Who do you listen to?

There’s one guaranteed pro-sex-work response whenever you write something unenthusiastic about prostitution, and that response is: listen to sex workers. It was the dominant theme of critical replies to my review of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: listen to sex workers, then you’ll see how wrong you are.

In some ways it’s a peculiar logic when it comes to sex work – it claims the privileged status of the victim, while pro-sex-work advocates simultaneously insist that sex workers are not victims – but there’s a logic to it that I wouldn’t dispute. The people directly affected by any situation have undeniable insights into their condition, and I want to listen to them. I want to do justice to the people who figure in my politics.

But when I’m told listen to sex workers, the assumption is that “sex workers” as a class adopt a coherent line which I’m obliged to follow. (Again, this is a bit weird because one of the main strands of anti-legislation argument also holds that sex workers are too various to be dealt with under a single framework. Nevertheless, there it is.)

So for example, Gira Grant espouses decriminalisation, and presents that as an aim pertinent to all sex workers – in fact, she argues for total freedom from the state, including no registration and no taxation on income. But in Italy, some sex workers are campaigning for the right to legally register their occupation and to pay tax (doing so would make them eligible for pensions, which is a highly reasonable thing to want). Who to listen to, Gira Grant or the Italian protesters?

Or maybe I should listen to Rachel Moran, a former prostitute who considers the purchase of sex an act of violence against women and campaigns for its criminalisation (her own testimony, in her memoir Paid For, makes a pretty compelling case). Moran holds a very different opinion on who the victims of prostitution are:

The acceptance of prostitution makes all women potential prostitutes in the public view since there are only two requirements for a woman to work in a brothel: one is that circumstance has placed her so […] and the other is that she has a vagina, and all women are born meeting at least one of these requirements.

Paid For, Rachel Moran (Gill & Macmillan, 2013)

In other words, women as a class are affected by the fact of sex work, which means that all women have the right to be listened to as the affected class.

The “listen to” argument shrugs off responsibility. Rather than make your own judgments, it allows you to outsource your moral thinking to another party, and give up the tricky obligation to weigh facts and balance rights.

But it also obscures a moral judgment already taken: when someone says listen to sex workers, they’re defining the class “sex worker” by the opinions they think it proper for a sex worker to hold. (For example: anyone endorsing Moran’s writing and campaigning is liable to be called a “SWERF” – Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist – even though she had sex for money over the course of many years. Including her is still considered to be excluding sex workers, because sex workers are supposed to support the continuation of prostitution.)

This kind of covertly selective listening is not enough. Absorbing testimony is critical to developing your politics, but it’s not a replacement for the work you need to do yourself. That work is hard, of course. It takes you into areas where you have no guide but your own judgment, and the judgments you make have the potential to affect real lives if you are ever in a position to shape policy, or even just to influence other people’s opinions. That’s a responsibility I can understand anyone preferring not to acknowledge, but it’s a responsibility you have whether you want it or not. And it’s why the “listen to” argument is necessary, but it’s never sufficient.

10 thoughts on “Who do you listen to?

  1. This makes so much sense to me. With so many different arrangements and conditions within sex work comes equal numbers of diverging testimonies. And in arriving at a view on the legitimacy of the industry, or even sub-industries within it (escort agencies for eg), we have to at least examine, if not move past the politics of individual choice and recognise that these choices do not take place in a vacuum but contribute to attitudes towards all women in our society.

  2. This whole thing reminds me a of the way women’s individual experiences are used in pro-choice/anti-abortion debates.

    In that debate too, each side can provide testimony to support their views. For example, there are anti-abortion activists who speak about being coerced into abortion or seriously harmed by it, while pro-choice activists can talk about the harm women have suffered due to lack of access to abortion services.

    Of course which voices someone holds up as the ones to be listened to depends on their beliefs. When individual testimony differs to wildly, simply saying “listen” doesn’t in itself provide an answer.

  3. The idea of being pro or anti-sex work amuses me. It’s always been here and it always will be. Morality’s not relevant.

  4. That’s a funny way to think of it. Lots of things seem to have “always been here” until they aren’t. Marital rape. Mumps. Milkmen. Society isn’t an inert constant – we change, whether consciously or unwittingly, but either way, how we live now is not the same as how we were in the past. For example, the number of men who use prostitutes has gone up over the past decade. I believe it should be reduced again – but more than that, I know it can be reduced, with the right policies. You’re welcome to your amusement. It doesn’t change anything, and while you sit there smirking, other people get on with changing the world.

  5. There is responsibility, I agree. And judgement as well. Not sure where to go with that, but I do agree with you there. And I do think morality is relevant actually….but it is a located and personal morality….and we are all responsible. Necessary but not sufficient…yes. Sorry for not being able to get further than that….thank you all the same.

  6. “the other is that she has a vagina, and all women are born meeting at least one of these requirements”
    not true, and the falsity of this statement strikes me as pretty significant in a post about feminism/radical politics.

  7. People who are no longer sex workers have no vested interest in policies that will not affect them or their lives. So, it’s probably best to listen to those people who’s lives actually will be affected by the policies and laws being discussed and debated and changed.

    Are all the sex workers in the world in agreement? No. But, they are on the same page.
    Sex workers have a right to sell sexual services. And clients have a right to buy sexual services. The rest is just …..details.

  8. Mic: assuming that only sex workers are affected by policies on prostitution is off-beam. The majority of people involved in the sex trade are punters in any case, and everyone lives in a society that is shaped by the laws on prostitution. As for the “rights” you claim – they’re not established by any means and claiming so won’t make it so.

    Tannara: you don’t say what the falsehood is, but given the overwhelmingly gendered nature of prostitution, I’m interested in how you think it doesn’t affect gender relations all round.

  9. “The “listen to” argument shrugs off responsibility. Rather than make your own judgements, it allows you to outsource your moral thinking to another party, and give up the tricky obligation to weigh facts and balance rights.”

    I want to pick this comment up specifically both in the context of sex work and sex workers, and also in a wider context of the kyriarchy, because I simply do not agree with this premise: then there is a danger of creating an excuse to ignore those whose voice makes us feel personally uncomfortable or challenged, a loophole that the powerful can use to ignore the powerless. (Ian Duncan Smith and those affected by the benefit cuts for example: IDS’ ‘moral judgements’ were not based on the lived reality of the poor, the disabled and the unemployed yet the laws imposed on them by him and this government are laying waste to thousands of lives. He certainly ‘makes his own moral judgements’ but we can clearly see how wrong – even immoral – they are).

    People affected by the benefit cuts are pretty united against them. However, when the lived experience of people in the same, or similar situations, gives rise to different positions (as with Grant and Moran) we can view that as a problem, or an opportunity. Because in listening to those varied voices with whom we might not naturally agree, we do not ‘shrug off’ responsibility or ‘outsource’ how we make a moral judgement. After all, the very root of both the struggle with kyriarchy – and our individual internal journey – is lived experience: it is the fuel by which we individually and communally understand our lives and the knowledge we build on and develop to shape the world around us.

    Grant is for decriminalisation – Moran is not. Both have or had experience of sex work yet have come to radically different positions on it. Since moral, social, and spiritual growth, personally and in community is not done in the abstract, the tension of opposing views from people with similar backgrounds does not need to reinforce an either/or approach, but rather an opportunity to re-consider and re-conceive. Justice is not justice if it simply becomes another set of rules or laws imposed on people (in this case women) whose lives, views or experience do not fit our personal moral agenda – and valuing every woman’s voice and experience surely has to be at the very heart of feminism.

  10. What’s different to your use of “listen to” and the use I’m talking about is that you’re specifically referring to “varied voices with whom we might not naturally agree” – and I’m talking about the tendency for people to predefine who we should listen to according to who they agree with, and then use that to support judgments they’ve already come to. It already is an “excuse to ignore”. “Lived experience” (but what other kind of experience is there?) is essential, but trying to derive political authority purely from “lived experience” is a dead end, because you can always counter with a contrasting “lived experience”. So we have to be honest about the fact that we are synthesising these testimonies into a political framework (along with other forms of data), and if we recognise the framework, we may be able to shape it more than it shapes us.

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