The Women’s March organization is no stranger to controversy (see: accusations of racism, transphobia, and anti-Semitism). Now it’s in the midst of another — this one regarding its defense of sex workers, and, indirectly, their long-contested place within the women’s movement.
The wading-in came with a single tweet, in response to the governmental seizure and shutting down of Backpage.com, a hub for escorts and other sex workers. (On Friday, its CEO pleaded guilty in court to charges of money laundering and facilitating prostitution.) The shutdown reportedly came just before the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a bipartisan measure that aims to fight sex trafficking by reducing legal protections for online hosts.
Sex workers, though, say it not only fails to do that, but that it also threatens vital online safety measures.
. The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Sex workers rights are women’s rights. Follow @SafeSpacesDC @melissagira @swopusa @KateDAdamo @supporthosechi @anaorsomething for more info. https://t.co/S3Orx3aM8Z
— Women’s March (@womensmarch) April 7, 2018
“In the coming days,” the Women’s March tweet continued, “we will be sharing more about sex workers’ rights to uplift this critical issue. We’re all still learning and as always, we have to listen to the voices of those most impacted.”
It drew fast and furious responses from both sides of the issue, prompting more than 1,000 retweets and 4,000 comments, including from Rosanna Arquette and feminist writer Meghan Murphy, who opposed the Women’s March tweet, as well as many sex workers, who supported it.
There are always pimps involved ..billions made ..its called sex slavery.
— Rosanna Arquette (@RoArquette) April 7, 2018
This is complete and utter bullshit. Defending Backpage = defending wealthy men who knowingly profited from the exploitation and abuse of girls https://t.co/e73guewNF4
— Meghan Murphy (@MeghanEMurphy) April 8, 2018
Also, the sex work lobby keeps telling us any laws holding men who exploit women/girls accountable will ‘drive prostitution underground’ but now apparently the concern is that it will ‘drive prostitution onto the streets’? Make up your mind.
— Meghan Murphy (@MeghanEMurphy) April 8, 2018
The Women’s March tweet — which many called “disgusting,” “vile,” and “misinformed,” and prompted cries for its deletion — also quoted a tweet from Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. “Sex work is consensual. Sex trafficking is coerced,” it explained. “The crackdown on Backpage is not about ending trafficking; it’s motivated by the patriarchal notion that women should not be free to do what we want with our bodies.”
It continued: “Myth: Aren’t all sex workers forced into the sex trade? Fact: People choose sex work for a wide range of reasons — flexible schedules, higher pay than many other entry-level jobs, or just because they enjoy it. There are also people who engage in sex work because it’s the only option available to them while experiencing homelessness.”
It’s not the first time the Women’s March has weighed in on the idea of sex workers’ rights. At the organization’s Power to the Polls event in Las Vegas in January, there was a noticeable presence of sex workers’ rights activists, including a speaker on the official lineup from the organization Desiree Alliance. Many said that was the result of a more targeted welcome effort on the part of organizers who aimed to right a perceived wrong from 2016. As publicized by Janet Mock, it consisted of watering down and then removing a sentence embracing sex workers from the Women’s March mission statement, before reinstating it under pressure.
The issue remains a touchy one among women who equate all prostitution and sex work with sex trafficking, and who do not believe the majority of sex workers choose their careers.
“I think a woman ‘chooses’ prostitution for lack of choice. While yes, there may be a few women who genuinely choose prostitution because they enjoy it, the vast, vast majority end up in prostitution because they have no other choice,” Murphy tells Yahoo Lifestyle in an email. “That these ‘sex workers’ who claim prostitution is a neutral choice dominate the narrative in American/liberal media says a lot about what Americans would prefer to believe about what is an inherently violent, misogynist, harmful industry, but does not represent the full truth by a long shot.”
But many sex-worker activists vociferously defend their work as a freedom-of-choice issue, and decry the loss of Backpage and similar venues as a loss of safety.
“Sex workers don’t get protection from police, and we frequently don’t have familial resources or other forms of social support that other people might turn to in times of crisis,” California-based adult-film actress and activist Lorelei Lee told Yahoo Lifestyle recently. What we have is each other, so our ability to share information online includes allowing us to post to these platforms.”
She noted that those who oppose sex workers’ rights “say the choice to do sex work is inherently compromised because of financial incentive — and I’m willing to say that all labor is exploitative under capitalism; I have no disagreement with that. But I also think it’s extremely important to recognize that poor people still have agency. Having spent most of my life as a poor, working person, it is deeply offensive to me for someone to tell me that my ability to choose what I do with my body is compromised by not having money.”
The Women’s March has not tweeted about Backpage.com or sex workers since the post on April 7, and its spokespeople did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment on Friday.
[UPDATE: A Women’s March spokesperson responded to Yahoo Lifestyle over the weekend with a statement that, read in part: “Women’s March stands in solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement. We believe that sex workers, like all workers, should be able to work safely, without fear of harassment or violence. The criminalization of sex workers puts them in more danger, not less, by discouraging these workers from seeking help when needed or reporting assaults when they occur.
“Sex trafficking, and all human trafficking, is undeniably a human rights violation. It is an epidemic that must be taken very seriously. It is also an issue that must be understood and addressed as separate from sex work.
“The recently-passed legislation known as SESTA/FOSTA is opposed by both sex worker groups and anti-trafficking groups, on the grounds that it is harms sex workers while also being ineffective at preventing human trafficking.”]
One of the activist organizations it tagged in its tweet, Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA), which was also involved with outreach efforts for Power to the Polls, addressed the issue on its website.
It noted, in part: “The seizure of Backpage is another example of state-sanctioned violence against the sex work community and their families. To do this in the name of anti-trafficking is absurd, as this drives trafficking further underground and makes it more difficult to access the most marginalized members of any group of people — whether they be exploited or not.”
SWOP spokesperson Katie Bloomquist tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the organization has worked with the Women’s March on both a local and national level regarding the issue of sex-worker rights. “We have embraced the support from such a large, generally progressive organization, as this is unfortunately a rare event for proponents of sex workers rights,” she says, adding that “other organizations seem to show solidarity with sex workers only when it’s convenient (when they want our support), and their current silence and lack of support is deafening and disappointing.”
Bloomquist addressed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) having supported SESTA (the Senate version of the recently approved bill), noting, “Kamala Harris may arguably identify as a feminist, but she is a carceral feminist, which is something SWOP-USA stands in firm opposition to. I sincerely hope she is listening to the voices of sex workers who have been impacted by the shut down of Backpage, because she claims to base her political platform on giving voice to the voiceless.” She added, “Backpage was a tool of harm reduction, meaning it was used to keep sex workers safe by screening clients and verifying them with other providers.”
Twitter threads between handfuls of people debating whether Backpage provided protections, and whether it was furthering the trafficking trade, particularly of children, were long and impassioned. Human trafficking expert witness Kim Mehlman-Orozco, for example, tweeted that “Backpage cooperated in investigations & provided evidence 2 help prosecutors. Going after #BP not only hurt consenting sex works but also INCREASED likelihood of trafficking.”
Lee started her own thread, by tweeting, “Retweet if you have waited tables, cleaned houses… and then took a sex work job to rescue yourself from that low-paying/abusive/exploitative work.” The post prompted more than 540 retweets and responses.
Sex work gave me the power to recover from years of abuse, support my family, and raise my children being 100% present in their waking hours. It helped me tackle postpartum depression and come out stronger. It helped me get my self esteem and my life back. Keep fighting
— Mandy Swanson (@MistressMandyS) April 8, 2018
Noted another, “I have done all of those, been a PR person, a mother, a wife, a girlfriend. I found myself, my freedom, and my joy when I found sex work. I had been doing sex work all along. With my husband when I didn’t want to. With dates I felt forced to, etc. Now I call the shots in my life.”
The issue of sex workers rights, Bloomquist points out, “is highly nuanced, as there are intersections of race, class, gender, disability, drug use, bodily autonomy, and workers rights (and more!) involved in the conversation.” She adds, “There are grey areas and ethical issues and legal issues and lots of other issues that come up for people. However, at their core, sex workers rights are human rights and this issue is about gendered violence and harm reduction — which is deeply feminist. To those feminists who are new to the sex workers rights movement, welcome, and we are so glad you are here.”
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