Sex Worker Movement Building: What I’ve Learned From a Year of Professional Feminism

At the end of October, I celebrated one year of working full time at the International Women’s Health Coalition. In that year, I’ve done a lot – launched a successful blog that has become a daily part of my work there (and on which we’ve published more than 250 posts, pretty damn good for a non-profit blog), I’ve spent time working at the United Nations (and made a goofy video about it), and traveled to India. I’ve learned a crazy amount of stuff – not the least of which is the fact that I like working full time for a non-profit (even with all the damn meetings and memos), and being required to get dressed (albeit in outfits that often involve animal prints and/or skulls and crossbones) and leave the house on a daily basis is actually a really good thing.

I’ve now been retired from the business of being a professional naked lady for four years, which is longer than I was in the business. In January, it will be two years since I left $pread Magazine. What a strange set of calculations, ones that will keep getting stranger as the years wear on. These things are such defining features of my life, my activism, the whole thrust of my career. But now I’m really starting to understand a bigger scope of my work (dude, I used the word "career"!), and I’m starting to see how sex worker activism fits into a bigger picture of feminist and labor movements.

I don’t think I would’ve gotten this perspective if I was still a sex worker and managing all the stresses of that work, plus trying to do my activism on a local and national level, while being suspicious of and treated badly by the feminist movement. But now that I’m doing work within the context of global feminisms, I’m seeing how sex worker activism fits. Mostly: there needs to be context and coalition building, because the commonalities are there. The goals of sex worker advocates aren’t different than sexual rights and reproductive health advocates, and they definitely aren’t different than the goals of labor rights advocates.

This is not to say that people in sex work can’t be advocates and activists for their own rights – quite the opposite really. Current workers need to be at the forefront of the struggle for sex worker rights. The movement isn’t a movement without the voices of sex workers – it’s a rescue mission, and steps toward protection are a short stumble away from being patronizing and patriarchal. But sex workers also need help from allies, from people who are actively working to build coalitions with other movements, people who’ve built big movements from grassroots rage and raw needs (movement building takes a long while, by the way).

The American sex worker rights movement has a long way to go (read a post I wrote for Feministe, 7 Key American Sex Worker Activist Projects), and we can learn a lot from activists in other parts of the world. For example, there are eight countries in Europe that accept sex workers trade unions branches in pre-existing unions. In India, I met sex workers who are illiterate and live in one room buildings without electricity – but they can talk fiercely about human rights, language which is all but absent from our movement.

Toward the end of my India trip, I had a really intense conversation with a group of sex workers and their adult children about the differences between our movements, and we spoke really frankly about class, access, and relative privilege. It’s been two months since I was sitting in that 100 degree room having that conversation, and my head still spins when I think about it. I’ll never forget them asking me: "If the movement in America has so many well-educated people in it, why haven’t you collectivized? Why isn’t your movement bigger and better? And if you can’t do that, what hope do we have?" I stammered and stuttered and didn’t know what to say then, but I think the emphasis on individualism in the United States makes it really hard to organize, really hard to even believe in community. Also, I don’t believe that the connection between "education" (in the degreed, book-learning sense of the word) and ability to mobilize are at all a cause and effect kind of thing.

Sex workers in India know without a doubt that they are stronger together than they could be by themselves, and I don’t think at heart American sex workers believe that. Or we let our differences and suspicions of one another (hookers vs strippers, dommes vs porn performers, street workers vs indoor workers, etc etc.) reign supreme. But the street workers in India value the collective. To be clear, the movement there is very much about street workers, who are absolutely some of the most excluded people. They know: ten angry sex workers marching into a hospital and throwing a fit about the lack of quality care, or complaining about the fact that doctors won’t touch them, that’s big. Ten sex workers talking to ten more sex workers about their rights, and showing up to meetings – that’s a movement. Sex workers sharing resources and having conversations with communities of HIV-affected and infected housewives and widows – that’s coalition building. Sex workers banding together to end child trafficking and coercion in their own communities – that’s real empowerment and change from the inside out.

I’m not entirely sure what all the steps are to bring the American movement forward, except that it needs to be happening on a variety of levels and within a variety of projects. Seeing these pieces of success in different places – it’s inspiring for sure. And as much as I love sex workers and the crazy world of the sex industry, it also reaffirms my choice to nudge my way into the broader feminist movement toward sexual rights and reproductive health. These things are interconnected in intricate and complex ways, and creating conversation among the different communities is key. It’s silly – and counter-productive – to go it alone.

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  • cmarie

    how about sex workers who are able to obtain an education and seperate the “sex” from their “work”. I understand the author of this article was content as a sex worker, but most of these young women are trapped by an industry that gets richer with every John who does business with them. What the hell happened to the feminist movement? These women need help! They need financial and possibly legal assistance. They in many cases will need cooperation from law enforcement to escape their pimps. Why not concentrate on that? Telling them how wonderful being a sex worker is will not help the vast majority of them especially if they are in third world countries. Who’s paying you off?

    • jodi-jacobson

      Law enforcement in many settings and in many countries is complicit in the dehumanization and exploitation of and in perpetrating violence against persons in sex work.  In research I conducted in 2005, there were numerous cases of endemic police and law enforcement corruption through which representatives of "the law" demanded continuous bribes from sex workers and often raped them, whether or not the bribes were paid.


      If you don’t see sex workers as human beings with basic human rights whether or not they are in sex work, then you don’t feel the need to address police brutality and violence against them or other realities of their daily lives.  You can just stand aside and moralize or victimize. 


      US policy won’t allow us to give funding to any group that works on "empowerment" with sex workers, including sex worker unions, despite the fact that many of the programs we no longer fund have been found to be among those most successful in improving health conditions and the rights of sex workers.  Yet unions are the very nucleus of finding means to ending violence against persons in sex work, to ending the spread of HIV, to ensuring safe conditions for the women etc.  It is the US with its politically-driven policies that ends up further exploiting sex workers by taking away their basic rights to free speech and you and I never have to be faced with that because they’re just a group called sex workers, and they’re "over there."


      Various studies show that because of the extremely poor levels of pay in wage labor positions and in informal markets in countries or regions with high levels of unemployment, women enter sex work willingly –whether full time or on a part time transactional basis–because in fact it is either the only, or it is the most lucrative form of employment/work and they, like others, want to feed and clothe their kids, send them to school, etc.  If you want to address sex work and/or labor exploitation, start with looking at the effects our own international trade policies have on the economic displacement of vulnerable populations and the effect, in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, and India, that these policies have on driving women into sex work as a means of survival.


      Sex workers are not stupid.  They don’t need "rescue" in some traditional sense.  They are human beings, with human rights, who have brains and know better than anyone else the issues they face and the means of solving them.


      This is an extraordinarily complex issue.  Like with any social group, it is best to engage with the people actually involved in the work, activity, or issue, rather than coming in from on high and deciding you, we, I know what is best for "them."  We don’t.


      If we just listened and supported the actual movements for sex worker rights, so much more could be accomplished than all our false victorian-era, "feel-morally-superior"  poilcies can ever achieve.


      Jodi Jacobson

  • audacia-ray

    Working for the human rights of sex workers IS part of the feminist movement – we’re not advocating for the sex industry at large, we’re advocating for the rights of people in the industry, whether they are in the business by circumstance, choice, or coercion.

    “These women” need to be listened to – yes, many people in the sex industry do need legal, financial, and health-related assistance. However it is not empowering for that help to be delivered, even if by well-meaning forces, without the consultation of the people whose needs are supposedly being met.

    As far as cooperation with law enforcement goes, around the world law enforcement officers have not proven themselves to be trustworthy, non-violent, and helpful. More often, they are exploitative, violent, and frequently perpetrators of rape, especially toward marginalized populations like people of color, transgender people, and sex workers.

  • claudiabellocq

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. It’s clear you work hard to support the SELF DEFINED rights of women, men and transgendere people involved in sex work, whether they wish to exit, or to stay with better legal rights, health care or general workers rights and protection.

    I’ll be honest, I get jaded…I get tired of fighting with other women about how SOME women and men choose this work and SOME don’t. I totally agree with you on your observation on the commonalities with other areas of work, which is why I’m personally moving towards working in sexual health and sexual freedom. I’m worn down by conflict. I think the question you pose about collectivising is a really important one and I don’t have the answer to that yet but it’s true that in the US and where I live in the UK, women in sex work are generally pretty fragmented in terms of collective voices and power. Divided and conquered? The minute money, class and eductation come into the picture, the argument becomes skewed and tainted with emotive talk that rarely moves towards protecting workers but more often ends up in this endless cycle of abolition vs decriminalisation. Then it would seem we lose the right to speak because there is an assertion that we can’t as we don’t speak for “all women in sex work”, which of course I would never presume to do! However, Equally I don’t expect other women to speak for me and tell me what I need/want/would be best with.

    The person who commented above asking Audacia who was paying her off, well that’s just offensive and below the belt and as far as I can see does more harm to the women’s movement than it does good (for reasons too obvious to state here). We are not some generic blob who all think, feel and experience life in the same way, so let’s get off this globalised “one size fits all” theme and work on tailoring solutions to problems that are evidenced to support the diversity in the business. No-one can ignore capitalism, sexism, equal opportunity etc in this work, nor can they in any other work yet we don’t seek to ban employment and exit all workers from their jobs on the basis that some mythical WE decides that some mythical THEY are being oppressed. It’s just not that simple. Audacia, thanks for your tireless work in this field.

  • heather-corinna

    I just want to point out, too, as someone who knows Audacia personally and has a very good idea of the work she does and why, that this is a person — like many who work and have worked in this arena —  who, when a woman ASKS for that help, when a woman WANTS that help, would do all she could to provide it.


    I don’t think that first listening and only giving (not offering, giving: the offer is always there, to the degree it can be — after all, non-profit orgs and individual activists can’t, for instance, somehow fund secondary education for all women singlehandedly) help one can when help is actually requested and wanted suggests anything going amiss with the feminist movement. 


    Rather, it suggests an innate respect for women to know their own minds and needs, and treating them as women, not as children.  And that’s always been core to every wave of feminism.  While feminisms certainly differ, if you’re not down with that core philosophy, I have a hard time seeing how you can validly question the feminism of women for whom that is intrinsic.

  • jill-brenneman

    Cmarie……..Does the allegation of payoffs have to be a cliche response every time by self described feminists to advocates for human rights for sex workers?

    No one is being paid off Cmarie. That is a very incorrect and deceitful allegation made by feminists pushing adherence to ideological purity to their brand of feminism. Some need to be rescued, everyone needs rights. Somehow in the zeal for narrow interpretations of feminism to become the one true path toward being correct.

    Cmarie, you are blinded by your cliche understanding of those who advocate human rights for sex workers and your apparent need to posture your views as pure and demonize others different from you as somehow seeking to railroad victims into further exploitation by monolithic pimps. News flash, we are all fighting to end exploitation. It isn’t exclusive domain of radical feminists and radical feminist interpretation.

    Police your own movement. There are plenty of ethical transgressions to consider from those considering themselves and selling themselves as radical feminist anti trafficking experts. You have activists like Melissa Farley and Donna Hughes endorsing the blanket arrest of women in prostitution in order to allegedly protect them from pimps and johns. You don’t rescue the dolphins by drowning them in shark nets to catch the sharks in the process. And that Cmarie, is what self described radical feminist and trafficking experts like Farley and Hughes are selling as fighting oppression.

  • jill-brenneman

    This is a truly outstanding response Jodi!  Thank you!!