All activism is comprised of a diversity of tactics because the movement is composed of people who possess a diversity of skills, talents, experiences, enthusiasms, and challenges to offer any movement as a whole.
To speak of human rights activism as though there were one top secret bunker where a Stalinist army were meeting to carry out orders from a central commander is operating under a fallacy. There is no bunker. There is no commander. There are people coming together in their own contexts to respond to the issues that they are experiencing as the most pressing to the best of their ability at any given moment. Solidarity is a relationship between a lot of people. Trying to manage things between two people is fantastically difficult, trying to maintain a functional relationship across hundreds and thousands and millions of people spread across the globe poses a great number of difficulties.
Sex worker activism is a long war because sex work, substance use, and mental health are some of the most confounding issues to fight for because they exist on totally fluid ground and are considered low hanging fruit for law enforcement. Sex workers often fall into a nexus of oppression, coming to the work either because of serious limitations placed upon them for their class, color, gender, or sexual orientation. There are so many layers and intersections to be considered. Case in point, the overlap between vigils for sex workers and trans*gender women is exceptionally large.
Sex work activism is not an aside from any movement. It’s a form of activism that picks up many of the messes left behind from oppression. It is not as simple as informing the public about sex work and putting faces to identities or confronting the stigma of the middle classes. It’s also about addressing emergency situations like homelessness, addiction, mental health, childcare, and an overall supportive space to remind sex workers themselves that underneath those messages that murdering us for fun is a legitimate act we are worthy of dignity and respect.
It’s hard to move activism forward when there is so much heaped onto a day where there are only messages of marginalization, only messages of hate, active raids and campaigns by law enforcement, removal from families and neighborhoods, and friends and allies hide you down in the basement when company comes over. When people get angry at you, their ability to make your life immensely difficult with legal or indirect violence through exposure.
Sex work activism does need people working with the mainstream. Without a doubt, this is vital.
Sex work activism also needs people to address emergency situations that sex workers are facing right now. Sex workers need posters, bus ads, media representation, and lobbying and sex workers need therapists to help with mental health issues right now. Sex workers need tech assistance and allies to help deliver ideas and messages digitally to a global audience and they also need dental or medical care right now. Sex workers need to build connections with non-sex workers and sex workers need to lobby within their own industries to promote the message we are worthy of being treated with dignity.
There is no singular issue that “the sex worker movement” needs to be addressing over any other. Some people have better skills in finding people to provide medical, dental, mental health, tech support, housing support, nutrition, or addiction counseling support. Some people have skills in organizing art and expression just to bring sex workers together to reduce a sense of isolation. Some people have skills at media training. Some people have skills at just being present for other sex workers when they need someone to listen about a bad day. Some people are excellent at running public awareness campaigns.
And we need all of them. And we need you.
Cynicism contributes nothing. Cynicism is not criticism. If an organization website demonstrates a need for a web manager or designer, then they probably need someone to step up and offer a makeover because in sex worker world shit is blowing up. When you’re dealing with raids, active political campaigns aimed against your organizing, the inability to so much open a bank account or hire business services because of the “adult nature of your work”, worrying about violence, worrying about renting an apartment or studio without a documented income, and the millions of other snags that crop up everyday in the mundane tasks of a day in the life of sex work can often take precedence over a website re-haul.
Spending time on art and sparkles is not frivolous when most sex workers are still so underground they won’t come up to work on activism out of fear of reprisal and recruitment and retention in activist efforts is necessary. Some sex workers aren’t ready to be political because that’s not where they are yet. Some sex workers just need community and friendship before they’re ready to take on tactical or organized action.
I do think that social media “slactavism” is also making a huge difference. Even if a pornstar does nothing on twitter but promote their sex scenes and their career along with posting pictures of their cats, their taco dinners, their broken shoes, their parking tickets, their good days at work, their bad days at work, their romances, their friendships, and how much time they really spend in yoga pants watching television is infinitely more humanizing than any of the producer organized publicity. I think it’s vital to constantly mix those spheres together. It reminds folks that porn is just a group of people making movies. Some of the people making these movies are assholes who don’t treat their cast or crews very well. There are lots of bosses who are exploitative assholes and they should all get called out for their behavior from XXX to Baby Gap.
Even if sex workers speaking at “sex positive” events seems like cheering to the pep squad, what it is often hugely important for is giving sex workers a supportive space to start articulating their experiences out loud where they audience is not heckling, degrading, or attacking them as speakers. Speaking as a sex worker in a sex positive space is radically different from speaking as a sex worker in a space of general inquiry. When I spoke at Yale University, my hosts cautioned me REPEATEDLY not to take my clothes off during my panel with Gail Dines and when I noticed they were announcing everyone’s academic credentials but mine I offered them up only to get the response, “oh, we didn’t think to ask you.” These acts of microaggression and stigma are things you have to compensate for before giving a talk. You have to be at least 2x as centered, focused, and prepared from non-sex speakers because they’re treated as intellectual humans from the get go.
Speaking in sex positive arenas allows to you focus on becoming a better speaker rather than how to fortify your personal defenses in front of an audience that literally makes the easy assumption that you’re the “side show freak,” and not “an invited speaker.” Questions from a sex positive audience are more likely to be framed from the subject matter and a concerted willingness to accept even the basic premise that sex is not the enemy. You can start to move on to developing stronger arguments for what is out loud and off the cuff.
Harm reduction work has a vital component of accepting what’s happening in front of you. Sex work involves having loads of shit heaped onto you by everyone. It’s imperative to recognize that sex worker activism has no singular form and that cynical debasement of more artistic measures demonstrates a frustration with the fact that sex workers are personally impacted by stigma in very real ways. Activists will invariably disappoint their own movements and that’s why they must be supported to step up when they have something of their own to add and to step back when it’s time for them to take care or check themselves.