As I said in my comment, thanks for drawing my attention to your post, ‘Pimps posing as ‘sex worker activists’‘. It raises a whole bunch of interesting issues, lots of which are quite sensitive, so I’ve tried to go very slowly (for my own sake). I start off by having a general-ish chat about who gets prosecuted for what, and why, and some problems with that, and then by way of comparison I look at some of the less-than charming figures who agitate for prohibition (juicy!). And then, I was going to write about how many of the violations we might associate with pimping or trafficking occur in contexts where sex work is criminalised, making sex workers more vulnerable to the depredations both of criminals, and the non-benign State. However, that rendered this post beyond long, so I’ve cut that – I’ll inevitably talk about those issues in other posts.
In your letter to your younger self, you specify that your pimps were white. (“It’s not OK for your (white) pimps to smack you and tell you they’ll kill you.”) You’re obviously aware, then, that language has different implications context-to-context, and that the word ‘pimp’ frequently has racist connotations – so you’re being responsible by attempting to disrupt or avoid that possibility in your post. I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to state that – both in the US and UK – the issue of who gets prosecuted, for what, is hugely shaped by race, class, and gender, among other things. You’ve carefully avoided the racist connotations of the word pimp, but you don’t put any analysis into the way that those connotations might play out in the courts and in society, and I think that’s a weakness in your argument.
Particularly when it pertains to sex work, the law encounters a whole load of marginalised people – hookers, migrants, sexually non-normative women, people who are working class, transgender, queer, or ethnic minority – none of whom have, in general, been able to rely on a fair hearing in court. For instance, “a large number of people whose mug shots have been posted by the Chicago Police Department as individuals arrested for soliciting for prostitution (i.e. buying sex) appear to be transgender women of colour“, i.e laws that are supposed to tackle “demand” are being used against ethnic minority, transgender sex workers, and these women are branded “johns” (and male). Would sex worker rights activist movements be tainted, in your eyes, by contact with these johns? (I know you were dealing with ‘pimps’ not ‘johns’, but I think you’ll see that I’m making a wider point.)
To focus on the specifics of what you said, I’m saying that convictions for (say) ‘pimping’ aren’t necessarily a disinterested reflection of Utter Truth. Margo St James, who you name as an activist convicted of pimping, has always argued that her conviction stems from misogyny – that the judge was punishing her for the crime of being a sexually assertive woman, in 1962. (“My crime? I knew too much to be a nice girl!”) Do the courts treat sexually active women fairly? Fuck no; look at the rape conviction stats. You’re a survivor: you know that women shouldn’t trust the State.
In my post on trafficking, I talk about how I’ve technically been trafficked, as an example of why the law isn’t very good. When the law is that broad, the State inevitably ignores most people who fall under its purview, but has carte blanche to pursue whoever it wants, for whatever reason. As I’ve just pointed out, that’s not very good because the State is hardly a neutral or benign entity, but it’s additionally a bad thing because bad laws make it impossible to distinguish genuine exploitation from collaborative, consensual working arrangements, and that distinction is desperately important for tackling real abuse.
If I want to work out of a friend’s flat – because it’s safer, and we enjoy the company – then, because her name’s on the lease, that makes her technically a brothel-keeper. Is that the same as genuine exploitation? No, of course not. The sex industry has plenty of bad bosses in it, but the law as it stands has no mechanism for distinguishing them from friends who work together, or even functional-but-not-friendly-employer/employee relationships. Those three things are hugely different.
The prohibitionist analysis, whereby all sex work is abuse, of course means that all bosses are therefore exploitative. This leads prohibitionists to argue in favour of laws that make no distinction between sex work and violence, between collaboration and exploitation. But of course there’s a difference – I live that difference. Those laws can then be misused by the State to harass whoever it wants – whether that’s sexual minorities, ethnic minorities, or bad-girl women. I agree that exploitation is a terrible abuse, but if your argument endorses laws that make no distinction between the trafficking that you experienced, and the ‘trafficking’ that I did, then you’re enabling the State to continue to harass whoever it wants: do you trust the police and the courts with that power? When the law (and the language we use) is changed to reflect the reality that some people work together for safety and fun, and some people work in coercive situations that they should be urgently supported to leave, then I can be much surer that the State isn’t merely using the language of exploitation to screw over the people it has screwed over immemorially.
But, fine. I accept that some people who are involved in the sex worker rights movement are nasty people. Proceeding from the assumption that all the allegations you make are both true and unproblematic, does that discredit the whole movement? I’m not sure it does, partly because any movement is inevitably larger than some big names – for instance, I’m (obviously) in Scotland, and I’ve met loads of ace people who care about sex worker’s rights, none of whom are Margo St James or Robyn Few.
Furthermore, though, the prohibitionist side of the argument features some pretty nasty people as well. For instance, the Bush administration. “The HIV/AIDS Act of 2003 […] prohibited funding ‘any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution’“. If I was making an argument rooted in concern for women’s safety (oh wait), I’d be a little embarrassed to be on the same team as the Bush administration, but more important than my hypothetical embarrassment would be my concern that, actually, the US government in the first eight years of the 21st century enacted policies that were disastrous for women (and men) on a global scale. The HIV/AIDS Act of 2003 may as well have come prefixed with the words, “the Promotion of.” This isn’t controversial. Even if every single one of the sex worker rights activists who you accuse of pimping or trafficking was as guilty of those crimes as it is possible to be – and it is possible to be profoundly guilty of those extremely serious crimes – then their contribution to human suffering would still pale in comparison to the industrial quantities of bleakness that Bush et al unleashed on women in America and across the world. I’ll reiterate: these guys are on your side of the argument. They fund it.
Then there’s Melissa Farley. Listen, I’m not in America. The activists you name check are largely American, and they don’t have that much impact on my day to day sex worker activism stuff. Farley, however, is firmly within the mainstream of UK prohibitionist thought – for instance, in the best-selling book The Equality Illusion, 10% of all the references made in the chapter on sex work are to studies by Farley. (Another good handful are by Sheila Jeffreys, recently kicked out of Conway Hall for violating equalities legislation. Yay, feminism! I hope Kat Banyard had the grace to blush when that whole Jeffreys debacle exploded all over British feminism … though, if Kat had blushing capabilities, she might have hesitated to cite Jeffreys at all, so maybe not.) In the 1990s, Farley authored a hilarious text called, ‘Why I Made The Choice To Become A Prostitute‘, which features such sweet-natured gems as, “I figured that laying on my back and getting fucked by hundreds of men, and getting on my knees and sucking thousands of dicks, was the most profound empowerment a woman could have”. And, “I saw a Demi Moore movie and I thought, Wow, what an easy and fun way to make a million dollars”. Are you getting a ‘stupid, filthy whores’ vibe? I sort of am.
Remember, though: Melissa Farley just wants to rescue us prostituted women! That text totally sounds like it was written from a place of deep empathy with survivors, right? Um. I think it is kind of interesting that such a key figure in the prohibitionist movement has such hatred and disdain for the women she is supposedly trying to help. I certainly wouldn’t feel safe having her poking around in my life – for my own good, natch. (Note also this quote from a former member of the Bush administration and current CEO of an anti-trafficking NGO: prostitutes lead “nasty, immoral” lives, for which [we] cannot be found “culpable” only because [we] have no choice. I’m so glad this man is fighting for the rights of women who sell sex. His NGO, the Polaris Project, turns up all over the place, fightin’ for those rights. Hurrah.)
Even in quite a small scale, US anti-trafficking charities have been caught out producing fraudulent research in order to procure illegitimate funds from donors and the government. This diverts funds away from genuine victims of sex trafficking – to you of all people, I don’t need to explain why that is beyond reprehensible. To quote Thomas Wolfe, ‘life is strange and the world is bad’ – and that goes for people at all possible places on the spectrum of the debate. (Interestingly, the terrible tumblr ‘Checkmate, Pro-Choicers!’ posted a weird argument, “Planned Parenthood helps pimps. Checkmate, pro-choicers!” Let’s agree that using the word ‘pimp’ to attempt to shut down debate and deny women bodily autonomy is both irresponsible and naive, and the author of that tumblr should be ashamed. In her defence, she seems pretty young.)
Actually, though, I’m less concerned with the fact that Farley evidently hates the women she has built her career around supposedly ‘helping’, and more that her methodology and data interpretation are so obviously rubbish. This goes doubly, given that evidently neither side of this debate is populated exclusively by angels, so instead of looking for rightness based on personal histories, we might actually need some of those stats.
So, okay. I’ve said that convictions for pimping (etc) aren’t necessarily reflections of Utter Truth, (i) because the law is shit (in ways that prohibitionists support!), and (ii) because our society is shit. I’ve pointed out some instances of where – if we’re disregarding arguments because undisputedly nasty people make them – we should also disregard prohibitionist arguments. The final thing I want to say, before going the fuck to bed, is that the GMB sex work branch has broken off from the IUSW over disagreement – among other things – about the role of bosses in the movement. Sex workers: we can also have these conversations! Like, overselves! Thanks, though, to all those prohibitionists – not Stella – who aren’t and have never been sex workers, who shared Stella’s article. We sex workers could totally never think of a critique of capitalism that might encompass politely rejecting the ‘help’ of bosses without your valuable insight. Oh, wait.
Stella, I hope this helps clarify my thoughts on your article. All the best,