Living in the cushy Midwestern cocoon of Michigan has a way of making people blind to the struggles of those next door. With last week's Sex and Justice Conference, The University of Michigan not only opened eyes but also got tongues wagging in the right direction.
From Oct. 4-6, an assortment of legal experts, scholars, health advocates and concerned citizens joined together at U of M's Rackham School for Graduate Studies. Guests included David Frank from the University of California Irvine, Sean Strub of the Positive Justice Project and New York based Jamaican human rights activist and lawyer Maurice Tomlinson.
The conference focused on three central issues: sex offender registries, the criminalization of HIV and sex work.
Those topics were chosen because, according to SJC Conference organizer Trevor Hoppe, "Over 750,000 Americans are currently registered as sex offenders," he said in his opening speech.
"Sex workers are routinely prosecuted by the police and locked up in a hostile climate of criminalization. Allegations of sexual misconduct are regularly made to discredit not just powerful figures like Julian Assange but everyday people, like a high school teacher..."
Hoppe hoped that bringing together people from all corners of the intersection of sex and justice would give each topic a unique perspective. It was a bet that paid off.
"My goal was to spark a conversation about the ongoing and increasing trend towards punishing and criminalizing sex globally. That goal has certainly been met," he said.
Even before the event officially started, conversations began. While enjoying coffee and waiting for the opening plenary session's customary "Michigan time" adjustment, participants were clustered around the space excitedly sharing ideas. That energy and excitement carried over throughout the conference.
With such knowledgeable people participating in the conference, a vibrant colloquy is to be expected. But it was the participant's passion and raw exchange of emotion that really had an impact.
"I found myself near-tears on multiple occasions," Hoppe said. "Not just tears out of sheer horror from some of the stories that were shared about how people are being locked up and unjustly treated by the state, but also tears of awe in admiration of the courageous work people are doing to resist those efforts."
While organized to shine a light on and combat the austere judicial crackdown on sex around the world, there were also moments that brought hope.
In the opening plenary session, Deon Haywood of women's advocacy collective Women with a Vision shared the story of their triumph over Louisiana's anti-sex worker "Crimes Against Nature" statute. Grievously, it was one of few stories with a happy ending and would not have been possible without cooperation from the Center for Constitutional Rights.
"That work didn't just take guts, it took years of community mobilizing, savvy legal advocacy, and outreach to the community at large," Hoppe said. "I don't think anyone who attended 'Sex and Justice' could have walked away without being inspired by the hard work of folks like Deon Haywood and Alexis Agathocleous who will go down in history for courageously standing up for justice."
Moments after Deon's inspiring story, Maurice Tomlinson gave an overview of Jamaica's complex issues dealing with homosexuality.
He drew several plausible connections between the waning battle for LGBT rights in the U.S. and the rising tide of religious extremism and homophobia in Jamaica. This created an image much different than what's normally seen. It's a little-known and bleak reality but successfully illustrates the need for gatherings like the SJC.
Despite the academic skew of the conference, many people from outside the domain of sexuality also came to be a part of the conversation. For them, revelations - such as Tomlinson's - came as a shock.
Amy Wright-Olsen - who'd come to be enlightened - was among those who were affected by his story.
"...the talk about Jamaica, my god, that was horrifying," she said with an exasperated sigh and grim look of concern. "It seems so bad here sometimes and then you hear that and it's like, 'Wow.' Unfortunately, we have it good compared to other places."
Even though saddened, Wright-Olsen was still excited to be a part of the conference.
"It was a really cool opportunity to come to something like this that I wouldn't usually be able to go to and hear some fabulous speakers," she said.
Although there is no guarantee of a Sex & Justice Conference 2013, Hoppe is hopeful that there will be some event that could carry the torch and continue the conversation.
"The event has been a tremendous success - a landmark event that I hope will have lasting implications for the organizing around sex and justice in the future," he said.
"I sincerely hope there are future events in the vein of 'Sex and Justice' - there is more work to be done."