In 1986 in Toronto, police were conducting targeted sweeps of Cabbagetown to remove sex workers. Bill C-49 was passed the year prior, criminalizing any public communication relating to sex work. By the end of January, police had charged 116 sex workers, sentencing some to six months in prison.
Amid widespread police violence, sex workers called for support. They tried to appeal to feminists on the basis of violence against women, putting up posters that read “Whorebashing is a Woman’s issue!” and “We are asking women to help women working Toronto’s streets.” In an interview with the AIDS Activist History Project, sex worker activist Valerie Scott recalls that some feminists showed support, but others “viewed us as…‘Well, they’re women, but they’re our dirty cousins.’”
More recently, sex workers in Washington, D.C. reported that police were harassing them as the city gentrified from majority Black to majority non-Black. Fed up with police abuse, in 2019, sex workers formed a campaign to decriminalize sex work. The movement was led by Black and trans sex workers, and supported by a coalition of human rights organizations.
They were met with staunch opposition. Some of the most aggressive opposition came from the president of the U.S.’s largest women’s rights group – NOW (the National Organization of Women), headquartered in D.C. and led by then 71-year-old white woman Toni Van Pelt. Van Pelt cast sex work as “gender-based violence” and claimed that sex work victimizes all women, aligning herself and the organization with the sex worker exclusionary feminists (SWERFs) and anti-trafficking groups that also opposed the measure. The measure failed to pass and within a year, Van Pelt was offered $400,000 (USD) to step down as president of NOW, amid accusations of her racism and bullying according to an investigation from The Daily Beast.
SWERFs hold a key role in the far-right’s agenda: they craft the narratives that demonize trans people and sex workers as a threat to women like them and whitewash legal action as necessary defence of women’s rights. Through their rhetoric, imagery, and junk science, SWERFs stoke fear and hatred of gender-oppressed people by claiming that so-called decent, real women need protection against this imaginary threat. We see this every time some middle-class women’s group starts a campaign to push sex workers out of an urban neighbourhood and into industrial areas.
Once isolated, sex workers get targeted for police and predator violence, but the women’s groups claim they’ve made the neighbourhood (that they’re gentrifying) safe again. Targeting trans people and sex workers for legal and social attack is presented as a bold stance for women, when in reality, the opposite is true. Trans people and sex workers are the ones under threat at the hands of anti-trans and anti–sex work feminists.
The far right uses this manufactured fear of sex workers and trans people in order to capture political power. And as we witnessed with the recent stabbing of a professor of gender studies and two students in Waterloo, Ontario, there are always angry young men ready to turn bigoted rhetoric into violence.
In collaboration with PeoplesHub, I hosted a conversation with four sex workers on fascist feminism and organizing against the far right. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Queerness and sex work are a form of ownership of your body and ownership of your decisions – which is everything a fascist government doesn’t want you to have! The woman is supposed to be just a reproductive machine. To use sex to provide for herself is to rebel against that narrative. That’s why I believe that the people who engage in the sex trade were extremely persecuted in my home country, Argentina. Using our bodies to create wealth or pleasure are threats to the far-right ideology that women’s bodies exist solely to reproduce.
They see us trans women as traitors. We’ve been given the privilege of being born a man, and now we want to give that up to be a woman? Who is not even able to give us
children? For that reason, they want to erase us, to take us out. To do that, the fascist movement recruits women to be a part of that narrative. It is women, too, who want me to disappear.
Fascists claim that no woman (cis or trans) could ever choose to engage in sex work as form of survival because they see women as powerless. But sex work is the ownership of your body and of your pleasure, and it’s a way to make money and create longevity and stability for you as a trans person. Trans people and sex workers refuse the gender roles capitalism requires to maintain itself, and that’s very threatening to capitalists.
Fascist feminism has been helpful to imperialism. This structure of “the right” and “the left” was imposed on all of us when Europeans invaded the territories that are now known as the Americas.
In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici writes about the European witch hunt. According to Federici, women were organizing in female associations. They had developed “a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism.” The “witch” was a way to distinguish between “good and bad” women. Women who didn’t comply with the mandate of how women should act were accused of witchcraft, including women who were knowledgeable about reproduction and healing plants.
The European witch hunt had repercussions on the genocide of gender-diverse people in Europe and that was exported to colonies. In her book The Invention of Women, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí explains that gender is a Western construction. Oyěwùmí traces Yoruba history and shows that Yoruba people didn’t have that binary distinction of men and women – it was imposed by Western invaders.
We can see the damage that whiteness and Western civilization has done everywhere to gender-diverse people. Gender binarism and the division of labour are highly profitable. Women are the reproductive machines that create more soldiers and more workers. Capitalism needs people to exploit! That’s why capitalists are anti-abortion – they need workers to profit off of.
Fascism is present in many of our institutions under the guise of protecting and advancing rights, like in organizations doing anti-trafficking advocacy. I’ve encountered so many folks who believe they have feminist politics but who are actually buying into false narratives about people who sell sex to get by. Some feminists are willing to sell people out to get closer proximity to the privileges of whiteness and wealth. They don’t think about who’s kept out of work, who’s kept out of housing, and who experiences violence. They’re targeting poor people, migrants, and women of colour with their anti-trafficking campaigns. These ideologies about sex workers are quite fascistic.
Moreover, these “feminists” don’t pay attention to what sex workers have to say. Trans people and sex workers are doing a lot of organizing in formations that aren’t always valued as organizing by more mainstream leftist circles. So much organizing that happens at kitchen tables is often not considered real leftist organizing, but it’s key to building strong networks that can take on the far right.
One of the creative ways trans people and sex workers organize is zine making. Zines let us create our own narratives, tell our own stories, make our own art, and get clear on our politics and our principles. Zine making is a way of smuggling our experiences into those radical pieces of paper that contain such a multitude of experiences and expressions. I’m thinking also of the use of zines in sharing information about abortion access and strategies of healing and birthing. A few of my favourites are the International Whores’ Day zine and the Sex Worker Zine Project, as well as the zines created by the Support Ho(s)e Collective and SWARM (the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement).
Art plays an important role in trying to shift the dialogue about sex work. In 2018, I co-founded the Black Sex Worker Collective. Its purpose is to change people’s perspectives about sex workers so they understand that sex workers are full human beings – we’re more than just our genitals and our work. We’re such amazing, creative people with so many different passions and desires. People often pigeonhole me as an artist and organizer who only does sex worker advocacy. It’s important that we – sex workers – allow ourselves in our art and in our daily practice to go beyond what others assume of us and give us permission to do. For example, the Black Sex Worker Collective is doing a lot of climate justice work. People ask us what sex work has got to do with the environment. Actually, everything! Everything is hoe shit.
When environmental disasters happen, climate refugees are pushed into sexual labour and into situations that make them vulnerable. They may need to migrate to other parts of their city, their country, or the world to support their families. People may struggle to afford necessities like housing, food, water, and energy. One of the most accessible forms of labour to those who may not have other options because of lack of access to education or precarious status is to go into the sexual labour market. Sex workers are always willing to do the necessary work to combat the effects of poverty and other forms of oppression.
We can’t become the direct opposition to fascism by voting or by following liberal examples of reformist solutions or working exclusively within the channels of white supremacist institutions. We have to be organized and unapologetically against these vile fascistic and white supremacist ideologies – and understand how those ideologies are wielded by the police and the criminal justice system, right-wing politicians, organized carceral SWERFs and TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), and non-profit organizations and corporations that are committed to criminalization and death making by any means. We need to be organizing by any means as well.
Fascism relies on silent opposition. Fascism relies on us not knowing our political histories, not knowing what fascism looks like. It thrives on fear and it relies on people who are passively against fascism but do nothing. People don’t know what to look for, because their only conception of fascism is something that happened a long time ago, somewhere else. But fascism has broken down the front door and it’s taking over the house.
To confront it, we need vocal, demonstrable, consistent, and escalating opposition from grassroots movements and radical, anti-fascist political education for the masses. And we need to continue to push back against nationalism and white supremacy and fight for bodily autonomy for all people, which includes people’s right to move freely and for whatever reason, and we need to aid them whenever possible.
Black and brown and specifically Indigenous, queer, and trans sex-worker and drug-using comrades are leaders in the struggle for bodily autonomy. They are feminism at the margins. These are the comrades who have been showing leftists the way for generations, and those leaders and legacies are still with us.
Direct opposition to fascism involves solidarity, comradeship, and collective care. To prepare ourselves for struggle, we need to nurture the parts of ourselves and our communities that instill hope in us. We need vastly more cross-movement work, collaboration, and learning. We need to bust through stigma and make real connections in our shared struggles for abortion access, environmental justice, disability, anti-war, prison abolition, and migrant justice to fight fascist threats.