Beyond Birth Control: Recent Reproductive Justice Stories That Fewer People Are Talking About

Many advocates have understandably focused on the Supreme Court in recent weeks. But what gets lost in that focus are the stories that show the right to basic bodily autonomy is at stake for sex workers, trans people of color, and those who are disproportionately incarcerated.

Many advocates have understandably focused on the Supreme Court in recent weeks. But what gets lost in that focus are the stories that show the right to basic bodily autonomy is at stake for sex workers, trans people of color, and those who are disproportionately incarcerated. Courtroom via Shutterstock

Recent Supreme Court rulings have not been great for reproductive justice. If the destruction of Massachusetts’ clinic buffer zone law wasn’t enough of a gut punch, the Hobby Lobby decision was a solid finish.

The list of ways that these decisions will hinder access to effective, safe reproductive health care seems endless. But while reproductive justice advocates focused on the Supreme Court steps these past several weeks, reproductive justice was being challenged on the West Coast, where two events had implications for reproductive justice: The FBI shut down MyRedBook.com, a Bay Area website for sex workers, only days after queer activists’ protest of Kink.com’s prison-themed party. In both cases, bodily autonomy—the keystone of reproductive justice—was at stake, for sex workers, trans people of color, and those who are disproportionately incarcerated.

Both events demonstrated that reproductive justice—the right to make healthy and safe decisions about one’s body—is being infringed upon beyond the Supreme Court’s rulings restricting access to abortion and birth control, and those who live at the intersections of oppressions are the most under attack.

On June 25, the FBI shut down MyRedBook.com, a website where sex workers could screen clients and negotiate rates online. The Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) mourned the shutdown as the loss of “a private, discreet venue for negotiations that otherwise often happen in a public venues or on the street.”

As Truthout reports, the loss of MyRedBook.com “not only cut off a source of income for sex workers, but also a source of information and community.” In the message boards archived by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, MyRedBook users ask for advice regarding health concerns, financial affairs, and safety tips for meeting with clients. “MyRedBook.com [was] the only accessible advertising and community forum for sex workers of all income levels,” said Kristina Dolgin, Bay Area SWOP organizer, in a phone interview. “When you criminalize sex work, you’re driving sex workers underground. Now that MyRedBook.com is gone, people will still do what they need to do to survive—but without that community they are more at risk for exploitation.”

Dolgin highlighted a desire to stop sex trafficking as one of the reasons why law enforcement targeted sex worker resources—the shutdown has been hyped by CNN “as a move made as part of a broader crackdown on the sex trafficking of minors.” But the charges filed against MyRedBook.com proprietors were unrelated to human trafficking or child prostitution. According to news reports, they were charged with interstate travel in aid of racketeering.

Dolgin also noted the disappearance of harm reduction resources that provide information and community for sex workers (such as Craiglist). “This is a trend that is happening across the United States,” she said.

Late June also saw queer and trans organizers in the Bay Area challenge a prison-themed Pride event thrown by Kink.com, a fetish website. The queer activist groups Gay Shame and LaGai organized a protest against the “Prison of Love” party. Promotional material for the party boasted of “solitary confinement [and] showers” and asked, “What kind of trouble will 3000 of the world’s hottest men get into when in lockdown?”

In an open letter to the party’s organizers released by the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex (TGI) Justice Project, signatories explained they were “appalled by the casual use of the Prison Industrial Complex, which destroys the lives of millions of people and kills thousands every year, as a party theme. At a time when public discussion and media finally has an eye toward the daily systemic violence against trans and queer people, your party theme and promotions are especially harmful and trivializing.”

Trans and queer people, particularly trans women of color, experience extremely high rates of incarceration: According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, “Black and Latino/a risk for incarceration due only to gender identity/expression were much higher than the overall sample’s experience, at 41% and 21% respectively.” Comparatively, only 2.7 percent of the U. S. population reports being incarcerated in their lifetime, according to a 2003 study. Trans people of color also experienced substantially higher rates of sexual assault and harassment while incarcerated than both the white trans people surveyed and the general population.

The protest culminated in the arrest of at least seven people, including a National Lawyers Guild legal observer; three queer people of color arrested were held for three days. As one person who was arrested remarked at Gay Shame’s press conference after their release, “[jail] was nothing like that party.”

For those who gathered in protest, the party theme was a flippant symbol of disproportionate incarceration rates for people of color and trans people. “[C]olonialism and white supremacy value some bodies and drastically dehumanize other bodies— [incarceration] and [policing] are part of the process of exerting control over those bodies,” said danielle west, an organizer with the TGI Justice Project, who was present at the protest.

That these two incidents occurred within days of each other, in the same city, is coincidental, but what they reveal about law enforcement, incarceration, and the boundaries of the reproductive justice movement are revealing in conjunction. Both events are symptomatic of structural injustice in everything from policing to incarceration. Both went largely unreported by national media. Both affected those targeted, be they sex workers or incarcerated queer people, along lines of race, gender, and class.

Due to discrimination, LGBT people are disproportionately involved in the sex trades, or profiled by law enforcement as involved in the sex trades, intimately linking issues of incarceration, policing, and sex work.

But most importantly, both events were related to issues of bodily autonomy: bodily autonomy for those who contend with structural oppression based on multiple forms of identity. Sex workers were stripped of the resources they needed to operate safely, there was no disruption of the systemic incarceration of trans and queer people, and even more queer and trans people were subject to arrest and involvement with the justice system. These are not unusual occurrences, but both cases demonstrate how the criminalization of sex work is used as a tool to confine and limit the autonomy of some individuals based on racist, misogynist, and transmisogynist ideology.

Reproductive justice, at its root, is about bodily autonomy—for all people, without stipulations or caveats. When we ignore the infringement of that autonomy on some bodies—particularly the bodies of those who are most marginalized, including sex workers, people of color, and trans women—it is not an accident. Rather, it is a reflection of the imposition of structural power on all bodies.

Without emphasis on how mass incarceration and targeted policing infringes on the bodily autonomy of sex workers, trans women, and Black and brown people, there can be no reproductive justice for all. A movement that ignores these things reifies the patriarchy and the systemic racism and transmisogyny we seek to reject.

To focus only on bodily autonomy only in certain places or for certain people is not justice. To disregard the way that bodily autonomy is prioritized for certain issues, without acknowledging how control over one’s body is a right offered in the current system based on meeting certain parameters of normativity, whether in need or in identity, is not justice either. The protest of the prison party and the shutdown of MyRedBook.com show that challenges to bodily autonomy will come from all sides, and those who are most affected will be those whose autonomy is already infringed upon as a matter of course. In order to build a reproductive justice movement that is as strong and multifaceted as the people working as part of it, these issues must move from the periphery to front and center.