Purity is a Luxury That Activists Cannot Afford

When we began working for marriage equality in Massachusetts in the 1990s, we fully expected opposition from social conservatives. What we didn’t quite expect was reluctance on the part of two supposedly natural allies. Among some LGBTQ folks, marriage was considered an oppressive institution; and a number of libertarians thought it best that government stay out of marriage entirely.

“All well and good,” we replied, “but those goals are a long way off. Meanwhile, there are couples and their families who would benefit enormously from having their unions legally recognized. So why not work with us on this for now, and your ideal goals over the long haul?”

That argument swayed some, but not all. Fortunately, those who insisted on remaining pure in their purpose were quite small, and we had plenty of folks across the political spectrum willing to work on achieving our goal.

I shudder when I think what might have happened if it was our side which was dominated by ideological purists – welcoming only left-wing LGBTQ people, viewing allies with suspicion, rejecting help from groups who endorsed same-sex marriage for the “wrong” reasons. It would have been a disaster.

This post is a warning to those in the sex worker rights movement who have adopted such a purist approach. My experience in social activism spans three and a half decades. I’ve seen my share of successes and mistakes. One of the most consistent factors is the more a group embraces purism, the more likely it is to either die or stagnate into irrelevancy. Purism has an understandable appeal, of making you feel comfortable in the short run, safe within a tribe. But in the long run, activism is not about staying in a safe place – it is about taking risks to achieve what change is possible and desirable, one step at a time.

Maggie McNeill draws the analogy of a bus stuck in the mud. Do you really care that much who helps you push it out? Because if you sit there waiting for the “perfect” people to help you in the “ideal” way, you’ll likely find that the bus has sunk in deeper and the mud dried out and hardened. If your bus is stuck in the mud, you get out and push, and you call on anyone passing by to help you.

But purism is not just impractical. It’s an approach to seeing the world which is rooted in bitter and cynical nihilism. As Alexis Shotwell, associate professor at Carleton University notes: “Purism is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair. This world deserves better.” While purists condemn efforts at reform, they are failing to see how such efforts are not only more realistic, but more hopeful and inspiring.

Pitting purism against purism never works. Prohibitionists may try to sell their “end demand” approach as reform, but it is in fact a purist attempt at social engineering, built on a simplistic view of both economics and human sexuality. Decrim is the hopeful reform, not because it will transform society by itself, but because it will empower and inspire sex workers to improve their own lives.

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