Who gets a say? The sex work lobby & the silencing of feminist voices.
It’s become so predictable that, now, I just sit back and wait. I’ve written several pieces about prostitution and the abolitionist movement, and several more that don’t directly address these issues, but perhaps mention the word “prostitution.” And really, that’s all it takes these days.
What I’ve come to realize is, no matter what I write, no matter what argument I make, no matter the points I bring up, the sex work lobby doesn’t care. Because if you aren’t agreeing with them, you must be stopped.
Public use of the word “prostitution” is enough to justify skimming right past the contents of any article and heading straight to the silencing. The silencing is the most important work, after all. It is the goal. “If we can bully them into shutting up, maybe we’ll win,” is what they seem to be thinking.
In October, I wrote a piece exploring, what I saw as a neoliberalist take-over of the feminist movement. I argued that we needed to focus our efforts on building a progressive feminist movement that looked at freedom and empowerment for women as a collective effort, rather than focusing on individual (and temporary) feelings of empowerment or catharsis. Real change means liberation for all, not a privileged few.
I mentioned the efforts to decriminalize (I realized, after I wrote the piece, that it is probably more accurate to name these efforts as efforts at legalization as, really, it is the abolitionists who are fighting for decriminalization of prostituted women, whereas so-called decriminalization advocates argue for the legalization of pimps and johns as well as prostituted women) as an example of, and a manifestation of, American neoliberalism’s impact on the feminist movement. And, according to the sex work lobby, that’s all she wrote.
Almost every comment was the same (and, of course, these comments are nothing new, it’s as though they came from a script):
“I cannot believe that [this site] continues to allow non-sex workers with absolutely no experience of working in the sex trade, let alone working the streets to speak on their behalf. “
“I demand that as a feminist organization, you remove this article and commission a sex worker with experience of the streets to write about why sex workers are demanding their rights and how real feminists can support their self-determination.”
“It’s also amazing to me that [this site] would let some non sex worker write a lot of stuff with zero evidence or research when there are hundreds of incredibly skilled, gifted sex work organizers with decades of experience in Canada.”
“I am shocked and appalled that the author of this article was published on this site,and discouraged that she controls a site that calls itself feminist. this is feminism at its coldest and does not deserve to be promoted.”
And this goes on. Not only did these commenters refuse to engage with any one of arguments being made (I am almost positive that none of them actually read the piece, if they had, I doubt they would have focused all their efforts on trying to censor an entire article on account of there being one paragraph they didn’t agree with), but the only response they could muster was to try to bully the site upon which the piece was published into removing the article. Because, you know, if you don’t agree with an argument, best-practice is to ensure that it is erased.
And this is far from abnormal. I doubt there is a feminist out there who has managed to avoid these kinds of attempts at silencing if they dare to challenge the idea that prostitution works against equality.
What is obvious is that the sex work lobby realizes it’s position is weak and, therefore, the only way they can succeed is to bully and attack those who present challenges to their arguments. Less obvious is WHY those who present themselves as feminist (as many of the sex work lobbyists do), are so heavily focused on this idea that only *certain* women may speak about the exploitation of women. Since when is feminism about erasing the voices of feminists?
All women have the right to speak out against the exploitation and objectification of women. Every single one of them. Certainly the voices of the marginalized must be privileged, and certainly many, many voices are silenced, but that isn’t what the sex work lobby is speaking to. This isn’t about listening to the voices of the women out on the streets, hiding in the shadows, getting into cars on the Downtown Eastside. Nope. This is about letting just a few, specially selected voices, be heard. They’ve chosen their spokespeople (and believe me, those voices are louder than anyone elses, and they are not, in any way, the voices of the marginalized) and they’ve decided that these are the only ones who may speak. Because they agree with them.
Not only do they refuse to acknowledge the many women who have exited the sex trade who continue to speak out against prostitution and the Aboriginal women’s organizations who name prostitution as a colonial practice and name Aboriginal women as Canada’s first prostituted women, but they are blind (perhaps intentionally blind, but blind nonetheless) to the ways in which ALL women are impacted by patriarchal systems.
“Those women, the women in prostitution, the women on the streets, were and are the ‘public women’ that we do not see. We do not see them as the women we are, the women we could be. We do not see them at all. They were and are for sale on the street because we are all commodified. Because they are for sale on the street, the men who put them there think we are all for sale. The men who put them and keep them there drive around and check them out. They ask every woman they see “how much?” Especially the women on the dark streets, near the quiet warehouses.”
We are, as she says, all commodified. So long as men think women are for sale, we are all considered, “for sale.” So long as men see us as orifices which exist to be penetrated, so long as they see us as things for them to look at, as pretty objects (whether we are objects on the streets, on film, behind glass, or on stage), or things that they are entitled to have access to, none of us are free. There is no class of women who deserve to take the brunt of male privilege. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ (though, of course, we are told there is). The women who are privileged enough *not* to have to prostitute themselves, as Trisha Baptie says, have a responsibility here as well:
“we abandon a class of women who, because of circumstance, because of systemic oppression don’t have a choice. This is also why women who have liberty and are of a privileged class need to own that and say: “this is why I’m not a prostitute” and then look at the women who are and say: ‘why are you?’”
So, while on one hand, the incredibly determined efforts to silence women and feminists who speak out against exploitation and inequity are telling, as the inability to engage speaks to, perhaps, a fear that we might not actually be the enemies they’ve made us out to be and a fear that engagement might highlight holes in their argument, on the other hand, the bullying is completely out of control.
It’s one thing to disagree and to challenge and it is another, entirely, to perpetuate untruths and exaggerations in order to discredit an argument, as we witnessed recently in John Lowman’s response to a piece by Lee Lakeman, who claimed that, at an event at UBC back in March:
“… the student organizers had to call Campus Security and close down a debate on prostitution law when a group of demand-side prohibitionists, including several former “prostituted women,” all but physically assaulted sex worker Susan Davis for suggesting that consensual adult prostitution be decriminalized.”
Several women who were in attendance at this event made clear that nothing near physical assault took place. No violence. Just one angry woman who was a little louder than Lowman would have liked her to be. It’s seems cliched at this point, but clearly many are still working with the idea that, when women get angry, the easiest way to dismiss their arguments is to accuse them of being out-of-control or crazy. Why not go one step further and accuse them of being ‘violent’? Similar accusations were made of abolitionists at this summer’s Women’s Worlds 2011 conference, also refuted by those who were in attendance.
People don’t like it when women get angry. Women are meant to be pleasant. Subdued. Passive. Feminists aren’t following the rules.
LaCles, a feminist organization working out of Quebec, wrote an open letter addressing these kinds of attacks back in June, asking Quebecois feminists to react to the “series of targeted attacks–sometimes subtle, other times blatant–aimed at abolitionist feminists.” They pointed out that which is true:
“Feminists who take the risk of naming and denouncing men’s violence, and feminists who have endured the violence of thousands of men in prostitution for periods of 10, 20, even 30 years or more–sometimes from the age of 2–are accused of committing violence against other women. Regardless of our past or our experience as feminists, we believe that it is always, and has always been, unacceptable to tolerate feminists’ use of tactics designed to silence other feminists, even when we are in disagreement. Yet, that is exactly what is happening right now.”
In September, Stella, a sex work lobby group framed feminist protest as violence. This disturbingly ironic (and common) misplacement of blame (let’s stop, just for a moment, and look at WHO is actually perpetrating violence against women) is not only untrue but is dangerous. When we frame protest and feminist action against violence and against the exploitation of women as ‘violence’, we perpetuate a million stereotypes about women who get “too angry,” “too emotional,” and “too loud,” i.e. women who are stepping out of line. This silences women. Or tries to anyway. The real abusers remain hidden, protected, and justified. “It isn’t me who is wrong, it is feminists, for trying to take away my God-given right to pussy,” is what is reinforced to men.
Women getting angry about violence against women is not violence. In fact, if you aren’t angry about the state of women in this world, it’s probably because you, in one way or another, are turning a blind eye to violence, remaining silent when you witness abuse, or maybe you are just ok with the violence. Maybe it’s become so normal that you actually believe women deserve to be treated in this way. However it’s been justified, pointing the finger at those who fight it is sick. But it is the sickness of a patriarchal society. It is that contagious disease we keep passing around because we just can’t imagine a cure. We can’t imagine healing from this mass abuse. And so we tell ourselves it is normal. And those say, “hey, wait a minute – this isn’t normal, we don’t have to live like this,” must be silenced. Because to live another way is unimaginable.
Sheila Jeffreys, renowned academic and radical feminist, has been subjected to slander of this nature for years. Accused of violence which never took place, these accusations come from MRA‘s and sex work lobbyists, alike. It’s nothing new. And it is a tactic that works, to a certain extent. People who hate feminists are more than willing to believe the hype.
These efforts to silence feminist critiques of the sex industry were in full force at the Feminist Futures conference in Melbourne, which took place in May 2011. When the sex work lobbyists found that there were feminists on panels at the conference who were critical of the sex industry they made it their goal to ensure those women were not allowed to speak. The conference organizers were bullied into altering panels and, as a result of this campaigning, Sheila Jeffreys was forced to back out of the conference and Melinda Tankhard Reist was disinvited. The conference provided zero safe space for radical feminists and, with the exception of Kathleen Maltzahn, who was completely disrespected at the conference, feminist critiques of the sex industry were silenced.
It’s sad, yes, but it’s also frightening to witness the lengths people will go to ensure their voices are the only voices heard.
More recently I covered an incredibly powerful event organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Shelter which looked at the issue of violence against women. One panel out of four addressed prostitution as violence against women. Predictably, the first comment on the article was a comment on language, arguing that I was being disrespectful by not using the term “sex worker” instead of prostitute. So not only are all the points in the piece ignored, but now the sex work lobby has gone so far as to demand we alter facts and quotes in order to placate them. We must lie in order not to be censored. The bullying exists to erase the truth.
Feminism is about women. It is about ending patriarchy. It is about ending violence against women. It is about liberation and equality. I realize this is a scary idea to many people. We’ve only known patriarchy. The unknown is scary. And the bullying gets real bad when you start threatening the status quo. But the feminist movement has never been about placating the masses and we will not be intimidated or threatened into silence. The feminists who have been working tirelessly in this movement for decades are used to it at this point, and I’ve learned the routine quickly. We get it. But we are women and we have a right to speak out against our own oppression and a responsibility to speak out against the oppression of our sisters. The privilege is in witnessing abuse and then saying nothing. Because it’s easier to just remain silent. But nobody said this would be easy.
One thing we can be sure of is this: you know there is a powerful movement afoot when the opposition becomes incapable of engaging and resorts to bullying and silencing tactics. In desperation, this is all they can come up with.