Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Snooty Myth: who gets to talk about sex work?

It's amazing how quickly your mind can be changed. How you can go from harbouring the grossest, most deeply-bedded prejudices to suddenly finding those prejudices ridiculous.

So I've just finished Prostitutes: Our Life, edited by Claude Jaget. It tells the story of the Lyons sex worker community, which, in 1975, went on strike. In response to a rash of murders of prostitutes in that city - and police indifference to these crimes - a group of sex workers occupied a church, hanging a banner outside reading "Our children don't want their mothers in jail". (An aside: gotta love the French.) The movement spread, with churches being taken over across the country, until they were forced out and arrested; it was a massively significant moment in terms of bringing the needs and experiences of sex workers to the attention of mainstream society, and forging links between sex workers and the wider feminist- and labour-movements.

After relating these events, the book gives six of the women involved in the occupation free rein to talk about their lives. How they got into prostitution, how they feel about it, how it affects their relationships with romantic partners, with children, with other women... The stories vary wildly, giving a wonderfully detailed picture of how six specific women experience working in the sex industry. Noting the similarities between their depositions is particularly illuminating: police harassment and brutality is a common thread running through the book, and the call for decriminalisation (as opposed to legalisation in state brothels) never wavers.

I fucking love books like this: fiercely political, but a politics born of direct experience; a group of people determined to fix the problems in their own lives within the wider context of oppression.

Flipping from this to the sex work chapter in Kat Banyard's The Equality Illusion was, ah, illuminating.
What if the industry's credentials were fake - and its apparent embodiment of liberation just a carefully crafted illusion? What if 68 per cent of the women in prostitution have post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the work they do? What if 88 per cent of the pornographic scenes men were masturbating to contained physically aggressive acts - nearly all directed at women - such as slapping, gagging, and choking, and if it had reliably been shown that consuming such images led to an increase in sexually aggressive attitudes and behaviours? What if the sex industry didn't represent sexual liberation at all but, instead, one of the most profound challenges to women's status as equal citizens in the world today?
What if you could have offered one single footnote to back up any of those claims?

Well, I tell a lie - the 68% PTSD claim has a footnote. Which links to Melissa Farley's infamous "Bad for the body, bad for the heart" study. Hey, I wonder what actual sex workers have to say about this research?
"It’s common knowledge ’round these parts, and in every sex worker activist circle I’ve ever bumped up against, that the work Melissa Farley does is misleading, ill-intentioned, and downright vile in the way it determinedly misrepresents the whole truth. She’s a self professed “abolitionist,” meaning she wants sex work (and by necessary extension, sex workers) to be eradicated, and everything she’s ever done in this arena has been deliberately intended to further her point of view." Tits and Sass
The whole chapter goes on like this: scantily-referenced, reliant on dodgy research, coming from the unstated assumption that Sex Work Is Bad For Women without explaining exactly why this is. More than anything else, it's just boring: why do I care what Banyard's opinions on sex work are? Given her complete lack of experience in the field, wouldn't it make more sense to ask some current sex workers for their feelings on the matter? (Something that Banyard herself doesn't manage: the only people quoted in the chapter are former sex workers whose experiences in the industry were extremely negative.) Why not read Tits and Sass, or A Glasgow Sex Worker, or the book mentioned above, or literally anything which is informed by actual lived experience and not distorted by preconceived prejudices?

In fact, I enjoyed Prostitutes: Our Life so much that if you want it (and you trust me not to stalk you, which I won't! but I am a stranger on the internet so you're allowed to worry), I'll post it right to your door. First come, first served. You're also welcome to The Equality Illusion, if you want a laugh.


  1. Ooh ooh ooh! Post it to me!

    1. ...Oram? Email me your address!

      (If you're not the Catherine I think you are, my email is hjtipple @ g mail . com)

  2. Oh man, Catherine beat me to it. Prostitutes: Our Life sounds great.

    1. I'll get her to send it back when she's done and you'll be next on the list. I am becoming a tiny library!

    2. Nooo shipping it to Texas would be silly, I've gone ahead and ordered it off amazon. Thanks though! :)