Injustices that Matter: Reclaiming space from Allies at ‘Fantasies that Matter: Images of Sex Work in Media and Art’ (and beyond)

So myself and a couple of other sex workers caught wind of a conference about sex workers and representation, and excitedly rushed to Hamburg to enjoy what promised to be a weekend of stimulating papers and panels. We noted prominent sex worker rights advocates in the lineup, and imagined (fantasised?) that a conference on the subject of representation would, hopefully, have taken the time to reflect on its own subject.

The main problem with representations of sex work is that they are almost always projections – fantasies- produced by people who aren’t sex workers. It amounts to an insidious erasure – the projections demand centre stage, bumping our accounts of the material realities of our lives to one side, and even denying the need for them. It’s an act that says: ‘We don’t need you to speak, we have our ideas about you already, and the last thing we want is for you to disrupt or complicate them.’

The conference title – “Fantasies that Matter” – seemed to go straight to the heart of the matter, recognising that representations of sex workers by others are mere fantasies – and that those fantasies have very serious implications for the people they are supposed to be about. We assumed, naively, that the importance of allowing sex workers to lead conversations about their lives would be only too apparent to anyone grappling with this subject, since to work towards anything less would reproduce the key problem, amounting to a flimsy meta-critical representation of representations.

Ultimately, we were disappointed to see the conversation led by people who were not sex workers, and to see only a handful of current sex workers take the stage. It was disappointing as well to note that the conference participants and attendees were, as in so many sex worker and allied spaces, overwhelmingly white, and that this was not meaningfully addressed by most of the conference participants or the organisers, despite Marissa Lobo’s occupation of the stage during the ‘Bread and Roses: Rethinking Sexual and Economic Justice’ panel to talk racism, anti-colonialism, and generally disrupt the injustice taking place (you can find out more about her work around Decolonial Struggles and Performative Interventions into Western Politics in the form of performances such as “Fuck Your Queer White Supremacy Celebration!” by checking out this transcript of an amazing interview with her here.) Additionally, trans people were underrepresented, and incidences of cissexism and transphobia went unchallenged by the organisers. The persistent erasure of sex-working people of colour and trans people was uncritically reproduced, and racist, colonialist and transphobic discourses remained dominant because, despite being frequently mentioned by speakers and audience members, there was little engagement beyond reiterated ‘disclaimers’ for attendees who openly questioned their erasure. [If you’re a PoC or trans person (or both) who was in attendance and you’d like to share your experience of the conference (or even if you weren’t there but you’ve got stuff to say on the topic), please do let me know if I can signal boost or include your voice better here.]

Many of the sex workers in attendance felt on the outside looking in, despite being the topic under discussion (and dissection). It’s a familiar feeling for sex workers, but the irony of a group of our supporters coming together to discuss the oppressive nature of how sex workers are represented, but failing to reflect on whether they were in the process perpetuating this and other oppressions, was not lost on us. By the second day of the conference, we were organising to demand that we be allowed to take the lead in discussions about our lives and our representation. For the essential blow by blow account of everything that went down, check out Fornicatrix’s summary of events here.

It was, not for the first time, a case of marginalised people becoming objects of enquiry for others, and it made me think that it might be time for a broader discussion about how this sort of stuff happens, and what kind of invisible power dynamics allow to it go largely unchallenged. When this happens, we – as people interested in social justice and the dismantling of systems of oppression – have a problem. The existing hierarchies that dictate who should do the speaking and who should be spoken about are reinforced and reproduced. The marginalised person is positioned as object, the outsider as subject, and the expertise and lived experiences of the marginalised person are typically pushed aside except where they are useful to the outsider.

Researchers who are positioned outside the marginalised communities they study who are in search of an ethical solution to such imbalances of power sometimes turn to concepts like ‘Research Justice’, which aims to centre research on the needs of marginalised groups. This framework suggests that: “Research Justice is achieved when marginalized communities are recognized as experts, and reclaim, own and wield all forms of knowledge and information.”  Strategies include equipping communities with:

  1. Control over information and knowledge that impact them;
  2. Capacity and resources to produce their own information and knowledge;
  3. Capacity and resources to use and wield all forms of its knowledge to effectively advance their agenda;
  4. Equal access to information outside of the community despite increasing commodification, privatization, and hyper-abundance of information;
  5. And, the capacity and resources to determine ‘validity’ and ‘credibility’ of information and knowledge, and methods to create them…on equal footing with all other institutions in society. [Source here]

Effectively, Research Justice is the recognition that when someone builds their career on the disenfranchisement (read: suffering) of others,  their gains must be counterbalanced with equivalent (or ideally, greater) benefits to that community. Otherwise, you’re simply the latest in the long line of those exploiting a group of people who have been structurally prevented from articulating the conditions of their own lives, among other injustices.

This applies not only to research, but also to cultural modes of production. If you’re taking an oppressed group of people as your topic, you need to address the power imbalance. Your work needs to benefit them, and they need to be actively directing your project from the outset. They should own it, because it is theirs, and the only reason it’s in your hands is because you’re benefitting from their disempowerment.

A token individual is insufficient. If you are unable to find members of the relevant group who are willing to cooperate with you, your ideas are probably heinous, and I recommend that you reconsider your life choices. If you’re pretty sure you’re not reinforcing inequalities or structural oppression, but you really can’t find anyone from the relevant group to direct proceedings and benefit directly from the work, then you should put it on hold until you can. Sometimes this means you won’t get to do what you want to do. You’ll live. Nothing should happen without the direct and meaningful involvement of the group you’re taking as your subject. I don’t care how good your screenplay or lecture is. We’re talking about praxis here – if you believe in justice, and acknowledging hierarchies of power, then act on that. It’s not enough to say you know you have power, if you do nothing useful with it.

It’s essential to ask yourself why you’re identifying yourself as an ally, and to realise that there is no such thing as conditional allyship: if you won’t tolerate criticism or take direction, or if you require gratitude, niceties, or honorary membership from the people you’re supporting, you’re doing it wrong. If you won’t move beyond acknowledging your power to doing something about the injustice of it, you’re not an ally. And if you indicate that you intend to withdraw your support because you feel undervalued, then I suggest you go elsewhere, because you are putting your own interests before those of the people you’re supporting, and anyone who’s more interested in the feel-good factor of ‘helping’ than actually improving the lives of others is not a loss to any liberation movement.

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If you are in a position of power, it’s true that you can’t represent everyone you have power over, but you can turn over your platform to them and make space for them to represent themselves. If you find yourself facing accusations that you’ve left people out, it’s important to ask – have you really tried? Is it that you can’t make space for people to speak for themselves, or that you simply haven’t? (Clue: if marginalised groups of people, including migrant black women and sex workers, take over the stage because they feel spoken for and over, you are probably reproducing unjust hierarchies of power, and it’s likely that you could have done more to facilitate their involvement.)

If you believe in social justice, then when people who have less power than you suggest, ask, or demand that you give them a platform, then the only just thing to do is to hand it over. Get off the stage, hand over the mike, and, most importantly, realise that your role from that point on is to listen, reflect, and take direction. If you feel hard done by, you are likely grappling with your own entitlement. You’re accustomed to having a certain amount of space, because you have benefited from the oppression of others, and some of that has been reappropriated. I suggest that you sit with your feelings, and examine them thoroughly. If you allow these to play out internally before you bring them into the conversation, everyone will benefit. Those with more power will end up surrendering some of their unfairly occupied space (and avoid reoccupying it to talk about their feelings of guilt or discomfort, which is cool and all, but doesn’t really help), allowing those with less privilege to speak a little, at last, and in addition, you will have fewer of those “can’t-believe-I-said-that” moments to torture yourself with in the years to come.


1. For a very good account of one ally’s reflection on this issue, see this. That’s what being an ally looks like, folks.

2. For more on the erasure of PoC from sex worker rights activism, it’s essential to check out @_peech’s analysis here

Why this video needs to fuck off

TW: reference to sexual assault, rape, violence ahead

I should probably say straight up that if you’re here and reading this article, I’m assuming you’re down with the notion that people should be able to do whatever they want with their own bodies, familiar with the notion of sex work as work, and at least in theory supportive of sex workers organising for their labour rights and decriminalisation.

You can 100% be on-board with these ideas, and also be opposed to trafficking. There is absolutely nothing about being pro-sex worker than makes you pro-trafficking (quite the opposite, in fact). If you are pro people doing things consensually with their own bodies for their own benefit, it follows that you can be correspondingly opposed to people being forced to do things with their bodies for someone else’s benefit, since it gets in the way of the consensual part, and the part where they benefit from the things they consent to doing. We could get into complex conversations about poverty and whether anyone really ‘consents’ to work within a capitalist system — and I am 100% down to talk about this — but it needs to be a conversation about work in its entirety, and not focused on sex work as an exceptional case. We’re not comparing the coercion that is capitalism to the coercion that is being held against your will and abused. There is a world of difference, and we need to respect that difference in order to respect survivors of abuse.

So, the video.

This clip is supposedly about trafficking. Which is funny, because when it says ‘sadly, they end up here’, what you’re looking at, viewer, is not in any way differentiated from what you’d see if you were just looking at a sex worker working. That’s a woman standing in a window in her place of work, engaged in marketing. She might be about to go on her tea break, or might have just emerged from an easy appointment with a regular, or might have a raging dose of thrush coming on and be hoping the next client just wants a handjob. We’ve all been there. It’s a day at work in a brothel. There’s nothing inherently sad about it. It’s work.

So “sadly” ending up “here” in the window of a brothel requires a bit of qualification. A person who wanted to be a dancer ending up a sex worker is not the same thing as a person deceived and then sexually abused for someone else’s gain. A clip like this really needs to work harder to address the absolutely massive difference between these two situations if the end goal is not to conflate voluntary migration for the purposes of work (all work, including sex work) with the crime of holding someone against their will and subjecting them to repeated sexual assault for financial gain.

It’s interesting to consider what the video wants us to do, or what the call to action is, apart from us feeling a general sense of pity for poor outwitted migrant women. I think the suggestion is that those chastened men watching the women as potential patrons are the ones with the power to ‘stop the traffic’, presumably by ‘ending demand’, as the familiar refrain goes. But there’s no pretence that there’s specific demand for trafficked or abused individuals here. Instead, the demand for sex work generally neatly stands in, and we see the construction (or repetition, at this stage) of the same narrative that demonises the purchasers of sexual services and leads us into Swedish Model territory as a solution to the sex industry, which, though we’ve forgotten by this point, wasn’t the problem in the first place. None of this makes sense if you have any kind of understanding of sex work, workers’ rights or the adult industry. It’s banning sex in an attempt to end rape.

The circumstances under which someone travels somewhere to do one job, but instead ends up doing another, are pretty important information for the viewer here. I’m not suggesting that the clip should have shown us any kind of gratuitous violence or sexual abuse for the purposes of differentiating trafficking and abuse from sex work, but I do think it shouldn’t show us sex work, if that’s not what it’s talking about. We might be looking at labour issues, economic issues or migration issues (clue: we’re actually looking at all three) but the clip makes no effort to look at these, and puts even less effort into separating ‘being held against your will and subjected to repeated sexual assault for someone else’s gain’ and ‘working as a sex worker because it’s a job and you migrated somewhere because you needed work’.

Let’s try a thought experiment. ‘Every year thousands of people are promised a job as a dancer, but sadly, they end up here.’ The curtain rises on someone working in a tailor’s shop. That doesn’t quite work the same way, does it? We don’t automatically assume that it would be sad to work in a tailor’s shop (because that would be a horrible and classist thing to assume) and we certainly wouldn’t represent the problem of some people suffering abuse in the textiles industry by showing images of someone  just doing their job. Nor would it make much sense to witness the dawning realisation of a potential customer looking in the window who will never again have a pair of jeans adjusted now he knows that some people in tailoring shops were promised jobs as dancers.

The kind of abuse that the ‘Stop the Traffic’ campaign is interested in is not people being promised one job and ending up in another, and it’s a shame that the clip reduces the issue to that. The reason it works with sex work but wouldn’t if the punchline were ‘sadly they end up in PR,’ is because popular misconceptions about the general unpleasantness of sex work ensure that it doesn’t have to go into anything more specific. We don’t need to know more about the circumstances, we ‘know’ what it’s like to be a sex worker. We’ve seen Les Miserables. It’s not a good time. Nothing further needs to be indicated about the person’s circumstances: here they are, standing in a brothel window, a modern day Fantine. They have been laid low by ‘the traffick’, and we don’t need to differentiate a woman genuinely deceived into travelling to a different country, held against her will and abused from a woman from the same country who came to do whatever work she could get and ended up as a sex worker, with no particular strong feelings on the issue, and the potential to retire comfortably at a relatively young age.

In conflating the two, campaigns like these unfortunately create setbacks for sex worker rights activists and campaigns, and make it harder for sex workers who are trying to lobby for the kind of legal structures that would allow them to work more collectively and more safely in improved working conditions. It also gives weight to the myth that sex trafficking is everywhere, and that the industry is so rife with it that we need to close the whole thing down, when the truth is that we have little to no real data on human trafficking. The epidemic you think you ‘know’ to be real is based on figures that have literally been plucked out of thin air. The way we arrived at the numbers of trafficked people in the UK that are still used in campaigns is traced here (spoiler: someone guessed, and someone quoted them, and the rest is history). Another article from the same period unpacks an internal police report on the results of a huge nationwide anti-trafficking operation. It reveals not only that the figures have been warped beyond all belief, but that conflation is everything if you’re in the business of looking like you’re achieving something.

Operation Pentameter’s “528 criminals arrested” in hundreds of raids on brothels turned out to be something more like 122 administrative errors, 106 people released without charge, 47 cautions for minor offences not related to trafficking, 73 people charged with immigration breaches, and the rest charged with other offences relating to drugs, driving, or brothel management (a brothel, as you may know, is legally defined as any premises where more than one sex worker works. Most sex workers I know have technically been brothel keepers at some point, usually when they’ve allowed a friend to work from their spare bedroom or been asked to sit in the lounge and act as security in case a client tried to pull anything.) 22 people eventually went to court on trafficking-related offences, including two women who had initially been identified as victims of trafficking. 15 were convicted, not under the international UN-approved definition of trafficking, which involves the use of coercion or deceit to transport an unwilling man or woman into prostitution, but under a different definition, using “the UK’s 2003 Sexual Offences Act, which makes it an offence to transport a man or woman into prostitution even if this involves assisting a willing sex worker.” 10 of the 15 convictions did not meet the UN definition, only the UK 2003 Sexual Offences Act definition (under which, as a colleague pointed out, her favourite taxi driver is technically guilty of trafficking, since he transported her to work last week).

If you don’t want to see sex work conflated with trafficking, which sees sex workers (or taxi drivers) punished or criminalised for consensual sexual activity between adults, and frustrates genuine attempts at helping those who are suffering sexual abuse, then disentangling trafficking from sex work becomes the centre-stage issue.  And this clip becomes apparent as the problematic  clusterfuck that it is.