On SlutWalk NYC, Occupy Wall Street, and why on Saturday, my sex work has nothing to do with your capitalism
A recent post by my friend Laura on her feminist blog Sugabutta made me all-too-aware of Occupy Wall Street’s interest in joining SlutWalk NYC this Saturday – and I have to admit that despite my proximity to both movements, this declaration made my stomach sink. Laura articulates, the crux of the matter – ‘Movements often come together and we can have interesting conversations across radical claims. But what is most overwhelmingly troubling about this move by Occupy Wall Street is that unfortunately, it looks a lot like co-optation. Why now? What interest has this movement ever shown in radical feminism/womanism? Where was Occupy Wall Street even last week when SlutWalk NYC has been in the works for months? The interests of both movements are like a Venn diagram: obviously they can overlap, but they are not one and the same.’
Although I certainly haven’t been directly involved with Occupy Wall Street, I’m currently attending an MA program wherein my classmates are extremely politically engaged – some are part of the core group of planners over at Wall Street, and have been living, to a degree, double lives, trying to fulfill the requirements of an extremely demanding academic program, while attempting to implement the theoretical notions we’ve discussed on the street, dealing with constant planning in always-contingent situations, suffering through arrests, police brutality, and poor weather. I’m not afraid to say I’m proud of them. Although accusations leveled at Occupy Wall Street often suggest their lack of directed focus in terms of an ‘agenda’ or ‘goal’, the to-the-letter democratic processes of the planning committee demonstrate a commitment to an infinite dialogue between proximal bodies, within a collective of marginal beings, even if people exist in continuing disagreement. The value of Occupy Wall Street is an admirable acknowledgment, and allowance of differences that can lead to the kind of learning that comes from one-to-one engagement. And yet, Wall Street for me feels far away – feels too much like a gesture, feels like it disavows the less-glamourous, but still, slow and steady forms of change.
After all, where, in this vast and loose opposition to big letter Capitalism, is a place for women, who’ve fought long and hard to excavate their unique issues from beneath the banner of larger movements? I don’t doubt that oppressions are intersectional and that solidarity is crucial to any kind of resistance. But Slutwalk is a response to a particular incident, a particular issue that strikes so close to the heart of women all over the country, all over the world, that to place it alongside Occupy Wall Street, a movement that purports extreme inclusivity, to the point of refusing to prioritise its demands, would be pushing Slutwalk back into the proverbial closet.
How often have we heard that there are ‘more pressing’ issues that ‘affect us all’ that should be addressed before women’s rights? How often have feminist movements been co-opted, and subsumed? This is not about a competition between movements, or marches, on one particular Saturday, but a fundamental difference between one that radically refuses exceptionality and one whose participants have long been considered an ‘exception’ in a detrimental fashion, whose issues have been long ignored, and who now insist on being heard.
Every day, I’m struck by the fact that some people will never have to deal with street harassment, or worry that the way they dress could be interpreted as an invitation for violence. Every day, I’m struck with the sense of fear that accompanies my choice of dress (thigh highs, anyone?). Laura tells me, in conversation, about a friend who was verbally harassed while visiting Occupy Wall Street. Although part of the beauty of the movement is dialogue and mutual learning, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a safe space. On the contrary, it’s almost as it the democratic ideal here leaves allowances for differences in opinion that include homophobia, transphobia etc. Although the planning committee has certainly taken steps to educate participants at Wall Street about such issues, about patriarchy and privilege, even organising open-to-all workshops on the subject, Wall Street is still by no means a safe space, and when every issue is of equal standing, ensuring our safety isn’t a priority.
SlutWalk is about safely being heard, about being heard in order to insist upon our safety. Sometimes, being heard requires complicity with regulation. In the case of a movement protesting the attitudes of Police Departments across the country towards sexual assault victims, it is imperative that SlutWalk remain peaceful. As Laura points out, ‘SlutWalk NYC wants to make a claim to safety in public no matter who you are. Occupy Wall Street may not be deliberately looking for a confrontation with the police, but the possibility that the NYPD will react negatively on Saturday is much, much higher with Occupy Wall Street’s presence, and thus the likelihood that this claim to safe spaces and respect is going to be disrespected is much higher, a risk that is unfair to survivors and activists wishing to be involved in SlutWalk NYC’. I should note at this point that it is unclear as to the extent of Occupy Wall Street’s involvement in SlutWalk, if the marches will happen simultaneously, at different times, or if decisions will be made for both movements to march together. Either way, it is crucial that if Occupy Wall Street teams up with SlutWalk, that people be thoroughly briefed, need to be informed as to how they can most cautiously interact with the NYPD – there are legitimate safety issues at hand.
On a more personal note, I can’t say enough how important SlutWalk is to me – particularly as a sex worker, whose chances of being assaulted are much higher, with little to no protection from the state because of my legal invisibility. In fact, the only thing the state is likely to do for me is punitive. For me, SlutWalk is so much more than just a protest against sexual assault and victim blaming – it’s about reconfiguring cultural attitudes about women’s choices about their own bodies, their own sexuality. I’ll be the first to admit that the notion of ‘choice’ in relation to sex work, in more than any other context, is a fraught issue – women get into sex work for a myriad of reasons, none simple enough to boil down to just ‘choice’, but none simple enough to be one of the numerous ‘ills of capitalism’ either. So thinking about the choice to do sex work in the context of Occupy Wall Street and its intentionally loose framework of ‘Capitalism is bad’ worries me more than anything else. Sex work is a form of exploiting and intervening within existing system, capitalism included, and I don’t deny that there’s good and bad that goes along with that. Case in point – I was once asked, as an Asian woman, how I deal with being constantly fetishised by white males – my answer was ‘sometimes I make money off it’ and I was only half joking. However, more often than not, sex work is held up as the exemplum of ‘a choice a girl makes when she has no other choices’, something perpetuated by the commodification of women as well as because of difficult financial situations, both engendered by the mechanisms of capitalism.
I really, strongly, feel that SlutWalk marching with Occupy Wall Street might encourage the kind of talk about sex work in the context of capitalism that completely undermines the statement sex workers in particular want to make in relation to the safety we deserve. Slutwalk is a way of allowing me to feel out and proud about my own choices despite the danger I have and will continue to experience – I can only hope that our actions will one day be enough to ensure both visibility and protection for sex workers – Slutwalk is an important step. I didn’t wear a short skirt as an invitation for you to rape me. Being a whore isn’t an invitation for you to rape me either – you’re only allowed to do what we agreed upon. Taking your money is not an invitation for you to take whatever you want. This has nothing to do with capitalism.
Slutwalk is about my choices, however complex they may be, feeling good about my agency, and insisting that I deserve to be safe. It is not about a bunch of other people telling me how capitalism might or might not have made me do it in the first place. As much as I admire and support the tenacity, intellectual vigour and inclusivity of Occupy Wall Street, it has no place alongside Slutwalk, a movement fighting for the constantly sidelined exception, even if Occupy Wall Street is a movement that purports to be a space of exceptionality within our capitalist society.