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.