I just spent three days thinking about sex work activism: two days of talking and listening at the Southwest Sex Worker Convergence followed by a vigil the evening of December 17 at Plummer Park in West Hollywood commemorating the tenth annual International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. At the end of our time together the activists, who had convened to talk and share, gathered with local Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP)-LA members, Occupiers, families, and allies. We stood in a solemn circle around a makeshift altar of candles, women’s heels sinking into the damp, grassy lawn. The dark clothing of the gathered crowd was relieved by a bright crescent of red umbrellas marking the fallen. Names of sex workers lost to violence this year were read with emotion, even those with no names had a space, theirs held by just places – Detroit, Cape Town, Paris – an approximate age, woman, man, transwoman. The list is long.
We even take the time in our vigil to find the silver lining – the list is long, yes, longer because sex workers are more connected now? Maybe. I think again about how this is a resilient community, so tightly wound, a strong culture out of necessity.
I hesitate a little to write about my involvement in the Sex Workers Rights movement. Not because I feel any shame in being associated with sex workers or feel any of the burden of confusion and moral befuddlment (even anger, fear, disgust, and distrust) that many people have about sex work, and prostitution in particular. It makes me sad to think that these are often the first emotions that people bring to conversations about a deeply stigmatized group of people, or any group of people. And then angry, because the sex workers I have met are some of the most caring, canny, capable people I’ve ever encountered. They chafe at the idea of being victims, and laugh good-naturedly at the stereotypical reactions of “pearl-clutchers”. They chuckle together about how they wish for the flush days their would-be saviors quail at, serving clients nearing the double-digits in a single shift. That’s efficient work that leaves them hours to spend on other things – these are economically adventurous businesswomen.
Honestly, I’m impressed by these powerful people, attracted, and sometimes intimidated. That’s where the hesitation comes from. Sex workers have taken economic and emotional possession, sometimes of free choice and sometimes out of more confusing circumstances, of something at the deep sticky center of our shared culture. There is no speaking on behalf of the unique viewpoints generated by such an endeavor – which is often what seems to happen when people outside the community address sex workers’ issues (I saw a hashtag recently, #nothingaboutuswithoutus) – there is only listening and hoping to gather some wisdom from their experiences.
I feel like I gathered some wisdom this weekend from my sisters, and I want to share some thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain. Especially because I believe that the rhetoric we discussed most this weekend – that of California’s Proposition 35 and its anti-trafficking movement supporters – upon further reflection seems to me to be geared at very effectively silencing sex workers rights advocates. It breaks our hearts and our brains by putting sex workers in direct opposition with both the under-served, underprivileged men, women, and transpeople that the Sex Workers Rights Movement seeks to empower and the victims of violence that the movement hopes to liberate. In the words of Stacey Swimme, SWOP co-founder:
“The scariest aspect of Prop 35 for sex workers is the language in Sec. 3 Purpose and Intent: “…to ensure just and effective punishment for those who PROMOTE or engage in the crime of human trafficking.” To understand why this is scary, you have to understand that elsewhere in this initiative “force, fraud and coercion” are removed from the definition of trafficking and the distinction between minors and adults engaged in commercial sex is also removed. So essentially, anybody who works to increase the safety of consenting sex workers by maintaining a Bad Date list for example, or training internet-based adult sex workers how to screen out the bad clients can be accused of “promoting” human trafficking. Prop 35 is a blatant effort to misrepresent the real circumstances of human trafficking and targets those who work consensually in the sex industry. Prop 35 will lead to increased harassment and prosecutions of sex workers, the majority of which gets directed at the most vulnerable workers, including people of color and transgender sex workers. Any effort sex workers make to help keep each other safe by sharing clients, working together or sharing work spaces could be considered “trafficking” according to Prop 35. Who benefits from this? Not the real victims of exploited labor and sexual commerce.”
Anti-trafficking language in California Proposition 35 puts consensual sex work on the level with the kind of coerced labor that the illegality of sex work helps to create. By strategically ignoring from a policy perspective the very existence of the non-coerced sex work economy and at the same time writing legislation that erases the distinction between it and the trafficking of minors and violent coercion of (often migrant, undocumented) adults, anti-traffickers are able to very effectively directly shame and disadvantage consensual sex workers while not mentioning them at all.
While purporting to be about saving the children and abused women, in practice in California Prop 35 will make sex workers who have been caught up in the injustice system and their dependents have to register as sex offenders and make illegal and punishable the safety procedures consensual sex workers engage in to maintain safety. Unmmasked, the entire Anti-Trafficking movement seems in fact to be a dog-and-pony show, the actual intention of which is to make the lives of consensual sex workers even more fear-filled and further disenfranchise them and their families. The terrorism of a bully bureaucracy is still terrorism.
The irony of it is that the money behind all of this is coming from (in addition to the usual family values coalition) anti-terrorism sources. By conjuring the bogeyman of the organized syndicate moving human chattel for large sums of money, the capitalist authoritarians have invented a coherent enemy. In the fevered imagination of nationalists, the “organized crime” money is always funneled to the offshore terrorists. All the more reason to make anti-trafficking an issue of global multi-lateral action. Does trafficking and coerced sex happen? Yes. But why can’t legislators and citizen activists – or, more accurately, shadowy coalitions – write legislation geared specifically towards the interests of these victims? They can, and have chosen not to.
It now seems to be the job of the sex workers rights activists and their allies to pick apart the anti-traffickers. What I realized listening to our fruitful, passionate conversation this weekend was that it is a losing battle. Why?
Because a lot of sex workers are incredibly compassionate and sensitive people: theirs is an occupation that requires great reserves of emotional intelligence and energy. And because of this, sex worker activists are the people who actually give a shit about saving the children and abused people. The activist sex workers I know are radical and feminist. They’re concerned about the dearth of women of color in sex worker activist groups, interested in making sure the trans community and its particular challenges are represented, and want to include the impoverished and the under-served in their ranks. Many transition or concurrently engage in care-taking professions and provide medical, mental, social and educational services to their communities. Sex workers ARE anti-traffickers, and it’s a sick joke to pretend otherwise.
Sex workers’ rights advocates recognize that if sex work were legal and social stigma against sex workers addressed, the market for coerced and underage sex would be starved and perpetrators exposed – among many other potential benefits. It’s hard to craft an argument against the anti-traffickers, because sex workers don’t want slavery or underage sexual coercion either. They hate that shit and have been engaged in a decade-long struggle to draw attention to the plight of victims of violence, especially the kind society seems OK with. They just want consensual sex work to be legal so that their lives and the lives of their loved ones will be easier, their colleagues and families will be freer from the fear of violence from police and people who think that sex workers are somehow expendable because of what they do.
In the end the vulture circles back around to the deeper social and cultural stigmas about sex work itself – stemming from the death-grip of traditional family structure and patriarchal inheritance law (I’ll be talking about the deep history behind sex worker stigma in a future post). That’s where I think activists need to direct the conversation if we want to stop our opponents from winning the war against sex workers, which is in fact just a long battle in the war against the economic independence of women. (I wish fervently more women would realize it).
Sex workers rights activists must be pulled out from under the crushing psychological weight of the abused and disenfranchised victims that the anti-traffickers wish to foist upon them. Activists can acknowledge the REAL plight of migrant laborers and coerced sexual labor, while at the same time separating themselves from the bogeymen of underage and forced sex that no one but the perpetrators wants. Reversing the irrational stigma against sex work that arises from a culture of shame and idealizing sexual purity is something that will benefit all sex workers – all women – everywhere, and must be priority #1.
Sex workers are powerful allies, their potential partners – women, progressives, LGBTQ activists, anarchists, socialists, feminists, the non-religious, social workers, etc. – should recognize this, and come to their aid in the cultural struggle that lies ahead. In anarchist, feminist, and communitarian circles the restrictive structure of the traditional family and sexual exclusivity has been challenged for political reasons for almost 100 years now. For almost as long the dominant culture in the US has been flirting with sexual openness and experimentation, and for even longer (think the Shakers, Quakers, and Mormons) with altered – even utopianist – family structures.
Perhaps the time is now, faced with our enemies’ motivated resistance massed against sex workers and women in general, for sex workers and their allies to go on the OFFENSIVE, and mobilize against the authoritarian moralizing and social engineering of our opponents. There are plenty of people in addition to our clear potential allies who want to disassociate themselves from the cultural regressives and their restrictive views, but don’t know how or why it is important. Sex workers and their allies can lead the charge towards a more open society and expose the moral backwardness and cynicism of the anti-traffickers in one fell swoop. It’s time the culture war had two armies on the battlefield, don’t you think?