Criminalization, Decriminalization, Awareness of Alternatives

While reading the chapters from Sex Workers Unite, I was curious about some of the different activist perspectives Chateauvert references. Particularly in the introduction, it was clear that “the movement” is far from a united front with singular tactics. I looked into some of the sources Chateavert cites, including the Sex Workers Outreach Project website, and Norma Jean Almodovar’s “For Their Own Good“, which argues for decriminalization of sex work, but strongly against specific legislation designed to protect sex workers. “Prostitution,” she writes, “is a business within the service industry. It should be subject only to the same kinds of business laws and regulations as other businesses” (132).

I was interested in the argument against legal protection particularly in light of a discussion I had with a group of 15 year olds at a peace education summer camp I was working at in July. The group of kids who planned that activity had decided to have us debate various topics in groups, with each side assigned the position we would argue for, whether or not we agreed with it ourselves. One of the topics was the legalization of prostitution. Though some of the kids initially seemed very resistant to the idea of legal prostitution, by the end of that round of the debate, most seemed swayed, at least by the arguments that making prostitution illegal primarily hurts people who do sex work, rather than clients, and that legalization allows for regulations and legal protections. For those of us–on either side of the debate–aware of the dangers of criminalized prostitution, even that much of a perspective shift felt like progress. At no point in the discussion did the possibility of an alternative to both criminalization and legalization come up.

I have been involved with this organization (CISV) since I was a kid and as I’ve grown up and been exposed to more radical ideas, have been frustrated by its moderateness. Though CISV programs generally do bring together young people from diverse cultural and national backgrounds, most participants  have significant class privilege. The situation is then compounded by the fact that this often goes unacknowledged. This privilege is, I think, apparent in our earlier conversation: one in which almost everyone imagined more government involvement as progress. CISV is big on the citizenship narratives Chateauvert describes in the next chapter. Drawing these parallels brings me back to our likely unanswerable question of what makes something “activism.” CISV’s mission is to “educate and inspire action for a more just and peaceful world,” but I often find myself skeptical of the type of action it may or may not inspire. I would hesitate to call it activist, even as I question whether “activist” is a useful category at all.

I’ll end with this quote from SWOP’s approach to fighting violence:

We also believe creating alternative support systems and resources is a form of activism and the foundation of sustainable, non-cooptive organizing. By creating alternative systems of resources, support, and justice within communiites, we decrease dependence on and thus the power of institutions that cause harm, and we reduce harm and victimization that often obstructs those faced with injustice and violence from participating in advocacy for change.

I think the emphasis on alternatives is an important one, and certainly something I could more intentionally bring to any further involvement with CISV.

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