Listen to ALL of the Sex Workers
I recently participated in a facebook thread about this tumblr post on the topic of sex work, which in turn, was sparked by this tumblr post. The discussion I was in included a back-and-forth between me and someone who wants to abolish sex work by criminalizing the purchasing of sex, but not the selling of sex. She repeated the message of the original tumblr post, by saying that she’s tired of how sex workers who choose this form of labor will speak up and say that the way that anti-sex workers and abolitionists frame the debate doesn’t fit them. (Unfortunately, she deleted her comments after someone on the pro-sex work side flagged them, so this is as close as I can recall what happened. If she reads this, I’ll be happy to edit it if my memory is off.)
I can certainly understand her frustration- it’s annoying when people keep saying the same things over and over in response to an argument that one cares deeply about. But at the same time, I think it’s worth pointing out that people who engage in sex work by choice will continue responding in the same way as long as abolitionists continue to frame their arguments in ways that ignore their existences and their needs. Perhaps the reason that sex workers keep giving the same answers is that the abolitionist arguments continue to make the same inaccurate assumptions and offer the same ineffective solutions.
With respect to people who are forced or coerced or enslaved or trafficked, maybe we could consider what it would take to end that separately from sex work that falls somewhere on the continuum of choice, just as one can work to end agricultural slavery without denying that some people do agricultural work out of some degree of choice. Of course, we could start by listening to sex workers themselves. None of the sex work activists I know deny the very real problems faced by people who have been trafficked or forced into sexual slavery. They also understand the issues, experiences, and stories of people across the sex work spectrum far better than anyone who’s never done it could.
Very few non-sex workers seem to have looked at how abolition would affect people who see sex work as the best of their currently available options, or at least, they don’t seem to have acknowledged that taking sex work away makes their lives more difficult and/or is based on the assumption that the abolitionists know what they need better than they do. I know that abolitionists have said that they want resources for folks who need them, but they haven’t suggested how sex workers are supposed to deal with he ongoing lack of resources once sex work becomes harder to do. (And for the record, offering sex workers sewing jobs isn’t all that helpful.)
In my view, the sex worker/non-sex worker dynamic has many things in common with patterns between women and men, queers and straight folks, people of color and white people, disabled folks and the able-bodied, etc. Sex workers face discrimination, harassment, social stigma, denigration, blame for things they aren’t responsible for, and other experiences that many oppressed groups face. Yes, I know that each type of oppression is different and I’m not suggesting otherwise. Yet, one thing that they have in common is that people in the privileged group need to serve as allies instead of rescuers. We need to step back and ask what we can do it help, instead of imposing what we see as answers (which often make things worse, anyway). We need to shut up and listen.
That’s why I support groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Project. The people who are dealing with the issues, who have first hand experience with the challenges, and who see the full range of the relevant concerns better than I ever could, are much better suited to taking the lead. When it comes to sex work, non-sex workers who want to help need to be allies, not rescuers. Rescuing doesn’t help when men try to do it for women, or when straight folks try to do it for queers, or when white people try to do it for people of color. So how can it suddenly work when it comes to sex work?
“If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are.” John W. Gardner
If your “solution” to sex work isn’t based on listening to ALL of the sex workers, maybe it’s time to rethink your agenda