Thinking Critically about Activism
My feelings of anger, outrage, ire, elation, hope, and so forth, in the wake of the election are ebbing into serious critical thinking. I am thinking about the future of social movements I care about. The sex workers rights movement, the queer rights movement, the feminist movement, pro-choice movements. I have had a number of discussions with people around me, fellow activists, loved ones, concerned friends, some of which have been tearful, some shouting. All of this has resulting in a slowly forming conceptualization, sort of a routing disc of floating debris pulling together post-Big Bang style.
From my experience as an activist and from reading all I can about social movements, it’s clear to me that the current sex workers rights movement has some things to straighten out. The first of which is an attainable goal. I think Prop K, though defeated, represents something of an excellent goal. Hearings with district attorneys about Craigslist, about the failure of police to follow-up on crimes against sex workers, these are good goals.
I don’t think attempting to legitimate the sex worker identity or legitimate sex work as a profession is a good goal. It’s too nebulous. It requires tackling decades and centuries of culture. Changing ideology is much, much harder than changing practices, which eventually will lead to changes in ideology over the long run.
In talking with a professional community organizer, I learned that having an attainable goal isn’t enough. You also need small steps toward achieving that goal. Small goals along the road to the bigger goal. Protests and letters to the editor are not enough. You need to map the paths of influence in politics and start attacking those in power.
I don’t think I realized how important these clear, strategic actions are. I come from an activist background of mayhem, essentially, creating chaos to shake people up. All this does is piss people off. I knew this, but I wanted to piss people off. Now I want to actually effect change.
This process is going to involve unpleasant interactions. It is going to involve talking to anti-prostitution activists, to academics and scholars, to members of the legal system, to politicians. These people have resources and legitimacy. Talking to them is not going to be pleasant. They will have all kinds of uninformed and derogatory stereotypes about sex work. But these stereotypes won’t change until activists sit across from them at the table.
This is a process many movements have used. They take the language, the knowledge, and the thought processes of those in charge, and learn them intimately. Then, the activists can go to the table with the other groups and talk their language. The other groups then start to understand that the activists know something. The activists posit themselves as the experts on their group of interest. It’s not a fair process, and it’s difficult, but it’s how many successful social changes have occurred.
I can see the sex workers rights movement doing this. Learning the language and the research of academics and anti-prostitution activists, the knowledge of law enforcement officers and prosecutors, and then approaching these groups using their language and knowledge to present ourselves as experts on the population of concern: sex workers. After that, it’s a process of finding common group. Anti-prostitution activists, for example, want to see no harm come to women (usually just women!) involved in the sex industry, and so do sex workers rights activists.
As for academics, this is a rivalry I don’t understand. No one likes to be studied. This I understand without question. But academics are the people in society who hold the power to legitimate sex work. If no sex workers will talk to academics but those in re-entry programs and treatment facilities for drug problems (often because they have no choice), then that’s the picture of sex work academics will get. Instead of waiting for academics to come to us as activists, we need to approach them. Rather than ask them, What can you do for us?, we need to ask, What can we do for you? This does not mean we do whatever they want and become their tools and subjects. It means we are willing to engage in a dialogue with them.
This is not meant to be a criticism of sex workers rights activists in the commonly understood sense of criticism. I think the work these activists have been doing is inspiring and amazing. I would not have the community I do without them and their hard work. They’re benefited the lives of so many individuals. But I do want to think critically about sex workers rights activism. Social change can happen, and will happen, when we join together as a community and work effectively.
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Tags: abolition, academia, activism, sex work