The liberal in the middle

2 April 2010


A response to Laurie Penny on sex work.

There is a phenomenon, observable across feminist debate, that I like to call playing liberal in the middle. Where two ideologies clash there’s always someone who claims the middle ground for their own, however inconsistent and fractured it may be. Take pornography for example – we don’t want to be with those for state bans and prison sentences, that’s illiberal and censorious. But equally, those people arguing for freedom of speech, well, what about violence against women? So here’s a nice fudge – campaign for the state to legislate that lads’ mags must be on the top shelf. Decry both sides for fighting in the process, because they could always take a simple central position – after all, you did – and bingo. Liberal in the middle.

This is exactly what’s going on in Laurie Penny’s article on sex work and feminism. From the very start, the difference in political position over sex work is characterised as ‘an ugly obstructive shibboleth’ – the equivalent of ‘stop fighting or I’ll bang your heads together, now kiss and make up’. Laurie is being our mother, attempting to adjudicate in what she sees as ‘squabbling’, but what is in fact a very real and important political debate over very revealing ideological differences. This serves to both depoliticise feminism (aren’t they silly, don’t they fight, isn’t it unimportant) and to position Laurie’s concluding fudge as the sensible, level-headed answer. The ‘fabric of feminist unity’ is under threat from both sides! Quick, take the middle ground!

What these ‘sides’ are is unclear. Laurie mentions the IUSW, briefly, to criticise their appeal on Punternet for help lobbying against the Policing and Crime Bill (no mention of anti-sex work forces appealing to notorious Blairite benefit-cutter Harriet Harman to bolster their case for the Nordic model, presumably that’s ok). Apart from this, no sex worker organising is referred to at all – no English Collective of Prostitutes, no X:Talk, no allies in the shape of Feminist Fightback (hi Laurie!) for example. Our actions get a brief line, when the attacks on our contingent at Reclaim the Night are alluded to, but we are invisible. This allows a neat elision of pro-sex worker, pro-decriminalisation politics into concerns about protection (‘many pro-sex work feminists believe that the protection of sex workers should be the only consideration’ – really? Who?), effectively sucking out the radical labour-oriented politics of much of our ‘side’ and replacing it with top-down liberal hand-wringing.

As for the ‘other side’, the abolitionists, their position gets a glossing too. But it’s a positive sheen that’s applied. There’s talk of the ‘more regressive and punitive sanctions against soliciting’ applied by the Policing and Crime Bill, which apparently ‘practically no opposition was brooked against’ (see examples of such opposition here and here). No mention of the fact the very abolitionists lobbying intensively for Clause 14, the criminalisation of those who buy sex, utterly ignored the increase in legal sanctions against soliciting, the effective extension of criminalisation of sex workers. The article suggests the current laws are the ‘net result’ of feminist ‘wrangling’ (stop squabbling, again!), as if the existence of a political struggle within feminism is to blame. It’s not. The reality is one ‘side’ argued, with our limited resources, against the bill, and one ‘side’ chose to lobby it through whilst ignoring the downsides, because one clause suited their agenda.

This exposes a problem with the liberal in the middle feint. Attempting to reconcile two fundamentally different political positions and appear reasonable to both at the same time involves twisting and glossing all sorts of complicated ideological issues. So we get the claim that the turn to ‘focus police attention’ on clients is ‘welcome’; no mention of the fact the pro-decriminalisation side don’t welcome the Nordic model, and think this has very real negative consequences for sex workers on the streets. The side-taking here is clear, yet it’s presented as the feminist position. We get the claim that the ‘socio-economic analysis’ of sex work is ‘lacking’, yet a stubborn insistence on referring to sex workers solely as ‘vulnerable’ women (not working-class, or even economically disadvantaged). We get a discussion of ‘choice’ where society apparently sees all women’s sexual choices as ‘empowering act[s] of autonomous agency’ yet also the claim that ‘female sexual agency is still seen as abnormal’. The contradictions are products of trying to marry (and in the process ignore) underlying political differences on class, capitalism, agency and the state, and the result is a confusing fudge.

The choice/agency language bears further investigation here. The article states:

Nothing obscures this crucial approach so much as the dogmatic insistence, on both sides of the debate, on the primacy of a faux-feminist notion of ‘choice’.

The ‘sides’ presumably go something like this: abolitionist – women have no choice at all in the sex industry, they are all passive victims. Pro-decriminalisation – it’s all about free choice! But there’s another elision here, which again favours the abolitionist argument. I’ve never heard a serious, pro-decriminalisation, sex worker rights activist argue that all sex workers operate through entirely free choice, and thus the industry should be legal. No one says this, not even the most right-wing media – even the Sun and chums deploy the drug-addicted, homeless street prostitute imagery while they publish sexy articles on Brooke Magnanti. Laurie confuses individual sex workers saying ‘I made a choice’ (valid, of course) and decriminalisation activists arguing that entirely free choice applies to all.

Instead of ‘choice’, we tend to talk about ‘agency’, a concept made up of the complex interplay of choice within the limits of circumstance, that recognises elements of coercion (for example, if you’ve a ‘choice’ between being a cleaner and being a sex worker, you’ve still made a choice, but it’s limited by circumstances – education, economics, job markets – that may have a coercive effect). This allows for an understanding of multiple experiences of the sex industry, for women in different class positions for example, all of which are authentic, all of which must be considered in the process of creating a political response. The abolitionist argument has no such room for nuance. It relies on the assertion and reassertion of a single, totalising experience, that of women who suffer abuse and violence in the sex industry. The decriminalisation side can and does incorporate experiences that are positive, negative, ‘high-class’, street, violent, non-violent and every shade in between: we believe decriminalisation will bring benefits for all sex workers. The abolitionist side cannot incorporate a complex conception of agency or experience: the industry must be abolished, and anyone who mentions ‘choice’ is a puppet of the pimps. Once again though, this bad behaviour on the part of abolitionists (which has lead to, for example, refusing to be on platforms with/screaming in public at sex worker activists) is ignored in favour of the liberal fudge – it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other after all – and even spun around against pro sex worker activists. The ‘pro-prostitution lobby’ (who?!) is accused of ‘silencing the voices of women like Mott’ (a ‘former prostitute and abolitionist activist’) – no evidence is offered as to how this occurs, so presumably it’s just by our very existence.

If this reads like a defence of pro-sex worker, decriminalisation politics that’s because, frankly, it is: those are my politics, as a socialist feminist and the politics of the activists I’m proud to work alongside. I feel this article simplifies, distorts and in many cases outright ignores the reality of pro-sex worker activism to fit it neatly into a ‘brutal moral binary’ against abolitionism which is of the author’s own making. The real binaries here are about attitudes to capitalism, agency and class, and cannot be so easily straddled to form a liberal middle ground. But if you’re reading this as a abolitionist, I’d argue that you have just as much interest in opposing such an analysis as I do – as, in fact, any feminist with a political agenda does. While both our ‘sides’ can be ‘manipulated by patriarchal apologists’ as Laurie points outs (in reference to, of course, decriminalisation) either to push a moralist agenda or a free-market one, I’d argue it’s this attempt at grabbing the reasonable, centrist position that really hurts feminism. Feminist of all stripes, like any radicals, are often portrayed as extremists (though I’m happy to be so) and screeching, dogmatic harpies; what a gift to those who push this image, to have a feminist analysis which patronises both sides for being blinkered, and in the process denigrates the very idea of real political issues within the feminist movement.

There have always been huge tears in the ‘fabric of feminist unity’ – I wonder if anyone still considers Sylvia Pankhurst an outrageous sectarian splitter for refusing to bow to the WSPU’s nationalist, pro-war stance and forming her own, explicitly socialist, organisation? Perhaps Sojourner Truth ought to have kept her criticism of white feminist privilege to herself to preserve unity in the movement? I’m sure pretty much no one would argue either of these women, who found themselves at odds with other women’s organising, should ‘put aside ideological differences’. So why should we?

The overwhelming answer to this here seems to be that this divide just isn’t important enough. Of course, it won’t seem so from the simplified, basic treatment it receives here. But as feminists we have fought for our movement(s) to be considered political, as political as men’s, for so long, that we cannot simply lash together opposing opinions for the sake of some mythical unity. That way lies real silencing – when ideological points cannot be made lest some feminist, somewhere, disagrees – and a feminist movement that has no teeth, no ideas and no point.