Reformers are far more common than Feminists…[and] the passion to decide to look after your fellow-men, and especially women, to do good to them in your way is far more common than the desire to put into everyone’s hand the power to look after themselves. - Lady Margaret Rhondda
For every social movement there is a watershed moment, a point at which the struggle ceases to be unceasingly uphill and begins to develop momentum. Gay rights had its moment in Lawrence vs. Texas, and marijuana decriminalization seems to have reached its this past November with the success of the initiatives in Washington and Colorado. And though it’s obvious that we have not yet reached that point in sex worker rights (and probably won’t until the collapse of “sex trafficking” hysteria), I do believe we’re beginning to see a few signs that the terrain is starting to level out, and that the crest is no longer at some impossible height above us.
The first of those signs started to appear more than two years ago, with the Himel decision in Canada and a few public statements supporting decriminalization from the odd journalist, cop, feminist or politician. By last summer, the shift in the wind was discernible:
…decriminalization has slowly become the default position among health officials, even in countries with full or partial criminalization regimes. This trend culminated…in a UNAIDS commission of experts in health and health law recommending absolute decriminalization of sex work and the sex industry everywhere, thus repudiating criminalization, legalization, the Swedish model, the Nevada model and all other such schemes at one stroke. Shortly after the release of that report came the International AIDS Conference, whose leaders were clearly embarrassed and apologetic for the United states’ high-handed and asinine refusal to allow sex worker delegates into the country to attend the gathering; the executive director of UNAIDS said it was “outrageous…[that] when we have everything to beat this epidemic, we still have to fight prejudice, stigma, discrimination, exclusion, criminalization.” An American politician, Representative Barbara Lee of California, actually fought to have sex workers allowed at the conference, and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said, “If we’re going to beat AIDS, we can’t afford to avoid sensitive conversations, and we can’t fail to reach the people who are at the highest risk”…
Since that time, the trend has only accelerated, and Melissa Gira Grant’s “The War On Sex Workers” (published in the February issue of Reason) seems to have stirred things up in a particular group we might call “whitebread feminists”, women who identify as “feminist” because they think they’re supposed to, but make no attempt to actually form coherent positions on anything. They aren’t rabid neofeminists who equate all heterosexuality with rape, nor “sex-positive” feminists who consider themselves sex workers’ allies, nor members of any one of the various feminist cliques; basically, they’re just the feminist equivalent of rank-and-file members of a political party who happily and obediently espouse all of their group’s positions, no matter how absurd and mutually contradictory, because the group identification matters far more to them than any kind of philosophical consistency. These women are exemplified by websites like Jezebel and Feministe, whose editorial views are roughly as coherent and rational as Femen’s agenda and whose writers are fond of words like “problematic” (which basically means “forcing me to think about things I’d rather not think about”).
Anyhow, Melissa’s essay was obviously “problematic” for a number of feminists; though I doubt many of them would have any more interest in a magazine named Reason than a staunch atheist would have in one called Faith, sex worker activists and allies tweeted, reblogged, linked and otherwise spread it so widely about that it eventually found its way inside the bubble. The first sign it had done so was an article from young neofeminist Meghan Murphy, whose article “There is No Feminist War on Sex Workers” would have been more accurately entitled, “Blah Blah Blah I’M NOT LISTENING! Lalalalala HmmmHmmmHmm…” It attacks Melissa, Laura Agustín and others (without offering any evidence other than “they’re wrong”), refers to whores by the agency-denying label “prostituted women”, cheerleads for the Swedish model (bizarrely characterizing its one-sided criminalization as “true equality”), and then denies that there is a war on sex workers. No, seriously, I’m not making this up; go see for yourself, then take a look at “Proof of Feminist Women’s Violence Against Prostitutes” on the cleverly-named blog This Old Whore House, which delivers exactly what its title promises.
The day after Murphy’s article appeared, two sex-positive feminists wrote a column for Feministe calling attention to Melissa’s article and presenting the case that “Anti-sex-trafficking ‘feminism’ is anti-woman…To be a feminist, one should actually care about the lives of women.” Those who remember my experience on Feministe will be wholly unsurprised when I say that the comment thread turned into a typical feminist screaming match, including an appearance by the aforementioned Meghan Murphy after the very first reply linked her article. And just as Jill came along behind my article to label it “unacceptable”, she did the same thing here with a piece of her own entitled “Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex” in which she declares that feminists can “support” all of our rights except the (obviously unimportant) right to earn a living at our chosen profession (which we didn’t really choose). Oh, and think of the children!!!! Its comment thread was, as I’m sure you can guess, much of a muchness with the other.
If it had ended there I wouldn’t be writing this post, because I saw absolutely no growth or change or movement in any of it: the bigots were bigoted, and the sex-positives were defensive, and the fence-sitters continued to ride their unicycles and juggle nonsense. But then I saw this article from Anna North (formerly of Jezebel) entitled “What Feminism Can Learn from Sex Workers”, in which she stated that “ultimately, non-sex workers shouldn’t make assumptions about what sex workers want, or decide what they need.” If a woman who has gone on record as believing in both “social construction of gender” and the gypsy whores myth can understand that, maybe there’s hope for whitebread feminists yet. And since they are the vast majority of women who self-identify as “feminist”, they might well prove the group that pushes us over the top.