(ed. Originally published October 23, 2013 – here!)
Back in 1997, a group of radical activist sex workers in India called the First National Sex Worker Congress, wrote a manifesto, and became some of the first to articulate the values of what has become known internationally as the “Sex Worker’s Rights Movement.” Their documents continue to inform a global struggle. They wrote that “this movement is for everyone who strives for an equal, just, equitable, oppression free and above all a happy social world.” They also acknowledged that “sexual inequality and control of sexuality engender and perpetuate many other inequalities and exploitation too.”
According to the First Congress, and most importantly, we are faced with a singular opportunity, a chance to get at the roots of multiple forms of injustice because the sex worker rights movement addresses racism, sexism, classism, and any and all other -isms that keep people oppressed. At the intersection of economic transaction and sexuality, one can find most of the darkest contradictions of the dominant industrialized, global capitalist paradigm we live under. Perhaps because of this, one can also access some of the most potent revolutionary potential.
We use the term “sex work” to refer to ourselves when we talk politics. Why should you use it too? First reason: sex workers came up with it for ourselves. We use it because it is gender neutral, and because it reminds us that the erotic industries are myriad, and our trajectories in the industries tend to be wildly unpredictable mixes of cultural/political/economic/personal factors with some very real commonalities among our varied experiences. We are sometimes doing legal work, sometimes extra-, para-, or straight up illegal, and saying “sex work” protects us from legal consequence while we try to find each other. When a person tells you s/he is a sex worker, your first question should not be “does that mean you’re a prostitute?” Your first question should be: “How can I be supportive to your struggle?”
Sex workers are operating in every neighborhood. We are working in every city, in every county, in every state, and, particularly in the United States of Amerikkka, we are subject to some of the most insidious divide-and-conquer tactics invented by the carceral state. A sex worker is the person most likely to be murdered, worldwide. Even those who work in “high-end” escorting have no recourse to community help or protection if they are in danger.
We are accused of spreading disease, when we have some of the most sophisticated safe sex practices available and often act as sexual health educators for our clients and communities. We are arrested for carrying condoms in New York, Los Angeles, and many other places, even though those condoms can save lives. We are the butt of “dead hooker” jokes, we are blamed for other people’s sexual problems, we are assumed to be broken people, children of molest or broken homes and addicts, and when we do suffer from sexual trauma or drug dependence, we do not receive compassionate care. We have to stand before judges in the courtroom, but we also are judged the instant we “out” ourselves to almost anyone.
Please note: the “we” spoken here is an important problem: some sex workers are laboring indoors, in privileged contexts, while some are working outdoors and barely surviving. As one might expect, people of color are disproportionately represented in this country’s jails and prisons, even though white women make up the majority of the American sex worker population. While it may seem that all this stigma and repression spells disaster for us, we have increased in number at every epoch. This creates a potential for solidarity among us: a shared struggle against state repression is always a good place to start.
However, sex workers organizing ourselves is only part of the picture if we are to build a movement against oppression that is intersectional, inclusive, intercommunal, and powerful. We need our allies in radical communities to answer our call to stand with us as workers, as women, as men, as trans people, as straight-gay-queer-bi-pan-other. As the sex workers at the First Congress knew, many sex workers absorb the societal stigma of shame and unworthiness. We need allies to recognize that stigma is a commonality that links all of us, despite the enormous diversity in our realities at work and in our lives. Our allies are people who fight for an end to social injustice, but they don’t always recognize us as allies to them. The tacit exclusion of sex workers from radical groups necessarily means a loss to the revolutionary community, considering that we are everywhere. A political activist doesn’t need to agree with a sex worker’s choices to stand in solidarity with her, just as we don’t need to agree with every choice made by every comrade in prison in order to stand in solidarity with them, particularly when we all call for the abolition of prisons! But we often find that the radical left would prefer to rescue, rather than join hands, with us.
Kthi Win, the chairperson of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers writes of her experience this way:
“The violence happens when feminist rescue organizations work with the police who break into our work places and beat us, rape us and kidnap our children in order to save us. As a movement, feminism is meant to believe in agency. Even oppressed women in sex work can make choices. But we cannot choose not to be saved when a policeman or police women has a gun pointed at our head.”
What we need is for the mainstream women’s movement to not just silently support our struggle but to speak up and speak out against the extremists who have turned the important movement against real trafficking into a violent war against sex workers.”
Sex work is by definition consensual sex. Non consensual sex is rape, slavery, or trafficking. The Sex Worker’s Rights Movement has been instrumental in bringing trafficking cases to light; however, we are often regarded as trafficked persons against our own assertions of freedom and agency. We must, according to sexist capitalist logic, be either criminals or victims.
So ask yourself how you feel about sex work. Do you believe all people in the sex industries should be rescued from degradation? Are we disrespecting ourselves? Are we disrespecting decent, hard-working revolutionaries who know how to be good heterosexual monogamous partners? Are we disrespecting women’s liberation to assert that some of us prefer working with pimps than working independently, given our choices? Are we lost to the cause of destroying the capitalist state, because we are already slut-shamed and ostracized?
We imagine an autonomous sexuality in which all people have the right to say “yes” or “no,” in which there is no space for guilt or oppression, in which people are communicating respectfully about their desires and needs. We invite those on the radical left to: consider your own internalized shame about sex, demand of yourself a higher consciousness about your own prejudice against sex workers, and demonstrate a commitment fight alongside us, because we are already fighting alongside you.