by Gemma Ahearne
Photo used under creative commons licence by anm4a
I usually write blog posts off the top of my head, all guns blazing, but I felt I had to take a step back and have a reflective think about this one. After all, I am writing about a marginalised group who often feel misrepresented, misquoted, infantilized, demonised and completely ignored in debates. I made sure to consult with sex workers before using their quotes for example, as a mark of respect.
I plan on this being a simple blog post, because I believe the issue is a lot more simple than we want to admit.
I very much take influence from the words of Laura Agustin, whose book Sex At The Margins, Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, I would recommend to anyone wanting to pass comment on or understand, the debates surrounding sex work. Agustin has said that she endeavours to reframe the discussion on sex work, that she will not let rad fems frame the discussion for her. I wholeheartedly agree. The debates on sex work are circular, futile and most frustrating. Constant arguing about objectification, sexualisation, the male gaze, sex work as synonymous with violence against women. Everything is simplified and reduced.
Sex work always has, and always will, exist. It is not just men buying sexual services off women. And note I say sexual services, not “men buying bodies”. I fundamentally believe in a woman’s right over her own body and sexuality. I believe in decriminalisation, not legalisation as does every sex worker and advocate I have ever met. The Nordic Model is harmful, and sex workers do not want it! Talking for a group, instead of listening to them, is oppressive and abusive. How many sex workers do you know, are you friends with? Too many feminist groups talk only with exited women who have had bad experiences of sex work and will not accept that the majority of sex workers want to be there. And those who are unhappy don’t want ‘saving’, they don’t want to be forced to exit, they want support, understanding and options that are realistic for their lives.
Abuse should of course be dealt with; violence should not be an occupational hazard of a sex worker. But to say all sex work should be illegal, or that buying sexual services should be criminalised (i.e. making selling services much harder for a worker) is akin to saying we should ban all sexual intercourse because rape exists (and yes, there are people who believe that all penetration is rape).We should be concentrating on eradicating abuse, not saying all sex work IS abuse. This is not helpful.
I have watched sex workers be shouted down and told they are suffering from false consciousness, that they must have been abused as children, or worse, that their job causes rape culture. I have always found the ‘damaged goods’ hypothesis most offensive. Given the epidemic levels of child sex abuse, should any worker, regardless of occupation, be judged by their past? Can a man or woman not make a choice in their adult lives if they have been an abuse survivor?
The issue of ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ has long been used to discredit sex workers who insist that they want the right to sell sexual services. And now the issue of true consent seems to be a curious sideways step. Marina Strinkovksy, in her blog post wrote an interesting piece framed by a medical theory of consent. Strinkovsky quotes Onora O’Neill who describes consent to surgery as a temporary withdrawal of the norm by which we do not accept people doing physical harm to each other. The problem is that this medical model of harm could be used by pro-life supporters; evengelicals opposing sex outside of marriage; those who object to same-sex relationships and to ban the consensual practice of BDSM.
The ‘norm’ is presumably unpaid sex. A binary is often drawn between ‘bad’ sex that involves the exchange of money or goods, and ‘good’ sex that is free. But we cannot determine that the paid sex is harmful and abusive, and the unpaid ‘free’ sex is mutually pleasurable. I find the ‘lack of desire’ as meaning defective consent an interesting theory. Many people willingly engage in sex when they don’t feel desire either with a spouse/lover or for paid work: Asexual people; those who cannot physically feel sex; those who are doing it for their lover’s benefit; those who are trying for baby not pleasure, are all consenting to sex. This argument also ignores that sex work can be physically pleasurable. Not all sex workers are vulnerable street workers; not all sex workers have drug and alcohol issues. To stereotype is to do these strong men and women a disservice.
Sex worker Charlotte Shane is misunderstood in Strinkovsky’s blog (found here). Shane is not saying she does not give full or true consent, but rather that she finds it humiliating when clients give explicit instructions that she act enthusiastic. Shane is saying that she consents to sex, but not the additional emotional labour. Shane does not want to pretend to have personal authentic desires. This doesn’t mean she never has desire for any clients, but that she won’t be coerced into faking them. Why should she? How many girlfriends and wives feel coerced into pretending they enjoy sex when they don’t? We mustn’t fall into the trap of the ‘happy hooker’ stereotype versus the abused woman; it is not so simple. Sex workers can feel content, happy, proud of their work at some times and unhappy at others, just like other workers. Strinkovsky takes the perspective that sex work is harmful in and of itself, “If we apply the medical consent model to the selling of sex acts, the analogy becomes even more strained, since very few if any jobs implicitly require that the worker suspend their right to avoidance of harms”. Sex workers are not doing this!
Sexual coercion, abuse and rape happen in non-paid sex; harm is not exclusive to sex work. You can have a respectful client, or a misogynistic boyfriend. We need to focus on actual harm. If an act is not illegal when done for ‘free’, then the exchange of payment should not make it criminal. It also reinforces unhelpful and simplistic good guy/bad guy dichotomy; that the good man treats women with respect, and the bad man buys women’s bodies and abuses them. This demonises the consenting adults who choose to buy and sell sexual experiences. It also ignores male and trans sex workers, and fails to recognise the ableisms of the predatory male stereotype.
Often those who wish to abolish sex work demean sex workers and their advocates by insisting they read studies by the likes of Farley and Bindel. I have witnessed a veteran sex worker of over 20 years be told “haven’t you heard of the nordic model”. Be aware when quoting zombie statistics (Sarah Ditum) and ‘studies’. There is a wide range of literature out there: many people have an agenda. Talk to those in the industry and actively campaigning for the rights and safety of sex workers. Listen to those who care about sex workers themselves. Ultimately, there are people who just cannot accept that some people choose to sell sex acts. Here’s a tip: listen to their voices and stop silencing them. I went to an event recently where a woman announced that all sex workers “are f*cked up in the head and were probably raped as children, that’s what the studies show”. This stigma is damaging.
Ella, of the Sex Worker Open University, says:
“The only way to help sex workers is decriminalisation,” she said. “Well-known women’s groups are part of a system of structural violence, promoted by feminist ‘rescue’ organisations.
“If I needed help or I was attacked I would not go to an organisation that denies me the right to speak meaningfully about my life and does not believe what I say. The services set up to help sex workers are as much places for social workers as sex workers.
“If you believe all sex work is rape, then you license the police to tackle rape by disrupting my workplace and making me less safe. If I was attacked while working with a friend, I would never call the police as we could be arrested for brothel keeping. If I was at home, then my boyfriend could similarly be arrested.
“Neither the law nor women’s charities who do not see a difference between assault and consensual activity, are doing anything to help sex workers.”
“The raids in Edinburgh were not carried out for the benefit of the women working there – Why were the women interviewed in the street in full view of the public and newspaper cameras? Why were their belongings confiscated and not returned?”
Another woman who works in the sex industry, Estelle Lucas, says:
“ I get to pick which clients I’m comfortable seeing and no one else. No one has the right to protest on my lack of consent”
“A sex worker’s decision to become a sex worker doesn’t need to be scrutinised. Being a SW is not glamourous or dangerous: it’s business”
Grace Bellavue, a sex worker and advocate says that gender needs to be removed from the debate on sex work. The focus should be clients who do not respect boundaries. Grace also says “The spectrum of sex workers is as socially diverse as the spectrum of clients”. Gender needs to be removed from the debate regarding sex work, and emphasis placed on clients who respect boundaries versus those that don’t. Gender needs to be removed from the debate regarding sex work, and emphasis placed on clients who respect boundaries versus those that don’t
We must not theorize to the point of ignoring the voices of those who claim to care about. Those who work as sex workers have the expert voice we need to consult.
Gemma Ahearne, PhD student at LJMU researching lap dancing, emotion and affect. I have a keen research interest in the regulation of the female body; excess; hyper-visible whiteness; Othering; stigma; slut-shaming. Gemma’s blog can be found here