Re: “debate”

I submitted this to an online pub a while ago but still haven’t heard back so I’m just gonna jump the gun and post it here. I wrote it a while but it feels quite raw at present.

Silencing sex workers via three simple copouts

  1. Defer to “balance”

A producer for a Melbourne queer radio station asked my friend whether she or other sex workers she knew would be interested in being interviewed about the whorephobic graffiti that had recently popped up around our city. The group behind the graffiti was the Untameable Shrews, a “radical feminist” art collective known for its whorephobia and transphobia, with whom my friends and I had experienced several unpleasant run-ins. We told the producer we were interested, and would like to hear more.

The following day, the producer informed us that they were considering also interviewing a member of the Untameable Shrews in the name of “balance”. Each of us declined to be involved on two grounds: it was not safe for us, given that we were routinely harassed online and in person by this group and their ilk; and it can hardly be a “balanced” debate when one camp must rely on anonymity for fear of personal safety, police surveillance, and discrimination.

The producer said that they would discuss our concerns with their colleagues and get back to us. We never heard from them again.

2. Defer to “open exchange”

Myself and some other sex workers submitted an abstract for a feminist symposium to be held interstate later that year. We applied under a collective name, and I contacted the convenor using my working name. I explained that, given that not all of us were out, we needed to ensure that our presentation was not recorded. This was understood, and our abstract was provisionally accepted.

Closer to the event, we received an email asking whether audio recording would be permissible (um, no), and informing us that there would be another presentation that explored sex work from a “different perspective” – focusing on the “survivors” of sex work.

The “survivor” rhetoric appeared to me a red flag, as this narrative is commonly used by anti-sex work campaigners to conflate sex work with sex trafficking, and accuse sex workers who do not see themselves as “survivors” of silencing those who do. Given that the groups capitalising on survivor narratives had victimised my sex working friends and I online, I had serious concerns about whether our safety and privacy could be protected, were we to speak alongside them. This was a difficult tension to convey to a humble, probably well-meaning, civilian.

I asked the convenor if she could share the names or affiliation of the speakers in the other presentation, intimating that — should we discover that they were connected to the groups that had targeted us — it would not be safe for us to present.

In her response, the convenor stated that the funding for the event was contingent on its documentation in the public realm (fair enough, but audio-visual recording is not the only means of documenting). She also lamented that I and my co-presenters “would not feel comfortable engaging in an open exchange on the issues [our] abstract raises.” Our presentation was pulled from the program.

There was that liberal discourse again — open exchange, public debate, balance. There was that problematisation again — our reticence reflected a fear of public debate, not fear for our personal and legal safety.

I did not respond to the convenor’s email.

3. Defer to “complexity”

A week or so later the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association (AWGSA) posted an article on their Facebook, which offered an alarmist, moralistic ‘critique’ of pornography, and was written by a leading anti-sex work campaigner. When a sex worker brought this to my attention, I expressed my frustration, explaining that, in the previous week, despite The Conversation publishing a series of pro-sex work decriminalisation articles, AWGSA had shared only one article outside of the series which claimed that sex precincts threaten the safety of all women.

As a sex worker, I am now used to being blamed for the sexual oppression of all women. I am less used to (though not naive about) seeing this thinly veiled whorephobia aired without question on supposedly “inclusive” feminist platforms, alongside a failure to publish alternative perspectives.

I, along with other sex workers, expressed this on AWGSA’s Facebook post. I called AWGSA on their posting behaviour in relation to The Conversation series, and stated that, as both a feminist researcher and a sex worker, I struggled to see AWGSA as a welcoming space. SWERFs caught wind, and the article started collecting their tired slogans which, for example, likened sex work to slavery and rape. While I and some other sex workers responded, I didn’t see all of what ensued, as AWGSA soon after deleted the post in question.

In its wake, the AWGSA shared another post that has also been deleted. In this, they acknowledged the concerns raised by sex workers, and said that the organisation “support[s] the proposition that all women’s work should be respected and able to be carried out safely”. They also stated that, while they acknowledge the “complexity” of women’s and gender studies, this “should not come at the expense of marginalising those who are already marginalised” – i.e. sex workers.

The SWERFs dogpiled this post too, as is increasingly their MO. It became flooded by the same anti-sex work propaganda aforementioned, replete with accusations that AWGSA was being censorious and even fascistic.

I wrote a comment that, given the domination of SWERFs, I could not bring myself to post. In this would-be comment, I called the SWERFs on their coordinated efforts to drown out and demonise those who objected to their views, and I expressed my disappointment with the actions of AWGSA. By all means, I (would have) said, delete comments that are abusive and that may threaten one’s privacy; don’t, however, morally equate such comments with those of measured critique by deleting them all. Moreover, when you as a feminist organisation are called on messing up and, perhaps unwittingly, contributing to the stigmatisation of sex workers, don’t then delete the comments of sex workers because they make you look bad. Admit you messed up, and commit to doing better.

Making reparations may well have been the intention underlying the AWGSA’s follow-up post. However, deleting the initial post meant that all that could be seen by a late observer was an admission of guilt, and no indication of the critique that sparked said guilt or the SWERF dogpile that followed. While AWGSA might have sought to take a stand against anti-sex worker rhetoric, they in effect gave SWERFs a temporary pulpit and made them martyrs (I use religious imagery here quite deliberately; it suits our saviours well). Sex workers, as often happens, were shouted into silence. If one were to look at AWGSA’s Facebook page now, one would not even see their apology.

Unpicking the “sensible centre” refrain

The exclusion of sex workers from feminist spaces is far from new. What I think these three moments speak to, however, is a particular logic by which this seems to increasingly occur. In each case, the silence of sex workers was framed as a reluctance to “engage in debate” with our opponents. While I have already pointed out that we have good reason to fear the personal consequences of doing so, there is also a critical moral basis of our refusal: this is not, and has never been, a “fair” “debate”.

In her expanded conception of justice, Nancy Fraser (2013) emphasises the importance of the “the principle of parity of participation”, which permits all “the condition of being a peer, of being on a par with others” (pp. 164-166, emphasis in original). When sex workers tell their stories, they are not on an equal footing with those who deny us of recognition as workers, and sabotage our access to the legal and political rights they take for granted. We argue into a history of misrecognition, which is reinscribed by the silencing discourses of SWERFs. Their insistence on our false consciousness or foundational victimhood undermines our perceived capacity to provide an assessment of our own reality or an articulation of our own demands. Their framing of our words as uniquely infected by the logics of capitalism and patriarchy muddies our recitation of facts that contradict their preferred reality.

In my own recent experience of conflicts like this, I have encountered a move that I’ve taken to calling the “sensible centre refrain”. By this, I’m referring to those moments when someone calls for “reasoned” “debate”, “discussion”, “dialogue”, refusing themselves to leave the safety of the fence because it’s all just so messy and (god forbid) confrontational. This seems to emerge when non-sex working feminists try to confront the uncomfortable topic of sex work. I’m going to be frank: this move is naïve at best, and consistently unfair to sex workers.

If you, as a feminist, cannot distinguish the camps active in the supposed sex work “debate” in terms of both content and the resources required to disseminate said content, you need a need a better analytic of power. If you interpret a sex worker’s reluctance to participate in “debate” as preciousness or parochialism, you need a better analytic of voice and the (always shifting) politics that dictate its terms of availability. If you, as a card-carrying feminist, are still a bit conflicted about the whole “both sides of the story” thing, then you have a responsibility to seriously engage with the side of sex workers before venting your spleen. This means reading from the vast amounts of writing by sex workers that comprehensively explores these very tensions, and that is now available at your fingertips.

The silencing of sex workers is ubiquitous, however much we may long to pat ourselves on the back for how far (we think) we have come. Feminists and feminist organisations, even those who are not actively hostile to sex workers, do play a role in upholding the tacit exclusion of sex workers from conversations in which we are the key stakeholders. Good intentions don’t cut it.


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