We asked sex worker rights groups and allies around the world to discuss what works and doesn’t work when arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work. This series reports what they said.
Trying to convince people that decriminalisation is the most humane policy around sex work can often feel like trying to smash a piñata. Those of us who are sex workers or sex workers’ rights activists often deliver our arguments with hard-hitting urgency, as if we’re trying to forcefully shake out empathy or buy-in from those in positions of power.
This makes sense. Many proponents of decrim don’t have the luxury of taking a coolly removed stance towards the subject. For sex workers, it is very much personal and political. Arguing decrim isn’t about recommending effective policy as much as it is demanding basic physical safety for people who do not have it. This means that when we urge people to get on board with decrim, we often do so without the veneer of detachment. We speak with crystal clear ferocity and volcanic passion. These are qualities you’d think would touch people, and yet somehow that piñata rarely bursts. No matter how desperately we want people to understand that sex workers’ health and safety depend on decrim, too many remain unwilling to even invite sex workers into the conversation. What could we do to change this?
We need to overcome decades of stigma against sex workers, for starters. We need to prove why decrim is an attractive policy to our states. We need to get the anti-trafficking institutions and pro-Swedish model feminists to side with us. These are big, long-term tasks; not easy fixes. So while we work towards that, I suggest we get started by employing a much more straightforward tactic: we rethink how we market and communicate decrim.
I realise this isn’t a very sexy thing to say. And I get it: when sex workers’ lives are literally at stake because of poor policy, who has time to think about something as banal or seemingly light-hearted as a visual identity? Moreover, how many organisations working on behalf of decrim can even afford a marketing budget? We all know the answer.
But, as a volunteer for Copenhagen’s The Red Van and as a communications professional who has spent the last eight years crafting everything from social media strategies to marketing articles for start-ups, I’m asking you to hear me out. Historically, activist movements have reached critical mass with the help of marketing and communications strategies – be it through eye-catching posters or hashtag campaigns. To follow that lead doesn’t require all of us to suddenly build slick websites, hire PR interns, and hand out free t-shirts. Even small changes can make a difference and aid us in sidestepping what is perhaps the biggest communication barrier we face today: compassion fatigue.
Studies show that people have become numb to the horrors we constantly see on the news. The refugee crisis; the climate emergency; right-wing politics gaining ground; racist violence. We are bombarded with stories like this every day. To stay sane we subconsciously ‘tune out’ what we hear on an emotional level. It is simply too upsetting and stressful to let all of this terrible news actually sink in.
Can decrim get through this compassion fatigue? Yes, if we follow some of the basic tenants of professional communication.
Identify our target audiences
When we’re arguing decrim, we’re rarely talking to one type of person. Our audiences can include funding groups, policy makers, NGOs, feminists, activists and other allies. Each of those groups responds to a different type of communication style. To understand why, put yourself in their shoes. Let’s say you’re a municipal policymaker with decades of experience in the civic sphere. Your office is bureaucratic and favours traditional communications methods; written memos, white papers, research reports from neighbouring government bodies, etc. This means that if you are presented with a research report compiling peer-reviewed studies around decrim, you are encountering this information in a format that’s native to you, your boss, and your colleagues. That makes it more likely that you’ll pay attention to it.
But let’s say you’re an Instagram activist in your mid-20s, spreading pro-sex-worker messaging to your followers through on-the-fly stories. In contrast to the middle-aged policymaker, you’ve grown up digitally native. You are used to getting news through friends on your social media feeds. That same research report is less likely to resonate with you because it will feel alien. But what if you received its same key points through a short Instagram story? What if you saw an Instagram post of the words ‘DECRIM NOW’ in bold font, with a to-the-point caption and a clear call to action? You would pay more attention because this is how you already communicate to your own audience every day.
These are just two examples. My recommendation is doing the same exercise for all of the groups your organisation is trying to reach about decrim. If you identify which communication styles and platforms work for each group you’ll then be able to customise your message so that it works for each target audience.
Build a message house
A message house is how you organise the points you’re trying to communicate. It helps you clarify what you’re trying to say and identify the unique selling point of each argument. It looks a little something like this:
To break it down, a message house includes:
● Umbrella Statement
This is your most important, all-encompassing message. It’s the one that all of your sub-points should tie back to. It should be short and simple, so that it’s easy to understand.
Example: ‘Decriminalisation is the most humane policy for sex work.’
● Core messages
These are your sub-messages underneath your umbrella statement. They reinforce and refer back to the umbrella statement while presenting compelling points of their own. If you keep your different audiences in mind when crafting them, your core messages will be consistently relevant yet different enough to resonate with specific groups of people. Finally, they are ‘sub’-messages because they aren’t key like the umbrella statement. They enable you to get more specific in your argument.
Example: ‘Decriminalising sex work makes life significantly safer for vulnerable people.’
A message that would resonate with humanitarian NGOs
Example: ‘Decriminalisation enables sex workers and third parties to contribute to the economy.’
A message that would resonate with federal policy makers
● Evidence, proof points and support
This is all the backup for your core messages and your umbrella statements. Here’s where you put the ‘meat’ behind your arguments – the research, studies, quotes, and other supporting information that validate what you’re saying.
Example: ‘Multiple studies show that criminalisation and the Swedish model make the good clients go away and the bad ones stay. Both increase sex workers’ risk of harm on the job.’
Example: ‘Sex workers tell us that policies other than decriminalisation often create a confusing legal framework in terms of participating in the economy. The grey areas inherent in semi-decrim and the Swedish model make sex workers unsure of how to perform many socially and economically beneficial tasks, such as pay taxes or hire employees such as accountants.’
As you can see above, a message house enables you to realise what you’re saying and to whom you’re saying it. It helps you to smoothly switch between messages and audiences without ever losing sight of your umbrella message.
Identify a unique tone of voice
If we revisit the idea of compassion fatigue, part of the problem is that the majority of the headlines we read are delivered with the same language. They’re sober, visceral, even doomsday. Logically, this makes our brains lump all the causes which employ this language into the same ‘crisis’ pool, with compassion fatigue as the result. To sidestep this cognitive effect, organisations fighting for decrim need to identify a unique tone of voice.
A consistent tone of voice renders your organisation familiar and recognisable across communication platforms. It guides new teammates in their communication and minimises the chance for audience confusion. Here are some areas to help get you started:
I highly recommend choosing one language to externally communicate with. The language you choose should be the language understood by the majority of your audience no matter where you’re based. For example, if you’re based in Sweden but you’re trying to reach international NGOs, sticking to English makes the most sense. Avoid switching between languages, as this can get confusing for your audience. and The language you choose, of course, depends on the nature of your work. This can get tricky if you’re located in a country with a growing international population
If your organisation was an actual human, how would it sound? Would they speak playfully or candidly? Would they sound gentle or straightforward? Would they be concise or favour open-ended questions? Do this exercise with your team, and then write down the characteristics you want to embody in your tone of voice. This will help make sure you sound the way you envision your organisation throughout all of your communications.
Obviously, those of us arguing for decriminalisation have a specific political orientation, so this point is more relevant for the hybrid organisations – the ones which are pro-decrim, but perhaps provide another service. The Red Van is a great example: we argue for decrim and will confirm our position if asked, but the main thing we do is provide harm reduction. We find that this is better communicated apolitically. With that example in mind, it’s valuable to consider to what extent you want your politics to come through in your communication.
● Vocabulary guidelines + FAQs
Do you say ‘sex workers’, or ‘people who sell sex’? Do you always say ‘decriminalisation’ in full, or use the shorter ‘decrim’ on certain platforms? Since the field of sex workers’ rights is so aligned with specific politics, it is important to outline which vocabulary your organisation uses and why. That way, everybody working with you knows how to speak about your work in a way that fits into your ideological stance.
In tandem with that, make a short FAQ with clear answers to hard questions. This will help your team know how to navigate tricky situations with alignment and confidence.
Example: ‘I thought that legalisation was the best model. What makes decriminalisation better?’
Write a short and punchy mission statement (sometimes called an elevator pitch)
Decrim is not an inherently easy thing to communicate. The reasons we advocate for this policy are complex. They range from safety to labour rights to anti-racism to business. This is why it’s imperative that each organisation develops a mission statement that clearly and concisely explains exactly what they do. The metaphor ‘elevator pitch’ is often used in connection with the mission statement, and it’s helpful here. Let’s say you walked into a full elevator, and on the ride up somebody asks you what you do. What single sentence would make them understand the most important things about your organisation?
If you try doing this exercise in your head now, you’ll probably find that it’s extremely difficult. Don’t give up. Give yourself some time to draft, scrap, re-draft, re-scrap, and draft again. Once you have that powerful mission statement you’ll find that intuitively communicating what you do gets a lot easier.
In one of the most conclusive studies on the impact of design, the UK’s Design Council found that companies effectively using graphic design outperformed the FTSE 100 by 200% and outperformed their peers. Graphic design matters and makes people take your organisation seriously. Part of the reason is that visuals communicate a whole bunch of cultural cues to us. Another part is that technology enables more and more people to create better visuals themselves, which then raises the bar for what’s considered ‘basic’ design. And, perhaps most importantly, platforms like Instagram expose us to beautiful visuals at a staggering rate. This makes us more sensitive to anything that does not fall into the ‘good’ design camp.
For organisations arguing decrim, this is incredibly important to understand. Due to stigma against sex workers, many people think that decrim is a fringe issue irrelevant to them. To combat that, we must do what we can to seem ‘insider’ in terms of our cultural relevance. Employing thoughtful graphic design is one of the most tried and true ways to do that because of all the cultural cues contained within visual communication.
Making progress on this front is possible even with the most minimal of design budgets. Pay a graphic designer to do the most important stuff, and take advantage of the budget options out there for everything else. Top of the list is your brand identity: your logo, colour palette, and typography. Once you have that sorted, you can make a beautiful website using one of the many visually-oriented hosting sites out there, and use other free or low-cost templates to design additional elements like presentation templates or email signatures.
Get on social media – but only if you’ll do it consistently
We all know social media is important. It is only effective, however, if you use it consistently. The moment you appear on social media your audience expects certain things from you: regular posts, responses to private messages, updates on upcoming events. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram also reward consistent activity while deprioritising accounts with sporadic engagement. The bottom line here: for an organisation, it is worse to use social media haphazardly than not use it at all. Be realistic about your time and resources, and then decide which platforms you can commit to keeping up with.
Team up with allies to be heard louder
So many of us are now arguing for decrim that it sometimes feels like a new initiative pops up every day! We could leverage our strength in numbers if we teamed up across our communication efforts to make our united message ring louder. Perhaps we could do a hashtag campaign, in which our organisations choose a specific time and day to release the same pro-decrim hashtag on social media. We could design a poster that communicates the same message in different languages that could be spread across all of our social media accounts. We could even organise pro-decrim demonstrations in our own cities and march on the same day across the world. The numbers are there and the options are endless.
The pro-decrim fight is undermined by fragmentation. If we pool our efforts and align over a campaign, we could reach many more people than any single group could on its own. And that’s just externally: within our organisations, we’d gather momentum through the support we see around us. There is an intangible energy in coming together to fight for the same cause. We should tap into that as much as we can.
Professionals have been honing the art of political communication for decades, and if we’re open to what they have learned we will become more effective in talking about decrim. You don’t have to have a decent marketing budget in place yet, and you don’t have to do everything at once. But if you identify your target audiences and think about how they like to receive information, you’re in a good place. If you craft a message house and come up with a tone of voice, that’s even better. Throw in a mission statement and some graphic design and you’ve got enough communications basics in place to keep you going for a long time. And if you do social media properly and even team up with other organisations, you can amplify the pro-decrim message in ways that put minimal stress on your team but reap substantial rewards in terms of reaching audiences.
Marketing and communications should not be seen as an ‘add-on’. It is at the very core of how we’ll get people on board with decrim. To make people listen and understand why decrim matters, invest your time, money and commitment into communications.
Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.
This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.
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