I Did Not Consent To Being Tokenized

by Lady Emmy on September 4, 2014 · 14 comments

in Activism, Politics, Prostitution

Do not use our passive bodies as props for your agenda (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

Stop using our passive bodies as props for your agenda. (Photo by Anton Marcos Kammerer, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I am a sex worker who was coerced into doing work I felt violated by, and I am horrified by SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists) who insist that all sex work is by nature coerced and non-consensual.

Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing rise in anti-sex work rhetoric that rests on the premise that all sex work is coerced. The proponents of this claim argue that because the workers may need the money and thus feel unable to turn down a proposition they are uncomfortable with, sex work encounters are always non-consensual. As far as they are concerned, if money is involved, sex can never be consensual. They claim that by promoting the criminalization of all forms of sex work, they are “protecting” sex workers and engaging in “feminist solidarity” with us.

I’ve already seen a number of brilliant sex workers debunking this argument: by discussing their own consensual sex work experiences, by pointing out that all professions involve money and thus a potential for coercion or abuse of workers, and so on. Tits and Sass contributor Red wrote a particularly interesting piece on her tumblr in which she notes that she finds the term “constrained consent” a far more accurate term than “coerced consent.” All of those points are valid and important, if often ignored by the audience they’re intended for.

But I’ve noticed one perspective missing from the discussion: that of someone who was sometimes unable to consent to sex work, and is harmed by those who would tokenize that experience and devalue the experiences of other sex workers. After seeing my experiences casually commandeered by SWERFs as a talking point, I’ve decided to speak up.

Let me be clear: Sex workers, even those with different experiences from my own, are important to meboth on an emotional level, and because harm done to any of us leads to deteriorating conditions for all of us. Had I been listened to instead of tokenized, I would still see it as useless unless the listeners were also willing to acknowledge the voices of all other sex workers. True solidarity involves listening to the experiences and needs of all members of a group, not just the ones that fit your narrow criteria of acceptability.

After all, why would my feelings about my experience be considered credible, if those of other sex workers aren’t? I came to the conclusion that I had been coerced by examining my circumstances (dire), my thoughts (feeling trapped and unable to refuse), my mental health at the time (poor, frequently disconnected from reality), and my client’s behavior (pressuring). Don’t other sex workers have the same ability to define their experiences?

The choice to discard the opinion of even one other sex worker while accepting mine is not only hypocritical, but also dangerous to the person supposedly being helped: me. What would stop these SWERFs from discarding my opinion just as easily? Why would I feel protected by seeing more instances of sex workers being robbed of autonomy, in this case by denying their right to define their own experiences? Some sex workers go their entire careers without ever being coerced, assaulted, or violated. Although sex work carries many risks, which are unlikely to be eradicated unless our jobs are decriminalized and destigmatized, not everyone is part of the unlucky group for whom potential risk becomes reality. Women (including trans women, though SWERFs are often TERFsTrans Exclusionary Reactionary Feministsas well) should not be denied the right to choose a career simply because it may be dangerous, nor told that they are incapable of determining whether or not they were subjected to various forms of boundary intrusion.

It was very difficult for me to come forward and admit I have experienced coercion as a sex worker. It can be very difficult even for non-sex workers to admit. To come forward and then be told “well, all sex workers have experienced that” is an extreme erasure of my experience. I was horribly distraught about being unwillingly pushed to violate my own limits and allow them to violated by this client. To lump my experience in with those of people who engaged in various acts while fully consenting and not feeling distress afterwards is a damaging minimization, if not outright denial, of the severity of what I experienced.

Omg, shut up, antis (Photo by anti-sex worker organization Under The Red Light, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

Omg, shut up, antis. (Photo by anti-sex worker organization Under The Red Light, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

For a group who preach compassion towards women, SWERFs seem to forget that “I’ll sympathize with you as long as you agree with me” doesn’t count as such. True compassion involves listening to the people you care for, and acknowledging their feelings as valid even if you would not feel the same way in their position. I can listen to another sex worker’s story and know that in her shoes, I would feel violated. But I wasn’t in her shoes at the time, she was, and her beliefs and boundaries may differ significantly from mine.

This sort of thinking is a form of incomplete empathy. We often teach small children to think about how others must feel, and to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Often, the child will respond by thinking about how they would feel in that situation. But they aren’t able to imagine how the other person might feel in the same circumstances. For a child, that’s a normal stage of development. For an adult, that’s inadequate.

In some cases, the issue isn’t a poor grasp of empathy, but a complete lack of it. Sex workers who do experience coercion, like myself, often struggle to find resources. We may be turned away from resources generally available to women, or even blamed for our experiences. We may be told that victims’ resources are only for “real” victims. We are, in short, a group in desperate need of a platform to express ourselves and ask for help. So why are my needs, both emotional and financial, not a priority to SWERFs? Why have I, and other sex workers who have experienced actual coercion, been excluded from a conversation we should be leading?

Because our experiences do not matter to SWERFs. Our experiences are a convenient tool onto which they can project their assumptions about sex work, one they can use to bully others into bowing to their views. I am a very useful trump card, but my actual health and well-being, and the coercion I experienced, do not matter to them.

I won’t deny that many people are indifferent to the difficult situations some sex workers encounter. However, to actively step in and use me, in a way which causes me further harm, is another level of evil. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel said “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim,” but these people aren’t simply remaining quietthey’re looting my body after I’ve been knocked down, then walking away and leaving me in the street. That is not solidarity, that is not compassion, and that is not helping me. There is nothing helpful, or even excusable, about SWERFs using our struggles as tools to advance their dangerous cause.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

RavenHarte September 6, 2014 at 4:48 pm

This is SUCH a great point to make, that thinking about how you would feel in another person’s shoes isn’t the point. Its understanding how THEY feel in their own shoes that matters! My favorite line in this is “True compassion involves listening to the people you care for, and acknowledging their feelings as valid even if you would not feel the same way in their position” and I would even take it as far to say just acknowledging the validity of a person’s feelings isn’t enough.

I feel like in this and all other circumstances where someone might be uncomfortable with a choice a full capable adult has made for themselves, if their goal is to be compassionate, so they can be of any help at all to the person/cause (if help was even ASKED for in the first place) then they must fully embrace that the choices (and feelings and beliefs invested in those choices) that someone makes is part of their Truth. Our personal values/beliefs/feelings/opinions are irrelevant to someone else’s Truth. If I perceive there are dangers, I can of course voice my fears, but I have NO say in the way a capable adult lives their life. So compassion for me is the yearning to help someone else live their Truth, exactly their way, ever-mindful that my Truth has no bearing upon theirs.


Lady Emmy September 8, 2014 at 12:17 am

Thank you! I’m glad to hear from someone else who understands and cares.


WhiteSky September 7, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Holy crap, this is the most middle class argument. I’ve never read any prominent feminists who oppose sex work who claim that all sex workers experience the same things. They insist the priority should be the vast majority of sex workers who ARE in the precise sense of the word, victims, of physical and mental abuse, and trafficking, mostly because of men, but also because of women, all around the world. Why do (upper?) middle class, literate, liberal feminists insist that they are silenced? Not all sex workers have blogs and a readership. Some cannot even read and write. As for this: “Some sex workers go their entire careers without ever being coerced, assaulted, or violated”, I daresay you’re correct, but how many? One in a hundred? What a joke.


Robin D September 7, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Well I’ve been through third-party coercion and plenty of violence and assault and you are utterly full of crap. Prominent feminists have no interest in marginalized sex workers except to whatever extent they feel they can appoint themselves their mouthpieces, in order to push policies that don’t really benefit anyone except already-bloated LE budgets used to PERSECUTE sex workers, all sex workers. Which they are increasingly finding out, they really can’t, because people can speak for themselves. In the developed world, the vast vast majority of people can read and write, including street workers and workers of all stripes. In the developing world, they’ve made flipcam docs that get ignored, and the vast majority of sex worker organizing there, often with memberships in the tens of thousands, is labor organizing that actually tends not to have the more privileged workers at all. And they want the US to stop persecuting them in the name of anti-trafficking. They are very clear on that.


Lady Emmy September 8, 2014 at 12:16 am

‘Whitesky’- Are you / have you ever been a sex worker?

I’m not liberal nor upper class, though I suppose I’m flattered that my literacy made you think that. I’ll take that as a compliment.

I can’t tell you what ‘prominent’ feminists say, because those aren’t the feminists I have contact with. Those feminists don’t usually stoop to slum in my sort of circles. But the feminists, particularly SWERFs/radfems, who I do encounter are the ones I write about, because they are the ones who affect my life, my well being, and my career. I also have found that all anti sex work feminists tend to claim that sex work is by nature abusive and can not be a free choice- In fact, your mention about the ‘majority’ of sex workers being victims lends itself to exactly the belief you claim not to have.

There ARE a lot of trafficking victims, a lot of women with pimps or who were sold into slavery in various parts of the world. And they are important. But they do NOT compose all sex workers. And in the US/UK, where many feminist theorists reside, ‘victims’ are not the majority. If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say one of the highest-volume sex work areas in the US is phone sex work. There are also lots of strippers, etc. Women forced into prostitution are absolutely NOT the majority of US sex workers.

Frankly, your post reads like an upper class person speaking down to a person who is nowhere near their class level, and is doing the job that works best for themself.

For your point about assault, some fault is mine, I should have been more precise. Some sex workers go their entire careers without being coerced, assaulted, or violated, DURING their job. I have friends who’ve worked in sex work without ever being subject to these things, but many of them experienced them outside their jobs. A large percentage of women will be assaulted during their lifetime, but those assaults often happen outside of and without connection to their work.

And some sex workers, like myself, ARE mistreated in the course of work. I’m also confused as to why you want to silence workers speaking out about their coercion if you feel that ending that is a priority? A large part of why sex workers by choice, like myself, are vulnerable to assault, is because of the stigma and laws about sex work.

I’m lucky; my field has not been criminalized- so I could hypothetically go to the police if I so chose. However, the odds of a sex worker who is assaulted being able to successfully have her attacker jailed are close to nil. If you want sex workers by choice to be safe, you need to start fighting for our safety, instead of fighting to silence us. Your choice to continue to stigmatize us, and guilt trip anyone who takes up our cause, are part of why we’re in the position we’re in.

Right now the sex work industry is unsafe for many people, but we don’t shut down any career that isn’t safe, or shame the people who choose to work in it. That’s not a solution. It’s far wiser to put laws in place to protect workers. Factory work, for instance, was horrifically unsafe before OSHA laws. Outlawing sex work is like outlawing abortion. You won’t stop it from happening. You just stop it from happening safely.


Mali Jay September 8, 2014 at 6:10 am

As someone who was actually sexually trafficked, I side with Lady Emmy here. My experience of sex trafficking doesn’t mean we should treat sex workers with difference experiences as if they were trafficked just because I was. I would in fact say enforcing that narrative is one of the reasons I was unable to prosecute my pimp, because I performed illegal acts he forced me to do, if they find him not guilty I have already confessed to a bunch of crimes. I am opening myself up to liability even seeking help.


Lady Emmy September 9, 2014 at 1:21 am

I’m so sorry to hear this happened to you. Trafficking victims should never be in a situation where they have to self-incriminate to be able to press charges against a pimp or other shitty person who abused them. It’s also a nasty catch 22- if you admit to having been forced to do sexual acts, you are seen as untrustworthy, which makes it harder to convict the pimp. But if you don’t admit it, you have no grounds to prosecute him on. Women deserve better, everyone deserves better.

If I had my way the sex work revolution would happen today, but if it’s going to happen in stages, the laws surrounding people who were trafficked need to change first. Trafficking survivors need better protection- no one should come forward, face the possibility of their pimp walking free, and be subject to legal trouble on top of that for coming forward about their mistreatment.


Lori Adorable September 8, 2014 at 10:33 am

You seem lost.


Robin D September 9, 2014 at 12:44 am

Hahaha I like this response. They’ve probably stuck around since Peech’s post on Maya Angelou, since that got so much outside attention, or they’re a radfem who hate-reads this place. And yet somehow they’ve held onto the idea that they’re a VOICE FOR THE VOICELESS, having no personal experience or stake and probably never having even met a sex worker, they just know so much. Blecchhhh.


Vegan Vixen September 7, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Hi Lady Emmy:

You make such important points and I appreciate you writing this. It’s so important to get across that the SWERF’s do not speak for all people who’ve been in the sex industry non-consensually. Are you familiar with Jill Brenneman? I thought about her as I was reading this. She has spoken and blogged about her experiences of being in the forced and consensual sectors of the sex trade, and has expressed the need to differentiate between these. Jill has been very critical of SWERF’s who use people who’ve been enslaved in the sex industry to promote their own agenda against sex work, which does more to harm sex workers than stop such abuses.

Like you, she has also written very insightful blog entries. At least some are posted in this link: http://deepthroated.wordpress.com/?s=jill+brenneman .


Lady Emmy September 8, 2014 at 12:19 am

Thank you for the link, I’ll check it out!


Lori Adorable September 8, 2014 at 10:33 am

Snaps for this. Thanks for writing this, Lady.


Mr. Fancy September 8, 2014 at 10:35 pm

This is the best piece I’ve ever read on the subject. It is so good to hear/read you speak. Thank you!


Anton Marcos September 25, 2014 at 2:10 am

Ideally, everyone should haver the opportunity to work on what they like, be it sex or not. From a rational point of view there is no logical reason to consider safe sex a bad thing. Quite the contrary. It is a form of exercise and as such is very healthy. So working with sex can be healthier than spending the whole day sitting in an office desk. Even so, the imposed and relative morality of religions create a prejudice against sex work that ends up being much more harmful than the work itself. Having sex is good and is not the fact that someone is charging that will transform sex into something harmful.


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