Forgotten Voices

Sex workers excluded by selective feminism

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The rise of the #MeToo movement has amplified the voices of the historically silenced. It has seized the microphone from the powerful and passed it to the previously powerless, providing a long-overdue platform for survivors of sexual abuse. One critical voice, however, is still inaudible: the voices of sex workers.

Sex work, as defined by the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, is “any type of labor where the explicit goal is to produce a sexual or erotic response in the client,” and can include prostitution as well as legal forms of sex work such as erotic dancing and adult film acting.

The stigma surrounding sex work is deeply embedded in our culture. Sex workers’ very existences are reduced to misogynistic punchlines and insults, and while their stigmatization may not be so blatant in feminist spheres, the absence of sex workers’ narratives within movements like #MeToo is glaring.

Illustration by Kerri Vue

Following the emergence of #MeToo, the Time’s Up campaign was launched to combat sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Yet, there is no mention of sex work in the Time’s Up mission statement. The Women’s March also attempted to alienate sex workers from its mission. According to trans activist, author and former sex worker Janet Mock, a line she wrote in the draft for the Women’s March mission statement calling for “solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements” was cut and only replaced after backlash.

Sex workers’ perspectives, when they are included, are treated as an afterthought or seen as a niche that does not demand space within broader movements for women’s liberation. There are an estimated 42 million sex workers in the world, with 1 million living in the U.S., and the exclusion of their narratives pushes an already invisible group even further into the margins of society.

Even more harmful is the notion that sex work is inherently degrading and oppressive and that reform is not possible. This leads to continued criminalization and, as a result, sex workers remain over-policed and unprotected by the law.

When movements like #MeToo, Time’s Up and the Women’s March do not allow space for sex workers to provide their own truths and instead condemn sex work as a patriarchal institution that should be eradicated, the individual needs of these women are ignored in favor of abstract ideology. Demand for sex work will always exist, and the laborers who perform that work are as entitled to protections as any other group.

The illegal status of their labor compounded with a lack of community support fosters a climate that provides no clear pathway to justice for sex workers who experience abuse. The stigmatization of sex work makes workers highly vulnerable to violence and prevents them from seeking help when violence does occur.

Faced with either fear of arrest or fear of being dismissed because the nature of their work is seen as inherently permissive of abuse, there is no safe avenue for sex workers to seek help. Conflating sex work with abuse denies workers their agency, pushes them into silence and allows violence to go unapprehended.

This is unacceptable when sex workers have up to a 75 percent chance of experiencing violence at some point during their careers, and active female sex workers are nearly 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women in their age group.

Reporting abuse is hardly an option when it comes with risk of arrest or even further violence at the hands of the police — in all 50 states, it is legal for police to initiate sexual contact with individuals under investigation for prostitution. Intersecting oppressions also play a role: in New York City, in 2014- 15, 84 percent of those arrested for sex work were women of color, and trans women also face higher rates of arrest.

While the #MeToo movement pushed state lawmakers to draft legislation that establishes affirmative consent and outlines survivors’ rights, these laws make no mention of protection for sex workers. This is partly due to the longstanding cultural disparagement of sex workers, and their exclusion within the national conversations sparked by #MeToo only contributes to the dangerous effects of stigmatization.

It is crucial that sex workers’ experiences are given space within mainstream women’s rights movements like #MeToo. The all-too-common misconception that abuse and sex work are inextricable essentially tells sex workers they should have known what they signed up for, placing the blame for violence at victims’ feet.

Making a concerted effort to place sex workers’ voices at the forefront of women’s rights movements is a necessary first step toward decreasing stigmatization, reaffirming their agency and securing labor rights for sex workers.

We are living in a pivotal moment. The strongholds of systemic power that reinforce the subjugation of women are beginning to crumble on the national stage. That progress was not achieved through silence, and the actualization of sex workers’ rights cannot be achieved through silence either.

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