QotD on listening to sex workers

There’s one guaranteed pro-sex-work response whenever you write something unenthusiastic about prostitution, and that response is: listen to sex workers. It was the dominant theme of critical replies to my review of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: listen to sex workers, then you’ll see how wrong you are.

In some ways it’s a peculiar logic when it comes to sex work – it claims the privileged status of the victim, while pro-sex-work advocates simultaneously insist that sex workers are not victims – but there’s a logic to it that I wouldn’t dispute. The people directly affected by any situation have undeniable insights into their condition, and I want to listen to them. I want to do justice to the people who figure in my politics.

But when I’m told listen to sex workers, the assumption is that “sex workers” as a class adopt a coherent line which I’m obliged to follow. (Again, this is a bit weird because one of the main strands of anti-legislation argument also holds that sex workers are too various to be dealt with under a single framework. Nevertheless, there it is.)

So for example, Gira Grant espouses decriminalisation, and presents that as an aim pertinent to all sex workers – in fact, she argues for total freedom from the state, including no registration and no taxation on income. But in Italy, some sex workers are campaigning for the right to legally register their occupation and to pay tax (doing so would make them eligible for pensions, which is a highly reasonable thing to want). Who to listen to, Gira Grant or the Italian protesters?


Sarah Ditum, continue reading here

3 responses

  1. The thing that’s struck me most about this is that when one is in a miserable, abusive situation, upon which one is financially dependent, there is a tendency for one to try to rationalize it, to say it’s not that bad, to claim agency over one’s life, at least in one’s mind. Because the alternative demands change, which can easily be difficult or impossible without assistance.

  2. Yes, whenever I hear someone say ‘sex workers want xyz’ I always wonder under what circumstances the question was asked.

    Ask a woman working on the street whether she would prefer to be in a brothel and she may well say yes (on the other hand, she may have worked in brothels already, and found it so abusive the streets seem safer), because she’s thinking about how she’s going to get through the next 24 hours.

    Ask the same woman if she would like long term help with drug-addiction, homelessness, lack of education/work skills, physical and mental health issues, she may well say yes to that as well.

    Sex industry advocates/researchers/etc often have nothing more to offer than free cups of coffee, clean needles, condoms, lubricant, and harm reduction ‘advice’ on the best way to be penetrated when you are already in pain from being penetrated multiple times already.

    If the people asking the question aren’t actually offering you any real alternatives, when the tacit statement underlying the question is ‘given that you are going to be in prostitution for the rest of your life’ what else are you going to say?

    Also, given the victim-hating hostility that comes from many sex industry advocates, and even academics – calling victims liars, trying to intimidate and discredit them – what woman would speak up about it if she did feel like a victim?

  3. […] (From a comment I left in yesterday’s thread here) […]

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