Argentinian sex workers’ union AMMAR-CTA members in a Women’s Strike event on March 8th.
I was a scab on Wednesday during the Women’s Strike. Too broke and disorganized as usual, still messily addicted, I ended up having to see a client. And sure, I wore red, and I limited my shopping to the South Asian woman-owned convenience store down the street, and I tried to allow the organizers’ reassurance to poor women that donning my ratty old Red Sox t-shirt would suffice as participation to soothe me. But I felt the usual radical white guilt I always feel on similar occasions like Buy Nothing Day, shame at the fact that I wasn’t part of this leftist ritual.
And I was irritated with myself for being ashamed. I knew this strike couldn’t realistically rely on all women joining it. Even if we were all ideologically inclined the same way, even if we could all afford to take the day off work, women aren’t all one class of worker, and that complicates things. The many schools forced to close anticipating the many teachers not coming in demonstrated that the action had real economic impact. But ultimately, its effect was symbolic, meant to show how much everyone relied on women’s paid and unpaid labor. I did wonder skeptically how many women employers had actually given their nannies and domestic workers a paid day off as organizers suggested, when usually, that domestic work is what allowed these women employers the time for political action in the first place. But I had to admit that the organizers had thought of multiple ways for women in many different economic circumstances to show solidarity.
Still, I was distrustful of these strike organizers, some of the same women behind the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration, the people who erased pro-sex workers’ rights language from their agenda document. Only ex-sex worker and acclaimed writer and editor Janet Mock’s public protest at the omission compelled them to add it back. But the pro-sex worker statement, once reinstated, had to keep company with the anti-trafficking discourse that had been written in in its stead. And how comfortable were young trans sex working women, like the teenaged Janet Mock was, supposed to be faced with a cadre of marchers who thought that wearing hot pink plush vagina hats as a symbol of their womanhood was an excellent idea? The pervasive transmisogyny and anti-sex worker sentiments within liberal feminism can be subtle in their manifestation, but it still feels like they’re always there.
But sex work was included in the strike organizers’ February announcement of the action in the Guardian as one example of the gendered labor women were striking from. (Maybe we have prison abolitionist sex worker ally Angela Davis, one of the many co-authors of the statement, to thank for that.) And this time, with a new coalition called the International Women’s Strike USA joining the March organizers in drafting it, sex workers were also included in the call for labor rights on the U.S. Women’s Strike platform. Trans women were acknowledged in that agenda multiple times as well. Many sex workers’ rights organizations around the world, from the U.S. PROS Collective to Ammar, had announced their intention to join the action. So why did I still feel bitter?
(Photo by Lane V. Erickson, via Shutterstock)
One of the more difficult aspects of living as a sex worker is never knowing exactly whom you can trust. Sometimes even allies can say offensive things or break confidentiality. In the wake of such indiscretions, it’s sex workers themselves who are left to navigate that broken trust and the increased vulnerability that comes along with it. I know this pattern leaves me wary, and it is perhaps this wariness that led many sex workers to mistrust the Give Forward fundraising campaign initiated on behalf of Heather, a sex worker in West Virginia who survived an attack at her apartment by a serial killer posing as a client.
The Give Forward campaign was launched shortly after the attack on July 18th by a man and a woman local to the area who knew each other, but who did not know Heather before Falls’ death. In an article on The Daily Dot by Mary Emily O’Hara from July 31st, the woman involved with the campaign, Laura Gandee, is quoted: “I got a text message from a friend telling me that Heather was hungry, upset, and feeling all alone in her apartment, and asking me if I could I take her some food and go comfort her…Of course I said I would, if she was willing to let me.” The article doesn’t reveal who this friend was, and while it implies that Heather was willing to let a stranger into her home after the trauma of Falls’ attack there, it does not indicate her comfort with Gandee’s visit in her own words. Gandee went on to say that, “I have spoken to a number of people who are part of a movement to ensure sex workers’ rights. At first they were very skeptical of our campaign because they couldn’t believe anyone from outside their circle would step up to help someone in their industry after a tragedy like this. I told them West Virginians are different.”
Gandee’s words conjure images of any number of rescuers sex workers have known, armed with ostensibly good intentions, and confident in their own efficacy in situations with which they have little familiarity. While many cultures in the United States and elsewhere, including those of West Virginia and other parts of the South, value loyalty and neighborliness in a crisis, it’s equally true is that sex workers often live in dual spaces of invisibility and hypervisibility. Many of us operate in the underground economy. Often, our friends and family don’t know about our work until we are arrested, outed, or otherwise thrust into the spotlight. Our work, and entire parts of our lives, are unknown to people one day and revealed the next to be judged by anyone with a half-formed opinion on sex work.
Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)
As a general rule, I absolutely love being called “adorable.” It reaffirms a lifetime of well-intentioned cheek pinches and makes me feel like I still look youthful as I approach 30. But being an adorable person is a very different thing than being part of an adorable movement. So when Annie Sprinkle took to Facebook to chastise sex workers who decided to “act up” at a conference called “Fantasies that Matter–Images of Sex Work in Media and Art,” and used condescending terms like “adorable” and “well intentioned” to describe sex workers who seek a voice in discourses about them, well, I got just adorably incensed.
This post was removed at the author’s request.
One of Melissa Gira Grant’s Carceral Feminist Cat memes at carceralfeministcat.tumblr.com
You can read part one of this dialogue here.
Emma Caterine: Red Umbrella Project has definitely encountered issues around pressure to conform to respectability politics from larger groups who fund or sponsor us in different ways. It is telling that I can’t mention many of the specifics for fear of re-opening old wounds. Particularly the issue of trafficked people, especially children, is presented as something we “have” to deal with, account for, and fight against despite the fact that it does not fall under our purview. I know not at all groups that work with sex workers restrict themselves from working with survivors of trafficking (i.e. Sex Worker’s Project) and I admire their work. However, I think the pressure to always bring up trafficking any time sex work is mentioned is definitely a part of respectability politics, even replicated by advocates who are or have worked in the sex trades. Thoughts and experiences?
Sarah Patterson: This is definitely an ongoing discussion within Persist. Since some of our founding organizers have had experiences in the sex trades that might be regarded as trafficking by some definitions of the term, a need to hold space for trafficking survivors has been of particular import to us. Also, health access for all people in the sex trades is part of our mission, so trafficking survivors are absolutely included as folks who can and should access our services. But how to do that, without playing into the binary-driven debate of trafficking survivors versus sex workers, rather than trafficking survivors and/or sex workers? Even using the phrase “trafficking survivors and sex workers” suggests that they are independent groups, which we know is not necessarily the case, based on individuals’ experiences or whose definition of the terms you are using.
Sometimes it seems as though any deviation from the heavy emotionality and highly negative filter given to most anti-trafficking language/semantics is read as “happy hooker” code. I aim for as much neutrality as possible when I speak about the sex trades, in an effort to be as inclusive of as many experiences as possible, but it seems as though even neutrality gets skewed to the “pro-sex work” side in such a highly ideological debate. I suppose therein lies the trap of it…