As I briefly mentioned earlier, yesterday was International Sex Workers Rights Day. I missed it; I didn’t know that it was going on until I’d already posted for the day, and I just didn’t have the time for a second post. So I planned to write about it today instead. I felt slightly guilty about that, but now that I’m well aware that the issue didn’t get nearly as much coverage as it should have, I feel really guilty. I tell you this not only by way of explanation, but also to say that if you blog, I know it’s easy to miss things and to not blog about something when you should. And it’s not too late to make it right.

That being said, to those who purposely avoided blogging on the topic, I understand why. Talking about sex work causes fighting, and not the feminist vs. troll kind, but the feminist vs. feminist kind. Positioning yourself in that argument isn’t a fun thing to do, particularly if you think that each side has at least a couple of good points, and it’s easy to avoid the question all together (this is of course, what we call “privilege”). But that doesn’t make avoiding it right. I’m fine with everyone voicing their opinions, but I do want to let everyone know up front that I will not allow things to get ugly, personal or insulting. And while I’m not going to insist that everyone post from a pro-decriminalization standpoint, I do insist that comments come from a perspective that promotes rights for sex workers — however you believe that those rights are best obtained. I’ve never had to ban a feminist before, or even ask one to stop posting; please don’t make me start today.

So. Why sex workers’ rights? Well, it’s pretty simple. Even those sex workers who enjoy their jobs get a hell of a raw deal. All around the world, sex workers are: investigated and arrested for making a living, deported even when there is evidence of non-consent, left without any form of job security, gang-raped and abused by their bosses but left without recourse for fear that they themselves will be arrested, and arrested for mere suspicion of prostitution, including carrying condoms (which only discourages safer sex).

We know that bad things happen to sex workers, that they are very often raped, abused, robbed, kidnapped or even murdered. But that isn’t even the worst of it — sex workers have horrible crimes committed against them but fear arrest too much to report, or do report and end up being mocked or further-victimized. Sex workers are raped by police officers. Sex workers are tortured and killed in cold blood, but their murderers may only be sentenced to 9 years in jail. Sex workers are murdered and then have their entire humanity reduced to their profession.

In the off chance that a case involving a crime against a sex worker actually makes it to court, we can expect that their profession will be trotted out and used against them at every possible chance. When there is little or no evidence that a woman is a sex worker, she’ll often be called one anyway (particularly if she’s a woman of color, trans* or low-income) — as an insult, as a way to call victims liars or suggest that they deserved the rape, or as a way to call victims liars and imply that they just might have deserved that attempted murder. In cases where the victim openly says that yes, she sells sex for a living, the gang rape she suffered at gunpoint by five men will be labeled “theft of services.” Not a suggestion that she’s lying — only a flat-out proclamation that a woman who works in the sex industry has given up any and all claims to personal bodily autonomy and the right to live safely and free of violence. Judges declare in courtrooms that sex workers cannot be raped, and then they are allowed to stay on the bench.

All of those cases I just mentioned are ones that I’ve personally blogged about. But here’s a newbie. A man accused of murdering a prostitute made this declaration about how one could not prove that he had committed the crime:

“Think of it as stolen property,” Svekla told his sister of the body left in her truck in May 2006.

“If you’re caught with stolen property, it doesn’t mean you stole it.”

Yup — a dead sex worker’s body is akin to stolen property. This is precisely what I’ve been getting at. The stigma against sex workers not only puts them in danger, forces them to live below the radar and makes reporting a crime next to impossible. The stigma against sex workers causes them to no longer be seen as human. Clearly, this guy is a murderer and a twisted fuck. I can’t say that the words that come out of his mouth are ones I would normally use to make a point about our society. But read the stories above, and then tell me that this is not only a more frank expression of those same attitudes. Because it is.

I don’t pretend that I have anything particularly original or insightful to say about sex worker rights, though I wish that I did. But I do know this for sure, and would like to believe that it goes without saying: women who work in the sex industry are women, too. They are punished and discriminated against for their status as women in the world. As feminists (who are not in the sex industry), we cannot ignore them either by refusing to discuss the issue or by discussing it without their input. In fact, as they are one of the most oppressed classes of women in the world, those of us who are feminists because we believe in social justice have an extra duty to not turn a blind eye.

For more about sex worker rights: a post by Jill at Feministe, more on Tamara Greene from BFP, a thought-provoking article at AlterNet about migrant sex workers (which has me for the first page but totally loses me on the second), a post from Ren about less dramatic but still very real discrimination against sex workers — and how it makes leaving the sex industry nearly impossible for a woman who wants to — and the SWOP East blog, which compiles links about sex worker issues on a daily basis. Got more? Leave them in the comments (so long as they meet the above requirements).

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{ 26 comments }

1 cherylp March 4, 2008 at 10:51 pm

Thanks for posting on this. I was in the training process to be a volunteer at my local rape crisis center and I had to quit once I found out they had an organizational policy of criminalization. I can see their points in some ways (this is a strongly feminist organization, highlighting the divide you mention) – I just felt like they were promoting criminalizing the work of the very women in most need of the service they provide. Not wanting to be a part of that, thanks.

2 RenegadeEvolution March 4, 2008 at 11:09 pm

Late is okay, thank you for posting on the topic.

3 John Spragge March 5, 2008 at 6:00 am

I thought about this, and the ghastly way society ascribes the status of prostitute to a certain class of women and girls. And I thought about the horrific impact this has had on First Nations women (see Stolen Sisters. And the phrase formed in my mind, “how many dead women does it take?”

Today I also read the news that the American scholar who has written about the relation of these attitudes to the history of racism and genocide against First Nations people just did not get tenure at the University of Michigan.

4 Betty Boondoggle March 5, 2008 at 11:18 am

This awful stigma against sex workers has got to be, I think, (at least part of) the reason that men arrested for frequenting an illegal brothel are not arrested for rape, but for buying sex.

5 Kristen March 5, 2008 at 12:32 pm

The issue for me, at least, is one of trust. Do I trust women to make their own decisions? Regardless of whether I think that decision is “wise” or “smart” or “moral” (ed. I don’t like the word “moral”). To me to say a woman cannot “choose” sex work of her own free will is the equivalent of saying that a woman cannot “choose” an abortion of her own free will. In both instances you are saying “I know what is best for you.” In reality…I don’t know what is best for any other person on earth.

I recognize that some people (men, women, children) are coerced – physically or economically – into sex work. This is clearly rape. No question it has got to stop. I do what I can to help in terms of donating to organizations that provide services to sex workers. I think – but have no evidence – that regulation might decrease the physical coercion and provide coerced sex workers with some legal recourse. But criminalized prostitution has done absolutely nothing to to stop this coercion.

6 Betty Boondoggle March 5, 2008 at 12:53 pm

“To me to say a woman cannot “choose” sex work of her own free will is the equivalent of saying that a woman cannot “choose” an abortion of her own free will.”

Who said this? I mean, has someone said this in response to the question of how to make the work safer for those who do chose it?

That seems both anti-feminist and flat out mean to me.

7 Cara March 5, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Betty, do you mean “has somone (a feminist) said that a woman cannot choose sex work?” If so, yes. Which is where a big part of the bitter feminist divide comes from.

8 Betty Boondoggle March 5, 2008 at 2:32 pm

“If so, yes. Which is where a big part of the bitter feminist divide comes from.”

Oy. I admit I’m not a fan of the idea, and would certainly prefer that to not be a choice anyone would make, I fail to see how telling someone they can’t make that choice helps in any capacity.

Well, unless that someone is trying to say that chosing sex work is a feminist choice, because that is a stance that would be hard to convince me with.

9 Cara March 5, 2008 at 2:40 pm

I mostly agree with you on all of those points. (Though I don’t think that “making a feminist choice” is synonomous with “being a feminist,” or vice versa. I don’t know what your stance on that is, but I wanted to clarify mine.)

The argument goes that all women in the sex industry are trafficked, drug addicted, abused and definitely would not work in the industry if they had other options. And while one or more of these things is true for far too many women in the sex industry (far too many women in general!), I think that conflating women who willingly do sex work with those who do not is absolutely counter-intuitive to helping the women who are in the worst situations.

10 Kristen March 5, 2008 at 2:53 pm

“I fail to see how telling someone they can’t make that choice helps in any capacity.”

I apologize for not being clear. Many feminist argue that people cannot choose sex work, in the sense that they are coerced either physically, economically or socially (by the patriarchy) even if the sex workers themselves say its what they want to do. Their point (and its not an unfair one) is that we are all on some level coerced in to assuming roles that the patriarchy has created for us (think 1950s housewife).

Further, that he role of sex worker is so intrinsically demeaning that no one would choose to do it if not coerced. Thus their conclusion is that the sex workers who “say” they like or prefer their jobs to another career are wrong and are essentially brainwashed into believing it.

I don’t disagree with the initial premise…it’s the second premise that gives me some pause. I would find it demeaning…but I’m not representative of the universe.

11 Betty Boondoggle March 5, 2008 at 3:28 pm

“(Though I don’t think that “making a feminist choice” is synonomous with “being a feminist,” or vice versa. I don’t know what your stance on that is, but I wanted to clarify mine.)

I agree. As Kristen mentions, we all – feminists included – make choises that are not “feminist choices”. But one would be hard pressed to convince me that sex work is a feminist choice given that it exists pretty much for the pleasure and leisure of men.

__

“Further, that he role of sex worker is so intrinsically demeaning that no one would choose to do it if not coerced. Thus their conclusion is that the sex workers who “say” they like or prefer their jobs to another career are wrong and are essentially brainwashed into believing it.”

I used to be a cop. I’ve met and talked to more sex workers than your average bear and seen far more of the horrors done to them than I care to remember.

Brainwashing does occur. There are women who do believe they are worthless as anything other than holes to be penetrated for money.

But, I’ve also met a few women who did actually like to job. Or at least, didn’t actively hate it.

To pain the entire group of sex workers with the same brush seems no different to me than those who say all feminists are hairy legged man-hating lesbians.

So basically I agree with this:

“I think that conflating women who willingly do sex work with those who do not is absolutely counter-intuitive to helping the women who are in the worst situations.”

12 Betty Boondoggle March 5, 2008 at 3:29 pm

“like to job”

like the job

13 Kristen March 5, 2008 at 5:30 pm

“Brainwashing does occur. There are women who do believe they are worthless as anything other than holes to be penetrated for money”

Agreed. My disagreement is not with the possibility but rather with the absolute. If I were to guess, I would guess that the large majority of people involved in the sex business are to some extent “brainwashed” (although I hate to use that term because it encompasses so many different levels of something that we all experience to some degree, but I don’t have a better word). That’s why its critical to have resources that hopefully help sex workers and reduce the stigma that continues to devalue and dehumanize them.

14 Feminist Avatar March 5, 2008 at 6:20 pm

I don’t really know how to articulate this, but I think that there is probably a link between (earlier posts discussion) that many women don’t classify some non-consensual sex acts as rape and the inability of the feminist movement to be able to decide whether prostitution can be a choice. I think that we, as a society, don’t really know how to separate ‘healthy’ sex from ‘unhealthy’ sex, which leads to the Dworkin ‘all sex is rape’ and also ‘all sex is liberating’. I think we can’t understand how the same behaviour can be either good or bad depending on the context, and this gets especially confusing when we want to legislate on these issues as the law wants right or wrong, not depending on the circumstances (especially when those circumstances are perhaps not viewable by individuals who can’t see the context). Perhaps, we are so trained to see things in dichotomies that we struggle to think about these complex issues that are probably more of a spectrum.

I am sorry if this isn’t very clear, but it is an issue that I have been struggling with lately.

15 Amber March 5, 2008 at 11:11 pm

Further, that he role of sex worker is so intrinsically demeaning that no one would choose to do it if not coerced.

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a feminist say that… I’d be a rich lady.

NO. Just fucking NO. Take your “intrinsically demeaning” and shove it. Do NOT presume to speak for me or anyone other than yourself.

And yes, I am pissed and being confrontational. I’ve just heard this WAY too many times to have ANY shred of patience left for it.

16 Cara March 5, 2008 at 11:26 pm

Amber, I don’t know if the anger was expressed at Kristen or the argument itself, but I’m almost positive that Kristen was not espousing that view herself but explaining how that particular argument would go. I just wanted to make sure that we’re all on the same page.

17 Amber March 6, 2008 at 8:29 am

At the argument.

18 Betty Boondoggle March 6, 2008 at 10:10 am

“which leads to the Dworkin ‘all sex is rape’ ”

Good thing she didn’t say that, then.

__

I have met a few women that said they liked their jobs (as strippers, prostitutes, etc). However, they are VASTLY and EXCEEDINGLY outnumbered by those that do not.

Which makes me think that perhaps the “intrinsically demeaning” idea is not attached to the women, but to the job itself? One would be hard pressed to convince me, who’s seen it all, that these types of jobs are in any way empowering, except perhaps financially- and even then not very frequently.

If they’re not empowering, they must be demeaning. Is that the point?

I mean, I get the demeaning aspect insofar as it is – literally – patriarchy in action, but if the woman herself doesn’t think so, or doesn’t care, or whatever, is it feminism’s job to “save” her?

Aren’t our efforts better employe in improving the conditions so that all the workers are safer? I would like to assume that this is the “official” position. I’m getting the feeling though, that I might be wrong.

19 Amber March 6, 2008 at 10:20 am

I’ve never seen anyone say sex work is empowering, other than referring to *for herself*. And, you know, “I find sex work empowering FOR ME” is NOT the same as “Sex work is empowering!!” So let’s just put that little non-argument to bed once and for all, ok?

20 Roy March 6, 2008 at 10:28 am

Which makes me think that perhaps the “intrinsically demeaning” idea is not attached to the women, but to the job itself? One would be hard pressed to convince me, who’s seen it all, that these types of jobs are in any way empowering, except perhaps financially- and even then not very frequently.

If they’re not empowering, they must be demeaning. Is that the point?

If that’s the leap people are making, it’s an odd one, isn’t it? I mean, I’d wager that most jobs that most people have aren’t particularly empowering. I do program and systems analysis, and I can assure that my job is in no way “empowering”, except in-so-far as it allows me to pay my bills and put food on the table. I don’t really consider that particularly empowering, though.

I mean, I get the demeaning aspect insofar as it is – literally – patriarchy in action, but if the woman herself doesn’t think so, or doesn’t care, or whatever, is it feminism’s job to “save” her?

That does seem to be the argument that some people have. I think that gets to the brain-washing, though. The reason that some people seem to think that we have to save “those” women is precisely because they’ve been “brain-washed” by… something. The money? I don’t know. Which, I don’t know… it seems to me that it’s kind of patronizing to think that we have to “save” women from themselves. It’s a bit paternalistic.
(I gather that’s not what you’re suggesting- given your comments below, btw)

Aren’t our efforts better employe in improving the conditions so that all the workers are safer? I would like to assume that this is the “official” position. I’m getting the feeling though, that I might be wrong.

Yeah, I get that feeling, too. I mean, in a way it does seem to be the mostly “official” position. I know I see lots of people who claim that’s their priority, at least. The problem comes in, for me, when the rest of their words don’t match up with that claim. That is, you see people who’ll say that they’re concerned about the rights of sex workers, and making the industry safer, but, outside of that claim, they seem to mostly want to talk about how duped sex workers are, or how they need to be saaaaved.

Aside: Honestly, I had no idea that there was an international sex workers rights day, until I read this post.

21 Betty Boondoggle March 6, 2008 at 2:34 pm

“I’ve never seen anyone say sex work is empowering, other than referring to *for herself*. And, you know, “I find sex work empowering FOR ME” is NOT the same as “Sex work is empowering!!” So let’s just put that little non-argument to bed once and for all, ok?”

No need to rev up the snark train. I wasn’t saying you or anyone else was calling it empowering for all. My statement empowerment was part of the bigger argument.

Of course, given everything I seen, I fail to see how it could possibly be considered empowering even for an individual, but, luckily, that’s irrelevant.

If the choice comes down to improving the conditions for all or keeping the status quo because of a personal ick factor, one could hardly make the second choice and call themselves a good person with any honesty.

22 Betty Boondoggle March 6, 2008 at 2:37 pm

“It’s a bit paternalistic.
(I gather that’s not what you’re suggesting- given your comments below, btw)”

No, actually that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. It is paternalistic to tell someone else they need saving, esp when it’s very clear they don’t feel the same.

23 Cara March 6, 2008 at 3:28 pm

If the choice comes down to improving the conditions for all or keeping the status quo because of a personal ick factor, one could hardly make the second choice and call themselves a good person with any honesty.

Absolute agreement!

No, actually that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. It is paternalistic to tell someone else they need saving, esp when it’s very clear they don’t feel the same.

I think Roy meant that you weren’t arguing for the view that he found to be paternalistic.

24 Betty Boondoggle March 6, 2008 at 4:15 pm

“I think Roy meant that you weren’t arguing for the view that he found to be paternalistic.”

Ah, I see.

25 Roy March 6, 2008 at 4:25 pm

That’s exactly right.

My attempt to clarify that I wasn’t criticizing, but, rather, agreeing = failure.

26 Amanda March 6, 2008 at 8:07 pm

Just have to say THANK YOU for mentioning the SWOPEast blog and the daily news links (since I’m usually the one posting the news). Really appreciate knowing there are readers out there.

XX

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