Alessandra Renzi on Fri, 24 Feb 2012 13:41:40 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> [some clever play on the word] sex [digest: harrison x3]

I just found this and thought some of you may enjoy yet another  
perspective on sex work and its relationship to neoliberalism and  


To the would-be sex work abolitionist, or, 'ain't I a woman'?

February 3, 2012
Why are we still having the "feminists vs. sex workers" debate?

In her August [1], October [2], and December [3]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 [4] 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 [5], 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  
[6] 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 [7], 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 shouldhave 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 [8] 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 [9] 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 [10]andhere [11]). 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. is 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 has long focused [12] 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  
[13], 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 [14], 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  

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.

Research consulted

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,  

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

The mistaken logic of 'asymmetrical criminalization' -- a.k.a. the  
Nordic model of prostitution [15]
An often-acrimonious divide exists between feminists who call for the  
abolition of sex work and feminists who favour its decriminalization.
Sasha: On the decriminalization of sex work in Ontario [16]
After bitching for the past 16 years about decriminalizing sex work,  
something wholly unexpected happened on Tuesday afternoon. Sex work  
was decriminalized in Ontario.
Prostitution laws knocked down [17]
Katrina Pacey from Pivot Legal Society talks about the Ontario  
Superior Court decision to legalize prostitution.
Submitted by Mercedes Allen on February 4, 2012 - 10:57am.

Thank you for a powerful and clearly expressed response.  For what  
it's worth, you have my support.

I've written elsewhere about my own (past) experiences, some positive,  
some not.  I sincerely believe that the difference comes from  
empowering people, and letting them have control over their environs  
and circumstances.  Criminalization does exactly the opposite.

Thanks again, and here's another voice of support.

Submitted by KerryP on February 4, 2012 - 2:02pm.

Thank you Sarah for so clearly articulating what I've been trying to  
say for years to the abolitionists!  And thanks too for the link to  
Ms. Farley's awful webpage ... I'll be using that in my next lecture  
about feminism vs sex work.

Submitted by JulieG on February 4, 2012 - 11:44pm.
Finally, something real instead of schpeel on sexwork from rabble!
Great piece!

Submitted by catskewl on February 7, 2012 - 11:32am.

Thank you for the saying what I was thinking.  Thank you, Rabble for  
supporting this voice in the 'discourse'.

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