Sex Worker Media, Movements and Transformative Justice

I’m just so excited about all the awesome sex worker activism that is happening in the light of International Sex Workers’ Rights Day on March 1!! I’m going to look at & link to a tonne of peer-led media and calls for performance/video/writing, info on exciting legal movement, and close out with some still-forming thoughts about sex workers, radical forms of justice, internal/external accountability strategies and non-state responses to violence.

We’ve got hella sex-worker-led media.

There’s the upcoming deadline of April 7 to propose work to NYC’s Sex Worker Cabaret taking place June 12, plus Red Umbrella Diaries, a storytelling event, is also on April 7 it’s at 8pm and free! Hostessed by Audacia Ray
 at Happy Ending [302 Broome Street between Forsyth and Eldridge, in New York City]

The Sex Worker Film & Art Fest has a call for submissions due March 30, as does Hook Collective for INTERSECTION: Stories Through Art by Sex Workers of Color due April 15 AND you can submit to a sex worker zine that Sarah Jenny and SWOP-NYC is putting together [deadline May 1], to “showcase the diversity of sex workers’ experiences of all genders, sexualities, ages, abilities, nationalities, immigration statuses, and ethnic backgrounds.”

March 18 saw an amazing cross-country Sex Worker performance-art activism called 86 The Violence! in which sex workers painted red targets on their bodies, and symbolically tied their hands, eyes, or mouth with red fabric for 86 minutes [which the NYTimes covered] to support the formal endorsement on March 10 by the US government of UN Recommendation 86, to …ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of sexual workers to violence and human rights abuses. Earlier in the month the US released its report to the U.N. saying, “We agree that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.” UJC has an info page here, SWOP has a press page, and Bound Not Gagged has a piece breaking down the UPR.

We’ve got legal movement.

NOLA’s Women With A Vision filed a federal suit to challenge Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature statute on behalf of nine sex workers who have been criminally stigmatized under NOLAs 205-year old law which criminalizes folks who solicit oral sex and anal sex as sex offenders. Co-counsel Andrea Ritchie, co-author of the just-published book, Queer Injustice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, says “Police and prosecutors have complete discretion and are given no guidance whatsoever as to when and who to charge with a Crime Against Nature, and when and who to charge with prostitution. This leaves the door wide open to discriminatory enforcement targeting poor Black women, transgender women, and gay men for a charge that carries much harsher penalties. That decision can change the entire course of a person’s life.” More info on the case here. And Jordan Flaherty wrote a great piece on it here.

NYC’s excellent Sex Workers’ Project at the UJC has been working on getting the No Condoms As Evidence bill passed. Watch their PSA to get indignant,  call or email to tell the Senate Codes Committee members to vote “YES” on S323 and check out SWP’s PSA: No Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution.

And we’ve still got creative strategies for self- and community care in the face of criminalization, violence, and coercion.

These are collected thoughts from the past few weeks, still being formed and very open to your thoughts and feedback.
This op-ed which appeared in New Yorks’ Newsday, written by the Sex Worker’s Project [clearly they are hauling ass these days!!] does several things well: it advocates for sex workers without speaking for them, it points out that police are a big part of the problem of work-related violence that sex workers face, and it recommends actions. I’ve been thinking a lot about Transformative Justice* in relation to violence against sex workers, but I’m experiencing dissonance because I can’t fully reconcile that otherwise overarchingly whole model with solutions.

While there is massive institutional violence that affects huge swatches of people — state coercion & violence, racism, colonialism, economic exploitation and scarcity panics under capitalism — most of the interpersonal assaults in our society (especially sexual ones) are committed by people who know one another. Fact**. But in the case of sex workers this is definitely not true — unless her assailant is a beat cop s/he recognizes or a regular who flips one day. . So much sex work is also a site of healing, both for workers and clients. And like most jobs, a huge chunk of sex work is just everyday life means ya gottagetmoney and gottapaytherent work, so let’s not label too much of it either violent or transformative. So much of this work is set up as a site for “stranger” violence based simply on the high level of stranger interaction, and due to a terrible combo of moralism and criminalization on one side and situationalism or coercion on the other.

I don’t have any idea if or how the community accountability model in transformative justice can work in situations where there is no ‘community’ to hold a violent client accountable for his actions. There may be a community of girls unwilling to see him, but the nature of secrecy around this work makes his capacity to find someone who doesn’t know about the ban high. Message boards and their vetting system really only work for clients who are already self-selecting to be non-isolated hobbyists and while I can dream a little dream of vigilante bands of clients getting together to avenge the assault of a favorite  “community” sex trade workers, and who share care strategies with one another, it seems incredibly far away from the shame-full, compulsarily monogomous and criminalizing society in which this violence takes place.
 I think of all the clients I’ve ever seen, the ones who were high or wasted or weird, the ones who were kind or handsome or pleasantly eccentric and though they form a kind of community in my mind, they don’t form community in real time. They are isolated from each other, and we — client and worker — set up barricades that preclude us knowing too much about each other, too.

I’m reminded by Jenna Peters-Golden of Philly Stands Up! That “accountablity is not step one, it’s often step five or six” when working with people who have caused harm, and in so find that wrapping my head around the perspective of thinking about creating conditions of community and a set-up of safety for sex workers that would support client accountability makes me experience a kind of pre-burnout at the consideration of the task. Shifting conditions of work is just one issue, removing the cops from our jobs and prison from the picture is another, creating a society that doesn’t hate sex workers specifically and women in general is another – to add the idea of dissolving the isolation and individualism that breed sites where the former issues can reduce to individual instances of violence that end with peripheral-at-best access to perpetrators feels overwhelming.

I keep returning to a mental/theoretical sticking point about the privilege of having a community to draw on, and the ways in which there are a critical mass of people needed to leverage for gaining buy-in. In communities of political or identity alignment, isolation of people who cause harm makes accountability harder because there’s no place to work from to make them care, but there’s somebody who knows someone who brought in the accountability team, right? People in sites of extreme isolation – creepy clients or potential allies who are in bad spots — need care, too, but via what opportunity and at what cost to communities who need healing? It’s unclear if there is an accessible community for the clients who have caused harm, and I’m wondering if the model we cull from the exquisite analysis of TJ is instead the one of safety/healing/aftercare/community-building, and if the powerful model of accountability as a means to prevent and mitigate violence and harm is not applicable in the world of commercial sex work.

Chicago’s YWEP describes transformative justice as “community-based harm reduction,” and I think this framing opens the door to see how TJ might fit. The other work besides accountability is healing, and this is a site where there are massive connections between TJ frameworks and solutions for some of the struggles sex workers face: this still-massive task of unpacking the history of violence folks have faced intersectionally with the concrete instances of harm and transposing that whole experience over community- and peer-led work to build structures of safety. This safety/healing thus has at least two aims: to gain power in terms of information and strategy sharing, so that people feel they are on an equal footing with clients, and the obvious internal care work of devising frameworks, strategies, and resources for self care, recognizing trauma, accessing resources, navigating a crisis situation, and building community support systems.

“Ultimately, if we want to end the exploitation of women, we need to challenge capitalism, which is the basis for all of our exploitation. Whether we’re working in the sex industry, a restaurant, or in a university, we’re being exploited by those who are benefitting from our labour. So, if we want to end exploitation, we don’t give more power to the state to criminalize workers, we give more power to workers to end their exploitation.” — Nandita Sharma, in Upping the Anti 10

I guess an answer is, still, in part, to decriminalize and thus render the policing and imprisoning of sex workers [trust, the opposite of helping someone is jailing them!] and to use that site of “worthiness” to brush away moral stigma, a task that is no small feat. Jane Addams wrote a hundred years ago about the difficulties in “reintroducing prostitutes to the society they have offended.”

Does anyone have info or resources on TJ [or even Restorative Justice] and sex workers? I’m not yet willing to accept that they don’t mix well, and I’m curious if anyone has a nonfiction model where they have.

* Simply, using community leverage to confront people who cause harm and help them, survivors and their communities to heal and change violent behaviour without involving the State and with a consciousness of the intersectionality and institutionalization of violence throughout society — see Gen5.

** Over 85% of children know their abusers [Gen5]; at least 75 percent of all survivors know their attackers; 80 percent of all rapes occur in the home [citation]