Sex work stigma
If you read any of the articles published in the days before and after Amnesty International’s decision to support decriminalising sex work, e.g. this one by Luca Stevenson and Agata Dziuban, you are now hopefully aware of the immense stigma sex workers are faced with in their everyday lives, affecting not only them but also their families and friends. To a much lesser degree, the stigma can also affect sex workers’ clients, although at worst, they might be faced with ridicule or ostracism, not violent attacks. However, the stigma might well play a role in why clients are rarely seen sacrificing their anonymity to stand up for the rights of sex workers whose services they enjoy. As a researcher, I don’t feel any tangible impact by the stigma attached to sex work research, but I certainly experience my fair share of verbal abuse. Following the Twitter battle before and after Amnesty’s decision, I’ve updated the above peak meter, which I created a couple of years ago, to include the latest labels others have attached to or hurled at me.
This blog post may appear somewhat self-referential but I would actually like to use the labels, good and bad, as vehicles to point readers to several interesting articles, some of which were written by sex workers, others by researchers, not that the two are mutually exclusive, and yet again others by sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs). Please note that the below is by no means intended to compare my experience to the stigma and its consequences faced by sex workers.
[-10] John / Pimp Apologist
Trying to shame sex workers or sex workers’ rights advocates by labelling them “johns” is very common, although it doesn’t really make much sense. After all, if someone believes that consenting adults should be allowed to buy and sell sexual services, being called a “john”, although buying sex carries its own stigma, is pretty much the same as being called a customer, which is hardly an insult.
A prostitution prohibitionist using the pseudonym Stella Marr once called me a “pimp apologist” before later deleting her comment. Although she set her own blog to “private” after she was outed, you can still read her libellous article “Pimps Posing as Sex Worker Activists” at the “Anti-Porn Feminists”-blog, in which she slanders veteran sex worker activists Maxine Doogan, Norma Jean Almodovar and the late Robyn Few, founders of the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLER), the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education (ISWFACE), and the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) respectively.
[-30] Pornstitutionist / Useless A**hole / Sexist Propagandist
Francois Tremblay, in his own words a “pessimistic feminazi, radical whackjob and antinatalist”, responded to a blog post of mine with one of his own, in which he labelled me a “pornstitutionist”, a term, as he explained, “for people who oppose abolitionism in prostitution and pornography”. His post “The strange connection between pornstitutionists and lying” is still online. He later added a postscript with the above mentioned expletive.
After I had posted a series of memes to mock the Hollywood celebrities who had gullibly believed the false claims by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and co-signed a letter to oppose Amnesty‘s draft policy, a self-declared radical feminist tweeted that my memes were “sexist propaganda” and that I should quit insulting women’s intelligence – although my post includes memes mocking male celebrities, too. I wouldn’t usually mock spelling mistakes, but, well…
[-50] Sleazeball etc.
All of these are comments left about me underneath a post at the “Anti-Porn Feminists”-blog. To get an idea about the barrage of abuse that sex workers are regularly faced with, please read the Storify entry #whenantisattack, gathered by a group of current and former sex workers to highlight the silencing, shaming, abuse and insults by those who oppose sex work.
[-70] Pimp / Trafficker
In 2013, an Irish-based tabloid re-posted a video that YouTube had previously removed since it violated its terms and conditions. In the video, an undercover reporter of the tabloid filmed and outed a sex worker without her consent. In the comment thread underneath the video, a troll called me both a pimp and a trafficker. While that video was a particularly extreme example, media reports regularly add to the stigma attached to sex work, which is why in December 2014, four South African organisations jointly published “A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work”. An article about the guide was published in Open Democracy‘s excellent series Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. To download the complete guide as PDF please click here.
The term “pimp lobby” is frequently used by sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) to slander “anyone who advocates anything but the full criminalization of sex work”. Apart from watching the video below, I recommend reading “Hanging out in the Pimp Lobby” by Jemima, “Everything You Need To Know About The Pimp Lobby” by Charlotte Shane, and “I Am the Pimp Lobby” by Jes Richardson.
Perhaps the worst insult I’ve experienced was one during the Amnesty #ICM2015 twitter battle, when a Canadian anti-prostitution activist accused me of using the murder of Swedish sex worker activist Petite Jasmine to further my alleged agenda to legalise “sexual slavery”.
Black + Green Labels
A French sex worker activist once told me I wrote even “more politely than English people”. I believe that any movement needs different types of activism and writing. Some of it needs to be fierce; at other times, it’s better to be diplomatic. I’m always up for creating satirical memes, but in my writing, I prefer to be very diplomatic, although when faced with ideologues like Rhoda Grant or Mary Honeyball, that’s not always possible.
[+30] Idealist / Activist
What an American and a Turkish friend in South Korea called me. Justice Himel from the Ontario Court of Justice found that anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley had allowed her advocacy to permeate her opinions. Although Farley’s work has been frequently discredited, anti-prostitution activists continue to cite her in support of sweeping claims about sex work, just as the notorious Cho/Dreher/Neumayer study is constantly rolled out to back up the argument that legalising sex work leads to greater human trafficking inflows, despite the seriously flawed data used to make that argument. I believe on both sides of the divide, it’s sometimes difficult to remain detached when people close to oneself experience violent abuse. When it comes to activism for the rights of sex workers, I believe it’s important to acknowledge what you don’t know and stay clear of problematic arguments. And that’s true regardless of whether you are a sex worker, a researcher, a journalist, an artist, a writer, or any combination of these.
[+50] Sex Worker Ally / Great Partner
[+70] Fabulous / Friend
What the above mentioned French and a South Korean sex worker activist have called me.
My preferred way of dealing with SWERF attacks is to create memes and share them with the #sexwork community or respond with counter evidence to the most ludicrous claims, like the one about sex workers’ rights advocates allegedly living in a land of milk and honey, when actually, it’s faux anti-trafficking organisations who rake in the dough.
Should you experience verbal abuse because you publicly stated your support for policies to safeguard sex workers’ human rights, try not to let it get to you. As American comedian W.C. Fields once put it, “it ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to”.
#pledgedecrim (© English Collective of Prostitutes. Used with kind permission.)
Preface: Long live the humour!
“First and foremost, humour is a means to counter the seriousness of life and at best, to cope with it. The more serious the situation, the more important humour becomes. Humour creates a distance to depressing events, it allows to speak improperly about matters which are properly unbearable [and] for a moment, it disarms the seriousness. And that might well be the reason why fanatics despise humour. They contend a dead serious, eternal truth, and jokes – however clever or funny they may be – threaten this truth. Long live the humour. The clever one. The silly one. Anyone who finds enough people who laugh about it. And for all those who don’t like it, it should apply now more than ever: tolerate it or ignore it. You won’t be able to control humour!” – Tim Wolff, Chief Editor of German satire magazine TITANIC (Translated excerpt from his article “You won’t be able to control humour!”. Published with kind permission.)
As the Twitter battle between supporters and opponents of Amnesty’s draft policy to decriminalise sex work heated up, a current sex worker from the UK published a Downfall meme titled “SWERFs discover Amnesty are supporting decrim”. (SWERF is an acronym for sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists.)
“The Downfall meme, also known as “Hitler Finds Out…” or “Hitler Reacts To…”, is a series of parody-subtitled videos based on a pinnacle scene from Der Untergang (2004), a German WWII drama revisiting the last ten days of Adolf Hitler’s life and eventual suicide in his Berlin underground bunker.”
The subtitles are excellent as they are not only funny but also list a number of figures from both sides of the divide. But while I agree with Tim Wolff‘s words above, Nazi analogies are problematic depending on one’s respective cultural context, which is why I requested the permission to publish the subtitles as text-only version along with links to the cited sources. The different characters in the video are listed as PAPA SWERF, BRAINY SWERF, and SWERFETTE.
“Laughing in the face of the awful”
[The following paragraphs were composed by the sex worker who created the video.]
What is humour? On one level it is always something that transgresses, in order to be funny, a rule somewhere, even if it is a rule of grammar, must be broken. As children, our first comedy is that of bodily functions, as we explore the taboos society insists we must comply to. Indeed, there is probably a good essay somewhere, or waiting to be written, on how all types of humour fit into Freud’s stages of development, from the scatalogical to the cerebral.
In a particular British context, the taboo has so often been one of class and status. The Lord of Misrule, the Fool, the Wife of Bath mocking the Knight – our comedy is rooted in laughing at those with power and authority over us. This tradition carried on through the prints of Hogarth and the pages of Punch. In recent years this has been described as punching up, not punching down.
It is a delicate line between offending power and simply being offensive. Does the Downfall meme cross this line? I think in fact it is the archetype writ large, by mocking someone so terrible, with so much power we are following on from Hogarth, from the fool. We are asserting our power, that the power to show tyranny for what it is still remains. Sometimes laughter is the only power we have, and sometimes laughing in the face of the awful is, in itself, a radical act.
SWERFs discover Amnesty supports decriminalising sex work
PAPA SWERF: “But I wrote at least four editorials. How can this be happening?”
BRAINY SWERF: “The Lancet has produced its own editorial supporting Amnesty.”
PAPA SWERF: “We can still win this. Get me Woman’s Hour on the phone.”
PAPA SWERF: “Anyone who has read ‘Playing the Whore’ leave the room now. … How the f*** has this happened?! We called them pimps, we called them privileged, we outed them! The World Health Organisation I could understand. UNAIDS – who cares. But Amnesty? They’re supposed to be our kind of liberals. What the f*** are they doing collecting evidence? Get me Lena Dunham now. I need people who refuse listening to scientific research. Get me some Hollywood anti-vaxers. What is the point of feminism if people go around listening to oppressed women! Has no one read Germaine Greer? What’s the point in Julie Burchill threatening to shoot prostitutes if they aren’t scared into silence?”
BRAINY SWERF: “Don’t you mean prostituted women?”
PAPA SWERF: “I know what I mean. F***ing whores! Put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig. What happened to blaming the pimp lobby?”
BRAINY SWERF: “No one believes in the pimp lobby anymore.”
PAPA SWERF: “I told Bindel this. I f***ing told her! But no, she wanted to crowdfund her latest book. If people start listening to sex workers, who will publish us? I have tenure. Do you know how hard it is out there for an academic? Do you expect me to find a new professorship at my age? Get me Melissa Farley! … Distorted study after distorted study, for what? For Amnesty to commission their own! We have Sweden, Canada and Northern Ireland. We managed to convince Christian bigots to stand with us. Do you know how many anti-abortion fundraisers I had to go to? I even sat through a Christian rock concert. And for what? For people to collect their own f***ing evidence! … Do you know what Christian soft rock is like? But I did it, because with the fundamentalists we could make sure no one ever listened to the whores. And Amnesty went out and did their own research! The whole point was that no one was meant to ask sex workers what they wanted. Now they have gone and asked people who live under the Swedish Model how it harms them. No one is meant to know about that! We hid that by publishing it in Swedish and no one cares enough to translate Swedish. You can’t just go and ask the Rose Alliance how it harms them! What next? Will they ask migrant sex workers what they want? Next thing we know they will ask trans* sex workers what would protect them from abuse!
SWERFETTE: “It’s okay. The public hates trans people more than sex workers, even if they do ask.”
PAPA SWERF: “You know how this happened? What started this? F***ing Twitter! People started following sex workers, discovered they were human, had feelings, thoughts, opinions. They talked to sex workers and listened. Even some feminists followed sex work accounts. We called them orifices, pointed out that all penetrative intercourse is rape, mocked them for sucking dick, showed our disgust at every turn. For some reason, this made people think we are the bad guys. All we have left is the New Statesman. God have mercy on our souls.”
Over 10,000 people signed the petition to Amnesty by the Global Network for Sex Work Projects. The vote about the draft policy at Amnesty’s International Council Meeting in Dublin is scheduled for August 11th, 2015. As soon as the result will be known, this post will be updated.
+++ Update: Amnesty International delegates from around the world voted to adopt policy to protect human rights of sex workers | Click here for Amnesty’s official statement +++
I would like to thank Jane Doe for her permission to publish the text-only version of her video, for adding the paragraphs above, and for collaborating to publish this post.