Yesterday I attended the 5th annual SWAN (Sex Workers Action Network) symposium in Waterloo. One of the points of discussion was the “binary” of framing sex work either under the oppression paradigm (in which sex workers are seen as victims) or under a “sex work is work” framework, in which sex work is positioned as any other form of labour.
I have been more exposed to the “sex work is work” framework as of late, particularly through my exposure to the Red Umbrella Project at AIDS 2012. Under this model, sex work is positioned as a choice, and potentially a source of empowerment, for people. I understand that this framework is much more liberating, as it recognizes an individual’s agency and resiliency, even in times when choices may be constrained. It seems particularly important given the fact that for sex workers to be given the same rights and protections as any other worker, sex work first must be considered as a form of labour, rather than a criminal act. (I should admit here that I am entirely new to this discussion so forgive me or correct me if I’m failing to do justice to any of these points. )
The trouble of course, with the progression of the “sex work is work” movement, is that not everyone has the same experience, and some women, who have entered sex work for example through coercion, or as children, have not experienced sex work as a choice nor as a source of empowerment.
These “binaries” of experiences and debate around them are partly reflective of the history of the feminist movement. It took a lot of struggle, for example, for white, privileged women to recognize the experiences of black women, poor women or other marginalized groups. Ongoing debate has characterized the development of the women’s movement and feminist theory to recognize the diversity and intersectionality of women’s experiences. Ideally when we discuss sex work, that diversity and intersectionality needs to be recognized. However, when it comes to moving theoretical ideology into campaign messaging or policy advocacy, the issues get trickier, because usually one clear, consistent message needs to be delivered.
We deal with similar challenges and dichotomies in HIV. For example, we often try to position HIV as a chronic, manageable disease, in which individuals living with HIV can live long, healthy and productive lives. We also try to get people to understand that HIV is a difficult disease to transmit, that many fears about HIV transmission are exaggerated or untrue. We aim to deflate many of the fears associated with acquiring HIV. Our rationale for this messaging is both to support people living with HIV but also reduce stigma, so that fewer people will contribute to rejection, isolation, and marginalization of people with HIV.
The flipside is that by presenting HIV in this way, we risk making HIV seem so unthreatening that people stop bothering to protect themselves. This is what ultimately led to the stigmatizing New York City Public Health HIV campaign. We seem to be constantly alternating between two messages. It seems a fine balance must be struck, but it is difficult to negotiate that balance when communicating with the public or with the media.
However, something the symposium’s first speaker, Christine Shchmidt, said, really struck me. As she addressed the problem of being forced to choose one theoretical paradigm over the other, she casually mentioned that you can be a victim and still have agency and empowerment.
Now, the term “victim” is a loaded term. We have pushed back against the term in the AIDS movement, as “AIDS victims” portray people with HIV or AIDS as people devoid of power or agency. The term “victim” has also had negative implications in other sectors (such as cancer and domestic violence) and these sectors have also developed more empowering language, such as the term “survivor”. Certainly, the “victim” role can be humiliating and disempowering; we all want to recognize and exercise our agency and ability to make choices in life. And being labeled a “victim” in an institutional context can patronize an individual, rather than respecting the individual’s ability to participate in a resolution and make decisions.
I can relate to this idea, since, after leaving an abusive relationship that ended years ago, I had to deal with the idea that I had been “victimized.” It was not an idea I felt comfortable with. I was a strong, feminist woman; seeing myself as a victim did not sit well with me, and it’s been something that I’ve had to negotiate in my identity. But what Christine said clicked; of course, we can be victims of unfair systems and structures, as well as “active agents”; we make choices within given contexts in order to meet our needs. Acknowledging ourselves as agents in our own lives, with capacity and resilience, does not eliminate the fact that we make decisions within patriarchal, racist, homophobic, and misogynist power structures. Similarly, we can acknowledge that our own power is limited and constructed within these structures, which help to shape the choices we make. Part of this is a theoretical debate, and part of this is personal; the realization that we can suffer, and be strong at the same time.