The fight against sexual violence

This piece is forthcoming in Soundings (Spring 2019). 

‘Seared into my memory’. This was one of the phrases animating the cover of Time magazine on 15 October 2018. It was taken from Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, quotes from which were arranged into a striking image of her taking the oath. It also reflects how I and many other survivors felt about Dr Ford’s testimony of sexual assault by Justice Kavanaugh, especially when juxtaposed with his statements. In an image circulated widely on social media, Kavanaugh was shown shouting into a microphone during a speech in which he called the process a ‘national disgrace’ and a ‘grotesque and coordinated character assassination’, fuelled by ‘anger about President Trump’ and ‘revenge on behalf of the Clintons’.

Although Kavanaugh was eventually confirmed, Dr Ford’s actions inspired a wave of support across the globe, and prompted comparisons to Professor Anita Hill, whose 1991 testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination hearings put the issue of sexual harassment firmly on the agenda. In her autobiography, Speaking Truth to Power, Hill wrote: ‘To my supporters I represent the courage to come forward and disclose a painful truth – a courage which thousands of others have found since the hearing’ [i].

Gender, violence, and neoliberalism

Hill and Blasey Ford’s testimonies mark early and late stages of the global expansion of neoliberal capitalism, with its production of massive inequalities and insecurities, including ones related to gender. Recently, many countries have been subject to what Sylvia Walby calls a ‘cascading crisis’ [ii]. Recession, following financial crisis, has justified austerity policies that have widened gaps between rich and poor, with women and children bearing the brunt of cuts and women being pushed out of shrinking labour markets. And when inequalities increase, so too do domestic and sexual violence.

Silvia Federici has identified a new ‘war on women’, constituted by rising violence, femicide and attacks on reproductive rights – particularly in countries which are being re-colonised through globalisation [iii]. In the West, although recent history has seen increasing fluidity in individual gender identities, there has also been a reassertion of binary gender in economic, social and cultural terms, as seen in the trends Federici identifies as well as cuts to social welfare systems, discourses of ‘natural’ and ‘intensive’ motherhood, and an intensified focus on women’s appearance.

Economic crisis has also been the context for a global swing to the right, in which marginalised groups have been blamed for scarcity and other problems not of their making. The 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK captured growing (or perhaps increasingly explicit) anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as a backlash against ‘experts’, ‘elites’ and social justice movements (which were often positioned as one and the same). Similar currents underpinned the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, achieved even after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, in a triumph of whiteness over feminist solidarity.

Both events were followed by increases in racist and other hate crimes, and the US has recently been the site of a number of racist and homophobic mass shootings by men radicalised by the far right. This violence is deeply gendered: mass shootings are committed almost exclusively by men, and there is evidence that perpetrators are often domestic abusers as well [iv]. Mass killings in the US and Canada have also been perpetrated by ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates), a key faction in the online ‘manosphere’, who blame women for their lack of access to sex.

Contemporary bigotries are not new: they are a specific cultural expression of the capitalist-colonial nexus, and exist in diluted forms in liberal discourse. However, as the populist and far right has made electoral gains, the extreme has become mainstream. Just as colonialism imposed binary gender as a means of controlling land, production and behaviour, contemporary far right politics blends racism with attacks on feminists and LGBT (especially trans) people.

In 2018, ‘proud homophobe’ Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil: shortly afterwards his allies proposed a bill to end ‘communist indoctrination’ and ‘gender ideology’ in education. Earlier that year, Hungary’s proto-fascist government banned gender studies as part of a broader crackdown on progressive thought. Events such as this are the culmination of a process through which ‘gender ideology’ has been positioned as the enemy within conservative and evangelical circles across the world.

Resistance and backlash

This massive reassertion of masculinity, whiteness and class privilege was exemplified by the aggressive and entitled demeanour of Justice Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings. However, support for Dr Ford was bolstered by a growing resistance: the resurgent right has been met by a younger, more diverse and more radical international left, which is beginning to achieve electoral success. In relation to sexual violence, resistance has taken its most high-profile form in the shape of #MeToo. Originally the title of a movement created by black feminist Tarana Burke in 2006, the #MeToo hashtag went viral after a tweet by white actress Alyssa Milano, eleven years later. It trended in at least 85 countries, with 1.7 million tweets and 12 million Facebook posts in the first six weeks, many of which contained disclosures of sexual violence [v].

#MeToo has reverberated worldwide, through disclosures on online and social media, and actions which link with established campaigns as well as marshalling the newly politicised. It represents a point of connection between liberal feminisms and more intersectional and critical forms, although the movement itself is largely mainstream. Srila Roy has documented how the movement reached India in 2018, a country which had not seen such a surge of mainstream concern with sexual violence since the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012 [vi]. #MeToo has also inspired the Time’s Up organisation in the US, which aims to create safety and equity in the workplace, and a variety of initiatives in other countries. Other projects have been rejuvenated by the movement: in universities, in political institutions, and within radical communities.

As a mainstream and media movement, #MeToo has reshaped contemporary narratives around sexual violence. The variety of disclosures made under the hashtag has allowed for discussion of what Liz Kelly terms a continuum of acts which, although defined as more and less ‘serious’, all have similar functions: to reflect and produce male power [vii]. Sexual violence has been correlated with the ‘everyman’ rather than the ‘bad man’, through a volume of personal stories which show how frequently it is perpetrated and normalised. The movement also galvanised a high-profile (and ongoing) backlash, in which men were seen as victims of a vengeful mob, and it was bemoaned that their everyday entitlements to touch or ‘flirt’ were being threatened.

This tapped broader currents on the right, where bigotry has been framed (or reframed) as freedom of speech, and progressive movements and institutions positioned as its enemy. Such narratives also have more liberal formulations, in which the power relations structuring the ‘marketplace of ideas’ are ignored or erased. ‘Identity politics’ is often the bogeyman here: as a cipher for the resentments of those who feel equality has gotten out of hand, or as the sign of a parochial obsession with difference that threatens Enlightenment ideals. On the right the university is a principal adversary, along with the ‘snowflake’ students it contains; these are targets shared by some academics, many of whom are members of the growing ‘intellectual dark web’ of self-styled mavericks and truth-tellers.

In the yearly ‘Free Speech University Rankings’ published by Spiked, equality and sexual harassment policies can get a university a negative rating. This antipathy to social justice projects is shared by ‘professor against political correctness’ Jordan Peterson, a bestselling author with almost a million Twitter followers. Peterson is vehemently opposed to feminism and ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’, and although he describes himself as a ‘classical liberal’, he is celebrated by the alt-right. He was a prominent supporter of a recent hoax against gender and critical race studies journals, orchestrated by three scholars aiming to expose these disciplines as ideologically-motivated ‘grievance studies’, and to purge universities of such scholarship. Converging with far-right attacks on ‘gender ideology’, interventions such as this cast a long shadow in the neoliberal university, where public opinion is often allowed to dictate value.

Sexual violence in the oppressive imaginary

Within all these trends, narratives about gendered and intersecting inequalities, and movements designed to tackle them, are being recrafted and rejuvenated. Furthermore, even as neoliberalism and neo-imperialism produce increases in women’s victimisation worldwide, the idea of women’s safety is being weaponised by the right. As the Brexit referendum loomed, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage claimed that women could be at risk of sex attacks from gangs of migrant men if Britain remained in the European Union [viii]. Donald Trump made similar comments about Mexican men during his campaign for the US presidency [ix]. In 2018, UKIP appointed far-right anti-Islam ideologue Tommy Robinson as its advisor on ‘grooming gangs’. In debates on ‘bathroom bills’ in the US, and the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, trans women have been situated as potential rapists (see below).

These politics are not novel either: the (white, privileged) rape victim has long been a key motif in ‘law and order’ and anti-immigration agendas in the West, and in the violent suppression of indigenous populations in colonised countries. The figure of the victimised Other (usually a Muslim woman), in need of rescue by ‘Western values’, has underpinned a variety of neo-colonial incursions, including the War on Terror itself. Liberal feminism and liberal imperialism have always been closely intertwined, and liberal feminists have been complicit in both colonial and neo-colonial projects, as well as the legitimation of the carceral state.

However, the current collision of heightened mainstream resistance against sexual violence with an intensified use of the survivor within the oppressive imaginary raises questions which are persistent and urgent, if not new. These concern what Angela Davis calls the ‘intersectionality of struggles’ [x]. As a growing variety of conservatives profess concern for women’s protection, what is the role of contemporary activism against sexual violence? This question is especially pressing because #MeToo and similar campaigns can provide – and have provided – clickbait for the ‘outrage economy’ of the corporate media [xi]. In many countries, far-right narratives are beginning to dominate conservative media outlets; and they also take up increasing amounts of space in liberal ones under the pretext of ‘balanced debate’.

Political whiteness in sexual violence politics

It is not news to report that the most powerful and visible activists in the movement against sexual violence are white and privileged women – women like me, who have benefited from employment opportunities offered by neoliberalism, and who have ready access to corporate media platforms. #MeToo is the latest in a series of sexual violence campaigns in which privileged white women have utilised, but failed to fully recognise, the ground-breaking work of black women and other women of colour.

For example, second-wave white Western feminists built upon, usually without acknowledgement, the foundational labour of anti-rape activists in the US Civil Rights movement. And activism by working-class women, many of them also women of colour, has been crucial in naming and fighting sexual harassment in the workplace. But white academics and lawyers have tended to get the credit. The activism and scholarship of feminists from the global South is rarely credited at all.

As white and privileged women in the West now say ‘time’s up’ to men via corporate media platforms, and as accused men appear in the same media platforms defending themselves, the politics of sexual violence can appear to be a conversation between white people about who is in control. This is what I call ‘political whiteness’, a modus operandi shared by mainstream sexual violence feminisms and the backlashes against them [xii]. I have theorised this partly through building on Gurminder Bhambra’s identification of ‘methodological whiteness’ in academia, which highlights a universalisation of white experience and inattention to structures and histories of race and racism in shaping the world [xiii]. Political whiteness incorporates these elements in its grammar, while its practice tends to emphasise individual injuries and their redress, rather than global revolution.

As #MeToo founder Tarana Burke has consistently pointed out, the movement in the mainstream has focused on bringing down powerful men. Men like Harvey Weinstein, whose arrest was described in Time as a ‘pivotal turning point’ and elicited an outpouring on social media. Or Larry Nassar, who was told by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at sentencing that, if authorised, she would have ‘allow[ed] some or many people to do to him what he did to others’. Aquilina was widely celebrated as a feminist hero and icon of #MeToo [xiv]. However, strengthening punitive technologies will not generally affect men like Weinstein and Nassar. The positioning of the state and institution as protective rather than oppressive is a function of whiteness and other forms of privilege, and remains central to mainstream feminist politics even as the far right takes hold of parliaments in the West and elsewhere.

Mainstream campaigns against sexual violence have also tended to use naming and shaming in the outrage media as a precursor to demanding criminal justice remedies or institutional discipline. This tactic – which frequently prompts defences of perpetrators – often means that the person who is believed is the one who happens to have the ‘better’ (more compelling, more commodifiable) story. As media outlets monetise claims and counterclaims, naming and shaming can also bolster what I call ‘institutional airbrushing’. This is a process by which neoliberal institutions obsessed with how things look rather than how they are merely remove the individual ‘blemish’, while the systemic malaise remains [xv]. Institutional airbrushing produces the ‘pass the harasser’ problem, in which those who ‘move on’ after sexual misconduct allegations simply continue this behaviour in their next job[xvi].

Naming and shaming is often a last resort: to criticise it as a strategy is not a judgment of survivors who feel they have no other option. However, it is not always conducive to collective or systemic solutions. Some activists have suggested that these problems can be solved by more such speech: for instance, by repeatedly naming and shaming individuals in public, or using private ‘whisper networks’ to prevent perpetrators getting another post. However, this is a collective solution for the privileged few. As we purge academia and similar high-status professions of abusive men, we are likely to impose them on our sisters working with fewer protections in other employment sectors.

Feminists and the far right

In a climate of growing fear and insecurity, it is especially incumbent upon us to follow Audre Lorde’s advice and work against the oppressive values we have taken into ourselves [xvii]. Liberal feminisms can be co-opted by, or complicit with, imperialist and carceral state agendas; and there are also more reactionary formulations which can dovetail with the politics of the far right, particularly when it comes to sex work and transgender equality. Viewed empathically, reactionary feminisms can be seen as representing misdirected grief and anger, rooted in sexual trauma. However, an intersectional analysis demands that we examine the forms of supremacy which can lurk within the politics of the oppressed.

In debates about sex workers’ rights, feminist activists often speak on behalf of those who have exited prostitution. The traumatic experiences of these women are situated within arguments for various forms of criminalisation: usually the criminalisation of clients which, because it does not directly target sex workers, is supported on feminist grounds. When sex workers point out that this Nordic Model creates considerable risk – for instance, by reducing their ability to screen clients and by increasing police surveillance – they are often dismissed as ‘happy hookers’ who do not care about other women’s safety [xviii]. The sex worker does not figure as a sister here, but as a handmaiden of the patriarchy, who endangers women as a class because she sells sexual services to men and thereby legitimates male entitlement.

Feminist campaigns against trafficking bolster conservative border policing through the creation of criminal ‘foreigners’ and evocation of ‘white slavery’ fears. They also, as Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue, erase the fact that the criminalisation of undocumented migration has created the market for people-smuggling as well as pushing some migrants into prostitution [xix]. In 2018, US women’s groups joined the religious right in backing the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). Through banning online advertising, these Acts prevent sex workers from using the Internet to organise, share safety information, and screen potential clients. Advocates of FOSTA and SESTA, including feminist hero Kamala Harris, gave support over the objections of many trafficking survivors and their allies, who argued that by stopping sex workers working on their own terms, the Acts would increase vulnerability to exploitation [xx].

Reactionary feminists (who often identify as radical) have also recently been outspoken in their opposition to proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, and in their support for trans-exclusionary ‘bathroom bills’ in the US. There are powerful continuities between this feminist politics and that of the far right: an attachment to biology as destiny and a construction of trans people as a threat. Cisgender women’s experiences of sexual violence perpetrated by cisgender men are shared within narratives in which the trans woman is not a sister but a potential sexual predator. In some formulations, ‘transactivists’ become part of the contemporary war on women, with the rights of trans women to be recognised as women, and to live free of violence and abuse, redefined as men’s rights to enter women’s spaces [xxi].

In 2017, the US Women’s Liberation Front formed a coalition with evangelical and anti-abortion group Focus on the Family, to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom bills and attempts to interpret Title IX of the Education Act (which prohibits sex discrimination in education) to protect trans rights [xxii]. In 2019, the group were hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposes the ratification of CEDAW, efforts to close the gender pay gap, and initiatives to tackle rape on campuses, for a panel against the Equality Act, which seeks to add gender identity and sexual orientation protections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [xxiii]. In the UK, the group Fair Play for Women, which opposes reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, has worked closely with Monmouth MP David Davies, who has consistently voted for stronger restrictions on abortion, for repealing the Human Rights Act, and against gay marriage. Trans-exclusionary feminists have also actively supported attacks on ‘identity politics’, ‘gender ideology’ and in some cases even gender studies, in this instance as a proxy for trans people and their allies [xxiv].

Feminist attacks on gender studies often focus on its supposed domination by postmodernism, which is falsely positioned as denying materiality because of its deconstruction of the body and critical engagement with the binary model of biological sex. This is a target shared by the alt-right, who skewer postmodernism as irrational and relativist even as they articulate their own post-truth politics. Postmodernism is also reviled by members of the ‘intellectual dark web’, including Jordan Peterson, who rose to fame after his opposition to a Canadian bill outlawing gender identity discrimination. The bill curtailed free speech, Peterson argued, by requiring the use of gender-affirming pronouns; and this argument has been echoed by trans-exclusionary feminists [xxv].

White, Western feminists have long been complicit with oppression within the liberal-colonial nexus. They have also found allies on the religious right on previous occasions, for instance in campaigns against pornography in the 1980s. However, the current rightward shift, with its violent reassertion of binary gender, has allowed reactionary feminists to gain power and platforms, and to circulate narratives that tend to be both simplistic and hyperbolic – suiting both the outrage media and the more general contemporary tabloidisation of debate. As their influence grows, there are increasing claims that trans-exclusionary feminists are being silenced: this is also straight from the right-wing playbook, where claims of being silenced flourish in the context of a growing entitlement to speak.

The intersectionality of struggles

The feminist movement against sexual violence is not a monolith, and even in its mainstream forms it contains discontinuities and shifts. For example, some trans-exclusionary feminists have explicitly distanced themselves from connections with the far-right, and some liberal feminists have disavowed reactionary narratives about trans people. There are also differences between the US and the UK in this regard, with trans-exclusionary feminists much more prominent and powerful in the latter country. However, political whiteness provides continuity between both liberal and reactionary feminisms, producing a lack of intersectionality and a centring of concerns with power and control. Furthermore, as with other issues, such as immigration, the ‘legitimate concerns’ of liberal feminists often provide a stalking horse for reactionary views.

Both liberal and reactionary feminisms by and large fail to interrogate the system of racial capitalism that relies upon women’s economic subordination to men in both the family and the workplace, which is a key driver of violent and sexually violent abuses of power. In the West, women have also suffered disproportionately from the rise of the precarious economy, and many women work within male-dominated industries that provide little to no employment protection. And whether securely employed or not, we Westerners are all complicit with the forms of globalised capitalist accumulation that are entwined with violence against women in other parts of the world.

Although some reactionary feminists identify as ‘radical’, both trans- and sex worker-exclusionary politics rest on what Sophie Lewis identifies as the myth that ‘we can and must protect our bodies and selves from commodification and technological contamination, the better to do healthful productive work’. This underlying bourgeois morality, Lewis argues, is often hidden by a vilification of the ‘trans/hooker tyranny’, which is accused of supporting neoliberal and consumerist notions of empowerment (a critique also often directed at young Muslim women who choose to cover). The neoliberal nature of this ‘tyranny’ is evidenced by pointing to pockets of gentrified sex work and the identity politics of privileged white spokespeople such as Caitlyn Jenner – erasing the fact that most sex workers and trans people live impoverished, precarious and difficult lives [xxvi].

Echoing the right-wing fable that there is not enough to go around, these ‘bad’ rape victims are denied empathy and support in favour of the ‘good’ victims (cisgender, non-sex working women). Trans women and sex workers (categories which often overlap) are at disproportionate risk of violence, but are pitted against other women in a politics which does not challenge the neoliberal capitalist order that has created massive inequalities of distribution. Instead of advancing the fight for more secure workplaces and better-funded anti-violence services, this politics reinforces the stigmatisation and alienation of marginalised people.

The success of trans- and sex worker exclusionary politics creates additional risks of violence: for instance, for trans women forced into men’s toilets (or the masculine cis women who are now beginning to be viewed with suspicion in women’s ones), and for sex workers dealing with the effects of criminalisation. To borrow Melissa Gira Grant’s analysis, this is feminism’s own ‘war on women’, where some women are subjected to poverty, violence and prison in the name of defending other women’s rights [xxvii]. The positioning of sex workers and trans people as culprits rather than comrades in relation to the broader right-wing war on women is an insult which facilitates a variety of forms of injury.

#MeToo and the liberal feminist movement against sexual violence, which makes use of the capitalist media, state and institutions to redress individual harms, is not well- placed to tackle the intersections of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism and other frameworks of domination which produce sexual violence. The reactionary arms of this movement not only fail to address this intersectionality of systems, but are also often complicit with the far-right politics it also produces. As the ‘we’ of many Western nations is violently reconstituted as white and privileged, reactionary feminists dwell on their own border anxieties, centring bourgeois and colonial values in their attachment to binary sex and gender and their fear of the sexualised Other.

As resistance against sexual violence shows no signs of abating, right-wing governments might offer settlements to feminist groups. ‘Winning’ on these terms is likely to mean a loss for someone else, within liberal as well as reactionary frameworks. To resist an intersectionality of systems, we need an intersectionality of struggles: for instance, connecting #MeToo with prison abolition; campaigns against workplace sexual misconduct with sex workers’ rights; struggles against reproductive coercion with transgender equality. This is work that many activists, most of them black women and other women of colour, have long been doing at the grassroots;[xxviii] there is also a growing feminist anti-fascist bloc opposing the far-right’s weaponisation of sexual violence.

These activists understand that single-issue politics is not resistance, that feminism which does not centre the most marginalised is not fit for purpose. I end with Audre Lorde’s question, posed in her 1981 keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association conference: ‘What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint on another woman’s face?’[xxix]. Almost forty years later, this question continues to be key to the fight against sexual violence.

References

[i] Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power, Anchor Books 1997.
[ii] Sylvia Walby, Crisis, Polity Press 2015.
[iii] Silvia Federici, Witches, Witch-hunting and Women, PM Press 2018.
[iv] Charlotte Alter, ‘The troubling link between domestic violence and mass shooters’, Time magazine November 9 2017.
[v] Alison Phipps, “Every woman knows a Weinstein’: political whiteness in #MeToo and public feminisms around sexual violence,’ under review by Feminist Formations 2018.
[vi] Srila Roy, ‘#MeToo is a crucial moment to revisit the history of Indian feminism’, Economic & Political Weekly 53(42), 2018.
[vii] Liz Kelly, Surviving Sexual Violence, Polity Press 1988.
[viii] Tim Ross, ‘Nigel Farage: Migrants could pose sex attack threat to Britain’, The Telegraph June 4 2016.
[ix] BBC News, “Drug dealers, criminals, rapists’: what Trump really thinks of Mexicans’, August 31 2016.
[x] Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, Haymarket Books 2016.
[xi] Alison Phipps, ‘Reckoning Up: sexual harassment and violence in the neoliberal university. Gender and Education DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2018.1482413, 2018.
[xii] Alison Phipps, ‘Every woman knows a Weinstein.’ I did not originally intend to become a white woman writing about whiteness, and I realise this does not absolve me of my own positionality. However, I also believe that the labour of challenging whiteness should not be left to people of colour.
[xiii] Gurminder K Bhambra, ‘Brexit, Trump, and “methodological whiteness”: on the misrecognition of race and class,’ British Journal of Sociology 68(S1): S214-S232, 2017.
[xiv] Lauren Holter, ‘Tweets about Judge Aquilina will make you fangirl so hard,’ Bustle January 24 2018.
[xv] Alison Phipps, ‘Reckoning Up.’
[xvi] Nancy Chi Cantalupo and William C. Kidder, ‘A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty,’ Utah Law Review 2018: 671-786
[xvii] Audre Lorde, ‘Learning from the 60s’, address delivered February 1982 at Harvard University.
[xviii] Alison Phipps, ‘Whose Personal is More Political? Experience in contemporary feminist politics’, Feminist Theory 17(3): 303-321, 2016.
[xix] Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: the fight for sex workers’ rights, Verso 2018.
[xx] Melissa Gira Grant, ‘Anti-online trafficking bills advance in Congress, despite opposition from survivors themselves’, The Appeal March 14 2018. In the US, trafficking is defined as ‘recruiting, harbouring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labour or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion’, and does not require movement.
[xxi] Alison Phipps, ‘Whose Personal is More Political?’
[xxii] Nick Duffy, ‘Radical feminists team up with right-wing evangelicals to oppose trans rights protections’, Pink News, February 8 2017.
[xxiii] Tim Fitzsimons, ‘Conservative group hosts anti-transgender panel of feminists “from the left”, NBC News, January 29 2019.
[xxiv] Jules Joanna Gleeson, ‘Trans Ethics, Not Gender Ideology: Against the Church and the Gender Critics,’ Verso Books blog, June 27 2018.
[xxv] Sally Hines, ‘The feminist frontier: on trans and feminism,’ Journal of Gender Studies DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2017.1411791, 2017.
[xxvi] Sophie Lewis, ‘SERF ‘n’ TERF: notes on some bad materialisms’, Salvage February 6 2017.
[xxvii] Melissa Gira Grant, ‘The war on sex workers’, Reason January 21 2013.
[xxviii] Mariame Kaba is a key figure working in the spaces between prison abolition and the eradication of sexual violence: see http://mariamekaba.com/ for more information.
[xxix] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: essays and speeches, pp133-4, Crossing Press, 2007.

Tanya Serisier’s ‘Speaking Out’

These are some remarks written for the launch of Tanya Serisier’s brilliant new book ‘Speaking Out: Feminism, Rape, and Narrative Politics’ (Palgrave 2018). You can buy the book, or order it for your library, here.  

Tanya Serisier’s book Speaking Out is the first critical study of white feminist politics around rape which explicitly situates this politics as a narrative form. It analyses narratives from the second wave and after as part of a testimonial genre which has specific plots, characters and themes. The book resists equating ’speaking out’ with justice, freedom or feminism, noting that although there has been a flowering of this type of activism this has not necessarily led to social change. Instead, Serisier constructs a more nuanced interpretation in which women’s narratives are both powerful and necessary, and located within competing discourses and agendas. One of those discourses is feminism, and the book is excellent in its understanding of different forms of feminism as devices for the production, dissemination and regulation of women’s narratives. White feminist narrative politics is also positioned within the broader discourses and structures of liberalism, racial capitalism and criminal justice, and the neoliberal morality of personal transformation.

Speaking Out makes a key intervention into the current political and cultural context. This context incorporates an increased volume of sexual violence narratives, circulating through the networked web of survivors created by #MeToo and allied movements, and given authority within the ‘intimate publics’ of social media and ‘testimonial cultures’ of neoliberalism. It also involves a strengthening of the backlash, bolstered by political shifts to the right and the neoliberal politics of personal responsibility, which often attempts to cast doubt on the veracity of sexual violence narratives or dismiss women’s experiences of trauma. In a context in which we can either attack victims or defend them, repudiate the wound or embrace it, it can be tempting to sanctify our stories. This is both understandable and dangerous.

Sexual violence interventions are inherently racialised: fear of rape is simultaneously fear of male power and the uprising of colonised or enslaved peoples, or the ‘invasion’ of immigrant communities. White women’s rape narratives (as well as their rescue fantasies about ‘victimised Others’ such as Muslim women) have been used in the service of colonial oppressions, neo-imperialist interventions, and carceral state violence. Currently, the right are renewing the use of ‘women’s safety’ to justify the violence of borders and the police, and to strip rights and safety from social Others such as trans women and sex workers. As politics moves further to the right it is imperative that feminists engage critically with their narratives and activism around sexual violence, especially since some strands of white feminism (which have their own will to power) are actively and increasingly allied with reactionary agendas.

Critiquing sexual violence feminisms is difficult: I constantly struggle to blend my instinct – and commitment – to believe all survivors with my knowledge that sexual violence narratives are not politically neutral. The affective intensity of survivor stories can also act to insulate the surrounding politics from critique, playing experience as the trump card. However, emotion is not the ‘pure’ counterpart of politics: our emotional repertoires are both discursively and structurally shaped and interpreted. Serisier’s book helps us to explore how racialised tropes around victimisation and predation, criminal justice grammars, fables of community and nation and geopolitical archetypes are among the influences on our interior lives as well as on how our sexual violence stories are heard.

The notion of genre in Serisier’s book is incredibly useful, helping readers to understand how sexual violence narratives are both produced and received according to particular conventions and rules, and how they can be caught up in other stories such as those around nation, security, austerity and risk. This creates opportunities for political weaponisation, which survivors can resist or be passively or actively complicit in. Serisier opens up a constructive space for us to explore these dynamics, adopting a critical approach to ideas of authenticity and truth and engaging seriously with claims and counter-claims, without undermining how deeply experiences are felt or withholding belief. This is one of the most incisive, but also one of the kindest, books on sexual violence I have read, and Tanya Serisier is one of the most important young feminists writing about sexual violence today. Speaking Out deserves to be read widely, by all who are interested in this topic.

Why the ‘Nordic Model’ sucks (with references)

One aim of the recent Home Affairs Committee Prostitution Inquiry seems pretty clear. The first question contributors were asked to answer is ‘whether criminal sanction in relation to prostitution should continue to fall more heavily on those who sell sex, rather than those who buy it’. This leading formulation offers a choice between two modes of criminalisation rather than asking about all possible legal models, and situates the criminalisation of sex workers and their clients as separable when in reality they are not. There are numerous negative consequences of the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ criminalising sex workers’ clients in an effort to ‘end demand’ for sexual services. Research from countries where ‘end demand’ frameworks have been enacted (including research by government agencies) has clearly shown that criminalising sex workers’ clients is a de facto criminalisation of the sex worker and creates a number of additional risks, especially for sex workers who are already marginalised.

Here is an indicative (but not exhaustive) list: if you want to find out more about this issue, do follow up some of the references. There are also some excellent briefing papers which include research references and testimony from sex workers affected by these laws, for instance by SCOT-PEP and the Sex Worker Open University.

Under the ‘Nordic Model’:

  1. Sex workers can experience greater harassment due to the policing of clients on the street (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004).
  2. Stigma against sex workers increases, which puts them at risk of violence from clients and community retribution (this stigma has been explicitly positioned as a positive effect of the Swedish legislation, since it is thought it will deter people from entering the sex industry – see Skarhed 2010).
  3. Sex workers can be displaced to outlying areas or more secluded times, for client protection, which creates additional risk (Hester and Westmarland 2004, Crago 2008, Kinnell 2008, Krüsi et al 2014, Lyon 2014).
  4. There is increased competition between those selling sex on the street, due to a reduction in those willing to buy publicly (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, Levy and Jacobsson 2014), and this can lead to a depression in wages (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  5. Higher risk services (such as unprotected sex) are often offered due to lack of client choice, less bargaining power, and needing to negotiate more quickly with clients who may fear arrest (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Hester and Westmarland 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, Krüsi et al 2014, Levy and Jacobsson 2014, Lyon 2014, Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014).
  6. Some sex workers may engage in theft to make up for lost earnings (Levy and Jacobsson 2014), and are thereby criminalised by other means.
  7. Clients become less willing to give sex workers their contact details, which is an important safety measure (Levy and Jacobsson 2014), or insist on ‘outcalls’ rather than services being provided in venues familiar to the sex worker (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014, ScotPEP 2015).
  8. There are often prohibitions on sex workers working together, which is another key safety strategy, or on ‘benefiting from the proceeds’ of prostitution; this latter can criminalise sex workers’ partners or prevent sex workers from cohabiting with them (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  9. Sex workers can become more reliant on potentially exploitative managers and third parties due to clients being less willing to negotiate the purchase of sex directly (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, ScotPEP 2015).
  10. Criminalisation deters clients who do not wish to commit a crime, but is less likely to deter clients who intend to abuse sex workers. Criminalising clients is likely to increase the proportion who are aggressive or dangerous, especially those who are purchasing sex on the street (UNAIDS 2009, ScotPEP 2015).
  11. There are effects on the provision of services, with sex workers having to conform to the narrative of the disempowered victim in order to access support (Danna 2012, Levy and Jacobsson 2014) and an increased belief that safety and rights are contingent on exiting the industry (Scoular and Carline 2014). Swedish support services do not operate with a ‘harm reduction’ model, which means that condoms are infrequently distributed or their distribution is even opposed as it is thought to ‘encourage’ prostitution (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  12. There are effects on relations with police, with sex workers reluctant to report dangerous or violent clients due to concerns over a loss of their livelihood (Krüsi et al 2014, Amnesty International 2015) and evidence that police are conducting surveillance and searches on sex workers and engaging in practices such as confiscating condoms for evidence, which create additional risks of HIV and other STIs (Kulick 2003, Krüsi et al 2014).
  13. In both Sweden and Norway, these laws have provided cover for practices such as the removal of sex workers’ children and deportation of migrant sex workers (Kulick 2003, Amnesty International 2015, ScotPEP 2015).
  14. Sex workers face being reported to hotels or evicted from housing, as it is illegal to provide premises where sex work will take place (Levy and Jacobsson 2014). An Oslo police operation entitled ‘Operation Homeless’ involved police posing as clients to discover sex workers’ addresses, and threatening landlords with criminal sanction if they did not evict them. Once someone is listed as an evicted sex worker, it is very difficult to find new housing (Ulla Bjørndahl Oslo 2012).
  15. Negative relations between sex workers and the authorities means that they are less likely to reach out when they witness trafficking, abuse and exploitative working (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004).

A Norwegian government report on the Swedish sex purchase law found that it had created a ‘buyers’ market’ and that violence against sex workers had increased (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014). Furthermore, Levy and Jakobsson (2014) argue that there is no reliable evidence to support the claim that the Swedish sex purchase law (sexköpslagen) has created a reduction in prostitution. There is some evidence of a reduction in street prostitution but no reliable evidence to confirm that this has not been displaced into indoor markets – in fact there is evidence that this has indeed occurred (see Chu and Glass 2013-14).

The premise of ‘end demand’ approaches is that men’s demand for sex is responsible for the existence of the industry. However, this conceals the economic conditions which lead many people to sell sex in order to survive. Attempts to eradicate the sex industry via the criminal law will only create risk and harm for sex workers, without any reduction in the sale of sex, if the context of poverty and austerity economics remains unaddressed. As Sex Worker Open University have stated, the provision of state benefits, education, training and alternative employment opportunities, rather than ‘ending demand’, is the key to reducing the number of people selling sex. In a context of high unemployment, benefit cuts and sanctions, depressed wages and increased homelessness and debt, it is irresponsible to consider any model of sex industry regulation which would make it more difficult for marginalised people to survive. In other words, the ‘Nordic Model’ officially sucks.

References 

Abel et al (2007) The impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the health and safety practices of sex workers: report to the Prostitution Law Review Committee. Health Research Council and Ministry of Justice, New Zealand.

Amnesty International (2015) 2015 ICM circular: Draft policy on Sex Work

Crago, A L (2008), Our Lives Matter: Sex Workers Unite for Health and Rights. New York: Open Society Foundation

Danna, D (2012) ‘Client-Only Criminalization in the City of Stockholm: A Local Research on the Application of the “Swedish Model” of Prostitution Policy’, in Sexuality Research and Social Policy 9(1), 80-93

Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (2011) Moving Beyond ‘Supply and Demand’ catchphrases: assessing the uses and limitations of demand-based approaches in anti-trafficking

Hester, M and Westmarland, N (2004) Tackling Street Prostitution: towards an holistic approach (Home Office Research Study 279)

Jordan, J (2005) Sex Industry in New Zealand: A Literature Review. Sponsored by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice, Wellington

Chu, S K H and Glass, R (2013-14) ‘Sex Work Law Reform in Canada: considering problems with the ‘Nordic Model’, in Alberta Law Review 51, 101-124

Kinnell, H (2008) Violence and Sex Work in Britain. Devon: Willan Publishing

Krüsi, A et al (2014) ‘Criminalisation of clients: reproducing vulnerabilities for violence and poor health among street-based sex workers in Canada-a qualitative study’, in BMJ Open 2014; 4:e005191. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005191

Kulick, D (2003) ‘Sex in the New Europe: The Criminalization of Clients and Swedish Fear of Penetration’, in Anthropological Theory 3(2), 199–218

Levy, J and Jakobsson, P (2014) ‘Sweden’s abolitionist discourse and law: Effects on the dynamics of Swedish sex work and on the lives of Sweden’s sex workers’, in Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(5), 593–607

Lyon, W (2014) ‘Client criminalisation and sex workers’ right to health’, in Hibernian Law Journal 58

Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs (2004) Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands

Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security (2014) Evaluation of Norwegian legislation criminalising the buying of sexual services (English summary)

O’Connell Davidson, J (2003) ‘Sleeping with the enemy? Some problems with feminist abolitionist calls to penalise those who buy commercial sex’, in Social Policy and Society 2(1), 55-63

Schulze, E et al (2014) Sexual Exploitation and Prostitution and its Impact on Gender Equality. Briefing paper for the European Commission Directorate General for Internal Policies

ScotPEP (2015) The Swedish Model: a briefing. Available at http://www.scot-pep.org.uk/sites/default/files/reports/the_swedish_model_full.pdf

Scoular, J and Carline A (2014) ‘A critical account of a “creeping neo-abolitionism”: Regulating prostitution in England and Wales’, in Criminology and Criminal Justice 14(5), 608-626

Skarhed, A (2010) Selected extracts of the Swedish government report SOU 2010:49: The Ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services: An evaluation 1999-2008. Stockholm: Swedish Institute

Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (2007) Prostitution in Sweden 2007

Ulla Bjørndahl Oslo (2012) Dangerous Liaisons: A report on the violence women in prostitution in Oslo are exposed to. Commissioned by the Municipality of Oslo, with support from the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety

UNAIDS (2009, 2012) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work

UNDP (2012) HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights, and Health. Final report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law

UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS (2012) Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific

World Health Organisation (2012) Prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections for sex workers in low- and middle-income countries: Recommendations for a public health approach

World Health Organisation (2013) Implementing Comprehensive HIV/STI Programmes with Sex Workers: practical approaches from collaborative interventions

Why sex workers should be part of sexual violence campaigns

CN: some of the articles this piece links to contain extremely offensive ideas about sex workers.

I have been asked a number of times how my work around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in higher education corresponds to my support of sex industry decriminalisation. The implication, which elicits arguments commonly made by abolitionist feminists, is often that the two are contradictory, that in supporting workers in the sex industry I am tacitly condoning the objectification of women and male sexual entitlement which feeds misogyny and violence. This may sound like good feminist common sense. However, I see it as a facile interpretation of both the causes of violence against women and what it means to support sex workers’ labour rights. This is problematic on a number of levels, not least because it betrays an exclusion from feminist anti-violence campaigning of some of the most vulnerable women in our society, whose primary demand is to be able to work in safety.

The conversations I have had about this echo the ways in which concerns around ‘lad culture’ have been linked to prevailing moral panics about pornography and commercial sex (as well as drugs and alcohol, and the opening up of higher education to the working classes). The argument from pornography, also made about violence in schools, draws on the historical association between feminist anti-violence work and sex industry abolitionist agendas, a connection which persists in initiatives such as No More Page 3 and Object. Such groups have been prominent in opposing misogynist and laddish representations of women, and position the sex industry as both a cause of sexism and violence against women, and a form of violence in itself. Object campaigns have sometimes involved protesting outside sex working venues, which has been experienced as intimidating and judgmental by the sex workers employed by them.

Of course, there are valid conversations to be had about gendered structures of sexual labour, discrimination and violence in the sex industry, and misogynistic representations in pornography and how these relate to young people’s sexual expectations and experiences – many of these are being had by sex workers themselves. However, contemporary mainstream feminist politics in this area is often simplistic and determinist, substituting symptom with cause (in the absence of any convincing evidence) and failing to appreciate the diversity and complexity of commercial sex markets. It also downplays the broader social structures and power relations of gender (which are reflected in, not created by, the sex industry), as well as other structural conditions such as neoliberalism, HE marketisation and austerity (which, I have argued, shape contemporary ‘lad culture’ in its various forms). This produces a monocausal, and frequently censorious and punitive, politics. Campaigns resulting from these frameworks often focus on futile attempts to ban particular representations and sexual practices (or indeed, the sex industry itself), instead of focusing on the multiple intersecting social conditions which give rise to sexism and men’s violence against women, and trying to develop or enact alternatives.

Such discourses also often position sex workers as the problem, as dupes of or collaborators with the patriarchy who incite the objectification of non-sex working women by selling sex as a service (and more often than not, who deserve the violence they get). In these interpretations, the humanity of sex workers completely disappears. They become rhetorical objects in agendas around ending ‘male violence’, while the motivations, attitudes and actions of clients, the symbolic meanings of commercial sex, and the safety of other, more privileged women in relation to these, take precedence. The only sex workers who warrant support are those who want to be rescued (the ‘good’ sex workers – which reinforces the idea that the ‘bad’ ones should be punished). This leads to a complete lack of validation, protection and care for people of all genders working in the sex industry who experience violence. Indeed, feminist campaigns for criminalisation, supported by many anti-violence groups, often appear content to sacrifice sex workers’ wellbeing in the service of their ideological priorities, and the interpretation of sexual labour as violence in itself (in tandem with the idea that sex workers sell themselves rather than selling a service) can produce the horrendous myth that sex workers cannot be raped.

In our work on ‘lad culture’ and violence against women students we need to ensure that we are not playing in to such exclusionary agendas. Especially because it is possible that student sex workers may be particularly vulnerable to problematic masculine behaviours – we already know that ‘lad culture’ incorporates hostility to women who express sexual agency, and a strong element of slut-shaming. While not subscribing to unhelpful characterisations of sex work as a form of personal sexual empowerment, there are clear relationships between this and anti-sex worker prejudice (or whorephobia) due to the connotations attached to commercial sex and the idea of the sex worker as somehow ‘fair game’ when other women are not. There have also been suggestions that in some laddish communities, the act of paying for sex is seen as ‘a bit of a laugh’ – if true, this may reflect or produce a lack of respect for women who provide sexual services. Finally, it is possible that strippers and erotic dancers in towns and cities with significant student populations may regularly be required to negotiate aggressive masculinities performed by large groups of ‘lads’.

Many sex workers are at high risk of violence, from clients, members of communities which stigmatise them, and the police. An increasing number of students work in the sex industry, and they are not being adequately supported by their universities. In fact, in a process which mirrors dynamics within feminism, these student sex workers are seen as bringing their institutions into disrepute. It would indeed be sad and shameful if campaigns around ‘lad culture’ failed to pay attention to their needs (or worse, constructed them as adversaries as well). Furthermore, if such campaigns conceptualise the sex industry as in itself a form of ‘male violence’, they will obscure violence against sex workers and could end up sidelining and oppressing some of our most vulnerable students.

Of course, tackling ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence means challenging men’s sexual entitlement – but we must do this without suggesting that sex workers are responsible for it. This argument is a particularly pernicious form of victim-blaming which lacks any analytical utility, merely demonising women who are trying to get by, like the rest of us, in a patriarchal society. We need to collaborate more closely with sex worker-led organisations on issues around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence, to conduct focused research into sex workers’ experiences of sexism and violence, and to improve their access to support. Above all, we need to make sure our work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence does not position sex workers as the enemy and throw them under the bus. This is not the kind of anti-violence feminism I want to articulate – and it is not fit for purpose.

‘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.

‘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