There’s a lot of stigma around sex work. Sex workers have STIs. They’re drug addicts. They’re trafficking victims without agency or choice. They’re unfit mothers. They’re uneducated. And the accusations and assumptions go on and on and on. Instead of trying to understand the social and personal factors that go into a decision to engage in sex work, our culture likes to vilify and victimize sex workers for the way they make their money.
But, like the rest of us, sex workers are so much more than their profession. They’re artists, activists, advocates, mother’s, authors, poets, and feminists. For many, sex work is a conscious, capitalist choice.
Now, to say this, I do not want to discredit victims of sex trafficking or forced prostitution. Each sex worker has a different level of agency and empowerment in their work. When I say sex worker, I’m referring to autonomous sex workers, not those who have no choice. It is very important to understand that both exist and should be approached differently.
My Experience With Sex Workers
Last year I had the opportunity to work with a feminist sex worker organization in Buenos Aires called AMMAR. We worked in favor of sex workers needs in three different capacities. The first was to provide services to sex workers that the government didn’t provide because their work was essentially criminalized. The second was to advocate for an expansion of labor rights within law. The third was to end the discrimination and stigma experienced by sex workers on a daily basis from the police and the public. Other than a few staff members, the entire organization was made up of sex workers who wanted to take ownership of their narrative and help themselves and their fellow sex workers. So they worked day and night, on top of their regular work, to attend conferences and meetings, speak with the media, hand out condoms, and collect information about the needs and experiences of the many diverse sex workers throughout the city and nation.
To me, this was really inspiring. The way this diverse group of women loved and respected each other was really lovely and unique. In a world that has so much judgement for them, they formed a community of support and advocacy. When I started attending planning meetings for the March 8th International Women’s Strike I began to understand why.
To understand the following explanation, you have to know a bit about the Buenos Aires feminist movement. It is truly extraordinary. It’s big and rebellious and passionate and seeking revolution. Although its made up of diverse people and groups, most major topics are agreed upon by all, and if you’re not on board, you’re getting pushed off the bus. The best example is their current fight for abortion rights (abortion is currently illegal), which is by far the most important modern feminist issue in Argentina. There was debate about this topic for years, but now that it’s been decided on, you’d be ridiculed by other feminists if you showed up to an event and didn’t support abortion rights. The topic of sex work, on the other hand, has yet to reach consensus and each side is unyielding in their position. On one side, you have abolitionists who see sex work as an extension of patriarchy and believe all sex workers are victims, regardless of what sex workers say. On the other side, you have those who are pro-labor rights, who argue that sex work needs to be legalized so sex workers have access to social security, housing, healthcare, and greater legal protections. Each planning meeting, members of AMMAR would plead their case for greater support from other feminists, and each meeting they were yelled at by abolitionists.
In my opinion, abolitionism is a very old school and anti-sex way of looking at sex work. Abolitionists would rather silence sex workers than listen to them and respect their agency. Fourth wave feminism respects women’s decisions about what they do with their bodies, how they choose to make their money, and reserves judgement about how these decisions affect their worthiness as mothers, citizens, women and feminists. And the truth is, sex workers need the support of feminists because they have a huge fight to change the way the world sees them and their work and they need all the help they can get.
How Feminists Can Be Allies to Sex Workers
So, in my experience, how can we, as feminists, best be allies to sex workers? Honestly the answer is as simple as they come: LISTEN.
Sex workers are educated about their situation. They know their experiences. And across the world, they’re becoming more and more organized in local, national, and transnational advocacy organizations. There are so many resources out there made by sex workers to educate the public. So educate yourself by doing your research and reading documents in their own words.
Other than listening, show up for them. Publicly oppose the FOSTA/SESTA law, which takes away life-saving online resources to sex workers such as online personal advertisements, safe payment methods, and chat rooms dedicated to talking about dangerous clients. Show up to events and rallies such as the December 17 International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Call out abuses on social media. A lot of your friends probably haven’t ever thought about the stigma and discrimination sex workers experience.
Finally, don’t judge. See sex workers as fellow feminists with something to teach you. You don’t know their experiences or why they made the decision to enter sex work. Sex workers are a heterogeneous group with different backgrounds and experiences. Whether or not a sex worker does drugs or is HIV positive has nothing to do with her right to respect, healthcare, and labor protections. Remember, you should see yourself as an ally, not a savior or judge.
Ending stigma against sex workers starts with feminists. So educate yourself, educate your friends, and get yourself on board in favor of legalizing sex work.
Redtrasex is a transnational sex worker organization in Latin America and the Caribbean. They put out many reports in English and Spanish about sex work-related issues.
This toolkit, created by SWOP-USA, is made for allies interested in the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers and has a lot of good statistics and information.
The Red Umbrella Fund and Global Network of Sex Work Projects both have great resource pages with a ton of reports written by sex workers.
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