In the previous two installments, we’ve addressed the basics of what sex work is, a very brief history of the term, and the opposition sex work faces in the world at large. This week, we’ll talk about the absolute importance of listening to the voices of sex workers.
It’s crucial to place the voices of sex workers at the center of any discussion involving sex work. The outcomes of anti-trafficking measures and anti-prostitution legislation affect them and, truly, only them. Despite this fact, sex workers are silenced. Their voices are consistently excluded from conversations about their own rights. Legislators and anti-trafficking organizers paternalistically assume that they know better—that sex workers, trafficked or not, are victims and they just might not know it. This only results in more stigmatization, which results in more violence against sex workers.
Violence and Sex Work
Whorephobic ideologies are the root source of the problem. It’s not the simple fact that sex is bought and sold; it’s the fact that we, as a society, view sex workers either as worthless “whores” or hapless victims of circumstance. Many sex workers and sex worker rights activists have pointed out that this is the reason violence occurs. There’s nothing inherently misogynistic about exchanging sexual services for money. To quote Tumblr user stripperstripper, “Men attacking women in strip clubs is a result of their male entitlement, not the strip club or the stripper. Closing strip clubs won’t end violence against women.”
Police harass, assault, and rape sex workers largely because of the stigma surrounding sex work and the ways they have learned to perceive sex workers. In short, they’ve been taught to treat sex workers a certain way, and many have learned what they can get away with. Quoting Feminista Jones, an activist and author, in her piece about the #youOKSis movement (regarding street harassment) featured in The Atlantic:
Police street-harass us too. They rape us, they abuse us. Particularly if you appear to be a sex worker or you are a sex worker. Many have reported that police will threaten them with arrest unless they perform sex acts for them. A lot of women have reported that they have been sex-harassed by police officers. I had a police officer try to talk to me in a flirtatious way with a hand on his gun. And I’m saying, “You need to do your job and stop trying to holler at me,” and he sort of smirks it off. But he has his hand on his gun, which is holstered at his waist. No, that’s not intimidating at all.
Why listen to Sex Workers?
Whorephobic ideologies, then, are very high stakes. They, like most forms of discrimination and hatred, result in violence. These ideologies are bolstered by anti-trafficking legislation and propaganda. To quote former call girl Maggie McNeill in an article she wrote for the Washington Post:
Imagine a study of the alcohol industry which interviewed not a single brewer, wine expert, liquor store owner or drinker, but instead relied solely on the statements of ATF agents, dry-county politicians and members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving…
You’d probably surmise that this sort of research would be biased and one-sided to the point of unreliable. And you’d be correct. But change the topic to sex work, and such methods are not only the norm, they’re accepted uncritically by the media and the majority of those who the resulting studies. In fact, many of those who represent themselves as sex work researchers don’t even try to get good data. They simply present their opinions as fact, occasionally bolstered by pseudo-studies designed to produce pre-determined results. Well-known and easily-contacted sex workers are rarely consulted . There’s no peer review.
Who should inform Sex Work Legislation?
The bottom line is that people who are not sex workers and have never been sex workers will never know better than sex workers themselves. Depictions of sex workers as wanton whores who “get what they have coming to them” or as ignorant victims are equally dehumanizing and oppressive. Still, we’re societally encouraged to believe (partially as a result of some second wave, anti-sex “feminist” theories) that it’s somehow “better” to treat sex workers as hapless victims in need of rescue; deconstructing these stereotypical notions of sex workers is the first step in moving towards fair treatment Sex workers have used their own voices and have been organizing politically for many years in many different parts of the world. Many of them have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want rescue — they want workers’ rights.
Legislators with little knowledge of sex work should not get to make decisions about the fates and lives of sex workers, just like they shouldn’t be able to make laws dictating whether or not a person with a uterus should be allowed to terminate a pregnancy. Many sex workers and sex worker rights activists have made it abundantly clear that decriminalizing sex work is necessary. Anti-trafficking legislation makes their lives harder.
Sex work isn’t going away–
it has always existed, and it’s here to stay. I believe–and The CSPH believes–that it’s critically important for all of us to familiarize ourselves with the struggles of sex workers. It’s of particular importance, however, for those of us who call ourselves intersectional feminists to do so. Sex work is a huge intersectional issue as it incorporates gender, sexuality, race, class, and myriad other issues as well. In order to learn, we must go straight to the source — to the words of sex workers and former sex workers themselves, as they are the only ones who actually know what sex workers need.
Next week: more specific resources for further educational reading about sex work and sex worker rights.