Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. – Neale Donald Walsch
Everyone has a comfort zone, an imaginary “space” within which events and human reactions are generally predictable and unchallenging. And while such spaces are essential for the smooth function of daily life, they do nothing to promote growth and development because those are driven by confronting adversity and overcoming obstacles. This is especially important in activism; as Furry Girl has often pointed out, most sex worker rights advocates restrict themselves to the “sex-positive” or feminist bubbles, or at most build bridges with other marginalized groups like gay rights or drug user communities. But this is not remotely enough; we need to reach out to “normal” people, especially those who are in a position to either disseminate their views (such as journalists and academics) or influence policy (such as lawyers, medical professionals and government actors like cops). This is why, despite disapproval from some individuals, I have consistently concentrated on the things that make sex workers similar to most people (rather than those which make us different), and worked to create a space in which people from all walks of life (rather than just the usual pro-sex-work ones) are welcome.
Last week I had a wonderful opportunity; I was invited to participate in a symposium on the topic of “human trafficking” at the Albany Law School in Albany, New York. As I explained last week, this was outside my comfort zone in a number of ways: I had never before been to New York and never before spoken in front of so many people who were neither sex workers nor generally considered allies; the symposium’s title (“Voiceless Cargo: Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery in the Modern Era”) caused me to suspect that my views might not be welcomed by some of the panelists and audience members; and worst of all, I would have to face the prospect of air travel for the first time in a decade. And while the latter was even worse than I feared, the symposium itself was better and much more rewarding than I had dared to hope.
Some of you may be wondering why I’m so terrified of air travel. It’s not just a phobia, though I do suffer from that; it’s also that, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, I’m unusually prone to vertigo. Any kind of rapid, unanticipated motion makes me dizzy and extremely nauseated, so you can imagine how I feel on planes even when the flight is smooth (which absolutely NONE of the legs of this trip were). It was bad enough when the planes were mostly overgrown buses in the sky, but now that rising fuel costs have caused most of the big ones to be replaced with Flying Pencil-Cases of Doom it’s much worse. So although many people (especially the steward on my first outgoing flight, my seatmate on the flight into Albany and the stewardess on my last flight home) were kinder and more solicitous of my welfare than one ever expects from strangers, I’ll be taking rental cars or trains to my speaking engagements in the future!
Things improved practically from the moment I arrived in Albany. I was picked up by Andrew Woodman, the symposium’s organizer; he drove very slowly, checked me in at the hotel and made my apologies to the other guests at the welcome reception while I slept off the trip for the next twelve hours. I awoke feeling much better and my student ambassador, Craig Mackey, guided me to the luncheon and the symposium itself. He, Andrew, and all the students and faculty I met were extremely friendly and enthusiastic; I was made to feel very welcome and very honored before, during and after the actual event. My talk was very well-received and the organizers later told me that every student they had spoken to afterward thanked them for inviting me to the symposium; for hours after its conclusion I spoke to many students, professors and other guests, and even the very few who disagreed with some of what I said were extremely respectful and approached me in a spirit of professional debate rather than dismissal of my views.
The most pleasant surprise for me was the discovery that some of the other speakers’ positions were closer to mine than I could have predicted. I was especially impressed with Professor Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women; among the high points of her keynote lecture for me were her statement that the US and many European countries seem more interested in “trafficking” as an excuse to restrict immigration than as a genuine concern for the human rights of migrants; the observation that victims’ benefits are usually contingent upon cooperation with law enforcement, thus making it impossible to determine their true experiences; and the fact that government funding (especially in the US) is tied to “trafficking”, thus encouraging police departments to classify many more activities as “trafficking” than a proper definition would allow. This last point was also raised by Dr. Ruby Andrew of Southern University (Baton Rouge), and expanded upon at length by Dr. Jean Allain of Queen’s University (Belfast), who also covered ground similar to that I did in “The Lion and the Ox” and “Law of the Instrument” (though far more diplomatically): he used the term “moral panic”, demonstrated that the “trafficking” paradigm has been applied to widely-differing phenomena that were previously considered different things, and explained that the term is used so indiscriminately across so many countries that it’s difficult to know what any given source actually means by it.
Even some of the law enforcement people both on the panels and in the audience seemed very interested in my views; I collected a number of cards and gave out as many promises to answer their questions via telephone or email. I’m not sure whether it was just a matter of my charisma and/or oratorical skill, because several distinguished panelists’ opinions agreed with mine to some degree, or because I merely gave voice to some long-held doubts in their own minds; perhaps it was all of the above. But in any case I found it extremely heartening that a sex worker’s views were not only heard, but obviously taken seriously, and may be deeply considered in the future. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the end of the hysteria, and the first glimmerings of more just and humane treatment of sex workers; if so, I’m honored to have played a tiny part in it and feel that it was well worth leaving my comfort zone to accomplish.
But if it’s all the same to everyone, the next time I do so it will be in a vehicle whose wheels don’t leave the ground.