Making ourselves the expert.

11Jan09

A mountain of articles, books, and blogs on different social movements tends to boil down to one important point: who holds the power to frame the discourse? (The first time I read The History of Sexuality, I was both eager and horribly, horribly depressed.) Those with the power use knowledge to shape the dominant discourse, while those without the power try to resist. A successful social movement (like HIV/AIDS early activists) defines itself by the group in question framing themselves as the experts on their own social group.

This has very clear and obvious implications for sex workers rights activists. In order to succeed, we need to leverage ourselves as the experts on issues related to the welfare of sex workers. Which is about as easy as it sounds! We just break into academia, social policy, government positions, and the media and then people will listen to us!

If you didn’t realize I’m being sarcastic, you might want to revisit my other blog posts.

Our progress is impeded by groups who are only interested in tearing down our positions. We are dismissed as being a minority who speak for a majority, as being victims of patriarchal oppression that we’re unaware of, of ignoring the plight of those living in trafficked or forced/coerced sexual bondage. And there is no dialogue, just being shut down over and over again. There are no credible studies that indicate how many sex workers are actually the so-called middle class whatever we’re accused of being.

I find this position more than frustrating. I find it hypocritical and insulting. To the person of this ideological position, there are no sex workers, just prostituted women. The person is reduced to the sum total of what happens to her body (because the sex worker is always a woman in this analysis). The person has no voice, no personal autonomy. She is only what happens to her body. Which, for a group of people so interested in women’s liberation, is pretty contradictory.

This begs the question: how then, do we, who care about the health and safety of sex workers, move forward? There have been a number of really shining examples of this kind of focus. The creation of the Desiree Alliance conference series, for example. Sex workers teaching other sex workers. Or letter-writing campaigns to government officials over online crackdowns. Or the St. James Infirmary, a sex worker created and led clinic for sex workers. Or sex worker created and led street outreach programs.

These are instances of sex workers framing themselves as the experts on their communities. In roads into territory we should have been in a long time ago.

It’s not pleasant work. It’s sitting down at tables with people who you fundamentally disagree with. It’s learning their language and using it. And it’s exhausting.

But the other piece we don’t know is this: how does the public really feel? What do they really know about sex work? Gallup doesn’t do surveys on this. There have been very few if any studies on how the public in general feels about sex work and what they know about it.

To recap: we know neither what “everyone” thinks about sex work, nor do we know anything about “who” is a sex worker. Maybe this is where sex workers rights activists can step in to be the experts.

In short, I don’t know how sex workers can grab onto the reins and steer the discourse. I have some ideas. There are some things that have been done. But being constantly on the defensive is a bad place to be.

Perhaps we should all have to start signalling our expertise at the door, others included. What makes them the experts on sex work? Sure isn’t the credible research.

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