Laurie Toby Edison

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What the War on Sex Workers Doesn’t Do

Laurie and Debbie say:

cross-posted on Feministe

Melissa Gira Grant has an excellent article in Reason this week, laying out exactly what’s wrong with the war on “sex trafficking,” which is conducted largely by women who identify as feminists, and how and why it is really a war on sex workers. The last paragraph of the article is especially powerful:

If we are going to call attacks on reproductive and sexual rights a “war on women,” then let’s talk about a war on women that has actual prisoners and a body count. It’s a war on the women engaged in sex work, waged by women who will not hesitate to use their opponents’ corpses as political props but refuse to listen to them while they are still alive and still here to fight.

Grant unflinchingly sets out what “feminists” are doing in the name of fighting sex trafficking, and how unwilling the leaders of this movement are to support actual sex workers.

Let’s be clear at the outset. Grant is not, and we are not, supporting actual trafficking, sex work involving minors, or anyone being forced into sex work against their will. The pressures on women (particularly, as Grant notes, minority women and trans women) to go into sex work are complex; alternatives can be very difficult to find.

Some activists view calling the cops to “rescue” people from the sex trade as the model of a successful human rights intervention. They don’t count their victories by the number of people they help; they count them by arrests.

…Feminists once offered a powerful critique of the criminal justice system, but that argument has faded as they have found power within it. Not surprisingly, they have found conservative allies along the way.

In redefining sex work as an issue of bad men doing bad things to enslaved young women, anti-prostitution activists have recast themselves as liberators instead of scolds, while simultaneously making their message more attractive to the social conservatives who have at times distrusted them. The conservative Heritage Foundation has taken up the cause of “fighting sex trafficking,” though mostly as a way to beat up on the Obama administration and the United Nations for not adopting even more punitive policy. …

None of this is new; in fact, the historical pattern has often been documented. Grant sets it out clearly and unambiguously as yet another front in the war on women.

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is respectable. It allows feminists to get a foothold in the halls of power, to be listened to by the kind of people who spend the rest of their time waging the war on women, to be funded by Warren Buffett, to see laws they argue for pass.

Not that respectability has ever gotten women or any other marginalized group anything we really need or want ….

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is a way to reify and strengthen race, class, and cisgender values, because it essentially says “I would never voluntarily have sex for money, therefore any woman who has sex for money must be a victim, a moral failure, or both.” Thus, the women who hold this position get to have their penetration and eat it too: the sex they have is fine, but the sex prostitutes have is disgusting and deserves to be illegal.

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is anti-woman. The anti-trafficking activists refuse to listen to sex workers tell their stories:

Oversimplified portrayals of trafficking can have devastating consequences for those who are trafficked. “When I am vacating prior convictions for survivors,” says [Melissa] Broudo [of the Urban Justice Center], “I view it as a legal hurdle if it’s someone who isn’t a cisgender [nontransgender] female minor at the time. And it shouldn’t be that way.” Broudo concedes that “you need people to understand that trafficking exists.” But she adds that “awareness isn’t enough, and awareness campaigns can have negative consequences. … People think we need to arrest more people, and that’s incredibly detrimental. And unfortunately, when there is more money and a mandate for arrests, that will often result in sex workers who may or may not have been forced into sex work being arrested.”

Sex-worker activists have long voiced this concern, not to protect the sex industry (as anti-prostitution campaigners claim) but to protect themselves from the violence of arrest and the violence that results from widespread social stigma and discrimination. Defenders of sex workers’ rights want to stop those arrests, while the feminists who should be their natural allies are pushing for more.

Another aspect of the anti-women nature of the movement is clarified particularly by Gira’s anecdote about Gloria Steinem:

Gloria Steinem held court in the brothels of India as part of a humanitarian junket sponsored by … Warren Buffett’s money: $1 billion… Steinem came away from her visit with an astounding proposal: What would really benefit the women who worked there—whom she described to the Calcutta Telegraph as “prostituted,” characterizing their condition as “slavery”—would be to end sexual health services and peer education programs in brothels, programs that have been recognized by the United States Agency for International Development as best-practices HIV/AIDS interventions. Steinem described the women leading those health and education programs as “traffickers” and those who support them “the trafficking lobby.”

Finally, anti-sex-trafficking “feminism,” while claiming to target men, actually takes attention away from men and men’s crimes against women:

A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago conducted by the Chicago Reporter revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers, with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. … Since the [Illinois Safe Children's] Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

The energy that should be spent fighting rape culture, drawing the lines that show why incidents like the one in Steubenville are not “isolated” and not “boys will be boys,” changing the way we think and talk about rape, reproductive justice, abortion, employment rights, and child care (to name just a few topics) is instead being spent putting women into jail. The energy that should be spent listening to people in the sex trade, learning what they need, helping them make themselves safer, combating racism and classism in sex work is instead being turned against sex workers.

To be a feminist, one should actually care about the lives of women.

One Response to “What the War on Sex Workers Doesn’t Do”

  1. Neil in Chicago Says:

    (*please* kill that grey halftone behind the text)

    I don’t know if I can find the citation, but a week or two ago, I saw a piece about trying to get back to the source. If the women in the village being examined couldn’t make enough money from their gardens to feed their families, they had to go to town in the off season and prostitute themselves. The worst threat to the gardens was elephants eating everything. So in this case, the solution was an electric fence around the gardens to keep the elephants out.

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