The readings this time around are particularly slow going. I find I have a hard time with self-imposed deadlines, and I’m not sure if a project that involves reading a bunch of wrong and boring bullshit was the best venue in which to test my self-discipline. I’m also realizing that I have more responsibilities and less time than the syllabus currently allows, so going forward I’m going to give myself three weeks for each unit. That’s what seems to be happening organically anyway.
In the meantime I’m following the conventional (or, since I Googled it looking for a specific source and so rudely discovered, now unconventional) wisdom of following my passion in order to produce content. I want to talk about what the process of building a collective could look like. I spend much more time ruminating on this than amusing myself with bad sex ed content, although you probably wouldn’t know it. Bad sex ed content isn’t even amusing in and of itself; it’s depressing unless you envision an alternative. Here I was trying to build up a content base of criticism of bad content before properly propounding on the possible alternatives. I was sure to bludgeon everyone with the horrors of inaccurate information instead of inspire them to action.
This is a bad side-effect of my tendency to over-plan, to try to put everything in place before making a real move. I’ve only spoken of this project casually in conversation, dropped a few links here and there, waiting for the right time to lay out a proper vision, working on the assumption that that time will come after I’ve got it all planned out privately—you know, after I can be sure to ward off failure and rejection. That time would obviously be never. Excessive fear of failure may be a general foible of mine but it’s also a specific reaction to the extreme tendency of collectivist projects to nose-dive into flames.
With that in mind, it may be easier to talk about what I specifically do not envision for a collectivist project, and there are two possibilities that keep me awake at night. The first fail possibility is the common chaotic wreck of the disorganized left, (and if you’ve heard me complain about that recently, now you know why.) Leftist disorganization is so common a problem it’s more like a running gag, except that the end results are only funny in retrospect. I’ve watched disorganization turn to spectacular failure on at least a half dozen projects that I can specifically remember; there are many more that I’ve forgotten, either because the downfall was so swift it’s like it barely happened at all, or because the fiasco was so protracted I looked away and wiped it from my memory. I’ve thankfully only been directly involved in like 3 of these occurrences, but it’s been enough to establish a pattern.
The pattern goes: one or two or three people are really passionate about something. These people might be anarchists but they’re never operating in anarchist spaces (I’m sure they do, just not that I’ve seen). More often they’re general lefties in feminist or social justice spaces who have a passing familiarity with anarchist ideas like “DIY” but not enough to understand that it doesn’t mean “go in knowing nothing and just wing it!” Most of these projects have been in theater, which is a particularly brutal way to experience failure but also an illustrative one. When one or two or three people have a passion and need to convince other people to get on board, the passion is usually enough. But when it comes to organizing a successful project, the cracks show very clearly very early in the process.
Take the feminist collectivist attempt to put on a play (OK OK it was the Vagina Monologues) that began with the misunderstanding that if you had any prior experience with acting or directing it shouldn’t be utilized, because “no experts.” These one or two or three not-leaders not-decided we should cast the play collectively, without providing any ethical or aesthetic guidelines. There was another ad-hoc theater experience that began with the not-producer, not-director explaining that she didn’t believe in directing, because it was hierarchical. I’d read Theater of the Oppressed but still wasn’t catching her line of logic, so I asked her to lay it out by explaining who would be deciding on stage directions. “What are stage directions?” she replied. I explained, but she didn’t seem convinced they were necessary.
These projects were both blessedly limited in time and scope to the performance of the piece. One resulted in an okay performance and the other was a moderate disaster—again, pretty easy to gauge with theater—and although the processes for both were chaotic wrecks, the ultimate okayness or failure of each colored how the not-cast felt about the whole process. The moderate disaster left everyone frustrated and bitter and did more to fracture community than build it. With something like a sex ed collective, where the time and goals are both open-ended and money is more of a motive, the potential for disaster and the potential of that disaster to ruin relationships, fracture communities, and destroy finances are sky-high. I am trying to build enough of a knowledge base to avoid a “What are stage directions?” scenario and more so, to avoid a “Who gets what money and when?” scenario.
Of course you cannot build a collective by yourself, cannot make these decisions for a collective by yourself, or else you become the Director in the worst way. You can only prepare to bring your own knowledge into a collective. I just want to make sure I know as much as possible about stage directions —uh, so to speak.
One of the things that I am learning is the amount of work and the extent of risk inherent in building a worker cooperative; again, the scope is exponentially greater than a theater performance in both time and goals. I am building a blog as the first step in letting people know this project might exist that they can get on board with, but I am also building the foundations for something I can begin as a solo project and later transform into a collective, if a solo launch is what ends up happening. Because it may very well be that people have the interest but not the capacity to build something from the ground-up with me. (If they do, the plans change according to collective desire, but we’re setting that possibility aside for now because obviously I can’t possibly address what the collective desires might be.)
This is where things get ethically tricky, where I need to ask not only, What can I build first by myself? but What should I build first by myself that does not benefit only myself but still provides directly for me and can be transitioned into a collective project that provides directly for multiple people? Put in more starkly economic terms, if I need to raise seed money myself for a future collective, how do I do that in a way that a) gets other people aware of and excited about the project and future collective collaboration and b) does not exploit (in Marxist terms) other people’s labor for my own benefit? I sometimes even wonder if someone in my position as a white cis woman should attempt to do this, but then I acknowledge that I have a clear financial need for self-employment and can only do my best to achieve that in an ethical way; self-denial is the surest way to avoid oppressing anyone but it’s also cowardly to choose martyrdom over earnest and well-researched attempts at community empowerment.
So, I am attempting to build this in a way that can be replicated by other, perhaps more oppressed individuals, in sharing the intellectual resources I gather with them. I am also laying out the first draft of my plans here for feedback before I go any further. Here are the steps I’m envisioning:
- In 2017, build up a base of content and start answering reader questions myself on a tip-jar basis; build buzz while researching business models, collective models, and funding and income sources.
- By 2018, begin to fundraise seed money with self-published book on sex work and disability and a series of zines containing contributions from people who are criminalized for their perceived or actual consensual sexual practices (in practical terms, contributions from known sex worker-writers as well as unknown trans women, gender nonconforming people, and those who have experience trading sex). Any profit should go into an LLC (or whatever business structure I decide on in the research part of step 1) as seed money.
- By 2019, begin publishing content on a new website, alternating previously published blog articles and zine articles with commissioned pieces or subsmissions, prioritizing those from people with experiences in sex trades. These pieces will respond to specific reader questions. Contributors will be paid out of seed money until readership gets to the point of subscription. Any profit would continue to go into the LLC.
- No later than 24- 30 months after LLC is functional, transition to a collective operating structure. Bring on collective members from among website contributors (give all contributors the option at time of writing 2nd article). At this point allow commissioned content to revert back to author ownership and begin collective work doing in-person and online seminars, workshops, and speeches. Start writing grant applications for continued funding.
- Five years after the collective is formed, transition from grant funding to income derived solely from talks, seminars and other direct services.
The ultimate goal is a self-sustaining collective of 5 or 6 people, who provide sex education via online columns (tip jar funded on the reader side and pay-per question on the asker side), online group courses, individual consultation, and in-person seminars, particularly at universities. This collective may be a part of a loose federation of local groups spread around the country or even the world that share business practice tips and sometimes content.
The key here is that this should be self-sustaining. If it isn’t, it risks falling into the second trap: the neocolonial candlestick makers. This is not actually a risk of collectivist projects, this is a risk of all projects that attempt to find alternate employment for people in the sex trades, and as far as I’m aware, there are no collectivist projects to that end (PLEASE tell me if there are!!). I’m not even sure there are any that are based in the U.S. All of the projects are, well, neocolonialist projects based in third world countries but mostly founded by women from the first world, often by white women, and always in a way that profits the founder and director in hefty amounts of prestige if not always hefty amounts of cash, for these projects are usually not-for-profit (that doesn’t indicate the founder isn’t getting rich, it’s just that I highly doubt it; much easier to do that through your anti-trafficking advocacy org.) And all of these projects involve paying women who have worked in the sex trades—almost always cis women, and almost always forcibly ‘rescued’ and forbidden to return to the sex trades—to do something inane like handcrafting candles or pajamas. This is inane because there is no great demand for hand-made candles or pajamas. These businesses are hard to sustain. Unlike sex work, the jobs don’t pay well, and they often involve drudge work spread over long and inflexible hours. They use none of the skills the women already have but force them to learn a new skill that is not particularly useful in other circumstances nor remunerative in this one.
I want this project to be everything neocolonial candlestick making is not: by and for people who trade/ have traded sex in the local community; profitable for us; using the valuable skills we already have; meeting a market demand that is not being met (more on this in a bit) in a way that provides flexible, interesting, and well-paying employment and all without forcing anyone to stop trading sex. The one thing I cannot be sure of is that it will be possible to sustain, and the sustainability of it is key if a real alternative to sex work is to be provided. Otherwise what you have is a resume-builder at best— which is not nothing, to be sure— and at worst an amusing hobby. And if you want a hobby, you might as well make candles.
This five-step plan is clearer on goals for building community and transitioning into a collective than it is on finding sources of funding and methods of generating sustainable income. I’m working on that. Hell, everyone in the field of sex ed. is working on that. The most common solution* right now is an individualist one: people either go into the established fields of academia or healthcare, earning Ph.D.s and MDs and professionalizing their knowledge (which I do not mean to knock, just to acknowledge that it is not a collectivist solution), or they build individual brands around the idea of sexual self-empowerment, using their own empowerment as a credential, and then sell empowerment through inspirational lectures on orgasms and with a vendor contract from SheVibe (I’m only kind of knocking this one). But the market for sex education is so much larger than college students, private practice patients (or even clinic patients), and petit bourgeois housewives looking for vibrators. This demand is often funneled into the sex trades even when sexual services are not really required to meet it, only because consumers don’t know where else to look. See the lines of sexually explicit educational movies by porn performers like Jessica Drake (again, not knocking), or PornHub’s recent move to start a sex education website helmed by doctors
and therapists (DEFINITELY knocking) . Will they steal their content the way they steal pornographic movies featuring Drake and other porn performers and illegitimately profit off of that labor too? I’d rather not wait around and see.
There are other incipient attempts to capture demand for sex ed (think websites like Passionate U), but none of them (as far as I know!) are operating in a collectivized way and all of them are dealing with the same hurdles around content limitations imposed by credit card payment processors and advertisers. They are trying to build traditional business with traditional payment and advertising methods, though. Technology has opened up payment and monetization alternatives like Bitcoin and social-media driven crowdfunding that I don’t think (again, correct me plzzz) have been fully tapped by sex educators yet.
Moreover, there is a market for people who want to pay to get women out of the sex trades. At least, there purports to be, but right now this money is being channeled into throw-away commodities like candles or into management-heavy ‘advocacy’ orgs that don’t have any material impact on anything except to suck up funding needed elsewhere. Would these same people actually pay sex workers directly to do something else? Possibly, depending on how it’s being spun. I think that with a TON of research and careful planning, it would be possible to fund a sex-worker led sex ed collective, initially through crowdfunding, then possibly through smaller grants, and eventually by building up a customer base in these untapped markets. If it’s not possible, I’m willing to fail at that alone, and by fail, I mean to shut down the project at stages 1-4 still having achieved something valuable and without having wrecked a community or exploited the labor of forcibly-‘rescued’ candle-makers.
*There are other alternatives but they require various degrees of selflessness and self-abnegation. A lot of the most crucial sex education work gets done by volunteers and underemployed writers and speakers, but the primary purpose of this project is self-employment, and so I’m skipping over their work here. Just know that it definitely does exist.