Feministe Can’t Just Make Their Sex Work Problems Disappear [Updated]

[Update: Thanks to Donna L for calling to my attention the fact that Feministe‘s editors have said that they removed the post at the request of the author. However, that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as: why they made the whole thing disappear without a trace, along with the comments; why didn’t they address the removal in a more public manner, instead of burying it in a “spillover thread”; and what positive steps they’ll take to center the voices of sex workers in the future.]

Sometime late last week, the editors of Feministe made a very embarrassing and controversial post about sex work disappear from their site, along with several hundred comments. As of this writing, they have not posted any explanation, apology, or retraction for the post, apparently hoping that they can just make it vanish down the memory hole.

Jill Filipovic, Editor of Feministe (Image from Wikicommons)

Jill Filipovic, Editor of Feministe
(Image from Wikicommons)

I wrote about the problems with “Dear Feminists” by Sarah Elizabeth Pahman last week, just before the Feministe staff decided to make it disappear. To summarize: it was not only whorephobic, but racist and classist. Although it pretended to be about poverty in America, and specifically about impoverished sex workers, it was all about Pahman, and how seeing them for the first time made her feel.

As many pointed out, Pahman’s broad use of “feminists” in this context amounted to a thinly-veiled euphemism for sex workers themselves, since nearly all sex worker activists and organizations advocate for decriminalization. Blogger Feminist Whore summed the problem up in a Tweet: “I love how pieces like this silence pro-decrim sex workers by framing the opposition as only being other ‘feminists.'”

If Feministe‘s original decision to run Pahman’s essay was disturbing, deleting it without any acknowledgement or apology was even worse, and shows how deeply institutionalized their problems with sex work are. There is no doubt that the decision to publish was an act of contempt for sex work communities. Assuming that the workers couldn’t speak for themselves, Feministe prioritized the voice of a privileged, inexperienced non-sex worker. And then, when they faced criticism and anger from their regular readership and sex work communities, they flushed the whole thing.

As I said in my first piece, I do have some sympathy for Jill Filipovic and her colleagues. You write and speak in public long enough, and it’s inevitable that you’re going to fuck up. Sometimes the pressure of deadlines and trying to balance scores of competing viewpoints can screw up your decision-making. The true test of character is how you handle it when people point out that you’ve fucked up.

When people pointed out that Feministe fucked up, they took the coward’s way out. They decided to to pretend not only that they’d never run Sarah Elizabeth Pahman’s poverty porn, but that the anger it caused never existed either. While I might be able to understand the original mistake, the decision to refuse to confront that mistake and be held accountable is unforgivable.

There were 204 comments on “Dear Feminists” before Feministe closed the thread on September 13, about a week after the original post. In addition to Kitty Stryker (whom I cited in my first piece) several other sex workers posted comments that were critical of Pahman and Feministe. With the post gone, so are their comments, and Jill Filipovic doesn’t need to respond to their criticisms — or, indeed, even acknowledge them.

I do have a cached version of the page as of September 18, after the comments had already been closed. Here are a few examples of what was said:

Knock it off
September 9, 2013 at 10:52 am

Yet another article on sex work written by a non-sex worker who can’t even be fucked to quote any of the sex workers whose minds she apparently knows so well. There’s not so much as a paraphrase of something actually said by a sex worker, or “prostituted woman” as she refers to them.

She does say she’s never heard any of them call it a job or refer to it as sex work, but somehow I really doubt she’s heard any of them refer to themselves as “prostituted women” either.

I don’t understand how someone can see that a criminal record and inability to go to the police over abuse is a problem and still not be in favor of decriminalization. In fact, she’s violently against decriminalization.

It would be really nice to not have to worry about being arrested for doing something that would be totally legal if it were free. I’m not a feminist, but I am a sex worker. Do you want to strangle me? Because Christ, that’s a nastier threat than I’ve ever gotten from a client.

Yo, Feministe. If you wanted an article about street work, there are a number of people far more qualified to write it than this person. Did you realize that there are actual current and former street-working sex workers who write about their experiences? I think their thoughts are much more relevant.

September 12, 2013 at 12:17 am

Sex worker organisations, since they include a much larger sample of people than just talking to an individual sex worker, typically include people with a range of different experiences of sex work. I know people like to assume that sex worker organisations consist entirely of middle-class educated sex workers, but I’ve been to a lot of things run by Scarlet Alliance, the Australian sex worker organisation, that have included speakers who had been forced into sex work or who have done survival sex work.

Also, I think it’s important to remember that sex workers don’t just have different experiences from each other, they can also personally have a wide variety of experiences of sex work. Many women who I’ve seen labelled as “privileged” sex workers (including personal friends) have had histories of extreme poverty and survival sex work.

Caty Simon
September 13, 2013 at 11:34 am

Wow, I am aghast that Feministe posted a non-sex worker’s viewpoint on how sex work should be run. How about, instead of the perspective of a non-sex worker who rode along just voyeuristicly watching these women work, and jumped to her own conclusions on it, running a post written by a street sex worker in the sex workers’ rights movement, many of whom have drug histories and have worked under horrible conditions but would fight to the death to protect their right to make their own choices about their bodies, their right to the option of survival and street sex work?

A Former Sex Worker
September 13, 2013 at 2:18 pm

That is the bottom line isn’t it Caty?

Sex workers are fighting for their right to use sex work to survive (as in “stay alive”).

“Rescuers” are fighting to get the right to control and define other people’s lives, up to and including denying them the right to survive by the only means available to them.

In 2006 maybe there was a way to reshuffle things a little and offer everyone a way to stay alive that did not involve selling sex…but nobody bothered to try (what WERE all these rescuers up to instead anyway?), and now 2006 is a long ago yesterday, and like every other yesterday it is gone for good.

Sex workers have the same right to survive as any human being.

Just what kind of monster wants to take that away anyway?

There is of course, much, much more, far too much for me to reproduce here. And that’s not even covering the things that were being said on Twitter or on other blogs.

To simply ignore all that anger, and even to pretend that it never existed, is reprehensible. If somebody matters to you, when you say something that pisses them off, you talk to them about why they’re angry, and what you can do to fix it. It’s only if you don’t give a shit that you turn your back and walk away. That’s exactly what Feministe has done here. It is a massive failure in courage and integrity from one of the Internet’s major forums on gender and social justice.

If Feministe has any aspiration at all of living up to their claims of being advocates for social justice, they have to take a good hard look at themselves, far beyond the problems with this one post. It includes acknowledging that they have not only systematically ignored sex workers, but created an environment that’s actively hostile to them. There are huge numbers of sex work activists who refuse to identify as feminists because of bullshit like this. If Jill actually wants to center sex worker voices, she needs to give them a reason to believe that she and the Feministe staff have their backs. Right now, it looks like she just wants them to disappear, cleanly and completely.

When I write or speak up about sex work — especially in sex worker spaces like Slixa — I think of it like being a dinner guest in someone’s home. That means that I behave myself the best I can: wash up, put on my best clothes, don’t swear in front of the kids, act according to their rules, and stay in the parts of the house that are open to guests. Even though I’m an atheist and prayer makes me squirm, I’ll even go through the motions of participating in the religious blessing before dinner.

And I think that’s what separates me from Jill Filipovic, Tigtog (the editor who approved “Dear Feminists”), and Sarah Elizabeth Pahman. They don’t seem to even realize that they’re sitting in someone else’s living room, never mind that they’ve insulted our hosts. What Feministe did is like pissing on your host’s carpet, then storming out indignantly when they point out that you just pissed on the carpet.

Further Recommended Reading


Image courtesy of Chris Hall | Literate Perversions


  1. says

    Chris, thanks for archiving these fantastic comments by sex workers. How heartbreaking that Feministe could make the dozens of sex workers — who proved beyond doubt that they are not the voiceless victims represented in the article — disappear. I am grateful that this commentary has been saved, and this enormous amount of labour has been, at least somehwat, accounted for.

    • Chris says

      One of the great things about the comments by sex workers in that thread was that they so effectively put the lie to the strawman that’s always brought up by the antis in these discussions. That is, the claim that sex work activists are cheerleading and making it look wonderful and beautiful with no problems at all. In fact, a lot of the comments took on the ambiguity of sex work, and talked very frankly about some of the problems. The point is that none of those problems are made better by arresting the workers.

      • SunlessNick says

        The point is that none of those problems are made better by arresting the workers.

        Exactly. I’m not an expert on sex work – be it the fulfilling job kind, the kind that’s better described as rape slavery, or any of the categories between them, or how many such categories there should be. I’m not clear or certain on the pros and cons of any particular legal model of dealing with them. But the one thing I am certain of, is that whatever any of us think of sex work, the first priority should be sex workers’ safety. And I’ve never heard a convicing argument for how making them criminals accomplishes this. Pahman’s only answer was to say she wanted to strangle anyone who asked.

  2. DonnaL says

    As I just mentioned on Feministe, on the Shameless Self-Promotion Sunday thread in which you posted a link to this, Feministe did post an explanation, after someone asked about the disappearance: Sarah Elizabeth Pahman “withdrew” her post, and Feministe, for reasons that aren’t clear to me, honored her request. Were they legally or contractually obligated to honor it? I have no idea.

    • Chris says

      Could you link to that? I’ve been watching Feministe, and so have a lot of other people, yet I’ve failed to see it. In your comment on the Feministe thread, you say that “There was an explanation, but only after someone asked about it.” If it’s a one-line response someplace in one of their comment threads, it doesn’t count. There needs to be a substantial discussion about the attitudes at Feministe that allowed it to be published in the first place, and what kind of steps they’re going to take to *actually* center the voices of sex workers, rather than just paying lip service to the idea.

      What I’ve tried to get across is that this particular post is just a symptom of a larger problem at Feministe, and they need to be willing to discuss that.

      • DonnaL says

        You’re right — it was an explanation in the middle of an open thread or spillover thread or something of that nature, in response to a question from someone asking what happened to that thread. Not a separate announcement. I don’t have time to search for it right now, though.

        • Chris says

          Perfectly fair. Thanks for letting me know. It kind of makes me flash back to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Arthur Dent finds the plans to demolish his house “on display” in a unlit basement, in the bottom drawer of a locked file cabinet in an unused lavatory with a sign that says “BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD.”

    • Chris says

      Also, I’d like to say that I appreciate this from your comment on Feministe:

      I’m not sure why all those comments — on which a lot of people spent a lot of time — had to be deleted as well. They would hardly have been incomprehensible in their condemnation of what Sarah Elizabeth had to say (including her violent fantasies about choking feminists who disagree with her, and her refusal to withdraw them), even without the original post.

      That’s a big issue for me, because I think that some of what was being said could have been built upon to address the problems that Jill and Tigtog have with sex workers. Some of the comments — such as Kitty Stryker’s — could have been promoted to full posts, rather than just tossed into oblivion.

      • SunlessNick says

        And deleting them alongside the post, because Pahman wanted it deleted, is another instance of privileging her voice over those of the sex-workers in the thread.

        • Chris says

          That’s an excellent summary of the problem, Nick. I could have saved a lot of words if I’d been able to put it so concisely.


  1. […] …last week…Feministe made a very embarrassing and controversial post about sex work disappear from…, along with several hundred comments…they have not posted any explanation, apology, or retraction for the post, apparently hoping that they can just make it vanish down the memory hole…”Dear Feminists“ by Sarah Elizabeth Pahman…pretended to be about…impoverished sex workers, [but] it was all about Pahman, and how seeing them for the first time made her feel…[the incident] shows how deeply institutionalized their problems with sex work are… […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *