Contemporary feminisms must include sex workers

The week before the Women’s March on Washington, coordinator for Sex Workers Alliance Ireland Kate McGrew noticed that the platform for the event no longer showed explicit support for sex workers’ rights: the words “in solidarity with the sex workers’ movement” had been edited to read, “those exploited for labor and sex.”

Hesitancy on the part of women’s rights activists to include sex workers in their definition of “women” is nothing new. Throughout history, sex workers have been repeatedly shut out of feminist movements. Only in the past few decades has the public begun to recognize sex workers’ rights activists groups, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, the Scarlet Alliance in Australia, in any significant way. But in a modern feminist context–one in which activists are largely striving to dismantle the notion that women can be sexual objects, but never sexual subjects–it is hard to understand how language perpetuating this very myth could end up in the platform of one of the largest protests in United States history.

By changing the phrase to passive voice and presenting “exploitation” as synonymous with “sex work,” the Women’s March team painted female sex workers as inherently powerless and submissive. The change makes it clear that, “‘The Women’s March only stands with people exploited for sex, not those abused and exploited by the state for having sex’” (Reason, “Women’s March Waffles on Sex-Worker Rights, Disinvites Women Who Oppose Abortion,” 01.17.2017) (emphasis Brown’s). The Women’s March team has yet to comment on the word change.

Eventually, after an online uproar, TV host and transgender rights activist Janet Mock, who was responsible for the initial statement, worked with the writers to return the original language to the platform (Mic, “Is the Women’s March on Washington Welcoming to Sex Workers?” 01.18.2017). Mock also spoke at the Women’s March, and verbalized fierce support for sex workers, as well as for transgender women of color and others who are disproportionately in danger under the Trump administration. Before the event, she tweeted, “‘Sex work is work. We must be free to make choices about our bodies, our lives. We must respect one another’s agency. Period’” (The Blaze, “Women’s March: Pro-Life Groups Not Allowed, but ‘Sex Workers’ Welcome?” 01.19.2017). She elaborated in a Tumblr post that she rejects the myth that sex workers are “selling their bodies” and that they inherently need to be saved. She went on to call out feminist movements for erasing sex workers from their efforts altogether, or unquestioningly equating their work with human trafficking.

Kate McGrew commented following the restoration of the original phrasing, “I actually cried for all of us sex workers…The feminist movement has been splintered for so long over this, I thought finally we are being recognized for what we are: women working according to our personal circumstances, often with very few resources” (The Blaze).

The incident motivated an outpouring of explicit support for sex workers’ rights from individuals and activist groups alike. A post on the Canada page for the Women’s March stated, “‘We, at Women’s March Washington-Canada do not support the removal of this language and apologize to anyone who was hurt by this’” (Mic). Many anti-Trump protesters used Twitter, Facebook and other social media to make it clear that they stood with sex workers unconditionally.

While the organizers of the Women’s March explicitly stated, “‘The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us–immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, and survivors of sexual assault,’” they notably left out those who willingly work within the sex industry (The Huffington Post, “The Women’s March on Washington Needs to Better Embrace Sex Workers,” 01.19.2017). This is not only a glaring oversight, but also a markedly hypocritical one. Sex workers, who are inevitably at greater risk under the Trump administration by virtue of their industry, are overwhelmingly women, and many are undocumented immigrants, queer or transgender.

Additionally, nearly all workers rely on independent contractors, and therefore rely on low-cost health insurance provided under the Affordable Care Act or clinics such as Planned Parenthood who serve uninsured patients on a sliding scale (Rolling Stone, “How Sex Workers are Fighting Back Against Trump,” 11.23.2016). A platform that fervently supports accessible health care for women and low income people and advocates improved sexual health care is remiss to leave out one of the communities that will be most severely affected by the potential elimination of these already scarce resources.

Whether or not mainstream feminist movements have chosen to include sex workers in their cause, communities within the industry have used a variety of methods to mobilize against Trump.

Leading up to the election, a small number financially well-off women within the industry began setting aside a portion of their income to funnel into a number of sex-positive causes. Ari, a New York-based social worker and escort, reported that Republican clientele kept the city’s sex workers particularly busy in the week following the election (Rolling Stone). Many of these workers subsequently redirected a portion of the money they earned from their Trump-supporting clients into causes such as Planned Parenthood and Standing Rock protests. Others are organizing special fundraising shifts at strip clubs, which they advertise in Facebook groups and online forums.

A large portion of the sex industry, however, does not have the disposable income necessary to fight back against Trump. Therefore it is necessary for NGOs, feminist activist groups and individuals to champion the rights of sex workers alongside queer women, women of color, differently abled women, low-income women, Muslim women and victims of sexual assault. Although a fraction of sex workers are in fact entirely autonomous, they cannot reshape the industry if they stand alone.

Inclusion of all women does not mean taking a uniform approach to each individual issue. While feminist efforts must fundamentally be intersectional and all-encompassing, it would be remiss to expect our visions of change to ever be identical. In fact, a multifaceted issue, such as that presented in the Women’s March platform, necessitates a multifaceted approach.

It is important to remember that millions of women, as well as men and children, are, in the words of the Women’s March team, “exploited for labor and sex.” Acknowledgment of the women who voluntarily work in the sex industry does not mean dismissing the victims of exploitation, sexual assault and human trafficking; a greater understanding of all sides of the industry is potentially beneficial to both autonomous and nonautonomous workers. If “pop feminism” continues to gloss over sex workers’ rights because it is uncomfortable or foreign or inconvenient, we can never truly make progress. Audre Lorde once said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Empathy for the plight of sex workers in all pockets of the industry is crucial to not only their futures, but ours as well.

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