BY SARAH M. | FEBRUARY 3, 2012
In her August, October, and December rabble blog posts, Meghan Murphy asks why sex workers and our allies don’t want to engage in “genuine discourse” with her and other abolitionists. It might surprise her, but there is an answer to that question.
Let’s begin with the definition of the word “discourse.” Murphy appears to mean a productive conversation. But while sex workers and allies have provided ample feedback in comments both at rabble and on Murphy’s blog, the terms she’s set don’t allow that feedback to register as “genuine discourse.” I don’t want to engage in Murphy’s discourse because her limits to what can be known and said about sex work reflect neither my reality as a sex worker nor the freedom I advocate for. I can’t engage in Murphy’s discourse because I can’t speak within it. If the “debate” is between feminists and the “sex work lobby,” where is the position from which I can make a legible argument on my own behalf?
Sex workers vs. feminists: How neoliberalism gets a pass
In my reality, the debate Murphy references doesn’t exist. The “sex work lobby” doesn’t exist. By definition, lobbyists lobby the government. Sex workers don’t have the government’s ear, not even a little. And, since it has become next to impossible for any feminist organization to secure funding or other material support, I can’t imagine why Murphy thinks sex workers or sex work advocacy organizations have any more collective power than any other outlying feminist group. Moreover, since we remain criminals in a society that demonizes and silences transgressive women, and since sex workers just aren’t a huge population, we have very little power at all. What we do have are communication skills, marketing skills, resilience, and useful information. Murphy is not noticing the unearned privilege of elite lobbyists; she’s noticing a skill set sex workers have worked hard to acquire and use in the face of stigma and systemic violence.
Ideally, the real location of the debate would be between feminists and an external patriarchal force. Instead, it’s within feminism. It’s not, as Murphy claims, a new issue emerging because “there is a powerful movement afoot.” Instead, it’s a divide that has always existed in feminism, between those whose primary site of oppression is gender and those who experience multiple and intersecting oppressions on a daily basis (in ways that are not reducible to the struggles of “all women”).
When someone tells me she has feminist concerns with sex work, knowing that sex work is my only solution to the problem of poverty, I have a lot of trouble taking her feminism seriously because she is not taking the reality of my life seriously. Acknowledging that “there has to be a better way” isn’t good enough. I need to not live in poverty. Not after the revolution. Right now. Knowing how I feel about some feminists’ disregard for my experiences of intersecting oppression, if someone offers me a version of feminism that doesn’t confront its own colonizing or transphobic practices, I’m not going to take that very seriously either.
In a nutshell: feminism isn’t a strong, successful, or effective movement. If, as Murphy wrote in August and October, the enemy is neoliberalism, then feminists are losing spectacularly. Ask Status of Women Canada, the folks on Ontario Works whose Special Diet allowances were cut off, advocates for a national housing strategy, or Indigenous communities fighting for local housing. Or ask librarians, educators, CUPE, OPSEU, Air Canada employees, postal workers — or better yet, ask Stephen Harper — about “austerity.” We are losing, not because the “sex work lobby” is preventing feminists from dismantling patriarchy, but because some feminists are still being cast as divisive while the forces that implement neoliberal policy, patriarchy, racism and colonization, are obscured and given a free pass (e.g., the anti-prostitution group REAL Women of Canada, who actually are anti-feminist lobbyists). If “real” feminists recognized sex worker advocates as feminists, even if we still disagreed about decriminalization, we would be a stronger movement.
In the interest of building a strong feminist resistance to globalization, I question Murphy’s decision to focus on the abstractions of neoliberalism — attitudes of individualism and competition — over the practices of neoliberalization: the gutting of social safety nets, increased state security and surveillance, and the increasingly revanchist policies of conservative governments (This helpful distinction in terms comes from a Dec. 16, 2011 research talk by Dr. Joshua Evans, at Athabasca University).
Revanchism, according to Neil Smith, is “the ugly cultural politics of neoliberal globalization,” a mixture of revenge and reaction against the poor (people like sex workers) for the harms done by neoliberalization. It works by equating poor people — a visible sign of the poverty caused by neoliberal policy — with poverty itself. Further, it demands the elimination of the poor. (For example, through municipally supported neighbourhood campaigns against street prostitutes, intensified policing of racialized and queer youth, or “clean-up” efforts that target low-income housing and the people living within.)
I argue that it is Murphy’s feminism, not mine, that mimics neoliberalism’s ugly politics. By equating sex workers themselves with the harms of white capitalist patriarchy (and insisting we eliminate the signs rather than the harms), she does nothing to address the effects of neoliberalization on sex workers’ day-to-day lives. The violence of this kind of feminism sits between the “subtle” violence of policy-makers and the overt violence of anti-prostitution vigilantes and other predators, but it is still a function of the same ugly politics.
Meanwhile, sex workers are left to protect ourselves from housing insecurity, poverty, police violence, security cameras in public spaces, cuts to our harm reduction programs and other health care, cuts to education, cuts to welfare and disability support, cuts to the social services many of us depend upon, and, yes, plain old physical and sexual violence. All without material support from feminists, thank you very much.
Sex work under neoliberalization
Let’s look at the working conditions of women sex workers who, like me, actually want to “exit” the sex industry. Not all sex workers want to “exit” — I can’t even speak for all the ones who do. (In fact, if readers can only take one thing away from this piece, let it be that there is no representative sex worker.) But I can add a few thoughts.
Firstly, this “exit” goal requires an alternate source of income. Yes, if all my clients were thrown in jail, I would cease being a sex worker, but I would also be unable to survive. Even setting aside that this strategy is patronizing and ineffective, the “Swedish model” is inappropriate for Canada because we do not have the social system necessary to support a total loss of income for all sex-working women and men. That alone isn’t an argument against the Swedish model — Canada should have a better social system — it’s just a statement of fact. If any strategy designed to force women to stop doing sex work is implemented before the work of establishing feasible support is completed, prostitutes will have to deal with the consequences of having no viable legal source of income. Just like we do now. That doesn’t give us more choice, and it doesn’t help anyone “exit.”
Secondly, the Government of Canada has bluntly stated that it has no interest in protecting sex workers from physical, sexual, or structural violence. As far as the Attorney General is concerned, we get what we ask for. Our government is comfortable making this argument despite existing labour legislation and despite the fact that sexual assault, unlike prostitution, is against the law. Even if it was likely that abolitionist-feminists would convince the state to criminalize only the johns, and even if another source of income for sex workers was likely to become available, it would be reasonable for sex workers to have reservations. When feminists lobbied for obscenity laws to eliminate “degrading” pornography, the government ended up using those laws to censor queer, and especially queer women’s, media (here and here). What reason do we have to believe the state will use any law regarding prostitution for any purpose other than to further marginalize sex workers?
Thirdly, to call sex work degrading, as if that’s news, is to deny that all jobs are degrading, including Murphy’s job and whatever jobs my clients hold. Conversely, that these jobs are degrading doesn’t automatically make sex work empowering. It just makes it unexceptional. “Jobs” are degrading because capitalism is degrading, because waged work is degrading. Whether we think women should do sex work or not, many women are sex workers, and many of our working conditions are bad (male sex workers also experience whore stigma, in addition to complex manifestations of homophobia, racism, and classism, but Murphy’s question is about why we don’t engage on the topic of women sex workers, and, as usual, I have a complicated answer and little space to speak). Sex workers don’t want to make prostitution “a job like any other.” It’s already our job. As long as welfare and minimum wage work, which are neither consistent nor sustainable, are the only other options, we will continue to do sex work — legally or illegally, in the open or hidden, safely or in dangerous places, depending on the other factors that determine how we do our work. Because work is about money.
Finally, for those who wish to leave the sex industry, many fundamental concerns need to be addressed: housing, income, physical safety, access to education. I have encountered more anti-poverty, housing, women’s, sex-positive, abolitionist, governmental, and other “helping” organizations than I can count, and while some have been more supportive than others, the only institution that has offered me the slightest chance of leaving the sex industry has been my university. And guess how I pay for that! Even then, I got very lucky and ran into people willing to provide the limited financial support that makes my attendance possible, as well as the emotional support needed to endure environments where sex negativity and radical feminist bullying (I do not use that word lightly) are commonplace. Sex workers need consistent support and sustainable sources of income. We also need you to understand and acknowledge the practicalities of our lives: the mundane things that don’t involve gory or exciting narratives of violence and sex. In other words, the unexceptional, totally ordinary narrative of oppressed workers under neoliberal capitalism; the familiar story of women and queers under patriarchy; and the age-old tale of a disproportionately racialized population under racism and colonization.
The demand for abolition, in its present form, is simply a demand for the state to exercise direct, coercive control over women’s bodies and choices. While done in the name of eradicating the largely symbolic control exercised by men (and many sex workers contest this symbolic interpretation of our relationships with clients), it is still a form of violence. But honestly? I don’t care. Do the right things for the right reasons, or do them for the wrong reasons. But focus on what is really needed: direct access to housing, employment income, safe workspaces, and education. Provide these resources to sex workers directly and let us use them for ourselves. We can work out our feminist ideologies once all feminists have earned their cred sorting through the real-world problems sex workers, individually and as a community, deal with on a daily basis.
Rules of engagement
While I understand and support a “for sex workers by sex workers” approach in other areas, I disagree with some of my sex-working colleagues about who has the right to speak about sex work. In fact, I agree with Murphy that non-sex workers have a responsibility to speak about sex work. Where we appear to differ is in my contention that non-sex workers be accountable to sex workers for what they say. Taking sex workers’ comments and concerns seriously, and updating their own attitudes and assertions accordingly, is the bare minimum non-sex workers can do. This responsibility extends to the forums in which advocacy is distributed. If rabble.cais going to host writing and podcasts on sex work by a non-sex worker, for example, I expect the writer to have a lot of very useful information for me, and I expect her training and skills as a writer to make her a far better candidate for a column than the sex workers who might otherwise have been invited to write it. When abolitionists with no sex work experience are called on to speak instead of actual sex workers, I think it’s valid to question whether they are really the best spokespersons for the subject. Asking this question doesn’t silence non-sex workers, but it does speak to rabble’s decision to give them a platform.
Radical feminist screeds against sex worker advocates are nothing new. Sheila Jeffreys haslong focused on the illegitimacy of sex workers’ voices over the realities of sex workers’ lives. In 1996, “expert” Melissa Farley contributed to this stunningly cruel piece, which she continues to host on her “Prostitution Research and Education” website, mocking sex workers who were abused as children and suggesting we only get into the business to cash in on advocacy fame and glory. Murphy’s piece is just more of the same.
It is time to demand that feminists explain why they are so threatened by sex worker voices. Murphy says we should “start with research,” but that research has been going on for decades. If abolitionists choose to ignore everything that doesn’t tell them what they want to hear, there’s not much sex worker advocates can do about it.
For the radical feminist who doesn’t believe that the ordinary, everyday oppression women struggle against is worth her time, I believe prostitution can be useful. Some women — notably white, able, and wealthy ciswomen — are far less likely to experience overt violence as a mundane part of their realities. Some feminists, looking to better market their cause, attach themselves to prostitutes’ pain, to the titillating and exotic images of sexual slavery and human trafficking rhetoric Of course no one approves of forced sexual labour, and never mind that such an oversimplification causes real harm to workers who are unsupported in their struggle for better working conditions. While sex workers who have good experiences aren’t believed, the violence that some prostitutes endure gets abstracted by this “wounded feminism.” No longer a practice grounded in lived experience, it becomes an intangible symbol for all women’s oppression.
Feminist anti-prostitution rhetoric contradicts the principles of consciousness-raising, which demand space for women to describe and define their own experiences. It obscures the far less sensational realities of gendered and transmisogynist oppression that constitute many women’s entire lives. And it allows feminists to talk about prostitution and the end of patriarchy without considering how their words and beliefs affect sex workers’ realities. Some feminists want to stop men from seeing all women as whores. Well, sex worker advocates want everyone to stop seeing whores as something other than women, other than human. These goals are not the same, and radical feminists are not helping prostitutes as long as they are casting us off as something other than fully human.
My sex work experiences include sexual violence at the hands of predators posing as clients, a lifetime of poverty, male violence, and daily experience with the callousness and hatred of members of the broader communities I live in, often people who have direct power over my access to housing, education, or income. Many sex workers have good experiences and love their jobs, but I categorically despise doing sex work, and I definitely don’t believe consumers or bosses are entitled to “rights.” I support decriminalization because I know what risks I face and what I need to be safe. I discussed Murphy’s articles with other sex workers before writing this response, and another worker reminded me of the equal validity of our emotional reactions to “real” feminists who think we have it too good. We are never on even ground in debates about sex workers’ rights — will never be able to engage radical feminists in the rationalist terms they demand — because it’s painful and offensive to have to have these “debates” at all. Feminists have been making the same critique of masculinist institutions for ages.
Murphy cites other feminists who victimize sex workers by calling our need for income a pathological response to childhood sexual abuse, and she insists that anyone who disagrees with her must just need to experience more abuse — in actuality, less breathing room between work and “survival” work — and they’ll come around. This is offensive to sex workers who have been abused, to sex workers who have never been abused, and to any person who has experienced sexual violence. A feminist response to rape does not portray survivors as damaged goods, draw caricatures of our modes of resistance, or refuse us the dignity of defining our own experiences of sexual assault. For Murphy to label me and my colleagues as “lobbyists” because we are talking about our basic rights and safety as workers and as human beings — for her to suggest that the only reason I might think I can do without her voice is that I haven’t read it — is offensive, dismissive, and callous.
Rather, it is because I read their work that I don’t want to hear from abolitionists on prostitution.
Anonymous, Ph.D. “I’d Rather be a Whore than an Academic.” Bad Subjects 46 (1999).
Doezema, Jo. “Ouch! Western Feminists’ ‘Wounded Attachment’ to the ‘Third World Prostitute.'” Feminist Review 67 “Sex Work Reassessed” (2001): 16-38.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Pivot Legal Society. Beyond Decriminalization: Sex Work, Human Rights and a New Framework for Law Reform. Vancouver: Pivot Legal Society, 2006.
Rosenberg, Sharon. “An Introduction to Feminist Poststructural Theorizing.” Feminist Issues: Race, Class and Sexuality. Ed. Nancy Mandell. Toronto: Pearson, 2004: 35-57.
Ross, Becki L.. “Sex and (Evacuation From) the City: The Moral and Legal Regulation of Sex Workers in Vancouver’s West End, 1975-1985.” Sexualities 13.2 (2010): 197-218.
Sears, Alan. “Queer Anti-Capitalism: What’s Left of Lesbian and Gay Liberation?” Science and Society 69.1 (2005): 92-112.
Smith, Neil. “Giuliani Time: The Revanchist 1990s.” Social Text 57 (1998): 1-20.
Sarah M. is a student in the Master of Arts – Integrated Studies program at Athabasca University, a sex worker, and a sex workers’ rights advocate. She has written about sex workers’ rights in Briarpatch and The Hamilton Spectator, been a guest to talk about sex work activism on Earful of Queer Radio, and provides public education presentations for social and health services, communities, and university classes. Sarah can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.