Sex Worker Movement Building: What I’ve Learned From a Year of Professional Feminism

Audacia Ray

The American sex worker rights movement has a long way to go, and we can learn a lot from activists in other parts of the world. For example, there are eight countries in Europe that accept sex workers trade unions branches in pre-existing unions. In India, I met sex workers who are illiterate and live in one room buildings without electricity - but they can talk fiercely about human rights, language which is all but absent from our movement.

At the end of October, I celebrated one year of working full time at the International Women’s Health Coalition. In that year, I’ve done a lot – launched a successful blog that has become a daily part of my work there (and on which we’ve published more than 250 posts, pretty damn good for a non-profit blog), I’ve spent time working at the United Nations (and made a goofy video about it), and traveled to India. I’ve learned a crazy amount of stuff – not the least of which is the fact that I like working full time for a non-profit (even with all the damn meetings and memos), and being required to get dressed (albeit in outfits that often involve animal prints and/or skulls and crossbones) and leave the house on a daily basis is actually a really good thing.

I’ve now been retired from the business of being a professional naked lady for four years, which is longer than I was in the business. In January, it will be two years since I left $pread Magazine. What a strange set of calculations, ones that will keep getting stranger as the years wear on. These things are such defining features of my life, my activism, the whole thrust of my career. But now I’m really starting to understand a bigger scope of my work (dude, I used the word "career"!), and I’m starting to see how sex worker activism fits into a bigger picture of feminist and labor movements.

I don’t think I would’ve gotten this perspective if I was still a sex worker and managing all the stresses of that work, plus trying to do my activism on a local and national level, while being suspicious of and treated badly by the feminist movement. But now that I’m doing work within the context of global feminisms, I’m seeing how sex worker activism fits. Mostly: there needs to be context and coalition building, because the commonalities are there. The goals of sex worker advocates aren’t different than sexual rights and reproductive health advocates, and they definitely aren’t different than the goals of labor rights advocates.

This is not to say that people in sex work can’t be advocates and activists for their own rights – quite the opposite really. Current workers need to be at the forefront of the struggle for sex worker rights. The movement isn’t a movement without the voices of sex workers – it’s a rescue mission, and steps toward protection are a short stumble away from being patronizing and patriarchal. But sex workers also need help from allies, from people who are actively working to build coalitions with other movements, people who’ve built big movements from grassroots rage and raw needs (movement building takes a long while, by the way).

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The American sex worker rights movement has a long way to go (read a post I wrote for Feministe, 7 Key American Sex Worker Activist Projects), and we can learn a lot from activists in other parts of the world. For example, there are eight countries in Europe that accept sex workers trade unions branches in pre-existing unions. In India, I met sex workers who are illiterate and live in one room buildings without electricity – but they can talk fiercely about human rights, language which is all but absent from our movement.

Toward the end of my India trip, I had a really intense conversation with a group of sex workers and their adult children about the differences between our movements, and we spoke really frankly about class, access, and relative privilege. It’s been two months since I was sitting in that 100 degree room having that conversation, and my head still spins when I think about it. I’ll never forget them asking me: "If the movement in America has so many well-educated people in it, why haven’t you collectivized? Why isn’t your movement bigger and better? And if you can’t do that, what hope do we have?" I stammered and stuttered and didn’t know what to say then, but I think the emphasis on individualism in the United States makes it really hard to organize, really hard to even believe in community. Also, I don’t believe that the connection between "education" (in the degreed, book-learning sense of the word) and ability to mobilize are at all a cause and effect kind of thing.

Sex workers in India know without a doubt that they are stronger together than they could be by themselves, and I don’t think at heart American sex workers believe that. Or we let our differences and suspicions of one another (hookers vs strippers, dommes vs porn performers, street workers vs indoor workers, etc etc.) reign supreme. But the street workers in India value the collective. To be clear, the movement there is very much about street workers, who are absolutely some of the most excluded people. They know: ten angry sex workers marching into a hospital and throwing a fit about the lack of quality care, or complaining about the fact that doctors won’t touch them, that’s big. Ten sex workers talking to ten more sex workers about their rights, and showing up to meetings – that’s a movement. Sex workers sharing resources and having conversations with communities of HIV-affected and infected housewives and widows – that’s coalition building. Sex workers banding together to end child trafficking and coercion in their own communities – that’s real empowerment and change from the inside out.

I’m not entirely sure what all the steps are to bring the American movement forward, except that it needs to be happening on a variety of levels and within a variety of projects. Seeing these pieces of success in different places – it’s inspiring for sure. And as much as I love sex workers and the crazy world of the sex industry, it also reaffirms my choice to nudge my way into the broader feminist movement toward sexual rights and reproductive health. These things are interconnected in intricate and complex ways, and creating conversation among the different communities is key. It’s silly – and counter-productive – to go it alone.

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