Feminist Allyship to Sex Workers: Part One

By Gala Vanting

This is the first in a two part series on sex work, feminism and activism.

Australian sex workers breathed a collective sigh of relief a few years ago when Sheila Jeffreys picked up her bottomless carpetbag of whorephobic rhetoric and let it whoosh her off to the UK, Mary Poppins-style. Finally, we could redirect some of our valuable activist energy away from picketing her appearances and towards building our own body of theory, action and resources that extended beyond her denials that we could even exist.

Cue: Julie Bindel, the latest craze in SWERFdom, who’s making her way through Australia promoting her latest book to ‘abolish the sex work myth’. The impossible mythological beasts of which she speaks, actual sex workers, are responding in a variety of ways, from street party protest to engaging directly to counterpoint her position that the best way for the work we do to be safer for us is for it to continue to be criminalised. Never mind that the World Health Organisation, Amnesty International and every HIV organisation ever recommends decriminalisation as the appropriate framework for the promotion of sex worker health and human rights (but what do they know anyway – they probably don’t even have journalism degrees).

It’s times like these that I get to thinking about feminist allyship to sex workers. Whilst I’m aware that #notallfeminists are anti-sex work, there’s a pretty gaping chasm between ‘not being against’ and being an ally. Being an ally means speaking her name when we hear of another woman assaulted, raped, killed – even if she is a sex worker. Being an ally means intervening in the stigma that continues to cost sex workers their lives, day jobs, custody of their children, personal relationships, fundamental human rights, and many other mod cons.

For many sex workers, sex work is just work; it’s not that complicated. I understand that it can be pretty tricky for those who are ‘not against’ us to intellectually, politically, and personally integrate all of the questions that sex work brings up in feminist dialogues. As a feminist and a sex worker, I’m here to help.

Let’s start with the basics: bodily autonomy. As feminists, we believe that individual women’s bodies belong to individual women. Not to men, not to the State, not to advertising, not to any institution of oppression. Throughout the history of the movement, we’ve had to reckon with the ways in which some bodies end up being more equal than others in the campaign for that autonomy. How is it that we believe in a woman’s right to execute supreme decision-making power over her own corporeal form, unless that woman is also a sex worker? How does a sex worker’s body move outside of our acceptable range of bodies that can be self-determined?

Oh, by patriarchal capitalism, you say.

So glad you mentioned it. I’ve got some unfortunate news for anyone currently participating in a capitalist economy: you are a victim of exploitation. It’s the name of the game. Especially if you happen to be a woman. I’m always tickled by the argument that the labour of sex work is always already especially exploitative. After having sampled the labour conditions at Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, in childcare and film production, and as a freelance writer, I can confirm that the labour conditions of my sex work are the most conducive to my wellbeing. The only other thing I’d ask for is, say, the same industrial rights as any other member of the Australian labour force. You know, mod cons.

‘But look at all of your privileges!’ you say. ‘You are the 1%.’

My set of privileges allows me to do things like have this side hustle that is writing about my experience. It also allows me to access the tools required to work independently as a sex worker, giving me control over the clients I see, the rates I charge, the health and safety practices I employ, and the hours I work. There are many, many sex workers who don’t hold these privileges. Who work under poor management, pay out at least half of their earnings to licensing fees, agencies, or pimps, are advertised with terminology that degrades their humanity, are medically surveilled, and have less power to negotiate safer sex practices, rates, or working hours. Because their work is, with only two exceptions, fully or partially criminalised the world over, they cannot access the right to safe working conditions, fair pay, non-discrimination, and the right to organise or to take industrial action. Because doing their work makes them criminals, they are not empowered to ask for better conditions.

Have a look back over the issues I’ve named. What do they have in common? They are labour issues. They are not gender issues. Neither, of course, exist in a vacuum. But the insistence that this set of labour issues is better addressed by ‘rescuing’ sex workers from their profession, the rhetorical collapsing of sex work and sex trafficking, the positioning of the sex working body as abject, laughable, diseased, duped by the patriarchy; as an object for the consumption of both men and fellow feminists, as the worksite of a ‘radical feminist’ agenda that has its roots in the denial of multi-dimensional and intersectional experiences of female and feminist bodies: that is where feminism fails sex workers. That is where feminist allyship is absolutely necessary for our very survival.

Julie, Sheila and their comrades-toting-carpetbags believe that their work IS allyship. That they’re only looking out for us feeble prostitutes. That ending rape culture requires putting sex workers out of work. That we all want the same thing: women’s liberation, and that they’re in a far better position than we are to lead the way there. All of this without even talking to us or learning what we experience or think about our work. The bags of tricks is bottomless, and it isn’t afraid to bottom out – if you can’t attack the argument, attack the woman making it (or here).

We need our own allyship toolkit, which you can use to help women retain their personal autonomy and rights. I’ll take you through the steps next month, with the facts and examples you need to be a feminist ally.

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Gala Vanting is a sex worker, writer, educator and activist living and working on stolen Gadigal land. She aims to create compassionate, intelligent, and justice-driven dialogue about sexuality and sexual cultures with an intersectional queer feminist approach. More of her work can be found on http://galavanting.info/ and https://www.patreon.com/galavanting.

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