This piece, by Alice Glass, is timely in the light of the recent cancelling of an event about prostitution that was to be co-hosted by a UK university and an organisation that provides services to people involved in prostitution, after complaints from students that it didn’t feature “sex worker” voices – even though a woman who had experienced many years of prostitution was billed to speak. Alice Glass, who herself survived ten years in prostitution, asks who are the “sex workers” who must be allowed to speak?
We are told we have to listen to Sex Worker’s Voices. Quite who ‘We’ are and quite who ‘They’ are has yet to be solidly established. I guess on the surface the We is anyone who happens to be having any kind of discussion about prostitution, who has never been paid to flap about in gaudy knickers or been infiltrated by other folk’s body parts, at any stage in their pearl clutching, blue stocking, dry cunting lives.
Even if that discussion isn’t happening whilst you’re hovering over a bit of legislation. Even if you’re casually chatting in your back garden, with your radfem mates, who hate sex and who perpetually wear a special form of mosquito net to prevent so-called ‘Men’ from touching their damsel flesh. Yes whilst you are having that radfem garden party and you veer on to the topic of prostitution, a Sex Worker will be shipped over the wall – much like as happened at this 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas Debate – to ensure that you understand just how pathetically ignorant you are on this and, probably, any and all topics.
‘They’ of course are the opposites of ‘We.’ They are the sugar coated, candy canes of postmodernist sexuality, who are largely made up of middle class PhD students, transwomen and heterosexual Chippendales, who sell intimacy and affection and counselling and legal advice and vegan recipes, to disabled virgins and poor hen-pecked husbands, who spend the rest of their money on keeping their hag-like wives happy. Despite the fact that said wives purposefully had their own vaginas sewed up just to spite them. Bitches.
I’m being facetious now, of course. Bad form. This is a serious topic.
Of course in reality who ‘We’ are, is rather more difficult to define, as is the case of who ‘They’ are. If anyone has spent any time fingering around the debate, you’ll notice how easily permeable those membranes are, how quickly and efficiently those boundaries can shift. A Sex Worker Voice might not only be someone who works in prostitution or stripping or pornography or webcam modelling. It might become someone who runs a brothel, who manages a strip club or who directs porn films. It might be someone who has worked for twenty years, or only two days.
Contrary wise the person who works in the sex industry but hates it, and openly criticises it, might have their story nullified as a ‘lone voice’ whose bad experience is an anomalous misfortune; sad, but not really of interest. A charity or advocate who has worked for decades with women, damaged and troubled by prostitution, is a pesky interferer, who cannot be trusted to account for themselves / herself as witness. A former prostitute can be disregarded, at best, because her feelings ‘no longer count.’ At worst, her whole public character may be ruptured by accusations of duplicity, fraudulence, bitterness or insanity.
The Sex Worker who has been a webcam model for six months may find her voice counting more than a former prostitute who has been schlepping about in the trade ever since that hallowed time before you could buy soft pornography at Poundland. That brothel keeper’s convenient advocacy for that apex of hyper capitalism – the Mega Brothel – considered of more value and authenticity than the women advocating for exit services.
Indeed, this flighty and idiomatic phrase seems to me to be predominately used to shore up a person who has their cards in the full, absolute no questions asked or futures considered, decriminalisation hat, and to undermine anyone who has even the smallest shred of ambivalence. To reiterate, for actual prostitutes who might disagree, there will be found another little crack for them to be pushed down.
Heck, I’ve been witness to debates where a bloke who ostensibly has no stocks in the pro-prostitution conversation (ostensibly being the key word) mouthing off unabridged, and yet anyone who voices concerns has their tongue snipped at the root. Perhaps he once took photographs of his girlfriend in her underwear and then showed his mates down the pub. Perhaps that makes him a sex worker.
Look, I agree, it is fundamental to consider the experiences of those working, or have worked, in prostitution. There is a great deal of validity in first person accounts on any subject. You might have noticed however, that there has not exactly been a huge deficit in Sex Worker Voices in the recent decade; television programmes, newspaper editorials, columns, documentaries, feminist websites – in fact I seldom hear anyone else talk about the political issues surrounding prostitution, other than prostitutes. The only other people who ever seem to talk, write or engage with the issue are feminists (and the odd shadowy punter), so one can safely assume this Sex Worker Voices stuff has little to do with society as whole.
In any case, people are not ideas, and it is intensely problematic to try and utilize them as such. Such orchestrations of protest, sit dubiously and dangerously atop the thin floor of purported objectivity. We are so petrified to express, openly, ideology, notions of morality, codes of ethics and philosophical questions, in our neoliberal world, that we just pretend that they simply don’t exist. The pro-prostitution protest has done a phenomenal PR job of selling itself as ideology-free, as supported by Sex Workers, who don’t just have insight but Absolute Authority. Statistics that support them are in service of The Great Truth of absolute, full decriminalisation and any statistics that problematize their view are the flimsy nay sayings of troubled and troublesome women whose predominate interest in prostitution is really about defending their husbands from temptresses. Whilst also, curiously, hating men.
But the pro-prostitution argument is ideological. And moral. And subjective, and so too are the opinions of those who flog it. In the end, prostitution is not simply a private matter – it is a matter of commerce and social policy, and everyone to greater or lesser degrees has cause to take interest, have their say.