Open letter to a former sex worker

I’m not going to be polite to non-sex worker prohibitionists; so far as I’m concerned, Object and UK Feminista et al are what happens when feminism gets dutch elm disease and rots from the inside out. However, because I’m arguing in good faith, I think it is appropriate to assume that other people are too, and so when I come across (former) sex workers who have very different opinions to me, I think a good starting point is one of respectful engagement. We don’t need to try to shout each other down. We’ve all experienced the way that the stigma around sex work is used to silence us; we don’t need to silence each other, too. That’s doing patriarchy’s job for it.

So I was very interested to read this piece, ‘What is a representative prostitute?’ (trigger warning for rape and childhood sexual abuse). The first thing I should say is, many of the experiences you describe are awful, and you have my utmost empathy. I can’t promise not to disagree with your politics, but I will never, ever disbelieve a rape survivor, or judge how you’ve processed those experiences.

Here’s a thing I agree with, to start off on. The author writes: “A good hint as to the intentions of anyone posing this question is in how they will construct it.  Members of the pro-prostitution alliance will far more likely use the sanitising/normalising language of ‘sex work’; therefore will most likely ask ‘What is a representative sex-worker?’”. Well, yes. I can’t really dodge that one, huh? What I think is concealed in the way this sentence works, though, is the possibility that the ‘pro-prostitution alliance’ also contains sex workers prostitutes, and I don’t see why we don’t get to politely ask that you call us ‘sex workers’. I personally prefer it, by and large, – and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone else to use whatever terminology they find most comfortable: if you think the phrase “prostituted woman” best describes your experiences, then that’s fine. (I mean, its not fine that you experienced that, but if you ask me to, I’ll use the language you prefer when referring to you!) It seems to me that we have different words and phrases in order to express different kinds of experiences, and – that’s okay? That’s kind of good? English comes in many different shapes, to match the world, and we don’t have to use just one phrase for everyone.

… Which leads nicely onto the central crux: who mostly closely approximates “everyone”? The author of piece talks about some of the women she met while working in the sex industry (is that a reasonably neutral phrase? I was genuinely aiming for reasonably neutral there) – an example of their experiences being, for instance, “Anna”, who “left home at fourteen because her stepfather had been sexually molesting her for years.  She was prostituted at seventeen, and found prostitution nothing very new”. Well, that is really shit: I’m sorry. I’m also not pro-rape or child abuse: if I could post my CV here, you’d see a reasonable amount of work (with varying degrees of formality) in the fields of supporting survivors, both in the context of sex work and in women’s organisations more generally. I too would like to rid the world of rape; I just don’t think that (further) criminalising the sex industries is the way to do that. Can you see that I’m not denying the validity of your – or Anna’s – experiences by thinking that? That I’m not a pro-rape monster?

At the start of the post, you write “A representative prostitute is somebody who’s lived experience of prostitution and consequential attitudes towards it are those experienced by and held by the majority”. I think this is a little problematic in the way that it elides ‘experiences’ with ‘attitudes towards [prostitution]‘. This erases the category of people who have had similar experiences,  but who haven’t reached your conclusions, implying that the only people who disagree with you are those who have no experience of what you’re talking about: anyone who’d experienced what you had would agree. Well, that’s not my – to use this word for the millionth time – experience. I’ve met sex workers with stories not a million miles from what you’ve recorded: people who’ve swapped sex for survival on the streets as adolescents. Teenagers who traded sex for alcohol. Survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse. People who’ve experienced violence from managers and clients, transgender people who’ve gone into sex work because our transphobic society offers so few other options, sex workers who are drug-users. None of those people would agree with the conclusions that you draw.

In fact, a while ago I was talking to a friend about how he started out in the sex industry, and he specifically said that the reason he is involved in the sex worker rights movement is to help out the scared, desperate seventeen year old kids on the street – because that’s who he used to be. I don’t see that that’s a political position deserving of scorn.

The statistics you cite – that twenty nine of out thirty sex workers would leave the sex industry if offered a job of equal earning potential – don’t surprise me hugely, but I don’t think you allow for the possibility that these statistics are both true, and don’t quite suggest what you argue they do (that “the vast majority of the women polled here, would not, if they could make the same money elsewhere, choose to experience another moment of prostitution ever again”). I would probably leave the sex industry tomorrow if offered a job under those conditions (depending on the nature of the job, I guess – ghostwriting David Cameron’s memoirs? Not so much), because a job in the ‘legit’ world that paid so well would probably be quite prestigious. I used to be an au pair – if you’d asked me then whether I had plans to quit au pairing, and whether I’d take an equivalent job outside of the childcare industry if offered, then I’d have given an emphatic yes to both. That doesn’t mean I think au pairing is The Worst Job In The World (actually, I sort of do think this) or that the purchase of childcare should be criminalised.

Incidentally, I had a swatch online for the Haughey and Bacik study that you cite, because I’m interested in the methodology of studies that focus on the sex industry, but I couldn’t seem to get my hands on a copy. So I can’t comment on that. I’ve learnt to be interested in methodology (this is a not an inborn trait, surprisingly), because this field is swamped with dodgily cooked stats. There’s a famous Farley study that found eighty-nine percent of sex workers wanted to quit the industry – this stat is quoted all over the mainstream (o hai kat barnyard!), as if its good science, when in fact it has a huge selection bias which makes it barely worth the time it takes to refute. (To quote that link, ” … a bit like selecting people at a jobs fair to find out if they’re looking for work”.) Incidentally, that Farley-debunking link tackles some of the other stuff you talk about: the percentage of sex workers who work in the street, the extent to which the sex worker rights movement is a product of the Global North (short version: not loads).

You talk about how, “My own expressed opinions in prostitution were always constructed in the effort to protect myself. I berated myself over that for quite a long while afterwards, but to the best of my ability, I don’t do that anymore, because it was only natural that I would protect myself anyway I could.” I really glad to hear that you’re trying to not berate yourself anymore: you did what you had to to survive, and that’s a sign of strength. However, I feel like you’re denying me the agency to name and describe my life when you talk about how that form of surviving is inevitable or universal. (“I don’t see how it could be any other way.”) It is possible to have similar experiences and process them entirely differently, it is possible to have different experiences and for those experiences still to be valid, to exist, to be a way of being in the sex industry that is not so unusual. It feels like, by implying that I must be – on some level – lying to protect myself – you’re not engaging with me as a person with different politics, you’re taking away the possibility that I might just disagree, and replacing that with the inevitability that I’m self-delusional. That’s not kind. That’s not a great way of doing politics.

I feel like, in the UK at least, the question of “representativeness” is used to silence sex workers. Amongst prohibitionists, it seems like a sort of catch-22: if you’re ‘together’ enough to disagree with them, then that’s a sign of your privilege, so you need not be taken seriously. And yet, who is a representative sex worker? I quoted you at the start, talking about how the way this question is framed betrays the ask-er’s bias – absolutely – but I also think that to an extent, even asking the question has become a signifier of a certain flavour of politics. We need to find out who sex workers are, where they are, and what their needs are, in order to lobby for and create services that better cater to our needs – whether those needs are to exit the industry, to fill in a tax return, to protect ourselves from violence, or to form communities that can sustain us. We don’t need to find out who is an ‘average’ sex worker in order to berate non-average sex workers with that straw man: how many people are an ‘average’ or representative anything? (Two point four kids, anyone?) Am I an average Scottish woman? Probably not (in fact, ipsos mori came to the door the other day, as if to underline my non-averageoisity. The man did not even slightly smile when I told him that I thought the biggest problem facing Britain was “the Tories”) – but that doesn’t mean I don’t exist, or deserve services.

There’s room in my analysis for you, and for the truth of your experiences. But there doesn’t seem to be room in your analysis for me, or mine. And yet, I do exist. So where do we go from here?


ETA: I left a wee comment on the post that I’m responding to – just saying, like, “hi, thanks for writing this, I wrote a thing” – and it got deleted. Which is fine – no one need respond to anyone that they don’t want to. But I did feel like I was genuinely trying to find common ground, and I didn’t get a lot of reciprocity on that. Maybe I was naive.


This blog has been reposted from the blog A Glasgow Sex Worker.