‘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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Author: alisonphipps

Academic working on issues in the politics of the body - sexual violence, sex work, reproductive justice. Feminist; queer; Prince.

10 thoughts on “‘You’re not representative’: Identity politics in sex industry debates”

  1. Funny thing:
    *I sold sex to survive because I had no other options.
    *I hated sex work.
    *I came from a background of extreme abuse
    *I was trading sex for food and shelter to stay alive from age 13
    *I worked the street (because there is no way I could have handled making a meal of it indoors and quick penetrative sex in a car is the easiest and least mentally, emotionally and sexually invasive sexual service possible – like a brief dental exam where you get paid in advance)
    *My father’s family were working class in public housing, and originally in back to back slums
    *I understand my mother’s father built his business on “evading the need for ration cards” in WWII
    *My younger brother has had a long term career in organised crime
    *I have no family supports
    *I have never had access to community supports
    *I have been subjected to every kind of abuse (by ALL sides if the debate in Ireland) including having my life deliberately placed in danger at least twice to try and keep me as voiceless as possible.
    *I survived (quick check of the pulse to ensure accuracy).

    Seems to me I match the abolitionist profile of the “millions of abused prostituted women” perfectly…so they can all STFU and go home and talk about criminalising PIV while I find my voice and tell the truth.

    I have been fighting against all forms of criminalisation all my life, because criminalisation endangers women like me and makes our bitterly hard lives even harder.

    I fight Nordic/Swedish/Spoilt Radfem model legislation because not only does it make our bitterly hard lives even harder, but it cuts off our only lifeline, the money we make (usually to pay bills and buy food), too and does not offer anything valid or relevant to replace it, in fact, it doesn’t offer anything that would not be judged abusive, dehumanising and even all out insane if it were subject to examination in terms of the standards usually applied to resources for autonomous adults.

    I also acknowledge the right of all women to choose sex work freely, but that is not as urgent as the needs of women fighting to survive on the margins, and, incredibly, a lot of those sex workers of choice agree with me and put a lot of time and their own resources (something well paid fulfilled people are usually a LOT more reluctant to part with so sex work must be doing them SOME kind of moral good) into fighting for the survival sex workers who can’t afford to stick their heads above the parapet and fight for themselves.

    Amn’t I representative?

    Just cos I is abnormally impartial and objective with autism, and in a gifted IQ range?

    (There are a fair few messages in there for anyone who isn’t rushing to cover ’em up before they catch on and start trending and spoiling the corruption for everybody who depends upon it.)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is brilliance. Who wrote this and why isn’t she being given a larger microphone with a 10,000 Watt Amplifier? I’m not in the business and I am a male. I am very much into Liberal politics and this article was the most succinct and logical article I’ve read since I began to investigate SW politics from the outside. Give this gal a megaphone and a raise.

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  3. This pitting of sex workers against survivors isn’t about empowering survivors. It’s about giving SWERF’s (Sex Worker Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists) and like-minded folks more power. If SWERF’s have a problem with this term, it’s in the same way misogynists oppose to the term sexism. Oppressors often oppose terms that call them out on their oppression, but it doesn’t make their oppressiveness any less real. I have a hard time calling these folk feminists. Feminism needs to be about working toward liberation and stopping oppression, not about being oppressive by pitting marginalized groups against each other and treating sex workers who don’t go along with their agenda like crap.

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    1. Also, it’s disingenuous for SWERF’s to act like they’re the voice of all survivors. In fact, some survivors have denounced the SWERF’s for exploiting their (the survivors’) experiences to promote their (the SWERF’s) own agendas.

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