Who do you listen to? On ‘listening to sex workers’
There’s one guaranteed pro-sex-work response whenever you write something unenthusiastic about prostitution, and that response is: listen to sex workers. It was the dominant theme of critical replies to my review of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: listen to sex workers, then you’ll see how wrong you are.
In some ways it’s a peculiar logic when it comes to sex work — it claims the privileged status of the victim, while pro-sex-work advocates simultaneously insist that sex workers are not victims — but there’s a logic to it that I wouldn’t dispute. The people directly affected by any situation have undeniable insights into their condition, and I want to listen to them. I want to do justice to the people who figure in my politics.
But when I’m told listen to sex workers, the assumption is that “sex workers” as a class adopt a coherent line which I’m obliged to follow. (Again, this is a bit weird because one of the main strands of anti-legislation argument also holds that sex workers are too various to be dealt with under a single framework. Nevertheless, there it is.)
So for example, Gira Grant espouses decriminalization, and presents that as an aim pertinent to all sex workers — in fact, she argues for total freedom from the state, including no registration and no taxation on income. But in Italy, some sex workers are campaigning for the right to legally register their occupation and to pay tax (doing so would make them eligible for pensions, which is a highly reasonable thing to want). Who to listen to, Gira Grant or the Italian protesters?
Or maybe I should listen to Rachel Moran, a former prostitute who considers the purchase of sex an act of violence against women and campaigns for its criminalization (her own testimony, in her memoir Paid For, makes a pretty compelling case). Moran holds a very different opinion on who the victims of prostitution are:
The acceptance of prostitution makes all women potential prostitutes in the public view since there are only two requirements for a woman to work in a brothel: one is that circumstance has placed her so […] and the other is that she has a vagina, and all women are born meeting at least one of these requirements.
Paid For, Rachel Moran (Gill & Macmillan, 2013)
In other words, women as a class are affected by the fact of sex work, which means that all women have the right to be listened to as the affected class.
The “listen to” argument shrugs off responsibility. Rather than make your own judgments, it allows you to outsource your moral thinking to another party, and give up the tricky obligation to weigh facts and balance rights.
But it also obscures a moral judgment already taken: when someone says listen to sex workers, they’re defining the class “sex worker” by the opinions they think it proper for a sex worker to hold. (For example: anyone endorsing Moran’s writing and campaigning is liable to be called a “SWERF” – Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist – even though she had sex for money over the course of many years. Including her is still considered to be excluding sex workers, because sex workers are supposed to support the continuation of prostitution.)
This kind of covertly selective listening is not enough. Absorbing testimony is critical to developing your politics, but it’s not a replacement for the work you need to do yourself. That work is hard, of course. It takes you into areas where you have no guide but your own judgment, and the judgments you make have the potential to affect real lives if you are ever in a position to shape policy, or even just to influence other people’s opinions. That’s a responsibility I can understand anyone preferring not to acknowledge, but it’s a responsibility you have whether you want it or not. And it’s why the “listen to” argument is necessary, but it’s never sufficient.