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 me—both 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 TERFs—Trans Exclusionary Reactionary Feminists—as 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.
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 quiet—they’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.