“Their words are killing us”: Violent language of anti-sex work groups


Today marks the 7th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

To mark this important day, we’re featuring this guest post on the impact of violent language of anti-sex work groups by Calum Bennachie & Jan Marie. The article was excerpted from “Research for Sex Work 12”, a journal published this month. Both the journal and the website amplify the voices of sex worker-led organizations around the world that speak out about violence from police, institutions, clients, and intimate partners, while challenging the myth that sex work is inherently violence against women. You can download the full journal, with eight more articles about sex work and violence, for free here.

Written by Calum Bennachie & Jan Marie

When most people discuss violence against sex workers, they talk about the physical violence that they perceive sex workers are exposed to by clients, by authorities, and by others. However, violence takes many forms, and what is often omitted from discussions of violence against sex workers is the verbal violence of anti-sex work groups. The language they use reflects not merely a dislike of sex work, but a hatred of sex workers, especially those who act contrary to what Ronald Weitzer calls the ‘oppression paradigm’ these abolitionist groups have adopted. Their language has several severe consequences, one of which is that it actively encourages violence against sex workers.

Abolitionists often use a language of war, and their hatred towards sex workers, which does not show remorse, can almost be tasted. For example, it could be argued that their descriptions of sex workers’ vaginas are more women-hating than those in any mainstream pornography. Statements such as these make a major contribution to both popular and theoretical academic representations of sex work. They receive much attention and wide acceptance, which impacts on the lives of sex workers in relation to stigma, stereotypes, media representation, funding and implementation of interventions, and the construction of government policy. If everything they say is true, then obviously the sex industry is bad and all people who try to close it down are good. Within this belief system, it makes sense that those who support the industry should be punished and sex workers should be rescued out or punished for staying in.

This Is What They Say

The sex industry:

  • Is ‘an institution of male violence and racial and economic privilege’ that objectifies and keeps women in their place to fulfill male desires.
  • Is a ‘symptom’ of all that is wrong with masculinities.
  • Forces and traffics sex workers, especially migrant sex workers.

Commercial sex:

  • Is ‘rape that’s paid for’.

Sex workers:

  • Enjoy rape and domination and accept pain and humiliation to get rewards and avoid further abuse.
  • Are predators who contribute to rape, battery, and violence against women and children.
  • Are misled about the concept of having choice because they are victims of the system of male domination and individual males within that.
  • Have permanent emotional scarring and other ongoing consequences such as changed appearance.
  • Have vaginas that are receptacles to be masturbated into and are filthy with semen and lubricant.

Harmful Consequences

There are five main consequences of this discourse of hate. First, sex workers who are confronted with these opinions are likely to doubt their self-worth and their self-agency, and may put themselves in the position of victim, thus making it more likely they will become victims of violence. When subjected to violence, they are less likely to make complaints about it.

Secondly, the discourse encourages hatred of sex workers, clients and all who support sex workers in any way. All cultures have approved objects of hatred. Often this hatred takes aim at whole classes of people. Speech denigrating particular groups has been described as a ‘psychic tax on those least able to pay’. As an example, it has been shown that negative comments about the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities contribute to increases in physical and verbal violence against homosexual and transgender people. This can be extended to sex workers as well.

Thirdly, conflating sex work with trafficking and violence against women has affected the funding of sex worker groups. For example, PEPFAR (the US government AIDS fund) will not fund organisations that support sex workers or promote the decriminalisation of sex work. As a result, this has led to groups that supply sex workers with condoms, or support the rights of sex workers, not receiving funds, thus endangering the lives of sex workers and putting them at risk of HIV infection. This policy also reinforces stereotypes, stigma, and discrimination against sex workers.

Fourthly, male, gay, transgender and gender-fluid sex workers are made invisible. The violence against these groups is ignored, and rarely appears in any of the papers they produce. In fact, male sex workers rarely appear in any of their publications, perhaps, because they assume male sex workers to be gay men. For example, Sheila Jeffreys calls gay men the cause of women’s subjugation, while male-to-female transgendered sex workers are referred to as ‘self-mutilating men’. Perhaps they count even less as human?

Finally, and cumulatively, the discourse actively encourages violence against sex workers. The way something is defined can make a huge difference in how it is perceived and how it is interacted with. When one understands a group of people as ‘other’, different, dirty, filthy, stupid or malevolently manipulative, then one can support or condone the violence that occurs. Whether this is forced rescue, forced health checks, taking children away from their parents, or rape and murder.

Paying the Psychic Tax

Although anti-sex work authors claim to condemn violence against sex workers, through their choice of words and phrases they actively promote and encourage acts, which, in some cases, may lead to the abuse and death of sex workers. On the one hand they say they support and care for women, on the other they depict these women in such a way that violence can be justified. Taken together, the consequences of this verbal violence by abolitionist groups makes a major contribution to the abuse of sex workers globally, who are paying the ‘psychic tax’. These people are no different from the client who does not want to pay, the corrupt police officer who rapes, or the members of the public who throw bottles and rotten eggs at street workers. In fact they are worse, because they justify their violence as an act of caring.

We must challenge them, their language, and their publications at every opportunity, reveal their language of hate for what it is, and counter them with evidence-based facts that prove their claims to be false.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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