Prostitution "Experts" Versus Prostitutes: Why Don't All Sex Workers Deserve a Voice?

From decriminalization in Taiwan to harm reduction in Argentina, sex workers across the world have made stunning strides by banding together and demanding basic rights, including the right to tell their own stories. (Most recently, members of the Indian organization VAMP spoke out against a film made by Vice TV that used documentary footage and personal interviews misleading and irresponsibly.) In most contexts, progressives would celebrate workers seizing control of the conditions of their own labor. But radical feminists who want all forms of sexual commerce eliminated are outraged by this turn of events.

Inflammatory rhetoric and personal attacks have become the norm when "experts" deign to acknowledge sex worker activists. Melissa Farley, arguably the abolition movement's most visible figure, has stated plainly that BDSM porn company -- which has an impeccable reputation and works with outspoken performers such as Lorelei Lee and Madison Young -- is "just like" the abusers at Abu Ghraib, and routinely implies that anyone who suggests prostitution could be improved by better laws and working conditions is akin to a Civil War era slavery apologist. When attending hearings on Rhode Island's proposed criminalization of prostitution, Donna Hughes sneeringly dismissed those speaking against by implying they were déclassé and undereducated, primarily because some smoked cigarettes, had tattoos, or knew English as a second language.

Hughes and others have also routinely attempted to discredit sex work activists by claiming such women are "pimps." Robyn Few, a prominent activist and former sex worker, is one common target. Few was convicted of "promoting prostitution," a charge that can be leveled at any sex worker who gives advice to another, including information about how to screen clients or where it's safer to work. Abolitionist Anne Bissel, who labels herself a sex industry survivor, dismissed Few with the imperative, "quit smoking pot, and get a real job." Few, who lives in California, has been battling cancer since 2007.

This type of attack ignores that abolitionists themselves sometimes have a far more alarming spotted history. Once-prominent and still cited Eveline Giobbe was taken to court by a former sex worker who claimed Giobbe slapped, sexually harassed, and abused her with specific language once used by the woman's pimp. If women with arrest records are categorically unworthy of trust, wouldn't that apply to those Melissa Farley cites as wanting prostitution to remain criminalized as well as those who argue for legalization?

Worse than the regular name-calling and denigration of activists is the anti-prostitution movement's refusal to engage in any of these activists' experiences or to fairly represent their opinions. Samantha Berg and Melissa Farley have both pushed the claim that advocates for decriminalization believe social stigma is the most grievous injury against sex workers. This is an attempt to make activists seem narcissistic and out of touch, and is demonstrably untrue. Quick perusal of the work of Audacia Ray, Juhu Thukral, Melissa Ditmore, or Bound, Not Gagged, will provide ample evidence. Sex worker blogs, conferences, publications, and organizations continuously address state-sanctioned violence and arrests against sex workers as well as abuse at the hands of clients. (To deny the role that social stigma plays in endorsing these acts or letting them go unpunished would be foolish.)

Shelia Jeffreys and Samantha Berg accuse sex worker activists of profiteering, though there's no evidence presented to back up the claims that these women are getting rich from opposing criminalization. On the contrary, former and current sex workers put themselves at tremendous risk for prosecution or harassment by the government. Unapologetic former prostitute Veronica Monet's outspokenness resulted in her audit by the IRS. (All of her finances were in order.) Additionally, abolitionists refuse to use the words "sex worker" or "sex work," claiming such language is deceptive propaganda and instead promoting phrases like "prostituted woman" or "woman used in prostitution"--even when some former prostitutes say these terms make them feel devalued and powerless. Melissa Farley has called the language of sex worker activists and voluntary sex workers, including exotic dancers, "attempts by women in prostitution to retain some shred of dignity" and fallaciously analogizes, "we do not refer to battered women as 'battering workers.'"

This has fostered astounding amounts of bitterness and mistrust, not only between sex workers and feminists but also within the feminist movement itself. Gail Dines and Samantha Berg have flatly refused to publicly debate with those who don't share their views, even going so far as to demand that sex worker activists be disinvited from events where they were asked to present a non-abolitionist viewpoint. Julie Bindel, a British abolitionist and writer for "The Guardian," recently said that if she were faced with a choice between shooting a pimp and an academic working with sex workers (presumably an academic who doesn't share her personal position on prostitution,) she'd shoot the academic. With Nikki Craft, Melissa Farley penned the scornful, mocking "Why I Made The Choice To Become A Prostitute" which includes such lines as "I realized that gang rape would be a transcendental experience" and "I went to [a sex worker activist event] and found out just how glamorous prostitution could be."

This ugly display of disrespect is unwarranted and near inexplicable. Why would these women be so threatened by sex workers organizing for themselves, gaining national attention, and working to influence public perception? Is the abolitionist narrative or abolitionists' prominence as experts more important than the people they're purporting to help? The poor thinking and outright bigotry exhibited by some anti-prostitution figures can no longer go unchallenged. Sex workers of all ages and genders deserve better advocacy than this, and thankfully, as the recent VAMP example proves, their demands for more honest discussion may no longer go unheard.