[Image description: large dark green leaves against a millennial pink background]
STRIKE! has just published my essay “Fuck Passing: Class, Respectability, and Trans Healthcare” in their Summer 2017 issue! I’m in brilliant company and could not recommend it highly enough. There will be a launch party in London soon, hold tight.
I’ve written an essay about information security and privacy in Queer Privacy, a collection of essays by other queer people on privacy and community, family, coming out, activism, domestic violence, and suicide. It’s edited by Sarah Jamie Lewis, who was an absolute dream to work with, and I’m very pleased to say that she was able to pay me a proper fee for my writing. You can support more work like it by buying the book as an ebook or paperback. The whole book is under a creative commons license; if you’d like to read it but can’t afford to buy it, send me an email and I’ll send you a PDF.
Book: Queer Trouble
This spring I signed a book deal(!!!!) with Jessica Kingsley Publishers, who recently put out the kids’ book Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? My book is provisionally titled Queer Trouble, and aims to explore the intrinsic relationship between gender and sexuality, discuss and contextualize queer words, and destabilize pervasive “normal” words and concepts like “gender”, “sex”, and “man”. It’s my main project right now and should be published in spring of 2018.
[Image description: Me, smiling in a white-walled art gallery, holding a copy of the magazine]
Content Note: non-graphic mentions of rape, abuse, and transphobia
Last night I read my piece “I Pity The Cis” at the launch of SALT. Magazine‘s launch for issue 9 at Deptford X. SALT is a feminist magazine run by women, and this issue was themed on The Furies (not to be confused with “the furries”). My piece was about the slow realization of being trans made slower by my abusive rapist ex-boyfriend, and how I pity cis people for having such narrow, heavily policed genders.
The gallery was sparse and the room eventually filled with art school graduates (or people who wanted to look like art school graduates) sitting on the floor. The first performer read an excerpt from her piece on what we will do under duress; the next un/did a hex; and the night ended with a dramatic reading about articulation and cadavers, done over a very wet, reverby soundscape. My piece was angry and bitter and quick, and people seemed to like it. Two friends came with me and I had a nice enough time—but if I’m honest I’m bored of how insular (uncritical) and abstract (inaccessible) the art scene is. I didn’t talk to anyone but my pals and the organizers, who were all very gracious and complimentary, because everyone else was doing that aloof posturing thing that artists and their critics do.
The only acceptable ways to behave in an art space are: like an enthusiastic, just-so-happy-to-be-there puppy with no complaints; or, like a cynical, self-righteous edgelord who is too cool to enjoy anything. Even now I feel guilty for what feels like whining. I’m always glad to be given a platform to talk about stuff I think is important like transphobia and rape apologism, and I did get paid a small sum: £20 with the promise of more, contingent on fundraising. I don’t want to be an edgelord, and I want to be invited back to do more readings. But like my friends have been saying lately, no more fake orgasms to boost the art world’s self-esteem (thanks for sharing that link, actual-artist Megan Pickering). Who is it for? Who’s allowed in and are they legitimate if they’re doing any less than a dozen projects? Am I going to be let back in after trans stuff isn’t “trendy”? Or will I be left outside, a killjoy yelling about rape culture? Maybe I feel the need to be extra nice because if I’m not, I’m a scary/angry trans person (or survivor, or sex worker, or migrant, or autistic, or Jew, depending on what I’m shouting about that day, can’t be all at once tho that’s Too Much). No one wants ‘people like that’ around because it’s uncomfortable. Imagine how much nicer I’d need to be if I wasn’t white.
I don’t have conclusions about how to navigate the tension between performing gratefulness in an ugly institution (the Art World) and relying on that institution for money and networking (to get money), but I want to highlight it anyway. It seems valuable to put a spotlight on tensions.
Content note: death, misgendering, mentions of transphobic violence
[Image description: Pink carnations with baby’s breath against a black background]
In collaboration with Gendered Intelligence and The Corpse Project, I have consolidated information for trans people in England and Wales to ensure their gender identity, and other wishes, are respected in death. It’s written with the aim of being accessible and straightforward, with clear actionable items. View the document here(downloadable PDF).
Death is daunting to anyone, but trans people disproportionately suffer violence and are therefore more likely than cis people to die young. This short document has advice on how the bureaucracy of death works, how to name an executor who will have power over your remains which supersedes your family’s power, and how to write a will and letter of wishes. This document is the follow-up to the “Transfesto” findings of demands by trans people on issues surrounding death. Especially following the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland where several trans people died and were misgendered in death, I think this information is empowering and necessary.
There is another prong of the project, led by Simon at Gendered Intelligence, to change the paperwork about death to remove unnecessary questions like “sex” and “marital status”. Simon is currently liaising with the Ministry of Justice; I will post updates as they happen.
Trans people must constantly self-advocate in life—for those of us with the privilege to plan for our futures instead of just our immediate survival, there is always a worry for us that our corpses will not be respected in death. Living trans bodies are the site of so much violence. We want to ease the suffering of trans people in death, in the hopes that it will ease the worry of living trans people and show our society at large that trans people are deserving of dignity and respect. While the trans corpse is not by any means the most pressing trans rights issue, we absolutely deserve respect in death as in life—and there is no reason we cannot advocate for healthcare, housing, anti-assimilationism, AND dignified deaths.
Sophie Churchill, project leader of The Corpse Project has been extremely supportive and encouraging. Her press statement:
Since being involved in this work, I have been shocked at how frequently trans people’s identity is not upheld in death. When you think that trans people disproportionately experience violence and suicide it is all the more important that we support people to avoid this happening. I hope our work with Gendered Intelligence will reduce one further stress and anxiety for the trans community.
Thank you so much to Sophie, and Simon, Jamie, and Jay at Gendered Intelligence, for your support and insights on this project.
[Image description: a selfie of me, a trans boy, wearing glasses, orange eye shadow, and a make-up mustache]
Content note: domestic violence
Originally posted on my facebook page
I was going to write something about Trans Day of Remembrance but instead I slept all day because I am tired. I mourn not just on TDoR but every day I hear about trans people being murdered or killing themselves; nearly every day. I am tired of mourning. I am tired of the implicit racism, whorephobia, and xenophobia in those of you who support the police and national borders. I’m tired of the transphobia we face in shops, in bathrooms, at school, at immigration control, in the streets. I’m tired.
When I was in my early 20s I had an abusive boyfriend who choked me and beat me, and his drinking and other indicators suggest that if I’d stayed with him he would have eventually killed me. Because I didn’t call myself a woman or a gay man, and because I had no recourse to public funds, there was no refuge for me.
The only service in London left for trans people is Galop, who help LGBTQIA people who suffer hate crimes and discrimination. They do amazing work (and have helped me) but they’re under-funded. The Albert Kennedy Trust is a great service for LGBTQIA youth who need housing and assistance in London, but they only help people under 25. Broken Rainbow and Pace—LGBTQIA charities in London—both closed this year due to lack of funding.
I often say to donate cash money to various different groups, causes, and individuals: that’s because it’s the single most effective show of solidarity you can give whilst we’re living under capitalism. Today I suggest you give to Action For Trans Health or any of the still-running organizations I mentioned above. You can also search twitter and tumblr for #TransCrowdFund. Short of giving money, check in with your trans friends and offer some care like a meal.
[Image description: Selfie against white wall. Main features: white skin, short brown hair, a white shirt, a black & white tie, round glasses, thick eyebrows, and red lipstick drawn off-center of subject’s lips]
CN: Street harassment, transphobia, misogyny
This is what I wore to the Proms on Saturday night: a normative shirt, slacks, and tie, with a pair of lips drawn on my cheek. I nearly wore a short black business skirt and heels instead, but decided against it at the last minute despite the hot weather.
On the way there, on the tube, a child pointed at me and yelled “Look!”. The parent “shh”d and didn’t say anything else. I smiled and said, “It’s ok”. The parent looked away and the child stared.
The child wasn’t threatening and they were probably more curious and excited than anything else, but the parent’s reaction had strong implications.
“Shh, we don’t point because it’s impolite.”
“Shh, we don’t talk about when people are different, we just ignore them.”
“Shh, if you draw attention to this they might have the nerve to talk to us and how awkward would that be?”
“Shh, yes I know men in makeup are freaks but it’s rude to point it out.”
After a few years of obsessing over how the public read my gender, I’ve gotten very good at knowing how I’m being gendered and emitting gender cues so as to be gendered how I want. I know how to be read as a harmless girl who needs help, a hard woman who might cut you if you mess with her, a boring (i.e. straight) middle-class white guy, a flamboyant (i.e. gay) middle-class white guy, a scruffy queer, or a Is That A Boy Or A Girl androgynous mess. I know how to make a shopkeeper dance between “sir” and “ma’am”, “darling” and “mate”. Gender is so flimsy, I can collapse it with a step, a facial expression, a gesticulation, a vocal inflection, or the application of lipstick. You could tell me I’m wrong, but you’ve never seen the way people make space for “men” in public or the way they stare at “women”.
[Image description: a crudely-drawn graph of my experience with street harassment depending on my gender presentation. I had lots of violence as a femme “girl”, none as a “man”, and expect lots more as a “man in a dress”]
My experiences with street harassment as a “woman” were extremely common: constant aggressive “compliments” and invasions of space, occasional groping by strangers or being chased by lads for bantz, a couple of times being stalked and attacked. Once a man helped me carry some groceries for a block and did the “Don’t I get a hug?” line, and when I politely said no he grabbed me and held me against him while he pushed his face against mine. I yelled and beat him off me, and he followed me into my apartment building. That was a single experience which punctuates my long, dull history of street harassment from strangers; and that’s not saying anything of sexual and gendered violence I’ve gotten from people I know.
After nearly a decade of “womanhood” I changed my gender expression from hegemonically feminine to an attempt at hegemonically masculine, which took some six months to perfect. I kept it that way for six more months. That year of performing white masculinity gave me reprieve from the public gaze like a spell of invisibility, only broken when I dared to hold hands with a partner who was also read as a man. But hegemonic white masculinity—bland suits, blending in—felt wrong. It was an uncomfortable gender expression for me to perform and I’ve since moved to gentle-femme boy. The street harassment has resumed, a grotesque reflection of my once-again overt femininity. Will it be enough to dampen my femme expression, especially as my body continues to “masculinize”?
When will our comfort in public stop being conditional?
[Image description: Sisters Uncut members holding a banner and raising their fists in front of the squatted building which is their social centre in Peckham. The building has a large banner which reads “S.E.L. [south east London] SISTERS UNCUT”; below is a smaller banner which reads “ALL WOMEN AND NON-BINARY PEOPLE WELCOME”. The Sisters hold a banner readings “RINGFENCE D.V. SERVICES”. Photo by me.]
CN: mentions of domestic violence and rape, misogyny, transmisogyny
You know I love you. I’ve hyped you since I found out about you, and several times I’ve taken on support roles for your direct actions. But your gender inclusion policy is a point of contention and confusion.
I’ve only been to one Sisters meeting, which happened sort of by accident immediately after photographing the opening of the occupied/squatter social centre in Peckham (great work, btw!). The Sister facilitating tells us that the meetings are open to all women (trans, intersex, and cis), non-binary and gender nonconforming people, those who experience oppression as women, and those who identify as women for the purposes of political organizing. She tells us that in this space, “sister” is a gender-neutral term. We go around the circle and say our names and pronouns: nearly everyone is “she” with a handful of “they”s, and I’m the only “he” (caveated with “I’m non-binary”). Some Sisters look at me funny and later complain on the internet.
Sisters is a decentralized non-hierarchical group and I don’t know exactly how the gender inclusion policy is articulated in every meeting across the UK, but here’s what is says on your website FAQ:
What is your gender inclusion policy and what does it mean?
Our meetings should be inclusive and supportive spaces for all women (trans, intersex and cis), all those who experience oppression as women (including non-binary and gender non-conforming people) and all those who identify as women for the purpose of political organising. Self-definition is at the sole-discretion of that sister. If you have any queries regarding our gender inclusion policy, please don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Why can’t men come to meetings?
We believe that women must be at the forefront of the movement for women’s rights and therefore we need safe, collective spaces where we can organise, share our experiences, learn from each other and support one another. We want to ensure our meetings are safe and welcoming for survivors of domestic violence, and for that reason we ask men not to attend.
I want to question who the space is for, and highlight the direct contradiction between it being open to “people who experience oppression as women” while not being open to men. (If this is the only phrase you take away from this without reading the rest, you’re killing any chance we have at a nuanced and complex discussion about gender. Please don’t do that.)
Trans men are not “men-lite”, and they don’t experience anything (oppression or otherwise) as women because they are not women, they are men. But claiming the identity label of “man” does not mean that the world genders you as a man. When I realized I was trans, no one else saw my masculine gender or believed me. I was still street harassed, still talked over, still objectified in public space, still abused and raped by my then-partner (s/o to Charles Potashner aka Chuck Potashner, I hope this ruins your reputation). The violence I experienced was absolutely gendered. In fact, it was often transmisandrist, if you’ll entertain the notion that such violence exists: he attempted to correctively rape me into being a cis girl. I stayed with him for years, mostly because I had no money to leave. I later found out about Sisters Uncut but felt like my presence, as a trans masc*, would be imposing, despite my extremely relevant personal experience of gendered domestic and sexual violence and my enthusiasm for direct action.
*I loathe the term “trans masculine” as a catch-all for afab people who aren’t cis / don’t identify as women: personal example of its failing is me being trans but not very masculine. Still, I think it’s the best we’ve currently got.
Trans men are not always read as men. When trans men are read as women, they experience the same external gendered violence as cis women. The transphobic violence which trans men face is gendered violence, usually about a biological essentialism that trans men are not really men but women, and are then objectified and abused as miscreant women. Claiming the identity label of “man” or “masculine” does not change the way you are coercively gendered by society, and it does not erase your history of being coercively gendered (and possibly assaulted) as a “woman”. Trans men might be sex workers who work as “women”.
In discourse, trans women are hyper-visible and fetishized and othered, constantly needing to self-advocate for their gender to be respected; trans men are invisible and also constantly self-advocate, or else assimilate into cisnormative masculinity. In queer spaces, trans men and masc people are dominant while trans femmes, femmes, fat babes, and QTIPOC have less social capital. The desire to create a space which centers these voices is understandable and valuable, but I don’t think including trans men would diminish them; it would empower otherwise disenfranchised trans men who have no safe/r spaces in discussions of domestic violence, like femme trans men, POC trans men, and trans masc sex workers.
There is a theoretical trans man who does not belong in Sisters Uncut: he has always known he was a boy/man, he has lived his whole life “stealth” and is assumed to be a cis man by people on the street. This is the assimilationist trans man, who is honestly completely unknown to me (to everybody) and who has a very different gendered experience than most trans masculine people. The domestic violence he might face, if his abusive partner did not know him to be trans, would not have the same gendered dynamic as a trans man who is out to their partner, or a closeted trans man. As you know, 4 out of 5 trans people experience domestic violence. This is not exclusive to trans women.
I am sympathetic to the desire to create a safer space which does not include men, and the empowerment which comes from politically organizing without men. I also appreciate the assertion that trans men are men despite its reductiveness. But if Sisters Uncut welcomes “people who experience oppression as women”, then it must welcome men. Who “experiences oppression as a woman” or is “a woman for the purposes of political organizing”—yet is not a woman or non-binary—if not men? If men are not welcome, what is the point of these clunky phrases?
There’s understandable reluctance to say that “trans men don’t have male privilege before they’re read as men” because it could imply an inverse “trans women don’t face misogyny until they’re read as women” or even worse that “trans women have male privilege until they’re read as women”, but this isn’t true. Trans femininity and trans masculinity are not opposites in patriarchy. Both are differently punished. This is very difficult to bring up for fear of treading on trans women, and because trans mascs have years of internalized shame and discomfort with masculinity.
Identity policing, whether it’s in-person at meetings or written to exclude certain ID labels, will keep some people away from the space who have relevant and valuable contributions to the discussion. Even saying “no cis men” will keep out amab trans people who aren’t ready yet to claim a trans identity. Baby queers and baby transes need space where they have plausible deniability as straight/cis to explore their non-normative identities. Instead of policing identity labels in order to keep out the wrong people, may I suggest: doing lots of housekeeping to frame the discourse so those who choose to participate are self-selecting as feminists who know when to speak and when to listen; and removing people from the space based on their behavior rather than your perceptions of their identity, e.g. if they’re taking up too much space or being aggressive.
It would be simplest for Sisters if you decided that the purpose of the group is to empower and help women, and only women, in protesting the closure of domestic violence services. This would make Sisters a still-valuable group, but ultimately it’s a cop-out. I would be surprised if Sisters is comfortable with the compromise of excluding people who suffer gendered violence for the sake of maintaining the purity of a No Men Allowed policy. Sisters Uncut has already made controversial but important decisions, such as supporting sex workers’ groups in demanding the decriminalization of sex work. You like doing the hard work and being at the forefront of feminism. It would be deeply disappointing for Sisters to take a reactionary, second-wave feminist stance on gender. Assuming that trans men are inherently violent because they identify with masculinity, or that they’re “gender traitors” for “abandoning womanhood”, is the kind of TERFy bullshit I hope we can wholly reject. Our language is utterly inadequate and will never capture the nuance of our lives but that’s no excuse. You (we) need to be better.
I would bring this discussion to the occupied space itself, but at this point I don’t feel comfortable there even when specifically invited by Sisters who have been active in your organization for months. If a group purporting to support survivors in demanding the end to austerity cuts for DV services excludes trans and non-binary survivors like me, it’s failing in its objective.
With fondness and in acknowledgement that this will literally lose me friends (oh well),
Post script: I’d also critique the inclusion of “gender non-conforming people” as part of the gender inclusion policy. A cis man in drag is gender non-conforming, but he does not experience gendered violence (though he does experience violence from patriarchy which insists that he repress his femininity, which might manifest in physical violence). “Gender variant” is a more appropriate term, but still unnecessary since you explicitly include “non-binary”, but I’ll concede that “non-binary” is a new and very western term and I might be missing some context.
EDIT, 4 July 2016: The following is some more context, lifted from a comment I made in the conversations on facebook:
Maybe this needs some more context. I’ve been on the sidelines of Sisters Uncut for several months. A couple of Sisters have explicitly encouraged me to attend meetings & actions but I haven’t because it felt like I’d be intruding on a women’s/femme centered space, even with the “non-binary people allowed” caveat. The reason I’m writing this *now* is because I did (very gingerly) attend a meeting *which I was explicitly invited to* and was met with a sense of discomfort, which (I’ve since learned) reflects the experiences of lots of people read as men/masc, including amab non-binary / trans-femmes. I know everyone at Sisters is exhausted by all the work they’ve been doing and some people think now’s not a good time—but this is in direct response to a particular moment at the space, and at a time when the gender inclusion/exclusion policy is being visibly, publicly “enforced”.
I’ve privately and publicly supported Sisters—individuals and the group—for a long time and hope to keep doing so. I’ve broached this topic with some Sisters and my trans family privately, and decided to write about it publicly for two reasons: because I didn’t feel comfortable bringing this up in the forum of a Sisters meeting; and to make this a wider and transparent discussion about gender and feminism. I also know that this semi-/academic language is not necessarily accessible, but I’m a single individual and this is just how I write. I’d be super enthusiastic about re-working these points into a more accessible format if there was an interest in that.
Sisters Uncut is a wonderful group and I’m so encouraged by the responses I’ve gotten (thank you again everyone for the love and support). I’m also concerned by some people suggesting that they’re above public, online critique. I know this is hard. I know it’s a lot of work and most of the labor is invisible. But Sisters is a public/community group and I think it’s fair to make a public comment about it, especially when that comment is about my inability to make a comment internally. Tbh I’d rather have these talks in person and this online stuff makes me pretty anxious.
PS Don’t call me a trans man; I’ve been really clear about being non-binary for months now. It’s disrespectful misgendering—and in this context it’s a willful political attempt to discredit what I’m saying—and I’m out of patience for it.
[Image description: a drawing of a person holding their skin open like a coat to reveal their skeleton]
CN: mentions of death
In recent weeks, The Corpse Project has worked with participants through Gendered Intelligence to explore the trans and non-binary body after death. We visited several sites in the death and burial industries and learned about the practical and bureaucratic aspects of dead bodies in the UK.
Trans people must constantly self-advocate in life — for those of us with the privilege to plan for our futures instead of just our immediate survival, there is always a worry for us that our corpses will not be respected in death. Living trans bodies are the site of so much violence. We want to ease the suffering of trans people in death, in the hopes that it will ease the worry of living trans people and show our society at large that trans people are deserving of respect.
Trans people are more likely to die young: we might be denied medical treatment, the long-term effects of HRT are under-studied and may well mean we die sooner, and we are more likely to kill ourselves. While the trans corpse is not by any means the most pressing trans rights issue, we absolutely deserve respect in death as in life—and there is no reason we cannot advocate for healthcare, housing, anti-assimilationism, AND dignified deaths.
As a group we created a “Transfesto” for respecting trans bodies in death to better help the living. My film interview and a quote (in part) is featured in The Independent. Here is the full text of the image above:
The Corpse Project worked with a group of from the trans community, through Gendered Intelligence. In life, trans people fight hard to their gender and their bodies and we wanted to know about the issues for them with the body in death. This statement is the result.
1. We want a massive social change which results in awareness of and respect for transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people.
ACTION 1: THE INDUSTRY
To investigate levels of awareness in the funeral service industry and the training it receives, so that we can test and create trans-friendly practice. For example, we want respect for chosen gender and name, regardless of the body’s appearance.
2. We want our names, pronouns and gender identity to be respected throughout — on our death certificates, during ceremonies and at any time our bodies are handled.
ACTION 2: THE PAPERWORK
To review and potentially campaign to change paper work and processes from a trans-inclusive perspective. For example, we want to remove unnecessary and invasive questions about gender. It is also important for some people that executors can have rights over next of kin and can control what happens to the body.
3. We want trans people to be able to make informed choices about what happens to their bodies after death.
ACTION 3: INFORMATION for the TRANS COMMUNITY
To put together an accessible resource pack that will detail information, legalities and the essential preparations every trans person should make. For example, how to make a low-cost will and who to make your executors, because this is crucial to your wishes being carried out.
Response from The Corpse Project: If invited, The Corpse Project would want to offer support to Gendered Intelligence and the group which wrote this Transfesto, to see it implemented.
[Image description: close-up of two hands gently holding each other, both covered in red paint. Photo by Jade Jackman]
Carl Andre killed Ana Mendieta.
Yesterday, at the opening of the new Tate Modern building, the Whereisanamendieta collective and Sisters Uncut protested the inclusion of Carl Andre’s work and the exclusion of Ana Mendieta’s (objectively better) work. It was a protest in three simultaneous parts:
Several activists silently circled a Carl Andre piece and held out their arms painted red—both a reference to Ana Mendieta’s murder and her piece Body Tracks. They covered Andre’s art with a banner which read: CARL ANDRE KILLED ANA MENDIETA
Other activists held a banner in the Tate windows facing outside asking, demanding: WHERE IS ANA MENDIETA
I distributed 1000 fliers in front of Andre’s work which read: CARL ANDRE KILLED ANA MENDIETA
The Tate owns both Andre’s and Mendieta’s work, but are only exhibiting Andre’s while Mendieta’s is hidden in private storage. We will not be complacent in cultural institutions willfully glorifying the work of violent white men. We will not be complacent in the exclusion of women of color. We demand the removal of Carl Andre’s work, and that Ana Mendieta’s work replace it.
An alternative “Nordic model”—so named for its origins in Sweden, adopted in 1999—which criminalizes people who buy sexual services (sex workers’ clients) is favored by many feminist groups. This is allegedly beneficial to sex workers and does not directly target them, but in reality the Nordic model makes sex workers less safe in many ways: police use sex workers’ reports of other crimes to facilitate their eviction or deportation, and the clients willing to break the law to see sex workers are more dangerous. It also gives police another way to arrest and incarcerate people who are disenfranchised—particularly people of color and migrants—for the “crime” of partaking in a consensual transaction between adults. Criminalization laws do nothing to help sex workers who suffer violence at work or want to exit the industry; instead they contribute to stigma and directly cause violence toward them. It has since adopted in Norway and Iceland (both in 2009), Canada (2014), and Northern Ireland (2015), and online it’s known as #EndDemand.
White feminists who have never done sex work sometimes appoint themselves “saviors” and try to “rescue” sex workers from their jobs, conflating sex work with sex trafficking or forced sexual labor. These “rescues” are actually police raids which drag workers to stations and make them present their IDs and immigration documents—these scenes poignantly captured by the Sex Workers’ Opera (along with many others; if you’re in London, go see it this weekend). A police representative from Oslo admitted to Amnesty (in their report on Norway), “We deport trafficking victims. Many of them don’t know that they are victims, but they are according to the law.”
In addition to being humiliating and unhelpful, this approach denies the agency of sex workers to make their own decisions regarding their work. Feminism is a plurality, but surely the object of feminist gender politics should be to empower women and girls and femmes to have complete agency over their lives; not to punish them for making choices that we find uncomfortable, which usually ignores the systemic factors that led them to make those choices.
Full service sex work is mischaracterized as “women’s bodies for sale”. Putting aside that lots of sex workers aren’t women, this is reductive and untrue. Do massage therapists sell their hands? Do singers sell their voices? Obviously not; they sell their time and their skilled labor, and so do sex workers.
Abolitionists, more accurately described as sex worker exclusionary feminists (SWERFs, yes, like TERFs), are very concerned that sex work is degrading gendered violence, yet they offer no support to women who do other “degrading” feminized jobs: carers, cleaners, housework, and service industry work are all disproportionately done by women who are paid less than the men they work with, and these jobs are difficult and emotional-labor intensive. House work is real work; sex work is real work; under capitalism, all work is shit.
The question of whether a person desperate for cash can meaningfully consent to work is vital. And that’s precisely why the term “sex work” is essential. It makes it clear that the problem is not sex, but work itself, carried out within a culture of patriarchal violence that demeans workers in general and women in particular.
To describe sex work as “a job like any other job” is only a positive reframing if you consider a “job” to be a good thing by definition. In the real world, people do all sorts of horrible things they’d rather not do, out of desperation, for cash and survival. People do things that they find boring, or disgusting, or soul-crushing, because they cannot meaningfully make any other choice. We are encouraged not to think about this too hard, but to accept these conditions as simply “the way of the world”. (x)
All waged work (and much unwaged work) is coercive, but sex work is singularly targeted as exploitative because people are uncomfortable with the implications of commodified intimacy, and patriarchy only likes to see women as sexual objects who benefit men, not sexual agents who might profit from their objectification.
SWERFs are also very concerned with men (pimps) profiting from the “prostitution” of women and children. The reality is that until sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are denied basic labor protections which treat brothel owners and sex workers’ managers as employers, like safe working conditions and legal accountability for wage theft and abuse. SWERFs also ignore that many pimps are cops and many brothels bribe the police, and that most violence against sex workers is at the hands of the state rather than clients.
New Zealand is the only country in the world where sex work is fully decriminalized for its citizens, but sex working migrants are still criminalized. In the UK, sex work is partially criminalized: sex work is legal if done by independent workers, but “brothel-keeping” (or, more than one sex worker working from the same location) is illegal.
In the US sex work is fully criminalized except in some counties in Nevada, where it is legalized: workers are not allowed to leave the premises of the brothels they work at, which are in isolated rural areas, and they are subject to forced health checks. The distinction between legalization and decriminalization is a matter of human rights. In a model of legalization, sex workers are forced to comply with rules which disempower them and further entrench stigma (like the health checks) at the risk of breaking the law, and separated from the communities where they work; and brothel-keepers are empowered to be exploitative. In New York City, condoms are still used as evidence of “promoting prostitution” (a crime which makes no distinction between third parties who are coercive or trafficking and third parties who are supportive or involved for safety). The negative affects of criminalizing people for doing the work they’ve concluded is the most viable for them—especially when they are already more likely to be vulnerable as POC, trans, single mothers, and/or undocumented, choosing sex work because they are disenfranchised—should be obvious.
Any policy which ignores the demands of those it is trying to help is doomed to be awful. Like I’ve written before: a successful #EndDemand campaign would not end exploitation. If you want to end exploitation and coercive labor, end capitalism and give everyone an Unconditional Basic Income. Empower women and girls and femmes by believing them when they say they’ve experienced sexual and domestic violence, and make it easy for them to exit violent situations. Dissolve national borders, end deportations, and allow us our unalienable human right to freedom of movement around this planet. Give us all access to healthcare and childcare. Give us all access to housing (there are more empty houses than homeless people) and abolish private property. Abolish the police and the prison system and the military and decry them as instruments of state racism and violence. Stop punishing women for making difficult choices to survive; start dismantling the systems that force them to make those choices.
Edit: amended to correct the dates in which the Nordic model was adopted in various countries.
[Image description: a pair of bronze feet with red painted toenails on one inch heels with red bottoms, with no distinction between the feet and the heels]
Content note: sex work, whorephobia
The guardian recently published an incoherent editorial titled, “The Guardian view on criminal policy: sex, money and the long arm of the law” which suggests that the recent legislation passed in fRance which criminalizes sex workers’ clients “could help reduce harm”. The majority of the short piece is spent recognizing that criminalizing any aspect of sex work leaves sex workers vulnerable to less safe working conditions, and that organized sex workers’ groups instead campaign for decriminalization, but it ends with this paragraph:
The great difficulty, however, is that it leaves the sex industry intact. And in all paid-for sex there is, arguably, an inherently exploitative dimension. Even if there is nominally consent, in most cases, if not all, this will be a choice that women make out of desperation, rather than anything positive. The social and economic circumstances in which a woman sees sex work as the best available option represents, in itself, an environment of coercion. Criminalising not the women involved but their clients – particularly when, as in the French proposal, it is accompanied by a properly funded programme to help sex workers into more secure jobs – may be the least-bad answer, in both moral and practical terms.
Apparently the Nordic model—which the guardian acknowledges harms sex workers— is the “least-bad” option because decrim “leaves the sex industry intact”. As if criminalizing sex work will kill the industry, as if the sex industry is inherently more exploitative then other gendered labor, as if no one has actively chosen to do sex work because it’s more empowering for them than, say, underpaid janitorial work; as if women & femmes don’t have transactional sex all the time and formally demanding cash for time & services isn’t subverting the patriarchy which usually demands that labor for free; as if the sex industry must be (could be) destroyed at all costs, even the safety of the sex workers they claim to want to rescue.
Non-coercive sex work is no more exploitative than any other labor. If you want to end exploitation: end capitalism. Close wage gaps & open the borders, and give migrants the right to work legally. Raise the minimum wage and lower the rent. Give us all Universal Basic Income.
If you want to help sex workers: listen to them. Making sex work more dangerous by criminalizing any part of it will not kill the sex industry, it will just hurt the workers—they still need to work and will continue to do so even in bad conditions unless you remove the necessity for earning money to survive. Stop trying to “save” women from the sex industry while ignoring what they’re collectively fighting for.