Toward Radical, Queer, Erotic Movement-Building

A conversation on labor and pleasure with Kemi Alabi and Tina Horn of the Echoing Ida and We Too collections.

Clara Liang, Catherine Henderson, Daniela Ochoa-Bravo, Alex DiBranco and Sadie Morris

Rachel Dooley/Shutterstock

The Feminist Press started the year with two new collections that create space for the stories of communities that have consistently been silenced, ignored or talked over. The Echoing Ida Collection (January) — co-edited by Kemi Alabi, Janna A. Zinzi and Cynthia R. Greenlee — draws from the 500-plus pieces written by members of the Echoing Ida collective, a nine-year-old group of Black women and nonbinary people who take their inspiration from journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival (February) — edited by Natalie West with Tina Horn—brings together narratives by sex workers on topics from stigma to survival to liberation.

Some folks, on the Left in particular, point to class and capitalism as the “real” target in a way that’s dismissive of white supremacist patriarchy. But you can’t disentangle capitalism from white supremacy, because our economic system is organized around anti-Blackness.

Both collections came together in the wake of #MeToo, motivated in part by the gaps in a campaign that, despite its roots, prioritized the experiences of famous, wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual and able-bodied white women. In sections on the structure and the struggle,” birth justice,” family, sex, beauty, culture and Black love and Black futures,” the Echoing Ida contributors take on everything from equity in the marijuana industry to racism in the National Spelling Bee, from being a proud teen mom” to finding the erotic in economic justice.

In the forward to We Too, Selena the Stripper, a BIPOC sex worker, writes that sex workers often muted themselves during #MeToo out of the fear that talking about workplace abuse would lend fodder to opponents of sex work. This volume breaks that silence with essays that expose the many forms of violence that occur within — and outside — the sex industry, such as AK Saini’s chapter How to Rape a Sex Worker” and Jessie Sage’s Your Mother Is a Whore: On Sex Work and Motherhood.” As infuriating as it is vulnerable, the book serves as a testament that sex workers deserve a central place in both the labor and feminist movements.

Echoing Ida shares this insistence that marginalized people be included in liberation movements always on their own terms. The writers in each collection speak up not only about abuse and exploitation, but about joy, care and community — the building blocks for a better world through a radical, queer, erotic vision.

The title We Too is a play on #MeToo. Echoing Ida contains a chapter called “#UsToo,” in which a Black trans woman, Raquel Willis, discusses the exclusion of trans and gender-nonconforming people from conversations about sexual violence. Can you talk about what you see as missing from the #MeToo conversation? 

Alabi: Raquel Willis does a wonderful job in that essay explaining why #MeToo catapulted into the headlines after years of organizing led by Tarana Burke, a Black woman. Wealthy, white, cisgender celebrities captured more of our national imagination around sexual violence and its victims. Our culture will center their safety in ways it won’t for other workers or people of other races, genders and sexualities. Willis explained that her trans, queer and Black identities make her less believable, as her body has been historically coded as deviant. 

Those who are most targeted by sexual violence in this country are the least believed, least protected. #MeToo, as conceived by Tarana Burke, holds this history and these complexities, but its mainstream story doesn’t. The mainstream story fails to interrogate our cultural obsession with white women’s purity or decenter white ciswomanhood, so it risks further erasing those most vulnerable to sexual violence from the narrative. 

Horn: The concept of intersectionality has been watered down in popular culture to the point that people are using it interchangeably with the word diversity.” You’ve got to take that word out of your mouth if you don’t actually understand what it means. It’s not that hard to understand that different forms of oppression affect people differently. If you are a Black trans woman, for example, you are experiencing transphobia, general queerphobia, racism and white supremacy — as well as misogyny and sexism and chauvinism — in a way that would be different from a cis white woman. Class, of course, comes into that. I think that’s something that gets a little bit lost in the understandable horrors of the real-life testimonies of #MeToo experiences. 

In the sex work community, the most marginalized face the most violence — intersectionally. If you are a woman of color, if you are trans, if you are not in a position to work indoors but need to work in the street — all of these situations where you are more marginalized and more oppressed lead you to be dehumanized by people who wish other people harm. 

In the introduction to We Too, Natalie West demands space in the workers’ rights movement for the sex worker who chooses to work in the sex industries — compelled by the same economic necessity to work as any other type of worker — but who wants to improve the material conditions of their labor.” What is preventing this? 

Alabi: Echoing Ida, the collective, has been around since 2012, and it’s gotten queerer and queerer over time. In short, the book is so queer because the folks in Echoing Ida are so queer. The collection breaks out of a cishet paradigm because our community was intentional about broadening what gender justice means to be inclusive of trans folks and nonbinary people and queer writers. Without this, I don’t think you would be holding the truth of Black womanhood, of marginalized gender in this country. 

Horn: I would echo that. It’s not possible to talk about contemporary sex work without talking about queer and trans identity. We Too is edited by, and is the brainchild of, Natalie West, who asked me to come on as associate editor. Both Natalie and I are queer and out — in our work, in the platforms and personas that we use to market ourselves as sex workers under the names Natalie West and Tina Horn. 

Every sex worker has to make a series of decisions of what aspects of their identity they want to make available — for entertainment, for voyeurism, maybe in some ways we could say, for consumption. Identity can play a huge role in a job that requires so much intimate emotional labor. Going to work means choosing to perform elements of your identity and accentuating certain parts of what may be visible or not visible about who you are, or what you know about sexuality, what you know about how to make people feel. 

I would add that because there are so many structural limitations to what kinds of jobs trans and nonbinary people can get — and, to a certain degree, other queer identities as well — sex work has been an option for a lot of trans women, particularly trans women of color. Some of the voices that we have writing in this book are people telling stories about how queer and trans people form communities to gather and share resources, and also offer emotional support. The reason that sex workers survive in a whorephobic” society is because we have one another. 

Care and community seem deeply important to these collections. Both talk about self-care in the radical sense offered by Audre Lorde. 

Alabi: Understanding that some frameworks of Black women thinkers — like self-care — have been commodified, I think it’s important to center self and community care in a way that radically transforms how we do our work. And I mean work in all respects. Charmaine Lang’s article in Echoing Ida, Overworked and Underpaid,” names community care as being essential to the lives of activists and organizers. What does it mean to transform our organizing work so that it’s sustainable and doesn’t replicate the harms of labor in this capitalist system? 

Black women in particular have had our bodies commodified and made disposable. It can be very easy to continue to value Black life based on labor, on how hard we can destroy ourselves for this system that uses us and spits us out. No win can happen from that space. 

I also want to bring in an article by Taja Lindley, Pleasure Politics Part I: Employment, Economic Justice, and the Erotic.” Audre Lorde discusses the erotic as neither frivolous nor a luxury, just like she talks about care. If we are really centering care and pleasure in our lives, it becomes clear that the system and economy we’re working in are not sustainable. We must think systemically: How can we transform our whole economy to a care economy, to prioritize the type of relationship to self and one another that is restorative and connects us, as opposed to one that is alienated and extractive?

Pleasure and the erotic don’t usually emerge as major topics of conversation in the labor movement. But Echoing Ida and We Too push to transform the discussion around work and labor justice in relationship to sexuality and pleasure — reflecting that campaigns for a living wage or the Fight for $15 are important yet insufficient for transformative change. 

Alabi: The economic and political project of the United States was founded on the violent estrangement of Black people from our own bodies — our labor (manual, domestic, reproductive) is used to generate white wealth. Black women exploitation, dehumanization and disposability is in this country’s DNA, and this wouldn’t change without cultural, economic and political systems that seriously value connection and care. And yes, as people who were not allowed to fully inhabit our bodies for our own aims and desired sensory experiences, these systems must also value our pleasure. 

Janna Zinzi writes about this relationship to pleasure and sexuality in the introduction to our Naked Power” section: In the same way that healthcare, affordable housing, economic security, and reproductive justice are civil rights, pleasure is our birthright. … We resist simply by owning our sexuality, our curves, our divots and dimples, and our desires.” 

I wanted to come to this discussion, putting these two books in conversation, because it emphasizes how dangerous erotic autonomy is to power structures. I think we are seeing how our economic system requires estrangement and will police folks who are bucking that.

Horn: The term sex work was created by sex industry activists to emphasize the work aspect of what we do, but I also am very wary of de-emphasizing the sexuality part. If we have movements for sex workers, led by sex workers, then that political and activist movement work is going to be led by people who have gained insight into human nature through sexuality. I think sometimes the sexuality part gets de-emphasized intentionally in order to be a quote-unquote appropriate” or respectable” conversation. 

Alabi: This question highlights, to me, the impossibility of being protected as whole, complicated human beings within our current systems — and the radical imperative to reclaim our autonomy and then build systems that honor it.

We want to end by talking about the future you imagine.

Horn: I would like to see a world in which the onus isn’t on the people who are demanding rights and moving for liberation to prove that we are respectable in cis-hetero-white supremacist- patriarchal terms to be deserving” of those rights. I think this is something that is an ongoing, serious issue in queer liberation and I’m sure this also extends to the Movement for Black Lives and many other liberation movements. So I would like to see a future in which we can all get free together and be liberated on our own terms. A future where we don’t have to scrub ourselves clean — we can get free while staying dirty. 

Alabi: I appreciate Mariame Kaba and other abolitionist organizers for making the demand to reimagine everything. It is, of course, about transforming the entire punishment system. But even beyond that, the vision is much larger. By listening to and learning from the present-day Black liberation movements for transformation, we can understand that it is urgent to reimagine how all this functions. And so my hope, even with the change in administration, is that our movements don’t lose our urgency around building a radical imagination to transform all of our systems.

Alex DiBranco, Clara Liang, Daniela Ochoa-Bravo, Sadie Morris and Catherine Henderson all contributed to this interview.

Clara Liang is a writer based in San Francisco and Assistant to the Managing Editor at In These Times. She recently graduated from Carleton College with a degree in American Studies and Race, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity Studies.

Catherine Henderson is an editorial intern for In These Times and a master’s student at Northwestern University. You can reach her on twitter at @Caity_ Henderson.

Daniela Ochoa-Bravo is a mixed-media artist and writer based in Brooklyn. She is currently an editorial intern with In These Times. You can find her on Twitter @danielaochoabr.

Alex DiBranco is a managing editor at In These Times.

Sadie Morris is a former In These Times editorial intern. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Culture and Politics at Georgetown University with a focus on political economy and the environment.

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