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Keeping Sex Workers Quiet

Reducing the sex industry to human trafficking silences the sex workers fighting for their labor rights.

But what about the children?” has long been liberals’ refrain when mocking social conservatives for their moral panic over sex and the law.

Yet when it comes to the sale of sexual services by consenting adults — and especially when sex workers make a case for their rights — many resort to this tired rhetoric, conjuring up the image of a helpless girl that is supposed to be the primary representative of commercial sex.

“The children” functions, then, as a trump card through which discourse about commercial sex decriminalization is shifted away from women advocating on their own behalves to the invisible children about which sex workers supposedly care little.

The introduction of trafficking victims is a way of saying to sex workers, “Here is your chance to play Madonna, you whore.” Those who comply must cannibalize their own assertions that sex work is legitimate labor by apologizing for the scourge of trafficking. Those who do not comply are punished as self-interested creatures whose femininity has been disfigured by the depravity of their trade.

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 Ravishly entitled, “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.”

And so it is in an inhospitable landscape that sex work activists must negotiate for a chance to speak for themselves against preexisting notions about their work. In this exclusionary context, Twitter has emerged as an informal space for sex worker activism because it is free and requires no invitation.

The platform affords workers an opportunity to connect across geographies and amplify labor and justice-focused agendas instead of moralistic ones. Workers can also advocate for themselves under partial cover of anonymity, critical to a criminalized and highly stigmatized profession.

But these features also make it ripe for conflict between sex worker activists and anti-trafficking activists who oppose sex work. One of the most frequent attacks on Twitter is that these activists are pimps pretending to be sex workers. This argument defeminizes sex workers into the masculine identity of a pimp and paints them as co-conspirators in trafficking. It’s a form of gendered shaming against female-identified sex workers that pits them over and against victimized women and girls.

The voices of consenting sex workers are similarly unwelcome in formal panels and conferences if they do not accede to the terms of the debate. Last month, for example, the Feminism in London conference failed to include a single working sex worker on a panel ostensibly about sex work. Instead of current sex workers, the panel included two women “who have exited prostitution” and two female representatives from anti-trafficking organizations sent as proxies for the trafficked.

The Sex Worker Open University critiqued the conference in a guest blog post for the conference’s website:

For Feminism in London to include current sex workers on a panel about sex work should be non-negotiable, both in terms of the necessity of hearing the insights that only current sex workers can bring and in terms of simple justice, the logic being that the people who are most affected by any given issue should play a significant role in conversations about it. Listening to the voices of those most affected is basic feminist praxis. A sex work panel without any current sex workers violates that obvious precept.

The response from the conference was less a defense of the panel than a chastisement of sex workers’ public activism. It mocked the privilege of Twitter accounts and online advertisements as being the exclusive province of elites. It feigned shock that anyone might oppose the composition of the panel, a coercive measure giving sex workers the option of either appearing like callous profit-seekers or forfeiting their right to speak.

Setting up the two anti-trafficking professionals as stand-ins for women who were not asked to speak for themselves effectively placed these women in maternal roles for trafficking victims. The response letter called working at an NGO “direct experience of oppression,” an attempt by NGO leadership to co-opt trafficking experiences as their stories to tell. This not only silences real trafficking victims, it is a second colonization of women whose origins are in historically colonized spaces.

The problem with offering a voice to the voiceless is that the voiceless often turn out to be far more capable than their spokesmothers expect. In her review, Pollitt disparages a tongue-in-cheek quiz in the New Inquiry about sex trafficking as likely written by “a grad student or a writer or maybe an activist — a highly educated woman who has other options and prefers this one. . .In the discourse of sex work, it seems, the subaltern does not get to speak.”

As it turns out, it was penned by writer and activist Tara Burns, a victim of sex trafficking and a vocal advocate of decriminalization. Burns said via email, “When we advocate for ourselves to be able to negotiate our own labor and work conditions, to have equal access to protection under the law, etc., that is advocating for us to have protections against trafficking and other labor abuses within the sex industry. Or what they call trafficking.”

Sex worker activists focus on non-trafficking issues not out of callousness, but pragmatism. They carefully choose their battles, as Roth notes: “We are too busy with the Sisyphean task of meeting the material needs (handing out condoms while police throw them away) to challenge systemic oppressions.”

It is out of the need to prioritize their survival that sex workers mobilize for basic rights and often choose not to make themselves experts on human trafficking — particularly when popular discourses around trafficking refuse to acknowledge its less titillating realities, including the fact that the majority of trafficking is not for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and most minors performing sexual services for money are not facilitated by a trafficker or pimp.

But children exploited by systemic poverty rather than morally disfigured pimps and the whores that love them are far less enticing victims to adopt because they exist in unwieldy and brutal economic realities, not the confines of the morally panicked imagination.

In confronting the economic deprivation that drives many women to engage in sex work, it is tempting to appropriate maternal images for leftist ends. It is tempting to expound upon the benefits of labor rights for poor women who do sex work in order to provide for their children and to offer statistics on how the criminalization of these women breaks up families.

But to make the case for sex workers rights as functioning primarily to facilitate better care of children — rather than on rights and protections as intrinsic goods — is to accept the same gender confines prescribed by the activists so intent on reframing the majority of sex work as trafficking.

In a discourse that seeks to recast marginalized female laborers asserting their rights as pimps, it is crucial to listen when sex workers ask, “But what about us women?” It is then important not to respond immediately but to listen again. They have more solutions than those that have permitted them to speak give them credit and microphone time for.