Blog Post Written By: Mike Stabile
In 2016, California voters were asked to vote on Proposition 60, a statewide ballot measure that would have forced adult performers to wear condoms or face legal action. Nearly 75% of voters originally supported the measure, and it was widely favored to win a similar law, Measure B, had passed in Los Angeles just a few years earlier.
But California sex workers fought back, reclaimed the narrative, and defeated the measure 54% to 46% — a historic turnaround While today’s battle over MasterCard, Section 230, deplatforming, and religious censors covers broader terrain, that playbook is still very much applicable.
I helped run the media campaign for Prop 60. If I bring it up too often, it’s because the victory over Prop 60 offers us important lessons when it comes to winning a culture war. A few things that adult activists can learn from Proposition 60 are:
1. Keep Sex Workers at the Front
Prop 60 was defeated because sex workers were front and center for every conversation, meeting, rally, and action. Four years earlier, studios had been at the center of the fight over Measure B and they lost.
People care about the people who are affected, not the needs of a business. Sex workers can talk more specifically and more effectively about these issues than anyone else.
Don’t ever rely on platforms or allies to do this work. Without you, they’re nothing.
2. Educate! Educate! Educate!
Prop 60’s backers had a clear messaging advantage: condoms protect people. Ours, on the other hand, was much more complicated: we had to explain why performers didn’t want condoms, and explain how the law would hurt them. That took constant education.
We built websites and resources pages. We met with editorial boards, sat down with legislators, met with countless political clubs and advocacy orgs, and (politely) argued with radio call-in guests. We were patient, but unrelenting.
Education isn’t fun or easy. It’s draining, seemingly never-ending emotional labor. But if we’re going to win, it’s absolutely necessary.
3. Simplify the Message
While education is important for media, influencers and those who have the time to listen, in the end, most voters knew very little about Prop 60. (If you’ve ever voted on a ballot measure in California, you know how dizzying and confusing it is.) But most knew that performers, the very people who supposedly benefited from Prop 60, hated it — and that was enough.
Credit card processing rules are hard to explain. Section 230 is confusing legalese. If you’re explaining, you’re losing. What matters more is how the rules affect us.
The public thinks in binaries, and if that binary is anti-trafficking activists versus porn companies, they win. If the binary is sex workers versus censors, we take the advantage.
4. Put Forward the Solution
The supporters of Prop 60 painted a picture of a wild, uncontrolled industry that didn’t care about STIs. (Conveniently for them, that’s what nearly *everyone* thought about porn.) In order to convince voters, sex workers had to show them that we had a better solution — that testing was more effective than condoms — and that performers cared about safety on set.
Today, we have to be vocal about how much our industry cares about stopping criminal activity like CSAM. We have to be vocal about the measures we take to prevent it.
If you can’t offer a solution, your opponent’s proposal will win by default.
5. Diversify Voices
You can’t speak to one community and expect everyone else to listen. With Prop 60, we had performers in all areas of the state, and from a wide-array of communities and backgrounds, and of different ideologies, ready to speak at any moment. The movement was multilingual, and eventually secured the endorsement of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and the Green Party.
We need to be able to code-switch, to speak about different issues to different groups — from progressives and journalists and banks to churches — in language they understand. If you don't talk to them, they'll never hear your side.
6. Be Everywhere
Right now, we all spend a lot of time arguing on Twitter. Twitter is important, but if we want to turn the tide, our message has to be everywhere. During Prop 60, sex workers blanketed every concievable platform — social, podcasts, radio shows, television news. We protested in the streets, flyered Farmer’s Markets and college campuses. Jimmy Kimmel even joked about it on late night. At times, I felt like I worked the booking desk at a talent agency.
We need a well-informed, media savvy, deep bench of people ready to go on whatever platform we can find, whenever we can find it. We’ve got a good start, but it’s not nearly enough.
7. Know Your History
In the battle over Prop 60, we were able to look back at previous fights over Measure B, and to the larger history of sex worker rights and AIDS activism to understand what might work better for us this time. We brought in people who knew the terrain. It was invaluable.
The battle between sex and censorship is long and bloody. In the long run, we seem to be winning. But that doesn’t mean our opponents can’t do significant damage in the meantime. Looking back into the past helps us understand how to move forward in the future.
The good news? We’ve already started much of the work above. The bad news? We need more people. The opposition is better funded, more access to institutional power, and has stigma on their side. But we’ve beat back giants before, and we’ve only just begun.
Interested in getting into the fight, but don’t know where to start? Sign up here to get involved!
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