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What Antis Can Do To Help, Part One: Aiding Those Still in the Industry

Image via Telegraph
Image via Telegraph

I am a sex worker who hates the sex industry. As an anti-capitalist, I hate all industries. It’s not quite as if I’d prefer another system in place of capitalism. If I had to describe my ideology in positive terms, I’d call it fatalistic socialism, which I define as the belief that socialism would be really nice if we wouldn’t inevitably fuck it up. (Maybe I’m a Voluntary Human Extinctionist.) However, just because I have no solution to the current state of affairs and happen to be a misanthrope of the highest degree, doesn’t mean I can’t keep my hate-boner for capitalism in general and the sex industry in particular.

I’m not alone in my hatred of the sex industry, of course. Sex work abolitionist feminists* (see note below) — or as they are often known, the Antis — are right up there with so many religious zealots, conservatives, liberals, anarchists, and ecofeminists in the anti-sex industry brigade. They’re known as “Antis” because they’re also anti-porn, anti-prostitution, and anti-sex work in general (and typically anti-kink, anti-transgender, and even anti-penetrative sex as well.)  A particularly perverse sort of second-wave radical feminists, Antis are a loose collection of mostly white, middle-class, able-bodied women from the Global North, the vast majority of who have never been in the sex industry.  Still, they make it their mission to eradicate the industry by “ending demand” for ALL sexual services, so as to free ALL women from coercive male sexuality.

I find plenty of their theoretical points (if not their attendant practical solutions) agreeable to my own ideology. The sex industry is about satisfying male sexual desire at the expense of female sexual desire. Its continued existence is predicated on the economic and sexual exploitation of women, particularly queer women, trans women, poor women, disabled women, and women of color.  But, just like I wouldn’t try to tear down capitalism and free all the “wage slaves” by burning down factories and leaving the workers jobless, I’m not going to destroy patriarchy and “save” myself and my fellow sex workers by scaring off—er, re-educating our sources of income. If sex work abolition succeeds, it will liberate millions of women (and men, third gender, and agender folks as well) right into homelessness.  Further, in the interim, advocacy for abolition results in the kind of social marginalization and shitty public policies that exacerbate the discrimination and violence we as sex workers face on a daily basis.

The Amsterdam Window Protest: The War Continues

Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)
Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)

On April 9th, over 200 Amsterdam sex workers and their supporters protested the closing of legal sex businesses in the Red Light District by the city council. The demonstration consisted of a march from the Amsterdam Red Light District to city hall, where the protesters handed a letter to the mayor demanding the reopening of their closed workplaces and the active participation of sex workers in the city’s policy regarding their jobs.

Project 1012

Amsterdam has closed down at least 109 windows already as part of Project 1012, an initiative to bring the number of legal window workplaces down by 40% from 476 to 284. Project 1012, named for the Red Light District area code, is a massive gentrification project aimed at ridding Amsterdam center of “low value” businesses like marijuana coffee shops and the windows.

Government officials consider closing down legal work locations for sex workers an effective measure to prevent trafficking because they believe these businesses to be “sensitive to criminal activity” (“criminogeen” in Dutch, a new word invented solely to justify this policy) simply because they are part of the sex industry. Ironically, even local police voiced a preference for reopening the windows in order to keep sex work legal and visible.

The demonstration, the first of its kind in the Netherlands, was facilitated by PROUD, a sex worker-led union that launched earlier this year. The letter they addressed to Mayor Everhard van der Laan, demanding that the city stop closing windows and reopen closed brothels, as well as actively include sex workers in the city’s sex work policy, was signed by nearly a thousand supporters, many of whom are Red Light District sex workers themselves.

The mayor dismissed the sex workers’ concerns by saying that “the war is over,” maintaining that the issue has already been concluded decisively. He asked the protesters, “You tell me in what other city sex workers can demonstrate in these numbers in the streets,” implying that sex workers should be grateful for the rights they already have. He also stated that the city had already decided to close down fewer brothels, though this policy decision was actually motivated by the city council’s desire to lower Project 1012’s 108 million euro budget.

SWOP-Seattle Battles Washington Legislation

image via SWOP-Seattle on Twitter
image via SWOP-Seattle on Twitter

The Seattle City Council’s unanimous vote to change the legal terminology for buying sexual services from “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation” is an example of the limits of the city’s politically progressive character. Seattle’s progressive leaders think it’s their mission to perpetuate the idea that sex workers are victims who need rescuing and eradicate the adult entertainment industry to stop violence against women.

There have been a shocking number of bills introduced in the Washington state legislature this session regarding sex work and human trafficking. The language in these bills synonymizes consensual adult sex work with trafficking, coloring all sex workers as victims and all sex work as victimization. Senate Bill 5041 goes so far as to say that prostitution is “modern day slavery.” The bills embrace the increasingly popular “End Demand” model and suggest such measures as giving local law enforcement the authority to seize clients’ assets if they are used in the crime of buying sex (e.g., confiscating their vehicles if they negotiate with street workers from them), increasing the penalty of soliciting a prostitute from a simple misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, and amending the state’s definition of human trafficking to include forced labor by “abuse of power, or abuse of position or vulnerability.” This vague language conflates sex work with trafficking and the bills as written would erase any remaining legal concept of sex workers’ individual agency.

These bills are a reaction to the trafficking hysteria pervading the country and Seattle in particular. Anti-trafficking groups in the area are more active than ever, hosting panel discussions and other public events, spreading misleading statistics and creating moral panic in concerned citizens. These groups fail to recognize that their efforts directly endanger consensual adult sex workers. They cannot conceive of anybody willingly choosing to do sex work.

Equality Now, Or Else?

Meena Seshu (via her twitter)
Meena Seshu (via her twitter)

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.”

Starting To Show Up: An Interview With SWOP National’s President, Savannah Sly

New chapter SWOP-Minneapolis honoring Dec 17th 2015 with a vigil. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)
New chapter SWOP-Minneapolis honoring Dec 17th 2015 with a vigil. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) is the most recognized name in sex workers’ rights advocacy in the U.S. Currently, they have over 25 chapters around the country, and a board of directors—SWOP National. The only requirements to be a chapter are that March 3rd (International Sex Worker Rights Day) and December 17th (International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers) are recognized in some way. To avoid outing and endangerment, SWOP does not require its members to identify as current or former sex workers, though the board’s president must always be an out sex worker herself.

Savannah Sly, SWOP National’s president, newly elected in the spring of 2015, e-mailed us about the mistake the SWOP National board felt they’d made not supporting Oklahoma City serial cop racist Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims more as an organization. This mistake highlighted long held bad feeling about SWOP among sex workers who felt the organization did not stand up for sex workers of color, survival sex workers, and other less privileged members of the community. SWOP National wanted to address the community publicly about their commitment to working on these problems. I asked Sly if I could interview her about the way the organization worked and its goal to be more inclusive. The following is an abridged version of our ensuing e-mail conversation: