For our second installment of Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, we’d like to remind you of a few salient facts about Hillary Clinton and her relationship to Somaly Mam, after the formal launch of Clinton’s second presidential bid on Sunday.
While Western-led feminist groups such as Equality Now continue to conflate consensual sex work with trafficking and violence, where do sex workers themselves fit into concepts of feminism and gender equality, especially if they live in countries like India?
“When you are coming from a place like India, you have the whole caste system, stigma and discrimination to deal with. The paradigm becomes all inclusive. I wouldn’t talk about equality, I would talk about equity. You cannot talk about equality when you have spaces so filled with unequal distribution of wealth and privileges,” suggested Meena Seshu, founder of SANGRAM, a women’s organization in India that supports sex worker self-organizing, when asked her thoughts on the subject.
Seshu, who also works closely with the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), considers herself a feminist, despite run-ins with feminist groups in India who labeled her a trafficker: “In the initial stages, they weren’t willing to accept that sex work is not violence. If you are looking at sex work as violence, that stops the conversation with sex workers. Sex workers were not willing to talk about violence against them with feminists. They are against being victimized. With feminists, their narrative is about the victimization of women. Sex positive feminists were not willing to recognize the exchange of sexual services for money as part of sex positivism.”
In time, Seshu worked around these obstacles by simply listening to sex workers and supporting their work as a labor movement. She had previously worked with Bidi workers’ (cigarette rollers) labor movement and saw potential in helping sex workers organize: “So our fight was just to give sex workers a voice. The way we did this was to be very humble and say ‘look, we don’t know a damn thing.’ Previously, marketing targeted the client to use a condom. Self-determination worked, giving sex workers condoms worked.”
SANGRAM, founded in 1992, is so successful that it was listed as a best practice model by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on HIV prevention for working with sex workers. However, the situation became complicated when USAID stepped up its commitment to the the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Pledge, which required organizations receiving funds from USAID to sign a statement showing they did not “promote prostitution.” Seshu could not comply, as supporting sex work as legitimate labor was the backbone of SANGRAM. She declined the Pledge in 2005 and made plans to return funds for that year. What she did not count on was having her name brought up by former House Representative Mark Souder as a trafficker: “I started freaking out. Trafficking is a criminal offense. It was very, very messy and it lasted many months. The department in the U.S. that combats trafficking had labeled me a trafficker.”
Are California Republicans around just to make us appreciate how classy Philadelphia Republican strip club-themed ads are? Maybe! This little piece of work must be a parody, because there’s no way something like this gets taken seriously for a second. They’ve edited the face of LA city council member/congressional candidate Janice Hahn onto the body of a stripper surrounded by Black men who are holding guns and singing “Give me your cash, bitch/So we can shoot up the street/Give me your cash, bitch/So we can buy some more heat.” This is apparently based on her support for a Scared Straight-style program that worked with former gang members.
When I make porn I find it to be a positive experience. That is based on a wide range of factors that I’ve spoken and written aboutin depth over the past eight years. For one, trans women’s sexuality is greatly misrepresented in media and it’s important to me to be able to create representations of sexuality on my own terms. I also take great care to address and incorporate ethics into every level of production. My porn includes Audre Lorde references. My porn has been nominated for and won several feminist awards. My porn includes complex discussion of police violence, immigration politics, post-traumatic stress, and other social issues.
Yet, inevitably, I encounter individuals who point at my work and declare that it is objectifying on face—typically without having even watched it. Then they demand that I come up with a thesis worthy defense of my claim that making my porn is a positive thing. Anything I’ve already said or written in defense of my work is ignored. Any reasoning or argumentation about my informed decision to work in porn is lost. My argument is simply represented by my detractors as “because I chose it.”
Choice feminism is the idea that anything that any woman personally chooses to do is a feminist act. The most commonly given example of this argument is that choosing to do sex work—or to take pole dancing classes, be in porn, sext, fill in the blank—is empowering simply because a woman has chosen to do it and criticisms against perpetuating objectification are irrelevant.
The problem here is that in most cases women are simply trying to point out that they know their own lives and are making an informed decision. They are not claiming that any woman’s exercise of her agency is by definition a feminist act, but that denying a woman her agency is an inherently un-feminist act— especially coming from someone who doesn’t have a shared understanding of the context of that decision in her life.