The Premiere of the Film ‘Workers’: A Panel Discussion on Sex Workers Rights
This is a podcast of the film premiere of the film Workers co-authored by Swedish artist and filmmaker Petra Bauer with sex worker led organisation SCOT-PEP (https://outset.org.uk/supported-proje…). It holds in it a recording of the panel discussing the issues which sex workers experience and face in their lives. SCOT PEP is a sex worker-led charity that advocates for the safety, rights and health of everyone who sells sex in Scotland: https://scot-pep.org.uk/
As Scot Pep states on its website, “Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights”. I was invited to record the conversation held at the launch of the film Workers at the Filmhouse by a panel of people including the Swedish artist and filmmaker Petra Bauer, feminist scholar Silvia Federici, and members of the sex worker led organisation SCOT-PEP.
What is particularly concerning is when the voices and perspectives of people are silenced and removed from public record. Like many groups of people, sex workers’ voices become replaced by the voices of those acting as surrogate often gatekeeping the production of discourse purportedly ‘on behalf of’ the people who have been identified as not having a voice. Commonly we hear people speak for sex workers and defining conversations about what is true and what is best for them; their identities are shaped and ascribed in the public realm usually by those who feel strongly and who somehow exercise social power in relation to sex work.
Miranda Fricker offers us a working conception of social power as “a practically socially situated capacity to control others’ actions, where this capacity may be exercised (actively or passively) by particular social agents, or alternatively, it may operate purely structurally….wherever power is at work, we should be ready to ask who or what is controlling whom, and why” [Fricker, M. (2011). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 13].
There is a cultural imbalance in who gets to talk about their own lives and this has long been the case for sex workers, this is a situation where Miranda Fricker’s work on Epistemic Injustice is particularly relevant. Thus the importance of the film and the event which took place as it created a space and platform for little heard perspectives of some sex workers dealing with their call for human rights. This results in insecure and sometimes dangerous situations for people.
On Scot Pep’s website they talk about who they are and what they are fighting for: “We are a sex worker-led charity that advocates for the safety, rights and health of everyone who sells sex in Scotland. We believe that sex work is work, and that sex workers deserve protections such as labour rights. Along with Amnesty International, the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), we believe that the decriminalisation of sex work best upholds the safety and rights of people who sell sex. Like these organisations, we believe that the Swedish model has been a disastrous failure for sex workers.
We believe in the right of all sex workers to organise and unionise for better workplace conditions. We believe that everyone who sells or trades sex deserves to be listened to. We believe that services for people who sell sex should follow a harm reduction approach, ensuring the rights of sex workers are upheld. Services should be designed and run in full consultation with sex workers, ideally with sex workers leading the process.
We believe that punitive policies which attempt to limit migration increase the vulnerability of migrants who sell sex to exploitation and abuse. A huge range of diverse and complex situations are referred to as trafficking, while anti-trafficking laws are often used against migrant sex workers themselves – to make their lives more precarious. We believe that exploitation is best tackled by strengthening and upholding the rights of migrants who sell sex, especially undocumented migrants.”
Juno Mac and Molly Smith write about the fight for human rights in their book ‘Revolting Prostitutes; The Fight For Sex Workers Rights’. This is one of the books mentioned in the podcast by the panel as to where people can find out more about the subject of rights for sex workers. It opens with a couple of quotes, here is one of them along with a short excerpt from the introduction to the book:
“When you consider how expansive something like prostitution really is, it should be alarming that we rarely hear the actual voices of people who have firsthand experience in this industry. When I think about the relevance of prostitution in social movements as well as its stark exclusion from them, I cannot help but wonder about the compelling opportunity for linkage, about the aspects of radical social justice movements that parallel the prostitution rights movement, that of visibility, autonomy and equanimity from the ground up.” – Pluma Sumaq
“Sex workers are everywhere. We are your neighbours. We brush past you on the street. Our kids go to the same schools as yours. We’re behind you at the self-service checkout, with baby food and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. People who sell sex are in your staff cafeteria, your political party, your after-school club committee, your doctor’s waiting room, your place of worship. Sex workers are incarcerated inside immigration detention centres, and sex workers are protesting outside them. Although we are everywhere, most people know little about the reality of our lives.
Sex workers are subject to a lot of curiosity and discussion in popular culture, journalism, and policy. When we are visible as workers – on the street, in signposted brothels, in digital spaces – our presence provokes disquiet. We are increasingly visible as workers in political spaces, and here too our presence provokes disquiet. Many people want to stop us from selling sex, or fix the world so we don’t need to, or just ensure they don’t have to look at us. But we are notoriously hard to get rid of, at least through criminal law.
Prostitution is heavy with meaning and brings up deeply felt emotions. This is especially the case for people who have not sold sex, and who think of it in symbolic terms. The idea of prostitution serves as a lightning rod for questions about work, masculinity, class, bodies; about archetypal villainy and punishment; about who ‘deserves’ what; about what it means to live in a community; and about what it means to push some people outside that community’s boundaries.
Attitudes towards prostitution have always been strongly tied to questions of race, borders, migration, and national identity in ways which are sometimes overt but often hidden. Sex work is the vault in which society stores some of its keenest fears and anxieties. Perhaps the most difficult questions raised by prostitution involve what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society. Feminist writer Kate Millett notes feminist rhetoric suggesting ‘that all women are prostitutes, that marriage is prostitution’ .
Sex workers have long noted with ambivalence the interplay between prostitution as a site of metaphor and as an actual workplace. In 1977, the sex worker led collective PROS – Programme for Reform of the Law on Soliciting – wrote (in the iconic UK feminist magazine Spare Rib) that it wanted the women’s liberation movement ‘to think about the whole thing [prostitution] and discuss it, but not just use it’, explaining that the women’s movement has ‘used the word prostitute in a really nasty way – about housewives, to sum up their idea of the exploited situation of women’. They noted that this interest in the metaphorical uses of prostitute was not accompanied by much practical support for sex workers’ efforts to tackle criminalisation.
Here is Juno Mac talking about the laws that sex workers really want:
Another book suggested by the panel is ‘Playing the Whore; The Work of Sex Work’ written by Melissa Gira Grant and published by Verso. On the Verso website the book is described as
“The sex industry is an endless source of prurient drama for the mainstream media. Recent years have seen a panic over ‘online red-light districts,’ which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. The current trend for writing about and describing actual experiences of sex work fuels a culture obsessed with the behaviour of sex workers. Rarely do these fearful dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and they never seem to deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished—a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.
In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the “legitimate” economy only harms those who perform sexual labor.
In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.”
Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter on Police:
“An attractive blonde walks into a Fargo hotel room,” it begins, “followed by a mustached man in a black leather jacket. He asks what brought her to town.” The blonde in the low-slung jeans is about to sit down. You can just see her shoulder and the back of her head. In another room, a man looks at a woman with long dark hair. She’s seated across from him, wrapped in a robe or a shirt. It’s hard to see in the glare of the bedside lamp. He stands and slips off his boxers.
He asks if she would let him see hers. She drops the robe or the shirt from her shoulders a few inches, then excuses herself to go freshen up. “You’ll be satisfied,’ a third woman says. ‘This is my job.’ There’s always a television, and it’s playing a western, or the kind of old Hollywood picture with men dancing in topcoats and tails. In front of the flat screen, two women are cuffed. He’s ordered them to sit for questioning. As he reaches for one of the women’s wrists, the man in the cop uniform says, ‘We’re just going to lock these cuffs, so they don’t get tight on you.’ She asks, ‘Can I ask what I did wrong?’
‘I’m not gon[na] lie,’ writes a commenter under one of the videos, ‘… i jacked off to this.’ Though they resemble amateur pornography’s opening shots, you will not find these videos by searching YouPorn, PornHub, or RedTube. They’re published at JohnTV.com, which boasts ‘over sixty million views.’ JohnTV is the project of ‘Video Vigilante’ Brian Bates, who since 1996 has been trailing women he suspects to be “prostitutes” and “hookers” and shoots videos of them with men he tells us are their ‘johns.’ JohnTV posts are sorted into sections: Busts, Stings, and Pimp Profiles.
These start with a mug shot—usually of a black man—followed by his name and criminal allegations. Bates claims he “often works with patrol officers” and members of the ‘Vice Unit on cases involving human trafficking.’ He also goes solo, trailing people on streets, in parked cars, wherever he finds people he considers suspicious, attempting to catch men in the act and the women with them. For Bates, the camera isn’t just a tool for producing evidence: It’s his cover for harassing women he believes are selling sex, pinning a record on them online even when the law will not.
Bates didn’t shoot the six videos from Fargo. ‘This is the first time JohnTV has come across videos of this sort,’ he gushes on his blog. ‘Usually these sorts of videos only appear on television after being highly edited by television programs such as COPS.’ These six unedited videos are embeds from a North Dakota news outlet, where they ran with the headline, ‘Watch Local Prostitution Stings Unfold.’ But they weren’t produced by reporters. The videos were created by the Fargo Police Department.”