“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 is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

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

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    The scary thing is that much anti-sex work rhetoric seems as though it is ripped wholesale out of the SCUM Manifesto.

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Thank you for calling attention to the language used by anti-sex crusaders against a marginalized population. I know that even within feminism there are opposing viewpoints towards the sex industry and even as a veteran of such I have mixed feelings regarding the current “pro-sex” view of an idealized sex industry and empowered sex workers and what actually goes on, with the clients, the cops, the club owners, politicians seeking a platform(still hate you Rudy!). However, I would like to urge all feminists to treat the issue of violence perpetrated on these people seriously, regardless of views of the sex industry, pornography, etc. In all it’s incarnations, sex workers(by this I mean anything from those in established clubs and brothels to the runaway hustling on the street to get by) are a group comprised of women, men, transpeople, and even children, many of who have been marginalized by society in one way or another, be it economic factors, abuse in the home, what have you. People, including the cops, can often be dismissive of violence against sex workers. And some of those who use their services feel entitled to do whatever they want because they’ve plunked down some money. Regardless of what anyone thinks of what they do, sex workers need to be viewed as having the same rights to safety as any other faction of the population.

    P.S. Lest anyone accuse me of stereotyping, I’m not trying to state that every last sex worker is an abuse victim or suffering economic hardship. I’m just relating what my experience and the experience of others I’ve known has been.

  • http://feministing.com/members/owleyes7/ a

    My detailed response as to why this was the most pro-male supremacist, pro-white imperalist, anti-radical lesbian drivel i have ever read. Shame on feministing.

    My detailed response is here, http://bonerkilling.blogspot.com/2010/12/feministing-fail-examining-radical.html

    • http://feministing.com/members/martindufresne/ Martin Dufresne

      I agree that there is a problem when accounts of violence in prostitution – often first-person accounts from survivors – get presented as violence against women. Yet many purchasers of sex say these very things in interview and on their websites.
      Such testimony about male hatred of women used to be spun into accusations of “man-hating”. With these charges of woman-hating, the reversal is now one turn deeper into the wound as if feminists opposed to sexual exploitation were the ones wanting and holding women down.

  • zill222

    I was in Thailand this last Spring and I traveled with two guy friends, we are all in our 20’s. Me had an ongoing argument/debate/discussion about prostitution in Thailand and I bought a book at an English Bookstore in Phuket, “Sex Slaves” by Louise Brown (2001) and I am about 3/4 of the way through “Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009). These seem like really well researched books and the conclusion seem to be that the vast majority of sex workers in the world are forced or coerced into this work. Obviously these are hard numbers to get but could you please tell me why you believe that the majority of sex workers are in a position to choose, like a source or quote (I am sorry I am visiting for the holidays and don’t have the books in front of me, or I would include some quotes with citations)? I am not quoting (don’t have the text) but Ms. Brown had a really good simile, she said it was like a pyramid, at the top you have a few women who are well paid and choose to do the work and control who their customers are but the farther you go down the less agency these women have and the more women there are. I stand behind women who choose sex work but I have never seen any evidence that most women doing sex work choose it. I am also active in a local movement to stop sex trafficking to Hawaii that is also advocating for new laws that do not victimize trafficked women by erroneously treating them like criminals. We are very much against violence against sex workers it just seem like the best way to prevent that is to make sure that all the women doing sex work have a choice and it also seems like all over the world that that is rarely the case.
    Please tell me if there is a book out there that talks about the author’s travels in India and Thailand and talks about how it seemed like all the prostitutes were adults and chose the work (as an adult). I know that opinion is sometimes blinding so I am totally willing to read a book with a different opinion.
    Lori, We feel like the system is the problem. I don’t want to misunderstand so tell me if I am wrong but, from this post and some of the other stuff on Feministing it seems like you feel that the criticism of the system is wrong.

    • http://feministing.com/members/ferriswheel/ Amelia

      I’m inclined to agree here. Perhaps my information is wrong, but from what I’ve read and understand, a horrific amount of sex trafficking and sex slavery occurs all around the world. Obviously all sex workers need to be protected – whether they have chosen to be sex workers or not. Equally obviously it is ridiculous and completely counter-productive to vilify sex workers of any gender.
      What I fail to see though, is that the consumers of sex work (the vast majority of whom I believe would be men – again, correct me if I’m wrong on that point) need protecting. I get that you have to be very careful here – if you condemn the consumers you are in danger of doing the same to the sex workers by association.

      Maybe I’m not fully understanding this blog entry, but I’m getting the feeling that the authors want us to be positive about the industry, in order to be positive about the workers. I’m just not sure that I can buy that men who pay for sex are not sexist (or socialised as misogynists) – if you are not sexist (or misogynist), wouldn’t you pursue sex that is mutually pleasurable – sex for sex, rather than sex for money? (Plus – people can survive without having sex, we say that as feminists we believe men are capable of not raping, not controlling and of respecting us as individuals – surely that leads into men being able to actually go without sex if he doesn’t have a partner at the time who will get mutual pleasure from it)
      And I certainly wouldn’t want to protect men who pay people who are trafficked or who do not wish to be prostitutes for sex – sex you don’t want IS rape, isn’t it? Even if you’re paid for it. Those men (or whoever) should be publicly shamed and put in jail, as far as I am concerned, along side the people who organise such horrid practices.

  • zill222

    Ah I also agree with the Swedish Model of focusing criticism on people buying sex not people selling sex.

  • http://feministing.com/members/phorest/ Phorest Phire

    This article is unmitigated rubbish. Apparently violence, abuse and degradation aren’t the problem, it’s observing that it happens!

    And some actual sources for these claims would be nice too (where has any abolitionist said that prostitutes enjoy being raped?), there’s an important difference between saying that johns treat prostitutes as if they “have vaginas that are receptacles to be masturbated into and are filthy with semen and lubricant”, and saying that one believes prostitutes actually do “have vaginas that are receptacles to be masturbated into and are filthy with semen and lubricant.”

    The most abusive language against women in the sex industry comes from men, how come the abusive language used in pornography doesn’t do any harm?

    Terms like ‘NIH – No Humans Involved’ were invented by men and used by men, many of whom would have been johns themselves.

    Every account I have heard from women who exited the sex industry includes her saying that she told herself she chose to do it in order to survive. It takes a huge amount of courage to say, this did me harm, this was abuse, I was a victim. It is the anti-victim mentality of writing such as this – where being a victim is the most despicable thing imaginable – that does women the real harm, that silences them and allows the abuse to continue.