QotD: “Why we shouldn’t rebrand prostitution as “sex work””

When we talk about “sex work”, we endorse the idea that sex is labour for women and leisure for men – men who have the social and economic power to act as a boss class in the matter of intercourse. And most damningly of all, we accept that women’s bodies exist as a resource to be used by other people.

Really good article from Sarah Ditum in the New Statesman last month, well worth reading in full.

Labels matter intensely when we talk about prostitution. There’s currently a campaign for the Associated Press to remove the word “prostitute” from its 2015 Stylebook. Certainly, its use as a destructive, degrading synonym for “woman” belongs on the banned list. In 1979, detectives hunting the Yorkshire Ripper pointedly described some of the women he killed as “innocent” victims, in contrast to those they labeled “prostitutes”. In an extraordinary personal plea to the Ripper, West Yorkshire Police promised to “continue arresting prostitutes”, implying that they were as one with the serial killer on the righteousness of punishing certain women, even if they did prefer lock and key to hammer and sharpened screwdriver. (Unsurprisingly, this endorsement of his motives did not inspire Sutcliffe to turn himself in, and he killed two more women before he was finally caught.) In 2006, the police in Ipswich pursued another serial killer who targeted women who sold sex, but this time the language used was different: now the victims were not called “prostitutes”, but simply “women”. It was a small shift but an important one. The circumstances of the women’s lives were relevant to the investigation, but they were no longer presented as a justification for their deaths.

Self-described lobbyists for sex workers’ rights want the term “sex worker” installed in the Stylebook; I’m a signatory to an open letter asking for the AP to reject this request. So what’s wrong with saying “sex worker”? For one thing, it’s a deliberately broad term. It covers street walkers and escorts, strippers and phone sex operators, dominatrixes and dildo retailers, as well as their respective managers. Clearly, all these things are not the same, and any theory or legislation that attempts to treat them as identical is liable to founder on the object that not all sex work is like that. “Sex work” is also a studiously gender agnostic phrase: “prostitute” is so ingrained as feminine that it’s necessary to specify “male prostitute” when referring to a man, while “sex worker” suggests a figure who could be male or female. This may be well intended, but it’s misleading: the majority of those in prostitution are women, and those who purchase sex are almost exclusively men. When it comes to prostitution, gender neutrality is a lie.

But as well as being excessively broad, the term “sex work” is over-narrow: it includes much more than selling sex, but it also excludes those who sell or have sold sex and yet don’t recognise themselves as “sex workers”. Daisy is one of them. When I ask her whether she would call herself a sex worker, her response is vehement: “I would not use that phrase. No woman is a ‘sex worker’. It’s not work, it’s abuse.” And the story Daisy tells is impossible to reconcile with the hopeful liberalism that says women can make a rational choice to enter prostitution, or exchange sexual consent for money. As a teenage runaway from her violent parents, she lived a precarious life of petty crime and sofa-surfing. One day, the man she was staying with asked her to have sex with his friend. “He was a ponce,” she says. I ask what the difference is between a pimp and a ponce. The answer comes down to the men’s methods of controlling women: a pimp will use threats, but a ponce exploits emotional vulnerability. “A pimp tells you straight – you’re there to solely make money,” says Daisy. “A ponce tells you they care and love you, but ultimately doing the same thing.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a woman’s account of her own life will be respected by those claiming to listen. When Maya Angelou died in May this year, sex work advocates immediately claimed her as one of their own, despite the fact that she never described herself as a “sex worker”. A piece on Vice conscripted her to the cause of International Whores’ Day, while in an article on Mic, Angelou became the vehicle for a reproach to feminism at large: “When feminism fixates on what other women should and should not be doing – from sex work to marriage, career paths and lifestyle choices – it loses its core mission of equality, diversity and acceptance. It fails its women, and it fails its leaders, such as Maya Angelou.” It’s true that Angelou never indulges in self-condemnation when she recounts her involvement in prostitution in Gather Together in my Name. But equally, no one could read Angelou’s autobiography and not draw some very reasonable conclusions about whether she thinks other women should do as she did. Later, she referred to her time as a pimp and later being pimped herself as “[being] in the very gutter”.


I also like this reply in the comment thread on her own blog
:

I’m impressed that you managed to miss the entire section where I explained why I don’t think sex is comparable to domestic labour, Sunny Dee. Domestic labour is work, whether paid or not. Sex is not work under any conditions other than when a man pays a woman. It stands at odds with our beliefs about consent. As for this:

“If one housekeeper is tricked into service in any household, and can never leave the situation as their passport is withheld and they aren’t let out of the house, do you then start to lobby against all housecleaning, all employers of housecleaners?”

What I think is that any political movement for the rights of domestic staff needs to start from the position that the movement has a responsibility to those who are most harmed, and that employers are a major source of harm. Because the rhetoric of “sex work” explicitly excludes the most harmed, and because part of its politics is a refusal to consider punters as a source of harm (see: Melissa Gira Grant, Laura Agustin), it fails as a labour rights movement.

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3 responses

  1. Why shouldn’t we be against housekeeping?

  2. There’s nothing wrong with being against there being a ‘cleaning class’ (I assume you’re not talking about abolishing cleaning itself!) – I guess it’s about getting there from here, as in, women and children (and men) trapped in prostitution can’t wait until ‘after the revolution’ when everyone takes their turn cleaning the toilets.

  3. Ah, the good old era after the revolution. After the revolution, when we abolish cleaning, we will all live in filth, but we’ll be free from the constraints of housework! FREEDOM!

    But yea I agree, we can’t just hope for a revolution and sit on our hands. (surprisingly I have to argue on that point with a lot of people who do believe precisely that)

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