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submitted by members of SWOP-LA and featured in the October-December, 2013 (Vol. 26, No. 4) print edition of Turning The Tide
Back in 1997, a group of radical activist sex workers in India called the First National Sex Worker Congress, wrote a manifesto, and became some of the first to articulate the values of what has become known internationally as the “Sex Worker’s Rights Movement.” Their documents continue to inform a global struggle. They wrote that “this movement is for everyone who strives for an equal, just, equitable, oppression free and above all a happy social world.” They also acknowledged that “sexual inequality and control of sexuality engender and perpetuate many other inequalities and exploitation too.”
According to the First Congress, and most importantly, we are faced with a singular opportunity, a chance to get at the roots of multiple forms of injustice because the sex worker rights movement addresses racism, sexism, classism, and any and all other -isms that keep people oppressed. At the intersection of economic transaction and sexuality, one can find most of the darkest contradictions of the dominant industrialized, global capitalist paradigm we live under. Perhaps because of this, one can also access some of the most potent revolutionary potential.
We use the term “sex work” to refer to ourselves when we talk politics. Why should you use it too? First reason: sex workers came up with it for ourselves. We use it because it is gender neutral, and because it reminds us that the erotic industries are myriad, and our trajectories in the industries tend to be wildly unpredictable mixes of cultural/political/economic/personal factors with some very real commonalities among our varied experiences. We are sometimes doing legal work, sometimes extra-, para-, or straight up illegal, and saying “sex work” protects us from legal consequence while we try to find each other. When a person tells you s/he is a sex worker, your first question should not be “does that mean you’re a prostitute?” Your first question should be: “How can I be supportive to your struggle?”
Sex workers are operating in every neighborhood. We are working in every city, in every county, in every state, and, particularly in the United States of Amerikkka, we are subject to some of the most insidious divide-and-conquer tactics invented by the carceral state. A sex worker is the person most likely to be murdered, worldwide. Even those who work in “high-end” escorting have no recourse to community help or protection if they are in danger.
We are accused of spreading disease, when we have some of the most sophisticated safe sex practices available and often act as sexual health educators for our clients and communities. We are arrested for carrying condoms in New York, Los Angeles, and many other places, even though those condoms can save lives. We are the butt of “dead hooker” jokes, we are blamed for other people’s sexual problems, we are assumed to be broken people, children of molest or broken homes and addicts, and when we do suffer from sexual trauma or drug dependence, we do not receive compassionate care. We have to stand before judges in the courtroom, but we also are judged the instant we “out” ourselves to almost anyone.
Please note: the “we” spoken here is an important problem: some sex workers are laboring indoors, in privileged contexts, while some are working outdoors and barely surviving. As one might expect, people of color are disproportionately represented in this country’s jails and prisons, even though white women make up the majority of the American sex worker population. While it may seem that all this stigma and repression spells disaster for us, we have increased in number at every epoch. This creates a potential for solidarity among us: a shared struggle against state repression is always a good place to start.
However, sex workers organizing ourselves is only part of the picture if we are to build a movement against oppression that is intersectional, inclusive, intercommunal, and powerful. We need our allies in radical communities to answer our call to stand with us as workers, as women, as men, as trans people, as straight-gay-queer-bi-pan-other. As the sex workers at the First Congress knew, many sex workers absorb the societal stigma of shame and unworthiness. We need allies to recognize that stigma is a commonality that links all of us, despite the enormous diversity in our realities at work and in our lives. Our allies are people who fight for an end to social injustice, but they don’t always recognize us as allies to them. The tacit exclusion of sex workers from radical groups necessarily means a loss to the revolutionary community, considering that we are everywhere. A political activist doesn’t need to agree with a sex worker’s choices to stand in solidarity with her, just as we don’t need to agree with every choice made by every comrade in prison in order to stand in solidarity with them, particularly when we all call for the abolition of prisons! But we often find that the radical left would prefer to rescue, rather than join hands, with us.
Kthi Win, the chairperson of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers writes of her experience this way:
“The violence happens when feminist rescue organizations work with the police who break into our work places and beat us, rape us and kidnap our children in order to save us. As a movement, feminism is meant to believe in agency. Even oppressed women in sex work can make choices. But we cannot chose not to be saved when a policeman or police women has a gun pointed at our head.
What we need is for the mainstream women’s movement to not just silently support our struggle but to speak up and speak out against the extremists who have turned the important movement against real trafficking into a violent war against sex workers.”
Sex work is by definition consensual sex. Non consensual sex is rape, slavery, or trafficking. The Sex Worker’s Rights Movement has been instrumental in bringing trafficking cases to light; however, we are often regarded as trafficked persons against our own assertions of freedom and agency. We must, according to sexist capitalist logic, be either criminals or victims.
So ask yourself how you feel about sex work. Do you believe all people in the sex industries should be rescued from degradation? Are we disrespecting ourselves? Are we disrespecting decent, hard-working revolutionaries who know how to be good heterosexual monogamous partners? Are we disrespecting women’s liberation to assert that some of us prefer working with pimps than working independently, given our choices? Are we lost to the cause of destroying the capitalist state, because we are already slut-shamed and ostracized?
We imagine an autonomous sexuality in which all people have the right to say “yes” or “no,” in which there is no space for guilt or oppression, in which people are communicating respectfully about their desires and needs. We invite those on the radical left to: consider your own internalized shame about sex, demand of yourself a higher consciousness about your own prejudice against sex workers, and demonstrate a commitment fight alongside us, because we are already fighting alongside you.
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* (Ed: On March 5, 2012, several thousand “occupy” protesters and their allies descended on the Capitol in Sacramento to “demand” nothing more than their human right to education. Or so many of them thought. The following is an account of the events of that day, submitted recently by an OLAASM comrade who was there. We offer this brief introduction only to give context to our comrades’ insights.)
Never doubt that a group of thoughtless, committed reformists can completely smother a radical moment.
It is a special occasion when approximately 500 people invade a State capitol, ready and willing to take direct action and risk arrest to Occupy it for the night. it is an even more awesome spectacle when the enthusiasm and the opportunity to do something politically relevant is robbed from those 500 people by a crew of dipshits like the ones who assumed control of the action once people were inside, and steer them into a dead-end “process” that subverts the goals that brought them together in the first place.
After driving all night from Southern California in a van filled with comrades, we were excited to arrive in Sacramento and participate in a highly anticipated direct action - an attempt at an overnight occupation of the Capitol.
As we “take” the Rotunda in the entrance of the Capitol building, rather than chant in victory, the facilitators quickly mobilize themselves and began an enthusiastic chant of “please…sit…down.” Please sit down?! Why should we sit down? So that our fearless facilitators can tell us what the General Assembly is going to do. However, the moment the Assembly is announced, the sheriffs move into position and block off all four entrances into the Rotunda. When questioned why, the sheriffs, predictably, do not respond. When a comrade tries to walk through, he is pushed back. This is supposed to be the day when we, students and citizens, reclaim the Capitol; instead almost immediately it becomes clear that we are not here to take back public space, we are not here to Occupy, rather, we are here for another performance of planned, civil disobedience.
It did not take long to realize that the General Assembly had been co-opted by liberal reformist, patriarchal white men and women, who spread fear mongering, misinformed predictions for how the day would unfold (you WILL get arrested!!!), turning the General Assembly into a ridiculous, tedious discussion about ‘demands.’ When we spoke up to ask why we weren’t discussing whether we should even be making demands, whether that is really what we should be spending our time on when we were surrounded by the police state, we were not listened to; we were looked at with blank or suspicious stares.
A large chunk of time, at least an hour, was devoted merely to the number of demands that we should make. 1-5, 5-10, 10-15? The option of zero demands was conspicuously missing. Zero demands, not explained, not de-constructed, finally presented as an option, gains only a fraction of the votes. What did it matter anyway? the vote was at its best symbolic; but more realistically, it was useless.
After determining the number of demands, they thank us for our patience because we are wearing thin. our bladders are full. As commands from our facilitators to “BE QUIET” echo against the walls of the rotunda, frustration settles in. Thousands of eager activists did not travel hours to the heart of the state government apparatus to be harassed by one relentless question: “What are our demands?”
The demands sprawled from ‘pass Prop ‘x’and 'free education' to 'end capitalism.' Yet the only demand (chant) that made any sense was, “CHP…Let us pee!”Coincidentally, that was the only demand that was conceded, passed only with incongruous help from Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom with his slicked back hair and photo-ready smile. After awhile, much to the chagrin of the facilitators, no paid attention except for the people speaking themselves.
At 4:20 PM, we are mic-checked in order to hear a new proposal:a moment of silence followed by an ‘om.’Absurdly, this was the second most effective proposal of the day. We had spent three to four hours in the rotunda of the Capitol building, surrounded by armed sheriffs, talking about talking. What a waste of a congregation! What a waste of countless hours and hard fought funding, organizing, and traveling! We may not have a home, we may be beaten to a bloody pulp by a police state, but at least we will have demands!
The bright side of this situation is that the CHP was subjected to stand through one of the most miserably boring and useless General Assemblies ever. Really, if the state was thinking strategically, they would encourage us to stay there making masturbatory speeches, providing us with cots and food, until the movement completely implodes and we mic check ourselves to death!
At 5 PM, the Demands are still not tallied. Repeated votes on whether or not we want to leave begin. it is clear that the facilitation team wants to leave. They continue to inform us of how scary jail is, and how long we may end up there if we get arrested. In reality, they do not want to go to jail themselves, and it will look really bad if they leave and the rest of us stay. The rotunda had quickly escalated to symbolize the asphyxiation of an attempted step in the student movement. Students trickled out of the Capitol, exhausted and frustrated at the hollow demands process.
I asked a demonstrator who requested to be mentioned only as “enonymous” what he came here to do today and how he thought it went. He said, “Fuck shit up. Which did not happen here today,” and then walked away with his head hanging.
Another activist asked me what I thought we should have done instead of demands. I replied that we could have done anything. Here was a brilliant moment: a day where angry and passionate students from across the state of California were together in one room (sort of). Another world could have been possible within those elaborately designed walls. We could have shared our collective experiences of the oppressive, institutionalized educational system and how we could free ourselves. We could have discussed a tactical plan for actually taking and keeping the Capitol, instead of once again getting arrested symbolically. We could have used the day to form relationships with one another, to bring back ideas to our campuses, to begin to build a new society out of the ashes of the old one. Why make demands to a dying monster? She agreed with me whole-heartedly and would have rather done that but had simply not understood what “zero demands” meant. For her, voting on demands was tedious and alienating, forcing her to frantically research each proposition before she voted on it. Sounds vaguely similar to a current system… right?
A General Assembly should not be utilized to formulate demands when you issue a call to Occupy. A general Assembly is a group of organized individuals who make collective decisions. to pre-suppose that demands are necessary immediately frames the conversation.
The debate of demands is a contentious one. It is not one to be glossed over. Occupy Wall Street was a success because it was radically different. It dared to question the hierarchical nature of society. It dared to be horizontal, to work based on consensus (and not vote), to be directly democratic and action oriented. It dared to be no more business as usual, punctuated by tents that sprung up everywhere. It dared to be anarchist, to demand nothing and to take what was needed.
Demands are inherently harmful to this movement. Demands invite reform and legitimize the state as an institution of power. We do not need the state.
Demands are a tactic. They are a specific strategy that can be utilized for revolutionary change. But they are definitely not the only strategy for revolution. Why should we move forward with demands? We need to critique the strategy of demands upon the state. To set an agenda with a vote on demands is top-down, and is a mimic of the system which already exists. We should have immediately questioned the authority of the self-proclaimed facilitators. We should have hard-blocked their agenda. Our first “demand” should have been for the sheriffs to release our comrades and unblock them from the rotunda.
There is a reason why, on #J28, the Oakland Police used brute force on activists and then kettled over 400 people. It was because the action threatened the fundamental power of the system: private property. If Occupy the Capitol had manifested itself as a reclamation of public space, the sheriffs would have utilized all the fancy weapons they brought that day. But Occupy the Capitol was not a threat. It was not an act of resistance. It was - at its best - an empty gesture.
We never reached consensus on the demands. We left with the perilous sense that the lobbyists upstairs were actually more effective than us that day. The pigs were bored and not threatened. Even the most staunch neo-con can wait out a day of ‘liberal’ protest.
If we are to change our world, if we are to win a better educational system, we need to dream, we need to dare, we need to shut the fuck up about demands and create, take, take over, and be free!
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It has become commonplace within OLA to toss this word - radical - around as if applying that label to someone, in and of itself, may serve to mitigate their influence or even to dismiss their suggestions altogether. In light of this, it has become imperative that we come to an understanding of what, precisely, it means to be a radical in the United States in 2012.
: of, relating to, or proceeding from a root
Even in 2008, an election many proclaimed to be a watershed moment in American, electoral politics and generally regarded as a fundamentally important “election” for this nation (ed. the are never “important”), voter turnout was a mere 56.8% of eligible voters. While that was the greatest turnout since 1968 - it still represents little more than simple majority of eligible voters.
“We are a minority — the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through”, beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now.”
The truth is: we’re all radicals now. We were radicals the second we closed our laptops and participated in something other than writing a blog. Even if we write reformist piffle when we log back on, we’re radicals because we don’t just write. We occupy. We engage. We resist. We strike. So embrace it. Love it. We’ll all be in the same jail cells and courtrooms (self-described “liberals” and “radicals” alike) - we might as well get to know each other better and understand that - relatively speaking -
OccupyLA is radical. To occupy is fucking radical.