On Power: Sex, Sexism & Society
This episode discusses issues surrounding sexual exploitation, addiction, and sexual violence.
Part two of “On Power” focuses on two stories of fighting against stigma and shame to reclaim power. We speak with Nikki Bell, CEO of LIFT (Living in Freedom Together), an organization that works to help women who are victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. LIFT advocates for policy changes, offers curated recovery centers and educates law enforcement and medical professionals on how to work with victims of exploitation. Our second guest is Corey Camperchioli; actor, writer, and creator of “FEMME,” a short film based on his experiences as an effeminate gay man and the challenges he has faced with that label in his professional and personal life. We explore the impact societal stigma has on individuals; from access to opportunities to the way people are treated by others.
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Experience This Podcast is created and produced by Action! by Design. Action! by Design is a citizen-centered design company that helps people build better products, launch impactful campaigns, and elevate their brand.
Behind the Scenes Photos
NIKKI BELL: I don’t feel shame anymore for the things that other people did to me. Because as a society it’s always been put on the victim. Even when you look at sexual violence cases, it’s like, “Well what were you wearing? What were you drinking? Why were you over there?”
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: Learning to love the word femme made me realize like, the process of taking the word that we find the most shame of and loving it and owning it and putting it out into the universe, that word becomes your superpower. There’s nothing you can say to me about that, because the thing you think I should hate about myself, I actually love about myself.
JOSHUA CROKE: What makes you different from other people? What makes you similar? There are so many components to us as people; from where we grew up, to our family background, to the color of our skin, all the way to the types of clothes we like to wear, the types of activities we enjoy and even the way we talk. Historically, and still very present today, some of these labels have been used by groups who hold power and influence to oppress, stigmatize, and shame people out of access to opportunities, and use these descriptors as a way to divide people.
This is part two of our episode on power and perception. We know this is a very complex issue that crosses lines of identity: gender, race, class and more. This two-part series is just the beginning of a larger conversation. And in this episode, we speak with two people who took stigma and labels forced upon them, and turned those negative perceptions into visible outlets to create meaningful change. We do want to mention that this episode discusses issues surrounding sexual exploitation, addiction, and sexual violence.
This is Experience This Podcast, I’m Joshua Croke.
NIKKI BELL: When I got out of the life four and a half years ago, there was really no safe place for women like myself, or no place that was just for girls like myself. So I was forced into different recovery places, meetings that maybe didn’t support the experiences that I had.
JOSHUA CROKE: This is Nikki Bell. Nikki is the CEO of Living in Freedom Together, known as LIFT. LIFT’s mission is to empower survivors of sexual exploitation in central Massachusetts.
NIKK BELL: I’m also a survivor of trafficking and prostitution and a person in long-term recovery, which for me means I haven’t used drugs and alcohol in almost five years.
JOSHUA CROKE: LIFT started when Nikki was attending a peer recovery support center for people with substance abuse disorders. The director there at the time was a fellow survivor of exploitation, and she was very supportive of Nikki. She allowed Nikki to use the space in the early days of LIFT.
NIKKI BELL: We recognized that women that were in prostitution weren’t going to come to a support group. It was an unrealistic expectation to put on people, right? So we partnered with a local faith-based organization. And they like opened their hearts and doors to us and just were so incredible, and allowed us to start using the space one night a week to just like invite women that were like actively involved in street-level prostitution to come in, have something to eat, get some clean clothes. Started with the clothes out of my closet and a pot coffee and this woman from the church.
JOSHUA CROKE: LIFT has made significant change in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, where a majority of their work takes place. Nikki onboarded their first employees in February 2019. The organization partners with local health clinics to provide safe care for exploited women. They offer a drop-in center that’s open five days a week. Plus, they just bought a house they’ll be using to support these women, and they’re opening a substance abuse program there specifically for prostituted women.
NIKKI BELL: We separate sex trafficking and prostitution, though the two are inextricably linked. And so oftentimes these women that are prostituting, we look at them like this is a choice, and what they want to be doing or maybe it’s like a consequence of their illness, and not recognizing that oftentimes there’s a third party profiting and controlling them, right?
JOSHUA CROKE: LIFT does court and policy advocacy to create change on a structural level. When a woman is charged with prostitution, LIFT works with their lawyer and the district attorney to try to help her get treatment so she’s not criminalized. On a state level, Massachusetts State Representative Kay Kahn is working on a bill to decriminalize prostitution to turn the blame away from the women, and onto the men who are buying sex and perpetrating violence; a piece of legislation Nikki is a strong supporter of. This bill wouldn’t decriminalize prostitution across the board, just for the person who may be exploited. Basically, make it legal to sell sex, but make it illegal to buy it.
NIKKI BELL: The average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old. So when we’re looking at individuals that are now 30, 40 years old on the street, we can’t forget that. So I think it’s an important place to start, that most people haven’t had access to education, job training.
JOSHUA CROKE: LIFT is working to connect to other organizations that will provide education and job training. They’ve been working on a pilot project where they work with three survivors to provide job training, advocacy training and skill-building workshops.
NIKKI BELL: When you’re leaving and you have literally the clothes on your back, and you’re homeless, how do you get a job when you don’t have a place to live, right? And how do you go to work when you don’t have any clean clothes to put on?
JOSHUA CROKE: Nikki chooses not to use the term ‘sex work,’ because she says it waters down the violent industry of prostitution.
NIKKI BELL: I think people have this image like, when we say sex work right, to these like college students deferring, you know, enrollment to Yale while they make enough to make their tuition right? When like that’s not the reality of prostitution. Most people enter prostitution from a position of vulnerability. I don’t think people realize over 85% of women that end up in prostitution have a history of sexual violence as children. 80% are coming out of the foster care system. So we’re looking at these like vulnerabilities that lead people to prostitution and it’s not really a choice right? Do I starve to death, or do I sell my body so I can eat? So is it a choice or is it survival?
JOSHUA CROKE: In 2018, congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, otherwise known as SESTA/FOSTA, with bipartisan support. This legislation restricts websites that host ads for sex trafficking. Advocates of the bill say it will help prevent online sex trafficking and violence. Critics of the bill say it hurts free speech online, and takes away the opportunity for people selling sex to screen customers for safety purposes. Nikki says she believes buying sex online isn’t any safer than it is on the street.
NIKKI BELL: I’m not denying anyone’s experiences. And I’m also saying that when I was in the commercial sex industry I also did not identify as a victim. I thought that this was something I was choosing to do. I don’t use the term prostitute, I say prostituted woman, because it’s not something I was, it’s something that happened to me. And so I think that differentiates right there. And I think people don’t want to use the term prostitution. And I think again, sex work is this way to sanitize what it really is, the violent, racist, exploitative industry of prostitution.
JOSHUA CROKE: Nikki says sexual exploitation is linked to ingrained societal prejudice.
NIKKI BELL: I think prostitution and exploitation is all about that power differential. It’s patriarchy, it’s misogyny, it’s all of that. And even if you look at how we handle prostitution, our solution has been to arrest prostituted women. So they are the ones being victimized and exploited. That’s who we criminalize. Because why? Because who’s paying for sex with them? White men with disposable income. So it’s lawyers, it’s doctors, it’s lawmakers, it’s legislators. We’re not going to arrest them. They’re the ones that hold all of the power in our society.
JOSHUA CROKE: Nikki says she doesn’t agree with the way law enforcement handles these cases, even on an individual basis. Once one of Nikki’s LIFT colleagues was attending an event where he was speaking to a local police officer about LIFT, and even thanked the officer for changes within the department focused on arresting men who buy sex, instead of the women.
NIKKI BELL: And the police officer said to him, “You know how you can tell if it’s a decoy? They have their teeth.” So automatically make like a negative comment about like-- so it wasn’t like great, you know what I mean, you’ve charged these men, thank you. It was, again, shifting it back to the prostituted women.
JOSHUA CROKE: LIFT does trainings with medical providers and other social services to teach them how to best support victims of sexual exploitation.
NIKKI BELL: But it’s difficult, because, again, this is how prostitution’s been handled, it’s just to arrest the prostituted women and it’s difficult to change people that this is what they believe is effective.
JOSHUA CROKE: How does societal stigma and prejudice against prostituted women impact those who seek help and look to get out of those situations?
NIKKI BELL: There’s so much shame in these nasty commentary that it’s difficult to go in places and ask for help. Because first of all, you don’t think you’re worthy of anybody helping you. Because all of these labels and negative things you’ve been called your whole life. I still have a hard time attaching value to myself because of the stigma that’s been attached to me. I have a hard time saying I have value and I should be paid for what I do. I shouldn’t feel like that. But because of the experiences that got me to this place where I still have a hard time seeing value in myself.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: I was informed that I was gay before I actually knew what that meant. And I think a lot of that is because I had feminine, I’m using air quotes, characteristics. And people confuse gender and sexuality, so because I had these traits that people perceived to be feminine, they automatically assumed and labeled me as being gay.
JOSHUA CROKE: This is Corey Camperchioli.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: I remember like just being this like really sweet kid and just describing something and being like, “That’s so gorgeous,” and like this other like-- seven year old being like, “Who says gorgeous? You’re gay because you said the word gorgeous!”
JOSHUA CROKE: Corey is an actor based in New York.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: I just remember just feeling different than the other boys. And just other people. And feeling like gay was something I really didn’t want to be because it was thrown at me as an attack.
JOSHUA CROKE: Corey says he feels almost more pressure now in his 20s to tone down his ‘gayness’ than he did when he was growing up.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: Going into gay bars and feeling like I had to lower my voice to be attractive to other gay men, or you know, I went through a phase where I was just like obsessed with wearing backwards baseball hats because I felt like it made me more masculine. And feeling like I really needed to assimilate, even into my own community, was something that sort of flared up in my 20s I think.
JOSHUA CROKE: Corey went to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU to study acting, but after graduation he had trouble breaking into the industry. After filming a TV show pilot out in LA, Corey met a producer who eventually became his manager. The producer tried to set up meetings for Corey, but ran into the same issue over and over again.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: He started getting the same feedback that I was ‘too specific,’ and that people didn’t know what to do with me. ‘Too specific’ really meaning that I was too gay. And people didn’t really know what to do with that. At the same time I had an agent who basically told me that I would never work unless I hid or sort of toned down my gayness. And then at the same time I was on grindr and these hookup apps and would see ‘no femmes and masc only.’
JOSHUA CROKE: All of these pushbacks against his identity made Corey realize he had to take his story into his own hands.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: I had seen, you know, femme people in film and TV before, but they were always sort of the sidekicks or the butt of the joke. So I really challenged myself to create a narrative where the femme person was front and center and really anchored an entire narrative.
JOSHUA CROKE: So Corey created “FEMME” — a short film based off of his experiences as a femme gay man. The main character is named Carson, and the story follows his journey to find queer self-acceptance.
“FEMME” TRAILER: “What happened last night?” “I went to hook up with someone…” “You’re too… too… femme.” “Femme, femme, femme.”
JOSHUA CROKE: “FEMME” was successfully funded through a kickstarter campaign that fans and people who believed in the project donated to. The film was executive produced by Rachel Brosnahan, well-known for her starring role on the TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “FEMME” is in the process of being adapted into a series for TV. But before all of this success, Corey was still struggling with his identity during the creation of the “FEMME.”
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: Femme was so aspirational in the fact that I didn’t love that word yet. Like I knew it was something I aspired to, but I didn’t love it yet, and I remember having this moment when we were launching the kickstarter of being like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if I should do this.’ You know, like now this word that I have so much baggage around and that I don’t love yet, it’s going to be forever tied to me.
JOSHUA CROKE: Corey says his fear of the negative perception of his femme-ness has bled into both his personal and professional day to day life.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: I do think sometimes people take me less seriously because of my femme-ness. Because my voice is high, and you know, my mannerisms and my ‘gayness.’ I think that I do have to work a little bit harder for people to take me seriously because they perceive me to be fluffy, maybe? And not serious.
JOSHUA CROKE: While Corey has dealt with his own struggles surrounding his identity because of societal stigmas, he recognizes where this feeling of shame and labels used against him stem from.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: It’s things that obviously women go through every single day, and I think I’m experiencing like a fraction of what that is. And I think what’s interesting about my journey with “FEMME” is understanding that femme-shaming in the queer community is directly linked with misogyny. And that has blown my mind.
JOSHUA CROKE: Corey says he wants to use “FEMME” and his platform to draw attention to larger issues surrounding prejudice. And he acknowledges how his privilege has partially played a role in being able to obtain his platform.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: I do recognize that there is an element of privilege there in that I am a white, cis person and so it is easier for me to reclaim that identity. And that is more difficult for other groups of people to be able to do that. And I think what I’m trying to do is, understanding that I have a platform and I was given a platform more easily I think because of my privilege, and then also making sure that, you know, I am shining a light on those who don’t have access to those specific things and making sure that their voices are heard in these dialogues as well.
JOSHUA CROKE: He wants “FEMME” to raise questions for viewers about their perceptions of gender and sexuality, as well as the societal structures that make it hard for people to accept who they are for fear of ridicule or rejection.
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: I feel like we have really deep wounds as far as gender roles and gender performance. And the whole goal of femme is really to attempt to unpack that and really promote a dialogue around these things. We’ve been force fed very specific, very rigid gender roles from before we were even born, with like gender reveals and things like that. I think asking people to deconstruct that and self-reflect on that is a big task, but it’s kind of my life’s work.
JOSHUA CROKE: Corey was recently recognized as one of Forbes 30 under 30 list for 2019 — a prestigious list which spotlights the “next generation of talent.”
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: I hope that there was some little queer kid seeing that list in middle America and says, here’s someone who embraced his queer identity and, you know, made a movie about it and made a show about it and it landed him on that list. Like, I too can claim my queer identity and I too can have a meaningful and successful career, not only from an artistic perspective but also from a business perspective as well. Part of what I’m trying to do with “FEMME” is really empower people to maybe have to skip that step of not having to wait for someone to tell you that you’re valid.
NIKKI BELL: I don’t feel shame anymore for the things that other people did to me.
JOSHUA CROKE: Again, Nikki Bell.
NIKKI BELL: As victims and survivors, it’s like, we hold all the shame and yet the perpetrators don’t, which is the most interesting thing to me. So it’s like, they’re out there raping, abusing, exploiting people, and then we feel bad about it happening to us, right? Because as a society it’s always been put on the victim. Even when you look at sexual violence cases, it’s like, “Well what were you wearing? What were you drinking? Why were you over there?”
JOSHUA CROKE: Nikki says the driving forces behind issues like sex trafficking and sexual violence stem from misogyny and toxic masculinity.
NIKKI BELL: Toxic masculinity is real.And it drives a lot of the violence in our lives. I have a two year old boy and it’s like you know, ‘Boys don’t cry.’ Yes, they do. Yes they do! And he’s allowed to have feelings and they’re not going to be just rage, right? It’s acceptable for men to be angry and violent, but not to show sadness?
JOSHUA CROKE: Nikki says people can help victims of sex trafficking by using their privilege to advocate for funding and more support services.
NIKKI BELL: We start by looking at people as human beings. And not just by their experiences. We attach these labels to people and then, like, discard them as if they’re not valued. Like they don’t have any value in this world. And I think like looking at people from a lens of like being empathetic and compassionate and recognizing that like they need support and not another person judging them.
JOSHUA CROKE: So how might we as individuals, and as a society, address the negative impacts of social stigma and shame ascribed to parts of people’s identity or their experiences? Nikki says opening up discussion surrounding these topics, many of which are uncomfortable to people, is a critical part of dismantling harmful complexes.
NIKKI BELL: We view prostituted women as something as less than or less deserving or not worthy of help and support. And that’s not the reality. We’re all human beings, right? And we’re all deserving of dignity and respect and compassion and empathy and all of those great things. I think these conversations need to be had. Period. And I think through education is how we change these systems.
JOSHUA CROKE: Experience This Podcast is created and produced by Action! by Design. Action! by Design is a citizen-centered design company that helps people build better products, launch impactful campaigns, and elevate their brand. The show is hosted by me, Josh Croke, founder of Action! By Design. Our producer is Mariel Cariker. Additional mixing by Giuliano D’Orazio. Music for this episode was created by Rob Flax. Special thanks to Allie Richards and Dylan Horn.
If you or someone you know is seeking support regarding sexual violence, please contact the RAINN national sexual assault hotline at 800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. Articles with more information about SESTA/FOSTA are below in the show notes.
You can find us on social media at x-p this pod. To learn more about our organization, and to see behind the scenes photos of our interviews with Nikki and Corey, visit our website at action by design dot co.
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JOSHUA CROKE: When we talked to Jesse, Brita…
COREY CAMPERCHIOLI: Love Brita. Hi Brita. I love you.