Feminists need to pay more attention to domestic workers' rights, especially in light of how hard domestic workers toil not just in their jobs, but also to advocate for their own basic workplace protections.
Dissent magazine’s winter 2013 series “The New Feminism” is jaw-droppingly smart and relevant, and most importantly, it gives pop-feminism a good shake. Specifically, Sarah Jaffe’s article “Trickle Down Feminism” provides the most powerful examples of how most feminists’ (including feminist writers’) energy has been misplaced, devoting countless articles to dissecting the every move of bright-shiny-wealthy superwomen like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer instead of the economic trends that impact so many more women’s lives.
Especially important, Jaffe discusses the socio-economic status of domestic workers, a topic Rewirehas made a priority in our coverage over the past several months. The vast majority of domestic workers—nannies, home health aides and housekeepers— are women, and many are not earning a minimum wage. There is a powerful national movement to improve their working conditions and put basic labor protections in place, but stories about domestic workers are just beginning to truly receive their due in feminist and labor conversations and, because of people like Melissa Harris-Perry, on cable networks too.
The attention gap for this issue is particularly unfortunate in light of how hard domestic workers are toiling not just in their jobs, but also to advocate for themselves. The successful campaign for a New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights which passed in 2010, and the campaign in California which unfortunately died with the Governor’s veto, were fueled by domestic workers who organized and traveled to their state capitols to tell their stories.
And in Massachusetts, where a campaign for domestic workers rights is about to launch and will focus on better wages, benefits, the right to rest breaks, and protection from sexual harassment, one of the key leaders of the Massachusetts effort is a woman who spent much of her life as a domestic worker, Maria Natalicia Rocha-Tracy (Natalicia Tracy). Tracy is currently Executive Director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston and a Boston University Ph.D candidate in sociology.
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Tracy moved to the United States as a teenager to pursue college. She settled in West Roxbury and Brookline, MA at the age of 17 and accepted work as a nanny and elder caregiver to support herself. In her first job as a nanny, Tracy had a two-year contract and she was told she would be part of the family.
In the bait-and-switch that many domestic workers experience, Tracy’s reality was far from warm and welcoming. She found herself working 80-90 hours per week, living on her employer’s porch in the cold. She didn’t have right to call home, couldn’t receive letters, and spoke little English. She was paid $25 per week.
“When I look back sometimes it is hard to believe I was able to get out of that situation,” Tracy said. “I was all alone.”
When she looked for her next job, Tracy made sure she would have a real room of her own and time to go to school. “It’s like a movie sometimes when I think back to the things I had to go through. I didn’t understand rules and the laws.”
After struggling through this period of her life, earning her college degree and now as leader of the Brazilian Immigrant Center, Tracy has devoted her life to improving working conditions for other domestic workers.
“We have an obligation and responsibility to change things,” she said. “If you start with policy and educating the community, you can break through this chain of abuse and discrimination.”
The Massachusetts campaign is inspired in part by New York’s successful campaign. Though California’s campaign ultimately ended in defeat, both states’ efforts are helping to inform the work in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts bill will be introduced later this month.
Tracy is working alongside many organizers including Monique Nguyen, Executive Director of Matahari, a group focused on ending exploitation of women, immigrants and workers. In her Dissent article, Jaffe points out that Gloria Steinem as well as National Domestic Workers’ Alliance leader Ai-jen Poo are among the key feminist voices in the movement—but simply, there needs to be more attention and advocacy from the rest of us.
The media coverage and governmental responses to the protests in Minneapolis are missing the message that the community is protesting that the police shot Jamar Clark before he had his day in court as someone facing domestic violence charges.
The way the press in Minneapolis, Minnesota, initially reported the Twin Cities’ reaction to the police shooting Jamar Clark is “Black Lives Matter is acting up again—and for no good reason.” That narrative loses the message of why the community is protesting: The police shot Clark before he had his day in court as someone facing domestic violence charges.
In the rush to keep up appearances that the Twin Cities are progressive and “nice,” even as white supremacists further belied that notion by shooting five protesters on November 23, the media coverage and governmental responses are missing the fact that the protests are a reproductive justice matter.
Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (BLM-Minn) acted like a social media first responder on November 15, alerting its Facebook community of nearly 20,000 people about the shooting as members also used the platform to gather more information about the details from the people who live in the community. The chapter, along with the local NAACP, led a peaceful march and occupation of the 4th Precinct police stationlater on that Sunday and stated activists would stay in the building and on the property until five initial demands were met.
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These demands were to see footage from the incident; for an independent organization—not the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which is attached to Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety, also known as the police—to investigate the shooting; for the media to cover what eyewitnesses saw, not just the police’s perspective; for community oversight with full disciplinary power; and for police officers to live in the communities they serve. Thanks to laws advocated for by not only police unions, but also teachers’ unions and parents, this is not currently a requirement in Minneapolis.
On Monday, November 16, another mix of protesters—including leaders from Black Lives Matter and the local NAACP, other community organizers, and supporters—shut down Interstate 94, about a 30-minute walk from the 4th Precinct police station. Forty-three adults and eight youths were arrested, according to BLM-Minn, and they were released the next day. Other Minneapolitans and St. Paulites who may not have been able to participate in the direct actions donated food, water, hand warmers, money, and other supplies.
And BLM-Minn ultimately boiled down their demands to three: a release of the footage from all of the available cameras that documented the incident on November 15, an independent federal investigation, and the immediate termination of the officers involved in Clark’s shooting.
As Black Lives Matter leaders and supporters have said locally and nationally, the police are killing Black people regardless of innocence or guilt. Clark was killed before he faced charges of domestic violence. The police accord the expectation to live and breathe to other people for the same crimes. Thus, the protesters and supporters feel the case should have been the same for Clark. Law enforcement, however, gave no regard to that. Constant law enforcement and extralegal threats, such as white supremacists, lessen the quality of life for individuals and for any family they want to form or have formed—a core tenet of reproductive justice.
And these threats from the cops and the racially driven citizen groupsare bolstered by stereotypes about Black people, namely that Black men are only hyperviolent brutes and Black women are never victims worthy of genuine empathy.Clark’s girlfriend and sister are offered in the mediaas indictments of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. Anti-BLM individuals state, under the guise of caring for Clark’s girlfriend, that BLM-Minn supporters are misguided in their protests because Clark allegedly abused his girlfriend, so, the subtle implication is that the Black women running the organizations are choosing to support the Black man over the woman. The naysayers also offer the video of Clark’s sister, Javille Burns, telling the protesters that their actions “have no goal” and are “pissing people off.” In doing so, they are essentially using her as a Trojan horse for their own racially couched arguments of BLM-Minn mindlessly defending “guilty” Black men and, more to the point, pointlessly disrupting the lives of Minnesotans to seek this unearned justice, which they perceive as “violent” even as the videos have shown the protesters staying peaceful.
Again, the protesters aren’t saying that Clark is innocent; they are saying that he didn’t deserve to die before he was able to have his day in court.Black female activists, from Ida B. Wells to Combahee River Collective members to Angela Davis, haven’t separated themselves from Black men or their defense of Black men dealing with the legal and extralegal system from their feminism. More importantly, none of the people raising these counterarguments are publicly offering help, particularly to the girlfriend they wish to use as a proof against the protests. As studies have proven, such stereotyping—like the belief that Black women don’t deserve genuine empathy—further impacts the lives of Black women as we navigate what Melissa Harris-Perry calls the “crooked room” of racism and sexism. We must deal with our familial, reproductive, sexual, and romantic lives in the midst of couched dismissal of our existencesin order to serve as the so-called allies’ political counterarguments to those issues directly affecting us.
Yet, in all of this, very few in the mediaand governmentare addressing the systemic structures that allow the reproductive justice issues to fester in North Minneapolis and the state itself. That the Huffington Post and 24/7 Wall Street ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul as the third-worst city in the United States for Black Americans is, at best, met with white progressive hand-wringing and the weird double-talk that is the fine art of “Minnesota Nice.” More often than not, the reports and the statistics as to why the Twin Cities ranked so high—high unemployment, low median income, poverty rates, redlining then gentrifying communities of color, and disproportionately high rates of STIs—are met with relative silence, compared to the screaming outrage a person here sees as the reaction to the protests in North Minneapolis.
Where reproductive justice is manifesting itself, however, is in the coalitions—which are deeper and broader than BLM-Minn and the local NAACP—that have come to support the #Justice4Jamar protests, with individuals across the racial and religious spectrums within and around North Minneapolis attending the protests and representatives from Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and Muslim and Arab communities, among others, coming down to show support. Mayor Betsy Hodges may have run on a “One Minneapolis” platform, but she is showing so far that it’s a platitude and not a policy with regard to this situation: She endorsed the police’s behavior, it took her a few days after the shooting to request a federal investigation, seemingly only urging from protesters, and, when confronted about her responses, replied in double-talk. But there are Minneapolitans who are actually engaging in that promise.
Homeland Security agents raided Rentboy.com in late August, seizing the escort ads website and displacing an estimated 10,000 advertisers. As with similar crackdowns on online sex work, sex worker rights groups were the first to draw attention to the politics behind the Rentboy raid.But not long after, they were joined by high-profile organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the editorial board of the New York Times. On Thursday last week, LGBTQ, civil liberties, and sex workers’ rights activists gathered outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn where Rentboy staff were arraigned, calling for charges against them to be dropped and for the decriminalization of sex work—a topic that has, for the moment, become one of mainstream media interest.
The crackdown may have felt unprecedented to some, but it’s the public’s response that’s new. When law enforcement targets sex workers and the websites they use, mainstream outlets and organizations tend to give them a pass. But with Rentboy, that script has flipped. Rentboy was a website where men sought sex with men, and as such, media and advocacy groups who don’t typically bring a political analysis to sex work responded to the raid primarily as an anti-gay attack, while also calling for an end to the policing of sex workers. Some American LGBTQ organizations in particular have rallied around the political nature of the raid—in a way women’s rights groups in the United States, when women sex workers are targeted in similar raids, have not. In fact, it might be the relative silence of women’s rights groups on the Rentboy raid that has provided space for sex workers’ rights to become the main focus of the story.
The “Pink Scare”
The Rentboy raid was the latest phase of what an anonymous sex worker, writing in the Guardian, referred to as the “Pink Scare”—an escalating panic directed at the intersection of sex work and technology. Though the focus on a men’s site is a twist, the overall agenda is not new: About one year ago, federal agents also raided the escort website MyRedBook, a site used primarily by women escorts. “Neither bust is surprising, although both landed like a punch to the face,” Charlotte Shane wrote at Jezebel. “To sex workers, it’s just more evidence of the campaign against us.”
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When law enforcement came for MyRedBook for sex work ads—and before that, Craigslist and Backpage—there was criticism, but not like this. Immediately, commentators recognized the Rentboy raid as not only an attack on civil liberties, but on sex workers’ rights, including the right to set the conditions of their work.
Perhaps this comes, in part, from the mid-August announcement from Amnesty International in support of sex workers’ rights and the decriminalization of sex work. A week before the Amnesty vote, an anti-sex work organization called the Coalition Against Trafficking Women added a raft of celebrities’ names to their letter opposing Amnesty’s proposed sex work policy before it had even been officially announced. Though the celebrity reaction failed to sway Amnesty, it did garner a response from media outlets that normally might not cover these kinds of policy changes.
Once Amnesty did vote in favor of sex workers’ rights, this attracted another wave of international press attention. Media presented Amnesty’s decision as just the latest in a long fight about sex work, framing sex workers’ position as going against “women’s groups,” as if sex workers were not themselves present in women’s groups, or were maybe even not included in the category “women.” As incomplete as this coverage was, for a moment the issue of criminalizing sex work was back in the news.
In turn, these responses primed the public to examine the impact of criminalizing sex work—rather than dwell on abstract debates—when the Rentboy raid took place. In targeting Rentboy, the New York Timeseditorial board wrote, law enforcement “shut down a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps.” Critics understood prosecuting online advertisers as an occupational health and safety concern for sex workers. As ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio wrote on the organization’s website, platforms like Rentboy “provide a safer alternative to street-based work where there is less time to negotiate safety needs and higher risk of violence from both clients and law enforcement.”
Much of the coverage also framed the shutdown as an attack on the safety of the LGBTQ community, which includes sex workers. At MSNBC, Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal and Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality wrote, “No one’s life has been improved by the raid on Rentboy, and thousands of lives—a great many of them LGBTQ—are ruined by the criminalization of sex work every day.”
LGBTQ and human rights groups placed responsibility for this harm firmly with law enforcement. “The criminal charges against Rentboy.com by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are misguided and a terrible waste of resources,” the National Center for Lesbian Rights wrote in a statement.
“It is hard to see the harm done by Rentboy.com,” Grame Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Rights Program, wrote on the HRW website, “but it’s easy to see the harm done by the raid on society at large.”
Sex Workers’ Rights as Women’s Rights
Rewind to last summer, when federal agents shut down MyRedBook.com in a similar raid. As with Rentboy, the agents served warrants against the site administrators, charging them with violations of federal law as a result of operating a website where escorts placed their own advertisements. As in stories about Rentboy, news reports circulated somewhat surreal images of federal agents removing boxes of evidence. And as with Rentboy, advertisers on MyRedBook and those in community with them were displaced, losing peer-support networks they fostered through the website. The raid was a direct hit not only to their income, but to their ability to work collaboratively, share information, and support one another without fear of law enforcement surveilling or intervening.
But where some LGBTQ rights activists and organizations joined sex workers in condemning the raid on Rentboy, when sex workers spoke out against the MyRedBook raid—a site primarily used by women to advertise to men—women’s rights organizations said nothing. Where the attacks on Rentboy were understood by activists and organizations as attacks on the LGBTQ community, attacks on MyRedBook were met with comparative silence from feminists, along with cursory reporting and little editorial support from mainstream media.
Why this gap? It could be dismissed as just the result of ongoing “sex wars” within feminism, but there’s more to it than just differing opinions on sex work. Journalists look to feminists as authorities on sex work—something feminists have played into, often to the exclusion of sex workers themselves. This is how “feminists” and “sex workers” are often pitted against each other as discrete groups. As a result, the question of “taking sides” then trumps a struggle for rights, in the media and in the movement. We saw as much in the response to Amnesty International’s vote: the media dwelled on the “controversy” of feminist groups rather than on the actual issues at hand.
What’s lost in this reliance on seeing sex work politics only through “debates” and “sides” is where sex workers fit in. It also obscures the truth: Women’s rights groups have long held a range of perspectives on sex work and sex workers’ rights. In 1973, for example, the mainstream National Organization for Women passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of prostitution. But that was by no means a unilateral decision: In No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, scholar Stephanie Gilmore notes the diversity of approaches NOW chapters took on the subject. Some San Francisco NOW members were members of COYOTE, founded by Margo St. James as the first American prostitutes’rights organization. (The term “sex work” would not be adopted until the end of the 1970s,after its coinage by sex worker Carol Leigh.) Kansas City and Dallas NOW members were also notably active in COYOTE, engaging in legal advocacy and contributing to its national newsletter, Coyote Howls.
By contrast, New York’s NOW members, like author Susan Brownmiller, promoted the idea that prostitution was intrinsically a form of violence against women, and that men who buy sex should be harshly punished. Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC and NOW New York State, continues this stance today, most recently opposing the Amnesty International decision. Terry O’Neill, national NOW president, also opposed Amnesty’s sex work stance.
Some feminist groups, like the international movement for Wages for Housework and their American chapters, have also stood with sex workers in the past and continue to do so. (I was part of one such effort, I should note, when on staff in 2010 at the Third Wave Foundation—now Third Wave Fund—we issued a collective statement in the wake of attacks on the online sex trade.) There are also many individual American feminist activists, writers, and community organizers who support the rights of sex workers, who may lack the power to issue organizational statements or to shape advocacy campaigns that influence media narratives.
Still, when it comes to standing against law enforcement crackdowns on sex workers, or supporting sex workers’ rights, silencefrom the overwhelming majority of feminist organizations is the norm. This exclusion of sex workers’ rights from feminism is supported by a range of feminist groups, not only those who explicitly oppose sex work.
There are a few reasons for this, feminist writers and organizers told me.
Some stem from what’s understoodas conflict within organizations, where silence is seen as a “neutral” ground. “I was involved in NOW between 2002 and 2012. I didn’t speak publicly in support of decriminalizing sex work until well after I had resigned from my position as a national officer in 2012,” Erin Matson told me. She’s now the co-founder and co-director of the direct action group Reproaction.
“From the perspective of someone who used to be on the inside of an establishment organization,” Matson continued, “I can say there was enormous pressure not to reopen old controversies that I was told had nearly split the organization in two. Literally I was trained to say things in media interviews/public speaking appearances like, ‘there are two sides to that question’ and avoid taking a stand. I was taught that was what ‘leadership’ meant in a divided organization; to silence myself, or be responsible for driving more members away.”
In turn, this silence can create a culture of confusion and exclusion, especially for newcomers. “I’m a third-wave feminist without the gender studies credentials,” Katie Klabusich, freelance writer and host of The Katie Speak Show on Netroots Radio, told me. “I have approached established feminist spaces—places where people from mainstream, well-known organizations and talking heads gather—without preconceived biases. What was initially surprising and is challenging to navigate as an untethered feminist is the open hostility toward sex workers in mainstream, corporate, ‘white feminism.’ It’s challenging to call out for some (I do it anyway) because it can cut ties and close doors. You can’t be sure where the hostile people are and they swarm to discredit people who support sex workers. I don’t understand where the solidarity gap comes from with feminists and sex workers.”
Nicole Cliffe, co-editor of The Toast, told me she’s “a feminist who supports sex work.” She recalled her part in “discussions of sex work legality that solidify very quickly among generational lines, obviously with a handful of exceptions on either side, and it is almost impossible to convince some older, otherwise fantastic women that being pro-sex workers isn’t some nonsense cooked up by men that young dummies like me have bought, hook line and sinker.” Sex work, she says, “is a job, and a job that the vast majority of studies suggest is substantially safer for all when it’s decriminalized.”
“For me, I came to support sex worker rights because my belief in bodily autonomy means including women’s right to be a sex worker by choice,” freelance writer and feminist activist Lauren Rankin told me. “Honestly, it’s really not hard to say that. It shouldn’t be. For mainstream feminist organizations who are trying to appeal to those in power, taking a stance in support of sex workers may be too much of a risk. (When I say ‘those in power,’ I mean those who occupy patriarchal positions of power. In the case of sex workers, that would mean police officers, conservative legislators, overzealous or sexist prosecutors, or those who occupy a role in power in the prison-industrial complex more broadly.) But we should never make decisions about where we stand as feminists based on what those in power want. That’s how we know we’ve gone astray.”
It will be “a serious black mark on the feminist movement,” Rankin continued, “if we can’t get past this and support the human rights of sex workers. It’s great that independent feminist activists support it, but without structural and organizational support, it won’t be enough.”
Feminism and Rentboy
Even as feminist organizations have remained relatively absent on sex workers’ rights, feminist analysis and action goes on. On the Rentboy raid in particular, writers and commentators have approached the story with a nuanced feminist read on sexuality and gender. They pointed out that media condemning the Rentboy raid was not without its sexist over-simplifications, particularly when contrasted with previous narratives about women sex workers.
At the sex worker-run blog Tits and Sass, Morgan M. Page observed that the media depiction of sex workers affected by the raid on Rentboy was still drawn from law enforcement’s own gendered narrative about sex work. “Male sex workers and the largely male third parties who advertise their services are … ‘running a racket,’ a ‘global criminal enterprise,’ according to the press release. They are positioned as having agency in their lives and thus are not in the pitiable condition of exploited cis women.”
To that end, “The Times board advanced the notion that the men using the site—on both the buying and selling side—were rational actors who were victimized only by hectoring law enforcement,” Lily Burana wrote for The Cut. “Leaving aside the faulty assumption that all men who professionally service other men are gay, a question emerges. Why can’t the issues concerning female providers be presented so pragmatically?”
As it stands, the burst of reactive statements and quick-hit media responses, promising as they may sound to activists, are not the same thing as a lasting movement.Some activists have raised concerns that the recent calls for support of sex workers’ rights from LGBTQ organizations in the wake of the Amnesty decision and the Rentboy raid might not amount to much. “It’s not in their DNA to actually take up a cause like this,” Yasmin Nair, a writer and activist with Against Equality, told Truthout. For LGBTQ groups to support sex workers’ rights will mean more than denouncing a raid, but re-evaluating how much sex workers are understood as a core part of their movement.
“[T]he discourse in the Rentboy.com raid aftermath has been a unique ‘privilege’ granted to indoor male sex workers, one that we need to extend to all sex workers—of all genders and races—working in all circumstances,” Katherine Koster of Sex Workers’ Outreach Project USA and Derek J. Demeri of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance wrote at the Huffington Post. Responding to some gay commentators’ claim that the Rentboy raid was “the Stonewall of sex work,” they observed, “If this is the ‘Stonewall’ of sex work, let it not be the aftermath of Stonewall where a privileged minority colonizes and benefits off the work of society’s ‘others.’”
This is a historic part of movement struggles that feminist activists share with LGBTQ activists. Like some LGBTQ activists, some feminists have also pushed back on the mainstream of their rights movement for over-emphasizing white, cisgender, and middle-class concerns.
Still, on sex workers’ rights, few women’s rights groups have yet to arrive at even the statement-making level. NOW’s own 1973 vote is mostly a memory. Individual feminists, as well as those striking out in new organizations and with their own media, continue to feel pushback from the mainstream for their refusal to treat sex work as a matter of debate. Perhaps big-F mainstream feminism will never address the exclusion of sex workers’ rights from their organizations. It may not matter, if the rest of the movement just progresses.
Meanwhile, the criminal and political campaign against sex workers continues apace, “nothing but a knot in the ever-expanding dragnet of state violence,” as the same anonymous sex worker wrote at the Guardian. “It is population control by other means, and it does nothing to improve our lives or our safety.”
In his words, “we can’t afford to lose even one more tool that keeps us alive in this economy of violence.”