Organize Like a Sex Worker: Learning from Worker and Organizer Kate D'Adamo

The political landscape around so many fundamental rights is changing for the worse. Whether you’re trying to access abortion⁠ care, immigration rights, or gender⁠ affirming care – chances are you’re going to face unnecessary and intentional hurdles. What’s more, the increasing criminalization of healthcare means that patients and providers will have to navigate the risks of being caught up in our criminal justice system for doing something as simple as trying to access abortion. (For more on how to stay safe while you’re getting an abortion – you can find our guide here.)

Sex workers have long existed in legal gray areas; figuring out⁠ how to make a living, stay safe, and avoid liability wherever possible. They also face stigma, judgment and pushback from both the Christian right, and sex⁠ work exclusionary feminists (SWERFs) on the left. But progressive spaces would be wise to work together with sex workers to brave this new world where accessing basic healthcare can land you in jail. To do so though, they will also have to accept that sex work is work – and that supporting and embracing sex workers in reproductive justice space is just like supporting other workers; this is critical to ensuring the reproductive and sexual⁠ liberation of everyone.

To dig into this more, we talked to Kate D'Adamo. Kate is a sex worker who heads up the policy and advocacy work at Reframe Health & Justice consulting which supports organizations and movements engaging in “practices of care, compassion, and collaboration,” all through a harm reduction framework. Kate is also part of the sexuality team for the forthcoming Our Bodies Ourselves Today and is bringing her critical perspective to the resources involved. Kate shared her thoughts on the necessity of sex workers and their perspective as we fight for reproductive autonomy⁠ , and the internalized sex phobia that progressive spaces still need to get rid of.

Tell me a little bit about your background:

"I came to sex worker spaces as a sex worker organizer. I did direct organizing for a really long time, policy work. Advocacy is now a lot more of what I do, and working with direct organizers on the ground. I [also] love doing cross-movement work. Sex worker centered [work] is my heart and my home. But I do a lot of reproductive justice work as well. Especially around abortion access reproductive justice spaces –  and in terms of like, digital privacy, and what that means, because it's already so difficult for young people."

Have you encountered sex phobia or slut⁠ shaming in reproductive health and justice spaces?

"​​I think we are not actually good at organizing from a place of joy or pleasure in social justice⁠ spaces. And, and I think that the fact that we focus these movements on so much tragedy and so much trauma⁠ and so much pain says a lot about our organizing, I think it says a lot about kind of what brings us together. And the fact is that what brings us together for social justice causes – like trauma and pain, it is not what brings us together and community, which is pleasure. And so I’m centering my community work on joy, on pleasure, on thriving; this asks a lot of us in terms of looking at our privilege, if we're going to marry these two conversations.

You know, some of the most aggressive⁠ , ardent anti-sex folks that I've ever encountered in double digit years of organizing, and and in being in community, has come from people who squarely say, “I do this from a place of feminism,” and really weaponize feminism against anyone who doesn't look like that traditional version of what a “good woman” is. You know, sex workers are not a monolith, just like feminists are not a monolith. But I think it’s critical to honor that everyone has their own path  of resilience - and that all of those paths of resilience only make you stronger. They don't make you someone to save. They don't make you someone to disrespect, you're still a valid person.

Sex work has a lot of complicated gender dynamics to it, and a lot of nuance to it. But [it’s] a femme⁠ centered space that works at the intersections of criminalization and economic justice and a lot of systems of oppression. I think that that is an affront to a lot of spaces that are actually striving at the end of the day to maintain a lot more of these systems than we really actually want to admit. And so listening to sex workers means things like, not expanding snap - but just giving people money, and saying, “What do you want to do with this money?” It's not about housing vouchers, or programs who can tell you when you live with and where you live, it's about just giving people money.

The work is about actually recognizing that people use their bodies in a lot of different ways. It's, and it's about actually harnessing and understanding that sexuality comes in a lot of different forms, that families come in a lot of different forms. And that the way that we need to recognize that is about addressing poverty. And if we really thought a lot about the criminalization of sex work about policing of sex work, we would have to have a conversation about who is criminalized, who is policed. And that actually, dismantling [these systems] is the only way to keep people safe in a lot of in many, many instances."

It feels like a lot of feminist and repro spaces turn on each other instead of trying to figure out how to be supportive.

"I think it comes from a scarcity mindset. We talk about scarcity mindsets a lot in terms of resources and capital, and that kind of competition has a scarcity mindset in terms of social capital. In terms of the workplace and in the world, we're [typically] taught this idea that you are replaceable, that you have only the you have no intrinsic value and you only have what you produce, what other people can use you for – it’s so capitalistic. If someone else can give more, they are a threat to you, because [of the idea that] there can only be one. It's meant to destroy relationships that actually do build power. It’s meant to pit people against each other and make people fight for scraps and be like, you know, there's one scrap on the table, you are my enemy, as opposed to you know, the system is my enemy, whoever put one scrap on the table and asked me to fight you for it. That's who we need to be fighting against."

Lets talk a little bit about the connection between sex worker justice and abortion justice and trans rights.

​​"This is all part of the same story. It such an important opportunity to recognize how much we're in this fight together in really tangible ways. This is not just about transphobia⁠ or homophobia⁠ , or about being anti-abortion, or anti sex work. This is a eugenics movement. And we are all in the crosshairs of the eugenics movement.

I think that this is such a central moment to recognize that eugenics is about controlling bodies, is about having superior bodies, and is about is a direct affront to who builds families and who builds communities and because the people who can build community and build family are also the people who can build power. And so this is entirely about continuing this, this very specific, white nationalist, patriarchal, Christian nationalist fight, about what bodies survive, and then how those bodies are resourced and then how those bodies meet together.

If you look back at trans history, [trans women ] like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson were sex workers. That's how they kept their babies housed and fed. And we need to talk about [how] sex work has funded our movements for a very, very, very long time, we need to talk about how doulas have providing healthcare for centuries; that's who's been birthing our babies.

And a lot of times when you're talking about who needs like medical care most we're people who are like building connections with each other sex workers who are supporting each other. Like, these are the same folks."

Lets close by talking about the digital privacy aspect of the intersection of sex work and these other issues.

"Sex workers have faced a lot of people are coming to the realization about criminalization for the first time. And everyone has their learning curve. And so like, you know, awesome, for people who are just learning about sex worker rights and how they’re connected to reproductive justice? Welcome to the party. It's lit. And, and there's so much to learn, though, because it looks really fucking scary. It's terrifying, because all of the threats are the same. You can't peel them apart. And criminalization at this point is so insidious and happens in so many different ways.

When we're talking about the criminalization of survival, for folks that are accessing abortion care, or health care in different spaces, sex workers have experience navigating all of that. And I think that that is really important for people to understand. So, like SB8t in Texas: if you read that law, it specifically said this law is not about anyone from the city, anyone from the state, any official. This law is about civil litigation, that is meant for people who have no standing to be able to sue. That straight up playbook of how they criminalize sex work.

Sex workers have been getting around these laws to survive in moments of real need by building communities. That's what's community organizing is rooted in. It's about understanding those laws. It's about avoiding those laws. It's about keeping each other safe from the state.

Digital space exists because people need a non-physical space; maybe they weren't safe to do what they needed to do in physical space, and needed more and found digital space to do that. And so for folks that are accessing abortion – for example, if you are a young person who is trying to get abortion information, you might have limited transportation, you might not be able to get them from your school, you might not be able to get it at the mall, you know, not be able to get it quietly at any of the places that you can convince someone to drive you to, and you might not know where to go. Going online is [something you do] because you have a need [cannot seek it safely in a] physical space. So we go to digital spaces to find what we need. The regulation of those spaces is being done by a lot of people who actually don't understand the Internet, or who is there. So there really hasn't been a lot of oversight or regulation – they're employing the same kind of policing tactics in digital space that they would in physical space, they're expanding liability."

What do the nitty gritties of the digital privacy concerns look like?

"The most important thing is always going to be if you are participating in that space, you are engaging with these companies. And their bottom⁠ line is the most important regulation and role. And so while Twitter can call itself like you know, the town square– Twitter is owned by [billionaires.] That's who's making the rules; the values that he brings to Twitter are probably not shared by the rest of us and they're definitely not about the digital security to young people trying to get access to abortion care. So, while we talk about digital space and privacy we have to recognize that we're looking at three different threats.

First is a lot of people are talking about criminalization right now which is like ‘is what I post gonna get me charges’  – that is one set of harms to prepare for.

The second is that these private companies are de platforming [people who are fighting for social justice] because as [laws regulating how we talk about abortion online expand] that's going to hurt their finances. If they are not removing content, they might be afraid that the cops are gonna come and do an investigation, that they're gonna get hauled in front of Congress, and they're gonna lose investors because they got had a really bad House hearing that was all about publicity, they're gonna lose investors, or they might attract unwanted attention. So they don't want to do that either. And as their liability expands, you as someone who needs space as someone who is sitting at the apex of having this need and this criminalization? You're now a liability to them, and they are better served by kicking you and the information you need off their platform, because they don't want you, they don't want your liability, even though the people that need digital space are the people that built the internet.

Because of that, we can't talk about this without understanding that we actually have to fight, and we have to understand how digital space is regulated. The more we need, the more oppressed we are, the more impacted the criminalization we are, the more we are a liability to how much profit they're gonna make, and therefore become that much more expendable.

The last threat is the interpersonal threat, it's about what it means to be online, and to face harassment over what you post. Maybe I won't get arrested for it, maybe I won't get deplatformed for it. But is what I post out there going to have people be shitty to me, am I gonna get doxxed am I going to put information about my abortion online and face like the interpersonal harm and stigma and trauma that is just about us not being kind to each other? When we talk about digital security and digital privacy, it's really important to talk about how we analyze our threats and how we analyze our vulnerabilities: we have to actually know what they are. Those all look the same way in the end for a lot of people, but they're not the same threat. And we have to have a really clear understanding about what we're fighting against, because it's not gonna be the same matrix for every single person."

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  • Michaela Glinsky

Saniya Lee Ghanoui is a historian and critical media studies scholar who focuses on the intersection of gender and sexuality, medicine, and media. Through her studies, she became intrigued by how society created stigma and taboo around the menstrual cycle, which led her to focus on critical menstrual studies investigating the construction and depiction of menstruation in television, the history of menstrual education films, as well as the history of sex education in the United States.