Safe Harbor: Sex Workers and the Harm Reduction Movement
I become a better harm reductionist by listening and learning from community organizers. I become a better harm reductionist by listening and learning from reproductive justice advocates. I become a better harm reductionist by listening and learning from prison abolitionists. And I become a better harm reductionist by listening and learning from sex workers.
At Harm Reduction Coalition’s 2018 National Harm Reduction Conference, a plenary panel of sex worker advocates told the harm reduction community that we hadn’t showed up for and stood by them when they were fighting against SESTA and FOSTA. SESTA/FOSTA is a new federal law that shut down access to online platforms for sex workers under the rallying cry of combating sex trafficking. The panelists at the conference outlined all of the ways that this law has made their work less safe, their lives more precarious, and their community more vulnerable. They told us that we hadn’t been listening and learning from them, and honoring their leadership against politicians that were pushing them into harm’s way.
I’m listening, and I don’t think I’m alone in the harm reduction community. I’d misread the SESTA/FOSTA debate as overwhelmingly likely to be determined by the giants of the tech industry, who have historically been unified in opposing changes to the underlying statute that SESTA/FOSTA erodes — the so-called “safe harbor” provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. I mistakenly assumed that the tech industry would remain unified, and that their lobbyists would prevail in defeating these bills; while we signed on to opposition letters, we could have done much more. Stronger advocacy from the harm reduction community would not necessarily have swayed the outcome in Congress, but would have laid the foundation for stronger solidarity and coordinated action with sex worker advocacy campaigns going forward.
Since our national conference, I have been reflecting on two lessons. First, it is neither possible nor strategic to separate our work and goals around harm reduction for drug use from the material and political conditions of sex work. That means we need to do more to think about what strategies like overdose prevention and safer consumption spaces and user organizing could look like when we center sex workers who use drugs. It also means we need to broaden how we conceptualize harm to account for the ways that sex workers experience harm.
Second, we need to affirm and honor how people with experiences in sex work have filled virtually every conceivable role in the harm reduction movement — as leaders, organizers, advocates, trainers, outreach workers, fundraisers, participants, and volunteers — and made us wiser and stronger as a result. That legacy is rarely voiced when we talk about who we are as harm reductionists. Moreover, that reality — that the labor of sex workers has been instrumental in building and shaping the harm reduction movement — is a debt that must be repaid.
I want a harm reduction movement that makes and holds space for sex workers — not just those sex workers who use drugs, when they use drugs, but all sex workers. I’m proud of the work that my colleagues in Harm Reduction Coalition and the broader movement have done with and for sex workers, but I am not satisfied that we’ve done enough, and I know that I certainly have much more work to do.
Last year, I found myself exploring harm reduction as “survival tactics of the oppressed,” in the sense of harm reduction as an individual and collective compass for navigating the inherent trade-offs entailed when you’re trying to maximize your safety and autonomy in environments hostile to your welfare, dignity, and very existence. This year, I’ve been drawn to articulating a complementary framing: “harm reduction shifts resources and power to people most vulnerable to structural violence.” This framing serves as both a theory of change and the grounds for accountability.
In a small but intentional way, both definitions — harm reduction as tactics, harm reduction as strategy — came from my attempts, in part, to think through a more robust vision of harm reduction that better makes and holds space for sex workers, opens up room to center sex workers and reconceptualize harm, and uphold and uplift sex worker leadership inside and outside of the harm reduction movement.
Monday, December 17th is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Both sex worker advocates and the harm reduction community have learned painful lessons about the rituals of grief, the power of remembrance as resistance, and the countless ways that acts of individual violence towards our people have always been enabled and exacerbated by structural violence against our communities. All too often, even our deaths are turned against us, used to legitimize further marginalization and coercion.
Ending violence against sex workers — both individual violence and structural violence — requires our solidarity in building and fighting for a shared vision of justice, safety, and healing. Ending this violence requires us to lift up and amplify the survival tactics of the oppressed, while shifting resources and power towards people most vulnerable to structural violence.
One of the most disturbing consequences of SESTA/FOSTA and its continuing ripple effects is how it has radically constrained the conditions for sex workers to organize together, both online and in person. As drug user organizers know, any law, policy, or system that makes it harder for vulnerable people — whether sex workers, people who use drugs, immigrants, formerly incarcerated people, youth of color, survivors of sexual violence, or others — to organize and build power is a law, a policy, a system that is perpetuating structural violence and actively pushing people into harm’s way.
The renewal of sex worker organizing and advocacy that has grown out of the fight against SESTA/FOSTA is not only inspiring — it should serve as a rallying cry for harm reductionists to join in support and solidarity. The broader struggle against stigma, marginalization, and criminalization calls for all of us to build and organize together. In 2019, let’s ensure that the harm reduction movement becomes a true safe harbor for sex workers.