Yesterday, I found myself hanging out in the Scottish Parliament, having a chat with MSP Rhoda Grant about her forthcoming Bill – the one that seeks to criminalise the purchase of sex.
Unfortunately for you, I’m not going to discuss the evidence that my two colleagues presented, partly because I don’t want to travesty their exceptional knowledge and experience by slapdashing it in this context, and partly because some of the evidence was extremely personal. All I’m going to chat about is my feelings about the small amount of stuff she said to me, because I think our exchange was quite revealing, and I’d like to unpick why.
I offered my perspective, which is that her Bill will make me more vulnerable to rape and other forms of assault, and that in countries that have criminalised the purchase of sex, the incidence of HIV has increased among sex workers – so her Bill endangers my safety both physically and in terms of my health. I’ll talk in detail about why I think those things in another post – what I want to focus on here is Rhoda’s reply to me, and its various implications. She listened to what I had to say, and then said, “yes, but you’re not a representative …”.
I don’t recall what word she used – I’m not a representative what? Prostitute? I opened my evidence by saying that I actually am a prostitute, right now, in Glasgow, and that had quite an interesting effect because up until that point it had been prostitute-this and prostitute-that, and after I identified myself as one, right now, we heard quite a lot less of the p-word. Which suggests that on some level she knows its not … polite. I mean, there are more important things than politeness, but you’d think if you were proposing a Bill to rescue a certain section of the population, you’d know how to be polite to them, first.
Anyway, I’m not a representative something. Not a representative stooge-of-the-patriarchy, maybe (my form of false-consciousness is undeniably very meta). Beyond pointing that fact out, Rhoda didn’t really engage with what I was saying, and inevitably, I have a couple of thoughts on this.
Most obviously, to be so blithely dismissed, so easily, I felt indicated a lack of willingness to listen to sex workers, which should the foundation of any legislation pertaining to us, especially if it pretends to have our best interests at heart. (Well, presumably legislation titled, ‘throw those filthy whores in jail before they rot the morals of our society even more’ would not be founded on listening to sex workers, but y’know.) I did not feel very listened-to. Say it with me: nothing about us, without us.
(Even Andrea Dworkin was at least a good listener, or at least so she claims: “if one has to pick one kind of pedagogy over all the others, I pick listening.” Uh, thanks Andrea! Incidentally, the above point is so obvious that I am vaguely embarrassed for everyone involved.)
Secondly, what I was saying was that this legislation increases my chance of being subject to sexual violence. I wasn’t saying, “I am a representative sex worker, therefore X Y Z, and you must believe me because I am all the sex workers”. Duh, I am distinctly not all the sex workers – you got me! I admit it! Now, when are you going to engage with what I was actually saying, which was that your legislation makes me more likely to be subject to violence? Oh, that’s right. Never. I’m not sure that it is good enough, to respond to a woman who is telling you that your actions will make her more vulnerable, by saying, “yes, but IRRELEVANT THING!”. That is not the substance of my statement or concern, and if shouting, “yes, but IRRELEVANT THING!” constitutes the substance of your engagement with me, then you might need to rethink your argument.
One last point about representativeness. The minor stir in the room when I outed myself as a prostitute – and the question about representativeness – both suggest that Rhoda hasn’t met many sex workers. (I’m actually not that unusual, in demographic terms, amongst the escort crowd. The escort crowd is only a segment of the the sex industry, yes, but it is a perfectly thronging segment nonetheless, and if the prohibitionists were less in thrall to their lurid imaginations they would possibly find the continued existence of people like me less disconcerting.) Anyway, my point is: it is not my role in the conversation – or in life – to fulfil the statistical miracle of embodying perfect representativeness. It is the job of legislators to listen carefully to the views of a wide range of sex workers, and legislate, or not, accordingly.
Yes, I am not necessarily representative. No one really is. That is why you need to (again) listen, carefully, to lots and lots of sex workers. If you shut them up with the words, “yes, but you’re not representative”, then you’re not listening. If my voice was one among many, then my experiences would be as equally valid as anybody else’s, and contribute to an evidence-base that was much more than the sum of its parts. It says a huge amount about Rhoda, and nothing at all about me, that my voice is apparently one of the few she’s heard from women currently working in the industry, and thus distorted into unrepresentativeness as a result.
Would you ever demand to speak to a “representative” straight man, or a “representative” dog-owner? Probably not, because you implicitly recognise that there are lots of ways of being a straight man or owning a dog. Demanding that the only current sex worker in the room (in the midst of a discussion about sex work!) be ‘representative’ before you’ll listen to her is just a longer way of telling her to shut up. Which is fine, but drop the pretence that this is about doing good for sex workers.