Earlier this year, The New Inquiry published this quiz, “Are You Being Sex Trafficked?” which appeared in an earlier form here on Tits and Sass. Katha Pollitt hinged part of her “Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to Be the New Normal?” essay on the imagined qualities of TNI’s writers and audience:
Of course, if you are reading the New Inquiry, chances are you’re not being sex trafficked; if you’re a sex worker, chances are you’re a grad student or a writer or maybe an activist—a highly educated woman who has other options and prefers this one. And that is where things get tricky. Because in what other area of labor would leftists look to the elite craftsman to speak for the rank and file? You might as well ask a pastry chef what it’s like to ladle out mashed potatoes in a school cafeteria. In the discourse of sex work, it seems, the subaltern does not get to speak.
The problem is not that the subaltern was not getting to speak, but that Pollitt was unable to listen because of her own ideas about how trafficking victims should present. We asked Tara, the author of the quiz, to respond.
On April 2nd I was at the Freedom Network’s Human Trafficking Conference in San Francisco speaking to a group of law enforcement and service providers about how to do outreach to people who are trafficked in to the commercial sex trade. I was there as part of a federal program designed to offer the experience and expertise of sex trafficking victims like myself with the goal of improving services to other sex trafficking victims. The other survivor presenting and I both had extensive experience as youth involved in the sex trade, as adult sex workers, and as social service providers. We spoke of our experiences with law enforcement and service providers and made recommendations to those present about how they could best provide outreach to sex trafficking victims.
At the end, the facilitator flipped through our feedback forms and laughingly told us that one person thought that our presentation hadn’t been about sex trafficking at all. Apparently there are rules for being a good victim: 1. Victims should cry 2. They should talk about horrible things done to them by criminals, but not by the police 3. They should not have opinions, and 4. If they do have opinions, they should present themselves as traumatized enough so that those opinions are easily discountable. If victims don’t behave this way, their status as victims can be called into question.
The same day I was spilling my guts about my dad pimping me out as a kid, Katha Pollitt’s “Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work To Be The New Normal?” was published. In it, she mentioned my writing at The New Inquiry and wrote that “chances are [I’m] a grad student or a writer or maybe an activist—a highly educated woman who has other options and prefers this one.” She’s right: I have become a graduate student, a writer, and an activist. Those seem to be the ways for women like me to get our voices heard. Rather than listening to privileged women like me, she said that people should listen to “the subaltern…the women at the heart of this debate: those who are enslaved and coerced—illegal immigrants, young girls, runaways and throwaways, many of them survivors of sexual trauma, as well as transwomen and others cast out of mainstream society.”
Let’s be honest: she doesn’t care about my victim credentials, unless I present as a good, sobbing, opinionless victim she can use as trauma porn to promote her own ideas. She doesn’t care that thirty percent of the violence experienced by sex trafficking victims is at the hands of the police, or that according to the Ohio Attorney General’s 2012 Human Trafficking Annual Report, the most common buyers of trafficking victims worked in law enforcement. If she really cared about the voices of “the subaltern,” she would have listened to groups like the Young Women’s Empowerment Project and supported decriminalizing victims of sex trafficking instead of whining that sex work might be seen as normal. Oh, by the way, we do know the difference between sex and a piece of pie: That’s why we charge $300 for one and $3 for the other.
What if sex work was seen as normal? She said it encourages rape by making men feel entitled to sex. Has being able to buy a piece of pie ever made you feel entitled to assault a waitress or smash a pie case to get a piece? No, this is all about her discomfort with other people having sex in ways she doesn’t approve of. But there’s no acceptable universe where her moral comfort is more important than other people’s safety.
Ms. Pollitt went to Harvard and Columbia and has published four books and won a bunch of awards. It certainly looks like she has a lot of power in shaping the views of modern feminists. I hope she’ll consider using her influence on behalf of “the subaltern” instead of trying to shut us up—even if we break all the good victim rules by having opinions.
Ecowhore is a sex worker of many kinds, an anarcho-primitivist, and a lover of the world. She has written two Kindle books, Whore Diaries: My First Two Weeks As An Escort and Whore Diaries II: Adventures in Independent Escorting. Read more at ecowhore.com