Feminist Allyship to Sex Workers: Part Two

Sex Workers Juno Mac/SWARM

 

By Gala Vanting

This is the second in a two part series on sex work, feminism and activism.

 

We’ve talked the theory - now let’s talk the how to be an ally to sex workers.

Being an ally to sex workers isn’t different from allyship to any other marginalised group, other than in its relative lack of social acceptability.

 

I’ll walk you through some of the actions you can take to start or expand your acts of allyship to sex workers, but bring your intersectional awareness for the ride too.

 

Being an ally to sex workers requires nuanced understanding of the ways in which other aspects of identity and experience intersect with sex working experience. Sex work is not a universal experience so my understanding is limited by my experience of my own work and of my colleagues’ stories. This guide is not comprehensive; consider if your starter pack.

 

Self-educate.

It’s always the first port of call. The tricky thing about self-educating about sex work is learning to distinguish between resources that have been created by or in constructive, consensual collaboration with sex workers, and those which have been developed with a religious, moral or abolitionist agenda.

 

As always, media literacy is key. Here are some indicators that what you’re learning from isn’t produced from an allied perspective:

  • it describes sex workers as victims or positions sex work as exploitation
  • it uses a term other than ‘sex work’ or ‘sex workers’, which is the preferred terminology of the sex worker rights movement
  • it suggests that abolishing sex work is the best way to ‘solve the problem’ of sex work, or that leaving sex work is the best choice for all sex workers
  • it advocates for legislation other than full decriminalisation of sex work
  • it theorises the sex worker’s body as being inherently different from other labouring bodies in other fields of work

 

My suggestion is that you prioritise work produced by sex workers themselves. There are lots of fantastic resource guides penned by sex work peer organisations, and even more pieces of memoir and journalism writing from first-person sex worker perspectives. We’ve been working hard at telling our own stories, and more and more media outlets are helping us to carve out the space to do so.

 

Here’s a quick reading list:

 

Seek out a diversity of voices, including sex workers of colour, trans sex workers, migrant sex workers, and workers from a variety of working modes (independent workers, porn performers and cam workers, street-based sex workers, parlour workers, dancers, etc).

 

Your mantra is this: ‘Listen to sex workers.’ What they have to say might not always be agreeable to you, nor may it paint a glowing picture of the industry which means you will have to deal with discomfort and cognitive dissonance as part of being an ally. What’s important is that you are hearing it from their mouths, and viewing the complexity of their lived experience.

 

Reflect.

Accountability is perhaps one of the hardest things to cultivate but it’s what’s going to save you from your whorephobia.

 

Your self-education probably helped you to seek and destroy some of it. What did that change look like? How has sex work stigma played out in your worldview? Have you ever said anything to a friend, family member, or colleague about sex work or sex workers that might have made it impossible for them to come out to you as one? Have you ever laughed at a dead hooker joke? Passed judgement on sex workers portrayed in the media? Been surprised when you saw one be articulate, intelligent, or proud of their work?

Interact.

Whatever has changed about your knowledge set only sees the light of allyship when it’s shared or spoken aloud. When you hear or see whorephobia or sex work stigma, name it. If you have the chance to unpack it, even better. When you see an opportunity to share what you’ve learned with other people, have the hard conversations where you are able. Online or in your life.

 

This is where I am really reaching out to feminists. Feminist spaces contain some of the most potent, paternalistic, unchecked and fervent sex work stigma I’ve witnessed. If you have a voice in influencing or organising other feminists, don’t ignore sex work issues. Don’t hope that you can avoid controversy by omission. Get on the front foot and actively seek opportunities to align yourself with sex worker movements. If there are no sex worker voices in your intersectional feminist project or event, it’s not feminist.

 

Read, watch or listen to at least one piece of writing or media by a sex worker every month. If you got something out of it, share it with some real reflection on what you took away from it. Other people in your network will look for meaning in something they know is meaningful to you. This creates a network effect.

 

Advocate – as Ally or Accomplice

We are beginning to see some critical dialogue about the utility of allyship. The question as to whether one is an ally or an accomplice is part of that. Perhaps the difference lies in your proximity to the person or people to whom you’re directing your energy. An ally stands off to the side, waving the flag and cheering on the person in struggle. An accomplice stands with them in meaningful action and solidarity. Listen here to a conversation between DeRay and Brené Brown that elaborates on this.

 

Having an ally is a good feeling. Having an accomplice is what gets things done.

 

Keep an eye on what’s happening for us, so that you can act. Curate your newsfeed to contain:

  • your local sex work peer organisation(s)
  • individual sex workers, including sex workers of colour, male sex workers, and trans sex workers
  • journalists who cover sex work

 

This will give you a better sense of what’s happening for us in real time, and therefore where we are in need of tangible support.

 

The most practical ways to advocate for us, which cost only your time and energy, are:

  • When we mobilise, physically or digitally, come and stand with us. Allow yourself to be seen in protest of violations of our labour and human rights.
  • When governments (local, state, or federal) are tabling legislative or policy change or conducting an inquiry, get involved by writing or calling with your concerns and recommendations. Your local peer advocacy organisation will have instructions for you. Signal-boost their calls for support and encourage more people to get involved; show that the community is invested in the lives of sex workers.
  • When we lose a colleague or someone in our movement, share in our grief. Speak their names. Don’t let the loss of our lives stay under the radar.
  • Encourage your organisation – or one whose services you access – to engage a sex worker community educator to conduct training to empower them to effectively include sex workers in their service provision.
  • If you see sex worker voices missing from things like arts, culture or politics festivals, public panels, academic courses or conferences, public health campaigns, make contact with the organiser and suggest that they involve us. Make a concerted effort to see us integrated into these spaces, and help programmers start to adopt an interest in complicating conversations about or including sex workers.

 

In all of this: ask sex workers how you can help. Our struggle is layered and we strategise for the situation. Criminalisation and stigma means that we have a LOT of safety and privacy issues that must be considered by those moving with us. Be flexible and informed by us.

Money, meet mouth.

If money is a resource you can use in your allyship, give some to:

  • your local sex work peer organisation
  • any of the suggestions here
  • ongoing sex worker fundraisers like this one
  • individual artists, writers, or activists who centre sex workers in their work

Get it wrong well.

You. Will. Get. It. Wrong. Sometimes.

 

It’s ok. Check it out, do what you can to correct yourself, and then keep going.

 

Allyship means always learning. If you believe that no one can tell you anything you don’t know about a marginalised group you’re not a part of, your wokeness badge is suspended. I’m a sex worker, and even I am still learning how to be a good ally to sex workers. If I ever think I’ve “got it”, I’m firing myself from my activist career.

 

The shame spiral that happens when you get it wrong – regardless of how well-meaning you feel, how many sex workers you’re friends with on Facebook, or how good your allyship record is – needs to be contained by you and your support system. Not by frantically DMing the only sex worker you know, and asking them for hefty emotional labour in the form of education, ego-soothing, or a public vouch for your credibility. (NB: If you support me on Patreon, I will field one of these per quarter.)

 

We are particularly ill-equipped in our culture to deal with shame. Over the last few months, I had multiple conversations with folks asking me why sex workers get so upset when allies don’t get it right, or why we’re so damned difficult to engage. In every case, I gently tried to flip it back to where there might be some shame in there – whether it’s because of lack of knowledge, less-than-finessed  approach, or just for missing the mark a bit. It’s hard and frustrating when you do or say something that doesn’t 100% reflect your intended allyship.

 

The complexity of sex work stigma and the ways in which it’s tangled up with things like racism, classism, criminality and policing, and respectability politics makes it tricky to get it right every time. Sex workers need allies who can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, integrate their learning, and keep moving.

 

Last month, WIRE - the Victorian Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, issued an apology to sex workers about their service provision to sex workers and the underlying stigma that informed it. They admitted that they’d gotten it wrong, and that they needed to do better. It’s a great start, but will need to be followed by some pragmatic strategy for adjusting their approach. A month earlier, WAVAW, a Vancouver rape crisis centre, published what they call an ‘Accountability Letter’. They are currently auditing their service provision with this in mind, and have employed a survey inviting people – especially those with lived experience of sex work – to weigh in on the crisis response needs of sex workers who are seeking sexual assault services. This is exemplary.

It’s also perhaps illustrative of the difference between an ally and an accomplice.

 

What are you doing, and who is it for?

In my studies with Betty Martin, who I like to call the fairy godmother of consent, one of the most-repeated processes in her practices involves asking, from moment to moment: what are you doing, and who is it for? Your answer tells you a lot where you are now and how to proceed.

 

Your allyship takes meaning when it is active (what are you doing?) and when is for us (who is it for?). When it is a genuine interest in improving the quality of our everyday lives. When it goes beyond titillation or tourism, when it’s not just for fashion or another enamel pin to wear on the lapel of your SJW jacket, when it divests itself of any impulse to rescue us or speak for us, and when it gives something up.

 

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Gala Vanting is a sex worker, writer, educator and activist living and working on stolen Gadigal land. She aims to create compassionate, intelligent, and justice-driven dialogue about sexuality and sexual cultures with an intersectional queer feminist approach. More of her work can be found on http://galavanting.info/ and https://www.patreon.com/galavanting.

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