A few weeks ago, it was International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. Renegade Evolution wrote a post on Alternet lamenting the lack of feminist commentary on the subject (not having noticed it at the time, I feel a *little* hypocritical saying something three weeks later, but remaining timely in the blogosphere, both reading and writing, has just never been a strength of mine). Though she forewarns in the post that she’s feeling “surly”, she actually ends up being quite reserved and gracious given what’s at stake. She’s right–we all have issues that affect us individually the most, and the rights of sex workers is not at the top of everyone’s list, even among feminists. She acknowledges that, but laments that there seems to be very little space on the list at all for something that she cares very deeply about. Point being, Ren’s post is actually quite kind. While I don’t have nearly the passion for the issue that she does, I would like to consider myself an ally in fighting for sex workers’ rights, not least because I consider it the most basic level of “not being an asshole”.
I have a friend who used to be involved in the sex industry. She and I haven’t talked much about her experiences or attitudes towards that part of her life, since that’s just not the kind of relationship we have. At one point, however, as part of a conversation only tangentially on the subject of violence and sex work, she told me about an old friend of hers who had been beaten and raped with a hot curling iron before being sent out for the night. She was instructed that if she didn’t make enough money, injured or not, there would be worse to come.
It’s just one story, and it’s the story of a friend-of-a-friend. But that’s what we’re talking about when we’re looking at “rights”. This is the kind of story that Ren hears about all the time, simply because she’s paying attention, and this is the kind of thing she’s thinking about while she’s listening to “feminists” who blame sex workers for perpetuating misogyny. And these are the comments she gets, immediately:
I think you’re just looking for an excuse to criticize feminists and make yourself out to be some kind of victim of feminists.
I wish no one ill, but this whole “sex workers” empowering movement throws women under the bus by validating a man’s right to buy sex from women. I don’t think they have that right. (from a comment entitled “maybe you should look to men to support since they benefit”)
Why should I spend my time supporting women or men who voluntarily support the patriarchal status quo? What ever ‘sex workers’ may claim – it is not a ‘job like any other’ fair enough do what you want to do but don’t expect me (as a father of two daughters) to give any of my energy to supporting men’s perceived right to female bodies. It’s just not going to happen.
And finally, someone gets to the real point, at the same time as missing it:
When you ask people to support “rights for sex workers”, you hand them a problem. What, exactly, are sex workers rights? How can you expect support for an undefined agenda? There may be a manifesto spelling it all out somewhere, but it isn’t encapsulated in an understandable phrase.
How and why do rights for sex workers differ from the usual human rights?
I actually support everyone’s right not to be degraded and exploited, but I don’t think that’s what the author has in mind.
Except that it is. That’s exactly what the author has in mind, she just focuses her attention on a particular segment of society whose right “not to be degraded and exploited” has been completely, heinously, maliciously ignored. I find it telling that this commenter feels the need to say that s/he “actually” supports everyone’s “rights”, as though this should be in any way surprising, outlandish or controversial to RenEv. I missed the part of her article where she advocated taking away the right to not be exploited or degraded from some other, non-sex-worker segment of society so that there’s enough non-degradation, lack of violence and non-humiliation to let the sex workers have some of it.
There’s a perfectly well-defined agenda here, and asking the question in the second paragraph pretty much hits it–sex workers’ rights are not different from human rights in general, seeing as how sex workers are human and all. The agenda is simply to get everybody else to acknowledge that. I don’t need a manifesto to figure out the general point, but if you’re looking for an understandable phrase to start with in engaging in this kind of discussion, I’ve found not being an asshole to be a useful and attainable goal.