Agree to Disagree? Lets Not. Sex Worker’s Rights Are Not Negotiable

Content note: violence against sex workers, description of events around the murder of Petite Jasmine.
“I find it very strange that anyone would feel they couldn’t enjoy a comedy show unless they agree with 100% of the political views of the person performing”
 Ah, Katie Smurthwaite. The non-story that briefly blew up in early February; the comedienne cruelly no-platformed by Goldsmiths University of London, her free-speech hooter firmly squashed shut by the over powerful reach of over-zealous student protest following some ill-advised sex worker exclusionary tweets. Except, of course, that is not what happened. Rather than the rather glamorous experience of being banned from campus for being sexily controversial, Smurthwaite’s show was cancelled largely due to poor ticket sales, the feminist society of Goldsmiths having already decided they couldn’t be bothered to protest her even if she did show up.

The distortion around the reception of this ‘story’ is perfectly calculated to ring liberal alarm bells and wrinkle the foreheads of the Guardian-reading set that Goldsmiths is fairly firmly aligned with. A woman having her voice silenced? A feminist being censored simply because her opinion differed? Unthinkable. Unconscionable. Untrue.

It has spawned dozens of think pieces and outrage on twitter, and one specific rhetorical call for feminist solidarity; Are we not all feminists here? Can we not respect that a woman can have a different opinion that we don’t agree on and still be allowed to speak?

I try to assume that these come from a place of ignorance and not a place of hating sex workers. But it is the height of civilian arrogance and disregard for the lives and safety of sex workers to take the position that SWERFs (sex worker exclusionary/exterminatory radical feminists) have opinions that we ‘need to accept’ that we ‘don’t agree’ on.

End Demand, the so called ‘Nordic Model’ of laws criminalising the purchase of sexual services that it is currently fashionably feminist to push for, is the same End Demand model that Smurthwaite explicitly supports and is the same End Demand model that has been demonstrated to harm sex workers. (1) (2). People relegating the safety of sex workers to an intellectual debate on the level of ‘lets agree to disagree about vagina cupcakes’ is a disingenuous ploy that undermines the seriousness and urgent need for sex workers’ rights action and the demand for feminist solidarity with sex workers. It’s a silencing tactic that casts sex workers as needing to sit down and shut up ‘for the greater good’.

Can’t we all just sit down and agree that we hate the patriarchy!? I mean, some of us also hate sex workers, but that’s like, just their opinion, man.

On the 11th of July, 2013 Petite Jasmine was murdered by her abusive ex-partner. Jasmine was a Swedish sex worker, mother and board member of sex workers’ rights group Rose Alliance. End Demand killed Petite Jasmine. When a relative informed social services that Jasmine was a sex worker she lost custody of her children; her refusal to ‘admit’ her work was ‘a form of self harm’ meant that in the state’s eyes she was less fit to be a parent than her abusive, violent, aggressive ex.  After two years fighting to regain custody, in which time her ex threatened and stalked her, it was at a meeting with her son for the first time in a year that Jasmine’s ex stabbed the social worker and killed her.

They took her children away, gave her abuser and her stalker custody, forcing her into contact with him, giving him power over her life, and then he killed her. All of this happened because she was a sex worker and because of the End Demand model currently implemented in Sweden. (3).

The feminist position that sex workers either need saving from the industry or are complicit in the oppression of other women is a position that is paternalistic and patronising at best and outright aggressive to sex working women at worst, fighting to undermine sex workers’ own advocacy (which exists all over the world (4)) and being complicit in state and capitalist violence against sex workers.

This position is part of a multi-billion pound global rescue industry that stretches from Project ROSE in Arizona (that imprisons sex workers to ‘save’ them (5)), to Canada’s c36 (which will specifically harm indigenous communities already at high risk for violence (6)) to the forcing of sex workers into modern-day slavery within sweatshops in the garment industry (7), to this, women who don’t have any stake in the sex industry talking for and over those who do and supporting legislation and programmes that put sex workers in danger.

This position is calling women who have experienced rape and abuse within the sex industry but who fight for decriminalisation the ‘pimp lobby’ and blaming them for their own rapes. It’s collapsing the complex, multifaceted, contradictory and difficult realities of workers in the sex industry to ‘privileged and unrepresentative’ or ‘abused and silent’ instead of putting sex workers at the forefront of their own advocacy.

This position is forcing women and members of vulnerable groups into confrontations with a police and a state that repeatedly enacts violence against them, from police brutality that the most vulnerable; black, latina, trans, face in and outside of sex work (7) to facing years in prison and a place on the sex offenders register for taking precautions to keep themselves safe (8).

The rescue industry is powerful, it is well funded, it is sprawling NGOs and book deals and ‘feminist’ coloumn inches in the Guardian. It’s hundreds of thousands of ignorant civilian followers on Twitter and spots on Mock the Week and lefty, liberal feel-good lets-save-the-sex-workers feelings shared by earnest young women in Feminist Societies.

The least anyone can do to combat it is to no-platform a boring comedian making tired observations around ‘free speech’ that tacitly backs up her material ability to harm sex workers. What platform are people offering sex workers? They can take away their children, their homes, their freedom, deport them, remove our ability to feed and clothe themselves, and put them in the way of people who want them dead.

Civillians have abilities and freedoms that many sex workers cannot even dream of, and they have power to support or to attack them. There is no middle ground.

As the wonderful Leigh Alanna has said;

You cannot be ‘neither pro nor anti’ sex worker. There is no actual neutral ground here, because it’s not a theoretical, hypothetical “issue” that you get to weigh in on. There is only with us or against us.

Either, you believe that sex workers are humans who deserve safety, and the right to make decisions about their body and their labor, just like everyone else, or you do not think those things are true.

Sex work is a thing that exists, completely independent of anyone’s opinions about that fact — the only debate is whether or not we want to continue to sanction and encourage violence against the people who do it. (9)

Allowing those who would do harm to sex workers; ‘for their own good’ or otherwise, entry into feminist spaces under the argument of free-speech and feminist cohesion is not a benign position. Tacit approval is still approval, and when you give it to those whose voices already carry far and who already have latitude to speak elsewhere the only effect is to allow them to continue to speak over and yes, silence, the most vulnerable of people.

It is not censorship. It is quality control.

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