This is our truth, tell us yours
If like me you have been following the justice committee hearings on the proposed criminalization of clients in Canada you may have felt some sympathy for the MP who expressed frustration at the very different stories being told by sex workers. Whilst many brave women stood up in the face of stigma to say I am a sex worker and I oppose this bill there were others who supported it, and any attempts to “abolish” sex work. They normally had heart-rending tales of sexual violence and coercion to tell, and a belief that sex work can never be consensual.
It can also be frustrating for sex workers, who wonder why those who have been harmed most by the current laws support new laws that will make the situation for those who are abused and exploited worse. This is not speculation, it is a fact, criminlization kills. It is certainly not the case that all survivors of exploitation support further criminalization, many understand that it was the criminal and stigmatized aspects of sex work that allowed their abusers to escape detection and punishment. One such person is Lori who told her story here. (Content note; rape, violence, forced abortion, sexual assault)
Yesterday Carter wrote beautifully of the need for understanding, and I think this is an area where we (by which I mean sex workers and allies) must try to understand, for this is the only way that the changes needed can happen. First perhaps I have to make a couple of things clear, yes there are people making a good living from the misery memoir circuit. There are others who have been completely outed as frauds. I am not talking about these. There is also an issue with people who were not sex workers speaking on sex work. Being forced to provide sexual services for money is not sex work, it is rape. I have written before of the fact that once money changes hands people see a whore not a rape survivor. I am talking about this group here, those people who usually by use of words like love are victims of abusive men, and one of the forms of abuse includes exploiting their sexual labour. It is worth noting here of course that this exploitation is clearer in a society that sees sex work as work rather than a stain which marks a woman for life.
Imagine you are a raped, abused, exploited woman who finally breaks free of her abuser. You would like support, you need and deserve support, people who can help you rebuild and understand your life. In most of the west the only support available is from organizations who see sex work itself as the issue, who define it as gendered violence. Imagine you live in Lambeth, or Vancouver, or almost any other city in the global north. They tell you that what happened to you was not domestic abuse, but the natural behaviour of clients, that sex work was the issue, not the behaviour of abusers (except in defining all men who pay for sexual services as abusers) Your support, the support you so badly need is predicated on accepting this view of sex work as rape, rather than seeing rape as the issue. These organizations, long dominated by radical feminists do not offer the unconditional positive regard and non judgemental attitudes that are meant to be at the heart of therapeutic interventions. Instead their support is totally conditional, predicated on an ideological objection to sex work.
It is not just crisis interventions that take this attitude, recently Therapy Today, the in house magazine of the British Association of Counselling and psychotherapy ran a piece that saw sex workers as nothing more than agencyless victims. The idea of client autonomy was thrown out of the window when it came to sex workers. Basic attitudes that a first year student has drilled into them of believing the client has the right, and ability to make choices were apparently not required when it comes to working with those who sell sexual services. We can only ever be victims if we are to receive support.
Given the scarcity of support services who do not define sex work as the problem, who do not expect you to accept your role as a perpetual victim if you are to receive support is it any surprise that these women end up advocating the polices of the radical feminists who run the services? It is also very telling how damaged these advocates still seem to be. There is of course no correct way to recover from the trauma of rape and abuse, and as a survivor myself I fight against the idea there is ever one way to be. However at the heart of all recovery and growth is the idea that we must see ourselves as actors in our own stories, not passive recipients of events. Is it any wonder that those giving testimony seem so enveloped by their experiences when the basic building blocks of agency and control of their lives are denied to them? By defining sex work as the evil, rather than the acts of abusers their abusers are let off, by the very women who claim to offer support services to abused women.
I do not blame those survivors advocating the criminalization of clients (not the genuine ones). They were perched on a ledge after falling off a cliff and someone threw them a rope. In that circumstance you do not pause to question the motivations of the person at the other end. I do however question those motivations, especially as they are leaving survivors in a damaged, dangerous place where they can never recover from their abuse. In many ways it is reminiscent of cults like Scientlology who tell you how damaged you are in order to exploit your need to be well and whole.
Those working with women in domestic violence and rape crisis are putting their ideological objections to sex work above helping the very women they claim to want to support. I can and do blame them, and cannot forgive them for the abuse they are perpetuating.