Sex Work Politics: From Protest to Service Provision

Majic’s central argument is that non-profit organizations borne from social movements can engage with, encourage, and advance radical causes despite concerns on the part of academics and activists that the transition from activism to non-profit status will enable less radical actors to coopt movement politics. Sex Work Politics details the ways in which two California-based non-profit organizations, California Prostitutes Education Project (CAL-PEP) and The St. James Infirmary (SJI), have managed to further the causes of the sex worker rights’ movement despite operating in a funding environment that takes an overwhelmingly abolitionist stance to prostitution, and often does not even acknowledge the possibility of sex work as work. Majic’s book is thus an important contribution to knowledge about sex worker activism in particular, and activism on the part of non-profits more generally, as she demonstrates how individuals and organizations maneuver within the American non-profit environment to further their own ends.

Being a non-profit all too often raises the possibility of being coopted, especially since the organization will have to continually seek funding to ensure its survival. Funding brings with it the prerogatives of the funder. For CAL-PEP and SJI, Majic argues, this could mean abandoning the struggle to recognize sex work as legitimate work.  The organizations are advocating for legalization in a political/funding environment that equates prostitution with violence against women, abuse, victimization, and trafficking, and/or treats sex work as a crime and sex workers as vectors of disease. Indeed, Majic discusses a spectrum of compromises that CAL-PEP and SJI have had to make to continue operating as 501(c)3 non-profits. She addresses the data-collection activities in exchange for programmatic funding, a not so onerous comprise.  But she also discusses more contentious compromises. For example, Majic describes CAL-PEP’s lack of control over a 2010 CDC grant.  When the organization accepted the grant, they had to use the funding specifically to implement outcomes-oriented programs that did not reflect the organization’s commitment to non-judgmental interventions, and could not flexibly direct resources towards the segments of their service population in most need due to bureaucratic restrictions. Likewise, during the second Bush administration, when federal policy towards prostitution was at its abolitionist zenith, CAL-PEP changed its name from California Prostitutes Education Project to California Prevention and Education Project, a shift that allowed them to survive in a conservative environment but that signaled a shift away from the organization’s roots in the sex worker’s rights movement. The original name was later restored. Majic additionally notes that simply being a 501(c)3 non-profit legally prevents such organizations from spending more than a small percentage of their budget on advocacy or lobbying activities meant to change government policy.

Majic argues that, despite these limitations, CAL-PEP and SJI are able to successfully negotiate the political/funding environment to provision non-judgmental harm-reduction services for sex workers, as well as to create a space in which sex worker advocacy can flourish.  Majic introduces a number of concepts to describe the strategies these organizations use to do this. She uses oppositional implementation to describe non-profit capitalization on policy trends to advance their own causes, describing CAL-PEP and SJI’s capitalization on trends towards local provisioning of health services to create clinics and mobile HIV/AIDS education centers.  These centers create spaces where information and healthcare are provided, but also in which marginalized sex workers can gather, form communities, and encounter activist discourse. The organizations also support community engagement by encouraging peer volunteerism with and employment by the organizations. Majic additionally demonstrates how both CAL-PEP and SJI engage in what she terms claims-making activities such as knowledge production and policy advocacy, in which CAL-PEP and SJI produce independent research on/with sex worker populations, produce public awareness campaigns for sex worker recognition, affect policy by having employees work in concert with policy makers outside the context of their employment, open up political activity as a personal consideration for sex workers who come in contact with them, and engage in direct lobbying to the fullest extent possible within the limitations of maintaining 501(c)3 status.

Sex Work Politics is an effective and pragmatic consideration of the ways the current system can be engaged to further radical means. Majic is detailed and thoughtful as she demonstrates the ways in which CAL-PEP and SJI have not lost all of their advocacy/activist roots with their shift to non-profit status. The work is anchored in long-term ethnography and participant observation, as well as a wealth of interview data, and is convincing for its detail, thoughtfulness, and careful methodology.

For all of its strengths, Majic’s work would still benefit from deeper connections to literature on sex worker activism internationally, as well as to broader critiques of non-profit organizations as agents (intentional or otherwise) of neoliberal governance. To be fair, Majic is focusing on the ways in which non-profits navigate the current American political environment, but anthropologists will most likely desire deeper connections to and comparisons with the activities and operational concerns of organizations similar to CAL-PEP and SJI in other countries. Although Majic glancingly mentions CAL-PEP and SJI’s involvement with and praise by international sex-workers advocacy organizations, her work would benefit from a deeper consideration of how sex worker activism plays out in more varied contexts. In less restrictive legal and political environments, are organizations better able to advance the more radical causes of sex worker activism? In more restrictive environments, is oppositional implementation still possible? Additionally, she might have considered how sex workers can navigate and use abolitionist organizations to their own varied ends, this would have been useful in illuminating the wider sphere of political actors in this realm. The works of Prabha Kotiswaran and Sealing Cheng would be an excellent starting point for expanding Majic’s argument. Additionally, Sex Work Politics could benefit from acknowledging arguments that governmental reliance on non-profits reflects not just a potential governmental cooptation of oppositional politics, but is also part of a neoliberal imperative to abandon direct governmental provisioning of services at all.  These concerns reflect my desire  that Majic expand her very successful portrait of non-profits as sites of practical, albeit constrained, political activism.

Megan Hamm, University of Pittsburgh

Majic, Samantha. 2013. Sex Work Politics: From Protest to Service Provision. University of Pennsylvania Press. Read more at University of Pennsylvania Press.


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