FIL 2014 responds to SWOU

// 24 September 2014

FIL 2014.jpg

A guest post by the Feminism in London (FIL) organisers in response to SWOU’s . Earlier this week, SWOU critiqued FIL’s lack of current sex workers on their sex worker panel “Intersecting Oppressions in the Sex Industry”.

Please note: There are many perspectives over sex work and as such TFW currently does not have a policy on sex workers and feminism. Trigger warning as this post has some general statistics on sex workers.

Moderator’s note:(27/09/2014):Thanks to SWOU for getting in touch with the correction regarding their members.

We agree that panels on the sex industry, presented exclusively by academics and theoreticians with nobody who has direct experience of the issues, are problematic – but ours is not one of them. We are happy to clarify below that our panel has two exited women and two women who work with those currently involved in the sex industry.

Feminism in London isn’t intending to represent the entire spectrum of the sex industry in a single 90 minute panel session. That would be neither possible nor desirable. What we are looking at, specifically, are intersecting oppressions within it, and we believe that two women who have direct experience of it combined with two women who assist women currently involved in the sex industry, are able to provide this. We don’t think that it is controversial to say that oppression exists in this industry.

The panel is headed up by the well known and respected Pierrette Pape (coordinator of EWL), who will be chairing rather than presenting, and comprises four women who have direct experience of working in or alongside the sex industry. Two of them are women who have exited prostitution (we use their preferred term) and two are women who head up organisations providing assistance to women currently involved in the sex industry. One is Dorcas Erskine from the Poppy Project which helps women who have been trafficked to the UK for sexual exploitation and the other is Ifeoma Eze from Femage World which offers empowerment to black and minority ethnic women in the West Midlands including support out of poverty and through the criminal justice system. We find it difficult to believe that anybody would work against these aims.

The women who engage with the Poppy Project and with Femage World do not have their own blogs or Twitter accounts. They do not advertise online, or have columns in the Telegraph. They are struggling against an institutionally racist system which demonises migrant women as liars who will make up stories to gain the right to remain in the UK, and an institutionally sexist system which demonises all women as liars who ‘cry rape’ and are not reliable witnesses to their own abuse. One more oppression which they face is pressure to testify – to the Home Office, to the police, to the courts, to an insatiably curious public – and we are not prepared to demand that of women who need time and space to heal. It is for that reason that after much thought we decided that their voices would be represented through Dorcas and Ifeoma. We trust that nobody is suggesting that either of those speakers are fabricating stories, because that would be a fundamentally anti-feminist position.

We see no reason why this panel, all of whom, we emphasise, have direct experience of oppression in the sex industry, shouldn’t be treated with the respect they deserve: two as experts on their own experiences and two as amplifiers of the voices of the women they work with.

We have much in common with SWOU and where we disagree we would hope to do so respectfully. We both firmly oppose the criminalisation of women who work in the sex industry. We condemn police brutality, state violence and criminal prosecution of women. We, like them, believe that women need support if they wish to exit prostitution, and that class, race, poverty, criminalisation, education and many other factors affect women’s experiences of the sex industry. Where those factors create misery and exploitation, we are sure that no feminist would argue that these voices should not be heard.

SWOU suggest that we find the voices of current sex workers untrustworthy. Nothing could be further from the truth and in writing this piece, our aim is to demonstrate that our speakers have direct experience of their subject and that the voices of women currently involved in the sex industry are powerfully heard through those who work with them.

Feminism in London also recognises that it would be wildly inappropriate to have an opposite point of view represented on this panel – any more than SWOU’s own workshops on marketing or website editing should have to be presented by a victim of trafficking for balance. We would no more suggest people boycott them for choosing appropriate presenters for their own panel discussions than we appreciate their suggestion of the same happening to us. Nobody would expect to hear from a contented Eton schoolboy discussing how much he loves boarding in the context of a panel discussion on the experiences of abuse within the approved school system in the 1960s, and likewise we have panelists who are able to speak to experiences of intersecting oppressions because that is what this particular panel is about.

We have also been asked to clarify why we are focusing on oppression. That’s a question feminists are asked in numerous different contexts: “Why do you always focus on the negatives? Why are you always banging on about rape and DV, rather than looking at positive, consensual relationships? Why must you go on about equal pay when you have equal opportunities? Why are you moaning about abortion access when you have the Pill? And isn’t Page 3 just the same as the Diet Coke Man?” These are criticisms we’ve all heard, repeatedly. And the answer is the same to all of them: because we expect more. We will not make do with half-equality, and brush the rest under the carpet – the “I’m alright Jill” attitude that so often means that the most privileged women forge ahead, leaving their less privileged sisters in their wake.

In the context of this particular workshop, we are looking at the nasty underbelly of oppression, and that means that we are unapologetically focusing on the negatives, and not on the experiences of people who have enjoyed sex work – we don’t doubt them, but they are not the focus this time. [Moderator’s note (27/09/2014): This does not consider the other members of SWOU who are survivors of violence, including in the workplace, and those who work (or have worked) in unsafe, exploitative spaces, out of financial necessity]. We will be examining the factors surrounding oppression: according to the most recent Home Office figures, 70% of women involved in street prostitution have been in care. Over half began while children themselves, the average age of entry was fifteen. Just under half had a background of childhood sexual abuse. Over 80% are problematic drug users. The majority of the women working in parlours were migrant workers. Spin it how you like; the fact remains that poverty, abuse, racism, a failing care system and a culture of disbelief of women intersect to create a deeply disturbing picture and one which we feel should be heard. These are the women Dorcas and Ifeoma work with; these are the experiences Rachel and Tanja speak to.

There are some people who simply do not want to hear about oppression in the sex industry. This panel has five speakers and is only one of many; the conference has a massive array of panels with sixty amazing speakers. We don’t expect everyone to agree with every speaker at the event – we are running a conference, not an echo chamber – and we welcome debate. Debate is easier, however, when speakers are not being hounded into refusing to attend because one organisation doesn’t like one of our workshops.

In terms of safety and accessibility, we aim to be as accessible as possible. We have a quiet space for neurodivergent conference-goers and both a quiet space and a “Red Tent” area for anybody who feels triggered and wants time out. We will do everything we can to assist with disability access needs. We have a free creche and free workshops for under twelves to enable women with children to attend, and we have an “early bird” ticket policy to ensure that there are a limited number of more affordable tickets for those on lower incomes. We operate a safer space policy to recognise that while we cannot guarantee that every space is 100% safe for every possible combination of factors (trypanophobes would do well to avoid the craftivism panel) we will do our best to ensure that there are alternative workshops available, quiet space, and volunteers to assist if needed. The FiL committee can be contacted at feminisminlondon2014 at gmail dot com and while we will not answer abusive emails we will be happy to clarify any remaining points.

The photo above is the Feminism in London conference banner taken from their website.

Comments From You

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 24 September 2014 at 2:42 pm

“The women who engage with the Poppy Project and with Femage World do not have their own blogs or Twitter accounts.”

Twitter is used daily by activists around the world. Femage World is one of them, tweeting as @femage, since May 2009, with headline:

“supporting minority women who are victims of domestic & sexual violence, Prostitution,human trafficking and substance misuse”

Their website is here:

ashlee // Posted 24 September 2014 at 3:04 pm

I think that it is incredibly paternalistic to think that it is sufficient to have people who ‘help’ women who *currently* work in the sex industry to speak *for* women who currently work in the sex industry. It would only be possible to come to this conclusion of a very marginalised group, and is pretty uncritical/hypocritical for so-called feminists to do so. One is reminded of upper class Victorian women speaking on behalf of ‘fallen’ women. Presumably, sex workers can speak for themselves; only, for ideological reasons, FiL does not want them to, because abolitionist politics are unsettled by sex workers speaking for themselves. Let’s call it like it is. A position that can only be maintained by continually silencing and ignoring the perspectives of the people that you’re talking about is shockingly indefensible.

Charlotte // Posted 24 September 2014 at 9:53 pm

Thank you, Julian, for your very measured response – I look forward to coming to FiL and discussing the issues further at the workshop.

Ashlee’s comment is disingenuous. The reality for most sex workers currently working in the industry is that they cannot speak out publicly about it for fear of losing their job – and often a lot more besides, much of the industry being tied up with organised crime.

Most sex workers do not ‘choose’ to enter the industry, but are forced into it as a result of trafficking, forced migration, substance addiction or sheer poverty. One of the most shocking indictments of the Con-Dems’ austerity policies has been the rise in the number of women driven into sex work as a result of job and benefit cuts.

Like the organisers of the FiL workshop and SWOU, I support decriminalisation of sex work and believe that sex workers should not be stigmatised or face discrimination. The criminalisation of sex work makes it harder for women to access health and welfare services and means that much violence against sex workers is unreported.

However, SWOU’s argument that sex work is like any other type of work is deeply flawed from both a feminist and socialist perspective. Capitalism takes the human desire for sex and sexual relations into a commodity which can be bought and sold. A man paying a woman for sex does so on the premise that he can do what he likes with her body in the time he has purchased it.

Although many advocates of sex work argue that the acts performed are negotiated between sex worker and client, the two parties are not equal in the transaction. The sex worker’s sexuality is not taken into account; she is providing a ‘service’. Many sex workers recount that what often happens goes far beyond what was originally negotiated – with a high degree of rape, assault and murder.

As a feminist, I am concerned that SWOU takes no account of how the sale of sex feeds into the general objectification of women in wider society. The sex industry perpetuates some of the worst stereotypical and misogynistic ideas about women – and as such, is not just rooted in women’s oppression but completely reinforces it. Surely, as feminists, we want a world without prostitution as part of the ending of women’s oppression, where there would be real sexual freedom for everyone, not a world where poverty or addiction forces people to sell their bodies.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 24 September 2014 at 10:12 pm

sorry I don’t understand – why do statistics on “sex work” (why are you calling it that still when you know it’s offensive to exited women to do so) need a trigger warning? They are facts. Simple facts. There are no descriptions of abuse or violence there. A simple fact is only offensive if you refuse to acknowledge it or if it messes with the way you like to see the world. If we have to put up warnings about simple facts we are in a lot of trouble.

Brooke Magnanti // Posted 24 September 2014 at 11:22 pm

“or have columns in the Telegraph”

I take it this is a specific reference to me, and my former position as a columnist with the Telegraph.

I would like to emphasise that I am not involved in SWOU, Feminism in London, nor indeed with any group affiliated with this topic whatsoever. I have no idea why I have been brought into this discussion as if I am involved, because I have made no comment on the matter (and indeed was not aware of this conference until someone pointed this pieceout to me). I feel the F Word leaving in this “call out” to me is intrusive and inappropriate.

However, since I’m here, I’ll take the time to comment… While I myself have long since retired from advocating on behalf of sex workers – Feminism in London, do keep up – I fully support the voices of current sex workers who are agitating for inclusion in conferences where they are regularly exclused and demonised.

I am sure that going forward, Feminism in London can consider their requests without feleing the need to do a drive-by on me and The F Word can continue this discussion without feeling the need to leave such references in. Cheers!

ashlee // Posted 25 September 2014 at 7:56 pm

To be honest, Charlotte, I’ve seen quite a few sex workers speak, in London and elsewhere. I think that it helps if you attend events that give them a platform. In London as well, a significant proportion of sex workers are gay men, trans women, trans men. Sex work is bound up with ideas of certain kinds of sexualised masculinity also, which you wouldn’t think if you read your post. But it’s not the 1970s anymore, thinking about sex work and gender has moved on; which no one seems to have told FiL. Have a nice time at the conference, pretending all of that doesn’t exist, and that you’re not oppressing and silencing sex workers.

Cal3 // Posted 25 September 2014 at 8:56 pm

I’m involved in neither FiL nor SWOU, but it seems to me that the article from FiL is somewhat disingenuous, particularly in terms of claimed “accessibility”. From what I’ve read, FiL is organised by London Feminist Network (“We have organised pickets against porn cinemas, … and a series of annual conferences called Feminism in London … ) which welcomes membership only from those who agree on “resistance to male violence against women in all its forms, eg: … p*rnography, pr*stitution … ). This would exclude groups like SWOU as well as many other people.

Both LFN & FiL seem to actively campaign for criminalisation of paying for sex. Whatever your views on prostitution, it seems absurd to claim it’s feminist that the state should determine whether an (adult, competent) woman’s consent to sex is valid rather than the woman herself? We wouldn’t say that abuse survivors or poor or migrant or drug-using women are unable to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion, yet this seems to be used as a rationale for ignoring a woman’s right to decide for herself when, with whom and why to have sex. If you want to oppose prostitution, fine – campaign for more support for people in it and seeking to leave it, but surely a woman’s consent is her own to give? Respect for bodily autonomy is a fundamental feminist issue.

On a side point, the frequent personal attacks on Brooke Magnanti, presumably the UK’s highest profile former hooker, seems a mismatch with FiL’s arguments that women should be able to move on from prostitution.

Of course, if it turns out SWOU’s next event includes a workshop on the rules of the Eton Wall Game, perhaps they’re as privileged as claimed.

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