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:
- Control over information and knowledge that impact them;
- Capacity and resources to produce their own information and knowledge;
- Capacity and resources to use and wield all forms of its knowledge to effectively advance their agenda;
- Equal access to information outside of the community despite increasing commodification, privatization, and hyper-abundance of information;
- 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.
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.