After the Gascon Case

Yesterday, a panel from the 9th Circuit court of appeals ruled against the plaintiffs in a civil suit filed by the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project, calling for the decriminalization of full-service sex work on Constitutional grounds.

I am, of course disappointed – but neither surprised nor discouraged.

Judges are just as much mindful of public opinion as legislators and other politicians, hence unwilling to make dramatic changes in law without sufficient public support. Nor is one adverse ruling the end of the road towards reform. Both of these lessons are clearly demonstrated in the efforts for marriage equality.

The first lawsuit to allow same-gender couples the right to legally wed (Baker v. Nelson) was in 1971; it was rejected by the Minnesota high court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it. That did not end the effort to get such relationships recognized, even when leading LGBTQ rights activists considered it a distraction from what they considered more basic nondiscrimination rights. For many same-gender couples and their family members, however, the obstacles that came with lack of equal recognition had very real consequences. Thus, while mainstream organizations worked for “domestic partnership” ordinances at local and state levels, a few brave people continued to press for full marriage rights.

Evan Wolfson best outlined the strategy for achieving marriage equality, based on his research of previous civil rights efforts. He put forward that the fight would be accomplished on multiple fronts – judicial and legislative, from local to state and Federal – and most importantly would depend upon shaping public opinion through careful and continual education and messaging.

That was the strategy we followed in Massachusetts. We built a broad coalition, starting with the LGBTQ community and their allies like P-FLAG, expanding into the progressive religious community and other constituent groups. We talked to whomever would listen: student organizations, churches and synagogues, professional associations, political candidates and their operatives. Our goal was to expand our base by persuading members of the “mushy middle” to our side.

We did this by keeping our message simple, appealing on many levels, and showing that marriage equality harmed no one while giving same-gender couples and their families the tools they needed to assure their well-being. We also heeded the advice of legal experts not to rush into a lawsuit until our efforts at educating and organizing had borne sufficient fruit at the grassroots. In our first meeting, the more seasoned activists were convinced it would take some five or ten years before that foundation had been laid. They were just about right.

The Gascon case is analogous to the Baker case – an early effort to achieve rights which will be seen as “ahead of its time” once those rights are considered settled law. To repeat the successes of the marriage equality movement, sex workers and their allies in the United States should look at how to apply their organizing and messaging strategies towards reshaping public consensus in favor of full decriminalization.

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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.