Are we hearing ‘sex workers’ when we listen to them?

When it comes to decriminalizing pimps and johns, we are constantly told to “listen to sex workers.” But are those who claim to listen to “sex workers” really hearing them? And are they “hearing” those who have escaped prostitution or those still “choosing” to be involved in the sex trade? Organizations headed by women who have escaped prostitution (SPACE, GEMS, Breaking Free, Survivors For Solutions, The Sage Project, Sex Trafficking Survivors United, Street Exit, Sex Trade 101, EVE) overwhelmingly support the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes prostituted women while criminalizing pimps and johns. Women still involved in prostitution, on the other hand, as well as brothel owners and pimps, are more likely to oppose the Nordic Model in favor of full decriminalization. Depending on who you “listen” to, you will hear seemingly opposing viewpoints. So who do we “listen to” and what do we hear?

Amnesty International recently voted in favour of adopting a policy supporting the decriminalization of pimps and johns based on advice from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), an organization whose Vice President at the time, Alejandra Gil, was recently convicted of sex trafficking. Amnesty International defended their decision to reject the Nordic model, stating, “a large number of sex worker organizations and networks, including the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, support the decriminalization of sex work.” But the reality is that, according to Amnesty International, it’s not only “sex workers” we must listen to, but also pimps.

Naturally, I’m skeptical about the motives of self-interested pimps. But I’m also skeptical of prostituted women who claim that sex work isn’t harmful to themelves or to others. In an article by Charlotte Shane, who identifies as a “sex worker,” she claims that being raped, like being prostituted, doesn’t bother her very much — that it’s other people’s insistence that it should bother her that hurts the most.

Despite that claim, Shane makes it very clear that she has been deeply hurt. Referring to a john who raped her, she writes, “he left me with an anal tear and acute pain that I tried to live with for a year before finally giving in to [a $10,000] surgery.” Her doctor warned her that she would most-certainly tear again if she gave birth. Shane adds, “People regularly get anal fissures, and many non-raped people have the same surgery I did.” Oh, well, since many “non-raped” people get anal fissures, I guess it’s not so bad…

She claims to have been so unaffected by this rape that she “chose” to see the rapist again: “In an act that still mystifies me, I saw that client again, about a month after our previous encounter.”

But this wouldn’t mystify author and trafficking survivor Rachel Moran. In her book, Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, she describes the process of self-alienation that prostituted women use for self-protection:

“We all practiced dissociation; each of us found our own ways to remove ourselves from what we were doing. We all shut down in similar ways and for identical reasons… We were alienated from ourselves.”

Part of this alienation from self involves a complete denial of vulnerability. As Shane writes, “… what [the rapist] had done, his inability to acknowledge it or apologize for it — ‘You drive me crazy,’ he said after he tore my anus — made me more powerful than him. How pathetic and impotent he seemed to me, perhaps, or how little he could ever truly hurt me in the ways that matter.” (What are, one has to wonder, “the ways that matter?”)

According to Moran, “Surviving in prostitution is not possible for those who have a consistent, consciously held view of the self as vulnerable.” Shane, herself, is a good example of this — she is adamant that she is “too strong” to be harmed by rape.

Shane explains that women should not be shamed for having a blasé reaction to rape, in turn presenting a traumatized reaction to rape as weakness. Her antipathy towards these women — the kind who see themselves as traumatized victims — is palpable. She wants no part of their “club.”

“According to the cultural script, women are simply not strong enough to bear such an experience easily,” she writes. Are we to understand that “strong” women bear rape easily, and, therefore, that “weak” women do not?

Shane takes issue with people who take rape seriously and who promote the idea that rape “is life-shattering” and “soul-destroying,” implying they are “paranoid” and “irrational.” She claims that we, as a society, refuse to acknowledge that there can be “different emotional responses to rape” and that we prefer to see all rapes as “equally traumatic.” Shane writes, “If you are a woman, you can never move past your rape; you can only ‘learn’ to live with it, as though it is akin to abrupt blindness or a paralyzed limb… This is the only allowable truth about rape.”

Really? That’s news to me. I was raped throughout my childhood, and I not only consider myself fully recovered, but I have turned the trauma into something beneficial. I believe am better off than I would have been had I not been sexually traumatized. As one of my heroes, Viktor Frankl, said “What is to give light must endure burning.” I have much more empathy and insight than if I’d never been burned by trauma. And finding my way out of immense pain has made me an incredible optimist. But I did not get to this place in my life by treating my (or anyone else’s) suffering as a “weakness.” I healed because I was not ashamed of being in pain, nor was I afraid to feel it.

Being in pain is not a weakness and being numb to pain is not a strength. In fact, numbness to pain is extremely dangerous and a set up for being harmed repeatedly.

After being raped yet again by another john, Shane explains that what was worse than the rape itself was being forced to let the rapist comfort her afterwards. “It was a grotesque, unsettling experience to be forced to misrepresent my reality for the appeasement of someone else.” But this wasn’t just “someone else” — it was the rapist. And this is a common tactic of abusers — it’s called “trauma bonding.” Often, the abuser will comfort his victim after the abuse he inflicts — it’s part of the cycle of violence. The psychological sadism of Shane’s rapist forcing her to “misrepresent” her reality to him was part of the rape. “I had to play the part of the consensual lover, the girl who had some type of flighty breakdown but allowed herself to be comforted by the older man,” Shane writes. So he not only forced her to endure the unwanted penetration of her body by his penis; he forced her to “appease” him by “misrepresenting the reality” that he had actually raped her. In this way, he not only dominated her body, he dominated her response to being raped.

Shane compares his actions to people who have not raped her, but who Shane believes “force” her to tell them that the rape hurt. But where is this “force” coming from? Are feminists who talk about the trauma of rape somehow active participants in that cycle of violence? If one woman claims her rape was traumatic, does this “force” the author to say that her rape was traumatic, too? Should women downplay the effects of their rape so women who don’t feel traumatized feel better? Beyond that, Shane’s desire to be “stronger” and more powerful than rape masks the societal impact of rape culture on all women. Whether some women experience more or less personal trauma than others isn’t the issue.

This expectation reminds me of “sex workers” who insist that trafficking survivors like Moran, “attack” their experiences or personhood by speaking out about the trauma of being prostituted. Moran has been smeared as a liar and a “whorephobe” by “pro-sex work” activists such as Maggie McNeill, Gaye Dalton, Leigh Alanna, Laura Lee, and countless others both on and off line. The bravery of women who’ve escaped prostitution speaking honestly about their suffering is a threat to current “sex workers” because it threatens the denial they depend on for survival. That is to say, they must fight back against this narrative in order to continue surviving in prostitution.

No one is forcing Shane to say she was hurt by her rape — she is saying it herself, very clearly. And we do not honour her experience or her humanity by failing to listen. Prostitution is rape by economic, emotional, psychological, and sexual coercion: “Let me fuck you, or you’ll lose your apartment. Then let me mind-fuck you after I’ve raped you.” “Pretend you like it.” Prostitution is anal fissures, humiliation, degradation, and the inability to feel your own feelings without going insane. But a woman who “chooses” to remain in prostitution has no more agency than a woman who “chooses” to remain with a batterer. “He’s really not so bad.” “I know he loves me.” “He didn’t mean to hurt me.” “I know he’ll change.” “I’m happy most of the time.” “He’s a great father.” “Whose marriage is perfect?” “I’m fine.” “I’m strong.” “I can take it.” Enabling this level of denial can get a woman killed.

Trafficking survivors like Rachel Moran, Rachel Lloyd, Vednita Carter, Autumn Burris, Bridget Perrier, Marie Merklinger, Jeanette Westbrook, Laurence Noelle, Fiona Broadfoot, Cherie Jiminez, Natasha Falle, Trisha Baptie, and Rosen Hitcher (among many others) have not only escaped prostitution, but have created organizations to help other women escape as well. All of these women support the Nordic Model. And unlike women still “choosing” prostitution, anal rape is no longer included in their “job” description, nor are they 40 times more likely to be murdered than the general population.

So which “sex workers” should we listen to? Those who have escaped prostitution and devote their lives to helping women and children escape too? Or those who say they “choose” to remain “sex workers” and minimize the trauma of being prostituted due to self-interest? You can, in fact, listen to them both. But the conclusions you come to depend on how deeply you listen.

Penny White is a radical feminist freelance writer living in San Francisco. She has a master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis on childhood sexual trauma, and has worked for over 10 years as a case manager/peer counselor for mentally ill people living in poverty. Penny is currently a volunteer at The Gubbio Project in San Francisco, which serves people of all ages and abilities who have no homes. Follow her @kindsoftheart.

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