This essay first appeared in Cliterati on January 12th; I have modified it slightly for time references and to fit the format of this blog.
Until the advent of the internet, those who suffer from the sick need to control other people’s sexuality (or use sex as an excuse to hurt people) must have felt that, though they were beginning to lose their grip on gay people, they would always be able to suppress sex workers. In the 1980s and ‘90s the majority of their efforts were directed toward the suppression of porn, and to a lesser extent stripping; obviously they felt that the criminalization, quasi-criminalization, semi-criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of prostitution would serve to keep us from ever being able to organize effectively against their oppressions, and that we could safely be regarded as a non-issue. But throughout the ‘90s momentum was building in many parts of the world, largely unnoticed by the American prohibitionists who supply most of the funds and rhetoric to the global anti-sex crusade; the arrival of the internet and social media gave these widely-scattered sex worker rights groups a way to connect easily and cheaply in real time, resulting in an explosion of activism in the new century.
I wish that I could say the prohibitionists were caught unaware, but that would be a lie; they, too, could use social media, and it wasn’t long before they had formed a global anti-sex movement dedicated to the extirpation of all legal sex work and the absolute suppression of all sex workers who survive the jihad. Because the right to privacy and sexual autonomy is now much more widely respected than it was at the time of the last such crusade a century ago, it was no longer productive to use the centuries-old argument that prostitution could rightfully be suppressed because it was “immoral” and “deviant”; instead, prohibitionists revived the old “white slavery” rhetoric, representing sex workers as the helpless, pathetic, asexual victims of men’s evil lust. As in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, robbing whores of our livelihood, subjecting us to ill-treatment by police, caging us, abducting our children and subjecting us to brainwashing in the hopes of reprogramming us into obedient menials is depicted by the prohibitionists as “rescuing” us from our own choices, which they deny were made freely (if at all).
Over the past decade, the pro- and anti-human rights sides have struggled for dominance, and it’s been very difficult to discern which is winning; while we have the truth and the facts on our side, the “antis” have vastly more money and the support of governments, who can always be counted on to expand their power over individuals no matter what the facts may be. But starting in the summer of 2012, the tide began to slowly turn in our favor; though the Swedish model and “anti-trafficking” legislation are still being imposed in more places, several UN agencies and a growing number of health and human rights organizations are coming out in favor of decriminalization, and the voices of sex workers are gradually beginning to be heard above the prohibitionist din. Just as it happened almost a year ago, a Twitter event caught the attention of a few members of the media, and coming as it did on the heels of the Canadian Supreme Court’s overturn of the three worst Canadian anti-sex worker laws, I think it should be viewed as an omen of bigger victories to come.
As with so many great things, this one started small: it was merely a Twitter conversation between several activists on the morning of January 2nd. In her Storify of the event, @WassailingGirl states “A group of people were discussing the way the mainstream media only wants to hear one version of sex workers lives, what some of us call tragedy porn.” Melissa Gira Grant wrote “I’d love to see a #notyournarrative for sex work”, Molli Desi Devadasi asked “what are we going to call this?” and @WassailingGirl replied with “#NotYourRescueProject”. The tag spread like wildfire; within hours there were literally hundreds of tweets and retweets using it. By late afternoon an article about it appeared on Straight, and by the next day prohibitionists were frantically attempting damage control by interjecting their own myths, denunciations and accusations (the sex workers were really “pimps” or clients, were “not representative”, etc) into the stream. But as you can see for yourself by perusing the tag, it was a shout against a hurricane; Frank Worley-Lopez’s January 6th article on it doesn’t even consider their pathetic attempts worth mentioning. Though the rate of tweeting on the tag dropped off over the next few days as such things do, it was sent out again on January 11th as a “Thunderclap” to counter the anti-sex work rhetoric of “Human Trafficking Awareness Day”.
You may wonder why I consider this important; after all, it was just talk, wasn’t it? The same thing I and many other activists do every day? Well, yes and no. It’s human nature to “tune out” people after a while, no matter how persuasive they may be. But during the busiest part of the tweeting, I noticed something very interesting: many of my non-sex worker followers, who rarely retweet my sex worker rights tweets, were retweeting some of these. The sheer volume and diversity of the messages had attracted their attention, and they had in turn boosted that signal to others. A small thing? Perhaps. But such small ripples are not isolated; they join together and build in force as long as they keep coming. And as I wrote in another essay late last summer, “though the citadel of prohibition may today seem impregnable, even the mightiest wall must yield to the force of a million ripples joined into one great current.”