Pathways to Decolonizing the Sex Industries

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Used with permission from author.

These reflections are based on my unique positionality and experiences as a former sex worker, and the time I have spent researching through embodied shared praxis with different communities of people with experiences in the sex industries in the Los Angeles area. It is not meant to be the final word on the topic of decoloniality by and with people in the sex industries but rather the beginning of a different type of conversation around the sex industries, sex  work, and human trafficking. It is a hope that the conversation evolves into one that questions and re-works  commonly held terms, narratives and beliefs around prostitution, sex work, human trafficking, and marginalized sexual identities.

-Christa M. Sacco

Researcher Positionality
I identify as a Black woman living in the US, as a person with lived experience in the sex industries, a survivor, a person with lived experience of a mental health challenge, a peer advocate, a writer, a researcher, a liberation psychologist, and a community practitioner.

Definition of Terms

Sex work According to Akers & Evans (2010), “The general definition we use for sex work is the provision of sexual services or performances by one person (prostitute, escort, stripper: Sex Worker) for which a second person (client or observer) provides money or other markers of economic value” (p. 10). Sex workers are diverse people who could act as escorts, call girls, prostitutes, strippers, professional dominatrix and submissive, sex toy salesperson, adult film stars and producers, phone sex operators, webcam models, rentboys, sugarbabies, erotic massage artists, etc. The culture of the streets here in Los Angeles does not commonly use the term sex worker and many ‘workers’ who come from this culture do not identify as sex workers but may feel more comfortable referring to themselves as hoes or not putting a label on it. I did not find the term sex worker until after I was out of the game.

So, there is still social distance from the term sex work amongst people who society has labeled sex workers, thinking they are progressive in doing so. Not everyone who performs erotic labor wants to identify as a sex worker and there are many other identities available, but this discourse at least provides one option to broadly organize with others based on their experiences in the sex industries.

Sex trafficking The exploitation of someone by means of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of a commercial sex act (Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 2000). While this can take many forms, such as forced marriages, illegal commercial front brothels, and violent torture and captivity, in the US popular media, the domestic sex trafficking survivor is pretty much synonymous with pimped street prostitution.

Epistemologies of the Global South
Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2016) defined epistemologies of the South as ways of knowing that come from the perspectives of people who have “systematically suffered the injustices, dominations and oppressions caused by colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy,” (p. 18). He continued, “a crucial epistemological transformation is required in order to reinvent social emancipation on a global scale” (p. 18). Here de Sousa Santos distinguished that the concept of the Global South and epistemologies of the South extends beyond the geographic location of the south but is rather used as a metaphor to include marginalized, silenced and oppressed groups all over the globe. It is an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist South which seeks to rise up against systematic repression.

The culture of the streets here in Los Angeles does not commonly use the term sex worker and many ‘workers’ who come from this culture do not identify as sex workers but may feel more comfortable referring to themselves as hoes or not putting a label on it.

Introduction
I will not sit here and lie to you and say sex work and sex trafficking are two entirely separate phenomena and where there is sex work there is never force fraud and coercion, or conversely that where there is pimped prostitution it is always a grave violation of human rights. These are shades of gray and many people who have been in the industry for a long time have experienced a bit of both. There are terribly dehumanizing and deadly spheres of the sex industries that we currently think of as human sex trafficking that may be better defined as slavery and torture, as human trafficking is hardly severe enough to capture the dynamic that some women are subjected to when surviving capitalism in the Global South, for example. There are also spheres of sex work that are based on consent, mutuality, and pleasure. There are many shades in between. Force, fraud, and coercion can also occur in subtle ways and happen on a continuum between one extreme of consensual sex work chosen and defined by sex workers on their own terms and the other extremes of violence. Sometimes these two extremes of the spectrum can be co-mingled within the same location of work.

One of the challenges we face in going forward with psychologies of decoloniality with people in the sex industries is how do we as an extended community create more equity in terms of sex work options and real protection for sex worker lives to be lived. Another is how do we intervene to stop the violence of human trafficking criminalization and prostitution control policies from directly impacting the survival of our most vulnerable community members, such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation survivors and Black, Indigenous, trans and migrant people. The final one I will mention here, and possibly most crucial, is how do we build safe enough spaces and strong enough relationships to collaborate across the lines of different social markers that separate us.

How do we…create more equity in terms of sex work options and real protection for sex worker lives to be lived?

Sex Work as Resistance
While prostitution is part of a legacy of imperial racist domination, it is also simultaneously a site of resistance in which people can perform narratives and nurture relationships and networks (see Cabezas, 2009) that sharply contradict the sociallyinduced expectation of sexual and economic subordination. Sex workers are in a key social location to create a contestation to the militarymasculine paradigm, to create a new psyche around sexuality and economies of sex and desire, in order to change the role of these structures into one that challenges rather than supports neoliberal drives towards world domination.

For many of the people I am in community with, sex worker identity is more than an economic choice, it is the fight to be exactly who you say you are and not let anyone else define you. It is hard to find people in outside life that can understand your work and calling. Claiming sex worker identity is a way of resisting the label of sexual outlaw or victim. I encountered groups of people that are engaged in this fight for self-determination in different ways with diverse identities and positions. The resistance to the hegemonic influence of anti-prostitution laws grows stronger as people with experience in the sex industries continue to find ways to come together and share space. In their continued existence and continued ways of defying labels through the unique intersection of sex work identities with racial, gender, and sexual orientation identities, in the politics of representation and the continuous negotiation of being and becoming who you say you are, the struggle for sex worker survival is a struggle of resistance to the objectifying gaze of cultural imperialist groups that continue to support the policing, regulation, and abolition of sex work. When faced with the imperfect and damaged opportunities left to them by coloniality, people in the sex industries continue to fight for their right to exist under legal and economic contexts of impending doom.

Speaking up as a sex worker is similar to speaking up as a survivor, it comes from the decision to represent and is part of the struggle for survival, to hear others talking about where you have been and need to speak your truth in response to that. The two narratives being told about people in the sex industries, either the empowerment narrative or the flat one-dimensional victimization narrative are both imposed by and dominated by White women and people who generally have more privilege in the discourse and access to education. The narratives of cisgender White women have been privileged over the voices of the majority of people who actually live or work in the sex industries who are queer people, trans people, people of color, youth, people of the Global South, and migrants and other groups that are variably oppressed by the institution of prostitution and the current manifestation of White heterosexual male dominated systems of sex work.

The construction of sex work as a site of empowerment silences sex work as a site of systems of oppression and simultaneously a site of resistance to those systems that oppress. Painting it with an empowerment lens actually works against sex workers articulating how they are impacted by and resist oppression by the colonial power structure, by implying that empowerment is already available for all within the current contexts of capitalism, racism, gender policing/enforcement, and some of the most violent forms of patriarchy, homophobia, and sexism.

Coming out to the public and speaking about prostitution policies based on our life experiences is a major power move for sex workers and survivors alike to speak to systemic injustices and fight stigmatizing labels. However, it is also a risk that requires the safe enough spaces that make it possible for someone to speak out about their life experiences. But it is not my goal to burden everyone in the sex industries with also having to come out and speak about their lives in order to fight racialized and gender-motivated systemic violence. Instead of neo-colonial rescue missions and empowerment summits, we need to ground our platforms for advocacy in genuinely supportive relationships with people in the sex industries; not to empower ourselves to rescue, to build a movement or to draw conclusions, but to accompany them as they address in their own ways the systems that have silenced, marginalized, and dehumanized them. We can do this by privileging their own authentic strategies and insights and allowing those to come forward and be deeply heard. By continuing to create collaborative spaces of self-care and healing for the people involved without placing claims on their story, such as survivorship, trauma, resistance, agency, or empowerment.

Coming out to the public and speaking about prostitution policies based on our life experiences is a major power move for sex workers and survivors alike.

Sex Work and Decoloniality
Today’s prostitution abolition movement not only robs people in the sex industries of their organic ways of expression, forcing them to use the colonizer’s own ways of knowing and expressing to talk about their experiences; but with stricter and stricter laws being passed against sex work or prostitution affiliations, this abolitionism is coming to be recognized as an all-out attack on the very survival of sex workers that nurtures rather than abates contexts of violence. The cultural imperialism in the current discourse about human trafficking victims, or conversely the discourse about self-empowered activist sex workers, robs people in the sex industries of imagination and epistemologies from the south in claiming their identities.

Epistemologies of the south as they apply to sex worker organizing starts with creating space for diverse and marginalized groups of people with experience in the sex industries to be brought to the forefront in imagining the alternatives to our current systems of sex work. Knowledge about the liberation of sex workers must come from the people who are engaged in a fight for their right to exist in their full sexuality and not from the various groups that seek to impose their knowledge on them. We have started in our various organizing processes here in LA to create new ways of knowing about and defining the sex industries that honors this diversity and limits the influence of colonial thinking by encouraging the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and the collective and intersubjective process of knowledge creation about the sex industries. Hopefully, this will grow into a true path for finding together new images and a new imaginary to story our existence that do not depend on racially constructed labels and categories of otherness. There is more rationality in the polyvocal decolonial processes of co-creation of image, art, identity, testimony, embodiment, connection, and vocation.

Organizing starts with creating space for diverse and marginalized groups of people with experience in the sex industries to be brought to the forefront in imagining the alternatives to our current systems of sex work.

The liberation of people with experiences in the sex industries implies the freedom of all to choose and create their identities, relations, cultural orientations, and systems of organization, in part through the intersubjective creation of new knowledge that is not attached to the coloniality of power. This creation or expansion of choice lies in a decentralizing of knowledge and power away from the typical centers of cultural production. Indeed, it has become a survival strategy of oppressed peoples to hide one’s true identity and ways of organization. It may be safer for many people with experience in the sex industries to reside in the margins and better for organizers not to impose more order and control from above, to try to pull more people into the center, as is the current way of operating with human trafficking organizations or empowered mainstream sex worker organizations (I won’t name any names); not to rely on those who benefit from the centralized racist power structure to intervene to change it, but to cultivate authentic social power from the margins by accompanying people where they are and mobilizing alternative and informal networks towards those whose choices are most contested and defiled.

Decoloniality is a way of taking back being for people who have been denied their being-ness (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013). This can be seen as a redefining being from the positionality of the counter-voice to hegemony, sexism, racism, and patriarchy. Decoloniality for the sex industries then might begin with continuing to shift how ‘sex workers’ define themselves, how they perform their identities within the margins of colonial gender expressions and sexuality. Driving a wedge into the world of colonial thinking by continuing to make a home in the in-between places, by carving out spaces between the binarized worlds of those that hold power and their victim-defendants, by continuing to speak as a being with agency who refuses to be placed in a silenced category.

It is not surprising to me that many of the wealthy educated sex workers that I have encountered, who live at the top of the food chain and who benefit from capitalism and White supremacy, are deeply afraid of decolonizing the sex industries. People in general are afraid of conversations about decoloniality because they are afraid that they will make a wrong step and end up the accused, but it doesn’t have to be like that. It is also difficult, even for me, let alone street workers who are still in the game or migrant workers fighting deportation orders, to have the mental space, emotional resources, capacity, etc. to imagine that things could be truly different. Maldonado Torres (2016) reminds us that we cannot win victories for decoloniality solely on the basis of individual objectivity. The work of decolonial scholars points to the need to go to a different level for our solutions. It is the level of the collective, the liveable, the imaginal, the ensouled, the performative, the embodied, the psycho-spiritual, and the supernatural.

No one really has time to become a superhero, but that is what we must do in entering this new age, we must usher in the fifth dimension and become loving superheroes together. Capitalism does not allow time for healing, but rather demands that we keep up with the whims of the market. So, while surviving the genocide of capitalism by finding sources of income, we must also heal from soul crushing trauma and life-threatening mental and emotional pain, with new traumas and triggers compounding in this constant state of war. All of this we must do while resisting coloniality and finding new ways to re-imagine and re-invent ourselves towards decoloniality in an environment that is constantly seeking to obliterate us and the mark we have left on the world by absorbing and marketing our struggles and finding ways to profit from them while simultaneously neglecting and threatening our most basic human needs. So where do we start?

One antidote is the process I have found in the healing circles of Dr. Beth Ribet. She not only identifies as a survivor, she is also a doctor in sociology and a graduate of the UCLA School of Law Critical Race Studies Program. She is also a personal superhero of mine and founder of the organization Repair (Repairforjustice.org). She facilitates our peer support healing circle of trauma survivors and teaches us and her broader community at UCLA about what it takes to heal from complex trauma and survive capitalism/White supremacy at the same time. Her ideas are definitely influential in how I hold the topic of sex work. Furthermore, the healing circle is a technology that makes a real difference in the lives of those involved, that has been for me a true lifeline for mental health and continued survival. It can be replicated with a solid commitment and minimal resources in many communities independently of the medical system. It is trauma-informed, culturally humble, horizontal, inventive, imaginative, discursive, and fluid.

It started out with informal meetings at a café in Koreatown, then it evolved into a monthly meeting at one of the members’ homes for (vegan) chocolate fondu and a sharing circle. Since then, we have expanded into many activities, from smashing and burning things in shared ritual to creating artwork and sharing giggles over extremely low bar new year’s resolutions. But the core of the work from which everything else has unfolded has been creating safe enough spaces for witnessing and deep healing connections to happen and grow, while also being able to identify, discuss, and mitigate the impact of the various systems that contribute to differentially harm us and deny our existence. This brings me to a place of a bit more mental distance from strategically organizing for the cause of sex work decriminalization and writing letters to the government (and Dr. Ribet does not use the term sex work she finds it offensive), but it creates expansive alternative possibilities of the types of relationships and communities that it is possible to grow when people with experience in the sex industries are able to create shared contexts that move beyond the various colonial labels that currently divide us.

References

Akers, N., & Evans, C. (Eds.). (2010). Occupational health and safety handbook (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: St. James Infirmary.

Cabezas, A. L. (2009). Economies of Desire: Sex and tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

de Sousa Santos, B. (2016). Epistemologies of the South and the future. From the European South, 1, 17-29.

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Outline of ten theses on coloniality and decoloniality.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. (2013). Why decoloniality in the 21st century? Thinker, 48, 10-15.

Trafficking Victims Protection Act. (2000). H. R. 3244, 106th Congress.

Written by Christa M. Sacco. This piece originally published in The Community Psychologist (TCP) Spring 2019 Volume 52 Number 2. All TCP columns are available online, at https://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/