Today, the sex worker rights movement can be credited with changing the way we view everything from sexual exploitation to a women’s right to choose. And although many Canadians are unaware of the sex worker rights movement (or even downright hostile to it), the sex worker rights movement in Canada has established such big gains that its impact cannot be denied: the Toronto Police have since established a Special Victims Unit that is dedicated to solving crimes against sex workers; the NDP noted in their Action Plan: Fairness for Women that the laws governing prostitution need to be reformed; a safe house for sex workers is being built in Vancouver; and the validity of laws against prostitution are now being challenged in court. From evidence like this it is clear that the Canadian sex worker rights movement is a force to be reckoned with.
But as the movement continues to step forward to end the criminalization, stigmatization, and violence against sex workers, a new problem has emerged: infighting within the movement – and this infighting is slowing down any progress towards ending the criminalization, stigmatization, and violence towards people involved in sex work. The more I get involved in the sex worker rights movement the more I see of this divide between activists and organizations (and YES, I do I admit that I too have fed into infighting), and the cliques that evolve.
Sometimes I wonder if all the infighting between sex worker activists stems from our experience in sex work—since as sex workers we had to compete with other sex workers to get and maintain clients. All of this competitiveness between us in sex work seems to have bled into our activism work and, as a consequence of this, has led to a hindrance in our ability to advance the sex worker rights movement, as well as playing directly into the hands of anti-prostitution supporters. Competitiveness between sex workers has led to a few sex worker rights organizations dissolving. Evidence of this can be found in the many sex worker organizations that are no longer around, or in the groups which have less than 5 active members.
Another possible reason for the infighting and competitiveness in the sex worker rights movement may be the continuing struggle for an identity. One way to secure an identity is to mark a place for oneself in an area that is taboo, rebellious and not overly populated. Another way to secure an identity is through ego – pushing others aside to get one's message across, and saying who can or who can be a member of an organization based on being threatened that attention would be turned away from them.
Due to sex work being an extremely stigmatized and taboo issue in society, it’s no wonder that sex work activism attracts some very competent (and sometimes very competitive) people. As a result, other people (especially marginalized sex workers, like those who work the streets) may feel intimidated, or that they won’t be listened to, or that they have no place in the movement—which may cause them not to get involved.
This is not to say that sex worker rights organizations cannot work or get along, Stella (a Montreal based organization), PEERS, PACE, (both in British Columbia), and the B.C. Coalition for Experiential Women (again in British Columbia), are prime examples of sex workers organizing and working together, but instead, that sex worker rights organizations should focus on ways to get along, work together, concentrate on the goal of decriminalization (and not who had the most influence over it), share the work, and actively try to recruit new people whose voice has not been heard. Until this happens the sex worker rights movement will not only be led by a few privileged groups, but more importantly it will be leaden with corruption due to a lack of cooperation with other sex workers, and the goals of the movement will not be advanced.