‘You’re not representative’: Identity politics in sex industry debates

Alongside ‘listen to survivors’, ‘you’re not representative’ is a key refrain from abolitionist quarters in feminist debates about the sex industry. Most recently, this mantra was chanted in the furore around Amnesty International’s draft policy on decriminalisation, where in addition to claims that the organisation was acting to protect the rights of ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’, it was argued that the sex workers supporting Amnesty’s proposal were an unrepresentative minority with unusually positive experiences of the industry.

This assertion is problematic on a number of levels. First, as Wendy Lyon reminds us, due to criminalisation and stigma the demographics of the sex industry largely remain a mystery. What we do know is that the majority of sex workers now work indoors – this does not necessarily mean they are not vulnerable, but it does challenge persistent myths about exploited and trafficked street workers constituting the bulk of the profession, which give fuel to the abolitionist lobby.

Within the political movement for sex workers’ rights, sex workers themselves acknowledge that most (though not all) high-profile activists hail from more privileged backgrounds. However, this refers mainly to Western activism, which is abolitionists’ main focus (erasing vibrant sex workers’ rights movements in other parts of the world). Furthermore, in this type of ‘unrepresentativeness’, sex industry politics (including the abolitionist strand) is no different from any other form – it is those who have the time and means to organise, and the cultural capitals which facilitate public engagement, who are usually able to be heard. So why do abolitionist feminists seem to be incessantly pointing this out? There is a strategy at work here.

Accusations of unrepresentativeness in sex industry debates are most often deployed to silence – acting as full stops in the conversation. They enable sex industry abolitionists to restrict the discussion to the topic of identity, miring it in issues of ‘representativeness’ instead of exploring the substance of the representations being made. This preoccupation may be partly why abolitionists seem to have such a poor grasp of the subtleties of sex industry politics, with a common conflation of ‘sex positive’ and labour rights arguments which is misguided and problematic (but politically very convenient).

Abolitionists tend to position all sex industry activism within the ‘sex positive’ framework which reformulates sexual labour as self-expression, yoking this to the body of the privileged (or ‘empowered’) sex worker as though this is her only possible form of discourse. While challenging this type of straw-man criticism of ‘happy hookers’ and ‘choice feminists’, there are certainly valid questions about whether the ‘sex positive’ framework is the best one in which to advocate for rights. Indeed, the interpretation of sex work as personal empowerment has been critiqued by sex workers, who argue that it is often a politics of privilege which erases the labour involved in their jobs and does not further their struggle.

However, these important critical voices are ignored by the abolitionist lobby, who grossly oversimply the nuances of sex industry activism and deploy accusations of unrepresentativeness against sex positive and labour rights activists alike. In the debates about Amnesty’s draft policy, it was claimed that sex workers advocating for decriminalisation were mainly BDSM practitioners and escorts who allied themselves with ‘pimps’ and managers and were throwing less privileged sex workers under the bus. These statements flew in the face of the preponderance of evidence that the majority of sex workers worldwide do not wish to exist under models which criminalise them and remove their sources of income without addressing the economic conditions which lead many people to sell sex in the first place. Sex workers supporting decriminalisation come from the most vulnerable groups in the industry, such as migrants, drug users and street workers, and those in the Global South. (Decriminalisation does not include the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients, which has been shown to be a de facto criminalisation of the sex worker).

Dismissing this sex workers’ labour rights activism as ‘unrepresentative’ is a purely rhetorical move, which substitutes medium for message. Furthermore, abolitionists’ obsession with identity is remarkably facile compared to other discussions around representation and universality which have a long history within feminism, giving rise to the concept of intersectionality when black feminists challenged their white sisters for ignoring their concerns. The family and the police were two of the institutions black feminists highlighted as experienced radically differently, due to currents of structural and political racism which put black communities at odds with state agents protecting white ones, and against which the black family has often been a haven, instead of (or as well as) a site of oppression.

To represent can quite literally mean to ‘be present’ for someone else. It is clear that white feminists have not been present for women of colour, and the agendas of the mainstream feminist movement continue to centre white concerns. However, critiques of White Feminism do not target every feminist with white skin – instead, they focus on the substance of mainstream feminist politics which prioritises the issues and needs of white women. In contrast, abolitionists concentrate on the identities of sex worker activists and in the process discredit a broad and unified movement for sex industry decriminalisation. (Ironically, this fixation on identity, as well as a persistent refusal to acknowledge their own privilege, may be why these same feminists are often resistant to, and offended by, intersectional critiques of White Feminism because they mistake these for a politics of skin colour).

To represent is to be chosen to carry a particular message, and in this case it is clear – sex workers across the world do not want to be criminalised. Abolitionist rhetoric, which comprehends the representative only as sign or symbol, silences sex worker activists with something incredibly important to convey. Against these advocates, the abolitionist wields the ‘survivor’ – ex-sex workers (mainly women) who have been exploited and abused. Their voices give abolitionist politics a veneer of authenticity, and are ventriloquized to shout down other survivors both outside and within the industry who advocate for decriminalisation. A sex worker, then, is only representative if she is making the right representations.

Or, perhaps more accurately, a current sex worker is unrepresentative if she is making any representations at all. As sex workers’ rights activist Molly Smith has pointed out, abolitionist rhetoric uses survivors as a proxy for current marginalised sex workers, implying that if they had a voice, they too would support abolitionist laws. This fetishisation of the ‘voiceless’ silences abolitionists’ opponents, as it enables them to be rejected as ‘unrepresentative’ on spec. There is a cruel sleight of hand in operation here – for current sex workers, the condition for dismissal is being able to speak at all. Sex workers active in sex industry debates, Smith says, are dismissed as ‘not representative’ because they are not voiceless enough.

Manoeuvres such as this (as well as the obvious futility of attempting to find the quintessential subject of any category, in identitarian terms) mean that the ‘representative’ sex worker is an apparition who can only manifest through abolitionist discourse. Furthermore, she (and she is always a woman) cannot manifest herself; she can only be manifested as an absence within abolitionist constructions of sex workers’ struggle for rights. She must be spoken for, whether by the abolitionist or the ‘survivor’ – she is not permitted to speak for herself. Too often within sex industry debates, this full stop is drawn on the body of any current sex worker who raises their voice – they are cut short mid-sentence, and we are not permitted to hear what they have to say. ‘She’s not representative!’ and ‘Listen to survivors!’ we are told.

As with other political movements, there are certainly valid conversations to be had around whether sex workers’ rights activists are fully representing the needs and concerns of those they are in a position to speak for. These are particularly pertinent in relation to ‘sex positive’ discourse, which has been critically appraised by many. However, the cursory identity politics deployed by sex industry abolitionists to discredit sex workers’ labour rights advocacy is a glib and callous strategy which obscures the fact that this advocacy represents the issues and concerns of sex workers all over the world.

This does not mean we should not work to amplify more marginalised voices. However, it is significant that the sex workers’ rights movement appears to be the only one dismissed in this way. While always hoping and aiming for better representation (in all senses of that word), we should expose the ideologies and agendas underpinning the statement ‘you’re not representative’. This tool of silencing aims to drive a wedge between different sex workers as if they have competing demands in relation to legal regulation of the industry. It also enables sex industry abolitionists, via the figure of the survivor, to insinuate themselves into the debate as though they in fact represent the broad mass of sex workers’ voices. They do not.

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Feminism 101: Universalism and Intersectionality

I recently developed a lecture for undergraduates, introducing them to the concept of intersectionality and debates around universalism in feminist social/political theory and activism. It presents gender as a key locus of oppression, explores the development of intersectionality by black feminists and how this both challenged and refined white feminists’ critiques of male universalism in mainstream academia and society. It also engages with notions of solidarity and ‘shared sisterhood’, particularly in relation to arguments from postcolonial feminists and trans feminists, and asks questions about what a truly inclusive, intersectional, transnational feminism would look like.

I have designed this lecture as a Prezi (linked below) which is free for academic colleagues and others to download, adapt and use as they see fit. Please let me know if you find it useful, and do share widely if you do. The reading list which accompanies the session is also reproduced below in case people find it helpful (of course, both the lecture and the reading list are introductory rather than exhaustive or comprehensive). The lecture also contains a list of hyperlinks to the sources it references (where available), including those which are non-academic.

Prezi

Prezi

Readings

Ahmed, L (1992) Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press
Beasley, C (2005) Gender & Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers. London: Sage
Brah, A and Phoenix, A (2013) ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality’, in Journal of International Women’s Studies 5(3)
Bryson, V (2003) Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan
Carby, H (1982) ‘White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood,’ in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Empire Strikes Back: race and racism in 70s Britain. London: Hutchinson
Crenshaw, K (1991) ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of colour’, in Stanford Law Review 43(6)
De Beauvoir, S (1949) The Second Sex. Any edition will do!
Faludi, S (1992) Backlash: the Undeclared War Against Women. London: Vintage
Hartman, S. V (1997) Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hill Collins, P (1990) Black Feminist Thought. London: Routledge
hooks, b (2000) Feminist theory: From margin to center. London: Pluto Press
Johnson, J. R (2013) ‘Cisgender Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Criminalization of CeCe McDonald: Why Intercultural Communication Needs Transgender Studies’, in Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 6(2)
Mac an Ghaill, M., and Haywood, C (2007) Gender, Culture and Society: Contemporary Masculinities and Femininities. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan
Millett, K (1969) Sexual Politics. Any edition will do!
Mohanty, C. T (1988) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, in Boundary 2 12(3)/13(1)
Mohanty, C. T (2003) “Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity Through Anticapitalist Struggles’, in Signs 28(2)
Moraga, C. and G. Anzaldúa (eds.) (1981) This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color. Watertown: Persephone Press
Serano, J (2005) On the Outside Looking In. Oakland, CA: Hot Tranny Action Press
Smith, D (1974) ‘Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology’, in Sociological Inquiry 44(1)
Spender, D (1981) Men’s studies modified: the impact of feminism on the academic disciplines. Oxford: Pergamon Press
Stanley, L. & Wise, S (1981) Breaking Out: Feminist Research and Feminist Consciousness. Oxford: Pergamon Press
Stryker, S and Aizura A. Z (2006, 2013) The Transgender Studies Reader 1 and 2. London: Routledge (see especially Koyama article in edition 1)
Wilchins, R. A (2004) Queer Theory, Gender Theory: an instant primer. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications

‘Listen to survivors’ and the fetishisation of experience

The debate over Amnesty International’s draft policy supporting the decriminalisation of sex work has been heated. Although the organisation developed the policy following extensive research with sex workers and consultation with key stakeholders, it has been accused of wanting to protect the rights of ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’ to buy or profit from the sale of sex. The position of those supporting Amnesty’s draft policy is clear – the vast majority of sex workers globally oppose criminalisation (including the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients), because it jeopardises their incomes, creates health vulnerabilities and puts them at risk of violence. As the community most directly affected by sex work law and policy, it is argued, their voices should matter most.

Although this may seem uncontroversial, it has been claimed that this injunction to listen to sex workers is an identity politics which fetishises personal experience and is an insufficient basis on which to base policy decisions. It has also been suggested that in prioritising those currently working in the sex industry, we erase the experiences of ‘survivors’, ex-sex workers who have experienced trauma and exploitation and whose voices are often used in order to make the case for abolition. Indeed, it is contended that these survivors are ‘strategically sidelined’ by a movement for decriminalisation which is said to be headed by clients and ‘pimps’.

It is both fascinating and tragic that the movement for sex industry decriminalisation has been reduced to an ‘infatuation with identity’ which is based on a few personal anecdotes. In actual fact, the evidence base for Amnesty’s draft policy includes a wealth of sex worker narratives, either told from the grassroots or as part of extensive research with sex workers conducted by Amnesty, UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation and other bodies, and a developing canon of academic literature focusing on sex workers’ experiences of different legal frameworks. There is also information gathered via different methodologies, around risk factors for health problems and violence, and whether criminalisation actually reduces demand or has an impact on trafficking.

To dismiss this preponderance of evidence is both disingenuous and disrespectful, and conceals the ways in which sex industry abolitionists are themselves guilty of a fetishisation of experience through their frequent admonitions to ‘listen to survivors’. The survivor is an abiding and central fixture in feminist politics seeking to eradicate the sex industry. Famous second-wave abolitionists Andrea Dworkin (herself an ex-sex worker) and Catharine MacKinnon made the voices of women exploited within pornography central to their legislative lobbying. In the contemporary context, ‘survivor stories’ have acquired both corporate gloss and wider exposure, as a key political tool for what has been termed the ‘feminist rescue industry’ focused on using the criminal law to ‘save’ women from commercial sex.

The current debate around the Amnesty draft policy recalls similar discussions in 2013, following two UN reports which advised that in order to support efforts to reduce HIV and AIDS and promote the human rights of people in the sex industry, commercial sex should be decriminalised. In response, international organisation Equality Now mounted a campaign entitled ‘Listen to Survivors’. This used women’s experiences of trafficking and exploitation/abuse in the sex industry to urge the UN to instead promote measures criminalising the demand for commercial sex. These survivor narratives, similar to those used in sex industry abolitionist initiatives in countries such as the UK, Ireland, the US and elsewhere, deployed harrowing accounts of victimisation and suffering to justify a particular legislative agenda.

Although such a politics purports to be about women’s liberation and empowerment, it can be seen as profoundly objectifying. The experiences of survivors, while valid and undeniably distressing, are often mobilised by a third party as the ‘trump card’ in this policy debate. Such manoeuvres also rarely incorporate analyses which tie specific oppressions to distinct parts of law or working practices: instead, the fact of suffering is used to bolster a sweeping moral case against the sex industry as a whole. Survivor narratives are not respected when they become rhetorical objects within broader agendas in this way. On the contrary, they become part of a long tradition of white feminist empathy in which the elite cannibalise the pain of the marginalised for their own objectives and ends.

In terms of issues around using experience as evidence, strategically employed ‘survivor stories’ are much more problematic than the huge global movement of sex workers speaking for themselves. However, they are often lined up against this movement, as though the two are on an equivalent footing. Furthermore, claims of superior authenticity are often made on survivors’ behalf, with sex workers who support decriminalisation described as a privileged minority of ‘happy hookers’ who are not representative and whose experiences have been benign.

The ‘victimised survivor’ and ‘happy hooker’ are two poles of experience which frequently become symbolic in adversarial debates about the industry. As sex worker activists have argued, this dialectic can flatten out lived realities and have a silencing effect on those whose experiences are more ambivalent and complex. Positioning those supporting the Amnesty draft policy as ‘happy hookers’ within this dynamic is nothing more than a tactical move designed to mask the fact that they in fact represent a diversity and majority of sex workers’ voices. To characterise this consensus as the politics of a privileged few is both dishonest and cruel.

Survivor stories are essential, and have been key to the powerful feminist movement around violence against women and girls. However, that this movement often positions sex work as in itself a form of violence against women is a mistake. There are many survivors of violence against women working in the sex industry, and many exited survivors who advocate for decriminalisation. The current debate sees sex industry abolitionists using the bodies of their preferred survivors as tools to silence others.

‘Listen to survivors.’ But which ones?

‘Disappearing’ sex workers in the Amnesty debate

The international council meeting of Amnesty International which starts today in Dublin will consider a resolution urging that sex work be decriminalized. This is accompanied by a draft policy on state obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of sex workers. The document is clear – the rights of sex workers are at stake, the organization has not changed its stance in opposition to forced labour and human trafficking, and it considers children who are involved in commercial sex to be victims of a grave human rights abuse.

Amnesty

One of the first things that struck me when reading Amnesty’s draft policy was that the voices and concerns of sex workers are central. The criminalization of brothel-keeping and solicitation is opposed because they ‘often force sex workers to work in ways which compromise their safety’ (for instance alone, or with shorter negotiations with clients). Criminalising clients, Amnesty notes, ‘can lead to sex workers having to take risks to protect their clients from detection by law enforcement’ (for example, visiting locations that the client, rather than the sex worker, has chosen). The last four pages of the document summarise research Amnesty undertook with sex workers across four geographical regions, featuring harrowing stories of repression and violence, frequently at the hands of the police.

However, the outpouring of opposition to Amnesty’s draft policy has ‘disappeared’ the bodies and rights of these sex workers. Instead we have been subjected to a moral panic focused on ‘pimps’, ‘Johns’, and mega-brothels’, and accusations that the organization is enshrining men’s rights to buy sex. Celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham have given the voices of outrage a huge signal boost, signing a petition developed by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International urging Amnesty not to ‘legalise pimping’, and ignoring the fact that the draft policy is in fact focused on human rights abuses against sex workers.

Amnesty’s policy, based on listening to sex workers, consultation with key stakeholders and research by organisations such as UNAIDS and the WHO, has been turned on its head. Headlines such as ‘There can be no amnesty for those who buy sex – not even if women ‘consent” and ‘Amnesty International says prostitution is a human right – but it’s wrong’ have shifted the focus away from the rights of sex workers and on to a massive bout of shadowboxing against the fictional rights of ‘punters’ and ‘pimps’. The furore has reached such a fever pitch that Amnesty’s Senior Director for Campaigns was forced to clarify, in a letter to the New York Times, that the organisation’s motives were to protect sex workers and nobody else.

The ‘disappearing’ of sex workers here is not a new or isolated phenomenon – as Amnesty itself acknowledged in its draft policy, sex workers’ voices are often obscured or ignored in discussions about their lives. The Sex Worker Open University notes that sometimes whole events are held about the sex industry in which sex workers are explicitly excluded. Sex workers who advocate for labour rights are frequently shouted over by abolitionists deploying stories of exited and traumatised ‘prostitution survivors’. These narratives, of course, are valid – but they are invariably presented as though they represent the truth of the industry, played as the trump card so sex workers with different realities end up silenced, having lost the game.

Sometimes interventions made in support of sex workers’ rights also render them invisible in disastrous ways. Just yesterday, right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs released a paper authored by sociologist Catherine Hakim arguing that the sex industry should be legalized because 21st century men have a ‘sex deficit’ which needs to be addressed. It also suggested that the sex industry plays an important social function in lowering the rate of sex crime, in the process reducing sex workers to a pressure valve for men’s violence, on behalf of more privileged women.

Although people of all genders work in the sex industry, the symbolic ‘sex worker’ is often a woman, which is an erasure of many others. Furthermore, this symbolic ‘sex worker’ is frequently not a person but a metaphor for patriarchy and ‘male violence’, or a willing dupe of these systems who deserves to be blamed. Indeed, as sex worker Molly Smith argues, the violence criminalization inflicts on sex workers is often seen as necessary, in order to protect ‘good women’ from harm. The idea of ‘false consciousness’ is used to erase sex workers’ humanity and invalidate their consent. All these themes have been evident in the opposition to the Amnesty draft policy, as well as the notion of all sex work as abuse which implies that it is not possible to sexually assault a sex worker. Because of beliefs like this, sex workers who are raped can disappear as victims and find it difficult to access support.

The Amnesty draft policy recognizes that the disappearance and stigmatization of sex workers is at the core of human rights abuses against them. Violent men target sex workers, mainly women, because they know they barely count as people at all: often working alone and in conditions not of their own choosing, and disbelieved or re-victimised by the police if they dare to report assault. Amnesty’s opponents, focused on the implications of its draft policy for ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’, are unable to hear these sex workers’ voices and prefer policy frameworks which put them at risk. Their concern for human rights, unlike Amnesty’s, seems to apply to some women and not others.

Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonphipps.

Originally published in Open Democracy