This is our truth, tell us yours
The New Statesman isn’t known for its sense of humour so it was a great surprise to see this amazing parody piece by Sarah Ditum showing other journalists how not to write about sex work and sex workers.
First of all headlines are so important, and here she shows how they can set the entire tone for a piece, cleverly creating straw man questions:
followed by insinuations ablout the the mental state of any sex worker with the sub heading:
Everyone who sells sex should be safe, says Sarah Ditum, but what kind of society is it that makes that a rational choice for women?
fabulously done, a question that is meaningless (Yes, No, Who cares being the answers, feminism as yet has no masonic principles all adherents have to follow) and a “have you stopped beating your wife yet” question.
What about the meat of the article, what can aspiring journos learn from it in order to avoid writing objectifying, dehumanizing articles that speak over marginalised groups?
I know a man who’s had sex with a prostitute, or hired a sex worker, or used a prostituted woman. (Which of these formulations you use matters, because they determine where you have flung your chips in the exploitation-or-self-determination argument.) Actually, I probably know more than one, but once you’ve introduced yourself as a feminist journalist, it’s quite rare that the next thing someone says to you is: “Let me tell you about all the brothels I’ve been to. .
This is a wonderful opening, because it doesn’t just apply to sex workers. Those with power and privilege will often treat debate about terms as academic, or even a form of censorship. Here Sarah shows the ” it,s all just theory, and you don’t need to be listening to the oppressed group trope” as the insulting idea it is, Cleverly showing up all those who demand the right to use n*gger because they heard it in a rap song.
Of course it barely needs mentioned that focusing an article about sex work on the service users is a wonderful swipe at those rad fems and rescue industry types who are obsessed with clients and never seem to want to talk to sex workers. Cleverly done Sarah!
So let’s say I know one man who’s told me about his experience as a john. This man went on a lads’ holiday, and part of the plan was for them to hire a “girl” each. One member of the party, though, had something specific in mind: he was going to do “the chocolate finger”. The chocolate finger is a sort of practical joke. You might have already guessed how it works. The punter has sex with the prostitute from behind, fingering her anus: the aim is to get the unwitting woman to suck on the bummy digit.
Of course all aspiring writers need to know about using terms like john, which make their work look like it escaped from a 1970s expolitaion movie, and always jars if you are a UK writer, so Sarah makes sure it is used as jarringly as possible.
The anecdote is a dangerous tactic, it creates controversy, and since journalists are writers for pay then hits matter. Sarah shows that just like the biscuit game or the Mariella Mars bar incident, using unsourced urban myths means any credibilty is lost and readers dismiss other sources. Sarah chooses such an extreme example so aspiring writers see what a huge mistake it is.
It feels increasingly natural to talk about sex work as though it’s a simple capitalist transaction. Men (it’s assumed) generally want more sex than women, so individual women can exploit this scarcity to put a price on intercourse. This model explains why sex workers are overwhelmingly female, and the purchasers of sex even more overwhelmingly male. It’s so simple and persuasive that it can seem perverse to challenge it at all
Summarising complex arguments in order to make your opponents look shallow and unaware of wider structural complexities is of course an underhand tactic, and it is great to see such a glaring example here of how not to sum up a debate taking place among sex workers, their allies, in intersectional feminism and the wider world.
Sarah is aware that lots of non sex workers make money from non sex workers, and throwing their names in as equal in validity, experience and knowledge not only muddies the waters but leaves readers confused as to who has facts on their side. Citing Laura Agustin and Bindel in the same article is a classic piece of obscuration, and it shows the depth of Sarah’s research that she takes the time to include this. An especially nice touch is the misquoting of Agustin, so people don’t actually get to hear what someone with 20 years of research experience thinks about sex work.
The “I have feelz” conclusion is of course classic of its type, and includes all the usual things, lip service to harm reduction, no mention of actual sex workers, glaring generalizations and a few buzz words thrown in. Again its a good example for writers for any group who tend to be on the receiving end of peoples thoughts instead of being asked what they think.
Which of course is why I assume Sarah wrote the piece in the first place. As someone who is concerned with social justice what better way to highlight why the person writing about feminism and sex work should be a feminist sex worker than producing something so wrong in every way it shows why the request should never have been made.
(I am hearing strange rumours that this isn’t a parody, but come on, surely you don’t expect me to believe that!)