‘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

Why we should decriminalise the sex industry

The Centre for Gender Studies at Sussex, which I co-direct with Mark Walters and Tamsin Hinton-Smith, has pledged its support to the English Collective of Prostitutes’ Campaign for sex industry decriminalisation. I am very proud to be part of this group of colleagues – these are leading scholars in gender and related fields with a variety of views on the sex industry itself, who are united in their conviction that decriminalisation is the best way to mitigate violence, health and other risks to sex workers.

Ideological objections to the sex industry, especially from feminists, are far too often channeled into support for policies which make sex workers more unsafe. This includes the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients, which has been shown to be a de facto criminalisation of sex workers that puts them in danger and does not reduce trafficking and prostitution. Sex workers are frequently positioned as feminism’s ‘evil Other’, constructed as dupes of or collaborators with the patriarchy in ways which contribute to stigma against them and can too easily foster a lack of understanding of/respect for the choices people make to survive.

There is no doubt that there are many difficult gender issues in, and related to, the sex industry. However, the evidence shows that criminalisation exacerbates, rather than lessens, industry harms. Furthermore, prioritising debates about how the existence of a sex industry where most workers are women and most clients are men shapes gender and sex for more privileged women is irresponsible while sex workers are at such high risk of sexual and physical violence.

Feminist support for criminalisation policies, including the ‘Nordic Model’, is to me an attempt at social engineering via the police. Attempting to make use of a criminal justice institution which is sexist, racist, violent and corrupt in order to eradicate a whole industry in the name of gender equality, seems misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Furthermore, criminalising the sex industry (which includes criminalising buyers) has been shown to prevent the police from doing positive work, as apprehending clients involves targeting sex workers and takes priority over protecting them from violence.

On a much smaller scale, the negative reactions to our support for the ECP pledge mirror those targeted at Amnesty International over their draft policy supporting decriminalisation. Critics have ignored the important distinctions between decriminalisation and legalisation (the latter is problematic in a number of ways), and have ‘disappeared’ the body and rights of the sex worker within a moral panic discourse around ‘pimps’, ‘Johns’ and ‘mega-brothels’. Many of those opposing the sex industry may have good intentions (albeit often located within ‘rescue’ narratives which are rather patronising), but the tenor of the current discussion does not grant sex workers their humanity, which serves to reinforce the stigma that contributes to making them unsafe.

My view is that even if it was advisable, eradicating the sex industry would probably not be possible, and that attempts to do so have done more harm than good and made life more difficult for some of the most marginalised people in our society, many of them women. I believe in campaigning to eradicate poverty and austerity, not the ways in which people try to survive them. I believe in teaching our children about gender inequalities and demanding comprehensive universal sex education, not blaming the sex industry for men’s violence against women. Some of my colleagues at the Centre for Gender Studies may have different views, but I am glad we have come together to support decriminalisation for safety’s sake.

Read the University’s press release about our support for the ECP campaign here: Centre for Gender Studies backs campaign to decriminalise the sex industry.