What Trump Means For Sex Workers

by Juniper Fitzgerald on November 14, 2016 · 12 comments

in Politics

(Image by Flickr user IoSonoUnaFotoCamera)

(Image by Flickr user IoSonoUnaFotoCamera)

It is not incidental that Prop 60 in California mandating condom use in porn was defeated in the same election cycle as marijuana was legalized in many states and Donald Trump ascended to the presidency. We are witnessing the inherent contradictions of a neoliberal marketplace, contradictions that should make sex workers and our allies reconsider our “my body, my choice” rhetoric. This rhetoric, like our new president-elect, is ultimately unsustainable. We cannot fight the ills of neoliberalism with neoliberal rhetoric. We, as sex workers and labor rights advocates, must reconsider our individual-centered framework for one more structural.

It is no longer enough to talk about individual choice or populism. It is no longer appropriate to support a libertarian insurrection, even while that insurrection fights for sex workers’ rights. The rights of bodily autonomy gained from our allegiance with libertarian parties don’t do jack shit in the face of mounting hate crimes. They don’t do jack shit for all those arrested sex workers in the Global South forced to toil in sweatshops, making all the whips and ball gags we in the North use as evidence of our “liberation.” It is time for sex workers and our allies to adopt an anti-imperialist, anti-individualistic mindset.

I know this will upset the sensibilities of many vocal sex workers who claim that a right to privacy and individual autonomy eclipses “communist” collectivism. Despite libertarians’ claims that their political model is value neutral, it is most certainly a normative philosophy, one which makes ethical judgments. But sex working libertarians and their allies tend to only pay attention to the bodily autonomy and individualism promised by this political philosophy, a concept of individualism that Donald Trump shares. This is perhaps why many so-called libertarians now unapologetically boast support for our President-elect.

And that’s why I call fucking bullshit. Bullshit—to everyone who refuses to acknowledge the interconnectedness of bodies; bullshit—to any sex worker or ally who voted for bigotry, silence, or violence on Tuesday; bullshit—to any populist fury that scapegoats entire ethnic and racial groups in the name of “freedom.” And even in the wake of significant gains for sex workers in California, I call bullshit on any labor rights ethos centered entirely on “choice.”

Neoliberalism was never going to save us. (Image by Carol Leigh)

Neoliberalism was never going to save us. (Image by Carol Leigh)

Indeed, having one particular body means very little in terms of ethics in a global culture where the interconnectedness of bodies matters. What’s good for one body may ultimately hurt another, thus the paradox of individual choice. After all, “choice” evokes a very particular intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, and body. Cambodian women forced to choose between staying in prison indefinitely on prostitution-related charges or sewing in H&M sweatshops are probably not afforded the same kinds of choices as college-aged American girls who join burlesque troupes for purposes of “sexual liberation.” And if our choices as Western people ultimately ensure the continued abuse of laborers in the Global South, can we really defend those choices? If we, as Western people, demand a “right” to the consumptive practices that have become integral to the many neoliberal presentations of self that are packaged and sold to us, despite their global impact, are we really toting a progressive ethics?

On the surface, Trump’s domestic policy includes bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Great! Wonderful! Long live the working class! But as economist Peter Goodman stated in the New York Times on Thursday, “A rupture of trade […] is likely to hit these industrial [working-class] communities hardest.” The economic devastation of working class folks will have far reaching and obvious implications for sex workers across the globe. You know all those lavishly wealthy clients you see, those reckless investment bankers who are immune to financial crises and pay you in solid gold? Yeah, me neither.

If economics and imperialism are the structural concerns affecting sex workers under a Trump presidency, a debauched, white supremacist, and patriarchal “morality” is our cultural and social concern. Trump is the incarnation of the problem of individualism—when an individualistic marketplace mentality intersects with bigoted cultural values, you get tons of legalized weed but no health care. You can fuck bareback on screen, but good luck convincing a courtroom that sex workers actually can get raped. You can sell your wares in a legal brothel that boasts “grab her by the pussy” specials, but if you need or want an abortion, forget about it.

Radical feminist structural critiques trump (sorry) so-called sex-positivism or “choice” feminisms because, as Tits and Sass contributor Giulia Abrami states, “choice will never be a matter of pure desire.” If we don’t acknowledge our place within a white supremacy or how that structure influences both sex and labor, we tacitly apologize for the rise in racist hate crimes following the election. White supremacy is a historical institution that organizes everything, from the 53% of white women who sided with bigotry on the 8th in hopes that they, too, could get a piece of the pie; to legal brothel workers rejoicing over Trump’s election. Ignoring white supremacy as a structure is part of the neoliberal falsehood of free choice. And sex and labor are included in this fraudulent model of choice. After all, sex and labor do not exist in a vacuum. Nothing does.

As sex workers and labor rights advocates, we can either fight on the platform of bodily autonomy and individual rights or one of collectivism. The former will only ever defer to the established doctrine, whatever it happens to be at any historical moment. And our established doctrine in the United States at this particular historical moment is one of racism, sexism, violence, and fear, all thinly veiled in working class discourse.

Actually, Trump represents an uprising of the very status quo he claims to oppose. The right to individualism, the right to a particular brand or a branding of self, the right to perform the spectacle—no matter the cost to other autonomous bodies, including sex workers in the Global South and women of color more generally—has become more important than any overhaul of the structures that oppress us all. In short, Americans have demonstrated their allegiance to charisma and brand over actual people, which neither benefits working class people or sex workers. Neoliberalism is not pro-sex worker; neither is a fascist demagogue.

As fellow sex worker Kimberlee Cline wrote in a text to me this week, with a message which all white Tits and Sass readers should heed, “All we can do now is support our communities, organize, and brace ourselves. And by ‘organize,’ I mean do whatever the fuck black and brown women tell us to do. Their votes were consistent. We—white women—have catching up work to do. And it’s bound to get worse before it gets better.”

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda Brooks November 14, 2016 at 10:30 am

I think you’re grossly overthinking the issues. From what I’ve seen of sex workers who are thrilled by Trump’s win, it’s all about race. They’re white and believe the racist shit that Trump has been spewing. They hate Obama and blame him for their slow business (nevermind that Obama saved the American economy and it has become quite strong in the past year; their business woes are not reflective of the economy at large). These are the same sex workers who call BLM protests “race wars” and that if violence wasn’t involved, then it wasn’t rape.

This isn’t even a libertarian thing, it’s a deep ignorance that Trump tapped into. It’s quite amazing as sex workers voted against their own interests, apparently without a second thought; without the slightest notion that Trump may not be good for them or their fellow sex workers (obviously they could care less about their non-white, American or immigrant fellow sex workers).

Though I don’t think any of the sex workers I mentioned are activists. Which is actually a bad thing because it means they won’t be reached, their minds won’t be opened, and they will continue to vote against the interests of sex workers (not to mention large swaths of the general population), heedless of the harm they help cause. They’re part of the community of US sex workers by default, and make up a significant percentage, but I don’t think the very real and broad schism is being addressed here. It never has been and now this is the result.

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J-J November 14, 2016 at 10:45 am

Sorry, but nope.

I fought long and hard for specifically individualistic reasons to have the right to earn money how I choose, where I choose, and not suffer weirdo “but think of the global womyn sisterhood” types or “think of what an undead mythological Jewish person might think” types tell me what to do with my body (which is to say, as a sex worker. Took me literally a decade to finally settle in a fulldecrim jurisdiction)

You’ll take my individualism from me only if you pry it from my cold dead hands.

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Juniper Fitzgerald November 14, 2016 at 3:16 pm

I’ve not asked you to consider mysticism or sisterhood. I’ve demanded we all think deeply about consumption, it’s promise of identity, and the ridiculous notion that any of us exist in a vacuum.

I’m all for bodily autonomy. Obvs. But to say practices in the North don’t impact others is ridiculous. And that’s why the platform will inevitably fail. Not because bodily autonomy is bad. But because it’s not complex enough.

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EDW November 14, 2016 at 3:44 pm

The point of this essay is that Trump is about to rip your choices from your cold, dead hands– or, he would, if you were American– and that your individualistic ‘liberation’ does fuck all for the Black and brown people who are being targeted by our militarized police state, including many of your colleagues. Can’t say I’m surprised you won’t look past the limits of your own life when you post about Jesus being Jewish, as if that had any relevance here beyond dog whistle anti-Semitism. Shameful.

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Rick Pettit November 14, 2016 at 11:05 am

Thanks, Juniper. It’s far too late to pick the 1 or 2 rotten apples out of the crate, as they have spoiled the rest over the last 240 years. White women constitute the largest population group in the United States according to the 2014 census. I belong to the second-largest group, many of whom seem to be happy living in Dumbfuckistan, and trying to talk to even the most “open-minded” white man usually ends up in a pissing-up-a-rope exercise because they are not willing to accept America’s long-time adherence to racist and sexist values as criminal – they are “traditions”. It’s OUR fault, and although it’s not fair that you should have to clean up the mess we made, it’s probably the only way it will get done.

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@Skye2earth November 14, 2016 at 2:24 pm

Dear Tits n Sass,

Unfortunately, sex workers are rejected not only from the Right, but also from the Left. None other than the most prominent feminist in the US, Gloria Steinem, rejects the notion that sex workers are human beings with human rights. In fact, the Green Party rejects sex workers’ rights completely, as does the Democratic and Republican Parties. And it was a Democrat by the name of Kamala Harris who denied us decrim in San Francisco in 2008. And don’t even get me started on those radical feminists who get platforms and money precisely because they hate us. Those feminists who claim to care about us, but won’t lift a finger when we are imprisoned, raped, or lose our straight jobs when someone finds out about our sex work past.

The only group that even begins to accept sex workers are the Libertarians.

I am not a libertarian (because I believe social programs are necessary), but that is the camp we are forced in due to the rejection from the other camps. So why should we bend over backwards trying to please people who don’t want anything to do with us? As for me, I am not lifting one finger, or donating one red cent to any groups that do not accept full decrim for sex workers. And I recommend others reading this do the same.

SwopBehindBars.org is a good place for us to start our activism, and if we care about those in the Global South, we should help sex worker orgs there as well.

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Juniper Fitzgerald November 14, 2016 at 3:19 pm

Nothing I said conflicts with your standpoint, save siding with libertarians.

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Cathryn Berarovich November 19, 2016 at 7:49 pm

Nah, the far left generally accepts sex workers without question, particularly in anarchist circles, though a lot of communists are here for us too.
Radicals, real radicals, not the people who can spout theory without an ounce of praxis to back it up and adhere more to centrist norms than anything else, are here for us. Libertarians may be in theory, but trust and believe that they don’t care about us beyond their obsession with free and unregulated markets.

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Melissa Gira Grant November 14, 2016 at 4:16 pm

It’s important not to confuse Gloria Steinem or the DNC with the Left. It was Left feminists of all stripes who opposed Clinton in this election, too, some of them on the grounds that she has supported disastrous policies against sex workers. The Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson flubbed the only public statement he made on sex work and the law, in which he failed to come out in support of full decriminalization. All that is to say, what I see in this post isn’t a pitch for find the best political party to support sex workers’ rights, but to take the election of Trump as a moment to get very clear about what sex workers’ rights mean.

On that, this is what I originally posted on Facebook discussing Juniper’s post:

Over the last few years, along with a broader resurgence of left politics, the demands of the sex workers’ rights movement have also shifted (slowly, maybe too slowly, but loudly) away from individual demands for sexual freedom to encompass collective actions to ensure occupational health, labor rights, and freedom from criminalization for all sex workers. This shift picked up steam at the same time as I have stepped outside of formal sex worker organizing, as well as the informal online organizing that has come to dominate what many people think the movement is.

It’s in this context that the reporting and commentary I do is (mis)represented as activism. While I would push audiences to not seek my answers, but to look for answers in the collective demands of sex workers, I knew that they would find there conflicting demands. That some of those demands were couched in rhetoric and alliances I find to be fundamentally opposed to how I understand sex workers’ liberation from oppression – all beautifully broken down by Juniper Fitzgerald here at TIts and Sass. She names neoliberalism and libertarianism as obstacles to sex workers’ rights. She calls for this to be the moment that the movement recommits itself to collective liberation.

One challenge in having these conversations? How little we are prepared for them. Focused as it is on crisis much of the time, the sex workers’ rights movement has not had much space for political education. And what political education anyone may have coming into the movement, speaking of the US in particular, is not likely one that includes movement histories, of any movement. So I am cognizant of how this is a vocabulary or history not to be taken for granted. It is one that can be especially hard to come by in a crisis. But crisis is what this movement knows how to move in, or has had to move in.

In this moment, I would offer this challenge: can more sex worker rights’ activists consider the interconnectedness of the oppression faced by people in the course of their sex work with the oppressions they face in all parts of their lives – to begin to understand the privilege they bring to their sex work, the protection their whiteness affords them, their citizenship affords them, their lack of a criminal record affords them? And what needs to be built in order to institutionalize that recognition? Is it a bail fund? Is it a drop-in or workers’ center? A legal aid project? Teach-in’s? Housing collectives? What networks of care are demanded? I could come up with a thousand needs to be met. I am just as concerned with the spirit of liberation that must drive any of them. I don’t think it is a secret that I find it hard to support any sex work project that doesn’t address criminalization and doesn’t center antiblack racism and misogyny (including transmisogyny) in the oppression of sex workers.

I don’t think the answers are in just surviving, especially not now, or in patching wounds. So many of us are showing up to this already hurting, already distrustful, already in conflict. The answers will be found in working on how we show up, fully, and how we commit to our freedom together.

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Carol Leigh November 15, 2016 at 3:46 am

Great job with this piece, so thanks! I am still in a daze about the election, but yes, that is an interesting inquiry about sex worker politics and libertarianism and neoliberalism. You give us a lot to think about. I have had lots of fantasies about the sex worker movement in the US going more towards the left. I never hear sex worker activists address that directly, the conflicts between left neoliberal philosophies… although there is an awareness that rhetoric/ideology about ‘choice’ (in this way) is problematic.
My main thought after the election about what the country needs (and now thinking it’s true for the sex worker rights movement) is more political education.

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Ellie December 18, 2016 at 12:11 am

One of Kamala Harris’s most repeated justifications for maintaining prostitution’s illegal status is that it encourages organized crime, and leads to slavery of women. She recently repeated this refrain in an appellate brief concerning sex work when she stated: “There is a government interest in preventing a climate conducive to violence against women and human trafficking, and preserving the public health.”

This rationale resonates with many Americans. The public assumes that sex workers have sexually transmitted infections, work under duress, and have limited personal agency. The mere suggestion of decriminalizing sex work (removing all criminal penalties surrounding the sale of consensual adult sex) elicits strong emotional reactions. Prohibitionists constantly remind us that “you wouldn’t want your daughter to be a prostitute.” Lines like these whip up emotions, and make it difficult for the public to weigh the evidence in a neutral light.

To take one example, the argument that decriminalizing sex work would be detrimental to public health is false. Statistics shows that in jurisdictions where sex work is decriminalized, such as Australia, the rate of STIs among sex workers is lower than that of the general public. Sex workers are more inclined to use condoms than civilians, and are more likely to get tested frequently, because their sexual health directly impacts their ability to earn a living.

The national dialogue concerning decriminalization is too emotionally charged, and leaves no room for the voices of actual sex workers. We need to stop spreading the same “what about the children” dribble, which is devoid of any logic, and instead focus on the facts. Let’s not be influenced by arguments that target our emotions. Let’s instead examine the evidence, and listen to what sex workers want. The public’s emotions should hold no stake in the question to decriminalize sex work.

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