November 24, 2010

Things That Are Broken: Sex Worker Activism

I started my sex worker activism career as a writer – initially I chronicled my personal experiences here on this blog, and then I moved into using writing (mine and others’) and other forms of media making to shake things up. Writing, storytelling, and speaking up are really important aspects of activism – I’ve built my life and projects around them via $pread magazine, the Red Umbrella Diaries, and Sex Work Awareness respectively.

This year, as my career grows and I wiggle into places where I think I can be most effective as an activist and a media maker, I have found myself struggling to find my voice. In the past, I’ve always assumed that more speaking out was better, always and all the time. I felt like I should comment on the state of affairs as much and often as I had the energy. In the past year, I’ve taken a step back from the communities I’ve been immersed in and talking at/about and have spent a lot more time listening.

What I’ve heard has been a big wake up call for me. Through my work with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects I’m understanding more and more about the international situation of sex workers, and about the chaos and harm Americans bring in that arena. But my main context is still the United States and especially New York. Particularly in the American sex worker rights movement, there are just… a lot of issues and gaps in knowledge and understanding. Among the most prominent of these issues are: class and the related entanglements of sex positive/pleasure focused folks and the sex worker rights movement; an over-emphasis on the experiences of cisgender women in the sex industry, to the serious detriment to transgender women and cis and trans men; lack of cohesive work on issues facing both indoor and outdoor sex workers; ignorance of the experiences of migrant sex workers, perhaps because of anxiety around the anti-trafficking hype but also because of a general disconnect; racial dynamics of not just the sex industry but also the sex worker movement… I really think I could just go on and on. I know I shouldn’t just rattle this list off without writing a major treatise about each item, but that is yet to come. It’s important to me to take this step here on Waking Vixen. I’ve been talking to lots of different people about these issues in lots of different places, but haven’t been synthesizing my thoughts in writing. Which is what this blogging thing is about (or so I hear).

To be sure – I am not just pointing fingers about these issues. I have been complicit in maintaining the status quo of a lot of these injustices – it’s not too harsh to call them that. When working with and inside communities to make change and make things better, it’s not the intentions that count -I have always wanted to do good by and for my community- but actions. And a lot of actions come with collateral damage, especially actions that are meant to make change. Some of the struggle to rediscover my voice and place has been about feeling stuck, because as I’ve become more sharply aware of the ways my privilege intersects with my ignorance I’ve constantly thought, “how can I do or say anything that won’t be fucked up? is it worth talking if I know it might be harmful?”

I don’t think my work is all bad or useless. But I do know that I’ve perpetuated the harms that privilege brings. And now I have to work to understand what this is and does, and just do better.

I have been working (and failing a lot, but trying still) to figure out ways I can shift these dynamics in my own work, trying to figure out not just how to make the space but how to create stronger alliances and relationships to flesh this stuff out. It’s slow going because these injustices are entrenched, as much as I want it to be fixed now. I don’t have a magic, uplifting discovery about how to fix everything. But I do know that gaining a deeper understanding of the things that are broken has given me greater conviction that I am indeed in this for the long haul.

6 Comments on “Things That Are Broken: Sex Worker Activism”

Michael Goodyear
2:33 pm


thanks for this. I agree with your analysis of the imbalances, which reminds me of the same problems that beset early feminist activists. The first step in addressing these gaps (and there are more) is awareness and recognition.

I certainly don’t think your “work is all bad or useless”. Even when it does not directly address the issues you outline it can change the climate in a way that can benefit all, it does not necessarily have to entrench privilege.

But we have to listen to the incredible diversity within sex work and help to ensure that everyone is given an equal voice. I think we would have been poorer without your voice.

Cynthia Smith
11:43 pm

Have to disagree with Michael above who seems to be living in a dream land of saying things like “early feminists” went through the same problems. You mean the early suffragettes who were white supremacist eugencists? Nothing feminist about that to me – but yes, that stuff is still happening although I’m sure that’s not in your analysis.

Audacia have you read Jessica Yee’s work? She recently penned an open letter to the sex work movement that requires people to actually keep it real and get over themselves before reading it:

I have learned a lot from her and don’t read that many folks who can really tell it like it is as she does.

Audacia Ray
11:37 am

@Michael – These issues are still very much plaguing feminist activism. Many of the prominent sex worker activists align themselves with feminism, and that is part of the problem.

I do think my work has shifted conversations, but the thing about privilege is that it doesn’t benefit all. For example, take the sex positive position used by my middle class escorts, which basically says: “my sex work is empowering, and not all sex workers are drug addicted street prostitutes.” great – but the subtext of this statement is “drug addicted street prostitutes don’t deserve the same kind of respect I do – I’m not like them!”

@Cynthia – Yes, I’ve read Jessica Yee. The piece you link to had a lot of resonance with me.

Barb Altman
11:45 am

What you have said is true however isn’t this indicative of “growing pains” for any movement that is working toward a common goal?

Personally, you have inspired me for several years…I have read your writings voraciously…currently I am in the midst of a preliminary hearing after being charged in June 2009 with several prostitution related crimes, I find myself turning to the work of you and others (such as Jessica Yee mentioned in Cynthia’s comment above) for strength…

So, thank you…thanks for being there when I need you – yes, I know that’s selfish but I am a little self indulgent these days…

Barb aka Sinful Sydnee
Winnipeg, MB Canada

Michael Goodyear
10:55 am

Actually I was referring to the problems of racism, classism and sexual orientation for which mainstream feminism was criticised in the mid 20th century.

Jessica Yee is a member of our network, so I am well aware of what she believes and has raised within the movement.

This discourse illustrates many of the problems of trying to depict the diversity and heterogeneity within transactional sex to those who see it as a simple monolith, and the the problems of getting cohesive national movements to resist all oppression.

The comments cited above, subtexts not withstanding, are understandable in the context of opposing stereotypes of sex work that are multiple-marginalising. It is often difficult to find the right phrases to deconstruct the mythology of sex work without appearing to privilege one group. An example of this was Rhode Island last year when in trying to block legislation criminalising indoor workers, there was criticism that such actions privileged that group and therefore further marginalised outside workers.

All of this means that we have to be exceptionally careful in our language to be inclusive, to address the issues raised here and provide the means to better enable the groups who have felt left out of mainstream movements.

Thank you for bringing this to the fore, Audacia.

Clarisse Thorn
4:09 am

I think it’s natural to see holes, omissions and problems within movements one is heavily invested in (it is for me anyway), and for those issues to become more obvious and discomfiting over time. I think one of the hardest things about that process can be not becoming embittered or burning out.

I would be most interested in concrete steps and rhetorical strategies intended to directly address the issues you see.

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