Absolutist abolitionists


The sorts of things that are said about sex work

Westminster skeptics recently hosted a discussion on sex work and the law, featuring Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon and Dr Brooke Magnanti.  It is well worth a listen : Dr Brooks-Gordon provides an overview of the legal context for sex work in the UK, recent legal changes, and most importantly, the effects that laws have that are often quite different from their stated intention.  Dr. Magnanti discusses the principles that it is important to adopt when researching or discussing sex work: starting with listening to how sex workers themselves describe their experience rather than making assumptions, such as the assumption that all foreign sex workers in the UK are trafficked, or that sex work is inherently exploitative or coercive.  In a follow up blog post the convenor, David Allen Green, talks about how important it is to have open conversations about sex work. 

The themes that are raised in the discussion are reminiscent, in many ways, of the themes that come up when sex work is raised in my line of work, HIV/AIDS programming in low-income countries.  One of the most common threads is a refusal to listen to sex workers, a refusal to accept that they have a right to assess and lead their own lives.  Because of the differences in how opposition to sex work is expressed, there are differences in how the refusal to listen to sex workers is rationalised.   Opposition to sex work in the UK tends to come from a feminist perspective, informed by concepts like “exploitation” and “coercion”; and the voices of sex workers who question this perspective are dismissed as being those of a tiny minority, as “Happy Hooker” fantasists.  Or worse still as suffering from false consciousness, some form of Stockholm syndrome… the subtext being that someone who is downtrodden is incapable of commenting on their situation.  But in the contexts where I work, dismissing what sex workers say is a lot more straightforward: “They are programmed to lie”, said a woman who runs an operation to rescue workers in India recently; alternatively, as this article from Nigeria shows, sex workers are asked to “repent”. The perspective here is more of a moral or a religious one.  There’s no particular implication of coercion.  The sex workers in these cases aren’t denied their agency: at the most basic level, they’re just judged and stigmatised for what they do. (Having said this, the trafficking/exploitation paradigms are increasingly gaining traction in poorer countries).

Both of these approaches are based on a highly generalised perspective that makes assumptions about the realities of sex workers – whether they are seen as powerless or as immoral.  As such, and despite the different rationalisations given in each case, to me they are both coming from an ideological starting point… and that’s always suspect.   

A glimmer?

The global AIDS movement has been relatively rigorous about promoting the importance of actively involving the people most affected and most vulnerable in developing policies and programmes.  Although there is still a long way to go in ensuring the principle is adhered to, the existence of events such as the recent regional consultation on HIV/AIDS and Sex Work in Asia, which brought together government officials, sex workers, and UN officials, is an encouraging example of HIV and AIDS providing an entry-point for broader discussions on human rights.  But the question remains, whether principles of participation that are established in this fairly niche area, can be a springboard to a more respectful way of communicating with sex workers in other areas of policy, legislative and ethical debate.



One thought on “Absolutist abolitionists

  1. Good analysis Matt. Not only is it a shame that the political argument went backwards, and that nothings seems to have been learnt from the 1980s and the HIV work but also feminist analysis has gone into a silo. Young feminists writing on the area seem not to have heard of, let alone read, Lynne Segal, Mary McIntosh, Leonore Tiefer – or indeed any of the major liberal feminist academics who took the subject forward. Most odd and rather frustrating.

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