Educating Rhoda, consultation edition.

I’ve cut my introductory paragraph because it was a necessary yawn-fest. Re-reading this now, in the cold light of having had several proper nights sleep and a sensible break, I can think of approximately seven thousand things I should have said, and seven thousand more that I should have said better. This response is quite personal and idiosyncratic – I contributed to an official response in a different context, and witnessed the creation of several further badass official responses, and all of those were necessarily more measured, so I felt that those bases had been covered by people with exponentially more knowledge than me, and that the best thing I could do would be to take a different approach. Which is what this is.

Your consultation document has a section on terminology that could perhaps be generously described as postmodern, in the sense that it appears to be structured mainly by absences. For instance, ‘terminology’ fails to define either of the two words that are used incessantly throughout your text – namely, ‘exploitation’, and ‘demand’. (More on both of those later; I’m merely pointing out a rather striking gap at this stage.) One word you do discuss (thanks for that) is ‘prostitute’. Here’s a reminder of what you said:

“… Many words can be derogatory, some describe what is believed to be a chosen profession, and others promote stereotypical ideas. Throughout this consultation the word prostitute will be used to designate a person who is exploited sexually while recognising that a minority of individuals state that they have chosen to be a prostitute.”

There are a couple of items I’d like to unpick in this paragraph. “Many words can be derogatory”. Yes – ‘prostitute’ is widely considered to be one such word, but do go on[1]. “ … and others promote stereotypical ideas”. Goodness, well, I’m a little surprised you’re opposed to that, given that you’re pushing forward a piece of legislation that has been described by one academic as “based on […] sexist and paternalistic notions”, but that’s not yet my main point either. I’m very interested in your phrase, “describe what is believed to be a chosen profession”. This is written in the passive, rather than active voice, so we’re left in the dark about who is doing this ‘describing’. Could it, perhaps, be sex workers? Naming our own experiences? Did you consider that detail unimportant?

Your use of the passive voice here allows you to avoid the question of who is doing the describing – in such a way as to erase sex workers voices (we’re not describing ourselves thusly, oh no – an anonymous third party is doing so) – which rather neatly encapsulates your view of sex workers as objects to be acted upon (“saved”, maybe), instead of agents acting in our own lives, does it not? Apparently other people describe us. We might wonder where we were when this was occurring. Additionally, the passive voice here (plenty of active first person elsewhere, I notice – “I believe”, you firmly tell us at the start of paragraph 11) enables you to cast doubt on our ability to name our own experiences – without having to acknowledge this rather … impolite – disbelief as your own.

Let’s look more closely at what I mean by impolite disbelief. “What is believed to be”. I’ve already explained why the question of who believes so is quite important, at least for those of us who like to be seen as agents not objects (that would be: all of us). But why not “some describe what is a chosen profession”? After all, you quickly go on to describe these most brazen hussies as “a minority” (as ever, more on this to come), so you do seem to believe we exist (very kind). Are we not the experts on our own lives because of … false consciousness? Some kind of weird cosmic error? Are other women who live in compromise under “gender inequality” (so much more 21st century than ‘patriarchy’, I agree) – for instance, my married or make-up wearing sisters – are they also to be patronised in this manner? “…‘Happy marriage’ describes what some believe to be a chosen state”. Hm.

You do it again, of course, in the same paragraph. “… a minority of individuals state that they have chosen to be a prostitute.” Let’s try some other examples. ‘A minority of men state that they have experienced sexual harassment.’ ‘A minority of men have experienced sexual harassment’. Do you see the difference? Maybe when discussing a choice between the steak and the risotto, these nuances could pass unnoticed into the abyss. When discussing something as delicate as other people’s capacity to speak meaningfully of their own marginalised experiences, it might behove you to at least pretend to try to be polite, or risk looking needlessly inflammatory. Not the best bedrock for policy, eh?

The choice between the steak and the risotto brings me onto a further, er, quibble with your language. “A chosen profession”. Let me tell you about ‘choice’. I graduated into a recession; most of my cohort were either unemployed (a fairly horrible state these days; endless stupid hoops to jump through to prove you’re ‘looking’ for jobs which don’t exist), or being ground down in bars and cafes and pubs, being tired and – ooh, your favourite word – kind of exploited, actually. I’ve waitressed; I’ve worked in bars, and I’ve made coffee in fancypants supposedly-ethical artisan stores (living wage? Yeah right). Bar work was the only one which made me even nearly enough money to live on, but I got pretty sick of it because of that one time I was sexually assaulted by my manager. So when I graduated, and was faced with a ‘choice’ between two different jobs in the service industry, both of which were not prestigious, both of which came with a medium-high risk of sexual assault, neither of which were presented in a parcel labelled ‘Dream Job’ – when presented with that ‘choice’, I ‘choose’ the option with the higher hourly wage, which is how I ended up being a sex worker instead of doing bar work.

When you say “choice”, you’re either ignorant of the fact that people make the best ‘choice’ they can with the options they have, or you imagine that we all had a ‘choice’ to be, oooh, President of Harvard Law School, but we turned it down just so we could ruin your statistics by turning up in the hooker census, all mouthy with opinions you don’t like or want to hear. There’s not the clear bright line that you seem to imagine between those who ‘chose’ this and those who ‘didn’t’, because beyond the most appalling cases of coercion (c.f, the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers), ‘choice’ only ever means “these are all non-ideal, but what’s my best option?” Some people have fewer options. Migrants whose immigration status is in limbo are denied the right to either work, or to receive benefits. Where do you think this policy of forced destitution leaves people? Since you profess to be so concerned about those who are denied a ‘choice’, why not legislate in such a way as to offer migrants in limbo another choice to add to their current options of a) homelessness or b) working illegally? I shouldn’t need to spell out to you, of course, what working illegally does to one’s chances of being – that word again – exploited.

Let’s circle back on the word ‘prostitute’. I noted at the start of this perhaps unfairly-close read (I believe that people often reveal a lot in the minor details; as done small-ly, so big, etc) that some of us meanie nitpickers might consider your use of the word ‘prostitute’ to be in fact, ‘derogatory’. Which meanie nitpickers am I referring to? Let’s start with your supporters in the women’s sector. I’ve just looked through the websites of Zero Tolerance, the Women’s Support Project, SCASE, and a ‘values and policy guidelines’ document from Rape Crisis, and I’ve found exactly zero, nil, nada instances where they’ve used the word ‘prostitute’ the way you have. Of course they use variants! Mostly they use versions of “women exploited in prostitution”, “prostituted women”, and “women in prostitution”.

Oh, I know you do say, “the word prostitute will be used to designate a person who is exploited sexually”, yes indeed. That falls in line with the women’s sector crowd, you might argue. The thing is, I have this funny belief that words have meanings, and that those meanings have implications for the real world. You can’t just say, “the words ‘Bad Person’ will be used to designate a person who is exploited by all the badnesses in the world’, and then write a policy document in which you repeatedly refer to Bad People, and not have the implications of your word choice, and your word’s meaning, outrun your qualification at the beginning about Bad People only being exploited by all the world’s badnesses!

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’” Note: this is not a recommendation for policy.
If you don’t think this is important, perhaps you should ask your backers among the women’s organisations why they so studiously avoid the convenient p-word, and get into all sorts of awkwardish circumlocutions in order to suggest that working in the sex industry is a situation and not an identity. I don’t agree with the WSP on much, and I imagine they’d prefer me not to so vocally ‘agree’ with them on this point, but ask them – or Rape Crisis, or Zero Tolerance – what they’d think about a support worker using the language you’ve used. You should wonder what it says about you that a support worker would quite possibly be disciplined, and they should wonder what it says about them that they’re supporting legislation that uses language so stigmatizing that they themselves never, ever use it.

Let’s talk about the word “minority”, as in “a minority of individuals state that they have chosen to be a Bad Pers— … sorry, prostitute”. You don’t give us a reference for this ‘fact’, which is surprising given your referencing is so scrupulous elsewhere. Not knowing where its from makes it difficult for me to discuss – are we talking about the anecdata you’ve gained from many years of attentive and empathic listening to people in the industry? Are we talking about some well-thought of, thoroughly researched, multiply-cited study? You don’t say. I’m a little confused; I’m sure you have so many studies ‘proving’ this ‘fact’, but the lack of citations makes it look like you’ve just made it up in the hope that it’ll pass unnoticed, because most people don’t know much about the sex industry, and it sort of sounds like ‘one of those things things that everybody sort-of knows, and thus must be sort-of true’, right?

Well, I’ll bite. Nick Mai conducted a study of migrant sex workers in London – migrants, let’s remind ourselves, being one of the more vulnerable demographics for exploitation or coercion, because they might be working illegally, be unsure of their rights, or have encountered racism or other structural or personal barriers to accessing state support that they’re entitled to. They might be victims of trafficking, as you so helpfully highlight. So you’d expect exploitation and/or coercion to be at its most endemic amongst this population. What were Dr Mai’s findings? He found that “only a minority, amounting approximately to 6 per cent of female interviewees, felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex in circumstances within which they had no share of control or consent”[2]. Oh. Or there’s a 2004 study of 294 outdoor sex workers in Miami – again, those who work on the street are one of the most vulnerable populations – which found that “almost all preferred the term ‘sex worker’ or ‘working girl’, and referred to themselves as such”[3]. Of course, preferring the term ‘sex worker’ doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve ‘chosen’ to work in the industry – I’m an example of how ‘choice’ is far more complicated than you’ve made it out to be.

One could imagine a situation of perfectly free choice. Lottery winners perhaps experience this (although, even they can’t just decide the day after their big win to take up the mantle of open heart surgery, there and then). One could also imagine a situation in which a person considered their livelihood to be a job, to be work, despite not having entered into it through perfectly free, unencumbered, gravityless ‘choice’. Most cleaners, bar staff, office staff – most workers fall under this category. By eliding “those who want to be called something other than ‘prostitute’” with “those who got into the sex industry through pure, pure choice”, you make self-identified sex workers seem like a very small minority indeed: after all, how many hooker lottery winners can there be? It is obvious that this elision, between preferred language, and the idea of ‘choice’ functions as an attempt to discredit those who would self-identify as workers, by making us seem as rare and as privileged as lottery winners. In fact it demonstrates your problematically simplistic understanding of the realities of peoples’ lives, the concept of work, and the meaning of choice.

Of course, the less intricate reason that a more casual reader might have for questioning your confident designation of “minority” is contained within paragraph 26. “It is difficult to estimate the number of people involved or affected by prostitution in Scotland due to the lack of reliable data available […] the exact number of those involved in indoor prostitution is not known”. How can you possibly know who is and isn’t a minority, if you literally don’t know who you’re talking about? Seriously. Please let us know.

I’ve offered good evidence of even potentially quite marginalised or vulnerable sex working populations experiencing agency, and conceptualising of their identities as workers, and you’ve offered no evidence, and subsequently had to acknowledge that you don’t even know who you’re talking about. It doesn’t look great.

To move on to the word ‘exploitation’, a word that you use seven times on the first page of your introduction and yet never tell us exactly what it is being signified. Is the meaning so clear? You state, “I believe that prostitution in Scotland is a form of violence against women and sexual exploitation. [ … ] prostitution is a form of commercial sexual exploitation. [ … ] Prostitution is harmful to those who are exploited”.

It seems pretty clear that you’re saying that all prostitution is “exploitation”. Is it? (Yes, yes, I know that’s what the Scottish government policy document says – but there are plenty of Scottish government policy documents saying things like, “we are best placed to govern ourselves”, which isn’t something you’d necessarily agree with, no? So ‘the government says it, therefore it must be true’ doesn’t really stand.)

I’m confused. Is selling sex exploitation if … you’re earning £10,000 an hour? Most people would say not. What if you’re earning £2.50 an hour? Where does exploitation start? Under £50 an hour? What about if you’re a lottery winner selling sex? … For £35 an hour? What about webcamming, which often involves seeing a very high percentage of your earnings go to the webmaster – but obviously involves no actual bodily contact with strange (or non-strange) men. Is that more exploitative (percentage cut) or less (no bodily contact)? You think these examples are stupid, but actually this is much more complicated than you’ve made out, because human beings aren’t economic machines, rationally seeking to maximise income and output from a perspective of objective fact-gathering.

For example, for nearly a year I worked, for free (that is, £0.00) for a women’s organisation that will now be putting in a submission to this consultation describing the work for which I am paid rather more than zero Scottish pounds as ‘exploitation’[4]. We’re not rational, money-seeking machines, remember – sometimes we do things like work for free because we believe in something, for instance in the cause of having other women’s backs even if they’ve not always got ours (ahem), and because the economic life of individuals is nothing like the economic life of JP Morgan – legally obliged to always and everywhere seek the best deal for shareholders regardless of sentiment or complication (as I’m sure you know). Will you also be putting forward a Bill seeking to criminalise those who use the services of women’s organisations that run on (female) volunteer labour? After all, those service-users come to us because of our gender unequal society, and having their needs met by a team of all-female, unpaid workers could certainly look a lot like gendered exploitation to an objective Martian.

Oh, wait. Working for free for a women’s organisation falls under the category of ‘nice things that nice middle class ladies do’ (and, obviously, I did it because I wanted to make the world slightly less rubbish), whereas selling sex (for money! Let’s be tautologically clear) must always and everywhere be synonymous with exploitation, because its just not the kind of thing you could imagine the feminist-ish daughters of your friends doing. Well, there’s a whole world out there, you know, populated by people whose lives and priorities are evidently not only just not familiar to you – but seemingly entirely unimaginable. That’s okay. But stop punishing us.

To move on to ‘demand’, your other undefined yet crucial term. A fairly standard statement from the consultation document goes, “the demand from the sex industry and those seeking to purchase sexual activity is recognised as the cause and reason for the supply of women”.

Well, goodness, that sounds pretty clear and unambiguous. The UN probably agrees with you. Let’s have a look.

“ …. it is important to acknowledge the limits of a term [demand] that is not properly defined, is under-researched and is still subject to debate and confusion”. – United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


And: “… there is no international consensus on the central question behind any economic analysis of trafficking …” – Commentary on Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking.

At paragraph 20, you tell you tell us that, “prostitution acts as a serious barrier to equality and dignity by reducing sexual activity and individuals to a commodity”. I’m not clear why selling services reduces me to a “commodity”, but from reading your consultation, I have certainly do have a strong sense of what it is like to be reduced to a commodity. Again and again, you refer to me as if I am an object, not a person: “the buying of individuals for sexual purposes … “ (paragraph 20, again). What would “buying [me]” even mean? I’ve sold sex thousands of times. I’ve always retained the ownership of my ‘self’. Your language denies me any agency (“ … the supply of women”), and is bereft of any sense that I’m anything more meaningful than an object, buffeted by economic storms presumably too large and difficult for me to comprehend, resist, or use.

The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women – who might be said to know something of exploitation, migrant labour, and the sex industries, no? – agree with my response to your text[5]. They write, “demand-based discourses appear to recognise [migrant] workers only as ‘product’ to fit simplistic economic analogies, rather than as persons with rights and aspirations”[6] (emphasis mine). I have never felt “reduced to a commodity” through selling my labour. Even when I was most powerless, for example when I was raped by a client, I never considered that he had, what – ‘robbed’ me? There is work, and there is rape, and when you claim that these two things are somehow on a continuum because my body or my consent is an [‘exploited’] “commodity” instead of positing me as a fully human person, you’re the person who is rendering me an object and thus my consent irrelevant. The language of your consultation turns women into “commodities”; the sex industry merely pays us for a combination of physical and emotional labour, similar to that performed by airline stewardesses, massage therapists, and childminders.

I’d like to talk briefly about gender inequality. I’m going to use an analogy that I hope will help you understand why this response – and no doubt other responses that you’ve garnered from sex workers – has been so resistant to the blandishments of your good intentions.

Imagine I was really concerned about gender inequality (crazy thought, I know. Obviously I love it), and I looked at the world and I thought about how women are often brought to the necessity of having an abortion by factors that are heavily influenced by patriarchy. For example, women earn less than men, and therefore many women feel that they can’t afford to bring up a child, especially in a lone-parent household. Or maybe they fear violence – domestic violence has been shown to almost always intensify (or, frequently, start) during a woman’s pregnancy. Or they’re pregnant as a result of rape! All of those reasons for wanting an abortion are not-exactly-free-choices, that are brought about by gender inequality, right?

So, I thought about this, and I decided that the thing to do, to make our society more equal, would be to criminalise abortion. Not the women, you understand! Mostly they’re victims, except on the few occasions when they claim to be hussies (and everybody knows you can just ignore the wishes of hussies. Conveniently, victims don’t have any wishes, except to be silent while you save them by telling them what’s best). No, I’ll criminalise those who fuel the demand for abortion, namely the doctors who provide it. If there was no ‘demand’, then the ‘supply’ (women needing abortions) would vanish, right[7]?

Plus, abortion perpetuates gender inequality by conveying to men that they can have consequence-free access to women’s bodies. It objectifies us by stripping us of the full humanity of our mothering role, which is always and everywhere, to every woman regardless of her circumstances or wish for a child, sacred. (Mocking this isn’t mocking the fact that for most women, motherhood is sacred. But most people who have abortions already have kids, and I think they’d appreciate being allowed to be the experts on their own lives – to decide when they want a child, and when they need an abortion.)

I actually don’t know what your politics around reproductive justice are, so this is kind of a risk. Maybe I’m just giving you ideas, and you’re like, “goodness yes, all of this is so very true! Abortion will be next on my crusade to beat patriarchy!”, in which case, I can only apologise profusely to my sisters throughout Scotland. I’ll be with you at the barricades, etc.

But I suspect that actually, even if you and I maybe differ in some details (I’d like to see an end to the ‘two doctors’ requirement, while it seems quite a mainstream view among politicians these days to talk of cutting the 24-week limit “in line with medical evidence”, ha), you do in fact support most women in getting most abortions – the vast majority of which being performed at under twelve weeks, etc. And therefore you can see that a person who was seriously making this argument would be getting their causes and effects horribly mixed up, and that actually the admirable cause of ‘tackling gender inequality’ would be profoundly hindered, not enhanced, by criminalising the ‘demand side’ of abortion.

That’s exactly what you’re doing to sex workers, which is one of the reasons why we’re furious (the other main reason being your casually disingenuous misuse and distortion of serious, nuanced academic evidence, as if our lives aren’t important enough to read beyond the abstract of any given paper[8] before you wade in to legislate on the issue). You’re condemning us to the very real equivalent of backstreet abortions, based on an argument that would embarrass an author of dystopian fiction – on the grounds of being ‘too topsy-turvy’.

I’m very conscious of the fact that, by alluding, earlier in my response, to my experience of rape within the sex industry, I’ve potentially given you another anecdote to use against me and my sex working friends – “even the emancipated have a rubbish time!”, etc. I’d like to highlight that using my disclosure of rape against me, and erase the complexity of my experiences and the extent to which I’m qualified to speak about them, would be a pretty messed-up, non-feminist thing to do. Maybe you think I’m being too harsh, almost scolding you for something you haven’t yet done, but you should be aware of the fact that this co-option of our experiences, which simultaneously invokes our bodies even it renders us invisible, is something that sex workers are frequently subjected to by those – such as yourself – who would talk for us[9].

I’ve tried to protect myself against this by also mentioning my experiences of sexual violence while working in a bar. I look forward to your forthcoming legislation criminalising the convivial purchase of alcohol. As it happens, I brought up these topics because they each seemed relevant to the issue I was addressing at the time, but they’re not the site of any particular trauma in my psyche. The pain of experiencing sexual violence, has, to me, been transient and context-dependent, whereas the feelings of frustration, objectification, erasure and injustice of reading the ‘evidence’ and arguments that you’ve marshalled here and elsewhere feels much more profound and long-lasting.

Thank you sincerely for the opportunity to convey to you my very not-succinct thoughts on this complex issue. If you want to help us make the sex industry safer, sex workers will no doubt be happy to gift you many of our hard-won insights, to help you craft a better piece of legislation. I hope that you will consider listening to us and taking our concerns on board.

An anonymous female sex worker.

Footnotes (haphazard)
[1] ScotPEP, obviously includes the word ‘prostitute’ in its name, as the first ‘p’. This reflects the fact that the organisation was founded at a time when this was the norm – see also CalPEP, TamPEP, etc. ScotPEP these days generally uses the term ‘sex worker’.
[3] Kurtz, S., Surratt, H., Inciardi, J., & Kiley, M. (2004). Sex work and date violence. Violence Against Women, 10, 357–385.
[4] I noticed you recently said that those who “choose” sex work “don’t care” about those who didn’t. Thanks for that. Do let me know when you’ve worked for free for a year counselling women who’ve been raped or beaten up by violent partners. Obviously I was just doing that for some kind of nefarious gain, then.
[5] In the same report, referenced below, GAATW also write “it’s puzzling to see how such an ambiguous concept like ‘demand’ is used to simplify a complex issue as trafficking [ …] there isn’t a lot of clarity on what ‘demand’ actually means. The ambiguity around ‘demand’ can often make catchphrases such as ‘trafficking is supply and demand’ more credible than they might otherwise appear.” Interesting!
[6], p10.
[7] There’s more detail on this argument here:
[8] I’m particularly noting your use of Eric Neumayer’s LSE paper comparing trafficking inflows between states where sex work is either legalised or prohibited, where you or your researcher quote the abstract, and disregard the detail in the body of the text – for instance, “the quality of data is relatively low”, which might be germane to the issue, no? Also, “ … [this topic] needs to be subjected to future scrutiny. More research
in this area is definitely warranted, but it will require the collection of more reliable data to establish firmer conclusions”. Did you read only the abstract, and think that was enough, or did you read more but decide to quote the abstract because it seems to convey a rather firmer conclusion than the actual study? Neither of these options say great things about your approach to evidence.

9 thoughts on “Educating Rhoda, consultation edition.

  1. Pingback: Glasgowsexworker pwns a “choice” idiot |

  2. I read this all the way through now. the submission would be really quite funny and amusing if it were not such a serious subject. Maybe you should follow @melodybbw onto the stage an appear at next years fringe. I would definitley make the attempt to attend. I do hope Rhoda Grant gives it the same time I have spent reading it.

      • Aaaw, thank you! It is indeed long, & so I am very impressed by all people who actually read it ;-). It kind of ended up being snarky as a by-product of my being sat too long in one room, reading & re-reading articles about sex work until loopyness descended upon my brain, y’know? Ha.

  3. Your bit of linguistic analysis is spot on, GSW. The use of the passive voice is a well-known means of disguising agency, and is often ideologically loaded. More commonly, it’s used by those in power to distance themselves for decisions for which they are responsible. (My Ph.D. was on corporate communication with employees, and the passive was often used to make sackings appear out of thin air with no mention of a managerial decision.) What is utterly outrageous about the MSP’s proposal is its total unwillingness to engage with people actually doing sex work.

  4. I really love your blog and this has been one of my favourite posts to read. Your writing is eloquent and funny, and you regularly blow my mind with how in depth and readable your analysis is. I really hope Rhoda agrees with me and is able to take at least some of what you said in!

  5. I enjoyed the snark (a lot), but I hope also that you succeeded a little bit in educating Rhoda, or at least causing some cognitive dissonance. I am interested to hear what happens next. Also, how can a woman who is not a sex worker (who lives in the U.S.) assist sex workers in their efforts to be respected as agents?

  6. TL;DR sorry but this sounds like a complaint/rant against the system as opposed to a truly enlightening, detached meditation on the nature of prostitution, maybe i was looking for something else entirely but you write well, keep at it~!

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