What is a representative sex worker?

What is a representative sex worker?

This is a guest post by Wendy Lyon and was originally posted at Feminist Ire. Wendy Lyon is a bi-continental feminist activist who completed an LLM in International Human Rights Law (Griffith College Dublin) in 2011 with a dissertation on sex workers’ right to health. Her other areas of interest include labour migration, refugee law and reproductive justice.

This is a cliché that anyone who advocates for sex workers’ rights will be familiar with. Faced with a sex worker who defies the abolitionist stereotype of a person physically or economically coerced into prostitution, who thinks their job is ok and isn’t desperate to leave it (but could if s/he wanted to), and who argues that the solution to the negative aspects of sex work is decriminalisation and enforceable rights, the inevitable response is:

You’re not representative. Why should the law be made for you?

This argument is problematic on a number of levels, and deserves a fuller response than I’ve been able to give it when it’s appeared in my comments. So here are my thoughts about it.

First of all, we need to question the basis of the assumption of non-representativeness. Abolitionists making this argument frequently cite thisMelissa Farley study which interviewed sex workers in nine countries, and found an overall rate of 89% who answered the question “What do you need?” with (among other responses) “leave prostitution”. This statistic is often cited to make the claim that almost nine out of ten sex workers want out, and the ones who don’t are, you guessed it, not representative.

So what’s wrong with this claim? Well, the first thing you have to do with any survey is look at who the subjects are and how they were chosen. According to the study itself, the respondents were:

Canada: street workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, “one of the most economically destitute regions in North America”.
Mexico: Street, brothel, stripclub and massage workers in Mexico City and Puebla. No breakdown is given as to how many were chosen from each sector.
Germany: Subjects selected “from a drop-in shelter for drug addicted women”, from a “rehabilitation” programme, by reference from “peers” (presumably those found at the shelter and rehab programme) and through a newspaper advertisement, the text of which is not reported. Again, there is no breakdown of how many were found by which method.
San Francisco: Street workers from “four different areas”, not identified.
Thailand: A minority were interviewed “at a beauty parlor that provided a supportive atmosphere”, most at an agency providing job training.
South Africa: Subjects interviewed “in brothels, on the street and at a drop-in center for prostitutes”. No breakdown, again.
Zambia: Current and former sex workers were interviewed at an NGO offering sex workers “food, vocational training and community”.
Turkey: The subjects were women brought by police to hospital for STI “control”.
Colombia: Subjects were interviewed at “agencies that offered services to them”.

What is clear from this detail is that there is a heavy selection bias in the sample. It is not clear that any of the sex workers interviewed came from the less vulnerable sectors (ie independent indoor workers, or brothel workers in countries where they have labour, health and safety rights). The large majority clearly did not. Some of them were selected from agencies that cater to people wishing to leave prostitution, which is a bit like selecting people at a jobs fair to find out if they’re looking for work. Moreover, some of them were children, although the study only reports that this was the case in six of the nine countries and does not break down the adult/child division any further.

In short, this study does not tell us how sex workers feel about their work. At most, it may tell us how sex workers in particularly vulnerable sectors feel about their work. That 89% figure simply cannot be generalised to sex workers as a whole.

So here comes the next argument:

But the ones you call “particularly vulnerable” are the majority. The “less vulnerable ones” are (drum roll) not representative.

My answer: How do you know?

This is one of those assumptions that many people seem to consider self-evident. Not even worth questioning. Well, I’m going to question it. Where is the evidence? Where is the comprehensive research that has actually looked across all sectors of the industry – outdoor and indoor prostitution in all its myriad forms – and has actually come up with a reasonably credible estimate of what percentage of sex workers fall into this category or that one?

It simply doesn’t exist – and we’re certainly not going to get one as long as sex work remains criminalised in some parts of the world, stigmatised in nearly all. There isn’t even a universally-agreed definition; many of those who trade sex for some sort of cash-or-kind benefit don’t consider what they do to be prostitution or sex work. So even if you tried to reach all “eligible” populations for research, you probably wouldn’t be able to.

The most we can say without veering off into pure guesstimation is that street prostitution is a minority of all prostitution. How small a minority, nobody knows. In Ireland I’ve heard estimates from people on both sides of the issue that range from 3% to 20%; I’ve never seen an estimate from any other country that placed street prostitution in the majority. This isn’t proof, of course, but it means it’s not really a matter for debate – so we can work from the position that most sex workers are indoor workers. This right away means that the “unrepresentative” studies are those that focus solely or mainly on street workers. Unfortunately, that accounts for a significant amount of sex work research, for the simple reason that street workers are often the easiest population to get to. The far more hidden nature of indoor prostitution makes it unsafe to draw conclusions about the people involved in it. Most of those who work independently, in particular, will never come to researchers’ attention (an aside to certain Irish NGOs and Swedish government officials: they don’t all advertise on the internet) and we will never know how many of them there are.

Note that I am not asserting that a majority of sex workers fall into what I call the less vulnerable categories. It is quite possible that they don’t. But it cannot be proven that they don’t – and to cite Melissa Farley’s 89% statistic as evidence of anything other than the sample interviewed for Farley’s study, is junk science.

But even if we assume the accuracy of the 89% claim, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything that abolitionists think it means. It cannot be assumed that everyone has the same thing in mind when they answer the question “do you want to leave prostitution”. First, we don’t know how the question was translated into all the different languages of the respondents, so we don’t know if there was any ambiguity in the question they were asked. Second, there is some ambiguity in English too, because it could be taken to mean “right now”, “at some point in the next __ period of time” or “ever”. (Irish readers who think I’m splitting hairs with this should consider the polls that show a large majority who “want” a united Ireland.)

A fascinating insight into this question can be found in Nick Mai’s hugely important recent study on migrant sex workers in Britain (that link is to an abbreviated version of the report; I have the full document but can’t find a link to it). Dr Mai’s team spoke to 100 migrant sex workers, many of them undocumented (and hence really really really vulnerable), some of them having suffered exploitation. He asked them if they wanted to leave the sex industry, and sure enough, around 75% said yes. But what were the reasons they gave? It’s boring. It’s repetitive. It isn’t a viable long-term career option. These are not exactly factors unique to sex work. Furthermore, the research makes clear that “wanting to leave the sex industry” does not necessarily translate to being unhappy with one’s experiences in the sex industry.

Nor does it inevitably lead to the conclusion that abolitionists think it does, namely:

Those who want prostitution to be legal are only speaking for the elite minority (sic).

The assumption here is that those sex workers who would rather be doing something else, but don’t have those options, don’t think that what they are doing should be legal. Again, there’s a Farley statistic which seems to back this up: only 34% in her nine-country study gave “legalize prostitution” as a response to “What do you need?”.

But this statistic seems to be an outlier, because other research on vulnerable populations finds the exact opposite:

  • the Nick Mai study referred to above, in which all participants said that decriminalisation would improve conditions for sex workers
  • this study of San Francisco sex workers, in which street-based and drug-addicted sex workers clearly overwhelmingly supported removal of criminal laws and the introduction of laws protecting sex workers’ rights
  • The Christchurch School of Medicine study of the impact of decriminalisation in New Zealand, in which upwards of 90% of street workers felt they had rights under the law, and 61.9% said the law made it easier for them to refuse clients

And here comes the next objection, that

Those studies aren’t (sigh) representative of all prostitution, only First World prostitution.

The claim that the sex workers’ rights movement is a purely white, western phenomenon is one of abolitionism’s biggest falsehoods. In fact, Global South sex workers could teach their Northern counterparts a thing or two when it comes to organising for sex workers’ rights. Here is a videoclip of sex workers in Sonagachi, Calcutta, marching against criminalisation of their industry. Here is a photo of members of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers holding a banner with their slogan, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights” (a reference to their annoyance at “rescuers” whose only interest in them is trying to take them out of the sex trade). Here is a link to Empower, the Thai sex workers’ rights organisation, and here is the African Sex Worker Alliance. You still want to argue that only privileged white westerners think sex work is work? Take it up with them, not me.

None of this should be really surprising, because as I’ve pointed out before, it is precisely the most vulnerable workers who are most adversely affected by criminalisation. For every Heidi Fleiss who goes to prison, how many “Tabithas” do you think there are? The same is true in Sweden, where native, non-drug using indoor sex workers like Pye Jakobsson are relatively shielded from the negative consequences of the law, while those who don’t have the luxury of working indoors have to fend with the clients that don’t care about being arrested, and those who are migrants are simply deported.

I hesitate to draw conclusions about it since it’s such a small sample, but on the rare occasions that I’ve heard a (current) sex worker speak in favour of criminalisation, it’s been because they like the idea that they’re doing something illegal. To prefer working in a criminalised environment because it’s “edgy”, and to be able to afford being so blasé about the risks you’re taking? Now that is fucking privilege speaking.

I’ll wind this up now because it’s already gone on long enough, but there’s one final point I want to make. This entire argument about “representativeness” rests on an odious position – that the (assumed) majority view is the only one worth listening to. That people who don’t fall into that (assumed) majority don’t deserve to have their needs taken into account. This is a position that feminists in particular should be wary about taking: feminism has already alienated so many “minority” women precisely because of its focus on the needs of dominant categories, its failure to understand that it doesn’t always get it when it comes to what women in more marginalised categories need. I would like to think that nowadays, most half-clued-in hetero white able-bodied feminists at least realise that it is not our place to decide who is The Authentic VoiceTM of Black women, or of LBTQ women, or of women with disabilities, so why would we outside the industry assume the right to decide who can speak for other sex workers?

If the aim is actually to improve the lives of people in the sex trade, that has to start with giving them the space to put forward their own views on how it can be achieved. And it means listening to them all. We don’t have to, and indeed logically couldn’t, agree with them all but we need to listen. After all, even the most privileged white western indoor high-class Happy Hooker type knows more about what sex workers need than non-sex workers do.