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Jun 16 2012

Blogathon: 6th Hour

I just got back from tracking down a pack of cigarettes, and I am totally, completely soaking wet.

It is a very, very rainy day here in Vancouver.

One thing I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately is sex workers’ rights and sex worker feminism. Given how both trans women and sex workers are often denigrated and attacked by precisely the same branches of feminism (the ones that often believe protecting women’s choices and autonomy takes a back seat to conforming one’s life to a particular political agenda, and that somehow a person themselves can be anti-feminist in nature, simply for attempting to survive… and that happily push the boot even harder against the necks of oppressed groups if those groups don’t fit into a particularly narrow vision of feminism. And that is barely even the tip of the iceberg in terms of the issues and motivations involved), it seems only natural for trans women and sex workers to cooperate. This is added to by how much overlap there is between our communities… the number of trans people who are sex workers or former sex workers, and the number of sex workers and former sex workers who are trans.

We experience a lot of the same forms of oppression. We are often exploited in similar ways, with people who haven’t shared our experiences endlessly theorizing about us, speaking for us, and blaming us for the fact that our existences don’t quite match their expectations, and illuminate flaws and oversights in those theoretical frameworks. We are often directly harmed by people claiming to be trying to “help” us, working on “our behalf”. We are a prime target for violence, and our likelihood of being murdered, assaulted or raped is far, far above the average. We are squabbled over by various groups trying to exploit our existence to validate competing positions. We are expendable victims in Crime Time TV. We are dehumanized and faceless, our lives considered to be worth less than those of others, if anything at all. We are held up as symptoms of a “sick” society. We are what people warn each other of their children becoming. We are threatening the foundations of society. We are hated, marginalized, exploited, murdered, spat upon, ridiculed, dehumanized, oppressed and all the while treated like everyone else is being threatened by us.

And whenever our issues are talked about, it always becomes all about everyone else’s feelings and opinions. Our own voices are hardly ever including in the “debates” surrounding us.

Given all that we have in common, I can’t help but be absolutely infuriated when I see trans women adopting the same patronizing, entitled attitudes in speaking of sex workers and the sex trade that cis people adopt in reference to us.

Amongst these, lately, has been the prevalence of the term “prostituted women”. It is so overt, so vulgar, so condescending, in how it linguistically denies outright the possibility that sex workers can have any agency over their decisions and occupation (there’s also the sexist implication that only women can be sex workers). Tell me, am I “blogged woman”? Am I being blogged right now?

Trans-feminism, and fourth wave feminism, if it is to be a strong and credible movement, needs to address sex workers’ rights and advocacy in a meaningful, sensitive, compassionate way. What that does NOT include is dictating the terms by which these issues are articulated, denying them agency, speaking for them, and behaving like the priority is what the sex trade means to feminism rather than what feminism can do for sex workers.

In supporting an oppressed group, in being their allies, the mentality MUST not to approach them with the intention of telling them how they ought better live their lives, what we think they should do.

Instead, we need to approach with an intense degree of intellectual humility, and do one thing and one thing only:

Ask them what they would like us to do, what they think we can be doing better for them.

And then we listen.

2 comments

  1. 1
    Megan

    Having been a prostitute myself, I truly hate the term “prostituted women”, for all of the reasons you describe. As if we didn’t have any say over our fates in the sex industry. Prostitution is work. Even if we were to ignore the fact that not all sex work involves human trafficking, the exploitation that happens in the sex industry (and it is real, should anyone try to claim that I’m painting an overly rosy picture of the industry) isn’t unique to the sex industry, but I don’t hear anyone speaking against human trafficking in terms of “domestic-servituted women” or “garment-industry-labored women,” even though the same abuses take place in those industries as well. More than anything the term “prostituted women” just smacks of moral panic and “ripped from the headlines” sensationalism. Whipping up a frenzy around it and pushing for greater criminalization of sex work might improve some people’s careers, but it certainly isn’t helping the people actually involved in the sex industry.

  2. 2
    hall-of-rage

    “[fourth-wave feminists should NOT go around] behaving like the priority is what the sex trade means to feminism rather than what feminism can do for sex workers.”

    This deserves a megaphone. It should be said a thousand times. I don’t think I’ve ever heard even half so clear an objection to how some feminists’ attitudes operate. People will still disagree about what feminism can do for sex workers, but I think radical feminists in particular hold up sex workers’ lives as an example of How Sexual Objectification Works all the time.

    Side note:

    I started out reading feminism from radical feminists’ perspective, so I can see why people say “prostituted women”, it’s because they think of sex work as BAD and want to say that it’s not the sex workers’ “fault”. I thought this was a good idea for a while, not having any experience of the industry, and some former sex workers who had been victimized (Rebecca Mott, famously, but also commenters) seemed to be in support of this. But not all by any means, and it is indeed patronizing.

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