by Furry Girl

04.28.11

It's common for grassroots activists to have issues with creating good branding and messaging, and this topic is something I've been thinking about a lot this year with regards to the sex workers rights movement and what I want to do with my upcoming project.  I've been trying to step back from things and look at them with a fresh pair of eyes.  What concepts are we most getting across to the public?  What are we directly telling them, and what are our actions more subtly telling them?  (This is sort of an extension of the outreach post I wrote earlier this month.)

Graphics-wise, we rally around the image of a red umbrella.  I have no idea how people came to pick this as our logo.  Was it because sex work is so sad that there's a flood of tears, and the umbrella is protecting us from the tear storm?  That's the best idea I can think of.  If I don't get it, I'm guessing that the public doesn't get it either.  It's not as vague a graphic/shape as, say, a red ribbon for HIV awareness, but it's also not as obvious as the Sierra Club's logo of a tree, or March of Dimes' logo of a figure cradling an infant.  "We feel safe inside red umbrellas!  We demand more free red umbrellas from the government!  Stop beating us with red umbrellas!" I have no idea what we're trying to express.

Going deeper than my quibbles with confusing clip art, I think it's a mistake that the sex workers rights movement in the US is pretty much perma-linked with the radical sexuality/BDSM scene.  I am a sex-positive pervert, but that doesn't mean that I think we ought to be tacitly pushing the message that sex workers rights is a niche concern only for sexual deviants.  I've touched on this before, but wanted to stress it again.

Closely linking the sex workers rights and sex-positivity/kink worlds feels like a clique-y move, the banding together of big city sexual rebels to thumb their noses at the vanilla mainstream, not a political strategy that wins mass converts and legislative gains.  I've said it many times: I don't want sex workers rights to be a cause only supportable by perverts.  No other labor or human rights campaign would have a construct like this.  "If you're not into sewing, then there's no room for you to express concern about sweatshops and working conditions in textile factories."  Or, imagine if the gay rights movement had sodomy as its key piece of branding and activism, conveying a message that if you're not into ass-fucking, you're not hip enough to support equal rights for queer people.

And what about all the sex workers for whom the job is just a job?  Must they be subject to grudgingly attending yet another erotic dance party/dildo decorating contest/porn screening fundraiser?  I don't want those sex workers to feel alienated from their own movement just because they're not in the mood to attend a sexually-themed event as a form of recreation.  Sexuality is a big part of my life, but I also have the self-awareness to realize that it's not that way for everyone, and not all sex workers identify as renegade sluts.  (Most don't, I'm guessing.)

It's hard to envision what a sex workers rights fundraiser/event would look like if it didn't involve some combination of topless women, sexually explicit art, loud music, sex toys, and cocktails.  Our message seems to be, "Support sex workers rights, because we're sexy people who throw a good party!"  I don't mean to sound like an anti-party wet blanket, but it would be great to see sex worker events that reach out to public through a medium other than sexy outfits, booze, and dancing.  What about a nice, wholesome bake sale - in the middle of the day?  Sex workers have some amazing cooks in our ranks, so how about we show off a talent other than entertaining people with our sexiness?  What about a "sex workers clean up a city park" day?  Aren't we trying to show that we're a normal and productive part of our communities?  By and large, public events that American sex workers organize are about mostly sexy/arty/party things, then some vigils for dead hookers sprinkled in.  What message does that send?  "We're creative sluts who party, then we get killed, and it's sad?"

Even with more multilayered events like New York's Red Umbrella Diaries, the dynamic of almost all of our happenings is that sex workers are for entertaining the public.  Whether we're titillating the public by working as strippers or telling stories about working as strippers, it's still reinforcing the one-dimensional role of sex workers that our value hinges on our ability to amuse the normals via sexually-themed entertainments.  (This is why I have the world's most boring sex worker blog.  It's pretty much entirely devoid of stories about customers, even though I know that's what brings in the readers.)

I'd like to see the US sex workers rights movement brand itself more as a labor rights movement, a human rights movement, a free speech movement, a privacy movement, an immigration reform movement, and less of a "for badass sexual outlaws only" party bus.  Sexual freedom and sex positivity definitely belong in that mix, but we're holding ourselves back by putting radical sexuality at the forefront with so much of what we do and who we bother reaching out to.  Sex work is a complicated topic spanning all sorts of working conditions, classes, genders, and motivations.  We're selling ourselves short to limit its appeal so greatly.

How do you want to see sex workers portray our cause to the public?  What notes do you think we're failing to hit?  What are similar causes doing it better?

(As with everything I've said this year that calls for more activism and more participation from more types of people, I know I'm going to get comments/tweets/emails bitching at me for daring to criticize existing activism.  I'm not saying "we can never have a party again," or "readings and storytelling are evil and must be banned."  I want to create balance by doing and calling for more of the things that I consider useful, not by censoring or preventing anyone from doing their projects.  Spare me the "Why are you trying to stop ____ from doing ____?" commentary.)





27 Comments

  1. Dead on the money, as usual! I've never been much of a "party animal" myself, so I've often felt uncomfortable with the whole "all our events must be big virtual orgies" thing. I even take issue with the commonly-seen "sluts unite!" slogan for the exact reason that you state above: For me, as for many others, sex work is work, and I daresay most of us wouldn't be hopping into bed with nearly so many men if we weren't being paid for it. The whole "we're hot lascivious wantons" thing may attract male customers, but I think it has the opposite effect on Mr. and Mrs. Typical American.

    Sex Work is Work. I've seen that slogan often used in other countries, but not so much here, and I'd like to see that change.

    Comment by Maggie McNeill — April 28, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

  2. it's different in Paris!
    the sexworker's movement here really has a community of its own, quite distinct from the sex-radical/queer/feminist communities. Of course there are alliances, and overlap. but the sexworker's rights movement is very independant from these other movements, and has mostly been branding itself as a labor movement.
    for example the main organization is called the Sex Work Trade Union (STRASS, Syndicat du Travail du Sexe).
    I think a big part of the movement here is made of people who see their job as just a job, people who don't necessarily like their job, who might not have chosen it, who don't have very privileged working conditions, but who want rights, decriminalisation, less stigma, etc. There are lot of older straight women who didn't become sex workers because it was the new trendy thing to be in the queer community, or because they felt it was empowering, but simply because it would pay their bills.
    the fact that the point of our movement is *not* to say sexwork is awesome and fun and love and art, but simply to ask for rights, I think, keeps us away from making it only about sex-and-party type of events.
    One of our annual Whore Pride Marches was funded by the Parisian Queer Food For Love (sex workers and allies cooked vegan dinner for 80-120 people, and made money while feeding people and making friends with them!)
    We often screen movies (not porn, documentaries about sex work). We organize conferences (on HIV & STDs, on the legal situation of sex work, on escorting & the Internet, on the government's project to criminalize our clients...). Workshops with safety tips, sexworker-only talks to share knowledge, feelings and experiences. Sexworker-specific self-defense classes. We march to ask for our rights or protest government policies. We talk to the media whenever some politician wants to make a new law to opress us. We go to sexwork neighbourhoods and provide condoms, legal counseling, support against the police etc. These are the kind of things we do. We've mostly stayed away from party-stripping-sextoys-etc, not that any of us has anything against these things, just because it hasn't really come to anyone's mind. it's just not the way the movement has envisioned its activism so far.
    We always bring it back to a labor issue. Because that's what it is. And it's also the most efficient way to get rights. I think it has also allowed us to have more allies in the political arena - other trade unions have invited us to debate with their members; some left-wing politicians are officially our allies; we actually held our sex worker conference last year at the Senate, invited by a senator; one of the keynote speakers at the previous one was a famous journalist... Some more radical people in the movement don't like that mainstream turn it's taking so this year the sexworkers conference was more DIY and more radical. But altogether, the radical anarchists and the more mainstream unionists, we really fight this struggle in a more traditional labor activism kind of way, although we do include elements of identity politics and sexual politics and feminism in there. So, yeah, the sex worker rights movement in France mostly brands brands itself as a labor issue, and although I had never thought about it before reading your post, now I realize that it makes it very different from what I've seen of the sexworker movements in North America.

    Comment by JudyMinx — April 29, 2011 @ 1:54 am

  3. This post shows excellent political judgment, IMHO.

    Comment by Dr. Faustus — April 29, 2011 @ 2:54 am

  4. Rather than supporting just sex worker rights, a focus on sex worker rights as part of a coalition for the rights of consenting adults in general--some form of libertarianism. I found your TSA article linked from several libertarian-leaning blogs and I think we could be allies. While 'consenting adults' is usually attached to sex rights, it really applies everywhere--if you aren't hurting or endangering others, you should be allowed.

    Too many people want freedom for their interests, but want to restrict others--even when the others aren't doing any harm. Rather than liberal vs. conservative, look at libertarian vs. stateist.

    Comment by Sevesteen — April 29, 2011 @ 6:16 am

  5. Imagine if we could get the Teamsters at an event, or something.

    Comment by Miss C — April 29, 2011 @ 6:29 am

  6. For some years I have been calling for 'cultural study' of commercial sex, to include all kinds of people, venues, intentions - and I write about this myself a lot so agree with you ( http://www.lauraagustin.com/sex-tourism-stripping-rentboys-brothels-courtesans-pornography-escorts-and-solidarity-what-more-could-you-ask ) is one example.

    The leaders of social movements are often friends and comrades and share perceptions, of course. the australian sex worker rights movement is more established and mainstreamed (the current word for what you are describing), and i recall that they did do a sort of bake sale thing once: http://www.lauraagustin.com/sex-tourism-stripping-rentboys-brothels-courtesans-pornography-escorts-and-solidarity-what-more-could-you-ask

    about the red umbrella, i was present when it was thought up, not as a universal symbol at all, there was no such intention. we were at a late stage of planning the 2005 brussels conference on rights and labour and were going to have a march/demonstration. it was likely to rain on the day, in october, so we talked about umbrellas and someone said we could all have the same colour and someone else suggested red. in europe red is not only associated with red lights but also with labour movements/marxism (if you look at this picture and source for the story you see the association: http://www.lauraagustin.com/sex-worker-rally-in-london-against-policing-and-crime-bill ).

    or this one: http://www.lauraagustin.com/studentesse-e-precarie-in-solidarieta-con-le-sex-workers-rome-protest

    but these ideas were not voiced, we just smiled and agreed on red. that it has been picked up all over the world is testimony to something but i don't know how to put a name to it.

    Comment by Laura Agustín — April 29, 2011 @ 6:40 am

  7. I never quite 'got' the whole sex worker activism in the BDSM community thing. I mean, its nice when people agree with you and support you, but its also preaching to the choir. We already agree! For the most part, the people who go to those events already *get it*, and yes, again, nice, but I don't think its doing much to raise awareness of sex work as *work* that should be protected. You don't need me to agree with you anymore, you need to get my mother on board and understanding.

    Plus, conflating sex with sex work activism has the chance of scaring off people who are freaked out by sex (particularly kinky sex). And the image that comes out of that is 'look at this people running around naked and having parties' rather than 'look at these people trying to get equal rights and protections for their jobs'. A kinky party is a great fundraiser for, say, a title basket, or helping out someone in the community, but something like a bake sale, where people have their clothing on and are providing tasty treats in a public setting is much more approachable than a big party to the general public.

    Comment by Wendy Blackheart — April 29, 2011 @ 11:59 am

  8. So much to comment on and so little time,
    Everyday I wake up with a full agenda about how to move the prostitutes rights movement forward and am always torn about how best to spend my time.

    Seems like you've posed questions that our history could answer. History always gives some indication about where to go next. It seems your hostility is from not having access to our collective history?

    Talking is my best form of communication really.

    But just a few notes, one of the reason I called our organization the Erotic Service Providers Union is because, 1) we as in some of us, are in association for our right to work and have been doing so officially since 2004 2) using labor organizing as our means because it's more sustainable and successful and speaks to our actual status as workers.3) Our work is erotic in nature and we must have the dignity to identify in anyway we want, (as we've found in our surveys), 4) We've organized with queer political groups because they've got grassroots/political clout that have long relationships with organized labor, who have even bigger clout..and they've made themselves available to us because our founders and current organizers like myself are a part of them. There's a 'relationship' there. That's what organizing for our rights is all about is the 'relationship' We don't have that much clout as a movement because our movement isn't very politically active or savoy as per evidence that the visible 'media whores' as I call them, are constantly lost addressing some bullshit barriers created outside of us. Addressing these manufactured archaic 'issues' have the effect of stopping meaningful organizing.

    I'd say some of us who've done some actual political work have accumulated political capital to spend and are spending it daily on behalf of the prostitute nation.

    Now I've got to get back onto my unpaid work as a labor rights organizer and spend that political capital for the erotic service providers union.

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — April 29, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  9. I think the relationship between our movement and the bdsm and sexpositive communities should ideally be more like coalition building than close affiliation or total absorption by them. And we should only work together with any group when it is to our benefit as workers. To the degree that there groups can help us with destigmatzation and decriminalization, they are worthwhile. I think that should be the criteria for building a coalition with groups that have other purposes of their own. Those purposes may be very valuable, but we have our own agenda to attend to.

    Comment by Kay — April 29, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

  10. Maggie: I'm someone who actually does own one of the "sluts unite!" shirts, which I bought at the merchandise table at a sex workers rights event. Hey, I'm a slut, I'm in favor of slut unity, but I also know that I don't want sex workers rights to be branded as a "sluts only" sort of thing.

    JudyMinx: I agree with you, and I've gathered that things are different in Europe. I'd love to be where you're at in Paris. In the states, there's a strong sentiment in favor of privacy rights and the right to free speech, and those are both important issues, as well as labor, that I think make sex workers rights appeal to broader audiences than just perverts. Plenty of conservative-leaning Americans can get on board with the idea of a person's right to run their own small business without government interference, but wouldn't be as swayed by the idea of "empowered queer whores who love sex."

    Sevesteen: My focus at this point in my life is on sex workers rights issues. I agree that sex workers rights have much in common with general sexual freedom groups (as well as more general libertarian or antiauthoritarian orgs), but sex work issues are their own distinct cause.

    Laura: I love what you do. I wish your book and blog was as widely read as all the popular sex blogs about this season's latest dildo and feminist porn offerings. Thank you for the backstory on the red umbrella. It's strange that I've never seen that explained anywhere.

    Wendy: Totally agreed. I want to see sex workers rights actually do REAL OUTREACH. We're great at cuddling with the choir, but it's time to get out there and reach the public. Kink conferences are not the general public. Feminist dildo review blogs are not the general public. I don't have anything against either, but it seems like so many sex workers have major blinders on about how big the world actually is outside the sex bubble.

    Maxine: I take exception to the interpretation of my original post as "hostile" and that I don't know anything about history. It annoys me that every time I post any *constructive, useful criticism* of the American sex workers rights scene, I get gripes about how I'm an asshole who stirs up infighting and attacks other activists. I find the sex workers rights scene to be especially prickly about having discussions about how it works (or fails to work). Anyway, I am aware that not all sex workers rights groups and projects are focused on the sex-positive/kinky/slut-pride angle, and I have never argued that all groups are that way. Unionizing and fighting unlawful labor practices in strip clubs is a great example of people focusing on a labor perspective, but from what I can see, the majority of sex work events/groups/projects/blogs are not coming from that same place. And here's another thing: I'm not just interested in what you term "the prostitute nation" or "the prostitutes rights movement." I'd like to see sex workers as a whole working towards shared major goals (de-stigmatization and decriminalization) even though our smaller goals are more specific to each industry. I think it alienates a lot of people when we use a "whores unite!" vibe and use the terms "sex worker" and "prostitute" interchangeably, since there are tons of sex workers in porn, stripping, massage, fetish work, and other areas. At the Desiree Alliance conference, I was a definite outsider as a non-prostitute, and I'd like to see more non-prostitute sex workers take interest in the overall sex workers rights picture.

    Kay: I agree that the kink/sex-positive community are good allies. I want us to think bigger than just coalition-building with other radical sexuality groups, though.

    Comment by Furry Girl — April 29, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

  11. I don't see hostility as a bad thing

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — April 29, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  12. I don't see hostility necessarily as a bad thing, Just trying to help with making the connection to where we are and how we got here as a means to build upon not necessarily to abandon.

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — April 29, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  13. Maxine: I wouldn't label myself as "hostile" towards the sex workers rights movement. I think it needs serious help in being able to have a broader appeal to the general public, but that doesn't mean I'm calling on people to "abandon" it. Quite the opposite - I want people to think smarter and make it better and more popular than ever.

    Comment by Furry Girl — April 29, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

  14. So I'm confused; you want the movement to have broader appeal to the general public for what purpose? How is it that you see the extent of our appeal now? Who do you want to think smarter, the movement or the public? And what do you see popularizing our movement will do for us?

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — April 29, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

  15. I hear you, but I felt like I really had to stretch my neck out to make friends with people on a violence against sex worker angle (she was an anti-sex work feminist/human trafficking activist) and that kind of bit me in the ass when I was included in a report written by some douche from a human trafficking group in RI trying to link a talk I gave at Brown and their "HIV crisis".

    So, I think safe alliances are a good idea or at least alliances with people that do better research?

    On the red umbrella: I'm kind of into symbols, I always thought the red umbrella was for safety because it protects you from the rain and solidarity because everyone has a red one.

    Comment by Sequoia — April 30, 2011 @ 3:08 am

  16. Maxine: I am also confused, so we have that one thing in common. I can't even comprehend how anyone can conceptualize a fight for major social, legislative, and political change as something that doesn't need (and shouldn't have) any support from the public.

    Sequoia: I'm not opposed to forming alliances with sex-positive groups or "safe" circles, I just want us to think bigger. It's definitely easier to reach out to people who already have so much in common with us, but even if we get all the perverts and feminists and dildo bloggers on board, that's not enough to pass an initiative to repeal laws against sex work. The non-interest in making sex workers rights appeal to the general public is the greatest failing of American's ho revolution, as gaining public understanding and support is a topic that any other social movement would have considered Step One.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 1, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

  17. My questions for you was for clarification on whom you were addressing, because you stated in your original post "I'd like to see more non-prostitute sex workers take interest in the overall sex workers rights picture" but then switched to focus on the public. And what's the one thing we have in common?

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — May 1, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

  18. And just for your FyI, many of the folks who signed the petition to qualify Prop K for the ballot in San Francisco were folks who knew Margo St. James and had attended the 'parties'. I didn't even have to go into my 5 second on the street spiel with them, they all know the decrim word.
    Also, our last fundraiser didn't feature any nude women or dildo give-aways.
    Also my experience is that coalition building involved groups identifying common ground with other groups. Generally, individuals join groups they have affinity with. And many of the groups are already on board with moving our issues forward, religious, labor, women, immigrant groups, political, LGBT, young peoples groups. The ground work is already there. What do you want to with it? See them run commercials saying 'prostitutes are okay'?
    I use the prostitute word to describe myself and my immediate community. I don't identify as sex worker personally. When I was in Belem Brazil for the world social forum in 2009, we had a great discussion about what we call ourselves.

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — May 1, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

  19. Maxine: Since your goal here seems to be to antagonize me and dismiss my ideas about fostering greater sex worker unity and public outreach, how about you go and focus your energy on whatever your organization does instead? No one's forcing you to participate in what I'm working on. Goodbye.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 1, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

  20. My focus at this point in my life is on sex workers rights issues. I agree that sex workers rights have much in common with general sexual freedom groups (as well as more general libertarian or antiauthoritarian orgs), but sex work issues are their own distinct cause...

    ...but even if we get all the perverts and feminists and dildo bloggers on board, that's not enough to pass an initiative to repeal laws against sex work.

    This narrow focus only on the rights that a particular person wants to exercise frustrates me--not just with you, but with lots of groups. Helmet laws, marijuana legalization, gay marriage, polygamy, unlicensed florists, barbers and hair braiders...the list goes on. I'm monogamous, straight, don't smoke anything, never ride a motorcycle without a helmet and have no interest in arranging flowers or fixing hair--but ALL those things should be legal without government interference. And as long as their proponents see them as a distinct cause the chance of change is drastically reduced.

    Although I am in favor of legalizing sex work, it isn't a priority for me--but a politician who favors keeping sex work illegal isn't likely to match my other views.

    As you said to Sequoia, think bigger. Indeed--lots bigger. Instead of working to get government out of just MY business, lets work to get it out of OUR business.

    Comment by Sevesteen — May 1, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

  21. Sevesteen: Sorry, I don't have time to overthrow the government and upend all of the entire planet's oppressive constructs. I'm going to keep focusing my own time and energy on sex workers rights. Best of luck in your quests.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 1, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  22. Not talking about overthrowing the government, not even close. I'm not talking about giving up on promoting your specific cause. What I am saying is that electing current major party candidates isn't going to get your cause anywhere. Electing real libertarians (not Tea Party, although that movement could stagger in the right direction if it can get the republicans to let go) is likely to get what you want as a side effect. They won't care about you either, but won't think it is any of the government's business.

    It won't be next year either way, but it's in the right direction.

    Comment by Sevesteen — May 1, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

  23. U sort of remind me of Daisy Anarchy.

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — May 1, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

  24. Maxine: I'm glad that you've already accomplished all of your goals for your "prostitute nation" that you supposedly fight for, and now you have all this free time to dismiss and insult me in the comments of my blog. You are a true inspiration.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 1, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

  25. Sevesteen: I would not hold out much hope for socially liberal policies from whatever politician terms himself a "libertarian." Ron Paul, the poster-child of said political viewpoint, possesses rather medieval opinions on the matter of sexual and marriage rights. Paul regularly refers to homosexual activity as "disruptive" or potentially so. Besides, libertarians tend to only have fringe support and are anything but mainstream; it seems that Furry Girl is advocating for the sort of appeal that would compel centrist politicians.

    Furry Girl: Not in any way a sex worker, but I do enjoy reading your blog.

    If I had to make a useful criticism, I would note that the gay-rights lobby, despite regularly handing a decent chunk of change to the Democratic Party, is regularly skull-fucked by said party that does so, I assume, in an attempt to better appeal to mainstream, that is knuckle-dragger, America. However, the younger generation is significantly more enlightened to social matters than their parents, so things will ultimately become better, so I hope.

    The gay-rights lobby has been at this, in various forms, for at least half a century; while you certainly have my support, you may be hold and graying before the general populace is of one mind with you on the rights of sex workers.

    Comment by CntrlScrut — May 2, 2011 @ 7:32 am

  26. CntrlScrut: Totally agreed on the US's libertarian party. Last presidential election, they ran Bob Barr, who authored the Defend of Marriage Act. If the libertarians could show me a candidate for office that's not an old rich white guy who's even more socially conservative than the republicans, I'd probably vote for them. (I know there are some awesome libertarians out there that I have lots in common with, but the ones that run for political office tend to be neocon assholes who couldn't care less about personal freedoms and privacy.) And also, yes, I agree that this is a long slog. I will be pleased if there's a noticeable change in the public perception of sex work within my lifetime. I don't expect this to happen in the next year or two.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 2, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  27. And you remind me of me too, I remember being mad when coyote didn't return my call.

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — May 3, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

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