Decolonize Your “Sex Work” Stance: An open letter to 2020 candidates

AF3IRM Hawai'i
Aug 7 · 4 min read

Dear 2020 Presidential Candidates:

We respectfully write to you as an organization of ordinary women frustrated with the incursions of capitalism into our neighborhoods and intimate relationships. We have seen the pressure mounting on you to take a stance on prostitution — one of the most devastating issues for Native and immigrant women. We appreciate your attention to sexual assault and domestic violence but it is essential to end prostitution in order to reduce these and other forms of violence against us. Women’s pain is a product that must be discontinued.

We respectfully suggest that instead of supporting the full and general institutionalization of the commercial sex industry (so-called “decriminalization of sex work”), that you consider an intersectional model that 1) decriminalizes and destigmatizes all prostituting people without exception; 2) contains demand; and 3) creates accountability outside of the criminal justice system. We can simultaneously support sex workers and humanely transition society away from the system of prostitution.

We are AF3IRM Hawai‘i — one of ten U.S. chapters of Native and transnational women who dare to dream of a better world where we are never forced or need to “choose” to commodify our most prized things of intimate and cultural value. We are connoisseurs of prostitution, prison, poverty and other footprints of imperialism. We are the bulk of “supply” for the most humiliating and dangerous corners of the commercial sex industry. Prostitution has a completely different meaning for us as globalized women.

Prostitution is becoming a topic of mainstream debate in the United States. Often cast as a the “sex wars” between feminists, it is more accurately understood as a battle between Libertarians and those coordinating with the carceral state. We are told there are only two options: the much-hyped protection of the entire commercial sex industry modeled after the failed “decriminalization of sex work” in New Zealand, or a criminal justice approach modeled after the failed war on drugs. Both camps are fundamentally racist. Neither has been able to offer an intersectional policy vision that counteracts patriarchy. Let us support you in changing the dimension of the debate:

We will decriminalize and destigmatize all prostituting people, without exception, to reverse the power dynamic between “clients” (bosses) and those bought and sold. We know that across the country, women — and predominantly women of color — bear the brunt of prostitution arrests. We call for an immediate end to this unjust practice.

Action must be taken to end the commodification of bodies but we cannot incarcerate our way out of prostitution. We will prohibit sex buying without relying on the predatory prison system but with consequences such as progressive fines, loss of gun ownership and employment, and community accountability. Police involvement must be reduced because they are poorly trained and often engaged in sex buying, sextortion, or profit-making from the sex industry. Sex buyers will not be granted access to our precious communities.

Most importantly, we will increase community engagement and resources for exit and prevention to address the vulnerability of women, especially transgender girls. Womankind is a caste — a special sector of the population from which rights are deprived. And unlike the vast majority of those bought and sold in the sex trade, the majority of sex buyers are middle-aged, middle-class white men. We know too well that when the purchase of sex is protected and the demand for paid sex rises, it is we who become targets of sexual exploitation because we are the easiest, cheapest “supply.”

To support prostitution is to support racism. We recognize that while prostitution may be empowering for some, it is not for others. We must remember that throughout history, prostitution has been used to legitimize sexual violence against us by white men. Centuries of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy have helped normalize the notion of our bodies as property for male profit and pleasure. This legacy continues until today. When we are raped, exploited, and victimized, we and our sisters are dismissed as “prostitutes” and often criminalized for our own victimization. The purchase of sex must be understood against the backdrop of our nation’s history of racialized and gendered violence.

We hope that you agree: the destiny as Native and transnational women is not inevitable and eternal exploitation. In 1888, Rudyard Kipling, “imperialism’s poet,” introduced the concept of prostitution as the oldest profession. Intergenerational prostitution among Natives was his “distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.” This racist fairytale continues to make our equal status seem farfetched and unworkable. It should no longer serve as a starting point for progressive policymaking around prostitution. It’s time for the progressive movement to stand up for our lives. We demand a hopeful future for our women and girls.

We are pro-pleasure against controls on our sexuality. Thanks to colonization, many generations of women and gender and sexual minorities have been denied the right of refusal to unwanted sex. We have been denied the right to joyful, mutually enthusiastic egalitarian sex. We demand sex without pressure, economic or otherwise. Unlike survival/coerced sweatshop work or survival/coerced burger flipping, society has a term for coerced sex: rape. There is a difference between labor exploitation and sexual exploitation. We demand sex that is not male-initiated or male-defined, as a general rule. We seek a future of self-determination where all people have genuine bodily autonomy. Prostitution is antithetical to that future.

For further information about our vision, please visit af3irm.org.

Mahalo,

AF3IRM Hawai‘i

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