Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Agency And Terminology

From the blog Shut up sit down:

When talking about sex workers, my friend is in the habit of saying “Sex workers, sic” while making quotation marks with her fingers, or using the term “prostituted women” instead. When challenged on this, she replied that she does not see it as work, so “can’t” use the term sex worker. [...]

I can be - and am - against the sex industry, which I believe harms women, without demeaning and dismissing the women involved in it by showing a total lack of respect for them and without trying to take away their dignity by refusing to use the words that they themselves choose to describe their occupations.

I take particular umbrage to the term “prostituted women”; not in general, but when used to refer to women who self-define as sex workers. “Prostituted women” infers coercion or force, and women who define themselves as sex workers clearly do not see themselves as having been coerced or forced into sex work.

I don’t disagree that the majority of workers in the sex industry have been guided there, whether by circumstance, upbringing, education or actual force. I also don’t disagree that there are women in the sex industry who have chosen to be there and who enjoy what they do (though of course then we have the whole discussion of their enjoyment being on the backs of the majority who do not enjoy it and do not get to have voices). Whether I agree or disagree with prostitution, pornography or the many other manifestations of the sex industry doesn’t matter. What matters is that we allow women their agency.

There is a core problem with this position which seems to advocate for using the term "sex worker" as the default terminology.

Anji provides several analogies which have fundamental differences with the term "prostituted." One analogy is someone who calls a transwoman a man. The other is anti-abortion rhetoric which positions women who want abortions as incapable of making their own decisions about pregnancy. In neither of the analogies are people doing the problematic labeling talking about people who have been explicitly controlled, coerced or exploited by others.

If children and adults are robbed of full agency and personal safety by sex traffickers, pornographers and Johns then no label will magically restore their agency. Yet the terms "sex worker" and "occupation" falsely position all those who are labeled this way as being fully willing participants who have full agency.

This view explains why those who are victims of sex traffickers have been treated by most police agencies as if they are criminals who are no less legally culpable than their traffickers. If those we call "sex workers" are genuinely empowered then they should be treated by the law in just this way. Allowing people their agency comes with legal responsibility for their actions.

Another issue is that the term "sex worker" is not the term of choice of all those who would be described as "sex workers" or ex-"sex workers." Women who did not have full agency and who after getting out and gaining full agency, have rejected the term "sex worker" so using this term as the default dismisses and demeans them. They are in essence positioned as playing the victim.

The majority of those who are in reality currently "prostituted" don't have a voice in this debate or their voices are controlled in the same way that their bodies are controlled. Acknowledging this fact is not what robs these children and adults of their agency.

Many anti-feminists defend their rape denial by saying that they are empowering women. Feministing has a post about the film The Monstrous Regiment of Women which highlights this denial.

You'll see in the trailer that our favorite female misogynist Phyllis Schlafly kicks things off with her wisdom on feminism, saying the movement tricks women into thinking that they're being victimized.

Nobody who criticizes Phyllis Schlafly's position is described by other feminists as dismissing and demeaning Schlafly or large groups of women. Yet when some feminists echo this theme of victim denial in their rejection of "prostituted" as the default those feminists who reject this same theme are often described as dismissing and demeaning those feminists.

If all those in the sex industry are described in a way which gives them full agency then there will be no support to spend tax money helping those who don't in reality have full agency. Those who express urgency to rescue victims of sex trafficking, and to provide the services those victims need after being separated from their exploiters, can then be falsely labeled as infantilizing women or hating sex workers when they are directly opposed to those who do this through their exploitation of the "prostituted."

This lack of support for using the term "prostituted" as the default directly benefits those who are prostituting other people.

I have seen some bloggers who identify as feminist "sex workers," and who demand this term be the default, oppose legislation which would help those who are sexually trafficked and support legislation which would harm those who are sexually trafficked. This is what causes some feminists to be suspicious.

The actions taken against most of those in the sex industry is what robs those girls and women (and to a lesser extent boys and men) of their agency. Calling those who were in fact prostituted by others "prostituted" is not what disempowers those children and adults. Overall this term is more accurate than "sex worker." Being accurate does not demean and dismiss those have in fact been prostituted.

Even the term sex industry whitewashes the reality that the sex industry is also the sexual exploitation and rape industry.

If we label children forced into prostitution as child "sex workers" and declare that once they reach 18 they have full agency we ignore the systematic violence done to them and we deny the real barriers which blocks them from successfully getting away from this exploitation. Barriers which don't magically disappear on someone's 18th birthday.

The Oakland, CA police are learning how traffickers control "prostituted" children with physical and sexual abuse so that they can be more effective in their response. The old view of these children was as young criminals who freely decided to be sex workers.

Widespread denial of the barriers around the "prostituted" is what allows people to assume that those who are separated from their traffickers and who return to those traffickers are proving their agency. What this often proves is that the barriers are high and complex and that we are failing those who are "prostituted."

Using "sex worker" as the default clearly does nothing to empower a large number of girls and women.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:23 AM   16 comments links to this post

16 Comments:

At January 25, 2009 10:54 AM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

In most situations outliers do not set policy for the majority.

Including the fweelings of the minority is a good thing only when the underlying principle is just. In order for that assertion to be logically true (repecting the wishes of the minority of prostitutes as to what they are called) prostitution itself would have to be a good thing.

In a world where no sexism or exploitation existed, prostitution itself would have a neutral value judgement and so respecting their own name for themselves would be appropiate -- but we don't live in that world.

And transgenderism makes a lousy example of anything, because the underlying principle of justice is not the same as sought by any other oppressed group. All other oppressed groups seek the full rights of the default human WITHOUT REGARD to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc. Only transfolk seek the right to be perceived as a gender -- which is less then "full humanity without regard to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc".

The case for transgenderism becomes a special pleading, which is automatically invalid.

 
At January 25, 2009 3:02 PM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

I totally agree. The term 'sex worker' was invented by the Sex Industry as a method of invisibilising the realities of prostitution. Using the term 'prostituted woman/women' means she has been 'prostituted' rather than having become a 'prostitute.' 'Prostitute' supposedly defines a woman's character whereas 'prostituted woman' means she has been 'prostituted.'

Likewise it is common practice to say a woman was sexually molested or sexually assaulted rather than 'a man/men raped a woman/women.' Sexual molestation is used to hide the realities of rape.

If 'sex work' is just 'work' this means sexual harassment cannot exist because the actions of men who sexually harass women are in many ways identical to male prostitutors who like the male sexual harassers believe women are men's sexual toys/objects.

Instead of claiming the term 'prostituted women' ignores their agency the truth is many women are victims of men's sexual and physical violence but whilst many women resist it cannot negate the fact these men's actions did victimise a woman/women.

We might as well say no one can be a victim of a burglery because this supposedly defines the person who was burgled as having 'no agency.'


We need to look at the wider issues such as how power operates and why so many women continue to be subjected to male coercion, pressure, intimidation and male sexual violence.

We are not all equal individuals with equal amounts of power but rather what is defined as violating an person's agency or humanity is dependent on powerful men's interpretations.

Abuse of power is widespread as is coercion, pressure and the fact men as a group have more power than women as a group. Challenging this imbalance male/female power is central in respect of demanding an end to men's violence and abuse of women, girls and to a lesser extent abuse of men who are defined as 'not men.'

If we cannot define 'victimisation' then criminal acts cannot occur. We might as well say a person causes their own murder because they did not enact their agency. It is a very clever way of hiding male accountability and male abuse of power over women and chidlren.

 
At January 25, 2009 4:09 PM, Anonymous Cara said...

In neither of the analogies are people doing the problematic labeling talking about people who have been explicitly controlled, coerced or exploited by others.

But both of these groups are labeled this way by people making the argument. And you're labeling people this way, too. See the similarity? I think that was the original point being made.

Further, I think that all of us can agree that there are women who have been controlled, coerced and exploited in the context of abortion. It's not the vast majority of women, but they exist. Maybe you're arguing a numbers game, I'm not sure. But women who have been coerced into abortion exist; and women who have been coerced into sex work exist. And feminists would of course argue against the fact that abortion can be used for coercive purposes being used as an argument for making abortion illegal.

If those we call "sex workers" are genuinely empowered then they should be treated by the law in just this way. Allowing people their agency comes with legal responsibility for their actions.

Well no, the point is that we think the "crime" of prostitution shouldn't be a crime in the first place. Just like I think the crime of using drugs shouldn't be a crime. It would help those who haven't done anything wrong and who aren't facing serious issues because of the action, and it would help those who feel trapped by the action beyond their control by refusing to punish them for the thing causing their suffering.

Another issue is that the term "sex worker" is not the term of choice of all those who would be described as "sex workers" or ex-"sex workers." Women who did not have full agency and who after getting out and gaining full agency, have rejected the term "sex worker" so using this term as the default dismisses and demeans them. They are in essence positioned as playing the victim.

This may be true, but the same thing goes in reverse with using "prostituted women" as a default.

If all those in the sex industry are described in a way which gives them full agency then there will be no support to spend tax money helping those who don't in reality have full agency.

But how does the term "sex worker" denote full agency any more than "cashier"? Cashiers are also trapped by economic circumstances in most cases, not "free will." It's certainly true that when you're trapped in the work of a cashier, rape and physical abuse isn't considered part of the routine. But I still don't think that the majority of intelligent people see any job title and think "completely free agent."

Calling those who were in fact prostituted by others "prostituted" is not what disempowers those children and adults. Overall this term is more accurate than "sex worker." Being accurate does not demean and dismiss those have in fact been prostituted.

But it does dismiss those who have not. Perhaps you'd rather dismiss those who have used free agency than those who have been victims. This, I think, is a defensible stance. But I think you should just directly argue it instead.

Why can't we just agree to discuss "sex workers and prostituted women," acknowledging that they're two groups who are often lumped together and at times difficult to immediately distinguish, but still absolutely distinct?

(I think you know that I'm a huge fan of yours, and we agree on 99% of stuff. But the issue of the legality of prostitution is something on which we might not ever agree. At the same time, I think it's important to hash out these issues in a way that is respectful and friendly, and hopefully we can do that.)

 
At January 25, 2009 4:33 PM, Anonymous Cara said...

And I'm sorry, Marcella, I really don't want to highjack the thread, but . . .

m_Andrea, your transphobia is just so ridiculously obnoxious and offensive, and it makes me want to throw shit every time I see it. Just keep it on your own hateful little blog where I never have to come across it, will you? As far as I know, and certainly hope, Marcella isn't down with that shit either.

 
At January 25, 2009 5:02 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Cara,

If people did use sex workers and the prostituted as the default terminology to describe the range of actual experiences without attempting to minimize the number of people who are in fact prostituted I wouldn't have a problem with that at all.

By assuming prostituted over sex worker what I meant was that free agency would need to be confirmed rather than the reverse. With the second assumption, like in rape cases many people would look at genuine victims and say, "She could have escaped if she really wanted to. Therefore she freely consented."

On decriminalization of prostitution I haven't yet seen a proposal that doesn't leave the prostituted more vulnerable than they are in the US today. I believe those who are victims of sex traffickers (organized or individual) should be treated as crime victims not perpetrators. We have a long, long way to go on this.

The implications of the assumption that someone is prostituted -- unless proven otherwise -- are much more than not charging the prostituted with a crime. If that's all we do then we have failed these people and left them vulnerable to their traffickers or other traffickers. Some who are prostituted get their first outreach when they are jailed.

Right now most of those who break the law regarding prostitution with clear free agency are not prosecuted because most law enforcement agencies still focus more on arresting the individual sex worker and the prostituted than they do on stopping those who profit and fund the trafficking of humans.

 
At January 25, 2009 5:11 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

m Andrea,

I disagree with you that transgenderism makes a lousy example of anything. The underlying principle of justice is the same as sought by other groups. Basic human rights.

It doesn't matter whether perceiving transwoman or transman as a gender is correct or incorrect. The bigotry, hatred and violence against them for being trans is real. And that's what should qualify a group for anti-discrimination protection.

 
At January 25, 2009 5:17 PM, Anonymous Cara said...

If people did use sex workers and the prostituted as the default terminology to describe the range of actual experiences without attempting to minimize the number of people who are in fact prostituted I wouldn't have a problem with that at all.

Well, from now on I am going to personally make an effort to use that language in an attempt to bridge the gaps between the two "sides" on this issue and acknowledge the legitimacy of the experiences of all women involved in sex work/the sex trade, whether consensually or non-consensually. :)

Also FYI, I'm about 99.9% sure that the term "transgenderism" is a term created by transphobic people for the purpose of undermining their identities as illegitimate and is considered offensive by most transgender people. I tell you this because you seem to have a genuine interest in being a trans ally, and thought you'd want to know. In the context of your comment, I think that the correct/preferred term would have been "transgender identity."

 
At January 25, 2009 5:58 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Cara,

On abortion those infantalizing women seeking abortions to justify making all abortions illegal are not trying to address the issue of forced abortions.

Those who use the term prostituted are trying to address the issue of people prostituting other people. This includes coercion just as it does with rape.

To equate these 2 groups is grossly inaccurate. Some of the comparisons I've seen in the blogosphere are downright slanderous toward those who dedicate their lives to helping the sexually trafficked escape, recover from the trauma of being trafficked, and rebuild their lives.

You may think prostitution shouldn't be a crime, but if people commit what is currently a crime with full agency then they have chosen to commit a crime or crimes. And that means they have freely chosen to risk the current penalties for the crimes they committed.

I disagree with your analogy with cashier because cashiers (unless they are victims of human traffickers) do have agency. But if someone is a victim of human traffickers we don't describe that person as a cashier.

 
At January 25, 2009 6:13 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Cara,

Thanks for the tip on trans terminology. I used transgenderism to address m Andrea's usage of this term.

 
At January 25, 2009 6:53 PM, Anonymous Cara said...

I disagree with your analogy with cashier because cashiers (unless they are victims of human traffickers) do have agency. But if someone is a victim of human traffickers we don't describe that person as a cashier.

But people are trafficked in many areas. One of the most common areas is in the clothing industry. Don't we still refer to trafficked garment workers as garment workers? Even if they are held in slavery, I always see them still referred to this way but with a modifier like "trafficked" or "enslaved" put in front.

To equate these 2 groups is grossly inaccurate. Some of the comparisons I've seen in the blogosphere are downright slanderous toward those who dedicate their lives to helping the sexually trafficked escape, recover from the trauma of being trafficked, and rebuild their lives.

Yes, I agree that there are downright slanderous arguments out there. But there are also plenty of downright slanderous arguments about people who support decrim, saying that we're supporting pimps, promoting rape and trying to uphold a system of trafficking. I'm sure that there are a few out there (just like I'm sure there are some out there who claim to be on the other side who really don't care about sex workers, either), but that's hardly the vast majority of us. We may disagree on whether or not all sex work should be abolished, but we do all tend to agree that rape, exploitation, coercion and trafficking are wrong and need to be ended, we just disagree about how to get there.

 
At January 25, 2009 11:24 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Cara,

People are trafficked in many areas. However, trafficked garment workers are primarily identified as slave labor not primarily as garment workers.

When those concerned about working conditions for garment workers talk about all those who make our garments, slave labor is included but it is acknowledged as slavery and not as an individual career choice.

There aren't demands to treat these trafficking victims as people with full agency except by those who provide practical support to the people who run the factories such as those in the Northern Marianas Islands.

Yet I have seen many people make the demand to treat all in the sex industry as people acting with full agency. This is a demand which requires the denial of a horrific and common reality.

If those who make this demand aren't trying to deny horrific realities then they need to change their demand to one that doesn't require this denial.

Everyone deserves the right to full agency, but too many people are denied that basic human right and not by feminists who oppose the legalization of prostitution.

Even self-identified sex workers face the denial of their basic human rights from those who feel sex workers are acceptable targets. This denial comes from those who physically and sexually assault sex workers and it comes from those in the criminal justice system and other systems who dismiss that violence or support it.

This denial also comes to those in legal areas of sex work. Strippers are followed by cops who arrest them on trumped up charges and demand sexual contact with a direct or implied threat. So legalization of prostitution is not a cure for the denial of human rights.

I believe this is what some feminists are referring to when they say none in the sex industry have full agency. They are talking about the widespread and often systematic denial of human rights even to those who willingly choose sex work as a profession.

Some say this badly and often with great anger and suspicion. This is often misinterpreted as an attempt to infantilize sex workers.

Of course there will always be individuals from all groupings of people who launch personal attacks against those who strongly disagree with them or who make choices they wouldn't make or who trigger an individual. There will be people who are only interested in protecting their own rights and if an action which benefits them harms others, they simply don't want to know about it.

And there will be people who group together in these types of conflicts.

I've fallen into several of these traps at different times and while that narrow approach might feel satisfying in the short run, overall it is counter-productive.

The problem is more than people disagreeing about how to eliminate rape, exploitation, coercion and trafficking. Too often it is a matter of prioritization.

Stopping violence and protecting the most vulnerable needs to be a higher priority than any idealogical conflict or protecting any camp of feminism. This is not the same as agreeing to disagree.

This often requires challenging other people's assumptions and positions while being willing to challenge our own assumptions and positions.

 
At January 26, 2009 4:29 AM, OpenID rmott62 said...

Thanks for this post.
I prefer the term "prostituted women" to "sex workers" for I think it is more meaningful to the lives of the majority of women and girls in the sex trade.
This is because the vast majority have little or no protection that most workers would expect.
Often the term "sex worker" is used by the managers of the sex trade, to give women and girls false hope that they may have rights. When most of their "rights" are to keep them as available sex objects for men to buy and sell - nothing about their human rights to safety and dignity.
I have written a post "Alice Through the Looking Glass World" where I say my anger at this sort of attitude.
Thanks so much, Marcella.

 
At January 26, 2009 7:35 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Zoe Brain,

I rejected your comment because personal attacks are not allowed on this blog. If you want to respectfully disagree with me or with other commenters, on topic, that is allowed.

Your attack unfortunately paints you as no more worthy of being taken seriously than the person you attack.

 
At January 27, 2009 6:04 PM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

Many transfolk tend to conflate "she said it was invalid!" with "she thinks we should suffer discrimination". Reality is that I wish them all the best, and only object to the framing which upholds sexist dogma.

I do not believe that one requres a vagina in order to display traditional feminine qualities. I believe real men can wear dresses and be nurturing. I believe that transfolk should have surgery if that makes them feel better and they shouldn't be harrassed. My only objection is the framing: I/my brain/my body feels like displaying traditional girly traits, but society won't allow me so I must be a girl because only a girl would want to express icky feminine traits."

Ordinarily if someone were to claim that "only girls can do X" we could clearly see the misogyny...

"If those who make this demand aren't trying to deny horrific realities then they need to change their demand to one that doesn't require this denial."

If the transgendered aren't trying to say that only girls can do X, then ... ;) You are quite sharp, Marcella, at putting into words what I can't.

 
At January 27, 2009 10:56 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

m Andrea,

When I wrote about people denying horrific realities I was talking about denying the reality of violence against the prostituted. I wasn't talking about anything related to transgender issues.

While I understand your concern over explanations which use sexist stereotypes (knew she was a girl because of an affinity for frilly stuff and hatred of playing in the dirt) to explain how someone with male sex organs knows she's a girl, the usage of sexist stereotypes doesn't mean that transgender people's gender identification isn't accurate.

 
At January 29, 2009 10:57 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

For anyone who still doesn't understand the fundamental problem with using sex work for every act where money changes hands think about the statement, "it's not sex, it's rape," when someone calls a gang rape, "a bunch of boys who had sex with a girl."

The same inaccuracy exists when a gang rape happens within the sex industry. If it's not sex then it cannot be sex work.

Outside of the sex industry we acknowledge that stereoypical expressions of horror are not needed to prevent an action from being rape. The same must be acknowledged within the sex industry.

Someone who is sexually trafficked may be putting their life at risk if that person shows anything less than enthusiasm. This is why seeming enthusiasm isn't proof of anything.

We don't call rape victims who cooperate with rapists in order to minimize the harm that will be done to them "willing participants" and we shouldn't do the same for the prostituted.

 

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