Grassroots organizing for feminism, S&M, HIV, and everything else

I wrote this for Bitch Magazine’s Feminist Coming-Out Day Blog Carnival; the goal is to talk about feminist “click” moments.

Earlier this month, my sex-positive documentary film series screened “Jane: An Abortion Service”. The film tells the extraordinary story of “Jane”, an underground network of women in Chicago who provided thousands of safe abortions in the years before abortion was legal. It was totally inspiring.

“Jane” was started accidentally by a woman named Heather Booth. Booth was a student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s when another woman came and asked her — secretly, of course — whether she knew any abortion doctors. Heather Booth found one, and she also found that other women started coming to her for references.

As one woman in the film put it, in those days, women who sought abortions were all “hysterical and desperate and scared”: if you needed an abortion, you knew you would have to come up with some fabulous amount of money and take a life-threatening risk. Some women committed suicide when they got pregnant instead. Information about abortion was at a premium.

So Heather Booth began looking for abortion doctors, and better than that, she started vetting them. After finding the doctors, she sought testimonials about those doctors. Common problems with abortion doctors ranged from being rude to actually assaulting their patients; some doctors, who already charged sky-high prices, would demand more money at the last minute. Booth kept a list of abortion doctors who didn’t do those things. Pretty soon, there were other women who had her list too, and they were vetting doctors and spreading the word as well. The group also provided counseling before and after the procedure, letting the patients know what they could expect — physically and emotionally. They called themselves “Jane”: a woman who called them and asked for “Jane” was seeking an abortion.

After some time, the women of Jane figured out that abortion isn’t a complex procedure, and they convinced a doctor to teach them how to do it safely. And then they taught each other. So then they didn’t have to refer patients to doctors: they did all the abortions themselves, and they did them for whatever the patient could spare rather than charging prices that were out of reach for many women. Jane members continued to provide emotional support, as well: in the documentary, one member reminisces about how she would have patients over to dinner with her kids and talk to them for a while before performing the procedure. It got to the point where doctors and medical students sent women to Jane, rather than getting referrals from Jane.

That is positive activism. That is building the world we want to see.

When abortion was legalized in 1973, the group quietly disbanded. Some members of Jane went on to be involved in other parts of the feminist movement or to found respected women’s health organizations.

It’s not that Jane had no problems; the organization was not transparent, for example, and it sounds like there was a fair amount of gossip and internal difficulties. These are typical issues within small groups, and the stigma and anxiety of what they were doing can’t possibly have helped, but still, it’s important to work against those problematic patterns from the beginning. It’s worth it, I think; I’m increasingly convinced that the most positive direct change can be traced to small, grassroots, community groups. Which means that making sure your small, grassroots community group is egalitarian but well-organized can have ripple effects all down the line.

Another example of such a group might be Chicago’s Rape Victim Advocates. RVA was established in 1974 by doctors and nurses who were appalled by how badly rape survivors were treated in the emergency room. Back then, there was no public understanding of how traumatic rape could be, and little understanding of survivors’ experience, even from police and doctors. (An older female friend of mine who was raped in 1970 once told me that she tried to talk to a psychiatrist about what happened. He sighed and said, “Really, do you think that’s important?”) Rape Victim Advocates has always been a network of volunteers who are on-call to come and talk to rape survivors, but since 1974, it has also developed from a fragile activist group into one with funding and political presence.

And on a somewhat different note, S&M community organizing is really quite good. A lot of people don’t realize that most S&M community dungeons (unlike the professional dungeons run by sex workers) are nonprofit organizations, kind of like community centers. (No, seriously.) People don’t just go to community dungeons to do S&M — they also go to community dungeons for discussion groups or educational workshops, to learn how to perform certain activities safely.

Much like Jane, the S&M community has also created a network of necessary references: the Kink Aware Professionals list. S&M activists in San Francisco realized, years ago, that there was a need for lawyers and doctors who understood their lives and wouldn’t stigmatize their choices, so they wrote three names on a piece of paper and passed it around. Now, the Kink Aware Professionals list is an international online directory hosted by the nonprofit National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.

Again, it’s not like there are no problems in the S&M community; people gossip, people backstab, people fuck up. There’s little vetting process for educators or for people who list themselves on Kink Aware Professionals, and a lot of people run kink classes at least as much from a desire for status as from a desire to educate. But still, I think the S&M community is engaging in positive activism … more than a lot of us even realize.

This was a lesson that really hit home for me when I spent a year in Africa working on HIV. One of the reasons international aid is so complicated is that figuring out how to help a community that’s not yours is incredibly hard. A lot of well-meaning Americans (including myself) go abroad with little understanding of how hard it is. The reality is that assisting with, for example, public health in a foreign place entails learning the social fabric of that country in a way that outsiders can only do with tons of sustained effort … and we’re still unlikely to be as good as someone who grew up there. One of the reasons — maybe the biggest reason — I left was that it was so obvious to me that I was a better activist in the USA … even when I wasn’t trying to do activism. (When I was there, I received one letter from an American girl asking for advice on how to do African activism. My advice to her can be summarized as, “It’s harder than you think, and you might consider staying home where you’re awesomer.”)

When HIV began destroying the gay community, the most effective and important measures to curb it were stuff like the actual gay activist who wrote a safer sex pamphlet on his home typewriter and then distributed it by hand. They saw a need and they did something about it. Just like Jane. Just like S&M educators.

You are probably already part of more communities than you might realize. If you go to a university, you’re part of that community. Whether you live in a city neighborhood or a small town, you’re part of that community. If you go to particular clubs, you’re in those communities. There may be aspects of your identity that could align with a community as well: for example, if you read science fiction there are conventions for that (although of course, identity communities don’t always work for everyone with that identity). These are places where your knowledge already makes you powerful … so keep an eye out for needs. (It’s also worth considering getting involved in an intentional community. I’m kind of psycho about housing co-ops, for example, because they are awesome. I personally am a member of North American Students of Cooperation, but there are other groups, and there are also independent co-ops that aren’t part of larger networks.)

We live in an unstable and fast-paced age. I don’t know how people in most other countries feel, but I know that here in the USA, there is a quite pervasive and quite justified anxiety among everyone I know in the middle class. Many of our safety nets are evaporating, and it’s not at all clear that they will be replaced. But no matter how much the people in power fuck us over, we’ll never be totally screwed as long as we’re not isolated and we talk to each other.

One of the former members of Jane, a white-haired feminist with such powerful energy that she practically glows through the screen, says in the documentary: “Don’t stay with people who tell you you’re crazy and useless. Don’t stay where you’re weak.” That’s what I call an activist click moment: find the other people like you, and organize with them. That applies to feminism, it applies to sexuality, it applies to public health. Go where you’re strong and make your people stronger.

Originally posted at Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism

About Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
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11 Responses to Grassroots organizing for feminism, S&M, HIV, and everything else

  1. Shaun says:

    We need more posts like this.

  2. Lisa says:

    Great post, and a powerful last line. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I really appreciate an emphasis on community activism (whatever one’s “community” might be) and what it can achieve where “official” but outsider organizations might not. The big question for me is how to keep the resource differential from constantly pushing small-scale groups to seek assistance/partnership that might, in the end, overwhelm and assimilate them.

  4. j.cruel says:

    I find this post inspiring and problematic. I am a (born) working-class woman who adjuncts at a University and waits tables (and is, supposedly, working on my dissertation). I live hand to mouth but do so with a great deal of privilege. You say I’m part of a community–but I’m not. I would love to help. I frankly want nothing more than to be of use but I have no skills and no ties to any community beyond my (very) small circle of friends. I have been lucky enough to never have experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, body dysmorphia, etc…I feel useless. I’ve done volunteer work but it never seems to “mean” anything. I can’t fathom that I’m the only person that feels outside of “community” but I just don’t know what to do about it.

  5. Demimonde says:

    @ J Cruel- I was similarly effected by this article. I am a student and living very much hand to mouth. But do not overlook the skills you have, sometimes just being a precense is a positive thing. You do not mention your field, but even if you could help clean or volunteer stufffing envelopes that is a help. Also, your skills as a server would be appreciated at fundraising events or soup kitchens.

    I have been meaning to look into volunteering at a local organization that helps children who have lost a parent. I lost both my parents to cancer as a girl. I also suffer from depression and anxiety. I have always told myself that I would help “when I got healthy.” Instead I called this group and will be helping out by cleaning their center once a week. This is a community I know first hand and am lucky in that their center is tucked away within walking distance to me. No more excuses for me, every little bit helps.

  6. Lu says:

    That is a great point, Demimonde. Just doing stuff that needs to be done so that good organizations don’t have to sweat all the small things is a wonderful contribution. J.cruel, I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, because I’m not a very communal person, but just by being human you have so much in common with anyone who needs help. I’m sure that you have something to offer. :)

  7. Ben says:

    Good point “You are probably already part of more communities than you might realize.”

    So many people knew to organizing, new political candidates, and others really some have some the greatest contacts because chances are that their networks are untapped while they will tell you otherwise!

    People who are just getting started in activism can make a real difference within their social networks.

  8. mightywo says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I have been thinking of making some life changes recently due to being in a job that does not inspire me and that makes money for people that I do not respect and who do not respect me. It is wonderful to be reminded that although we are not able to control many of the circumstances in our lives, we may have the ability to add meaning to our lives and to the lives of others. If the government decides that it is acceptable to bargain away women’s control over their own lives and to remove social safety nets from the elderly and the differently abled, we must, absolutely must!, ban together to work to fix these injustices. It may not be easy and the best path not always clear, but thoughtful, intelligent people have changed the course of our nation and around the world before.
    Thank you for inspiring me today.

  9. I’m very familiar with the problem of feeling useless, or feeling like the available volunteer work can’t keep my attention. There have been a number of organizations where I have done powerful and fulfilling volunteer work, but there have also been a number where I stopped fairly soon because the work was badly organized, incredibly boring, or didn’t seem helpful. All I can say is that it’s worth trying again. And there are so many different organizations out there … from museums to Planned Parenthood. Sometimes very unexpected places can use volunteers.

    It seems to me also that a lot of community activism just involves being well-networked and aware. Try to stay aware of needs and opportunities. Some day you might just notice a need, and have a lightbulb moment where you have ideas about exactly how to fill it.

  10. LuLu says:

    It’s been 30 years. We are long overdue for a solution! Please support re:solve AIDS and the Chronic Disease Fund.

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