Our ancestors are from China. They fled war and famine, and settled in Malaysia. Mum and Dad came to Aotearoa, NZ to study, and that's where I was born.
I've got 15 mins and in it I'm going to talk a little about sex work as a trans guy. Then about whorephobia and the politics of penetration being the underlying opposition to sex worker rights. I'll also posit some questions that you as the audience might find useful to ponder through.
I'm a transguy, female to male, independent sex worker.
I've had a bunch of jobs from cheffing, queer youth work, factory and care work, that I've fitted around various social justice persuits for the last decade and a half.
I'm pretty new to sex work, only having worked since the middle of last year, starting in NZ, advertising in the local newspaper, and then working part time here in the UK for the last few months. All my clients both in the UK and NZ have been cis male clients. Some identity as gay, some straight. A few have seen trans women before and are curious about the other end of things.
Prostitution has been decriminalised in NZ since 2003. At the time of law reform there were the usual arguments about trafficking, condoning objectification of women. There were fears that the entire country would turn into a red light district, and all under aged girls would decide that they wanted to be sex workers.
It's been over a decade since prostitution was decriminalised in NZ, and none of those things have come to pass. Decriminalisation has meant that sex workers feel freer to report violent clients and bullying cops to various authorities, and access health care.
There's still a few gaps around migrant workers not being allowed to do sex work, which means that when parlours are raided by immigration, the Asian women are taken and detained for questioning, and everyone else gets left.
The reason I'm keen to share with you tonight is for two main reasons. Sex worker rights are one of the current cruxes in the matrix of oppressive power that affects people's lives.
Sex worker rights encompass a busy intersection of body politics, gender and sexuality, sexism, misogyny, migration, border politics, class, gentrification, race, and economic inequities.
The other reason is to do with seeing the stark disparities between my experience as a male and masculine sex worker, and the experiences of my partner, who is a cis woman and feminine sex worker, and other female sex worker mates.
Chewing over these dynamics in my head, and bouncing them round with other workers, I don't believe the opposition to sex work is really about sex trafficking.
I also don't believe it's about abstractly opposing the perceived condoning of the objectification of womens' bodies by men. I don't believe it's about benevolently rescuing helpless trapped women. And I don't believe it's concern about setting problematic tricky precedents in law and policy.
I think it's about whorephobia in society, and feelings that get brought up about sex that people feel when they think about sex work.
Whorephobia relies on an assumption that to be penetrated, is to be degraded.
It wasn't so long ago, when certain feminists were decrying sexual penetration, dildos, strap ons, and women having sexual relationships with men. Whilst possibly outlining important power dynamics, their proposed solutions and summaries were ultimately flawed and patronising. They assumed that a women penetrated was a women degraded. There is inherent sexism and misogyny in this thinking.
The unsaid assumption of penetration as degradation, is also a foundation of homophobia. Where ideal masculine and male bodies are sealed, solid and impenetrable. And much of the hatred around being gay, is that to be a man and to be penetrated, is not a good thing.
And at the hateful intersections of degradation through penetration, is where violence and murder against female sex workers both cis, and especially trans women, and gay bashings are societally ignored.
Whorephobia directs most of its violence upon women's bodies, women's sexualities, and upon femininity. It's a threat which targets women whether they are sex workers or not. Whore is a controlling slur that is voicing rules about how women should dress, how women are allowed to have sex, with who, and for what reasons. It's not really about naming actual sex workers. It's a term flung, and feared, to diminish any women who might transgress sexually.
In the past, it was socially acceptable for women to only have sex within marriage and to make babies. And if they were enjoying it, that was sort of ok, but dont talk about it. Now women can have sex for pleasure, and have one night stands even, but it has to be because she's into it. Her desire becomes the agency that condones casual extra marital sex. That is the valid reason.
Money is not allowed to be the reason that women have sex.
The same taboos are present for male and masculine sex workers, but are not policed in quite the same ways.
Whorephobia relies upon sexist ideas about women's sexualities and behaviours. It holds the assumption, from anti sex work feminists, conservatives and righteous rescuers, that women doing sex work, are helpless infantilised victims. Victims who don't even know they need help, and cannot truly express agency and navigate a complex matrix of power, when both sex and money are present. It also operates under the belief that sex with men automatically degrades a woman, and puts her in a compromised position.
Sex work is not the same as human trafficking for sexual exploitation. To believe so, is not only simplisticly untrue, but a view that dangerously hides and shields oppressive systems of power.
If sex work is wrongly thought of as aiding or condoning sex trafficking, the sexist benevolent treatment of women can continue. Economic realities and inequities can be shuffled under the carpet. Borders can remain racistly policed. And violence against trans women, street workers, migrant workers and poor women can be seen as collateral damaged in the greater fight against sex trafficking, all while injuring further the people these patronising rescuers claim they are saving. Making the simplistic conflation of sex work with sex trafficking, allows people to ignore complex and intersecting problems that need complex and holistic solutions.
Once we look at the differences between sex work and sex trafficking, we can see that there are a myriad of factors that affect whether someone is having a good, ok or even just a boring time working. And whether they are having a horrid, exploited time at work. This differentiation is achieved by listening to sex workers, not by telling us what we think and feel.
Further than this, even if sex work is still too icky and morally wrong to accept, criminalising sex work and our clients will not end sex work or human trafficking. To think so is naïve.
If you're wanting to put an end to say, exploitative factory work, you don't achieve that by criminalising the workers.
Criminalising sex work merely drives it underground, putting workers at greater risk from violent clients, exploitative cops, immigration officers, landlords and employers. It also uses stigma to silence women who are victims of trafficking, or women wanting to leave sex work or get out of an exploitative situation.
At this point you might think the Swedish model of criminalising clients would work. But it doesn't. There's a bunch of research done, talking to actual workers, about the bad affects of the Swedish model on workers safety. Two reasons being that the criminalising of clients, leaves only the dangerous ones who are ok with engaging in criminal activity, and the Swedish model reduces the circumstances for workers to vet and accept good and safe clients.
Sex work does not inherently condone male objectification of women's bodies. If we want to persue this argument, then all heterosexual relationships would have to be scrutinised and summarised in the same way. To believe in this, we would have to consistently ignore women's agency to navigate within a constellation of power in which gendered oppression is woven into.
Yes patriarchy, sexism and objectification exists. It's in rom coms as well as mainstream porn. It's in marital beds as well as in sex workers beds. We don't get rid of patriarchy by getting rid of all gendered interaction. And we definitely don't get rid of patriarchy, exploitation and sexism by telling women that we know better than them.
When it comes to negotiating paid and unpaid work, and relating interpersonally, all our interactions and choices are made within systems of capitalism and gendered oppression. These are manuevers everyone makes, not just sex workers.
There are a number of factors that differentiate having a good working experience or a shitty coercive one. These factors being working conditions, recourse to justice, human and worker rights, and freedom from stigmatisation.
When sex working women are positioned as helpless and unable to consent and express agency, and sex work is seen as enabling trafficking and condoning the objectification of all women, this is whorephobia. These acta of whorephobia help to obscure and shift attention from class struggle and survival, discriminatory law and borders, race and migration, and the sexist and misogynistic control of women's sexual behaviour.
It lets feminists, social justice workers, human rights advocates, law and policy makers and activists off the hook from looking at economic injustices, capitalism, trafficked workers in other industries, gendered oppression, transphobia, sexism, misogyny, gentrification, xenophobia and racism, and their own unexamined feelings about the gendered rules of sex.
Which is what it boils down to. Sex rules, who's allowed to do it with who, and for what reasons. Sexist sex rules. Misogynistic, whorephobic sex rules.
I feel it boils down to this, because there isn't a huge furor around men who do sex work. The scrutiny and blame is centred upon women's bodies.
No one is calling to criminalise workers who take minimum wage jobs coerced by big corporations, to get rid of exploitation.
There's not scrutiny upon domestic workers and care workers, and sensationalist plans to rescue them because they might be trafficked.
No one says to academics, “You just took that job because you have low self esteem and need the affirmation of degrees, institutions and letters following your name. As an academic you're condoning the objectification and commodification of intellectual thought. You're degrading yourself by selling your brain and mind. You prop up capitalism and elitism by working as an academic within the system.”
Nope, everyone knows that the above arguments are silly because we acknowledge peoples' agency to navigate complex power systems in ways that are appropriate for them. And we know that the wider systems of inequity we struggle against, require sophisticated structural strategies, not simplistic one liners.
I think the other underlying reason, apart from whorephobia, people really oppose sex work, or rather women doing sex work, is because it icks them out, they wouldn't want to do it, and it brings up issues for them around sex.
Much in the same fashion that polyamory, BDSM, and gay men having anal sex have evoked a range of emotions and oppositions that say more about the people opposed to those behaviours, than the behaviours themselves.
I think at some point in time, decriminalising sex work, and the various changes relating to human rights and labour law, will become a bit of a no brainer. The arguments against it, much like the arguments against women working or getting the vote, trans people having rights, gay marriage and other acceptable liberal perspectives, will be seen for the transparent prejudices that they are.
To conclude, I've talked about how oppostion to sex work often comes from reactive flawed arguments, grounded in whorephobia. And the foundations of whorephobia are patriarchies, sexism and misogyny. Also that there's often a personal and societal uncomfortableness with sexual rules and norms regarding women and femininity being transgressed.
I don't think we can talk rights and policies without also examining attitudes towards sex work and sex itself. One of my challenges to you is to start having conversations that spring from questions such as:
“What thoughts and feelings come up for you when you think about sex and money together”
“How is your agency expressed, recognised and ignored, within matrixes of inquitable power structures”
So I've talked about macro things here, and here are other things we can do on a practical level.
If you're part of an NGO, activist group or community organisation, have you had a workshop from SWOU, and are you allied with us.
And if you're an individual, what can you offer with your time, energy and expertise.