Who do you listen to? On 'listening to sex workers'

There’s one guaranteed pro-sex-work response whenever you write something unenthusiastic about prostitution, and that response is: listen to sex workers. It was the dominant theme of critical replies to my review of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: listen to sex workers, then you’ll see how wrong you are.

In some ways it’s a peculiar logic when it comes to sex work — it claims the privileged status of the victim, while pro-sex-work advocates simultaneously insist that sex workers are not victims — but there’s a logic to it that I wouldn’t dispute. The people directly affected by any situation have undeniable insights into their condition, and I want to listen to them. I want to do justice to the people who figure in my politics.

But when I’m told listen to sex workers, the assumption is that “sex workers” as a class adopt a coherent line which I’m obliged to follow. (Again, this is a bit weird because one of the main strands of anti-legislation argument also holds that sex workers are too various to be dealt with under a single framework. Nevertheless, there it is.)

So for example, Gira Grant espouses decriminalization, and presents that as an aim pertinent to all sex workers — in fact, she argues for total freedom from the state, including no registration and no taxation on income. But in Italy, some sex workers are campaigning for the right to legally register their occupation and to pay tax (doing so would make them eligible for pensions, which is a highly reasonable thing to want). Who to listen to, Gira Grant or the Italian protesters?

Or maybe I should listen to Rachel Moran, a former prostitute who considers the purchase of sex an act of violence against women and campaigns for its criminalization (her own testimony, in her memoir Paid For, makes a pretty compelling case). Moran holds a very different opinion on who the victims of prostitution are:

The acceptance of prostitution makes all women potential prostitutes in the public view since there are only two requirements for a woman to work in a brothel: one is that circumstance has placed her so […] and the other is that she has a vagina, and all women are born meeting at least one of these requirements.

Paid For, Rachel Moran (Gill & Macmillan, 2013)

In other words, women as a class are affected by the fact of sex work, which means that all women have the right to be listened to as the affected class.

The “listen to” argument shrugs off responsibility. Rather than make your own judgments, it allows you to outsource your moral thinking to another party, and give up the tricky obligation to weigh facts and balance rights.

But it also obscures a moral judgment already taken: when someone says listen to sex workers, they’re defining the class “sex worker” by the opinions they think it proper for a sex worker to hold. (For example: anyone endorsing Moran’s writing and campaigning is liable to be called a “SWERF” – Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist – even though she had sex for money over the course of many years. Including her is still considered to be excluding sex workers, because sex workers are supposed to support the continuation of prostitution.)

This kind of covertly selective listening is not enough. Absorbing testimony is critical to developing your politics, but it’s not a replacement for the work you need to do yourself. That work is hard, of course. It takes you into areas where you have no guide but your own judgment, and the judgments you make have the potential to affect real lives if you are ever in a position to shape policy, or even just to influence other people’s opinions. That’s a responsibility I can understand anyone preferring not to acknowledge, but it’s a responsibility you have whether you want it or not. And it’s why the “listen to” argument is necessary, but it’s never sufficient.


This post was originally published at sarahditum.com and is republished with permission from the author.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Good analysis, thanks.

  • latte

    I don’t believe they are “sex workers”. It’s just attention seeking and playing at something they think makes them important. 15 mins of. Bobbleheaded narcissicists who have no idea what they’re doing or the harm they’re causing. They see themselves as the star in some epic.

    • I might offend some people by saying this, but I agree with latte’s characterisation of those identifying as “sex workers”. Many of them do seem very narcissistic. They also seem to have very shallow and superficial values. They’re always talking about how pretty men think they are and how many high-heeled shoes they can afford to buy using the all the money that they got from “exercising power over” (i.e. manipulating) men with their “sexuality” (by which they mean their enormous boobs and super thin waists.)

      These self-identified “sex workers” conform to societal stereotypes and not just stereotypes about prostituted women, but stereotypes about women in general. I don’t like to accuse people of lying and so I don’t agree with latte’s insinuation that people who label themselves as “sex workers” on the internet are lying, but I can understand why someone would make that accusation. If I knew nothing about prostituted women and wanted to pretend I was one I would say things simular to what the “sex workers” online say.

      I used to hate women in prostitution because of the very stereotypes that comments by “sex workers” reinforce, the same way I hated appearance-obsessed, consumeristic, superficial people in general. Now I know that most prostituted women aren’t like that. Do these “sex worker activists” really think that a super-rich woman who can pay off her university fees while still going on vacations and buying hundreds of expensive accessories all because she was able to trick hapless (remember people, men can’t help themselves in the face of enormous boobs *sarcasm*) men out of their money using her “hot” body (the kind women hate themselves for not having) while garner more sympathy than an impoverished woman in the third world who was sold into prostitution because her family was starving? What does that tell us about the values of the sex worker activist movement? And, yes, I said the “v” word (values.)

      The thinking of liberal feminists baffles me. I guess the reason they love these “empowered sex workers” who have paid off university fees which most liberal feminists won’t be able to pay off for years is because they look at them and think “I could be like her. I like sex just like she does”. Meanwhile compassionate people have an easier times sympathising with the millions of ordinary women all over the world who have not lived that life and who probably can’t even afford to access the internet let alone travel to first world countries and give talks about their “empowering” experiences as “sex workers”. Even survivors represent the better off section of prostituted women since they were able to escape prostitution while many other women can’t. While we should indeed listen to women’s personal testimonies, we should remember that they don’t tell the whole story. This is especially true at universities where the “sex-positive” agenda control which stories get heard and which don’t.

      • Laur

        “Many of them do seem very narcissistic. They also seem to have very shallow and superficial values. They’re always talking about how pretty men think they are and how many high-heeled shoes they can afford to buy using the all the money that they got from “exercising power over” (i.e. manipulating) men with their “sexuality” (by which they mean their enormous boobs and super thin waists.) ”

        WTF?! This type of “commentary” does not represent my feminism.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Yeah and I don’t think saying: “they’re always ____” is a particularly useful analysis for anything, really…

        • Ivy

          Sadly, in some ways I agree with Independent Radical above, while it certainly isn’t AL:L sex worker advocates: one of my favorites was Renegade Evolution who was very open and honest about the sex industry. There are many who viciously attack women like Rachel Moran, or the Dublin Call girl blogger and call them liars. Only “happy hookers” like them are allowed to talk about the sex industry. And yeah most of them will say stuff like “all women whore themselves” or why are women trying to be like men? In other words they are complete anti feminists.

          • “…while it certainly isn’t AL:L sex worker advocates: one of my favorites was Renegade Evolution who was very open and honest about the sex industry.”

            If a women is critical of the sex industry I don’t consider her to be a sex worker advocate, the same way I don’t consider supporters of abortion to be pro-life, even though I don’t think abortion is killing. “Pro-life” and “sex worker advocate” are propaganda terms designed to make opponents of abortion and supporters of the sex industry, respectively, look good. The term “pro-life” does not refer to those who genuinely value human life (we know this because most pro-life people support the death penalty.) Likewise the term “sex worker advocate” does not refer to those who genuinely care about the rights of the majority of prostituted women who want a way out of the industry. It is a misleading term which really means “defender of the sex industry”.

            And in case I wasn’t clear enough before, my first comment refers specially to women who go online to defend the sex industry (or who give talks at “feminist” conferences) and claim that they are empowered within it. It does not refer to prostituted women in general (whether they refer to themselves as “sex workers” or not.) Perhaps I should have made that clearer.

            I don’t feel the need to be particularly nice to my political opponents, especially when they ignore the suffering of countless other women all around the world and only think about themselves and their “job”. I am amazed that Meghan Murphy can be so patient with them, but it seems that no matter how nice you are to liberal feminists they will accuse you of “hating” and “shaming”, so long as you imply that their choices are anything other than totally feminist and totally empowering.

          • morag

            Renegade Evolution has a history of obfuscating the aims of radical feminism so you can simultaneously play empowered sex worker and victim of those evil radfems. I have never seen her speak to men (even Hugo Schwyzer, but Flavia conveniently forgot about that) with the vitriol she’s shown to FCM, Maggie Hays, Sam Berg, and Meghan.

            The majority of “sex worker advocates” never attack the arguments themselves, they just complain that radfems don’t giggle and apologise before we speak. Then they throw around buzzwords like WOC and Cis to put on the more feminist than thou mantle, completing ignoring the fact that WOC-and its a very diverse group of women-run the majority of abolitionist groups.

      • emily

        I appreciate your perspective, but I see their “sex work positive” arguments as another extension of patriarchal indoctrination. The value of women lies solely in her ability to exemplify a sexual object. It would seem that they feel validated because they are able to be what they’ve been told is valuable all their lives. Many go on to extol the virtues of how much money they can make, but if equal access to real financial opportunities were a reality…

  • stephen m

    Sarah Ditum, thank you for presenting your important view of looking at prostitution and other issues.

    In a lighter way, but a still an important point we have this 20 year old cartoon:


    • strephen m

      That should read that the cartoon is an additional point.
      I should always proofread but sometimes forget to.

  • jenny

    Rarely do sex workers or sex work advocates–not even the “narcissistic” ones–claim we’re all “happy hookers.” Sex workers, whether anti-prostitution or pro-decriminalization, really, *really* just want the same kind of political and social platform people like yourselves are afforded. But if you listened you’d know that… (also, listening to the vast and nuanced experiences of people is *never* synonymous with believing said people belong to a homogenous experience…isn’t that what Standpoint Feminism is all about?) Sigh.

    • morag

      I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow your comment since radical feminists are not afforded the same airtime and respectability that those who support the industry have. Feminist Current is a far cry from Jezebel or Feministing. Also Meghan isn’t paid for writing this blog. I agree that all experiences should be heard, but there isn’t a level playing field between abolitionists and pro-decrim to begin with.

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  • lib

    I am a prostitute and I am a radical feminist, sex-positive feminists may say “listen to sex workers” but they routinely silence all prostituted women who say they are in this industry for lack of meaningful choices, not that this was a meaningful choice. My choices have been limited by patriarchy and poverty, that is why I choose prostitution. I am not the only prostitute with this view, but you’d think I was the way liberal feminism promotes the “sex worker” view of prostitution while claiming to listen to us all.