Feministe‘s coverage of sex work is pretty seriously fucked up, and it is far past time that they face up to that and do something about it. I feel like that’s so painfully obvious that it’s embarrassing even saying it, but apparently it does need to be said.
In February, Feministe editor Jill Filipovic published a troubling post about how she supports sex workers, but hates sex work. When is the last time that you saw any marginalized person respond positively to the “hate the sin, love the sinner” line?
There’s a lot wrong with Pahman’s piece, probably too much to adequately cover here. I’ve read it again and again, and every reading shows deeper problems in the author’s worldview and assumptions. In the end, there’s only one problem that matters: it should not, under any circumstances, have been published. Not by a major website that claims to stand for an intersectional vision of social justice. Not by anyone who claims to “support” sex workers. Not by anyone who values the voices of sex workers, or who thinks that they deserve to be centered in all debates about sex work.
The rot symbolized by the decision to run Pahman’s piece is not just about sex workers. It’s also about Feministe‘s (and in fact, the white left in general) persistent problems with racism and classism. The article is Pahman’s story of a being a privileged young woman who goes on a ridealong for the first time with a nonprofit that does outreach to low-income sex workers. They give out lunches and condoms and “bad date” lists and stepping away from the usual comforts of her privilege, for the very first time, this young woman sees the conditions that impoverished black and brown people live in for herself. And she decides that this experience, of seeing peoples’ lives from the security of a van, gives her the insight and authority to violently condemn the term “sex work” (Originally coined by activist Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, who identifies as an “unrepentant whore”) and to describe her fantasies of violence against advocates of decriminalization:
Some may say “well that is why we must legalize it” and I want to spit in their face. I want to grasp my fingers around their neck and choke the ignorance from them.. I guess violence begets violence because my eyes go red when feminists lecture about “sex work.”3
Sex work is talking in idealism, but I live down here in reality. Sex work is saying “yes we have agency over our bodies and we choose this because we like sex and are empowered, we have enough money to live but like to do this as a job. This work doesn’t cause PTSD because men treat us good and we have sexual equality.”
From beginning to end, it is a classic narrative of colonialism. It is the story of Victorian ladies who saw Native Americans going “naked” and found themselves filled with pity; it is the voice of Sally Struthers pleading on late-night TV for the starving children in Africa. Her language others not only the sex workers she describes, but all the inner-city residents whose conditions so move her. She resorts to metaphors that evoke an urban war zone like “the frontlines” and “in the trenches,” — a much-beloved motif of suburban whites who see cities as hostile and uncivilized.
While Pahman says in her very first graf that the group isn’t there to “save” anybody, her story is nothing but a white savior boldly venturing into the land of the savages. Not a single word of her post is actually about the people in the city; it is entirely about how seeing them makes her feel. The people themselves are exotic others, with as much substance as if they had been green-screened into the background.
Flavia Dzodan famously said, in response to feminist racism, “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.” It’s a perfect summation of something that every social movement — not just feminism — needs to take to heart. And all of Feministe‘s writers promote it as a core ethic.
But when the topic is sex workers, intersectionality goes out the window. The message given priority on Feministe is not sex workers talking about their lives, but privileged non-sex workers talking about how the very idea makes them feel icky.
Believe it or not, I do have a certain sympathy for Filipovic, Tigtog, and the other members of Feministe. Like them, I’m a writer who has never done sex work, and yet I frequently cover sex workers and their communities. It’s extremely hard to write about those things as an outsider with sensitivity and honesty. Even with the best intentions, there are scores of myths and stereotypes stacked up in our brains about what it means to have sex for money, and what kind of people do it. It is very, very hard to get the junkie hooker, the fallen woman, the sleazy gigolo, to shut up inside your head. But if you don’t want what you write to be one more piece of bullshit added to a mountain of bullshit that’s been piling up for centuries, that’s exactly what you have to do. You have to shut them up and listen instead to the actual people who are talking to you. I understand how difficult this can be. The odds are stacked against you because to get every single word out, you need to wade through centuries of sermons, religious tracts, penny dreadfuls, pulp magazines, tabloid headlines, quack psychology, gossip, political ideologies, pious moralizing, and gendered fear.
Sarah Elizabeth’s piece would have benefitted in particular from this kind of insight: it might be populated by people who have lives and aspirations and personalities, instead of racist and classist tropes from central casting
The only way to beat the odds is to remember that whatever you have to say is secondary, even tertiary, to what the sex workers themselves have to say. Civilian writers like myself, Jill Filipovic, Tigtog, and Sarah Elizabeth Pahman have to accept that we are always sitting in the back seat when it comes to sex work issues, allowing the workers to drive. Our job is to augment their voices, not to speak for them.
And this is the point that Feministe consistently misses or systematically ignores, depending on how charitable you feel. They have repeatedly centered the voices of feminists who are not — and have not been — sex workers.
When people object to Feministe‘s treatment of sex work issues, Filipovic has responded with token acknowledgment. After her piece came under attack in February, she responded with a post titled Centering Sex Worker Voices,” that is chiefly a rationalization for her original post’s claim that sex work wouldn’t exist in feminist utopia.4 She concedes, though, that she over-indulged in abstractions, and that there needs to be more focus on the voices of actual activists:
I want to highlight the voices of current and former sex workers who are actually out there getting shit done, even though they don’t have a place at the table when it comes to crafting the policies that most impact their communities. Talking about these issues in theory is fine. But we need to spend more time and exert more effort in supporting the women and men who are putting their own lives and liberties on the line by advocating for their rights.
All of which is excellent, and exactly what the Feministe staff need to take to heart. If they put action behind those words, I would be cheerleading with pom-poms and sparklers.
But in the time since Jill Filipovic wrote that post, she hasn’t even taken steps to make her own blog safer for sex workers, never mind the world. The sole action that Filipovic and the Feministe staff have taken to “highlight the voices of current and former sex workers” is a list of links in that same post.
Her response to people on Twitter who were angry about Pahman’s post was even more anemic: she said that Feministe would love to publish sex workers, and they were free to submit.
In other words, the editorial slant of Feministe is the fault of sex workers for not submitting their work.
It’s obvious that the real problem goes a lot deeper than that, no matter how much Jill wishes that it were that simple. It isn’t the responsibility of sex workers to establish Feministe as a safe place to talk about their activism. That’s entirely on the staff of Feministe, and for it to happen, they’ll have to do more than sit on their asses and wait for the submissions to roll in. Here are some examples of what sex workers were saying on Twitter:
— Samantha Sweets (@SammysSweets) September 14, 2013
Things that sensitive social workers say: "I’m not sorry my violent fantasies harmed your delicate ego." http://t.co/LCaL4NvTgE
— Feminist Whore ♥ (@FemWho) September 13, 2013
Everything wrong with Big Feminism's attitude toward sex work, on parade, right here. Nothing new or unusual, either. http://t.co/eeTRkBkXY3
— mistressmatisse (@mistressmatisse) September 13, 2013
— Laura Agustín (@LauraAgustin) September 9, 2013
Seriously. Look at all the non sex worker feminists talking about their complicated feelings! So sad! http://t.co/iBtCde33UK
— Feminist Whore ♥ (@FemWho) September 8, 2013
There are many more. When your sole response to this kind of anger is “You can send us stuff, too,” you’re fucking up. Big time.
If Feministe‘s commitment to intersectionality isn’t a steaming load of bullshit, they’re going to have be the ones reaching out, not sex workers. Right now, I think that they’ve created an extremely hostile environment that presupposes that sex work is “icky,” and where sex workers are not regarded as the experts on their own lives.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about what Feministe and other blogs need to do to make sex workers part of their intersectionality. The whole point of writing this is that there are far too many people declaiming on what sex workers need, and I’m not playing that game. It’s up to Feministe to start looking at what sex workers are saying, and how they think their problems would be best solved. And what they say should be the default, not the anger and hurt of a privileged white girl who has just seen poverty for the first time.
For an example of what to aspire to, Filipovic, Tigtog, and their colleagues might turn to the comments of Pahman’s entry. One of the few good things to come out of this whole clusterfuck is the comment by Kitty Stryker on why she identifies as a sex worker, and why she decided to do sex work. It is not just a more legitimate perspective than either Filipovic or Pahman, it is far better written. Kitty is one of the most ethical and honest people I know, and a hell of a writer. All of that shows here. In talking about her motivations and her life as a sex worker, she is realistic and straightforward, and no one could accuse her of whitewashing:
Sure, I would have rather chosen to go to school full time, get multiple degrees, work in an office around people who respected me for a wage that I could live comfortably on with health care- but I didn’t have that opportunity. I got the choice between state health care and sex work and time to go to school part time, or working 3 part time jobs, no time to myself, and constant panic attacks, disabling my body. So I chose what made the most sense for me under the circumstances, which is, in my experience as a sex worker and working with other sex workers as an outreach worker, a rape counselor and an activist, pretty common. You do the best you can with what options you have available. You have agency… sort of. Many of the people I spoke to were not forced. Not exactly. But their agency wasn’t coming from a place of 100% consent.
That said, it was not much different from those working with me at those minimum wage jobs. They weren’t there because it was a great job, but it was the best they could do with their limited resources. My girlfriend was sexually harassed daily at her mall job, and she had to stay there because she was afraid she wouldn’t get another job elsewhere.
And reading that, Feministe‘s editors should be asking themselves: Are they, as feminists, comfortable with the fact that the words of non-sex workers are at the top of the page, while thoughts like Kitty’s are buried under hundreds of other comments?[UPDATE, 9/21/2013: Sometime before noon PST yesterday, the Feministe post, along with all comments, was removed from the site. As of now, there has been no retraction, explanation, or apology by Feministe. If there isn't one by Monday, I'm going to assume that they're just trying to toss it down the memory hole and hope it's forgotten.]
Sometime after the Feministe post went up, Pahman’s blog was marked “private” and blocked off. You can still find a 2012 interview with her here, in which she cites Melissa Farley as one of her inspirations. If you’re not familiar, Farley is an anti-sex work activist whose research has been so thoroughly debunked that it can comfortably be described as either fraudulent or grossly incompetent. ↩
Since the piece was originally published, the violent language has been removed by Feministe‘s editors. However, it’s telling that a site which is so conscious of policing violent and abusive language as potential triggers allowed this through. ↩
Political writers who are tempted to start basing critical essays on what utopia would look like should consider the etymology of the word. It was originally coined by Sir Thomas More, who made a portmanteau from the Greek words for “not” and “place.” Utopia is literally “nowhere.” Real activists have no time to deal with utopias, especially those that tell marginalized communities that they shouldn’t exist. ↩