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?