It's entirely possible to be anti-sex work but pro-sex workers rights. And I want to open up space for people to talk about that. To say, "I think this work can be exploitative, I think this work can be dangerous, but I know that the way to be safe isn't to wait for abolition." It's to look at how we can actually help people here and now.
I feel like these aren't necessarily exclusive things. There can be people who want to abolish the sex industry that also have care, compassion, and interest in the here-and-now needs of sex workers. It's such a mistake to say that sex workers who are fighting for harm reduction or [against] criminalization are somehow throwing others under the bus. Reducing the harm of criminalization is going to benefit anybody in the sex industry, no matter how they got there. Giving people access to what they need to care for their health or families is going to increase the well-being of anybody in the sex industry, no matter how they got there. That stance is being mischaracterized as somehow ignoring this more important project of abolition.
I wish that people who are very committed to abolition could hear that there might be sex workers who would support you in that project, but their priorities are making it through this week. Their priorities right now are what they need to do to survive, and are you also listening to those needs that they have?
When it's mostly people arguing for criminalization who may have experience in the sex industry but are no longer doing the work, that criminalization is not going to fall upon them. I question whether they are the people who should necessarily be arguing for that.
At one point you talk about an alliance of anti-prostitution forces including some feminists, right-wing groups, and the police. The one you focus most on, or argue most with, though, seems like it's the anti-prostitution feminists. Why is that?
It's particularly close to home because I am a feminist, and if it weren't for the feminist analysis I would be missing so many things that have helped me understand myself, my place in the world, and politics in general. But it's also with some grief, because I feel like the reason feminism is so lacking in sound analysis around sex workers is that mainstream feminism has been so effective at shutting sex workers out.
That is something that was not the case for the entire history of feminism. If you look back to the early history of feminism, there was a moment where some feminists were really grappling with how they understood prostitution, and even if they characterized prostitutes as the most oppressed among us, they weren't necessarily engaged with the police and the right-wing to increase the criminalization of prostitution.
In many cases their analysis did not include sex workers themselves; they didn't think to include that most oppressed class in their own meetings and conferences and papers. It was actually sex workers who showed up and said, "You can't talk about us without us," and I think that was a moment of possibility of actual inclusion. As feminism was opening up about talking about work, and how women of color were excluded from these kinds of clichéd feminine mystique ideas, I would put the struggle around sex work in that moment. Just as many women felt sidelined and excluded by feminism, so did sex workers; that's the grief.