Being anti-rape must not involve being anti sex-work

Glasgow’s upcoming Reclaim The Night march has a slightly baffling message this year. Rather than being simply a march against rape, it also appears to be a march against sex work.

It starts at the very title of the march: “WOMEN ARE NOT FOR SALE”. While this could be construed as, perhaps, a critique of capitalism or an anti slavery message, its intent becomes clear as one delves into their press release:

“…in our call for the elimination of all forms of violence against women – violence that includes rape, sexual assault, prostitution and pornography, trafficking, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation…

This year the theme of the Glasgow event will be “WOMEN ARE NOT FOR SALE IN SCOTLAND”. We want to speak out in support of the importance of promoting equality in Scotland for all women, using a challenging demand approach to prostitution and highlighting potential legislation to support this.”

The emphasis, of course, is mine. One of these things is not like the other. One of these things, is, in fact, a diverse set of roles which fall under the umbrella term of “sex work”. The blanket assertion that sex work is violence against women reflects a somewhat dated mode of thinking in the present.

While not every sex worker is the stereotypical “happy hooker”, it is true that a lot of women choose to do this job. In a capitalist system, it may in fact be rather a good option for work, as one has more free time than under a 9-5 job, but for similar if not better reimbursement for labour. Due to the intersecting oppressions of capitalism and patriarchy, this is of course not a truly free choice, but, likewise, it can hardly be termed “violence against women”.

In fact, what Reclaim the Night are trying to do could also be classed as “violence against women”. They are seeking to bring in legislation which would make it harder for sex workers to work. While they are careful not to target the women themselves with demands for criminalisation, criminalising punters will have effects on sex workers. Let us remember that this is a job for these people, in a climate where there aren’t many jobs. The immiseration of poverty is already apparent in millions of people. People are starving, homeless, dying. Why on earth would Reclaim The Night want to consign more women to this fate?

Ultimately, the view put forward by Reclaim the Night displays a devastating lack of intersectional thinking. They are not showing solidarity with their sisters in the face of oppressions other than patriarchy. And sex workers need solidarity: their occupational hazards are violence against women. It is not what they are doing that is violence against women, but what they experience.

Reclaim the Night don’t seem to be giving any sex workers platform to speak about how we can ally with them to best give the support that they need in ending this oppression.  Instead, Reclaim the Night are focusing their work against sex workers. It’s entirely possible to be anti-rape and not be anti sex work, if you are willing to think intersectionally, have your preconceptions challenged and ally with those who experience intersectional oppression.

I hope Reclaim the Night listen to this criticism and, at the very least, actively seek to engage with sex workers. Sadly, given the history of the movement, I don’t think they will.

Note: I’m going to moderate comments very hard from this point onwards as I’ve had some complaints from sex workers about my laxness in allowing some upsetting opinions to get through.

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26 responses to “Being anti-rape must not involve being anti sex-work

  • Laura (@Plerpo)

    I have very mixed feelings about sex work that I think you address well in this piece. I don’t think it can be a “free” choice under a capitalist system in a very sexist society. The idea of sex work is one I find unsettling. While I want to support a woman who as chosen to engage in this work and of course she needs to be supported and her problems given voice to, the concerns of the sex work are like few if no other profession.

    I find is that its almost as if sex work is accepted and legitamized when sex workers are supported. It’s a very thin line between women should be protected from the dangers of their work and acting as if sex workers mostly women are making an informed choice that doesn’t buy in to patriarchal norms of women as the sex class. Sex work by and large seems to cater to men. But then again survival sex work is hardly something we can ignore or chastise women for not being feminist enough for…

    I’m perhaps not being clear, like I said I have very mixed feeling on the matter and often confuse my arse and my elbow when it comes to this but I’m not sure how to reconcile that. The stance of pro-sex worker anti-sex work is not a very strong or resolved one.

    Anyway interesting piece. It made me think, if not reach a conclusion.

    • jemima101

      Would you suggest that a black or non cis person should not work because they are more likely to encounter abuse and hostility in their daily lives, because that is what you are suggesting about sex workers.
      “. It’s a very thin line between women should be protected from the dangers of their work and acting as if sex workers mostly women are making an informed choice that doesn’t buy in to patriarchal norms of women as the sex class. ”
      This is just incredibly patronizing, that you can see the dangers inherent in sex work but a sex worker can’t? Why on earth do you think they are not capable of making an informed choice! Looking down on women who do not make the same choices as you or have a different attitude to monogamous sex as you is not feminist, it is patriarchal and bigoted.
      ” But then again survival sex work is hardly something we can ignore or chastise women for not being feminist enough for…”
      How big of you not to chastise women for not behaving in a manner you approve off. Just like the anti abortionists you seem to be saying love the sinner, hate the sin, rather than accepting sex workers have rights and autonomy. As for the grudging acceptance of “survival sex work” could you list the acceptable feminist jobs I can do that fit around child care that I would enjoy as much as I do sex work. (That pay over £90 an hour)
      We might not be surviving, we might be happy!

      • Plerpo

        I am allowed see the issues in supporting a public sector worker strike if that involves supporting police as well? While many police see nothing wrong with what they do, as do many members of the public, I do. I could say that they are up holding a system I find highly problematic & while I support their right to earn a fair wage etc that does change my having issue with what they represent as a whole. Much like miners or deep sea crab fishing, personal level they are just people making ends meet & by & large prob dont care about the system of exploitation I think they are upholding, though they know of the dangers to life & limb by engaging in such work. If sex work is just another job why can I not ask the same questions of it as I do most jobs? If sex work is an exceptionally different work like no other, then there must be a reason for the difference that needs to be explored.

        The accusation of not being feminist or informed enough is not one I direct soley of sex workers but any woman who claims to be feminist or partake in feminist activities, yes I will be judging by my understanding of feminism but I can judge by no other & Its a fair one to ask. Every self identified member of a group asks it of those who claim or want to be apart of the lable. samh’s, slutwalks, fat shaming, dif pol. Groups.

        • jemima101

          Right so you think sex workers are wrong becaue they have on the whole hetro sex, well that is bigoted, and quite frankly you have nothing to add to this so why do you think you have any right to an opinion?

          • Plerpo

            Its not about hetro sex its about mostly women selling & men buying and the dynamic that sets up. If men were selling sex services to women at a similar rate I prob wouldnt see it as an issue besides the class issue but that shows up in most service based work.

      • Plerpo

        Also sex worker is a job not a caste.

        • jemima101

          Oh just feck off, u have been asked to check your privilege, to notice that you are being oppressive and patronizing, and now u are using caste for no reason whatsoever. You know what really annoys you? That sex workers are not falling at your feet in joy. You are wrong, accept it learn or STFU. No one is allows to tell an oppressed minority how they ought to feel.

          I hope the owner of this blog will consider her writings on privilege in respect to this thread

          • Plerpo

            I have engaged in something akin to sex work. I state this down thread. it is not from the position of never having done or considered this work that I speak from so what privalige do you mean. I said caste in reply to comparing sex workers to an oppressed race. Many sex workers make the choice, im not condoning violence or anything by saying that, but you dont have a choice of race. Its not a fair comparrison. Sex work is a job.

  • sadie

    I don’t see the issue. Sex work is not women being for sale. It’s a sexual act being for sale. Thus reminding people that the women involved are not for sale is not to me being against sex work.

    The biggest issue I had as a prostitute was that people thought by selling sex I had sold myself. The punters thought by paying for a blow job they had also bought the right to criticise my looks or have sex with me. Many feminists who are pro sex seem to think it was something more meaningful than paying the bills and some way of telling the world about myself. I just wanted to agree X amount for this, do it and go home again.

    But while the men think they are entitled to everything from you and that you’ve been dehumanized to a set of orifices and services and many women ignore the nastier side of the work in favour of talking about how many people they know who have an entire gamut of choices and still picked this one over the voices of those who are saying they didn’t, there was no chance of that. And that’s what eroded my confidence even before the rapes and the beatings and the threats. I hated being scared a lot of the time, but the whole ‘it’s so empowering really’ line from other women made me think I was doing it wrong and failing and thus I had to keep at it til I got it right. Both fucked me up good and proper and I’m sick of being ‘othered’ by well meaning feminists who want to tell me how to feel about 8 years of my life, but not see my voice as valid. And the fact you could even criticise saying ‘women are not for sale’ makes me feel you have a similarly dismissive view of sex workers as many punters but just from the opposite side of the horseshoe spectrum.

    I find it massively offensive that you deem Reclaim the Night’s actions as comparable to rape, abuse, physical violence and threats in the same way as ‘violence against women’. It might be naive, but that’s all. (And I’m not actually a big fan of RtN so it’s no bias toward them on my part.) Also you’ve taken prostitution (their word) to mean ‘sex work’ (your words) and conflated the often more hands off professions such as camgirling, phoneline work, lapdancing, stripping and porn as all being seen as wrong by RtN when they seem to be focusing on the most hazardous part of the umbrella phrase. This is a trick I notice quite a few people do when it suits their argument when they themselves aren’t involved in selling sexual activities but wish to skip over the fact it isn’t all loveliness even when there is an element of choice and decision in it for women. Rather sneaky and very common…

    • Hermia

      “Thus reminding people that the women involved are not for sale is not to me being against sex work.”

      Not necessarily, agreed, but that seems to be how RtN are using it. They appear to be against sex work in general, and in favour of criminalising sex work, no matter how much that increases the risk for sex workers. You’re talking about the situation with a level of detail, nuance and careful consideration which is exactly what’s needed. They’re not. I absolutely agree that the situation is complex, and that it should not become so polarised that we have people saying “sex work is great!” on one side and people saying “sex work should be banned!” on the other side, with no acknowledgement of the complexities involved. We can’t discuss the very real risks of sex work, the way that it encompasses different jobs and different levels of risk, while it’s all still being swept under the rug with, “Women aren’t for sale – end of story.”

    • jemima101

      i have to say that my experience is very different to yours, and I am sorry that you had bad punters. I have never been treated with anything other than respect, though I am an indoor worker, and we do tend to be safer.I agree saying sex work is perfect helps no one, but it is a corner we are being forced into. Sex workers are more likely to be raped, assaulted and murdered. Criminalizing counters has been shown to increase the risks of this in Norway and Sweden.

      I have to disagree with your view of this article tho, RtN are meant to be anti rape, to say consensual sex work is a form of violence is outrageous and ignores what consent means. Even worse that a rape crisis org, that should be demonstrating acceptance and respect for all women is supporting this march.

      I and many other sex workers find the women are not for sale incredibly offensive. I am sorry that you find your voice silenced.

  • Nine

    Thank you for this post – I am still horrified having just found out this year’s theme, even though it’s by no means a surprise given the state of feminist organising in Scotland. But it disgusts me so goddamn much that feminist groups actively promote legislation that is harmful to sex workers. It doesn’t just take away sex workers’ business: it disrupts support networks and leaves desperate people in more vulnerable situations – easy prey for, you know, ACTUAL RAPISTS AND ABUSERS.

  • LoriA

    Hi Laura, I’m a sex worker, mostly out of need, who isn’t the dumb bitch you’d like to think of me as, and I don’t give half a fuck about your feelings about me and what I do.

    What I care about– and what you should care about– is the fact that, as a sex worker, I suffer astronomically high rates of sexual assault, and I would clearly not feel comfortable at a rally with a stance like the one above, despite the fact that it should be for people like me first and foremost.

    But what else do you expect when whoring is an abstract concept that allows privileged women to score some ideological points and not a real thing that real women do?

    • Plerpo

      First off I never called you any names or made assumptions. The assumptions were based on my own feelings I didnt put any of it on you. You know nothing of my life, much like I know nohing of yours but to assume that im speaking from a position of privilage because I dont engage in sex work on a regular basis is pretty damn galling. I said I think sex workers should be supported & given voice to in my earlier comment. My questions were not an attack on you or any sex worker.

      • Plerpo

        Right, sorry I got pissy. Ive been homeless & I dont know if it would be deemed sex work but I did favours for warm places to sleep. I am not (trying) to pass judgement on sex workers I just have some qualms & I often feel that im expected to ignore them, but I want to reach a resolution through questioning.Ive done the reading & I still dont get it. Sex work is largly an abstract idea to me, my experience is very narrow. Im sorry if I insulted you it was not my intent.

      • jemima101

        They were, see my longer reply. No go away and consider privilege. When ppl from an oppressed group call you out the corect answer is to check your privilege and thank them. Not to argue.

  • lusciouslani

    I am a sex worker. I don’t confuse sex work with rape, because I understand the meaning of consent. Lack of consent equals rape. I give conditional consent to my clients, the vast majority of whom would be horrified at the thought of hurting me or offending me, let alone raping me, in exchange for my income.

    As for the image of clients being abusers, that is a falsehood perpetuated by people who don’t understand the industry, and who don’t credit sex workers with the agency to consent. Abusers are abusers. You come across them in any occupation that involves the general public. Nurses can be abused. Retail staff can be abused. Teachers, lawyers, cleaning staff… You name it. The difference between the sex industry and other occupations is that when nurses, teachers, cleaners etc are abused by people they come into contact with for work, the response is horror and sympathy, not schadunfreude.

    My job isn’t the issue. The issue is that some people like to infantilise sex workers and demonise our clients because they find the concept of commercial sex difficult and confusing.

    Let me make it clear – sex workers are people. People with jobs, who do thier job for as many different reasons as people in other occupations. I don’t understand why someone would work in a weapons factory for example – its dangerous and morally questionable. I do support thier right to choose thier labour, and to be protected by law against people who want to hurt them, however. To do otherwise would be inhumane.

    I am lucky enough to work in NSW, where sex work is decriminalised. I am happy in my job, I take pride in the work I do, and I don’t appreciate anti-sex feminists lobbying to reduce my working conditions and criminalise my clients in the name of protecting me from myself and the people who support my business.

    All the Swedish model does is drive sex work underground – look at any prohibition – alcohol, drugs, you name it. If you criminalise an activity you place it in the hands of criminals. You endanger the people involved in that activity. It makes no sense to me that people would want my life to become dangerous for no reason other than that they don’t like my job.

  • Mary

    I was a sex worker for just under a year, I enjoyed it, mostly. I did it because it paid me so much I only had to see two or three clients a week for an hour each and I could spend the rest of my time doing what I want. Mainly political activism, and some childcare for friends.

    All of the sex that I had with my clients was entirely consensual. I had already been enjoying one-night-stands for many years, usually with men I did not know well, and I figured why not get paid for it.

    I stopped because my partner raped me and I developed PTSD. We had been together for three years. I do not know if him raping me had anything to do with me doing sex work. I think it may have affected his view of me in some way, because of the stigma and stereotypes about sex work that abound.

    I think as long as we have capitalism, or any kind of system where people work for money to survive, some people will make a positive choice within those circumstances to do sex work. i wouldn’t want to stop them as i think society does benefit from sex work in many ways, and i know from my own experiences it can be consenual and chosen. I found it rewarding on many levels.

    When I am fully recovered from being raped by my partner, ie when I am able to have any kind of sex with any other person, paid or unpaid, I may well return to it. For now I am celibate while I heal. If I had been single, or if my partner had not raped me, I would almost certainly still be a sex worker now.

    I did not tell the police that I had been raped. I did not even consider doing so. I did not call my local rape crisis service either. I did consider it, but I didn’t trust what I had heard of their attitude to sex work and sex workers.

    The sex work I was involved in was entirely consensual and mostly thoroughly enjoyed. I know what rape is, and what it feels like to be raped. I was not raped by my clients.

  • Jennie Kermode

    I haven’t worked in the sex industry myself but my ex girlfriend was a call girl so I know something of the worry that can be involved at a personal level when the prospect of abuse is there. That said, my ex felt she was fairly safe because she worked through an agency that vetted clients, and sometimes worked out of a sauna. She didn’t see herself as a body men were profiting from (which is how I’ve seen some feminists describe sauna workers) but as a contractor whose relationship to agency staff etc. was not much different from my relationship, as a writer, with my publishers.

    From my perspective, the decriminalisation approach is the clearest and simplest way to help sex workers – the less they are criminalised, the more can be done to improve working conditions and minimalise abuse. By way of parallel, I should note that another ex of mine worked illegally in the UK (as a visiting US citizen) – she did odd jobs in pubs but was paid very little and often mistreated in a way that didn’t happen to official staff. Abuse is often a product of marginalisation; we shouldn’t assume that the risks can’t be reduced.

  • JLO@WVoN (@JLOsm)

    Some good replies here: they epitomise how women who are not in the life talk about those who are. My experience of working with a project that offers safe spaces for women in the life has taught me that there is no right or wrong answers, just women who are getting on with their lives the best way they can. As do we all.

  • David Beauvais

    I wholly support your position. Opposition to violence against women should never target sex-workers who are already vulnerable enough. This campaign, were it be successful, would drive sex-workers underground and away from the safety of well-lit public spaces and even their own private space. It’s disgusting that sex-working is being manipulated in this way under the cover of quite understandable concern about violence to women. Thinking women need to cut the Puritanical element from this campaign. Best wishes

  • 3psteve

    Interesting discussions. I’d like to hear from commenters whether they think that the state sanctioning of prostitution has any wider impact on women’s equality. I personally buy the argument that condoning, supporting, an entitlement culture helps perpetuate a lot of men’s sexism.

  • loveangellove

    I certainly don’t want to offend anyone, especially sex workers, but my own thoughts in the subject are this:

    The idea that we, as feminists, fight for women’s right to choose, seems to equal that we should support those choices, regardless of the outcomes for both the individual woman and women as a whole.
    I don’t agree with this, mainly because the patriarchy still exerts its stronghold, and therefore “choice” is not entirely correct. We are still making limited choices due to the limits on our equality.

    Women in Africa make “choices” to participate in the genital mutilation of their daughters. Women from the middle east “choose” to cover themselves up in public, even as they live in the west. Women in positions of privilege “choose” sex work as an occupation.

    I can’t support those choices simply because it is my duty as a feminist to champion every choice any woman makes. I can’t support FGM because of the damage it does, I can’t support the double standards of women wearing burkhas and chadors in order to take responsibility for men’s misogyny, and I can’t support sex work as a career when so many unprivileged women are sold and forced into sexual slavery simply because sex as a commodity exists.

    In an ideal, equal world, men’s entitlement to sex would be kept in check, and women would be valued for their unique contributions to the workforce and financially compensated fairly for it (with a good dose of social security and value placed on parenting thrown in for good measure).

    In this ideal society, I can see the value of sex work (sexual surrogates, for example, and the providing of important sexual care and comfort for the disabled) but until we are in an equal society, where our bodies are not bought and sold (with or without our consent) I worry that sex work as a chosen career perpetuates the misogynist belief that we are the sum of our parts and there primarily to cater to a man’s “right” to sexual gratification.

    If we are to advance, should we not be challenging these patriarchal beliefs instead of pretending that we’re making informed free choices? I can see that sex work primarily benefits men, and some women who enter into it with privileged “choice”, but it does not benefit the vast majority of women and girls who are living in a society that does not require men to question their beliefs regarding their perceived “right” to sexual contact.

    Long-winded, I’m sorry. And hopefully not offensive, but rather conversation-stimulating. Love, Angel Love

  • supervisethefrontline

    It is ridiculous to suggest that women wanting to protect other women is “patriarchal” (see comments here) or “right-wing” (at the Consenting Adult Action Network, which hilariously mentions France, where a very LEFT-wing, socialist, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice government is considering a prostitution ban.)

    Even worse is the BS about being “anti sex” or suggesting opposition to men buying women, even those who make a choice in an industry with far greater coercion and oppression than almost any non-sex work industry within a sexist and class biased society, signifies a “different attitude” to “monogamous sex”. What the fuck? Since when has any feminist opposed to sex work been a supporter of restricting sex to monogamous heterosexual marriage?

    The sort of patriarchal/prudish view some of the “sex-positive” comments are actually fighting against is a straw woman held by no-one who is having this discussion. The people who believe in sexual abstinence outside of monogamous wedlock do not debate prostitution with sex-positive feminists, they just assume they are another part of the immoral (and usually anti-religion) modern culture and move on. None of the ones I know oppose unlimited consenting sex among women, for example, nor do they think a woman should be sexually inexperienced on marrying a man, or oppose open marriages where the two partners are on an equal footing or as close as is possible within patriarchy and the wife benefits at least as much as the husband from the sexual freedom. If they were right-wing sexual moralists they would be anti-gay and in favour of virginity until marriage, and that sort of woman does not support the feminist cause.

    Some people think that sex being for sale is a debasement of both buyer and seller which should be avoided, and in the current climate it debases women far more than men, thus feminists should take the lead in removing it from society. Others- I would say the majority of those who identify as feminist and reject the legitimisation of sex work in the present context- would support it if patriarchy and other forms of oppression did not exist. Neither have anything in common with the religious right. If you think someone is being right-wing when they oppose sex work ask them what they think of abortion, lesbian marriage and patriarchy itself. If they are anti-a) or b) and think c) is either non-existent or the way things should be, then go ahead and call them moralists or prudes. Otherwise, show respect for women with a different view.

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