Class, race, and sex worker activism

kerwynk's picture

Hi again,

 I thought I'd bring up an issue that peeves me within the sex worker rights movement from time to time, which is class (and implicitly race) privilege. I'm concerned that the focus on decriminalization - which I support - best addresses the needs of independent, relatively privileged sex workers, and does little to address the needs of those on the street (or of migrant sex workers, for that matter). In theory, decriminalization might be taken to mean that people on the street would stop being arrested and that the police would help street-based sex workers, however in practice people on the street merely start getting arrested for other sorts of "crimes" (loitering, disturbing the peace, etc.), and continue to have a hostile relationship with the police. In San Francisco, a move toward de facto decriminalization resulted in just this type of situation, with some (more privileged) sex worker activists suggesting that it was OK for the police to go after this sector of sex workers, implicitly making it a trade-off for decreased police enforcement against other sectors. In other words, decriminalization, when done in an unthoughtful manner, can result in greater policing of the street, even as it allows others to work undisturbed by the police. I'm not sure this is such a good bargain.



I also think a great deal about a report released by the Urban Justice Project in New York City (available along with many other good publications at at under the title "Revolving Door"). This report suggests that the street-based workers themselves identify housing as a far higher priority in their lives than decriminalization. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think activists of all sorts need to put the interests of marginalized groups at the forefront of their thinking, and I therefore question why issues such as housing and a series of related issues that one could mention (policing policy, HIV and drug treatment services, etc.) are not so visible within the sex workers rights movement, which instead often seems to focus too narrowly upon questions of sex worker stigma and decriminalization. 

There are lots of happy exceptions to this rule, of course, and I was particularly pleased to see that there is a panel about forging alliances between the sex workers rights movement and anti-prison groups at the upcoming Desiree Alliance Conference in Chicago. I just think that the narrow focus on sexual stigma/decriminalization is most meaningful within the personal lives of more privileged people, and that we need to challenge ourselves to act in ways that include but move beyond these understandable interests. 

 Alright then, 'nuff said!

Best to all,