Keeping Sex Workers Quiet


Alana Massey in Jacobin:

Just as opponents of reproductive self-determination rely heavily on the images of babies murdered by their mothers in an attempt to shame women seeking abortions, those that oppose sex work use the specter of trafficked young women to condemn any movement seeking to decriminalize sexual labor.

And because sex work activists are primarily female, they’re expected to have a sympathetic and thoughtful response to trafficking, to be a kind of caregiver for trafficking victims. As a result, arguments are reduced to caveats and apologies; discourses about labor rights take a backseat to those about trafficking.

To understand how labor conversations are so easily co-opted, a brief look at the current state of sex work discourse is instructive. In September, the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference was held in Toledo. It was hosted exclusively by anti-trafficking groups and prominently featured material framing all commercial sex as a form of slavery.

The Huffington Post recently aggregated a series of posts from Ravishlyentitled, “Is Sex Work Empowering or Enslaving?” and even in the absence of more nuanced or relevant options, it was considered progress by some that anyone thought to ask rather than preemptively conclude.

And earlier this year, Katha Pollitt wrote a review of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work in which she hoped for another book entirely instead of critiquing the substance of Grant’s work: “Grant says barely a word about the women at the heart of this debate: those who are enslaved and coerced — illegal immigrants, young girls, runaways and throwaways, many of them survivors of sexual trauma, as well as transwomen and others cast out of mainstream society.”

With her highly visible status, Pollitt is free to determine the real heart of the debate around sexual labor — and overlook evidence showing most women in the sex industry do not feel more exploited than other workers.

The notable absence from most of these conversations is sex workers themselves, as Lindsay Roth, a sex worker activist with Project SAFE in Philadelphia, told me via email: “Anti-trafficking advocates usually are not asking the questions, they are setting the agenda. They do not engage with us. They have created a discourse that continues to engage with the women we work with as invisible.”

More here.