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Intro to Sex Workers' Rights

Let's Pop that Cherry...

I’ve been wading through the wave of recent Equality Model legislation in the US. Sounds good, right? Who doesn’t love some equality in the morning? 

Aside from giving me rage-inducing flashbacks of researching the Nordic Model that inspired it, this travesty of a sex worker ‘protection’ model shamelessly misuses the language of the sex workers’ rights movement. These privileged ‘feminists’ use their access to institutions like Congress, the UN, federal agencies, and non-profits to get support for truly asinine proposals. Sex workers are tired. These proposals miss the mark in dangerous ways. So, here’s a little dip in the pond of sex workers’ rights. 

Before we get to debunking SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) – and oh yes, we will – let’s get some definitions down that they seem to struggle with. 

guest Author Bio:

Zee Xaymaca (They/Them) is the Berlin Branch Coordinator of The BSWC (Black Sex Workers Collective). 

They are also a "badass queer, Black, perpetually wandering heaux, writer, and sex work researcher." They are  passionate about Black liberation, particularly for Black womxn who fight white supremacy with their very existence. Sex workers' rights benefit society as a whole and ensures the safety of the intersectionally oppressed so I got loud about it. I started The Popped Cherry Project as a virtual hub to share with others my journey to understanding life, sex work and human rights as a Black Feminist.


Criminalization

Despite being billed as decriminalization in the US, the Nordic (Swedish) and Equality models are, in fact, forms of criminalization of sex work. Sex work is criminalized when buying and/or selling sexual services is illegal. Violation of these laws carries criminal penalties that affect future prospects. In some US states, multiple sex work convictions can lead to a felony charge. Think about that for a second. About how hard it is for a formally criminalized person to get work. Then think about the politicians pushing criminalization as a form of diversion from sex work. We’ll come back to that. 


Legalization

Certain forms of sex work are allowed and regulated by the government through criminal and civil law. Sex work can still be a criminal offense under legalization depending on who is engaging in it. Under these systems, sex workers are tracked by registration requirements. If a person who can’t register dares to engage in sex work, they are putting their entire livelihood and the safety of their families at risk. 


Decriminalization

The removal of all criminal sanctions associated with the sale and purchase of erotic services. This means that sex work and the laws used to harass sex workers are removed. No criminal record for engaging in unlicensed sex work. No risk of visa problems. No systemic employment discrimination. It’s just another job, with sex work falling under the reach of labor laws. 

swerf

These particular feminists see all sex work as trafficking and an act of violence because no woman would willingly choose to engage in sex work. Famous SWERF, Catharine McKinnon claims that “porn [is] a form of violence against women that is best combatted through legislative means” (1993). No, seriously. She thought that porn actresses were universally abused just by being in porn. She makes some more wild claims that we don’t need to get into because, quite frankly, they are not representative of the varied experiences of sex workers. 


Sex Work

The consensual exchange of a sexual or erotic service for financial or material compensation. 


Trafficking

The act of moving a person, through deception or force, with the intention of exploiting their labor, usually with little or no compensation. Though the focus on sex trafficking is loud, there is significant trafficking in many low-wage industries including domestic work and sweatshops that do can only be addressed by immigration and labor law reform.


Sex Work Is Consensual...

Now that we have the definitions down, do you notice something? The definitions of sex work and sex trafficking are not interchangeable at all. So why do some people think sex workers can’t consent to paid sex? Well, this quote from Andrea Dworkin might clarify, “In practice, fucking is an act of possession [of women]—simultaneously an act of ownership, taking, force; it is conquering; it expresses in intimacy power over and against, body to body, person to thing.” (1981). Intense, right? So, Dworkin here is arguing that because cis men have historically seized control of women’s sexuality, then women cannot ever truly give consent.


For those of us with a sense of sexual agency, take a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor. SWERFs take their position seriously. Mostly we see them out there harping on the virtues of criminalization for saving sex workers, or co-opting the language of sex workers’ rights in increasingly skeevy ways. 


Let's Talk Legislation

In the US, the Equality Model (The Nordic model by any other name…) is taking up space in a legislative building near you. There are bills aimed at ending demand for sex work services in Illinois, California, and New York, with more underway. These bills claim that legislation can end the exploitation of sex workers by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services while technically leaving the sex worker out of criminal prosecution.


Next time we’ll take a closer look at these bills and I’ll explain why that nagging suspicion in the pit of your gut is actually right. 


Citations:


Dworkin, A. (1981). Pornography: Men possessing women. London: Women's Press.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. (1993). Only words. Cambridge, Mass : Harvard University Press



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