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As a sex worker and activist I understand the politics involved within the discourse surrounding sex work. I understand that those opposed to sex work, those who wish to see sex work and sex workers disappear off the face of the earth, will use every underhand trick to make sure they get their abolitionist message heard. I understand that anti sex work groups have, not just funding, but centuries of stigma and prejudice toward sex work, available and at their disposal, to appropriate and use as they wish. I understand that all sex workers have in this unequal battle are their voices and the evidence of their lives and their work.
Having acknowledged all of this, the appropriation of our hard fought battle to be referenced as workers, by those who now claim to be “survivors of sex work” leaves an especially bad taste in my mouth. To claim to be a survivor of sex work, unless every worker, in any job, who has ever had bad experiences, is equally able to claim that status, is just underhand politicking .
I am not objecting to the appropriation of the term “sex worker,” because I doubt every story told by those claiming to have been sexually abused and raped while doing sex work. I offer unconditional support to anyone who has ever been forced, under any circumstance, to have sex against their will. I cling to, the perhaps naïve belief, that not everyone who now claims to be a sex work survivor, a “victim,” is a Somaly Mam, fabricating a status of “victim” for their own financial interests. I am not yet so disillusioned.
My problem with the appropriation of the term work, is that work, whither you like it, hate it, are indifferent to it, is work. It is what most people have to do to live. Selling sex, doing sex work, involves having sex. The job description is in the job title. Of course people doing sex work have widely differing experiences and the job itself is hugely diverse in the way it is sold and operates. Some who come under the umbrella of sex work, never have actual physical sex. Regardless of how, where, or the circumstances, sex work, like all work, requires a degree of agency and consent. To do a job, any job, for it to be called a job, recognised as work, requires the consent of that person. If you do not consent then it is slavery and when having sex, for whatever reason, including for commercial gain, if you do not consent, then it is rape.
Survivors of sex work therefore are not survivors of sex work, they are, or may be, survivors of all kinds of abuse, but not of sex as work. Any claim of being a survivor of sex work is purely for political gain. To survive something evokes sympathy, and sex work, because of the stigma and prejudice that surrounds it, has, especially for women, a deep societal and moral emotional engagement. The common argument that no woman would willing prostitute herself, engages an emotive response from an audience conditioned to prescribed roles for women within society, that prejudices opinion against female promiscuity and especially against prostitution. So called “survivors of sex work” know exactly how claiming to be survivors will play politically. They use the term deliberately knowing that it will undermine demands from sex workers to have their labour recognised. They know that their claims of being survivors will justify continued criminalisation of sex work because survivors by existing reafirms the prejudice that no good woman would choose prostitution. Claims to be survivors of sex work is therefore just dirty politicking, nothing more and nothing less.