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The Women’s March Is Pro-Choice and Pro-Sex Workers’ Rights — and Should Be Proud of It

Standing with sex workers to oppose how they are criminalized is something women’s rights activists don’t yet take as a given.

(Photo: djc/Flickr)

This Saturday in Washington, thousands of women — tens of thousands, maybe — will march, defining what women’s rights look like in a moment when they have never felt more precarious.

The Women’s March on Washington has already been mythologized, from its origins in post-election Facebook grief, drawing pledges of solidarity from women around the country and the world, to the pained process the march has made public: an attempt to move the rhetoric and agenda of mainstream feminism to something bolder, more urgent, more relevant. Two moments this week tested and defined that struggle: the appearance of an anti-choice group on the march’s list of partners, and the removal of sex workers’ rights from the march platform. In each case, the Women’s March came down on the side of women’s rights and freedom.

“We will not be free until those most marginalized, most policed, most ridiculed, pushed out and judged are centered.”

Both moments played out, as has much of the march organizing and outreach, online and across the social media accounts of thousands of activists, marchers, and march organizers. And when called to account, the Women’s March affirmed their support for reproductive rights and justice, and for sex workers and their rights’ movements. Opposing the criminalization of abortion is fundamental to today’s American women’s movement; it took work, but it was not a surprise to see the march proudly reinforce this by dropping a partnership with an anti-choice group. But standing with sex workers to oppose how they are criminalized is something activists don’t yet take as a given.

Janet Mock, the author and activist, is part of the Women’s March policy table, which helped draft the platform. She is who wrote the line, we stand in solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements. “It is not a statement that is controversial to me,” Mock wrote me, “because, as a trans woman of color who grew up in low-income communities and who advocates, resists, dreams, and writes alongside these communities, I know that underground economies are essential parts of the lived realities of women and folk. I know sex work to be work. It’s not something I need to tiptoe around.”

This tiptoeing experience is common for sex workers who try to engage with the mainstream women’s movement. When sex workers’ rights disappeared from the platform this Tuesday, sex workers told me they felt betrayed, but they were not surprised. They are all too used to having their lives made the subject of “debates” within feminism — not simply excluded but pushed out.

Amber, a sex worker and rights advocate in Washington, D.C., told me she was considering attending the march with her girlfriend. She also wanted to organize sex workers who planned to attend — whether or not they were officially recognized at the march. “But,” she wrote me, “I have also been wary of it the whole time as I have seen a lot of women of color calling [the march] out over various things.” (At the top of the list was the march’s original white-dominated leadership. Later, three women of color organizers were named co-chairs.) Then, Amber told me, she saw sex workers rights’ solidarity on the platform. “This could be a history-making opportunity, something that could positively influence feminism in the coming years and move it toward a more intersectional place.” In my memory of 20 years of major women’s marches, this is the first time sex workers have ever been so included.

Here’s what is not up for debate: When sex work, like abortion, is criminalized, women are made criminals, and that hurts women. The sex workers’ rights movement, like the reproductive rights movement, made serious gains on this ground in the 1970s, along with the strength of the global women’s movement. Yet some feminists still refuse to even use the words “sex work.” One of them is honorary Women’s March co-chair Gloria Steinem. In recent years, sex workers’ rights have been pushed into the mainstream of human rights and LGBT rights movements. A watershed moment was Amnesty International’s support for the full decriminalization of sex work. Yet Steinem opposed this support for sex workers’ demands for rights. (I asked Steinem for her response to the Women’s March and their support for sex workers; she has not replied.)

Though sex workers’ rights are in the march platform, the apparent 180 (and 360) left sex workers and their allies wanting for an explanation. “I cannot speak to the internal conflicts at the Women’s March that have led to the erasure of the line I wrote for our collective vision,” Janet Mock wrote me, “but I have been assured that the line will remain in our document.”

The Women’s March responded to activists concerned over their (short-lived) inclusion of an anti-choice group with an official statement affirming their pro-choice position. And after activists were made uneasy about what the (temporary) erasure of sex workers from the platform meant, the Women’s March restated their support for sex workers’ rights.

“This is a living, breathing document, and has been crowdsourced by many,” Women’s March on Washington co-chair Linda Sarsour wrote me when I asked for their explanation. “There are dozens of people involved. We stand with the current platform as we also added more language around indigenous [people] and made language around our sisters and brothers with disabilities more pronounced.” She did not say specifically why the language on sex work had been removed and restored. Sarsour did write, “We look forward to protecting and uplifting all of our people.”

In what looked like, to some observers, the usual feminist infighting, I saw a possibility, and Mock did as well, for finally addressing the exclusion of sex workers. “The conflicts that may have led to [the platform’s] temporary editing will not leave until we, as feminists, respect the rights of every woman and person to do what they want with their body and their lives,” she wrote. “We will not be free until those most marginalized, most policed, most ridiculed, pushed out and judged are centered.”

Women’s rights activists have to face this truth, this challenge to fully realize their demands for all women, on any issue. Just as women of color have pushed the movement on abortion rights to fully embrace reproductive justice and as transgender women have pushed for recognition under the banner of women’s rights, so, too, have sex workers.

As much as intersectionality has been passed around like a new brand, it means something specific. In its origins in the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the intersections concerned not just women’s identity along race and gender lines, but in how these multiple identities intersected with the law. It is women of color and transgender women who do sex work who face the greatest danger in exclusion from both society and from movements. They also, disproportionately, face arrest and jail — criminalized for their race, gender, and their work.

And they have been the ones who have always refused to be made silent and invisible. Let them lead as women make a stand for women’s rights under Donald Trump, all those who already live their commitment to these principals. No woman should be punished for her body and her life.