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Service, rights, justice: Envisioning “justice” approach to empowering people in the sex trade

Date: December 30, 2013

Reproductive justice is a framework developed by women of color to expand and revolutionalize the mainstream “reproductive health/rights” movement that is too often preoccupied exclusively with individual women’s access to abortion and too reliant on the “pro-choice” rhetoric that does not resonate with many women of color. Reproductive justice framework, on the other hand, is rooted in the intersectional critiques of social, economic, and environmental structures (that is, much of the larger society beyond simply anti-abortion laws) that hinder the ability of women and girls to exercise full self-determination over their bodies and their reproductive and sexual lives.

In the 2005 publication “A New vision for Advancing Our Movement for Reproductive Health, Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice,” Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (which has changed its name to Forward Together) formally articulated a three-dimensional approach to advancing the well-being of women and girls through reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice frameworks. These three frameworks arise from different sets of problems and analyses. The chart below, developed from the above-mentioned publication, contrasts the three approaches.

Approach Analysis of Problem Strategy Key Players
Reproductive Health lack of access to reproductive health services improving and expanding services, especially for women in underserved communities medical and public health professionals
Reproductive Rights legal barriers to accessing reproductive health services passing laws to enhance individual women’s reproductive rights legal experts, policymakers, elected officials
Reproductive Justice women’s ability to exercise self-determination is hampered by systemic inequalities developing leadership and power of most marginalized groups of women through grassroots organizing organizers facing multiple oppressions and working across multiple social justice movements

I have been informed by radical women of color activists like Loretta Ross about the need to push for reproductive justice (rather than just “defending” legal right to abortion), but it was only after reading the work of Mia Mingus–herself an important activist in the reproductive justice movement in her previous leadership role at SPARK–on disability justice that I fully understood how relevant the three-dimensional analysis was for many other movements (which should have been obvious, but I was slow to catch on).

Mia proposes three dimensional approaches to disability politics: service, rights, and justice (she replaced the term “health” with “service,” because of the inescapable ableism in the “health” discourse). These three frameworks also arise from three different analyses, and lead to three different strategies as well as different groups of key players.

Approach Analysis of Problem Strategy Key Players
Disability Service lack of access to disability-related services improving and expanding services, especially for disabled people in underserved communities medical professionals and care providers
Disability Rights discrimination against people with disabilities and lack of accessibility passing laws to enhance legal rights of disabled people legal experts, policymakers, elected officials
Disability Justice disabled people’s ability to exercise self-determination is hampered by systemic inequalities developing leadership and power of most marginalized groups of disabled people through grassroots organizing organizers facing multiple oppressions and working across multiple social justice movements

The framework for advocating for disability justice is similar to that calling for reproductive justice because disability justice is reproductive justice and reproductive justice is disability justice. Ableism (along with racism, classism, etc.) has been a prominent component of controlling women’s reproductive choices, and the control of women’s reproduction has been a central component of marginalizing and erasing people with disabilities. While mainstream reproductive rights movement and mainstream disability rights movement do not often crossover (in fact, they sometimes come into direct conflict with each other in areas such as selective abortions), reproductive justice movement and disability justice movement are one and the same, only differing in relative focus.

I’ve been thinking about how I often feel alienated from the American “sex workers’ rights” movement even as I research and write extensively about the rights of sex workers and people in the sex trade. In “Anti-Criminalization: Criminalization happens on the ground, not in the legislature,” I explained how sex worker rights framework that promotes legal reforms (legalization, decriminalization, etc.) prioritizes the concerns of sex workers who are white, adult, middle-class, citizen, cis women over those of us facing relentless criminalization that go far beyond the anti-prostitution law. I called for an “anti-criminalization” (as opposed to legalization or decriminalization) movement that seeks broad social and economic justice in order to fully achieve self-determination for people in (or considering) sex trade.

The anti-criminalization movement is a sex worker justice movement, that is also a reproductive, disability, environmental, etc. justice movement–and organizations such as Black Women for Wellness and Latinas for Reproductive Justice understood this when they came out in opposition to Prop. 35 back in November 2012.

Can we develop a three-dimensional analysis for envisioning sex worker justice? Here’s an attempt:

Approach Analysis of Problem Strategy Key Players
Sex Worker Service/Support lack of access to health and public services improving and expanding services, especially for people in underserved communities that trade sex medical professionals and social workers
Sex Worker Rights prohibition and regulation of sex trade that do not protect workers legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution legal experts, policy makers, elected officials
Sex Worker Justice people’s ability to exercise self-determination is hampered by systemic inequalities developing leadership and power of most marginalized group of people in the sex trade through grassroots organizing organizers facing multiple oppressions and working across multiple social justice movements

“Service/support” approach can be employed by sex worker-run organizations (peer support group, St. James Infirmary), harm reduction agencies, or even anti-prostitution groups that, regardless of how they view prostitution, sometimes offer goods and services people want. “Rights” approach is often invoked by people in the “sex worker’s rights movement” such as members of Sex Workers Outreach Project as well as many libertarian supporters of legalizing prostitution. “Justice” framework is the foundation of organizations such as Young Women’s Empowerment Project and Women With A Vision, and other organizations led by women of color. (Anti-prostitution camp can also claim to be working from “justice” framework when they call for “abolition” of prostitution–but their strategies often fail the test, not to mention the appropriative use of the term “abolition.”)

I do not actually feel that “sex worker justice” is actually the right phrase for this struggle, because “sex worker” is a term used mostly by the more privileged folks among those of us who trade sex, and also because we need to expand economic options for everyone rather than just for those of us already in the sex trade. Perhaps it needs to be subsumed into “reproductive justice” since it is about attaining self-determination in how we control our own bodies and sexualities free from social, economic, cultural, and environmental restraints, but existing literature on reproductive justice does not speak to this connection very much (it addresses more about human trafficking and forced prostitution, but not about prostitution as an economic option).

I am also attached to “anti-criminalization” as a framework to build coalition across communities that are targeted by pervasive policing and criminalization, especially because too often (relatively privileged) sex worker activists and their allies focus on legalization/decriminalization as if that would stop the criminalization of people of color, street youth, immigrants, transgender women, homeless people, people who use drugs, and others who trade sex under any combination of choice, circumstance, and coercion. So I am not proposing that we start calling our movement “sex worker justice” just yet–but I think there are insights we can gain from parallels to three-dimensional model from reproductive and disability politics.

I also want to caution how “justice” framework can be co-opted or backfire. A friend who was on the panel deciding how Trans Justice Funding Project distribute its funds told me about the difficulty the panel faced when reviewing grant applications from around the country. They were interested in prioritizing organizations and projects that operate from justice-based framework in advocating for trans people and communities, rather than those that simply provide services or lobby for trans rights. But it turned out that most of the “trans justice” organizations were located in coastal urban areas, while groups in non-coastal rural communities were desperate for funds to provide basic services and support. Fortunately, the panel was able to recognize the need for different approaches in different communities, as directed by members of the said communities.

If we romanticize “justice” framework and discount the importance of other approaches, particularly the “service/support” framework, we run the risk of leaving behind people who depend on services and support provided by organizations that may appear to lack analysis. I believe that a real “justice” approach requires both short-term and long-term strategies, and the short-term strategy might involve creating, improving, and expanding resources for “service/support” as needed.

1 Comment »

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