Tag Archives: sex industry

#SexIndustryWeek: Manifesto – Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry

Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI) is an unfunded group of radical feminists from many nations committed to ending patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and capitalism.

IWASI sees prostitution and pornography as forms of male violence against women. The misogyny inherent in these systems of women’s oppression is compounded by colonialism and racism, disproportionately harming Indigenous women and girls and our sisters of colour.

We are committed to abolishing prostitution and pornography, using public education and advocating for the decriminalization of prostituted women and girls, and the criminalization of johns, pimps, and sex industrialists. We are committed to not only advocating for legal change, but for true social change that improves the lives of all women and girls and recognizes our rights to safety, security, and freedom.

Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI) is a group of Indigenous feminists that stand with women and girls affected by prostitution and pornography. We stand firm in our opposition to the sex industry: johns, pimps, and sex industrialists. IWASI works toward freedom and equality for all women and girls.


  • The system of prostitution as a continued source of colonialism that has grave, if not lethal, consequences for Indigenous women and girls worldwide. The institution of prostitution is fundamentally opposed to our traditional ways of life where women and girls were valued, loved, and treated with the respect we deserve.
  • Prostitution as a colonial system, an extension of the reserve system, the residential school system, and other colonial institutions that target Indigenous women and girls.
  • The system of prostitution as an inherently patriarchal system that exists on a continuum of male violence that includes rape, incest, wife battery, emotional, sexual and physical assault. The system of prostitution requires the existence of inequality between women and men in order to exist. It relies and thrives on the unchallenged male demand for sexual access to the bodies of women and girls.
  • The sex industry relies on capitalism and greed to justify its existence. We have seen and continue to see our homelands stolen from us and bought and sold to the highest bidder as “product”. We have seen and continue to see this colonial process applied to not only our precious homelands, but to the very bodies of our sisters and little sisters.
  • The sex industry treats all women and girls as hated objects, and that hatred is amplified by racism. Overt racism is not only acceptable, but is sanctioned and encouraged by the sex industry. This industry, hierarchal in nature, places Indigenous women and girls and our sisters of colour on the bottom rungs, where we are subjected to the worst and most degrading forms of male violence.


  • The total decriminalization, legalization, or normalization of prostitution.
  • The deceitful assumption that prostitution has always existed and that it will exist forever. We know from our Elders and Ancestors that there were times and places among Indigenous peoples where the sexual exploitation of women and girls did not exist.
  • The misguided rhetoric of harm reduction. We assert our right to be safe, not safer. We assert our right to live full and meaningful lives and we reject the limitations placed on us by the harm reduction industry.
  • Divisions among women created by the patriarchy in attempts to subdue the global women’s liberation movement.
  • The colonial, patriarchal, capitalist, and racist institution of prostitution in all forms and we pledge to fight against this system for the benefit of women and girls everywhere and for our generations to come.


  • An immediate end to the male demand for paid sexual access to the bodies of women and girls worldwide.
  • A global sisterhood that recognizes the leadership, knowledge, and wisdom of Indigenous women and girls in a fight for our lives, our lands and traditions, and our right to live free from male violence.
  • The recognition of prostitution as a form of male violence against women and the implementation of the Nordic model of state policy as a way to advance women’s equality, especially benefiting Indigenous women and girls.
  • The abolition of prostitution and a recognition of the rights of Indigenous women and girls to food, safe housing, lands, traditions, culture, language, health, spirituality, education and safety.
  • A social re-construction of male sexuality based upon the recognition of women’s human rights, especially in regard to women’s sexual autonomy.

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Saviors

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Saviors

The experience of sex work is more than just the experience of violence; to reduce all sex work to such an experience is to deny that anything but violence is even possible. By doing so, there is no need to listen to sex workers; if we already know their fate, their usefulness lies solely in providing more evidence for the readers’ preconceptions. For those working in the antiprostitution rescue industry, sex workers are limited to performing as stock characters in a story they are not otherwise a part of, in the pity porn which the “expert” journalists, filmmakers, and NGO staff will produce, profit from, and build their power on.

Meanwhile, when sex workers do face discrimination, harassment, or violence, these can be explained away as experiences intrinsic to sex work—and therefore, however horrifically, to be expected. Though this antiprostitution perspective claims to be more sympathetic to sex workers, it produces the same ideology as the usual distrust and discarding of them: Both claim that abuse comes with the territory in sex work. If a sex worker reports a rape, well, what did she expect?

I have not worked as a sex worker in Cambodia, so my knowledge is limited to what I’ve observed firsthand, what others have told me, and what I have found comparing the various official publications of governments with the NGOs who attempt to uncover abuses. But what I have that Nicholas Kristof does not is trust. Through my relationships with sex workers and sex worker activists in the United States, I met several from Cambodia. When I visited a brothel outside Phnom Penh, it was at their invitation, with no grand welcome or melodramatic conclusion.

Arriving with activists and outreach workers, we were greeted by sex workers who weren’t otherwise occupied, dropped off some boxes of condoms, and then gathered in an open courtyard. They brought us cold scented cloths with which to dab our faces and pitchers of water. I didn’t bring a camera crew, unlike NBC’s Dateline, or countless well-meaning documentary filmmakers. Nor did we bring the police and the promise of rescue. Instead, we sat together on plastic patio chairs under the stars and talked there, openly.

Back in my hotel room in Phnom Penh there was a sign in English on the door, posted where I could read it in bed: sex workers are strictly forbidden in the hotel. I could look out across the road from my window, swollen with motorbikes and tuk-tuk traffic at sunset, passing by the river where the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) offi ce’s boat was docked. Earlier I had sat on its wooden fl oor with a few of their members, circled around a MacBook, watching videos they’d made themselves and were posting on YouTube.

As we watched videos—stop-motion animations that used Barbie dolls in the roles of sex workers who wanted to remain anonymous but still speak out, and another, a work-in-progress about the abuse of mandatory health-check programs to extort bribes from workers—banners hung overhead moved gently in the breeze coming in off the water: don’t talk to me about sewing machines. talk to me about workers’ rights.

The hit was a karaoke video, a slide show of images casting then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” as a troubled ballad directed to President George W. Bush. At the time the State Department was pressuring the Cambodian government to take a stand against sex work or else lose aid from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Cambodian police, who had long been cracking down on sex workers, were now working in concert with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation; they were hauling sex workers out of brothels, loading them onto the backs of trucks en route to “rehabilitation” centers. They didn’t anticipate that sex workers would snap photos of these raids on their cell phones. One of these pictures showed up on placards and on buttons made by the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), with USAID renamed ‘‘USRAID.’’

What happened once the sex workers rounded up in brothel raids were unloaded from the trucks and moved to the so-called rehabilitation centers? They were illegally detained for months at a time without charges, as were others who worked in public parks and had been chased, beaten, and dragged into vans by police. The Cambodian human rights organization LICADHO captured chilling photographs of sex workers caught in sweeps locked together in a cage—thirty or forty people in one cell.

Sex workers who had been detained reported being beaten and sexually assaulted by guards in interviews with LICADHO, Women’s Network for Unity, and Human Rights Watch. Some living with HIV, who had been illegally held in facilities described by the local NGOs that ran them as ‘‘shelters,’’ were denied access to antiretroviral medication. In one facility sex workers were “only able to leave their rooms to bathe twice a day in dirty pond water,” Human Rights Watch reported, “or, accompanied by a guard, to go to the toilet.”

The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers reported that a common theme in interviews with detainees was the appalling food delivered in plastic bags which they then retained to use as toilets, disposing of them by hurling them from windows. Through eyewitness accounts, human rights observers established that at least three detainees were beaten to death by guards. Observers from LICADHO witnessed the body of one woman, left to die after advocates found her just the day before comatose on the floor of a detention room where she had been locked in with twenty other people. This occured at a facility on Koh Kor, an island that had once served as a prison under the Khmer Rouge.

“The government needs to find real solutions to the economic and social problems which cause people to live and work on the streets,” LICADHO stated in their 2008 report on conditions at Koh Kor and a second facility at Prey Speu. “It cannot simply round these people up and throw them into detention camps.”  If the sex workers standing in the doorways in Phnom Penh’s red-light district looked out on the street with fear, it could be just as likely from the prospect of rescue as due to any customer.

As is the case for much of industry, accurate data on how many sex workers are in Cambodia are hard to come by and difficult to trust. One study USAID funded themselves found that of a sample of roughly 20,000, 88 percent were not forced into sex work, whether through physical force or debt contracts. It’s especially tough to know how accurate figures on coercion are. But these are the figures found in the USAID commissioned study and were presumably available to all those in the State Department who were agitating for crackdowns on all Cambodian sex work as a means to end trafficking.

These crackdowns are no corrective to abusive conditions in sex work, and can expose sex workers to yet more abuse, including those who want out. But this is of no concern to the American government, which not only wishes to “eradicate prostitution” (as a US attorney testified on USAID’s behalf before the US Supreme Court in 2013), but requires those receiving foreign aid to agree with them. When the Cambodian government sought to demonstrate their commitment to these American values, they had in no way “eradicated prostitution”—they had simply taken action, through detention and violence, to eradicate sex workers themselves.

The State Department, in turn, upgraded Cambodia’s compliance ranking, and in its 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, offered only a weak admonishment that “raids against ‘immoral’ activities were not conducted in a manner sensitive to trafficking victims,” and recommend further “training,” not investigations or sanctions. The US has spoken: They see no meaningful difference between the elimination of sex work and the elimination of sex workers themselves.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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#SexIndustryWeek: My enemy’s enemy is my friend

These days, being trans is almost respectable. We have laws on our sides that mandate a large measure of equality with other women and men, even if those laws still leave behind those trans people who don’t entirely identify with binary gender, and even though there are a variety of loopholes for those who wish to discriminate. It’s still legal to exclude trans women who have been raped from a rape crisis centre; a number of feminist journalists and academics will still argue that self-defence of the trans community against transphobic hate speech is censorship. Compared, though, to twenty – let alone thirty-five years ago, when I transitioned – we have a serious measure of acceptance.

For many of those years, trans people were left out in the cold by the movement for greater lesbian and gay equality, and by the women’s movement. We were told that we were sick and deluded, or that we needed to wait our turn, that we should sit still and not frighten the horses. We remember how that felt, to be excluded and betrayed by our brothers and our sisters. It is primarily for this reason that I, at least, will never ever consent to forget the rights of sex workers – let alone to work for policies that make their lives harder, and to call that betrayal of vulnerable people ‘feminism’, or ‘progressivism’.

I was told so often, before and after I transitioned, that I was a dupe of a multi-million dollar patriarchal conspiracy of psychiatrists and surgeons, what Janice Raymond called “the transsexual empire” – to weaken feminism by introducing people like me as Trojan Horses. More recently, I’ve been accused of being part of a Trans Cabal – we all joke that we have an undersea volcano lair protected by robot sharks, because that’s about as plausible a claim, but we’re actually just a bunch of people who support each other on Facebook and Twitter.

When I and a number of my cis woman friends started Feminists Against Censorship, it was claimed that we too were being paid by the Mafia, or the CIA, or the patriarchy. I know that wasn’t true because I was helping with the accounts. Some of us were professional writers and a few of us did layout, or were cartoonists, so we produced some shit hot press releases – but we did it all on a shoestring. It may be, of course, that people who actually have funding and don’t have available talent might, instead of accusing other people of being on the take, wonder why all the talent is on the other side.

So I am not going to swallow the argument that people who argue for sex worker rights are dupes and pimps, paid lackeys of the multi-billion dollar sex industry. My first thought rather is: when are these people going to get some new material? When will they stop reacting to disagreement with stab-in-the-back conspiracy theories? And one of the reasons I say ‘these people’ is because it so often is the same people – intelligent feminists who think that they know what is best for other people and want to introduce laws to make that knowledge compulsory. When people praise Scandinavian policies on sex work I remember that, until very recently, Sweden demanded that trans people be sterilised before they could apply for a recognition of civil status.

One reason, then, for solidarity between trans people and sex workers is the recognition that we share the same well-intentioned enemies. In large parts of the third world, and some American states, sex workers and trans people are subjected to the same policies of arbitrary detention without trial, forced rehabilitation on work camps, compulsory health checks, rape, torture and murder by the police and paramilitaries. Of course, one of the reasons for that is that, especially in the third world, trans people are still the victims of the massive social exclusion that harmed older generations here and have few options apart from sex work. Trans people and sex workers – and in particular sex workers who are trans – are massively stigmatised, rejected, and put in harm’s way.

Sections of feminism – notably Janice Raymond – are responsible for some of that; Raymond collaborated with the churches and rightwing members of Congress during the Reagan era to remove federal funding from trans medical care. This meant that young, poor, working-class trans people, especially trans women of colour, had few other options than sex work if they were going to afford medical care, often resorted to dangerous quacks for surgical work, and were less likely to be able to practice safe sex. And many died and are dying and will die.

Austerity and cuts in health service provision, and student loans, mean that young people – trans and cis – resort to sex work to survive in modern Britain. Prohibitionist policies will make their lives harder, as Raymond’s attacks on trans people did – and advocates of those policies will end up with blood on their hands. No one is saying that sex work is always safe, or denies the existence of trafficking – for sex work as for domestic work and sweat-shops – but in the former case the important thing is to make it as safe as possible, rather than make clients more dangerous by criminalising them; and in the latter case, the important thing is to stamp down on all slavery rather than separate one area of slavery out for special concern.

As a young trans woman in the sixties and seventies, delaying full transition into my late twenties through fear of social exclusion, I learned part of my feminism in the university and part on the streets. The first people who helped me were streetwalkers, trans and cis; the first time I was raped, it was a policeman from the Vice Squad, in the back of his car. My politics of support for other trans women and for sex workers are a crucial part of my feminism, which is about solidarity and support for other women’s experience and choices – not about a small group of policy formers, politicians and journalists telling other women what to do.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

Photo: Feminist Fightback

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#SexIndustryWeek: Manifesto – English Collective of Prostitutes

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) is a network of women who work or have worked in different areas of the sex industry campaigning for decriminalisation and safety. We fight against being treated like criminals. We’ve helped women and other sex workers win against charges of soliciting, closure orders, ASBOs, brothel-keeping & controlling – the last two most often used against women who are there to ensure safety. And we fight for housing, higher benefits and wages so that any of us can leave prostitution if and when we want.

We won the first ever rape prosecution taken by women in England and Wales after the authorities refused to prosecute, putting a serial rapist who targeted sex workers, behind bars. In 1982 we occupied a London Church for 12 days to protest police illegality and racism against street workers.

What we stand for:

  • Decriminalization of sex workers – on the street and in premises – as in New Zealand. The laws land us in jail, divide us from families and friends, make us vulnerable to violence, isolate us – separate is never equal. Criminal records trap us in prostitution.
  • Protection from rape and other violence.
  • An end to police brutality, corruption, racism and other illegality. Prosecute police who break the law.
  • No zones, no licensing, no legalized brothels – they are ghettoes and state pimping.
  • Self-determination. Sex workers must decide how we want to work – not the police, local authorities, pimps, madams/managers who profit from our work.
  • An end to racism and other discrimination within the sex industry.
  • Sex workers must have rights like other workers: the right to a pension and to join trade unions. Unions are for workers not for bosses.
  • No criminalization of clients. Consenting sex between adults is not a crime.
  • Free and accessible health services for all: no mandatory health checks or HIV tests.
  • Women’s right to organize independently of men, including of male sex workers.
  • Economic alternatives: no one should be forced into sex by poverty. People who want to leave the sex industry (or any industry) should have access to resources.
  • Shelters and economic resources for children/young people so they don’t have to beg or go into prostitution to survive. Children must be protected not criminalized.
  • No ‘rehabilitation’ schemes which punish us or force us into low-paid jobs.
  • An end to extortionate room rents and other profiteering.
  • The right to freedom of movement within and between countries. Stop using anti-trafficking laws to deport sex workers.

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Stigma

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Stigma

Sex workers, along with many people who do not do sex work, are exposed to whore stigma for breaking with, or being perceived to have broken with, what Jill Nagle calls “compulsory virtue.” It’s a riff on Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” with which lesbians are made invisible. Whore stigma, Nagles writes, is “a mandate not only to be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous.” As with compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory virtue isn’t just about producing a set of behaviors (fucking men, being a good girl about it), but producing a system of social control (punishing queers, jailing whores).

“One does not actually have to be a whore to suffer a whore’s punishment or stigma,” writes Nagle. Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. Along with the phrase sex work, whore stigma is situated in an explicit sex worker feminism, one that acknowledges that while only some women may be sex workers, all of us negotiate whore stigma.

Whore solidarity actions predate that vocabulary, like the occupation of a London church in 1982 organized by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). “We’d bought fifty black masks,” writes Selma James, then the spokesperson for ECP. “In that way, prostitute and nonprostitute women would not be distinguishable from each other, and press photos of either would not be dangerous.” Entering the church alongside them were identified members of the organizations Women Against Rape and Black Women for Wages for Housework. “We were uncertain of our safety,” James writes, “and were glad to have two ‘respectable’ women’s groups with us.” Even those who are not whores can rise up with whores, can put their own respectability to work through their willingness to no longer be so closely identified with it.

This has been one of the foundational contributions of sex worker feminists to feminist discourse and activism: challenging whore stigma in the name of all those who live under it. There’s an echo of this in the popularization of whore stigma in a milder form as outrage at “slut shaming.” What is lost, however, in moving from whore stigma to slut shaming is the centrality of the people most harmed by this form of discrimination.

There is also an alarming air, in some feminists’ responses to slut shaming, of assumed distance, that the fault in slut shaming is a sorting error: No, she is certainly not a “slut”! This preserves the slut as contemptible rather than focusing on those who attack women who violate compulsory virtue— for being too loud, too much, too opinionated, too black, too queer. Slut may seem to broaden the tent of those affected, but it makes the whore invisible. Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others. If woman is other, whore is the other’s other.

I’m thinking here of the first time I saw a SlutWalk protest, in Las Vegas in the summer of 2006, during the century’s first national gathering of sex workers activists. SlutWalk hadn’t been invented yet. It would be another four years before Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti explained to a group of university women, with the kind of contempt not unfamiliar to sex workers, that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” SlutWalk, in its way, was also a reaction to police harassment, though one raised by women who presumed, unlike the prostitutes of San Francisco and London, that the police would listen to them in the first place.

It should not be surprising that the first vocal critics of SlutWalk were women of color and women in the sex trade. Reading the SlutWalk rallying cry, writes Brittney Cooper of Crunk Feminist Collective:

I was struck by the righteous indignation these women had over being called slut. Although plenty of Black women have been called “slut,” I believe Black women’s histories are different, in that Black female sexuality has always been understood from without to be deviant, hyper, and excessive.

For some white women, slut transgresses a boundary they’ve never imagined crossing. Women of color, working-class women, queer women: They were never presumed to have that boundary to begin with.

In Vegas, on the sex workers’ own walk, protesters dressed in the kinds of costumes we now associate with SlutWalk—fishnets, leather and PVC corset tops, shiny hot pants, tall boots, and platform heels—with wild hair and hand-painted signs and slogans on their chests and stomachs (another homage to an older feminist practice: to riot grrrl, or at least to the photographs that had circulated of riot grrrl, few of the protesters having been around to be riot grrrls themselves).

Marching from casino to casino, sex workers took over the carefully sculpted Vegas sidewalks, passing out fliers to tourists and to the few sex workers who were also out that night, although, since they were working, attired far more conservatively.

Dressed and brazenly conducting themselves as they never could if they were actually working the tables and lounges for clients, the protesters were more shocking to the men employed by the casinos and hotels to surveil, who came and went, and at Caesars, despite the intervention of a lawyer from the ACLU who had tagged along with the march, were hustled out. It’s not that they were whores, as clearly whores are permitted in Vegas casinos. It’s how the space they took up put whoring in the public’s face; that’s why they were removed.

At the Wynn, on my way up to a party following the sex work conference a few nights before, with activist and artist Sadie Lune and an outreach worker from St. James Infirmary, a sex worker health clinic, an elevator attendant stopped us, asking if we were there for “a party.” ‘‘We are,’’ we said, ‘‘but…’’ and he began to explain, kindly, that if we had called ahead he could have made arrangements for us to be taken up in the VIP elevator. ‘‘No, no, we’re not here for,’’ one of us started to explain, ‘‘that kind of party…’’ which then would have to be followed up with, ‘‘… not that there’s anything wrong with that’’—and not that he was wrong about us—‘‘but…’’ so instead we just left it there, and went up the elevator meant for everyone but the whores.

“What it was like and what it does to you.”

When the public is groomed to expect a poor, suffering whore, it’s appreciable why some sex workers who do come out take pains to provide a counternarrative: to never look like a prostitute. They are asked only to talk about how empowering it all was or about how much of a survivor they are. They have to convince their audiences how much they always had their shit together, how they do now—how they are not like those other girls, whoever they are. Sometimes, like when calling out “slut shaming” only to then shame sluts, this undermines solidarity. This is just rearranging the pecking order of sex and gender outcasts rather than refusing to order ourselves in the first place. There’s a risk of reinventing the virgin/whore hierarchy within sex work, even when—to everyone else—all of us could still be whores.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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#SexIndustryWeek: Nobody’s entitled to sex, including disabled people

Debates about the sex industry are never far from any feminist’s consciousness, and one argument that always catches my attention is that prostitution should be legalised because, without sex workers, those poor, pitiful disabled people would never get any sex.

People who have never showed any interest in campaigning against disability benefit cuts or fighting for accessible premises are suddenly preoccupied by our ‘right’ to sex? It’s disingenuous, and it hides a not-so-subtle disablism behind the rhetoric.

The assumption that nobody would ever have sex with a disabled person through personal choice is not only inaccurate, it’s also offensive. An infantilised view of disabled people also contributes to the idea that sex with one of us is wrong or weird, adding to the stigma and prejudice that limit our lives.

In the current media environment, we are portrayed as lazy scroungers. In movies, we are the plucky, inspirational characters who exist to motivate others into action by guilt-tripping them into thinking about how terrible our lives are. And in the medical realm we, ourselves, are the problem, with our wonky bodies and minds requiring expensive treatments that the health service can resent providing.

So it’s no surprise that non-disabled people don’t know what to think of us. If they do fancy a disabled person, questions about whether they would break during sex (hint: communicate), whether sex would hurt (hint: communicate), and so on, can create barriers that a lot of people see as too difficult to tackle. In fact, a staggering 70% of British people would ‘not consider’ having sex with a disabled person, according to an Observer poll.

Societal prejudice runs so deeply that even some people who are disabled themselves are wary of dating other disabled people: in two examples, both published on Disability Horizons, one disabled man – worried about getting a date himself – wrote offensively about women with mental health problems, while another – justifying his use of a woman in prostitution – referred to disabled women as the ‘second best’ option.

It is important, then, to see that the supposed inevitability of disabled people never getting a shag is entrenched in societal prejudice. And, rather than fight this and challenge the misconceptions and the offensiveness, there are still those whose solution is to advocate for the right of disabled men (almost always) to have sex with a prostitute. So if you’re fighting for a disabled person’s ‘right’ to sex via prostitution, consider the thought that you are reinforcing discriminatory ideas, not liberating us.

It may be unpopular, but it is true to say that nobody needs sex. It is not like food or water, where you will die if you go without. Sex can be fun, stress-relieving and exciting, and not having sex when your libido is high can be frustrating and depressing. However, the failure to orgasm on a regular basis has yet to cause somebody’s heart to stop beating or their genitals to fall off.

The sense of entitlement can be astounding, and the problem with arguing for a disabled man’s ‘right’ to use a sex worker is that it is pitting his desires against a woman’s bodily autonomy. For those sex workers who love their jobs, this is not an issue. However for the 95% of street sex workers who reported problematic drug use*, the 78% who report being raped 16 times a year by their pimps, and 33 times by johns, and the 4,000 people trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation at any one time, the story is not quite so positive.

At what point does a disabled person feeling horny overtake the rights of the woman who began being prostituted as a child, which is the case with approximately 75% of all women in prostitution? As psychologist Simon Parritt explains, although “everybody has a right to a sexual identity. I don’t think everybody has the right to sex with another person. That involves somebody else’s rights.”

When I see those same campaigners attending demonstrations against the way disabled people are being treated under this ‘austerity’ government, or objecting to the closure of the Independent Living Fund, then maybe I will start to believe that they do care about disability rights. Until then, I just see people using disability as a convenient argument in support of maintaining men’s access to women’s bodies.

There are complex issues at play where disabled people and sexuality are concerned. Technology, advice, or even special training may be needed for a successful sex life, but the problems we face are a result of disablist discrimination, not some kind of innate inability to meet a sexual partner. And just as disabled people need equal rights so do women, including the right to not be exploited or abused.

Philippa Willitts is a disabled feminist freelance writer in Sheffield. She has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Channel 4 News websites and is part of The F-Word blogging collective. Follow her @PhilippaWrites.

*This article was amended on 22 April to clarify the statistic on drug use.

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#SexIndustryWeek: The Future of Porn

“The Internet is for porn,” sing the inhabitants of Avenue Q, but the extent to which that’s the case is impossible to measure. Whether it accounts for 40% or just 4%, however, porn has had a clear impact on the World Wide Web, and the converse is just as true. Raunchy magazines on actual paper and movies on actual discs may still appeal to some old-school veterans, but to many they’re made redundant by what the Internet can offer for free. The porn industry has had to adapt to the Web, and so too will it evolve with whatever world-changing technological advance comes next.

As those in the business would have you believe, the next big thing could be wearable tech. Google Glass might look goofy even on the typically attractive models in the marketing material, but it could become a useful tool for the porn industry. Footage from the point of view of one of the performers is a particularly intriguing proposition, but if Google finds a way to make the device unobtrusive it could also be possible for a sexual partner to film you without your consent. Glass has a screen too, so any wearer you encounter could be watching porn as you have a meeting/lunch/sex, though Google has added a ban on sexually explicit material to its content policies.

The kind of point-of-view pornography, made easier to produce with tools like Google Glass, seems a natural fit with another interesting piece of technology currently in development. Oculus Rift (yesterday bought by Facebook for $2 billion) is a virtual-reality headset that blocks off all vision except for what’s displayed on its 3D screen, in order to immerse the user in a virtual world. It’s an ideal environment for porn consumption provided you can be sure that you won’t be disturbed, and that Oculus VR manages to reduce the likelihood of Simulator Sickness.

Unfortunately, current examples of erotic content for these devices are designed only for heterosexual men. The VR Tenga demo, which was made for an Oculus Rift game jam in Japan, links the actions of a virtual girl with a contraption meant to hold a penis. Wicked Paradise, which its developers call “the world’s first erotic virtual reality adventure game” is also focused on a heterosexual male audience. The founder has said that future content will cater to other demographics, but presumably that can only happen if the first episode is successful. As porn becomes more entwined with technology, the low numbers of women working in tech and the popular myth that women aren’t interested in things like video games could stymie the rise of ‘feminist porn’.

Immersive pornographic experiences – perhaps with the addition of smells and tastes, which IBM predicted in 2012 that computers would soon be able to understand – will also raise similar concerns to violent video games, which are thought by some to encourage violent behaviour because their consumption is more active than that of violent movies, though research has so far failed to prove a link. Feminists already debate how porn affects men’s behaviour towards women and their expectations of their sexual partners, and more immersive experiences could exacerbate those effects.

This could be particularly problematic for extreme pornography, which will only be easier to create and view as technology improves. As CGI approaches photorealism, we face the grim possibility of realistic computer-generated child pornography, and while that could reduce the number of real children coerced into sexual acts on camera, it could also make the end product more accessible.

Children and others who could/would not give consent could also become victims if photorealistic CGI was used to virtualise their likeness. This future technology could create a thriving business in interactive sexual experiences with virtual versions of consenting celebrities, but it would also provide the means for your creepy work colleague to make their own personal porn flick starring a photorealistic virtual you, or your vindictive ex to enrol your likeness in a humiliating pornographic scenario to distribute to people you know. With this kind of future technology, the bullies who used Photoshop to create sexual images involving critic Anita Sarkeesian and various video-game characters could have done much worse. And if CGI became cheap enough, it could put consenting, paid actors out of work.

As with most advances in technology, those now on the horizon will have effects that range too widely to be categorised as solely positive or negative. Feminists who are already concerned about pornography will have even more to worry about as technology charges forward, but there’s no way to stop the flow, and no real argument for doing so at the expense of the good that comes with the technological advances. For now, the best way to try to counteract some of these potential problems before they arise is to encourage efforts to bring more women into the tech industry, and hope that the next time technology leaps forward we get social change to match.

Jordan Erica Webber is a freelance writer and presenter who specialises in tech (particularly video games), philosophy, and psychology.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Industry

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Industry

Though these are four of the most visible forms of sex work—porn, stripping, domination, and escorting—and each offers a distinct environment, it’s not uncommon for workers to draw their incomes from more than one. It’s about more than maximizing their earning potential; it’s also a way to negotiate the varying degrees of exposure and surveillance that come with each venue. For every escort who would never give up her privacy by working in a strip club, chancing that someone she knew would come in, there’s a stripper who would never give up her privacy by working in porn or having her image posted online, and there’s a porn performer who would never have sex for money outside the context of a porn shoot.

These are also only anecdotes drawn from sex workers I’ve met and worked with over the last ten years, in this first decade of the twenty-first century, and in the United States. Each involves some work online and offline. Each caters to customers in a specific way, and with its own conventions: Web sites sell photo sets and memberships; escort services set up appointments; clubs charge entrance fees and sell drinks; and performers sell stage shows and private dances. Each sell takes its own skills, has its own hustle, its own downsides.

However, as distinct as the work and their environments may be, there is a political usefulness in calling all of this sex work, while also insisting that it varies considerably over time and place. The portrait of street-level prostitution, for example, as it’s on display in media accounts—a woman, most often a woman of color, standing in a short skirt and leaning into a car or pacing toward one—is a powerful yet lazily constructed composite. As the lead character of the prostitute imaginary, she becomes a stand-in for all sex workers, a reduction of their work and lives to one fantasy of a body and its particular and limited performance for public consumption. Sex workers’ bodies are rarely presented or understood as much more than interchangeable symbols— for urban decay, for misogyny, for exploitation—even when propped up so by those who claim some sympathy, who want to question stereotypes, who want to “help.”

The character isn’t even representative of all the street soliciting sex workers she stands in for. When considering the practice of street-based sex work, sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein observes, “It is important to recognize the extent to which the practices and meanings of sexual labor varied in the different prostitution strolls,” even in the same city. Some of this sex work can be more accurately described as trade or barter, Bernstein writes, “self-organized, occasional exchanges that generally took place within women’s own homes and communities.” She distinguishes this from “the sexual labor of ‘career’ streetwalkers,” in which “commercial sexual exchange was conceptualized as ‘work’ that resided in the public display of the body.” You find this echoed in the research of Chicago youth involved in the sex trade conducted by the grassroots group Young Women’s Empowerment Project. They’ve adopted the descriptor “sex trades and street economies” to recognize that, for their community, trading sex for what they need to survive isn’t necessarily understood as their “work,” and that it occurs alongside other informal labor, such as hair braiding or babysitting.

The sex industry is varied and porous throughout. Consider its other most visible outpost in America: the legal brothels of rural Nevada in the few counties where prostitution was never fully criminalized, and where strict regulation and isolation are employed to make it tolerable to the public. There, according to a recent study conducted by Brents, Jackson, and Hausbeck and published in The State of Sex, one third of brothel workers had never done any other kind of sex work before, but rather came to it directly from “non-sexual service work.” Three quarters of those they interviewed move between “straight work” and sex work. “Selling sex,” they write, “is often one form of labor among a variety of jobs.”

When we say that sex work is service work, we don’t say that just to sanitize or elevate the status of sex workers, but also to make plain that the same workers are performing sex work and nonsexual service work. In her study of Rust Belt strippers published in Policing Pleasure: Sex Work, Policy, and the State in Global Perspective, Susan Dewey observed that the vast majority of the dancers—all but one—at one club in upstate New York had worked outside the sex industry, and “many had left intermittently for low-wage, service sector work elsewhere before returning with the recognition that they preferred the topless bar with its possibility of periodic windfalls from customers.” For the dancers who Dewey surveyed, it was the work outside of the sex industry that was “exploitative, exclusionary, and without hope for social mobility or financial stability.”

Opponents, from the European Women’s Lobby to reactionary feminist bloggers, like to claim that sex workers insist it is “a job like any other,” but sex workers do not make this claim—unless by this anti–sex work activists agree with sex workers that the conditions under which sexual services are offered can be as unstable and undesirable as those cutting cuticles, giving colonics, or diapering someone else’s babies.

But that’s not what sex work opponents are referring to when they snap back with a phrase such as “a job like any other.” When they say ‘‘jobs’’ they don’t mean those informal service jobs, but their more elevated labor administering social projects, conducting research, and lobbying. Rescuing sex workers is good work for them. As feminist anarchist Emma Goldman noted in 1910, the prostitution panic “will help to create a few more fat political jobs—parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth.” The loss of sex workers’ income was their gain.

Opponents even take our jobs when we win. Socialist feminist activist and antiracist campaigner Selma James, in her essay “Hookers in the House of the Lord,” documents the closure of a successful grassroots sex workers’ legal project in London in the eighties, so “feminist lawyers and women from the anti-porn lobby” could create their own without having to actually employ the sex workers who started this advocacy. “What we are witnessing before our very eyes is the process whereby women’s struggle is hidden from history and transformed into an industry,” James writes, “jobs for the girls.”

The message of anti–sex work feminists is, It’s the women working against sex work who are the real hard workers, shattering glass ceilings and elevating womanhood, while the tramps loll about down below. As political theorist Kathi Weeks notes, to call a woman a tramp is to judge the value of a woman’s sexuality and labor. Tramps, she writes in The Problem with Work, are “potentially dangerous figures that could, unless successfully othered, call into question the supposedly indisputable benefits of work”—and home and family, and women’s commitment to all of it. When sex workers are “rescued” by anti–sex work reformers, they are being disciplined, set back into their right role as good women.

This isn’t just the province of large NGOs; one-woman rescue missions have popped up online and in mega churches, projects that claim to support themselves through the sale of candles and jewelry made by rescued sex workers. These jobs may technically exist outside the sex industry, but without a supply of rescued workers, there would be no cheap labor, no candles—and there would be no projects for the rescuers to direct.

These demands on sex workers’ labor, while it is simultaneously devalued, is why we still insist that sex work is work. But this should not be confused with uncritical sentiment, as if sex work is only work if it’s “good” work, if we love to do it. Being expected to perform affection for our jobs might feel familiar to sex workers—management at the unionized peep show the Lusty Lady tried to insert language in their contract that the job was meant to be “fun,” which the dancers refused to accept. To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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#SexIndustryWeek: Five Gloria Steinem quotes

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms magazine, celebrates her 80th birthday today.

In 1963, more than 50 years ago, Steinem spent 17 days undercover as a Playboy Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s New York Playboy Club, for an article published in Show magazine.

As part of Sex Industry Week, we look at what Steinem has to say about the industry…

On Playboy:

“It was horrible. There was nothing fun about it. It’s really hard work. You know, you’re carrying trays. You have three-inch high heels on. You’re paid very little. The trays are heavy. Your feet hurt. I learned what it’s like to be hung on a meat hook. That’s essentially the emotional experience of walking around in a costume that’s so tight it would give a man a cleavage.”

On Prostitution:

“Prostitution involves body invasion and so it is not like any other work. So how can you call it sex work? Prostitution is the only word you should use. It is the equivalent of commercial rape.”

On Pornography:

“[Erotica and porn] are as different as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain. Yet they are confused and lumped together as “pornography” or “obscenity,” “erotica” or “explicit sex,” because sex and violence are so dangerously intertwined and confused. After all, it takes violence or the threat of it to maintain the unearned dominance of any group of human beings over another.”

On Choice:

“I’ve only ever met one woman who actually was a prostitute of her own free will. She didn’t have a pimp. She could pick and choose her customers. That’s so rare. So we have to look at the reality and not romanticize it. We have to be clear that you have the right to sell your own body but nobody has the right to sell anybody else’s body. No one has that right.”

On Trafficking:

“Prostitution is not inevitable, it is only about unequal distribution of power. Today we face an epidemic of sex trafficking. More people are being pushed into it than even the slave trade.”

Photo: Joan Roth

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#SexIndustryWeek: Dworkin was right about porn

It is 2014. A twelve-year-old boy rapes his 7-year-old sister after watching hardcore pornography. Should this be a feminist issue? Judging by the lack of any mainstream feminist response, no. Perhaps once it would have been, but not today.

We’ve grown too worldly wise for moral panic. No longer are feminists shouty, sexless beings, piecing together a politics based on exception, exaggeration and fear. Terrible things happen to women and girls but when it comes to blame (such an awful word!) we are circumspect. Men rape women, boys rape girls, but it’s nothing to do with how we represent sex. It’s nothing to do with the stories we tell our children. Hatred of women just is.

The 1980s backlash taught me well. I grew up thinking all radical feminists were anti-sex and anti-men. Absorbing the “generational model” of feminism, in which each wave improves upon the last, I chose not to be like my predecessors. I wanted to be “normal” – not vanilla, no-sex-before-marriage normal, but normal in the way a woman should be, before social conditioning teaches her she must not enjoy a good fuck. Open mind, open heart, open legs. I’m not sure why I assumed normality  – the “real” version – would be so sex-centric but this felt important. Any criticism of the sex industry or objectification struck me as bigoted and almost pathologically wrong. If you reject the virgin/whore paradigm, what else is there to fear? Why not simply embrace all that is left?

It’s only recently I’ve admitted the answer to myself. Because what’s left is pretty awful, that’s why. Much as we’d like to see sexism as an historical hangover, it remains active and powerful. Liberation does not come through insisting that rape and other forms of violence against women have no cultural context. Feminism has to do more than simply polish patriarchy’s turds.

Sex is just sex. It should not be taboo. And yet at some point, feminists need to ask themselves, “why are things still so fucked up? Why are women considered less human than men?” It’s not random. It’s to do with power and it’s to do with bodies. It’s to do with fundamental beliefs about what women are for and pornography and sex work feed into this.

In a recent Times column, David Aaranovitch was scathing of those who find sex work problematic, claiming that these people – let’s be honest, these women – believe “sex is either something that binds people together, a couply superglue, or else a terrible force for entropy, sending the moral universe into a spin”. This is utter bullshit. Sex is just fucking, David, no more and no less. If we are to form parallels with religious fundamentalists, the religion in play here is not some anti-sex puritanism, but the unquestioning worship of gender norms which repeatedly screw women over. This is the problem; it always has been.

Aaranovitch asks whether “we believe that some women (and men) can choose to buy or sell sexual services without somehow being lesser people,” suggesting that there’s an invisible army of sex negative feminists on hand who’d say “no”.  As Michaele L Ferguson notes, this thinking – at root patriarchal and conservative – tries to frogmarch feminists towards the “honey trap” which sees sex work purely in terms of individual choice and argues that not to endorse the choices of sex workers – whatever their implications – means siding with the men who abuse them. It is of course nonsense but it prevents us from asking uncomfortable questions about the relationship between arousal, cultural conditioning and oppression. It means men such as David Baddiel – offering Aaranovitch a twitter backslap for his “brilliant column on body usage rights” – are seen as more progressive than feminists who view sex workers and porn stars, not as mere bodies to use, but as human beings, whose decisions can be criticised in the same way as everyone else’s.

In Women-Hating Right and Left, Andrea Dworkin calls out the way in which pornography is granted a special “get out of misogyny free” card because it makes people come:

“Those who think that woman hating is all right—they’re not feminists. They’re not. Those who think that it’s all right sometimes, here and there, where they like it, where they enjoy it, where they get off on it—especially sexually— they’re not feminists either. And the people who think that woman hating is very bad some places, but it’s all right in pornography because pornography causes orgasm, are not feminists.”

Dworkin was right, and it’s annoying that she’s right, given the things that might turn us on. I’m only human, too. I don’t want to be Andrea Dworkin; I’d much rather be Belle de frigging Jour. But I want to participate in feminism with my eyes open and I’m not so prudish about what happens to women that I’ll insist we turn off the lights.

Sex is not frightening. It is just flesh touching flesh, going into flesh, moving and feeling. An orgasm is an orgasm, a penis a penis, an orifice an orifice, a tongue a tongue. Nothing to be scared of. It is what it is.

What we fear is violence and abuse. That’s why we don’t call out misogyny. That’s why we don’t question the context of sexual exchange. That’s why the real taboo – the thing that we skirt around – is a feminism that seeks neither appeasement nor accommodation, but change.

VJD Smith (Glosswitch) is a lifelong feminist and mother of two who edits language books when she’s not tied up with parenting, blogging and ranting.  Find out more @Glosswitch or glosswatch.com

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Debate

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Debate 

We should, in fact, refuse to debate. Sex work itself and, inseparable from it, the lives of sex workers are not up for debate— or they shouldn’t be. I don’t imagine that those in the antiprostitution camp who favor these kinds of debates actually believe that they are weighing the humanity, the value of the people who do sex work. (This assumes, of course, that there is a coherent antiprostitution camp, but for the sake of argument, let’s limit it to the antiprostitution feminists and their allies loosely congregated in the secular left.)

Their production of the debate rests on the assumption that they themselves comprise the group that really cares for prostitutes. They may consider the purpose of the prostitution debate to be the challenging of myths and assumptions, to demonstrate their own expertise, perhaps to “raise awareness.” What constitutes the nature of this awareness, particularly concerning the enduring and ubiquitous nature of prostitution, pornography, and other kinds of commercial sex?

Awareness raisers can still count on a social hunger for lurid and detailed accounts, as well as a social order that restricts sex workers’ own opportunities to speak out about the realities of their lives. These factors in combination promote demand for the debaters’ own productions. To fuel and stoke it, awareness raisers erect billboards on the sides of highways, with black-and-white photos of girls looking fearful and red letters crying not for sale. They hire Hollywood bros like Ashton Kutcher and Sean Penn to make clicky little public service announcements for YouTube in which they tell their fans, “Real men don’t buy girls.” They occupy column inches in the New York Times with those such as Nicholas Kristof, who regales his readers with stories of his heroic missions into brothels and slums in Cambodia and in India “rescuing” sex workers.

The rescue industry, as anthropologist Laura Agustin terms such efforts, derives value from the production of awareness: It gives the producers jobs, the effectiveness of which is measured by a subjective accounting of how much they are being talked about. Raising awareness serves to build value for the raisers, not for those who are the subjects of the awareness.

Awareness raising about prostitution is not a value-neutral activity. Sex workers see a straight line between foundation dollars earmarked for advertisements such as those that appeared on Chicago buses—get rich. work in prostitution. Pimps keep the profits, and prostituted women often pay with their lives.—and the allocation of resources to the Chicago police to arrest pimps in order to save women who they call “prostituted.” Inevitably, all of these women face arrest, no matter what they call them, a demonstration of the harm produced by awareness raising despite any good intentions.

“On paper, sex workers are still not as likely to face felony charges as their patrons,” according to the Chicago Reporter, “who can be charged with a felony on their first offense under the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, which was enacted in 2010.” But when the paper examined felony arrest statistics they found,

[the] data shows that prostitution-related felonies are being levied almost exclusively against sex workers. During the past four years, they made up 97 percent of the 1,266 prostitution-related felony convictions in Cook County. And the number only grew: Felony convictions among sex workers increased by 68 percent between 2008 and 2011.

This was when antiprostitution groups such as the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation became active in the city, demanding johns pay. With awareness raising as a goal, the debate circles back on itself. The problem at hand is not, How do we improve the lives of sex workers?, but, How should we continue to think and talk about the lives of sex workers, to carry on our discourse on prostitution regardless of how little sex workers are involved in it? Perhaps those fixated on debating ought to confine the scope of their solution to how to best bring about debates and leave those involved in the sex trade to themselves.

And on which side of this debate are sex workers presumed to sit? Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm. For many, if not the majority, of people who work for a living, our attitudes toward our work change over the course of our working lives, even over the course of each day on the job.

The experiences of sex workers cannot be captured by corralling them onto either the exploited or the empowered side of the stage. Likewise there must be room for them to identify, publicly and collectively, what they wish to change about how they are treated as workers without being told that the only solution is for them to exit the industry. Their complaints about sex work shouldn’t be construed, as they often are, as evidence of sex workers’ desire to exit sex work.

These complaints are common to all workers and shouldn’t be exceptional when they are made about sex work. As labor journalist Sarah Jaffe said of the struggles at her former job as a waitress, “No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry.”

The contemporary prostitution debate might appear to have moved on from the kinds of concerns moral reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries expressed, but it has only slightly restated the question from, What do we do about prostitution? to, What do we do about prostitutes? According to the twenty-first-century heirs to the battle for moral hygiene, this is to be understood as a way of focusing on the prostitute as victim, not criminal. Forgive sex workers if they do not want the attention of those who refuse to listen to them.

Far from concerning the lives of people who do sex work, these debates are an opportunity for prostitution opponents to stake out their own intellectual, political, and moral contributions to “this issue.” When feminist prostitute and COYOTE founder Margo St. James sought to debate antiprostitution activist Kathleen Barry at one of the first world conferences on trafficking in 1983, she was told by Barry that it would be “inappropriate to discuss sexual slavery with prostitute women.”

This continues to this day, with antiprostitution groups alleging that sex workers who want to participate in the same forums they do are “not representative,” are members of a “sex industry lobby,” or are working on behalf of—or are themselves—“pimps and traffickers.” For my reporting on anti–sex work campaigners, I’ve been told I must be getting published only because I’ve been paid off by pimps. (So pimps are stealing wages from sex workers in order to give them to journalists?)

Barry went on to found the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, which introduced the vague of sense ‘‘sexual exploitation’’ into United Nations and United States anti-trafficking policy, used by some to mean all commercial sex, whether or not force, fraud, or coercion are present. Sweden’s famed prostitution law, often described as a feminist victory for criminalizing men who by sex, and which Barry and her anti–sex work allies in Equality Now and the European Women’s Lobby push as model legislation, was undertaken without any meaningful consultation with women who sell sex.

By contrast, New Zealand’s model of decriminalized prostitution was advanced by sex workers, and has since been evaluated with their participation (and largely to their satisfaction). Rather than evolving toward more sex worker involvement in policy, however, the backlash is nearly constant. Canada’s Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could result in removing laws against prostitution, and now in appeals, the same body declined to hear testimony from advocacy organizations run by sex workers themselves.

We must redraw the lines of the prostitution debate. Either prostitutes are in the debate or they are not. Sex workers are tired of being invited to publicly investigate the politics of their own lives only if they’re also willing to serve as a prop for someone else’s politics. As editor of the influential anthology Whores and Other Feminists Jill Nagle writes, “one could argue that the production of feminist discourse around prostitution by non-prostitutes alienates the laborer herself from the process of her own representation.” Not only are sex workers in the abstract used to aid feminists in “giving voice to the voiceless,” those same feminists then remain free to ignore the content of sex workers’ actual speech.

When sex workers are cast in this role, as mute icon or service instrument, it’s the antiprostitution camp at work, decrying sex workers’ situation yet abandoning them to the fundamentally passive role they insist sex workers occupy in prostitution. The parallel becomes even more damning when sex workers are paid comparatively little for their participation behind the debate podiums.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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Charlotte Raven

#SexIndustryWeek: Review – Playing The Whore

Each weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we will be serialising extracts from Melissa Gira Grant’s new book, Playing The Whore. Editor-in-Chief Charlotte Raven kicks off the week with her review of the book.

I wrote this review of Playing the Whore a week ago, while in a midst of an identity crisis precipitated by a marital crisis. My critical faculties have been disabled, along with my rhetorical élan – I no longer know who I am, or what I think. I have become ruthlessly fairminded and experienced a disturbing, unfamiliar ability to see other points of view. I’ve read positive and negative reviews of Grant’s book and heartily agreed with all of them.

My review reflected this willingness to listen and an unprecedented (and probably fleeting) desire to find the middle ground. I don’t want to be one of the people shouting that prostitutes are collaborators or the ones proclaiming that sex workers are hip, happening and here to stay (the first Bitcoin escort agency opened last year!)

This seemed reasonable. Then I got scared. I woke up at 3 am on Friday morning, terrified that my ambivalence about Grant’s book would be mistaken for complicity in the process by which sex work is being normalised and rebranded as a branch of the leisure industry. People will say, justifiably, that I haven’t defended feminists from the accusation that we are responsible for the oppression and persecution of sex workers. Not capitalism. Nor patriarchy. I was mightily relieved I had the chance to revisit the argument and redeem myself before anything was published. This time I would make a conscious effort not to be seduced by Grant’s theoretical savvy. My intention was to rewrite the piece as an abolitionist polemic pegged on the book rather than a review of it.

Then I changed my mind again and decided to stick with ambivalence and publish the review as was. Was I too easy on Grant? You can judge for yourself. I tried to tune into her wavelength, rather than cut and paste her points into my argument, as I usually do. The extracts we are publishing this week are an open question…

I approached this book with trepidation, expecting a reprise of the argument often made by sex workers in print that their work is an empowering and stimulating lifestyle choice. I have encountered the sex worker in Belle de Jour’s oeuvre but also met some myself, who had very little cultured conversation with their clients while ‘on the clock’ and a lot of depressing sex on cheap sheets. Like many feminists, I think the brutal reality of sex work is often obscured by the image. My job is to distinguish fact from fiction, and challenge false consciousness. I’ve been doing this since the eighties and never thought to question it until now.

I was also expecting lots of sex. As this is a book by someone in the field, I thought the analysis would be spiced with lurid confessional, or displaced completely by it. But Grant thwarts this reader’s expectation. She thinks our prurient fascination with the cut and thrust of sex work prevents us from perceiving the nuanced truth.

The sex worker is ubiquitous but invisible. There are no personal anecdotes here because Grant wants to draw the reader’s gaze away from the sexual mise en scene to what it means. There is no confessional money shot where Grant renounces sex work in favour of the writer’s life. We infer that this has happened but Playing the Whore isn’t a parable.

She doesn’t want to serve as an exemplar to sex workers and warns against seeing other types of work as morally superior and less threatening to personal autonomy. There are no winners in this system – the waitresses, hairdressers and other service sector workers are differently exploited (and less well paid).

I must own up – I have a weakness for deconstructive critical moves like the one Grant performs when she suggests that anti-porn campaigners are porn addicts! I’m also pleased when someone else says the unsayable. At least the resulting Twitter storm won’t be directed at me. Grant believes the anti-porn meetings and speak-outs of feminism’s second wave were pornographic spectacles, delivering the same ‘communal release of feeling’ as the Time Square porn theatres in the pre-Disney era.

She knows how contentious this will be but feels dissenting voices, particularly ones “who have modelled for pictures” have been silenced. “How can you say that the description of a child’s violation by a woman on a stage itself mimes a pornographic revelation?”

Those who presume to save sex workers from themselves have the same proprietary air as porn consumers; a self righteous coalition of NGOs, feminist organizations and high profile media figures have embarked on dramatic search and rescue missions. The American government is committed to “eliminating prostitution” worldwide and threatens to withdraw aid if poor countries don’t comply. Cambodian sex workers have been rounded up and sent to detention centres where they are abused, raped and starved. Many have died. Sex workers are being eliminated but the sex industry is alive and well.

Grant argues persuasively that the recent debate about ‘the sexualisaton’ of society and the pornification of sexuality constitute a standard issue moral panic and contamination fear. Sex workers are thought to have implanted depraved thoughts in ‘normal’ women and frog marched us to the Ministry of Waxing and on to swingers parties in Penge. Many analysts believe that the contamination of our sexual consciousness with pornographic tropes means ‘real’ sex is no longer possible. But Grant insists that sex workers are scapegoats: the burden of our pornographic imagination is placed upon those who will save us from it by their sacrifice. Forty years after Nancy Friday’s collection of sexual fantasies, The Secret Garden, we’re still scared of our ‘outlaw’ desire.

I love polemics and this one certainly carried me along with its energy and undeniable intelligence. However, while Grant’s argument that sex work is no different from hairdressing is well made and points to important ways in which female working lives do share oppressive characteristics, I still believe that selling sex is an abusive commodification of the self. But having read this book I will be much quicker to challenge the presumption of those who oppose prostitution that they also know what’s best for sex workers.

Read Feminist Times’ exclusive serialisation of Playing The Whore each day this week.

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Police

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Police

Prostitution stings are a law enforcement tactic used to target men who buy sex and women who sell it—or men and women who the police have profiled in this way. These days, rather than limit their patrol to the street, vice cops search the Web for advertisements they believe offer sex for sale, contact the advertisers while posing as customers, arrange hotel meetings, and attempt to make an arrest from within the relative comfort of a room with free Wi-Fi and an ice machine down the hall.

Whether these videos are locked in an evidence room, broadcast on the eleven o’clock news, or blogged by a vigilante, they are themselves a punishment. We could arrest you at any time, they say. Even if no one is there to witness your arrest, everyone will know. When we record your arrest, when you’re viewed again and again, you will be getting arrested all the time.

In the United States, one of the last industrialized nations which continues to outlaw sex for sale, we must ask: Why do we insist that there is a public good in staging sex transactions to make arrests? Is the point to produce order, to protect, or to punish?

No evidence will be weighed before the arrest video is published. Even if she was not one before, in the eyes of the viewer and in the memory of search engines, this woman is now a prostitute. As so few people arrested for prostitution related offenses fight their charges, there is no future event to displace the arrest video, to restate that those caught on tape didn’t, as one of the women arrested in Fargo said, “do anything wrong.” The undercover police, perpetually arresting in these videos, enact a form of sustained violence on these women’s bodies. Even with a camera, it is not immediately visible.

To produce a prostitute where before there had been only a woman is the purpose of such policing. It is a socially acceptable way to discipline women, fuelled by a lust for law and order that is at the core of what I call the “prostitute imaginary”—the ways in which we conceptualize and make arguments about prostitution. The prostitute imaginary compels those who seek to control, abolish, or otherwise profit from prostitution, and is also the rhetorical product of their efforts. It is driven by both fantasies and fears about sex and the value of human life.

The sting itself, aside from the unjust laws it enforces, or the trial that may never result, is intended to incite fear. These stings form just one part of a matrix of widespread police misconduct toward sex workers and people profiled as sex workers. In New York City, for example, 70 percent of sex workers working outdoors surveyed by the Sex Workers Project reported near daily run-ins with police, and 30 percent reported being threatened with violence. According to ‘‘The Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City,’’ when street-based sex workers sought help from the police, they were often ignored.

Carol told researchers, “If I call them, they don’t come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it. ‘Nobody told you to be in the street.’ After a girl was gang-raped, they said, ‘Forget it, she works in the street.’ She said, ‘I hope that never happens to your daughters. I’m human.’”

Jamie had an incident where she was “hanging out on the stroll . . . these guys in a jeep driving by . . . one guy in a car threw a bottle at me . . . I went to the cops [who told me] we didn’t have a right being in that area because we know it’s a prostitution area, and whatever came our way, we deserved it.”

Police violence isn’t limited to sex workers who work outdoors. In a parallel survey conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 14 percent of those who primarily work indoors reported that police had been violent toward them; 16 percent reported that police officers had initiated a sexual interaction.

This was in New York City, where the police department is notorious for violating civil rights in the course of law enforcement, but look globally, where violations of sex workers’ rights by police are also common—and well documented. In West Bengal, the sex worker collective Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee surveyed over 21,000 women who do sex work.

They collected 48,000 reports of abuse or violence by police— in contrast with 4,000 reports of violence by customers, who are conventionally thought of as the biggest threat to sex workers, especially by campaigners opposed to prostitution.

Police violence against sex workers is a persistent global reality. As the economy collapsed in Greece, police staged raids on brothels, arrested and detained sex workers, forced them to undergo HIV testing, and released their photos and HIV status to the media. These actions were condemned by UNAIDS and Human Rights Watch.

In China, police have forced sex workers they have arrested to walk in “shame parades,” public processions in which they are shackled and then photographed. Police published these photos on the Web, including one in which a cop humiliated a nude sex worker by pulling her hair back and brutally exposing her face to the camera. When the photo went viral, the outcry reportedly prompted police to suspend these public shaming rituals, though they continue to make violent arrests and raids.

One could hope that the photos and videos like these could make the pervasiveness of this violence real to the public. But to truly confront this type of violence would require us to admit that we permit some violence against women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women.

Violence’s Value

I’ve stopped asking, Why have we made prostitution illegal? Instead I want an explanation for, How much violence against “prostitutes” have we made acceptable? The police run-ins, the police denying help, the police abuse—all this shapes the context in which the sting, and the video of it, form a complete pursuit of what we are to understand as justice, which in this case is limited to some form of punishment, of acceptable violence.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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