Ideals and realities in arguing about safety and sex work

Here’s an imaginary conversation:

AYESHA – I’m a factory farm worker. What I do can sometimes be quite dangerous, but if the law could be changed by doing X, Y, Z, then I and other factory farm workers would be safer.
BEN – I know someone who was a factory farm worker, and he hated it. We shouldn’t change X, Y, Z in the law to make it safer to be a factory farm worker, we should help people to get out of having to do factory farm work.
CHLOE – Also, lots of factory farm workers are trafficked, so if we make their work safer by changing laws X, Y, Z, lots more people will be trafficked.
AYESHA – But actually, I just want to be safer when I go to my work, and doing X, Y, Z would do that…
DONALD – Well, factory farm work is morally wrong. If we change laws X, Y, Z we would be encouraging something that is morally wrong!  We can’t possibly do it!
ESTHER – And I know someone who was injured doing factory farm work.  It’s such dangerous work, and we should focus on closing factory farming down as soon as possible – changing laws X, Y, Z isn’t going to help closing it down, is it?  It might even do the opposite!
AYESHA – But changing the laws X, Y, Z will make my work safer. It’s not just me saying that – lots of factory farm workers say the same thing.
FUAD – I don’t know about that, but I’ve worked with people who were injured in other contexts, and changing laws X, Y, Z wouldn’t have helped them, I’m sure of it.
GEMMA – Just because factory farm workers say changing X, Y, Z will make them safer doesn’t make it so. I know several ex-factory farm workers and none of them were happy doing that work.
AYESHA – But for all sorts of reasons I don’t want to change my work just now. Why can’t I just be safer when I go back to my work tomorrow by changing laws X, Y, Z?
EVERYONE ELSE – Hey, Ayesha, for lots of reasons we don’t want to make the changes you say would your work safer, but come with us and we’ll help you get out of that work, ok?
AYESHA – Why is it that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International and other important rights groups will listen to me, but none of you will?

That’s a silly conversation, isn’t it?  Why wouldn’t we support Ayesha’s calls for safer working practices?

Now try reading it again, replacing ‘factory farm’ with the word ‘sex’ (see below if you want to just read it straight through).

After I posted my longer text on Amnesty International and sex work on Sunday, an article on a similar topic by Carolyn Leckie appeared in Monday’s National. However, she misrepresents what Amnesty is saying, leading me to wonder how thoroughly she read their documents.  For example, she says: ‘the charity is also calling for the decriminalisation of pimps, brothel keepers and the vast global industry whose profits are built from the exploitation of girls, women, and young men mainly drawn from the depths of the extreme poor.’  Amnesty has said nothing of the kind, even though it is what popular misrepresentations (from Hollywood celebrities etc.) have said that is what it’s calling for (all the relevant AI documents are linked to in the opening section of my Sunday blog posting if you want to go and check these for yourself).  Why, then, is Leckie saying that – didn’t she read the AI documents (properly) before writing her article?  I don’t know her personally, but in general she strikes me as someone with immense personal integrity, so I’m confused by this.

Since my and Leckie’s pieces appeared, I’ve had very appreciative conversations about my position, but I’ve also had comments reflecting all the points in the conversation above.  When I pointed out in one setting that Leckie was misrepresenting AI, I was told it was patronising to assume she hadn’t read AI’s documents, and asked whether I thought this ‘because she comes to a different conclusion from you?’  The most astonishing comment was ‘Whether or not this lady got Amnesty’s stance correct, everything she said is spot on!’  Well, duh!  Let’s not pay attention to any evidence or misrepresentations, I know what I know!

<sigh>

Beyond my positionality (see point 1 in Sunday’s blog) I have no personal axe to grind here.  I have never paid money to someone so they would have sex with me (see point 12), though that doesn’t mean sex was not at some point perhaps ‘paid for’ (see points 10-14).  I don’t know that any of my friends or colleagues are or have been sex workers, though there is no reason why I should expect to know that; if any of them are, my primary concern would be their safety (see e.g. point 19).  Bizarrely, arguing for safer working conditions for those engaged in sex work – many of them women – seems for some not to be a priority.  Rather, it seems many think that Leckie’s simplistic and unhelpful closing polemic applies to me and so many others: ‘For all the liberals out there who argue prostitution is just another contractual freedom, how do you feel being the defender of the man on top?’

I can barely believe I need to say this, but I’m not ‘a defender of the man on top’.  I’m actually arguing, along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International (amongst others), that people who engage in sex work should be as safe as possible and if they say doing X, Y and Z would make them safer, I want to take that seriously.  Whilst I decry the commodification of the body in capitalist patriarchal contexts (including, therefore, sex work: see points 20-21), until such time as the commodification of bodies has ended (if it ever does), I want the actual practice of sex work to be as safe as possible for the workers.  Rape, abuse and assault is not an acceptable price to pay just so that I can maintain an idealised principled opposition to patriarchal capitalist exploitation of commodified bodies.  Why would anyone think it was?  We need to strive to make reality more like our – not yet achieved – ideals (see points 2-4), but I don’t see how enabling sex workers be safer in the here and now calls ideals we should strive towards into question.

I recognise that what I have experienced in the last couple of days in this kind of discourse is just a fraction of what sex workers have to put up with if they engage publicly with these issues.  That increases my respect for them enormously.  All I would urge – again – is that we listen to as many voices as possible, including those who were and are sex workers.  As Robert J.C. Young says (see point 18), it behooves us to listen to what the subaltern, the marginalised have to say.  That means not just the subaltern and marginalised that we want to hear, but also voices that we might not like to hear because they demand more nuance from us than our ideals allow.  I’m trying hard to listen.

If factory farm workers argued for certain changes to make them safer, we’d listen to them.  Why don’t we do the same when sex workers tell us what would make them safer?  What is our agenda there?  I simply cannot see how ignoring their calls for safer practice is defending the woman underneath (to use Leckie’s terms!).

—————

Here’s the opening conversation again, with the words replaced:

AYESHA – I’m a sex worker. What I do can sometimes be quite dangerous, but if the law could be changed by doing X, Y, Z, then I and other sex workers would be safer.
BEN – I know someone who was a sex worker, and he hated it. We shouldn’t change X, Y, Z in the law to make it safer to be a sex worker, we should help people to get out of having to do sex work.
CHLOE – Also, lots of sex workers are trafficked, so if we make their work safer by changing laws X, Y, Z, lots more people will be trafficked.
AYESHA – But actually, I just want to be safer when I go to my work, and doing X, Y, Z would do that…
DONALD – Well, sex work is morally wrong. If we change laws X, Y, Z we would be encouraging something that is morally wrong!  We can’t possibly do it!
ESTHER – And I know someone who was injured doing sex work.  It’s such dangerous work, and we should focus on closing sex work down as soon as possible – changing laws X, Y, Z isn’t going to help closing it down, is it?  It might even do the opposite!
AYESHA – But changing the laws X, Y, Z will make my work safer. It’s not just me saying that – lots of sex workers say the same thing.
FUAD – I don’t know about that, but I’ve worked with people who were injured in other contexts, and changing laws X, Y, Z wouldn’t have helped them, I’m sure of it.
GEMMA – Just because sex workers say changing X, Y, Z will make them safer doesn’t make it so. I know several ex-sex workers and none of them were happy doing that work.
AYESHA – But for all sorts of reasons I don’t want to change my work just now. Why can’t I just be safer when I go back to my work tomorrow by changing laws X, Y, Z?
EVERYONE ELSE – Hey, Ayesha, for lots of reasons we don’t want to make the changes you say would your work safer, but come with us and we’ll help you get out of that work, ok?
AYESHA – Why is it that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International and other important rights groups will listen to me, but none of you will?

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Ideals and realities in arguing about safety and sex work

  1. Good article, although a little wordy. You didn’t need to reproduce the conversation unless you are targeting a low-IQ readership, which you possibly are. I agree whoring should be legalised and regulated for the good of all involved. Amnesty would be better off sticking to campaigning for prisoners of conscience rather than becoming yet another tiresome culturalist Marxism pressure group.

    Like

    • The use of the terms “whoring”, “culturalist Marxism pressure group” (whatever that means!) and the general patronising tone of the comment shows that the conversation needed to be published- perhaps you need to read it again and carefully? Calling sex work as “whoring” and talking about the “good of all involved” is rather ironic, clearly lost here!

      Like

  2. Thank you for writing this blog post, Michael. It is a sharp critique of the prevailing meaningless criticism against Amnesty International. I, specifically, am referring to Carol Leckie’s article- I find it patronising and frankly, rather insulting to sex workers, Amnesty International, and feminism. The moral outrage that she expresses about prostitution and AI’s vote is just that: informed by morality, which lacks nuance and fails to understand the complexity of the situations faced by sex workers. Like you, I do not know any sex worker personally but I do know that they face all kinds of abuse (imaginable and unimaginable). But to call for banning sex work because it is morally wrong in the name of feminism is utterly ridiculous. As you have argued here, Amnesty International has very specifically and explicitly pointed out that this vote does NOT legalise pimps and johns, and that it aims to protect sex workers from abuse and exploitation. Supporting decriminalising sex work does not automatically make one ‘unfeminist’ and defender of the ‘man on top’ (what an awful phrase that is!). This is right out of Western feminism and I can think of several instances from the early 20th century colonial history where such imposition of feminist ideal was detrimental to the subaltern in the colonies. A little history lesson would do her and her supporters some good.

    Saba Mahmood, a fantastic feminist scholar, has rather wonderfully shown the importance of understanding alternative ways of subversion of patriarchy that the subaltern engages with. It takes Young’s argument a step further to argue that not only the dominant does not listen to the subaltern but also the dominant feminist movements do not recognise those acts of subversion by the subaltern just because it does not conform to their understanding of subversion (which is what you are pointing to in this blog post as well!). The dominant chooses not to listen because the subaltern does not speak with the voice that the dominant wants!

    To use Leckie’s language: the ‘man on the top’ must not be defended (and no one, certainly not you or the AI, is doing that), but don’t assume what the person underneath is speaking, or shut them out because they don’t express what you want to hear!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Leckie didn’t read Amnesty’s article and has no intention to do so. She a feminist with a moral objection to sex work. Making sex workers safer is not a priority for feminists – their priority is punishing the clients, irrespective of the effect on sex workers. Whenever I tried getting Twitter feminists to read Amnesty’s article, they either blocked me or pretended they’d already read it whilst being unable to answer basic questions on it.

    Like

    • I agree with you that I can’t see how Leckie could have read Amnesty’s report (not least since she misrepresents what it says).

      I would argue for more nuance than your comment suggests, however: I think there are many feminists who do support the kind of thing that Amnesty and others argue for – the comments I had when I published these articles are evidence of that (mostly on Twitter, rather than here or on my previous piece).

      Too many people, however, don’t go beyond a particular understanding of sex work, and therefore don’t listen to what practitioners themselves argue for. That is a position that the powerful can allow themselves, but in my view it is tremendously destructive and disrespectful.

      Like

Comments are closed.