(WOMENSENEWS)–Why would sex positive feminists want to halt the progress toward human rights for sex workers? I believe that the answer is that sex positive feminists (those who advocate for women’s sexual freedom) do not intend to create barriers for the achievement of sex workers’ rights, but that there are ways in which this happens anyway.
And though it is frustrating to have something that you thought was good, that has your best intentions behind it, pointed out as being potentially or actually harmful, it is crucial to think about the ways we can make our umbrellas bigger and not smaller. Even if sometimes this may come at the personal cost of rerouting your values.
I am a former sex worker. My several years of work experience in the business included escorting, sensual massage, porn, fetish work and working as a phone girl at a dungeon. During much of the time I was working, I also engaged in activism in support of sex workers’ rights. In particular, I was an editor at $preadmagazine for three years and I organized art shows, performances and other public events to raise funds for the magazine.
Over the last few years, I have dug deeper into providing peer support and trainings in media, storytelling and legislative advocacy for people in the sex industry via my work at the Red Umbrella Project. Through this work, I have been critically examining the ways that the sex worker rights community talks about what we do and what we want to see change. I have been looking hard and close at who this “we” of the sex worker rights community is, and I have been listening hard to people who feel excluded by that “we.”
Sex Positive Feminism
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was a fierce defender of sex positive feminism.
When I was working in the sex industry, sex positivity was an important value of mine, one that in some ways gave me the skills to cope with a physically and emotionally demanding job.
However, the more I step back from that time in my life, and the more I am willing to look critically at things I have held dear, the more obvious it is to me that my experience of sex positivity and the sex industry are not anywhere near universal, they are just the most visible to me, because I fit the mold as described above.
The audience for this piece is very much my peers, people who have had experiences and privileges similar to mine. Beyond our circles, most of what I’ll write here is glaringly obvious, and in communities of color, for people with disabilities, as well as among trans women and men and other groups we aspire to but do not actively include, this is not news.
The sex worker rights movements in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have been, for the last 40 years, very entangled with feminist movements. Though there is, certainly, a history of disagreement between feminists and supporters of sex workers’ rights, there are also many feminists who support the rights of sex workers.
The phrase “sex work,” which first came into use in the late 1970s, has made its way into official channels and today is used by the United Nations. The feminist value of bodily autonomy, or the ability to choose what to do with one’s body, figures most prominently in feminist support for sex workers’ rights. The link with feminism in these geographic contexts aligns sex workers’ rights with the rights of usually white, cisgender (i.e., not transgender) women and often links it to reproductive rights and health.
Chain of Denial
This, however, creates a chain of denial–many feminists who focus on reproductive rights do not value the contributions of sex workers to their movement, and many sex worker rights advocates who focus on bodily autonomy do not value the particular issues faced by people who do sex work because of coercion or dire economic circumstances.
Or, perhaps a fairer way to put this is not that these things are not “valued,” but that there isn’t an active effort made to make space for a multitude of concerns. In action, this looks the same. And so, while sex positive sex workers focus on trying to get a seat at the table of reproductive rights, they simultaneously deny other people in sex work a space at their table.
Certainly, there are other global movements based around the rights of sex workers, though their cultural and activist histories are different and less rooted in feminism. The
Latin American sex worker rights movement is large and powerful, especially in places like Brazil and Argentina, and it is a working class movement that has been developed largely by street-based workers and uses aggressive tactics to ensure that their members’ voices are heard.
In India, there are sex worker rights groups that count thousands in their memberships, and for whom the process of collectivization is key to getting a response from state and national governments, particularly on the issue of access to unbiased health care. In other places in Asia, sex workers have organized alongside garment factory workers to ensure that their rights as workers are protected.
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Audacia Ray is the founder and director of the Red Umbrella Project, where she works to amplify the voices of people involved in the sex industry through media and advocacy trainings and a monthly storytelling series, the Red Umbrella Diaries.
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