So! I’ve been thinking about privilege, because I wanted a framework to anatomise some of the ways in which mainstream and anti-sex work feminism reproduces, amplifies, and benefits from whore stigma. Loads of the stuff on that checklist is quite straightforward – at least, in terms of, “this is the law, so” – but some bits are rather more nebulous, so I thought I might unpack a couple of those a little, with reference to some examples I’ve caught in the wild.
Obviously, privilege and whore stigma are different things. Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person – we all have privilege: if you’re reading this, you’re on the internet, and that’s a huge privilege. Whereas, being crap to sex workers does make you a bad person (hella insight round here). However, when I read a lot of the output of mainstream feminism that discusses sex work from a place of unexamined privilege, I do find that loads of the tropes that get called up are powered by whore stigma. That’s were the kick comes from (which makes whore stigma sound a bit like tabasco sauce. Om). Or as they say on the internet: intent, still not magic. To quote that link, “Intent does not, in fact, magically render us unaccountable from the effects of our communication, no more than not intending to step on someone’s toes magically renders us unaccountable from the effects of our movement. Pain caused unintentionally is still authentic pain”. You can keep using nasty words, but you can’t keep telling me they’re not offensive, because they are.
I’m going to use the internet output of the Scottish Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation (SCASE) as my go-to for fresh caught examples, partly because they’re local, partly because they’re nicely typical. I know, I know – why does it even matter? It’s just the rubbish that people talk on the internet. The thing is, though, SCASE are the talking-shop arm of the anti-sex work Women’s Support Project (WSP), who run services for female survivors of gender-based violence – and women’s services are far too fucking important to be run by this bunch of charlatans. This shit matters. The delivery of services to vulnerable or marginalised people, who have already experienced sexual violence – the quality and content of those services is of the absolute utmost importance, and yeah, the SCASE talking-shop is hardly the most influential thing in the world, but its still part of a wider context in which the WSP can hilariously claim to be in the business of “raising awareness” and “public education” … using a definition of ‘public education’ that one presumes Alastair Campbell would recognise from circa 2003. They’ve got to be called out.
i. Nice day for an outing, hm? Or: sex workers, we’re on to you. On the privilege checklist, I talked quite a bit about the role that the fear of being ‘outed’ plays for sex workers, both in general, and in the context of conversations about sex work. Here’s an interesting update from SCASE:
Now, Cat is hardly in the closet. They don’t even explicitly state her occupation. I actually don’t even think this is particularly about Cat – but it is about the use of her full name. By full-naming her, they’re saying to any sex workers reading their page that you, too, will be in danger of being publicly ‘outed’ if you cross us.
I can imagine that you’re justifiably thinking something along the lines of, ‘isn’t that what happens if you get into politics?’ – and yeah, if people disagree with you, they should be able to use your full name while doing so. But let’s slow down and have a think: Cat is already ‘out’ – and thus, un-out-able – because she is fearlessly courageous and politicised. She needs to be fearless, because there is a huge cost associated with being publicly identified or identifiable as a sex worker. There is not an analogous cost associated with, say, clicking ‘like’ on the SCASE Facebook page – which means that by full-naming Cat, SCASE are setting the bar for sex workers to enter the conversation (in Scotland as a whole, not just within their internet presence, given it’s not as if Cat spends much time on their Facebook page) as “must be fearlessly courageous and politicised (coz we’ll out you)”, whereas for everyone else, the standard for entry is, “must be noodling around on Facebook, with an opinion”. (God, I’d like the standard for entry into the debate to be “must be at least a tiny bit informed”, but obviously that would constitute entirely censoring SCASE, which would be unfortunate.)
So, as I say, its not really ‘about’ Cat. It’s about signalling to other sex workers that our names are also potentially public property, with all the ramifications that that entails. That might ‘just’ be unexamined privilege making these implications invisible, but it relies in whore stigma for the ‘kick’ – much as I dislike SCASE, it’s not them who’ll be evicting you or taking your kids away (though it might be them not believing your rape, or, since I work in “women’s issues”, getting me fired): the dirty work is primarily done by the nasty sharp-toothed misogyny that’s already everywhere – but I don’t expect feminists to be using it as a weapon against other women.
ii. Grosso grosso. Let’s talk about yucky-ness. What does being gross about sex workers – provoking a ‘yuck’ – do? How does it harm us, beyond being a bit rude? Here’s an example. There’s some words at the top that I can’t get in the shot, which say “a sailor doesn’t have to prove he’s a man!”, presumably by engaging the services of a sex worker.
And then at the bottom, “remember: there’s no medicine for regret”. I get that they think they’re going for a kind of retro twist on the “men’s choices” line in prohibitionist feminism – but the context in which this poster was produced was one in which the meaning of “regret” meant the regret of getting an STD, and we’re not enough beyond that (we’re barely beyond that at all) for the meaning to have changed. Sex workers are still stigmatised as dirty and disease-ridden, to an extent that violates our human rights. It doesn’t take a genius to see that invoking the still-ubiquitous trope of the sex worker as disease-transmitter will contribute to a culture in which we are at heightened risk of violence, and yet, that seems to be a thought that either has just not occurred to SCASE, or an implication that they’re happy to be invoking. I’d be interested to know which.
Here’s a different example of a similar thing:
That’s quite small, but you should be able to just about see – the bit I’m particularly interested in is the sentence, “men choose to reduce women to sexual commodities and receptacles”. Receptacles. That taps into the trope I just looked at, in terms of sex workers being yucky because we’re diseased: “receptacles” implies (I’m sorry, this whole paragraph is liable to be a profoundly gross) that we’re … um, like, full of (fuck, I can barely even type this) … bodily fluids. Like, our client’s bodily fluids. Which obviously links into disease, and general yuck-factor (sex positivity be damned: I don’t exactly love the phrase “bodily fluids”). Fucking hell. This is so, so vile and gross. You remember these people are strongly linked to the WSP, who provide services to women who may have been in the sex industry, right? Receptacles. I just can’t get over it.
I feel like much of British feminism is engaging in this bizarre gaslighting of sex workers: verbally abusing us is a form of love, and we’re just too
independent headstrong privileged to realise! This topsy-turvy world requires us to accept as perfectly reasonable the prohibitionist proposition that sex workers are simultaneously the Ultimate Oppressed Victim (like, we only can’t admit we’re being raped because we just not strong enough to deal with the consequences, yet), and also, meanie privileged bullies who can shout down those poor lonely voices “speaking up” against the rights of sex wor– … sorry, the sex industry. Speaking up against the sex industry. Yes. That was what I meant. But seriously, if a boyfriend was trying to persuade me to accept a comparable doublethink, I’d drown in red flags. ‘Darling, I need to control you and belittle you in public because I know how best to keep you safe!’
In Amber Hollibaugh’s extraordinarily powerful, prescient essay ‘Desire for the Future: Radical Hope in Passion and Pleasure‘ (please read it), she writes, “… and we can never afford to build a movement in which a woman can ‘lose her reputation’”. As it stands, mainstream feminism is perfectly happy for some women to lose their reputations, because the spectre of the consequences of your lost reputation haunt the edges of the conversation, keeping you either firmly inside the big tent of sloppy thinking, or out in the dark outside – with everything that that implies about your ability to keep safe and participate.