One of the things I love about the internet is that it can bring you stories from voices you wouldn’t otherwise hear. This is a good example: it’s a long and interesting piece about sex work by Lorelei Lee. It’s a great article about something I know very little about, a series of pictures from a life that’s very different from mine.
Sex work, whether prostitution or pornography, is a controversial topic. But as Lee notes, in most cases the people debating the topic don’t seek the views of the people who actually do the work. People on both sides of any debate presume to know what’s best for women without actually asking what the women want.
Neither liberal feminists nor libertarians, radical feminists nor the religious right, can hear us speak in our own words. They do not want to hear us; they want to collect the scraped-bare “facts” of our lives and call them data.
…When feminists call for the criminalization and delegitimization of sex work, they do not ally themselves with sex-working women. They actively create and cultivate a world in which sex-working women are culturally, legally, and visibly separated from women who do not trade sex. They make sure that they will not be mistaken for one of us, and they do so by telling a story about our lives that is about predators and not about work. A story in which the power dynamics are utterly uncomplicated and so are the solutions.
This is something we’ve seen recently in the UK, where groups have demanded the closure of strip clubs and simply ignored the views of the women who work in them. Not only that, but they used concealed cameras to film the women without their consent.
Kuba Shand-Baptiste writes in The Independent:
The “campaigning” here was at the expense of, not in support of, the women working at the clubs. Dr Sasha Rakoff, the chief executive of Not Buying It, maintains that the sting was “not about exposing lap dancers”. Yet one of the women who was filmed working at a strip club in Manchester, identified as Daisy, said the sting had violated her privacy. “I consent to being on CCTV,” she said. “I consent to it every night when I go to work [because it keeps me safe] but I don’t consent to them [the campaigners] filming me.
“We have a right to our body, despite what we do for a job, and they’ve taken that right completely away from us.”
…These groups say that it’s impossible to accept both that sex work can be exploitative (which, of course, it can) and also that sex workers have the right to demand better safety and fairer conditions in their workplace. It’s all or nothing: strip clubs should be abolished; strippers should be filmed without their consent for their own good; sex workers as well as their clients should be locked up; porn should be banned.
The reality is much messier. Lee:
How do we describe our lives without neglecting the fact that we have experienced both violence and joy at work? How do we talk about those extremes without ignoring the pragmatic day-to-day of it all, the profound boredom of washing and folding sheets between sessions, of listening to wealthy middle-aged men boast, of surreptitiously checking our watches while fucking, of all the tasks that we are paid for that have nothing to do with sex and have so much in common with other forms of service work? How do we talk about our experiences without letting their meaning be stolen?
The perspectives of women in the sex industry are often inconvenient for the people who want to “save” them. Kate Lister in The Guardian:
…the sex workers at the centre of these debates are finally being allowed to speak for themselves. And to the surprise of many feminist groups, it turns out that they do not want saving. Nor do they seem particularly grateful to their would-be saviours for campaigning on their behalf to do them out of a job. In fact, they appear to be downright angry about have-a-go rescue missions that involve secretly filming them naked, then outing them to members of local licensing committees.
There’s nothing new about the rescue dynamic. Sympathy for the plight of the “fallen woman”, and a need to save her, was endemic in Victorian newspapers. Hundreds of charitable organisations were established throughout the 19th century to rescue and reform such women.
The voice of the sex worker is noticeably absent in much of this historical debate, but on the rare occasion it is heard, it frequently offered a very different perspective, as it does today.
Do read the whole thing, it’s fascinating.
As Shand-Baptiste points out, the same narrative of women who must be saved from themselves plays out with regard to other groups of women.
There are some campaigners, and particularly some feminists, who seem to believe that in order to achieve a more equal society there are people out there who need saving from themselves. We see it in conversations about black women (”How, exactly, does twerking ‘empower’ us?“); about Muslim women (”Wearing a hijab contributes to your own oppression“); about fat women (”Self-hatred and subscribing to beauty norms is the only way you’ll save yourself“), and about trans women too (”Your personal suffering at the hands of people like me is mythical“).
The overarching message is that these women can’t possibly know what’s good for them. They need a self-appointed, morally upstanding woman to tell them what to do – and to silence them in the process.
Lee describes “the rescue industry”, where self-appointed saviours do their self-professed good works for the benefit of TV cameras.
Nicholas Kristof live-tweets brothel raids and gets paid by the New York Times to write about it. The former police officer and pastor Kevin Brown leveraged his “rescue missions” into a reality TV show on A&E called 8 Minutes, for how long he believed it would take him to “liberate” sex workers from “a life of servitude.” On the show, Brown pretended to be a client and then ambushed women with TV cameras when they arrived for work. The ambushes were staged, but the exploitation of vulnerable workers was not. In 2015, sex workers and writers Alana Massey and Bubbles described how Brown and A&E failed to provide the support they promised the women they’d convinced to go on the show.
Rescuing women from the sex trades is an old business. In San Francisco in 1910, a woman named Donaldina Cameron made it her job to join police on brothel raids to “rescue” Chinese immigrant sex workers and take them into her mission home, called Nine-twenty. At Nine-twenty, the women were made to cook and clean and sew in preparation for being good Christian wives. Staff read all incoming and outgoing mail. Many of the rescued women escaped their rescuers.
Seven years later, the Methodist reverend Paul Smith delivered a series of sermons calling for a shutdown of the red-light district in the uptown Tenderloin neighborhood. In response, three hundred brothel workers marched to the Central Methodist church to confront him. Reverend Smith told the women they could make $10 a week working as domestics. The women told him $10 would buy a single pair of shoes. He asked how many would be willing to do housework. They said, “What woman wants to work in a kitchen?”
I realise this is a long post, but it’s just scratching the surface of the issues Lee raises. She’s written an extremely interesting and thought-provoking piece that respects the readers’ intelligence – a courtesy, I suspect, that hasn’t always been extended to her.