Sex workers and feminists have a fraught relationship, in part due to the mainstream nature of SWERF (sex worker exclusionary feminist) narratives, that hold the very existence of the sex industry as a form of gendered, misogynist violence. This makes it very difficult for sex workers to feel safe in feminist spaces, unfortunately. So I wanted to highlight sex work’s place in intersectional feminism, and exploring the sex work community’s role in outside dialogues on the sex industry.
The sex work community encompasses a huge diversity of voices, and in my experience, strives to continue expanding that, same as other intersectional feminist communities. It’s not perfect, as the risks associated with speaking about sex work and being “out” as a sex worker come down harder on more marginalized sex workers, but the community does try to continually listen and evaluate its own utility for marginalized workers. And there is a huge diversity to voices from those in the industry, from people who claim the word “whore” as a way of regaining power from the stigma of it, to people who prefer “prostituted” as a way of reiterating that the coercion and violence they faced was in no way their fault, and everything in between. Our rhetoric around the sex industry needs to allow people to claim whichever label they feel is appropriate—without assigning one to them.
This is one thing that some strains of feminism struggle with, due to their conviction that all of those in the sex industry belong in one category: agencyless victims. This narrative allows no room for the myriad angles sex workers are finding to organize. From SWOP Behind Bars, which aims to supply reading material and friendly letters to those incarcerated for prostitution, to advocates such as Melissa Gira Grant who approach it from a labor rights angle, aiming to treat exploitation of sex workers as a labor issue to be remedied with unionization and legal protections, to Marxist advocates who posit things such as a basic income as a way of remedying the unequal playing field that makes some people desperate enough to enter the sex industry when they really don’t want to be there, and migrant sex worker advocates who examine the ways that xenophobia, racism, and artificial borders play into our treatment of migrant sex workers, and harm reductionists who don’t like the industry, but who want others in it to be as safe as possible, sex workers are finding more and more ways to make their voices heard despite the billions of dollars feeding the anti-sex industry movement.
The broad-brush painting of sex workers as victims to be saved wastes law enforcement resources, and strains relationships with law enforcement. When a third-party who does screening services for consensual sex workers with no force, fraud, or coercion is considered the same in the eyes of the law as a predator who grooms and abuses people before coercing them into the sex industry, we have a problem. When raid-and-rescue anti-trafficking operations come in, cameras blazing, humiliating trafficking survivors and sex workers alike before imprisoning them in unsafe conditions, fraying humanitarian relationships with local communities, we have a problem.
When the most common thing requested by underage trafficking victims is safe housing
but the most common service received is toiletries and clothes, we have a problem. (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, by Alexandra Lutnick.)
We need to listen to know what services are needed, and how they should be rendered. But so much of the dominant narratives, both mainstream feminist and religious conservative, are built around telling sex workers and trafficking victims that outsiders know better.
This has a silencing affect, making it even harder for people to speak up with their experiences. Despite being well-intentioned, the judgments nonetheless are damaging. And it’s unheard of in most fields of social work. Taking the critiques at face value, assuming the sex industry is wholly negative, which stands counter to a great many of those in the industry I know and follow, the tactics used by contemporary anti-trafficking organizations (Who use the sex industry as the face of all trafficking, despite sex trafficking being much less prevalent than other forms) are the equivalent of dragging every abused spouse who has yet to leave their partner out of their home, imprisoning them away from their families until they agree to leave their abusive partner, arresting them, putting their face in public databases for others to judge and discriminate against, etc. Any therapist or law enforcement agency that did that to an abuse survivor would quickly be shut down, because we recognize that an individual’s ability to make choices– even constrained ones or bad ones– trumps our desire to override their autonomy, to choose the “right” decision for them.
Sure. Some clients want to push a sex worker’s buttons. But there’s greater diversity to them than simply someone seeking someone to abuse, or use for release. Only when you put aside your feelings and judgments will you hear the range of stories: from disabled clients who find it easier to attend to that need that way, to people who just need to be around someone who’ll give them a hug and say “that’s okay,” to people who are trying to explore their sexuality with someone who won’t judge them or call their kink weird.
Numbers on the industry are notoriously difficult to come by, and are complicated even further by flawed methodology, leading questions, and being done by outsiders with little access to a range of sex workers. Most of the numbers you hear anti-trafficking organizations using have these kinds of flaws.
The “entry age of 12-14″ statistic has been called out numerous times
for being egregiously fallacious, yet it still is bandied about as fact. It polls underaged people in the sex industry about the age of their first sexual encounter… not
all sex workers, and not
the age at which they began selling sexual services. And that’s just the start of the critiques leveled at it. Statistics that pull from a wider variety of respondents’ ages peg the average entry age as in a person’s 20s. This is a marked difference, and yet that general entry age of 12 is commonly used to portray everyone in the sex industry as abused children. Many of the statistics showing sex workers suffering exorbitantly high amounts of mental illness, abusive relationships, sexual violence, etc. are pulled from incarcerated populations- the most marginalized of the marginalized, most often street-level sex workers, who are already statistically more likely to have those kinds of difficulties in their background in those numbers even without sex work. And yet they’re used to paint all
sex workers as traumatized, courting danger, tragic figures in need of saving. Many of the best statistics nowadays are coming from sex workers like Tara Burns, who turn to academia to correct the misinformation and contextualize their life’s experiences, using their connections with the community to gain more participants, from a wider variety of backgrounds and roles in the industry. These scholars should be lauded
for their hard work, rather than demonized for disputing the established knowledge that the sex industry is all abusers and traffickers preying on an underclass of people traumatized and broken into accepting that treatment. Instead, they are discriminated against or sexually harassed in academia, and villified by people who have spent so long hearing the old statistics that they don’t wish to keep up with newer ones that challenge their existing judgments.
More recent studies have confirmed a number of things: that police are the biggest threat to sex workers
, that sex workers report better health and safer work environments when they have a supportive community of coworkers
— something that many areas criminalize by labeling a sex worker assisting another sex worker as trafficking, criminalizing sex worker-run brothels or work locations with more than one sex worker— that most underaged people in the industry are not initiated into it by a third party or pimp, and that even many of those who do have third-parties involved in their work often make and dissolve those relationships depending on how equitable and beneficial they are, rather than being stuck with one violent pimp for life, as the popular narrative goes
. But rather than going after only
the third parties who are actively harming those they work with– remember, wage theft, rape, abuse, etc. is already
illegal most areas, and is the relevant reason why these third-parties are so reviled– we treat them all
as though they’re the worst of the worst exploitative scum.
When you suspect a mole is cancerous, you don’t cut or burn away every piece of skin on your body to stop it from spreading. The problem with framing the sex industry only in terms of the most harrowing and negative experiences, is it encourages just these manner of solutions. As intersectional feminists, sex workers have a lot to add on a variety of subjects: racism, homophobia, transphobia, systemic poverty and racism, ableism, misogyny, poor treatment of mothers in the workplace, drug stigma, and HIV prevention, and more. But feminist spaces won’t be safe for them unless we, as intersectional feminists, quiet our own gut-reactions, and throw out what we’ve been told about the industry, to look at the big picture, including the parts of the industry that have no more sexual harassment than your average waitresses’s shifts.
Unfortunately, this rift between sex workers and feminists ultimately hurts the very people that sex worker exclusionary feminists seek to protect: trafficking survivors. In areas where sex work is decriminalized, things aren’t perfect, however the relationship between sex work and law enforcement isn’t as adversarial, meaning that sex workers are less hesitant to come forward if they encounter an abusive client, if they witness violence toward another worker, or if they suspect another worker is being trafficked or underage. Police, also, have less to hold over sex workers that would enable them to shake them down, rape them, or even—yes, it happens alarmingly regularly— traffic those people, themselves. Clients, similarly, could be huge boons to law enforcement in spotting exploitation or making contact with exploited people. However so long as sex work or purchasing sex are criminal, these people will be too afraid of repercussions to be able to come forward. In my own area, sex workers are mourning Ashley Benson. She was murdered by a client, as the person she’d chosen for her safe call feared trafficking charges if they called the police to say Benson hadn’t checked in. And compare the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, who targeted sex workers and was eventually convicted of killing 48 women, though his likely kill count is almost certainly much more, to the Christchurch Killer in New Zealand, who thanks to cooperation between police and local sex workers,
was stopped after only killing three
workers. That’s still a horrible, awful, number to relay, but considering how often serial killers target sex workers, thinking no one will care about their deaths, we have to ask the question: just how much violence against those in the sex industry could be reduced if this kind of cooperation happened more often? Hell, Ridgway himself
, in interviews with law enforcement, stated that he was doing them a favor
, clearing these women off the streets. That’s
how deep the antipathy between sex workers and law enforcement goes, in many areas.
And don’t let the Nordic model/End Demand fool you: most of those in the industry are afraid of it and despise it
. Sex workers and trafficking victims are stalked by police seeking to get at their clients, evicted by landlords who find out about their work and fear trafficking charges, ignored by the police when reporting violence, discriminated against in child custody proceedings, deported for “comporting themselves dishonestly,” are isolated from other sex workers for fear of being considered a trafficker, and a host of other traumatizing, negative, and unfair things. Even those who designed that model have stated that it’s goal isn’t
to protect those in the industry, but to kill the industry altogether. So long as that’s the aim, the health and safety of those in the industry, however they got there, will always be secondary to making the industry so unsafe and unpleasant that people flee it.
The problem with this is that unless you’re providing other
options, that’s still going to trap the most marginalized of the marginalized there, in progressively more dangerous and awful conditions. Some anti-trafficking NGOs have sought to change this by shunting the “victims” they help (again, remember that this includes consensual sex workers who are forced into participation, either through imprisonment or the threat of charges/violence) into employment training or jobs… in industries with drastically lower pay and exploitative conditions, which sex workers had often chosen not to participate in.
The anti-trafficking movement has a lot of critiques that are rarely addressed. From its invasive and colonialist techniques, to the misogynist and racist history of the anti-sex work movement, to the misleading nature of the statistics used to back it up, to its use of many high-profile narratives that turned out to be coached or otherwise falsified (Somaly Mam, Chong Kim, Rachel Moran), to its habit of excluding all but the “prostitution survivors” whose views it agrees with, to its habit of ignoring or excluding everyone but CIS, straight female victims,to its habit of conflating consensual sex work with trafficking and ignoring the diversity of the sex industry, to its habit of putting forth “tips for spotting trafficking victims” that often serve to harass people of color, and immigrants, to the fact that most of its money is spent on “awareness” rather than services for survivors…. there’s lots of critiques to discuss. Far too many for any one essay.
As writers, we’re told to kill our darlings. It means that no matter how precious an idea or story is to us, we have to be willing to prune it, for the good of the overall book. Similarly, as intersectional feminists and activists, we need to kill our darlings, the thoughts and experiences that build our awareness of the sex industry, and listen. So much of the anti-sex work rhetoric is framed around feminist saviors acting as voices for the voiceless. But the voiceless are speaking just fine; we, as a society and as feminists, simply aren’t willing to kill our own darlings who are talking over them. Positioning sex workers and trafficking survivors as enemies, and as mutually exclusive communities is a gross mischaracterization of the experiences of both. In this, nothing can be immune from critique, no matter how well-intentioned. The portrayal of those in the sex worker’s rights community as spoiled, privileged white women who just aren’t thinking of others whitewashes a rich history of local sex worker activism all across the world, from Thailand’s Empower organization, to India’s Sangram, to the African Sex Work Alliance.
This is hardly a conclusive rundown of the myriad issues that play into our discussions on the sex industry, but it’s a primer. For more, I suggest following along with Tara Burns, Meg Valee Munoz, Margaret Corvid, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Melissa Gira Grant, Melissa Ditmore, Laura Augustin, Meena Seshu, Audacia Ray, Melissa Petro, Charlotte Shane, Empower Organization, the Red Umbrella Project, Migrant Sex Worker Project, ASWA, Sangram, and Tits and Sass, a sex worker run site featuring sex workers and trafficking survivors from a variety of backgrounds.