Our Authenticity and Theirs

6 December 2009


I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity since Reclaim the Night (for anyone who’s not aware of what happened the Feminist Fightback statement is here). No matter what your politics on the sex industry, the preferred method of expounding them is to get someone with a personal experience to speak; that’s authenticity. And it’s important, of course. Gone are the days (in the main, we like to think) when white middle class feminists spoke, or at least claimed to speak, for ‘women’ as an indivisible whole, a whole that looked suspiciously like their experience and theirs alone. Feminist movements have been (should have been?) educated through the criticisms of black feminists in particular to realise that there are multiple female experiences, experiences that are intersected by class and race, and those best placed to speak on those experiences are women who’ve lived them.

There are problems with this though. Although personal experience needs to be recognised and incorporated, particularly by those with the traditional privileges (white, middle class women for example), it can’t be allowed to determine rank; personal experience doesn’t determine validity of argument. We’ve all had political arguments where someone’s effectively shut everyone up by appealing to experience; “My granddad was a miner so I know more about Marxism and why it won’t work than any of you” from Tories springs to mind. Even worse, there’s the “I know loads of ex-sex workers who aren’t here but if they were they’d be disgusted and angry at your arguments for decriminalisation”. To clarify: recognising there are multiple narratives of oppression that intersect, good. Using the logic of this to undermine political debate by appealing to authenticity to trump everyone else, bad.

So to Reclaim the Night, and abolitionist feminism in general. One of the things we get slated with on the sex worker rights side, with depressing regularity, is the experience of many women who’ve left the sex industry, often former street workers, who now campaign on the abolitionist scene (note: I’ve never met any such women, the slating we get is by proxy). Bring up a sex worker rights perspective, and you’ll get told your politics are an affront to women who’ve suffered in the industry, often horrifically, through drug abuse, beatings, rape, coercion. It’s pretty difficult for even the most hard-headed activist to continue in such circumstances, particularly since no feminist with a sex worker rights position ever seeks to deny such experiences exist. Their appeal to authenticity shuts us up.

Pro-sex worker rights feminists appeal to authenticity too, in the sense that we work with sex workers, we listen to sex workers, we campaign alongside sex workers, and we are sex workers (I don’t want to draw a feminists/sex workers distinction – the two can and do overlap). Feminist Fightback has had conferences where sex workers have spoken about their experience (but mostly about their political opinion). Curiously, when we do this, when we relate personal experiences just like the abolitionist side, we are silenced. And I don’t just mean by other feminists, though that happens too (anyone on the LFN list see me get told I have ‘blood on my hands’ for the umpteenth time by Finn McKay’?). Cast your mind back a few weeks to the Belle De Jour controversy; it seems like every time a sex worker who isn’t telling of beatings and rape and abuse speaks, they get accused of perpetuating some ‘happy hooker’ myth, that their experience isn’t valid, and to retell it might even be dangerous.

I’d suggest this is because the ‘happy hooker’ myth doesn’t really exist, not in the news, not on TV and film and certainly not in politics. No one subscribes to this view; it only gets mentioned when a sex worker gets uppity enough to dare to say actually, hang on, my life isn’t like the grim picture you’re all painting. Then it’s used to shut her up.

Here’s where the authenticity part gets interesting. So far we’ve established both the abolitionists and the pro sex worker rights activists involve current and former sex workers, who lend authenticity to their politics. But what makes the pro-sex worker rights side different? We have room for multiple authenticities. While the abolitionist side might wheel out story after story of the abuses of the industry, of which there are many, their theory cannot incorporate a single sex worker who does not have that experience. Any sex worker speaking out about their lived experience, where that lived experience does not tally with the idea that the sex industry is always and forever a tool of violence against women and must be stamped out, is silenced. In the case of Reclaim the Night, by being called a pimp, but that’s another story.

For pro sex worker rights activists the story isn’t the same. There is nothing about wishing to decriminalise and unionise sex work that cannot incorporate multiple, even opposing experiences of sex work. In fact, next time I get shouted at by an abolitionist about women who’ve been abused, as if I’m saying they haven’t, or worse that I don’t care, I’m going to tell it straight, and proudly; our politics are a better answer to that abuse than yours. Working alongside sex workers who don’t have those experiences of the industry (though that’s not to say they don’t have any criticisms, far from it) is not by default saying “we think this is the only experience” or “we don’t care about other experiences”. We can, and do, and will continue to realise that women working in the sex industry have as complex, shifting and sometimes opposed experiences as women in any other walk of life or place of work. The ball is your court, sisters: when will you?