A guest post from SWOU (Sex Worker Open University) about the failure of the upcoming ‘Feminism in London’ conference to include any sex workers on its sex work panel.

Microphone- for page.jpgUpcoming autumn event Feminism in London is planning to hold a panel discussion about sex work — without having any current sex workers on the panel. Ironically, this sex worker-free sex work panel was originally called “Suppressed Voices”. This kind of exclusion is a common experience for sex workers:

…to name but three examples.

For Feminism in London to include current sex workers on a panel about sex work should be non-negotiable, both in terms of the necessity of hearing the insights that only current sex workers can bring and in terms of simple justice, the logic being tha the people who are most affected by any given issue should play a significant role in conversations about it. Listening to the voices of those most affected is basic feminist praxis. A sex work panel without any current sex workers violates that obvious precept.

We’re glad to see that women of colour are represented on the panel and that this is reflected throughout Feminism in London, but disappointed to note that that the organisers appear to have used this to deflect criticism that the sex work panel does not include any current sex workers. A panel on intersecting oppressions within sex work, one that focuses on race and class, should centre sex workers of colour, sex workers living in poverty and sex workers whose identities span both those oppressions and more. Not be populated entirely by non-sex workers.

An argument sometimes used against sex workers’ requests to have current sex workers included in discussions about sex work is the misunderstanding that we want or need every person who sells sex to ‘out’ themselves, in order to participate. We’re aware that not every sex worker will feel comfortable being ‘out’ as a sex worker (literally every sex worker within SWOU is ‘out’ in some contexts but not others and we are all constantly navigating which spaces we feel safe in). We don’t advocate excluding those people from the discussion. People shouldn’t have to out themselves to participate. However, it is surprising to us that the so-called ‘solution’ to this lack of accessibility for sex workers is to pre-emptively exclude all current sex workers from the panel. Sex workers who are in the room are more likely to feel safer, to feel that the diverse perspectives of people currently selling sex are valued and therefore more able to speak up, if there are current sex workers on the panel.

If Feminism in London can’t find sex workers who want to be on the panel, it might be worth the conference organisers reflecting on how it is they have made the space feel so unsafe that sex workers aren’t comfortable attending openly. But if a space is so unsafe that no out current sex worker feels able to attend, that shouldn’t be a green light to the organisers to run their sex work panel without sex worker input. If sex workers feel too unsafe to attend the conference, the conference shouldn’t be discussing their issues.

We’re conscious that we’re likely to be accused of wanting the panel to be cancelled, of wanting to “silence the voices” of activists who ‘disagree’ with us. As sex workers, we don’t have institutional power: even if we wanted to, we couldn’t “silence the voice” of the co-ordinator of the European Women’s Lobby. But to be clear: we want this panel to happen. We just think that a panel on sex work should have (non-tokenistic) input from sex workers as a basic criteria for going ahead. We’re surprised that this is controversial.

We have asked for allies to help us to amplify sex worker voices. We’re contacting activists and organisations participating in Feminism in London and asking them to raise concerns about the exclusion of sex workers from the sex work panel. For participants who strongly feel the injustice of this, we’ve suggested that they could offer to pull out of the conference until this situation is resolved (the principle of women asking pro-feminist men to decline to sit on all-male panels is well established). For people who were considering purchasing tickets, we would be appreciative if you would let the organisers know that you’re waiting to see the addition of sex workers onto the sex work panel prior to finalising your purchase.

The underlying ‘justification’ for deliberately excluding current sex workers on a panel about sex work can only be that those who put the panel together think that people (especially women) who currently sell sex are somehow not equal to people who don’t. It implies they think sex workers are dirtier, less trustworthy or less worth hearing from. We can’t see any other motivation, once it’s down to brass tacks. Viewing sex workers as less insightful or less trustworthy than other women cannot be an acceptable feminist position.

Image description:

Black and white close-up of a microphone, with the head at the front, by Daehyun Park and shared under a creative commons license.

Comments From You

spicy // Posted 17 September 2014 at 8:07 am

This is dishonest and misleading. The Panel does have representation of women who have worked in prostitution – you are just cross that it doesn’t include women *currently* working in prostitution. As you are no doubt aware, there is evidence to suggest that many women who are currently working in prostitution manage to cope with it by telling themselves it’s OK, empowering, a great career choice… until they leave and can be finally honest about the damage and harms it has caused. There is not a demand that women who are experiencing other forms of oppression – such as domestic violence – be currently experiencing it to speak authentically about their experience so why the demand in this instance?

Holly Combe // Posted 17 September 2014 at 7:22 pm

It’s not for me (or, indeed, you) to speak for sex workers but, as I understand it, the demand is there because sex workers already have to contend with being constantly patronised by others who think they “know best” and can speak for them.

And this:

“As you are no doubt aware, there is evidence to suggest that many women who are currently working in prostitution manage to cope with it by telling themselves it’s OK, empowering, a great career choice… until they leave and can be finally honest about the damage and harms it has caused.”

I actually think it’s pretty offensive and condescending to tell sex workers that they don’t know their own minds and need an expert to come along and tell them the truth about themselves.

spicy // Posted 18 September 2014 at 6:50 am

”I actually think it’s pretty offensive and condescending to tell sex workers that they don’t know their own minds and need an expert to come along and tell them the truth about themselves.’

Yeah – that would be pretty patronising if that’s what I’d said but it isn’t. Tell you what is offensive and patronising though:

1. Assuming that I am not a woman affected by prostitution

2. Assuming that women who have but are not currently working in prostitution are not ‘authentic’

3. Asserting that women who have but are not currently working in prostitution talking about their experiences makes them a patronising expert

Holly Combe // Posted 18 September 2014 at 10:07 am

I’m not going to keep quoting what you said word-for-word because it’s there to see above. However, I’d suggest that asserting there is *evidence* that a group apparently *tell themselves* “it’s OK” before they later admit it isn’t implies that those who say “it’s OK” are actually experiencing false consciousness. This, in turn, implies that there are others who can tell the truth about those people better than they can themselves.

1. I did not assume that but I’d suggest experience of something doesn’t give a person the right to speak for everyone else who has experienced it. After all, those people’s experiences may be very different and, in the case of negative ones, not everyone uses the same coping strategies?

2. I certainly don’t think that. My understanding, from the post above, is that contributions to a panel like the one being discussed should come from those with direct experience (both past and present, regardless of perspectives).

3. I did not say that either. There’s a difference between being challenged as a “patronising expert” and the principle of 1 (which surely still applies even if every speaker at such an event actually has direct personal experience of sex work or of being prostituted).

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 18 September 2014 at 10:58 am

As articulated in the SWOU’s post we are commenting on:

“For Feminism in London to include current sex workers on a panel about sex work should be non-negotiable”.

It’s not the question of ‘authenticity’ but of inclusion: women who currently are sex workers should sit on this panel next to women who used to be but are not any more. Then they could talk about why they stopped doing it (the latter) and why they are currently doing it (the former), not necessarily with the view to agree. They may even start talking about the current sex workers’ rights and other issues important for them.

The current set-up suggests that “women currently working in prostitution”, or, as some of them prefer to call themselves and this should be respected, current sex workers, are not able to represent themselves.

SWOU do not ask for this panel not to happen or for this panel to only include current sex workers (or prostitutes, if that’s the name they prefer). They do not provide Feminism in London’s organisers with a handy list of people they want to put on the panel. All they are asking for is that “a panel on sex work should have (non-tokenistic) input from sex workers as a basic criteria for going ahead”.

LeStewpot // Posted 20 September 2014 at 5:07 pm

The assumption here is that all conferences created by feminists must include “insert group excluded here” is grossly unfair. Conferences are organised by volunteers with very little money who do an incredible amount of work with very little thanks.

My understanding is that FiL is anti-prostitution and anti-pornography and, as such, I would be quite surprised to find current sex workers advocating sex work at the conference. There are numerous feminist conferences every year in the UK: some support the sex industry as empowering for women and others do not. Some conferences will have representatives of all sides of the topic and others will not. It simply isn’t possible for 1 conference to represent every single fact of feminism in the UK. People have the choice to attend conferences or not attend. They also have the choice to set up their own conferences or not. They even have the right to protest if they don’t like the way a conference is organised.

The final paragraph here is a gross exaggeration. No one associated with FiL will have made such a statement, nor will they think that. The fact that they understand prostitution to be part of a culture of violence against women does not mean that they think the women engaged in sex work are less human than other women. It is entirely possible to believe an industry is harmful without thinking less of those who work within it (after all, if we agree that sex work is just work similar to working in the military then we can extrapolate the same level of meaning: the military-industrial complex is harmful; the vast majority of people working within the industry do so for a variety of reasons none of which involve wanting to cause harm. If sex work is just work, then the same applies.

Derrington // Posted 21 September 2014 at 10:18 am

I am a rad fem that has a real problem with an industry that uses slavery as a recruitment tool, calls its female workers by hate speech and fights against the use of basic safety equipment like condoms. Its a bit like saying slavery is empowering if you just reframe the way you think about it. FiL has the stance it does for ethical reasons and in a world that regards calling women cunts and whores as empowering them as opposed to insulting them, i think youre doing male supremacists work forthem if you take issue with one of the few places where women can discuss and be allowed to say they dont think being labelled as sluts and cunts as a caste is a ‘good thing’,

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