A guest post from SWOU (Sex Worker Open University) about the failure of the upcoming ‘Feminism in London’ conference to include any sex workers on its sex work panel.
Upcoming autumn event Feminism in London is planning to hold a panel discussion about sex work — without having any current sex workers on the panel. Ironically, this sex worker-free sex work panel was originally called “Suppressed Voices”. This kind of exclusion is a common experience for sex workers:
For Feminism in London to include current sex workers on a panel about sex work should be non-negotiable, both in terms of the necessity of hearing the insights that only current sex workers can bring and in terms of simple justice, the logic being tha the people who are most affected by any given issue should play a significant role in conversations about it. Listening to the voices of those most affected is basic feminist praxis. A sex work panel without any current sex workers violates that obvious precept.
We’re glad to see that women of colour are represented on the panel and that this is reflected throughout Feminism in London, but disappointed to note that that the organisers appear to have used this to deflect criticism that the sex work panel does not include any current sex workers. A panel on intersecting oppressions within sex work, one that focuses on race and class, should centre sex workers of colour, sex workers living in poverty and sex workers whose identities span both those oppressions and more. Not be populated entirely by non-sex workers.
An argument sometimes used against sex workers’ requests to have current sex workers included in discussions about sex work is the misunderstanding that we want or need every person who sells sex to ‘out’ themselves, in order to participate. We’re aware that not every sex worker will feel comfortable being ‘out’ as a sex worker (literally every sex worker within SWOU is ‘out’ in some contexts but not others and we are all constantly navigating which spaces we feel safe in). We don’t advocate excluding those people from the discussion. People shouldn’t have to out themselves to participate. However, it is surprising to us that the so-called ‘solution’ to this lack of accessibility for sex workers is to pre-emptively exclude all current sex workers from the panel. Sex workers who are in the room are more likely to feel safer, to feel that the diverse perspectives of people currently selling sex are valued and therefore more able to speak up, if there are current sex workers on the panel.
If Feminism in London can’t find sex workers who want to be on the panel, it might be worth the conference organisers reflecting on how it is they have made the space feel so unsafe that sex workers aren’t comfortable attending openly. But if a space is so unsafe that no out current sex worker feels able to attend, that shouldn’t be a green light to the organisers to run their sex work panel without sex worker input. If sex workers feel too unsafe to attend the conference, the conference shouldn’t be discussing their issues.
We’re conscious that we’re likely to be accused of wanting the panel to be cancelled, of wanting to “silence the voices” of activists who ‘disagree’ with us. As sex workers, we don’t have institutional power: even if we wanted to, we couldn’t “silence the voice” of the co-ordinator of the European Women’s Lobby. But to be clear: we want this panel to happen. We just think that a panel on sex work should have (non-tokenistic) input from sex workers as a basic criteria for going ahead. We’re surprised that this is controversial.
We have asked for allies to help us to amplify sex worker voices. We’re contacting activists and organisations participating in Feminism in London and asking them to raise concerns about the exclusion of sex workers from the sex work panel. For participants who strongly feel the injustice of this, we’ve suggested that they could offer to pull out of the conference until this situation is resolved (the principle of women asking pro-feminist men to decline to sit on all-male panels is well established). For people who were considering purchasing tickets, we would be appreciative if you would let the organisers know that you’re waiting to see the addition of sex workers onto the sex work panel prior to finalising your purchase.
The underlying ‘justification’ for deliberately excluding current sex workers on a panel about sex work can only be that those who put the panel together think that people (especially women) who currently sell sex are somehow not equal to people who don’t. It implies they think sex workers are dirtier, less trustworthy or less worth hearing from. We can’t see any other motivation, once it’s down to brass tacks. Viewing sex workers as less insightful or less trustworthy than other women cannot be an acceptable feminist position.
Black and white close-up of a microphone, with the head at the front, by Daehyun Park and shared under a creative commons license.