This is our truth, tell us yours
The concept of marginal gains is relatively new to me, but I have it right, it’s about making tiny improvements whose cumulative impact is felt over time. It first came along in cycling, as this blog explains, where everything from the type of pasta eaten before a race to the fluffiness of the pillows is analysed to improve performance.
This got me thinking about activism, and sex work activism in particular. It’s quite a few years now since I first started tweeting and blogging about sex work. It’s fair to say I didn’t even know the term sex work when I started, if I look back at my very first blogs on the subject I use escort.
When I first started talking about sex work there were very few people doing it in the way I did, as an adjunct to the rest of their life. I think that’s what people found interesting. There were sex workers with “promotional” blogs, there were 100% activists, and there were a few of us for whom sex work was one of the many things we talked, or wrote about. I remember vividly a series of interviews Carter and I did about BDSM, and being tentatively approached by the same journalist afterwards. They wondered if I would also talk about you know- selling- sex- hope I haven’t offended you- sotto voice.
By complete coincidence (by which it is no coincidence at all) it was not long after these interviews appeared that I was outed.
In sex work activism is it often the case that we are firefighting, the attempt to tack criminalization onto the Modern Slavery Bill was a classic example. Given this it is no surprise that we can get focussed on the “gold medal events”. Like cyclists before the idea of marginal gains came in decriminalization is so often seen as the end result of everything. This is not to say it should not be a goal, the most important one, but it can mean that we do not see the impact of other incremental gains that are being made. An analogy used ot explain marginal gains is the fight against MRSA, as long as wild demands to eradicate it were made, very little headway was made. Then anti bac hand gels were put in every ward, by every bed side, with posters reminding people to use them throughout hospitals. Eradicating MRSA might have been a worthy goal, but reducing deaths from infection was achieved by marginal gains, a small act with a huge cumulative impact.
I still remember when seeing sex worker in a newspaper headline was a shock, when hearing it used on TV caused me to mentally fist punch the air. Now it’s almost standard, and that matters hugely. If you are trying to hammer home the message that sex work is work, and therefore the fight for our rights is about workers rights, those two little words reinforce the message every time they are printed. It’s why antis refuse to use them, tying themselves in knots to defend the mythical idea of work being something no one outside of the offices of the New Statesman recognises. It’s that idea of marginal gains, the 1% changes that impact over time. Every time a member of the public reads sex worker instead of prostitute or hooker or call girl the impact grows, seeds are planted which bear the fruit of understanding.Similarly with whorephobia, a word which was rarely used a few years back, condemned as a neologism, and ignored by the left.
It’s not just the language used that has been a marginal gain, it’s also the fact that to be considered credible now an article on sex work pretty much has to include sex worker voices, either as individuals or via our own organisations. Now part of the theory of marginal gains is measuring the impact of changes, and of course this is far more difficult for attitudes to sex work than for cycling. But looking back I can see the change, the shift in attitude, the alteration in how we are perceived. It’s a shift that leaves people like Helen Lewis and her clique as the dinosaurs they are, while people elsewhere talk of a paradigm shift.
Part of the point of writing this post, on the first day of the new year is to speak of hope. Activism (and I do not consider myself an activist, but others do) can be tiring, you can wonder if there is a point. There are no gold medals to show achievement. Whilst there are our own awards and accolades it can be exhausting, especially if there is only one end goal. Who knows if we will ever achieve decriminalization, or if we will have to spend all of our energy putting out the fires of antis and swerfs. We can however be making marginal gains, small almost immeasurable changes which are only noticed over time. So today is a message of hope, a well done to all of us, a reminder that tiny things can and do matter.