One of the interesting aspects of publishing or presenting outside of my sex work community and politically radical bubble is hearing reactions from a wider range of perspectives. However, I’ve noticed a pattern of commenters or audiences citing Melissa Farley, or quoting “facts” produced from her research without knowledge of the source, to support their arguments. This makes it hard for me to carry on the conversation, as her research is so deeply flawed. I want to address her work in a general way here to offer a more comprehensive response than I can within the scope of a larger conversation. While I fundamentally disagree with Farley’s ideology, I am concentrating here on her practices as a researcher and academic. I feel that arguments against her principles are also important, but here I want to present why she is flawed as a credible source of information.
I wrote this in the middle of the night after kind of a rough day. Fair warning for rambles, rants, and cursing.
There is no major progress that happens in a straight line. I suppose if we really consider histories nothing really does. And I suppose the very language of “progress” assumes a sort of linearity and end destination. But it’s what I have right now. I’m thinking about non-linear processes both in larger senses of social movements and my own personal history. Timelines are often too reductive and erase the complexities in which we live them.
For social justice – this means having serious conversations about compromise. We can’t avoid it. I think that if we as activists accept that it’s a reality we’ll be much more conscious of how, when, and what we already compromise in our work. And we can find ways to do so without harming or devaluing other communities or issues. At some point in our lives and work, we have to accept that we can’t work on everything at once. Not everything can be everyone’s highest priority. That can be painful to grapple with, or certainly has been for me. But trying to impose centralized goals or value systems doesn’t leave much room for coalitional work or solidarity with other communities that we might not fully agree with.
Social justice isn’t going to happen off of one giant collective to-do list. We don’t have a diagram for achieving all of our goals. Because there will never be a point where everyone in the movements we align ourselves with agrees on what the goals should be, let alone what the steps are. And that’s ok. I firmly believe in decentralized movements with a multiplicity of tactics, goals, and beliefs. But that dedication to non-linear and non-hierarchal organizing includes a lot of discomfort and a lot of uncertainty. It’s fucking hard.
For me personally, accepting non-linear progress in my life has mostly centered around examining my recovery from this latest depressive episode and continual management of my mental health. I knew from the beginning it was going to be perpetual work. I knew that there would be ups and downs, and that some days would be far harder than others. But it’s much harder to live than to understand theoretically. Bad days can feel like failures. And a bad couple of days can feel like an unstoppable regression. But it’s all part of the fucking process of living and living with mental and emotional struggles. Did I mention it’s fucking hard?
I know all of this rationally. But it’s a struggle for me to accept. I want to fit my life and our struggles into narratives. I want clear analysis and understanding to be enough. I want to have a map of where this is all going.
On good days I take comfort in the fact that we are open to wider possibilities than we would be if those constrictions were a reality. I can see opportunities for imagination and creativity for resistance and subversive actions. I feel good that my self-care by definition will be uniquely suited to my needs and desires. I am optimistic that while I’m working within the confines of a fucked up system and dysfunctional thought processes, I can do work to change those conditions a little bit for the better. And the future will bring new possibilities that are literally impossible to comprehend under our current structures of thought. Knowing that all my current planning and even thought processes will be totally irrelevant someday can fill me with hope and joy.
But some days it’s harder. Some days I don’t know how the fuck to even start addressing all the shit in the world. Some days social justice is a total bummer. We can’t even get through agendas at meetings. We’re working with little or no resources. And when we can’t even get along with each other (not airing personal shit – just happens to be true of every social movement like, ever). That’s not even starting on the internalized oppressions and harmful structures we recreate within our own movements.
And some days I can’t see how my life is going to change. I think about the prospect of being on medication for life and am overwhelmed. I look at my family history and see all the fucked up genes I would be passing on to my hypothetical children that I don’t even want. I get depressed about being depressed. And my only consolation is that I’m less depressed than I was. When I’m feeling cynical that isn’t much to hold on to.
None of this is new to my thinking either. Over one summer several years ago I thought I had figured out the secret to saving the world, but all I could remember was that it had something to do with circles.
I still don’t know what I meant by that.
So that’s where I’m at right now. I’m doing better than I was. I think movements for human rights / liberation / social justice / revolution have made things arguably better in a lot of situations than they were 50 years ago. I know that I’ve seen significant changes within my own lifetime. And I know that this will continue. I will have good days and bad days. Our movements will have ups and downs. We will all continue to succeed and fail in various cycles.
I just have to keep believing that while we’re collectively messy, we’re pushing in good directions.
So as most of you know I’ve been experimenting with various forms of media and ways to amplify voices of sex workers. With Anonymous Heels I’m working with videos of sex workers talking about their experiences (a project I’m still dedicated to – just went on hiatus for a few months, but 2013 will see it grow further… I have lots of ideas!) Anyway I’m far less interested in engaging with existing media outlets to amplify sex workers voices and activist perspectives than I am finding ways to create our own. Both are incredibly important. This is more about my own comfort and interests than value judgments about either tactic.
And with that – I’m starting a podcast to talk about sex work and sex work policies, media, activism, ect. working with Tits & Sass. Siouxsie Q recently started This American Whore which is aimed at humanizing sex workers through sharing their personal narratives and voices. I love that project, and I hope that this can be complimentary and talk about issues that affect the sex industries, review popular media, and share projects we’re working on across the country. I’ve already started putting together some reviews and interviews, and am really excited about where this is going.
BUT – I need your help. I don’t have a title. And that’s kind of important. Here are my ideas so far, and if you have another suggestion please please please share it. I hate working on titles. It’s really not my strong point. So I’m begging you all for some input.
For many of us the chance to sit around a table together and have these conversations face to face is actually fairly rare. We may know each other very well by phone, email, or even twitter based relationships – but it’s nowhere near as powerful as in person communications. When I think about the value of the conferences, presentations, and workshops that I travel around the country for, it’s the connections with my community that outweigh all of the other benefits. The early morning conversations with the people who let me crash at their homes become just as valuable as the formal presentations. And the breaktime chatter about relationships, work, and pop culture can be just as important and sometimes more personally relevant than official exercises. Meeting new friends, colleagues, and inspirational activists is what keeps me going. The amount of strength, compassion, and sheer brilliance in the conference room over the weekend blew me away. Even when we were tired, cranky, and frustrated, it was coming from a place of love and solidarity with one another. It’s a powerful experience.
An ongoing conversation happening in the background of the training was the question of leadership within the struggle for sex workers rights. Most of us are dedicated to non-hierarchal organizing and anti-racist/anti-oppression work. But we also need to be effective and efficient. I don’t know anyone who thinks that the two are mutually exclusive, and I’m certainly not advocating that give up the principles that we’re working so hard for in order to be more productive. But the truth is that it’s a challenge to balance a need for some sort of structure with the kind of collective organizing that is so important to our communities. Particularly when it comes to media work – we want to be careful of the unintended messages that we send – especially those that we send purely by who it is who speaks publicly. So much of the time it depends on who is available and willing to be out in various capacities, but we need MORE SEX WORKER VOICES. Not just different faces, but more. Much much more.
And we did not walk away with any answers or solutions to these challenges. And that’s a damn good thing – because these are complex issues that we should never consider “solved”. For me, that ongoing work is both gratifying and extremely frustrating. There’s a large part of me that long for simplicity and a checklist of things to do that would at least address, if not complete, this kind of work. But the larger part of me knows and respects the neverending process.
Another ongoing conversation is around media,types of media, and what are effective or important modes of media to involve ourselves in. We all have different boundaries, different levels of outing ourselves, and different priorities in our work. Many of us have also been scarred or at least scared by negative experiences. Most existing forms of media are also not ideal for getting across the messages that are important to us. There’s not enough space or time. But I love that within the work many of us are interested in to create new and radical media – there’s also the skills to give soundbites on CNN or vet journalists asking for interviews. Red Umbrella Project exists to “amplify the voices of people in the sex trades through media, advocacy, and storytelling programs.” I think this includes an interrogation of what we mean by “media” and creating new or alternative venues to hear those voices. In short, I think we need both CNN interviews and Anonymous Heels. Yeah – shameless self plug. But I really am invested in the question of both how to be a part of the media, what kind of media is important or effective in reaching people, and how to use media in our work towards long term change.
Let me assure you that we did not spend the weekend pontificating on the nature of social movements. We came out with practical skills and tools that I hope to share with SWOP-LA when I get back. We worked on specific exercises that are applicable to our work in our home communities, and many of us came out with specific projects to work towards or develop. I just don’t feel the need to work through my thoughts on those as much so they don’t get as much blog space.
And for anyone who thinks these kinds of trainings sound boring or tedious – I should also mention that it was a LOT of fun. It was difficult, but most things worth doing are I think. But there was a great deal of joy and laughter as well. To share some of that – here is a picture of the face I made after a particularly challenging practice interview with a hostile journalist.
I’ve been neglecting writing in this space for a while, and still trying to regain my voice here in some ways. I’ve been reevaluating my relationship to sex work, activism, sex work activism, and pretty much everything else in my life these days. There’s been a lot of trial and error, a lot of ranting, and a lot of rehashing the same conversations over and over with my friends. I’m trying to take my own advice from other forums and just start typing and see what happens – so forgive the roughness and incompleteness of some of these thoughts. Work in progress!
One of those repeated conversations is about the perpetual nature of activist work. It never stops. I don’t just mean in the sense that the world will always need help to be a better place or that conditions can always be improved… I mean that so much of our work needs to be done on a regular and constant basis. Twitters and facebooks need to be maintained and updated. Newsletters need to be sent (errr SWOP-LA has dropped down to quarterly because it’s much more manageable!). Websites need to be updated. Email needs to be answered. And there’s always more. Because the more you produce, the more content you have, the more venues for media you engage with… the more you need to do. Meetings are every month at the least, and you’re never really “done” with a meeting – we just get through as much as we can in 2 hours or less and figure out the rest later on. Projects are never really completed, just left as-is or we try to figure out how to make them grow.
And that can be awesome. And empowering. And incredibly exciting. Because there is always somewhere to jump in. There is always something to add on to. There is always someone new to meet and talk to. It can feel like there is boundless energy to work off of and feed into and be inspired by.
Activism isn’t a straight line with bulleted lists that build up to one very pretty project. It’s circular. With multiple lists and items that get crossed off and rewritten two weeks later. Rarely is there instant, or even timely, gratification. And rarely do we see what all of our work adds up to until we take the occasional step back, blink, and see this big beautiful group of people that’s suddenly staring back at us. And then we dive right back in again. It’s thrilling. And exhausting. And deeply undervalued.
This isn’t meant to be a laundry list of complaints, but rather a rethinking of the nature of work that activists (and those that don’t identify as such but work in similar ways) are engaged in. Our labor doesn’t have set hours or set expectations, let alone set (if any!) compensation. It doesn’t even look like work much of the time. Some of the most productive meetings I’ve sat in on have started out as lunch dates. Some of the most brilliant projects I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of have been hashed out over drinks late at night. And sometimes just reading the news can feel like work because there’s so much to take in, so much to respond to, and so much that is relevant. Sometimes reading a birthday party invitation feels like work because it’s laden with activist language and theory.
Rethinking activism is closely related to rethinking labor – and that’s part of the intellectual draw of sex work activism for me. It’s trying to redefine what counts as legitimate labor, and not just limited to sexuality, but to communication, housework, caretaking, motherhood, and other forms of affective labor in general. Legitimacy is often proven through monetary compensation, yet so much of the work we rely on day-to-day, from our own labor as well as that of others, is unpaid labor. And activist work, much like housework, is done regularly, quietly, and often simply because it needs to be done.
Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that people assume working for social justice or human rights is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually it’s more like a big ball of wibby wobbly… activisty shmactivisty… stuff.
I was extremely lucky this summer in that I was able to travel around the country to be in a number of different spaces. Notably I was able to attend the International AIDS Conference in DC in July and FetishCon in Tampa directly after. Partly because most of my conversations in both places revolved around sex work, and partly because the timing was in such close proximity, these two conferences were both connected and thrown into stark contrast for me. At one, I was immersed in the sex work activist community. In the other I was immersed in a community of sex workers.
In many ways I’m setting up an unfair dichotomy between the two, A better way to phrase it would be sex workers coming together as advocates and activists as opposed to sex workers coming together for sex work. But I also think that there is a distinction between the people who come out to activist events and those that come out to sex work events. Obviously there is quite a bit of intersection – but the tenor, structure, and expectations can feel worlds apart.
One of the expectations in activists communities is that you are doing Good Work. I agree with this in a lot of ways; I think that people should work to improve their communities. But oftentimes there seems to be an unspoken competition between who is doing the best work for the most underprivileged community. And that’s not fair to anyone, least of all said communities who get turned into points for street cred. The expectations I felt at FetCon was that you act responsibly and be good to your community. Fighting for structural change in the name of said community was a bonus. It was more important to be good to one another than to be right – and that made for a much more pleasant experience. In activist spaces it seems that we can get defensive about our work to the point where it’s hard to have an open conversation about new possibilities. We spend so much time defending the importance and righteousness of our causes that the value can start to shift to the work over the people. I wish we could find ways to combine those value systems, to focus on the important activist work AND take care of each other as people. I hope that work we do in SWOP-LA reflects that.
Activist culture, regarding sex work or otherwise, values lofty goals and large scale projects. We position ourselves as working towards structural and cultural changes. While these are noble qualities, and obviously qualities I identify with and value, we can lose sight of local concerns and individual people in the process. What I saw at IAC was a lot of conversations among advocates for sex workers about how to address the needs of sex workers on a national and global scale. What I saw at FetCon were sex workers finding ways to address their own needs without any formal structure or resources to do so. When a producer neglected the safety of a model he was working with, it took less than a day for the story to spread among the community. In the afternoon I was telling it to some of my friends and by the end of the night I was hearing the information from people I had just met. Whether or not there is a formal ban on that producer or safety regulations are written and enforced at next year’s con, there was a sense of collective responsibility around what happened. Policy and large scale change is important, and necessary. But it can’t come at the expense of localized support, caring for sex workers as individuals, and addressing immediate needs. Many of the people and organizations represented at IAC are fantastic at all of the above, however, that work did not seem to be prioritized at the conference itself. This feels like a fairly common occurrence at big conferences or other get-togethers with activists from all over the country.
We talk a lot in activist circles about building communities. I know it’s one of my overused catch-phrases. But what we have the tendency to overlook is that for many sex workers, these communities already exist. They just aren’t activist communities necessarily. That doesn’t mean that they don’t care about the same issues activists care about. Often it doesn’t mean that they aren’t working on those issues either. It just means that they’re doing so with different resources and through different avenues. Sex workers have their own social networks, events, and support networks that are separate from those of sex work activists. And it’s a damn good thing too. But it means that occasionally we need reminders that we’re not building communities from scratch. We’re contributing our talent, work, passion, and skills to fight for the rights of communities we already belong to or stand in solidarity with.
That said, I think it’s also important to grow and build communities of sex work activists – which seem to largely be built slowly and from the ground up. Activism can be draining, challenging, and feel ultimately thankless. We need each other, and we need each other as both sex workers and as activists. It’s why in LA we separate our Peer Support and Sex Work Socials from our general meetings. These projects are intimately intertwined, but at the same time cannot be conflated with each other.
As I said, I was extremely lucky this summer. I got to be with my mentors, friends, and colleagues from all around the country. That meant the world to me. These are people I hope to be friends with and work with for years to come. And then I got to come home and share what I learned and gained with my communities in Los Angeles. A lot happened, and there is a lot I’m still processing and reeling from in some ways. My experience at IAC was certainly not perpetual frustration and negativity, nor was FetCon all wine and roses, but these differences have been weighing on my mind for the past few weeks. I am still working out my thoughts and feelings about this summer in a lot of ways. I don’t expect to come to any conclusions or solutions, but I’d like to try and at least help work towards improvements.
I’ve been across the country and back a few times over this summer. I met a lot of people, met with a lot of friends, and had so many conversations about sex work and sex work activism that my head is still kind of spinning with ideas and inspiration. There is so much I want to take from other places and work I want to do locally and on a larger level. I feel like in every place I learned about localized struggles for sex workers rights and pockets of community taking care of their own quietly and without outside support.
I missed LA. I missed our chapter. I missed my friends. I missed my bed. I missed my life here terribly.
But I learned so fucking much. About activism. About sex work. About my friends and colleagues. And about myself. I spent time staying in peoples’ houses (because I have the most generous of friends!) and seeing how their day-to-day lives go. I got to have family dinners with Jenny and her boyfriend. I got to play with Megan’s cats. I got to laze around reading with Patti. I got to eat breakfast at Kate’s favorite breakfast spot in Brooklyn. I got intimate glimpses into how other people live – and I feel extremely privileged for that. And I got to connect with my mentors. I got to have lunch with Audacia Ray. And I got to spend days with Serpent Libertine – who got me into sex work activism in the first place. And remains one of my favorite people in the world to this day. Importantly, we also caught a game in Camden Field which remains a highlight of my summer.
I also learned a lot from the conferences I went to. From the Google Ideas Summit, the International AIDS Conference, and FetishCon respectively. I have a large stack of business cards to follow up on, long list of blog posts to write, and long list of projects to try and tackle. Per usual – I have plans and ambitions. I know not everything will be completed. I know some will fall into the black hole of good ideas that never quite get off the ground. And I’m trying to be ok with that.
I also still maintain that I learned far more in casual or intimate conversations at tables, in hallways, over food, and even poolside than I did in a single session. And that’s also ok. I think that’s the whole point of conferences and gatherings. But it means I won’t be coming back with session notes – but connections instead.
It was also a fucking expensive summer. And among other things that means I’m going to have to be much much better about getting paid for my time in one way or another. Which sucks – but is necessary.
So – my poor blog has been neglected. As have most of my domestic responsibilities. But I’m back. And I’m healthy! And that’s what matters right now.
The introduction of Momentum: Making Waves in Sexuality, Feminism, & Relationships claims that “we must recast the dialogue about sex with the premise that humans are sexual by nature. Healthy sexuality includes mutual respect, responsibility, and pleasure among persons who are both emotionally and physically ready” This statement seems to be at the heart of the conference from which these essays were collected, and of sex-positivity in general. For this collection to be effective or engaging, it requires that the audience agree with this central tenant. Momentum caters to its audience of those involved or familiar with sex-positivity and sexuality studies. It is clear that for the writers, sex-positivity means more than just changing the dialogue around sexuality, but around how we interact and engage with the world in general. Essays touch on everything from social media, access to medical care, feminist history, and publishing among others.
As an activist I was particularly concerned with the essays devoted to social justice. Carol Queen echoes much of my own feelings towards anti-sex-work advocates when she laments the lack of sex work (specifically porn performer) voices in debates regarding working and living conditions. Maggie Mayhem illustrates important values and guidelines for handling intimate partner abuse in sex-positive or otherwise radical communities. Both of these resonated with me, as they explored the complexities of both the theories and practices in their respective topics. Their concerns go beyond specific communities or issues, but can be translated to other situations.
But the final essay, “Why the Sex Positive Movement is Bad for Sex Workesrs Rights” by Audacia Ray, was the most compelling to me. Her writing was much less incendiary than I expected from the title, and I felt that her explanation of why sex-positivity is not enough for social justice for sex workers reflected many of the problems I had with the collection as a whole. It’s not that I (or Ray) disagrees with the tenants of sex-positivity, it’s that many of these conversations are inaccessible or inapplicable to marginalized communities. I think that this is a crucial point to take home from Momentum – that these are good ideas, and good work is being done, but we need to continue working to make them better.
With the exception of Ray’s piece, there is an implicit celebration of sex-positive values and communities throughout the collection. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a compilation of conference papers, it is important to keep in mind as a reader. I found the Momentum collection to be an interesting and insightful look at what’s going on in contemporary sex-positive communities and studies. However, I think there is more to explore and boundaries to be pushed. This should be the starting point for conversations about sexuality, not the conclusion.
Over the past year I’ve been giving presentations about sex work and sex workers rights. From explicitly activist or radical spaces, to classrooms, small groups, interviews, and one on one conversations, I’ve gained experience hitting the major talking points and discussing the concepts I tend to take for granted in my daily life. One of the challenges I still struggle with every time I start to speak is finding a balance of how much of my own life and experiences to share.
In my early presentations and conversations I focused heavily on myself as a sex worker and an activist. Partly because I didn’t know what else to do, and partly because it was similar personal stories that had helped me grow in my thinking and activism. I talked about how I got into sex work, my work as an escort, why I stopped escorting, and how I came into sex work activism. I shared my ambivalence and my mistakes as well as my joys and successes. And I think it helped. It was scary at times, and infuriating at others, but every time someone said I opened their minds or shifted their perspective I felt like it was worth it.
But it was exhausting. It felt like every time I talked about sex work (which is frequently) I was ripping myself open and letting strangers dissect parts of my life that I’ve barely let the people closest to me into. And I was deeply uncomfortable, and even disturbed, by some of the questions I was asked. It felt salacious. I felt like a curiosity on display even as I was trying to humanize their perception of sex workers. Even the broadly political or philosophical questions sometimes felt like there was an extra personal slant. I felt extra pressure to have the right answer, even regarding my life or my feelings, which are often messy.
I have since altered my presentation style to be far less about me. Besides being easier on me personally, I like to think that we’re able to focus more on the issues and broader range of sex workers than my earlier efforts. Since this shift in focus I’ve heard far fewer questions that made me cringe, and far fewer questions or comments that felt intrusive or insulting. I’m still out, and I still have personal details here and elsewhere in my writing, but I speak about myself far less. I tend to think of this as a good thing, but I don’t want my presentations to seem like abstract concepts or inapplicable theories either. I don’t want my audience to walk away thinking mine is the face of sex work, but neither do I want them still holding the image of an anonymous pair of legs as the image of sex work either.
My worry is that without so much of that personal element my presentations are losing some of their impact. I can’t help but wonder if for some people those personal stories are what drew them in so intensely. I don’t want to take myself completely out of the equation, but I don’t want to center the conversation on myself either. I don’t want other presenters to feel like they have to be out, or have to share personal details, in order to be effective. I also don’t want my audience to feel like their entitled to ask anyone talking about sex work personal questions about their lives (though I’m sure many do anyway – I don’t want to encourage that behavior). I erred on the side of oversharing in the beginning, and now I can’t help but wonder if I’ve overcompensated. I don’t even know how to examine that.
I don’t imagine that I’m going to find the right balance in every situation. And I know there’s not some magic formula for how much or how little to share for each audience, though it would be nice. I wish I even knew what my goals and boundaries were, but the truth is that they often shift. My main concern has been, and continues to be, how to most effectively present this information and cause so people recognize its importance and how it fits into a larger scheme of oppressions. I want people to care about sex workers lives and human rights, and to shift their behavior accordingly. And I want to know how to make them do that. It seems like I’ve gotten something right in at least some of these talks, but I don’t necessarily know how to replicate it, let alone how to replicate it in a way that is sustainable for me and for other sex workers speaking in public.
When I saw Meet Us On The Street: International Stop Street Harassment Week I was incredibly excited. Street harassment is a (sadly) normalized part of my life, and I’ve been wrestling with my anger and frustration around the issue for years. For sex workers, street harassment can be particularly dangerous as the threat of violence is ever present. I’ve been lucky. I haven’t been physically or sexually assaulted on the street or otherwise. But my guard is up in public.
I remember the first time I was catcalled on the street vividly. I was 11 years old and walking with my best friend around her neighborhood in Orlando, FL. We had taken a trip to 7-11 and literally had gummy worms hanging out of our mouths and sweat pouring down our bodies in the tropical humidity. We were wearing nearly identical Old Navy jean shorts and cotton tank tops. A man drove by slowly, whistled, and called out “hey baby!” as he passed by. We stared at each other and erupted into giggles, marveling that we could elicit a “hey baby!” in our sweaty and candy filled state. We found the whole thing hilarious, but with a touch of pride.
Since then being catcalled or harassed on the street has become something of a common occurrence for me. Sometimes it is equally hilarious, like the man who drunkenly informed that I was the reason we won World War II. Other times it has been frightening, like the time a man yelled in my face that I “better find a rich husband to pay for that pussy!” I had a stranger on the street grab my arm and insist he wanted to play tennis with me. I’ve been whistled at, hollered at, leered at, complimented, insulted, propositioned, threatened, and groped on the street. And I will probably continue to experience all of that.