws affecting sex workers in the state.
Most of those attending were interested in supporting the decriminalization of sex work. That group included Beatriz Cantelmo, Amnesty International Hawaii Chapter’s co-director, and Tracy Ryan, Executive Director of Harm Reduction Hawaii, a non-profit organization dedicated to support those in the LGBT community, including sex workers.
Last year, Amnesty International took the stance of supporting the decriminalization of sex work worldwide. This move attracted attention from the global community, prompting criticism from certain groups, including Hollywood celebrities.
The World Health Organization and United Nations panels on HIV prevention also have supported the decriminalization of sex work, claiming that its criminalization increases the risk of spreading HIV.
Also, last year, Gov. David Ige vetoed a sex-trafficking bill which many anti-sex trafficking organizations, such as PASS, or Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, had promoted and worked on.
Kathryn Xian, the executive director for PASS, declined my request for an interview. A preferred source for most media coverage of issues related to sex trafficking in the state for many years, Xian has advocated urgency to the cause.
Sex worker’s rights advocates do not promote sex trafficking, but bills proposed by legislature constantly compare the definition of sex work, or prostitution, with sex trafficking. “Sex trafficking happens when there is coercion,” Upp said. “We define sex work as trading sex as consenting adults.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Xian said that the number of females trafficked in Hawaii is in the thousands. Governmental data available to the public has tracked about 60 cases from 2009 through 2016.
The newest bill aimed at sex trafficking, SB 1902, raises the punishment for promoting prostitution or engaging in prostitution as a class A felony, the same penalty as committing a violent crime. The bill makes no distinction between sex trafficking and sex worker, assuming both are one and the same.
Frequently, Upp said, two sex workers may work cooperatively supporting and looking out for each other. The bill defines this action as sex trafficking.
“Globally, Amnesty has recognized that combining sex trafficking and sex workers within the same category is not doing any service to stop human trafficking, but actually hurting someone who might be in a position to actually come forward to law enforcement and work in collaboration,” Amnesty's Cantelmo said.
“Part of the public interest is to have sex workers leave prostitution,” Ryan of Harm Reduction Hawaii said. But current legislation has made it extremely difficult to clear a conviction, inhibiting sex workers to clear their criminal record and attempt a fresh start, such as by pursuing a college education, since with the record they are unable to get a student loan.
“There is a lot of contention because if someone who’s very passionate about sex trafficking, and they want to curb that, they may feel that in order to end it you must discriminate and completely bypass the rights of sex workers, too,” Cantelmo said. “They don’t understand that not everybody who is a sex worker is trafficked. They don’t understand that a lot of them do it by choice, and that’s legitimate work, and that they need to have their rights and options protected.”
“The legislation that we have in Hawaii is penalizing,” Cantelmo said in a later interview at a Manoa cafe. “Their trade is a crime. They are much more easily targeted, not only by law enforcement, that can encounter them at any time and at their discretion, (and choose to) either or not enforce the bill, so there’s the element of domination and control, and this way perpetuating abuse in power there.”
HB 1902, established in July 2016, allows for members of police to buy sex “acting in the course and scope of duties, unless engaged in sexual penetration or sadomasochistic abuse,” it reads.
Most states in the U.S. criminalize sex work with the exception of a few counties in Nevada. Recently, France has joined Sweden, Norway, Iceland and the U.K. in decriminalizing the trade for sex workers, but criminalizing clients.
Upp believes that the best model in the world is the one in New Zealand. The law, in effect since 2003, was created with the input of sex worker’s groups that helped draft it.
Upp is one of the speakers in a forum for sex work awareness at Saunders Hall, at UH Manoa, organized by the Sociology department, in March 2016. Nandita Sharma, one of the department’s professors, is presenting the speakers in front of an audience of about ten people, students of different ages and mostly women. Upp sets up his JVC camera and tripod to record the forum, and I offer to help as camera operator so he can focus on his presentation.
The intent of this forum, Sharma says, is to challenge the perceptions that people have toward sex work as a trade. Many times, he said, the information received by the public comes from experts and scholars but not by those who live it.
“I often have students who want to write papers about sex workers”, Sharma said, “and it’s often from a perspective of a savior who wants to go in and rescue someone who they perceive to be a wholesale, uncomplicated victim. It takes a lot of education to undo those perceptions because that is a dominant perception that we have been hearing ever since we were young children.”
“Now, only doing sex work occasionally," Sharma said while introducing Upp, “Doug recognizes his privilege as light skinned, American cisgender male with some college education, who sleeps inside and speaks English."
Upp starts his presentation with a brief introduction and talks about how he does his work and how often, clarifying terms that may be in the general public’s mind while sex work is brought to the conversation.
“There are those who are in the sex trade against their will,” he said. “We don’t deny that. Nobody in the sex trade denies that there’s abuse going on. But there’s people that say they want to save us, that won’t acknowledge that there’s people who do it by choice. And that’s what a sex worker is, an adult who consents to voluntarily sell sexual services to someone.”
Upp has been performing in the drag queen scene of Honolulu for years.
“That’s how I know how long someone has known me, by what name they call me,” he said. From the early 1990s, when “Jenn Asyde” was born, through “Jennette X,” “Tess Tickles” and others, many of them lead singers of local punk rock bands such as Imminent Riot.
Later quitting bands, he hosted open mic poetry nights in Kaimuki and Makiki and has worked at the Cruel Theatre, directed by Taurie Kinoshita.
One of his creative projects include the television show “Shaka Talk,” airing on Olelo for about four years. As the show host, he interviewed art performers, members of local bands and those involved in the sex work community, either as workers or in support groups.
- A SEX WORKER'S PERSPECTIVE -
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