This is our truth, tell us yours
In its draft policy on sex work Amnesty mention that sex workers voices are rarely heard in debates about sex work. There are a myriad of organizations who make their money speaking over us, such as Ruhama or individuals such as Kristoff. They share a similar motivation, keeping their own wallets full while decrying the way other, less powerful people make money. Those opposed to sex workers rights have a new ally, Lena Dunham. Since she signed the petition against sex workers rights she has made a number of statements on twitter reinforcing her belief that sex workers should not be heard in this debate. This is perhaps summed up in 2 particular tweets.
In the first tweet actual people, people who breath the same air as Dunham, eat, shit, piss, fuck, and can be raped and murdered, are less important than a feminist debate. The reduction of humanity to an abstract. Sex workers are of course not the only people this happens to. One of the ways in which the powerful and privileged retain control is by removing humanity from the marginalized and the oppressed. From Ferguson to Dyke March real people are considered less important than the debate, the pass the port, after dinner, not in front of the ladies, attitude that mainstream feminism has absorbed directly from its patriarchal masters.
There is a particular resonance though when sex workers are erased from speaking on their own lives, reduced to the status of Banquo’s ghost in a feast of posturing and column inches. Due to stigma and laws criminalizing sex work we exist in the shadows. I have said before that I exist by not looking like a sex worker. In order to interact with the non sex working world we have to wrap ourselves in an invisibility cloak unless we are the most fortunate. Even then the result of visibility is to forever be seen as untrustworthy, or incapable of being objective.
This is minor however compared to what happens when the public need for us to be invisible combines with criminal desire to harm us. Recently Newport made the news as Welsh police consider setting up a safe zone for sex workers. Street workers are the most marginalized and most vulnerable of sex workers. Their very visibility however is seen as an affront, and often a safe zone means a deserted industrial estate where the risks are much higher. Newport is interesting because street workers moved there as the docks in Cardiff were “cleaned up”, gentrification unable to accept visible sex workers. Docks were traditional, visible red light areas, with the safety of high foot traffic and 24 hour businesses meaning there was someone about to hear the screams.
We see the same demand we remain invisible in the reaction to lap dancing bars and strip clubs. Not content with the lie that these businesses endanger women swerfs claim that simply by being visible venues where sex workers can be seen women outside the venue are at risk. The visibility of a sex worker presented as a threat to non sex working women.
Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, said he was “cleaning up the streets. The Pig Farmer said he deliberately targeted sex workers because no one would miss us. We are singled out because our visibility is seen as polluting, and our invisibility demanded. This duality has been seen in recent protests against the Jack the Ripper museum in London. Leading UK feminists have insisted that the murdered women were not sex workers. Realms have been written where their identity as sex workers is erased, to make a point about misogyny and male violence. Since these women are now historical record, cannot be returned to invisibility, instead their jobs are removed, they must exist, must be victims, are useful poster children for mainstream feminism, so they cannot be sex workers. In becoming visible as women their sex work is disappeared.
Lena Dunham, like many before her, like Sutcliffe, like Jack, like the unnamed and unknown men who know the police will not see the dumped body of a sex worker, not only believes we are invisible but that any attempt to become visible must be challenged. If we walk the streets they must be santaized afterwards, if we speak, she must speak louder, if we are consulted she must demand the consultation be dropped.
This duality, of visible invisibility reaches its apotheosis in the “pimp lobby” Those sex workers are silenced, invisible, need people with a platform like Dunham and Lewis because otherwise no one would even know they existed. These sex workers are all-powerful, able to influence everything, seen too much, heard too much, towering giants who loom over poor hollywood stars and national editors. Within this actual sex workers are pushed even further into the background. Any attempt we make to become visible, by using social media, by blogging, by organising is used against us, since the “real” sex worker must be permanently invisible.
We are shadows, projections on the wall that can be manipulated by those opposed to sex workers rights. In the moment we become visible we no longer exist to them, since visibility means we can no longer be presented in the manner they wish.