I have been thinking about this issue for a while but have been unwilling to write it. Partly, I’ve been worried about causing unnecessary distress but equally because I have already been attacked online for my stance on the entirety of the sex industry including lap-dancing clubs and pornography. I didn’t want to pop my head above the parapet again.
I wouldn’t have written this had I not seen yet another discussion on twitter today stating that only sex workers were allowed to have opinions on sex work or the sex industry.
Apparently, the sex industry is the only industry in which you can only have an opinion if you are/ were involved in it. This does beg the question as to why people who were never involved in it have the right to dictate who can or cannot speak about the industry. Surely the logical conclusion of not being allowed to speak about the sex industry means you also aren’t allowed to decide who gets to speak about the sex industry? Perhaps, I am just confused and you are allowed to have an opinion but only if you are pro-sex industry.
I have never worked within the sex industry. Like all my political positions, I came to my decision through research. I have read blogs, books and other forms of personal testimony by women who have exited the industry. I have read blogs, books and other forms of personal testimony by women who are still working in the industry. I have read radical feminist research and research from those who are pro-sex industry. I stand by my position.
I do not like the term sex industry. I have used it until this point to cover everything from lap-dancing clubs to Playboy to pornography and to prostitution. However, I just want to focus on the difference between the terms sex worker and prostitute. Whilst I would never tell a woman how they can and cannot label themselves, I do find the current insistence on using the term sex worker is a silencing tactic. The term sex worker implies a positive experience. Many women, both currently working and those who are exited, prefer to use the term prostitute to define their experience. They use it because the word prostitute has a negative connotation.
My question, as a radical feminist, is which term do I use to accurately define my political position without causing unnecessary distress to women. I prefer to use the word prostitute because I think it more accurately reflects the experience of the majority of the women and children whose bodies are sold. Yet, there are women who self-label as sex workers. Do I have the right to tell them how to self-label? Do they have the right to tell other women that they cannot self-define as prostitutes.
What I find most worrying is that there is a concerted effort to silence women, especially exited women, from using the word prostitute. Even if I believed that it was not possible to have an opinion on a subject without it directly effecting you (which is clearly ludicrous), why aren’t women allowed to use the term prostitute to define their own experience? Why are we privileging the voices of some women over the voices of others?
I would never tell a woman how they can self-define. I do have a problem with women being told whether or not they are allowed to call themselves prostitutes. I do have a problem with what is clearly a well-funded industry dictating who is allowed to speak. I’ve seen the vitriol and personal attacks on blogs written by exited women. I’ve seen them belittled, denigrated and publicly attacked for daring to speak in negative terms about their own experiences.
I am willing to believe that some women have positive experiences as sex workers. Why is it so dangerous to believe that other women do/ did not?
If we are going to follow this new rule about only being allowed to have opinions on things which effect us directly, then why are women not allowed to define their experience by using the word prostitute?
I would really like those online feminists who are pro-sex work but who are not actually sex workers explain why the voices of exited women don’t count.
I want to know why we must use the term sex work with no attention paid to those who use the word prostituted to define themselves?
I respect the right of those who choose the term sex work but I also respect the right of those who use the term prostitute. I may find the term sex work deeply problematic, and that is an understatement, but I will not tell another woman how to define themselves. Why isn’t the same respect extended to women who prefer the term prostitute? Why are exited women attacked over and over again online without any support?
UPDATE: I got these tweets today from the organisation NorMas:
I prefer these terms “women in prostitution” or “exited” women. The term sex worker feels too vague due to the size of the “sex industry”.