Smith didn’t just consider it irrelevant to ask these women what the law has meant (and hasn’t meant) to them. She also refused to engage with the many sex workers who tweeted her to point out this omission […] She allowed police officers – people who see it as their mission to drive sex workers out of business, people who have a long history of using sex workers for their own ends in all sorts of nefarious ways (yes, even in post-criminalization Sweden) – to define their experiences for them. I have a few words for that type of reporting. ‘Feminist’ isn’t one of them.
Wendy Lyon responds to the silencing of sex worker voices in The Independent columnist Joan Smith’s whorephobic discussion of criminalization in Sweden this week. Another excellent response from Jem of It’s Just A Hobby here.
While Western-led feminist groups such as Equality Now continue to conflate consensual sex work with trafficking and violence, where do sex workers themselves fit into concepts of feminism and gender equality, especially if they live in countries like India?
“When you are coming from a place like India, you have the whole caste system, stigma and discrimination to deal with. The paradigm becomes all inclusive. I wouldn’t talk about equality, I would talk about equity. You cannot talk about equality when you have spaces so filled with unequal distribution of wealth and privileges,” suggested Meena Seshu, founder of SANGRAM, a women’s organization in India that supports sex worker self-organizing, when asked her thoughts on the subject.
Seshu, who also works closely with the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), considers herself a feminist, despite run-ins with feminist groups in India who labeled her a trafficker: “In the initial stages, they weren’t willing to accept that sex work is not violence. If you are looking at sex work as violence, that stops the conversation with sex workers. Sex workers were not willing to talk about violence against them with feminists. They are against being victimized. With feminists, their narrative is about the victimization of women. Sex positive feminists were not willing to recognize the exchange of sexual services for money as part of sex positivism.”
In time, Seshu worked around these obstacles by simply listening to sex workers and supporting their work as a labor movement. She had previously worked with Bidi workers’ (cigarette rollers) labor movement and saw potential in helping sex workers organize: “So our fight was just to give sex workers a voice. The way we did this was to be very humble and say ‘look, we don’t know a damn thing.’ Previously, marketing targeted the client to use a condom. Self-determination worked, giving sex workers condoms worked.”
SANGRAM, founded in 1992, is so successful that it was listed as a best practice model by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on HIV prevention for working with sex workers. However, the situation became complicated when USAID stepped up its commitment to the the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Pledge, which required organizations receiving funds from USAID to sign a statement showing they did not “promote prostitution.” Seshu could not comply, as supporting sex work as legitimate labor was the backbone of SANGRAM. She declined the Pledge in 2005 and made plans to return funds for that year. What she did not count on was having her name brought up by former House Representative Mark Souder as a trafficker: “I started freaking out. Trafficking is a criminal offense. It was very, very messy and it lasted many months. The department in the U.S. that combats trafficking had labeled me a trafficker.”
Now the Houston City Council has passed its own pole tax, an additional $5-per-patron tax to fund the processing of rape kits. It was this instance that caught the eye of Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart, who proclaimed it “genius.” It’s not entirely clear if she was being serious or sarcastic when she wrote “Pretty smart to use money from folks who enjoy sexualized women to aid sexually assaulted women.” What, exactly, does that mean? That sexuality, sex work, and sexual assault are simply different points on the same curve of behavior? That a man who pays to look at strippers is somehow also responsible for the rape of another woman? How gross does this tax feel for strippers in Houston who have been raped?
Though most don’t consider the word “prostitute” pejorative, it’s more damaging to sex workers than any other slur. There’s no true neutrality to be found in a word whose verb form Merriam-Webster defines as “to devote to corrupt or unworthy purposes.” But precisely because it is used in polite language, because of its patina of legitimacy, its harmful connotations can be used against us with impunity in the media every time a street sex worker is murdered and every time a sex worker in the public eye is outed. Every time this medico-legal term, used to justify our pathologization and criminalization for centuries, is utilized to label us, we are discredited subtly but effectively just that much more.
Referring to female sex workers as “prostitutes” in the media is not new, but it is a sobering reminder of how pervasive negative understandings of sex work and sex workers are. These understandings originate from various “expert” fields of knowledge including psychology, medicine, sexology, religious doctrine and various feminist perspectives, through which sex workers are positioned as dirty, diseased, sinful, deviant and victims. The term “prostitute” does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour (although rarely used to describe men in sex work), but brings with it layers of “knowledge” about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. When the media refers to a woman as a prostitute, or when such a story remains on the news cycle for only a day, it is not done in isolation, but in the context of this complex history.
When the Chicago Tribune described Indiana serial killer Darren Vann’s victim, Teira Batey, as a “prostitute,” it made it clear it was using this “complex history” against her as it detailed her past with police encounters and her family’s reports that she was a drug user. When the Irish Examiner called Kate Mcgrew, TV star of the reality show Connected, a “prostitute” after she came out as an escort, you can bet they also mentioned her “tight jeans and towering heels,” her “flamboyant” style of dress, even going so far as to say she looked “cartoon-like.” They may as well have called her a silly slut and been done with it.
Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.
By now, most reading this are probably familiar with Mary Mitchell’s Chicago Sun-Times column in which she editorializes that sex workers are responsible if they are raped, for they willingly put themselves “at risk for harm”—as if the rape of a sex worker is an occupational hazard much the way a lifeguard should expect to get wet. I would expect this type of pettiness in an anonymous online comment, not from a seasoned and respected columnist on the payroll of a major newspaper. While the views in Mitchell’s column are not rare, it is troubling to see them endorsed by the Sun-Times, suggesting the paper is more concerned with publishing a sensational, illogical, and callous opinion than it is with the harm done by reinforcing such stigma.
Mary Mitchell grew up in Chicago housing projects, and she is considered by many as an authority on race relations in Chicago. One would think Mitchell would be sympathetic to the marginalized depictions sex workers face in the media. It’s disappointing that a prominent journalist who has worked hard to call attention to inequity in her city would so eagerly discount the violent rape of a sex worker as a mere “theft of services.”
I suppose her daftness on the subject of sex work shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a column earlier this summer, Mitchell gushed over anti-Backpage lobbyist and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s letter to Visa and MasterCard asking the credit card companies to block payments to the sex work advertising website. Mitchell also repeatedly mentions Backpage in her recent column. Her use of a quote from Dart is disconcerting: “They go on the Website and meet at a hotel or people’s houses. Things can get very volatile,” he tells her, keeping in line with a victim-blaming narrative framing assaults against sex workers all too often. One has to wonder if Mitchell would have found it worthwhile to write on this crime at all if shutting down Backpage wasn’t such an important crusade for Tom Dart. Is the rape victim sex worker somehow more blameworthy in Mitchell’s eyes because she advertised on a website that has come under so much scrutiny? Hardly a week goes by in which the Sun-Times doesn’t give coverage to Dart and his war on sex work, never failing to mention Backpage. In contrast, commentators elsewhere, including editorialists at the city’s other daily paper, the Chicago Tribune, criticize the sheriff for far exceeding his authority.