On August 24, a police officer on duty with the Columbus, Ohio police department named Andrew Mitchell shot and killed sex worker Donna Dalton, leaving her two children motherless. Like others who habitually inflict state sanctioned violence onto the bodies of marginalized people, Mitchell says he “feared” for his life, despite friends describing Dalton as “100 pounds wet.” Images from the crime scene show an undeniably dubious scene: Mitchell was not in uniform and, after picking up Dalton, he wedged his unmarked police car against a building, preventing Dalton’s escape. The cop and his apologists claim that Dalton stabbed him, thus, he argues that his gratuitous violence—eight gunshots—was justified.
If a cop has ever cornered you in the sex industry, you know that the experience is its own kind of terrifying, even if you are engaged in legal sex work. The potential for bodily harm at the hands of a cop increases as an individual person’s social capital decreases. This is why so many sex workers and trafficking survivors experience police brutality—not only are we subhuman at a cultural level, we are subhuman at a legal level. Mitchell had an open internal affairs investigation against him at the time of the shooting and many complaints on his record, and he’d already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018. Yet his questionable credibility doesn’t matter when it comes to all these arrests or his shooting of Dalton, because he only requires his status as a cop to justify the criminalization or the killing of a woman suspected of sex work.
In the same new cycle that announced Dalton’s death, sex worker Twitter lamented the use of our ideas in an op-ed by the New York Times. The op-ed, penned by former attorney turned mediocre feminist writer Jill Filipovich, regurgitated some watered down ideas that the sex worker hive mind discussed eons ago. Specifically, the “profoundly misogynist virgin/whore dichotomy imposed on women” and the ways this dichotomy is particularly brutal for sex workers.
Hey @JillFilipovic if you want to stand up for sex workers so badly try doing it by amplifying their voices rather than stealing them
— ana or something #August21 (@whoreganizer) August 24, 2018
Most sex workers are intimately familiar with the “virgin/whore dichotomy” (which is more aptly referred to as the Madonna/ whore complex, but OK, Jill). The fact that a formerly anti-sex work “feminist” could write about the ways sex workers are “not often believed” without once mentioning police brutality is the kind of unaffectedness that most privileged white feminists display when attempting insight on the sex industry.
Of course, Twitter is a semi-public platform and ideas are for sharing. But Filipovic has, in the past, proclaimed that “sex work is incredibly problematic.” In her NYT op-ed, Filipovic neither acknowledges her previous stance on the sex industry—which presumably does not extend to Stormy Daniels, the sex worker whom she praises—nor does she attribute her new brand of feminism to decades of dialogue and tireless work from sex workers themselves.
The co-optation of sex workers’ ideas by those who never risk anything themselves, who never acknowledge or experience the body count we do first hand, is wrong.
The resolute support for Stormy Daniels juxtaposed with the silence in response to the social and literal deaths of sex workers, specifically state-sanctioned violence against street based sex workers like Donna Dalton, shows the hollowness of the rebranding of white feminism as “sex worker inclusive.” Without acknowledging how anti-sex work feminists themselves have unapologetically bolstered the police state that targets and murders sex workers, the use of our ideas is less like a change of heart and more like outright appropriation. In fact, even Filipovic’s op-ed is apologetic for the very systems in place that allow for the kind of violence that Dalton experienced. “The justice system is actually stepping in,” she writes of Cohen’s recent conviction, engendered, in part, by Stormy Daniels’ testimony. It is deafeningly ignorant to paint the justice system as sympathetic to sex workers; it is precisely this kind of ignorance from which “feminist” support of police intervention into the lives of sex workers arose.
Filipovic continues, “Ms. Daniels is a sex worker, making her the kind of ‘bad woman,’ scorned for her work, who is not often believed when she indicts a powerful man.”
Yeah, Jill. We know. And all of us in the sex workers’ rights movement have been talking and writing about the impossibility of being believed as a “bad woman” ever since Miss Major found her friend Puppy murdered by a client in 1970. Likewise, in 1974, Margo St. James demanded an end to the violent “pussy patrols” that allow men—particularly cops— to abuse sex workers with impunity. Perhaps it just took NYT readers fifty years to catch up?
But that is precisely how appropriation works. By the time mainstream culture gets ahold of truly revolutionary ideas, decades after their invention, the ideas are sold to the public as novel while their creators are relegated to obscurity.
I will find it in myself to be kinder to people who appropriate sex workers for their feminist brand only when it’s convenient when cops are not killing sex workers
— Melissa Gira Grant (@melissagira) August 25, 2018
In a blog post titled Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex, Filipovic states “Yes, of course women should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, and of course there are many sex workers who aren’t trafficked or forced into the trade. But that smacks a bit too much of “I choose my choice!” feminism, which I find to be incredibly intellectually lazy.”
Never mind the obvious critique of the intellectual laziness of appropriating marginalized voices. I’m more concerned with how said appropriation contributes to a culture of violence against sex workers, violence that has once again left two young children without their mother.
Prior to lavishing Stormy Daniels in feminist solidarity, Filipovic argued that sex work would not exist in a feminist utopia. I am reminded of Patrick Califia’s work on the matter, “Whoring in Utopia”, in which he argued the exact opposite from his queer sex worker experience nearly 20 years before Filipovic contemplated the matter. In her piece, Filipovic states, “[In Utopia], sex would be a fun thing, a collaborative thing, always entered into freely and enthusiastically and without coercion.”
The false dichotomy between “fun” sex and coercive sex contributes to the cultural belief that sex only happens for one of two reasons. This false dichotomy contributes to what Gayle Rubin identified in 1984 as the Charmed Circle of Sexual Hierarchy: the false dichotomy between “good” and “bad” sex creates a hierarchy of bodies wherein socially and economically privileged people get to define consent for the rest of us. It’s why Stormy Daniels is a national treasure to the same women who voted for FOSTA and why Filipovic feels entitled to the ideas of sex workers without one iota of insight into the daily, lived experiences of those who are marginalized within the industry.
Reporting on the death of Dalton, Melissa Gira Grant notes that the Columbus Division of Police spokesman Sgt. Rich Weiner said of sex work: “[it] is such a nuisance to the neighborhood—that’s why we work these types of incidents.”
Because street based sex work exists outside of the “Charmed Circle,” a hierarchy that feminists like Filipovic helped to create, violence against these marginalized bodies flies under the radar. The “state intervention into working class lives,” as sociologist Gayle Hawkes identifies it, has always shared a seat at the table with white feminism. From moral crusaders in Victorian London to mediocre feminist writers for the NYT, middle and upper-class white women have a long history of using sex workers for their own pernicious gains. They like us when we have good ideas or threaten to dismantle a corrupt presidency but remain chillingly absent when we die in the fucking street… or in a cop’s car.
Dalton’s tragic murder and Filipovic’s failure to give credit where it is due demonstrate how cultural dehumanization is often codified. On the one hand, I’m happy to see formerly anti sex work feminists mature in their philosophies. But if the maturation in their cultural attitudes does not coincide with accountability for police brutality, it is nothing if not rebranded violence.