Sex work and anthropology

I spent a moderate amount of time yesterday baffled/enraged/amused by the latest piece of shit put out by Julie Bindel.  Not her ill-considered attack on a non-existent protest by a group of young feminists (although that’s probably worth two or three seconds of your consideration to get an idea of how reliable she is as a source of information).  This is an item entitled Press for Change, and it describes itself as “a press pack for journalists with an interest in stories which involve trafficking of women for the purposes of prostitution.”  It is not, or at least not just that.

Firstly, let me be clear that I agree that trafficking is a terrible crime, and should have no place in the world.  Also that any form of forced work is wrong.  On sex work I am somewhat more equivocal; obviously to the extent that it intersects with either of the previous points it should be condemned.  But the idea that no woman (or person of any kind) can choose it?  Again there is an intersecting factor in poverty: many, probably the vast majority, only consider it because of straitened circumstances.  But then that itself intersects with stigma.  So two points to consider: if people only *choose* sex work because they need the money, how is it any worse – for that – than other jobs; and if you really want people to leave the industry, how about focussing on providing them with somewhere else to go, and to support themselves and their families, rather than hounding from frying pan to fire (mixed sort of metaphor there noted)?

I must confess that I do not like Julie Bindel.  I shall attempt to be objective here, but the point of this post is not to attack her, as she and her ‘press pack’ are merely a jumping off point.  Nonetheless I shall outline a few problems with her and this release, which is characteristic.  JB is a feminist and a campaigner for women’s rights, and this is entirely admirable in itself.  I’m sure I agree with her on many matters.  However she is at the very least an example of a tendency, common within any established political or ideological group, to spend more time policing the group boundaries than actually trying to get shit done.  A certain amount of this is necessary – to maintain unity of purpose, among other things – and there is the obvious starting point of men.  I have no problem with that.  Feminism is primarily for the benefit of women, even as it benefits all of us, and there’s no reason that men should be expected to be invited to the party.  We can, and should, be able to support it from the sidelines without demanding special recognition; sometimes you do things just because they are right, without needing to be given a gold star or a membership badge.  But the problem with Julie Bindel and her ilk is that they want to start policing which women get to be feminists.

Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you who should and shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to be a feminist, but I would argue that neither should anybody else.  I don’t think it’s at all controversial to say that feminism is for all women.  You can focus on specific groups, with specific concerns and interests (intersectional feminism in particular for those who recognise that you can’t just examine feminist issues independently of other factors like race and sexuality), but if you’re going to start excluding women and groups of women, you have a problem.  One example of this is that Julie Bindel and her TERF associates don’t think that trans women are ‘women’.  Another, is the exclusion of sex workers (and it should be noted that these two groups have a considerable overlap).

The first is not only extremely cruel in that it excludes one of the most vulnerable groups in society – seriously, look at the statistics for trans women regarding both murder and suicide, if you can do so without feeling voyeuristic, as they’re horrible – but it brings the TERFs weirdly in line with the patriarchal power system they profess to be fighting, by assuming that you determine somebody’s nature from gross anatomy.  The second is perhaps even more bizarre in that it suggests that people move categories according to what they do.  In this case, all – cis – women are born women, and are thus part of the business of feminism, but if they enter the sex industry something strange happens: either they are trafficked or directly coerced into it, in which case they immediately become victims who have no voice and must be represented by the likes of Bindel; or they exhibit some autonomy and suggest that things might be a little more complex, that sex work is at least partially, for some people, a choice, and they apparently disappear.  We know that many women, millions across the world, are involved in sex work, and this is why the sex work is always likely to be a topic at feminist conferences, etc., but if you look at your panels and speakers at most events, you won’t see them or hear from them.  You may here from former sex workers, some trafficking victims who have been ‘rescued’, and many others who claim expertise in the subject, but actual, current sex workers?  Zip.  It appears that a large fraction of feminists are blind or, perhaps more pertinently, deaf to them.

But I have digressed rather too long in my excoriation of Julie Bindel.  She is regarded by many of the mainstream press as a leader of the feminist cause.  Putting aside the reasons behind her personal attitude, I want to explore how this is possible.  How the mainstream of society that regards feminism as a force for good in the world – I have no interest here in the external enemies of feminism – can take seriously as a representative of women somebody who excludes and silences so many.

An alien tribe

In short, the press and the public fail to remark upon the lack of sex workers voices within the feminist movement because they’re already accustomed to not hearing from them.  Sex workers are something you hear about (and almost invariably in negative circumstances, whether as the perpetrators or victims of crime), not people you hear from.  This is exacerbated by the fact that they’re frequently members of (sometimes multiple) other marginalised groups: women, trans*, non-hetero, non-white, those experiencing chronic physical or mental ill health.  Which means that it’s all too easy to fail to notice their absence within mainstream feminist discourse.

Now I’m going to advance my thesis on the premise that the general public base most of their opinions on the media.  By the media, I mean a huge range of different forms of communication, not just the traditional press, including radio, television, Twitter and other social media.  The public also communicate amongst themselves (assuming you can even define an entity ‘the public’), but the topic and direction of discourse is guided, sometimes only marginally, more formally recognised sources.  And the thing that identifies these sources, that entitles them to their status, is their access and reference to expertise.

Now the notion of expertise is a varied and a vexed one, but it is the primary source of authority in modern society.  Your mate down the pub tells you that ‘John Smith’ is the best striker in the laegue and you mock him, but a former footballer in suit sat in a TV studio says so and, even if you disagree, you take the suggestion seriously.  Your doctor suggests that the weird range of symptoms you are displaying are the result of lupus and, even though you’ve seen every episode of House, you nod along and follow her recommendations.  Orthodox economists advise you that austerity is the only way out of the world financial slump and, even though they were the ones that led us into the situation, we continue to listen to them (look at most of the West, where the debate is only really about how much austerity, and for how long, not questioning whether we should listen to these people in the first place).

In our modern society – and this is where we arguably get into territory where I myself have some formal expertise – there is no group more widely and highly regarded for their expertise than scientists.  We may mock them, adhere to the backward notion of them as socially-inept eggheads, but we listen to them when they talk.  Even people expressly opposed to ‘science’ rely on it: disagree with the notion that human life came about after billions of years of evolution?  Draft in a few ‘scientists’ to put together a ‘scientific’ theory of Intelligent Design.  Run an oil company and don’t fancy losing all of your business to renewable sources?  Put together a panel of ‘scientists’ to debunk the notion of climate change (doesn’t matter that none of them are climatologists, cos a scientist is a scientist, right?), and argue that solar power is completely non-viable.

Anyway, the gist of this is that I’m blaming scientists for the lack of consideration given to sex workers.  Not, by any means exclusively – there’d been thousands of years of prejudice built up before modern science even began – but because of its special status, it bears a certain responsibility.  To explain what I mean, a scenario: a public figure appears on the news and announces that sex workers are responsible for the high levels of sexually transmitted infection in the country.  This should seem a reasonably plausible situation, but what would your response be?  I suggest it depends who the figure is.  If a clergyman then no doubt some would listen – the members of his and similar faith groups – but the rest of us would likely identify prejudice.  If a politician, we might suggest that he is just being opportunistic.  But a scientist?  She will have done research, applied analytical processes, and is talking in terms of facts.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a great admirer of science and scientists.  I wouldn’t have devoted some years of my life to studying the matter if I didn’t think that science is probably the greatest single tool for the betterment of mankind.  But this has also *allowed* me to see certain of its flaws.  I know, I know, I’m using my own claimed expertise to try and undermine that of others, but I’d like to think that a healthy degree of scepticism is a good thing, and one that any proponent of science would appreciate.  Unlike many other systems of knowledge, such as those based on revelation, science welcomes criticism (if appropriately framed), absorbs it, and improves.  That’s the whole basis of scientific progress.  (this is not to argue that science is unique in this – many religions also welcome debate, and are prepared to change – but in no other major system is it an absolutely central plank)

Anyway, science is done by people, and people make mistakes.  In the physical sciences this is easier to accommodate – knowing of our tendencies to bias, we use machines to measure and to calculate, and we set (although as a philosopher of science I am aware that one cannot measure without theory, and theories require that dangerous human creative element).  Ideally we limit variables by containing our research to a laboratory or similar.  In the human sciences that isn’t possible to the same degree; we have to go out into the world, engage with people to collect data, and only then can we apply mechanical means to interpret.

To go off on yet another slight tangent, I want to make a few remarks on objectivity.  Most people think of objectivity as being a good thing.  Most scientists will say the same thing, and emphasise that they strive towards it in their research.  And most of both will think of it as being some kind of eternal and abstract standard.  But objectivity is a historically contingent idea, and a dangerous one because it creates the illusion that we are producing immutable and actual truths, when we are merely selecting a certain sort of bias.  Objectivity is good in that it aims to produce consistent results, regardless of who is carrying out a particular piece of research.  But it is bad in that the pursuit of it may mean that we ignore important results.

In the case of sex work, I think that the quest for objectivity has led to the overriding of common sense.  As an aside – this really is a rambling piece – I am extremely conflicted about the notion of ‘common sense’ as it is too often used to defend dogma and self-interest but, hey, go with me.  Common sense should tell us that if you really want to know about a particular human situation, you need to talk to the people involved in it.  You can’t describe a football match in anything like useful terms by purely listing the physical events that occur.  You can’t explain why people eat at a particularly highly-regarded restaurant by referring to nutrition.  Matters like this are, I think talked about by Daniel Dennett in his writings regarding the Intentional Stance, but I’ve only read a little of his work.  My point is that you cannot give any serious consideration to sex work without talking to sex workers.  You can count how many people are involved, track their movements, follow the money, but you cannot give any serious consideration to why any of this happens.

Let me explain why I think too many scientists ignore this, and what it has to do with notions of objectivity.  I think that too many scientists treat sex workers as they would any other subjects of anthropological study, at least up until relatively recently.  Just as a scientist in the lab wears latex gloves and uses instruments to manipulate the subject of her research, in order to avoid contamination, the basic position of field anthropology used to be one of remote observation.  Whether one wanted to determine why city dwellers moved around in certain patterns, people of a nation observed a certain tradition, there was always an attempt to maintain as much distance as possible.  The view was that if one asked, the result would immediately be tainted by the intervention.

While things have moved on in many areas, I think the concern still persists in research in certain areas, particularly those where there significant stigma.  Given the assumption that there is always a degree of coercion involved, researchers don’t want to talk to sex workers because they fear that they will only be told things that fit a particular narrative.  This might be a sinister line fed by a pimp or manager, or it might simply be what the interviewee thinks the researcher wants to hear.  And this is done with, usually, the best of intentions.  However, it is flawed methodology for two reasons.  Firstly, and more blatantly, it ignores a good – the best, for certain matters – source of data.  And secondly, they don’t apply the same standards to other groups.

Broadly, any research that is based on actual interviews with sex workers is undermined with insinuations about coercion of statements.  It is true that this can be a concern, but as in any other form of research, the scientists should be attempting to control for such factors.  But the actual result is that current sex workers are largely ignored by researchers.  And this brings me on to the second point, because the same standard is not applied to former sex workers.  Can you imagine any other industry where you would expect to receive even partially positive views from those who had left?  It’d be like trying to assess the current state of the Conservative Party by only speaking to those who had jumped ship to UKIP.  In addition, it rather insidiously suggests that only those still in active sex work are lacking in objectivity themselves.

More generally, this kind of approach insists on treating sex workers as other.  They exist to be looked at, quantified, judged, but not as autonomous beings who might just know more about their situation than an ‘objective’ observer.  And at last I get back to the idea that got me writing this piece in the first place (thought I’d completely lost track, there).  This is one of the dangers of an anthropological approach – you attempt to maintain a distance between observer and observed, and the very effort of doing so distorts more than the potential cross-pollination.  Observation is, and should be recognised as, a two-way process.  And this is no mean thing.

Finally, in addition to the other issues with researchers not speaking directly to the subjects of their research there is the issue of what happens to those that do cross this line, and refuse to compromise their best source of information.  In short, they face immediate attack for their intransigence.  Public questioning of their judgement, personal and private.  Above all, they are attacked as scientists.  And their research automatically faced insinuations of being tainted, and by the very factor that actually qualifies it so.

And so we get back to why the mainstream press takes Julie Bindel’s ridiculous bigotry seriously.  While she was once of the outside – a radical feminist, no less – she now sanctifies mainstream suspicion of sex work.  Which is really the more radical idea?  That, contrary received ideas, sex work could actually be viable (with all of the resources and protections that are – at least theoretically – available to every other worker)?  Or that millennia of ostracism of (mostly) women should continue, just framed in terms of concern rather than condemnation?


Although, as I said, this is not really supposed to be a post about Julie Bindel’s ‘press pack’, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least cover some of the more egregious problems with it.

  • The explicit refusal to recognise that there is a difference between those trafficked or directly coerced into sex work, and those who *choose* to enter the industry.  Choice is a tricky concept, but it’s important to grant that there is a difference between being forced to do something because one is threatened with violence, and because one needs the money to survive or prosper.  The latter is still coercive, but then in a capitalist system all work is coerced to some degree.  But you wouldn’t generally call your office job forced employment just because you need it to pay the rent.
  • A follow-up to this is playing fast and loose with the distinction: facts about trafficked persons are bandied as if they apply to all those engaged in sex work.
  • Similarly, facts are produced with absolutely no context.  A figure quoted is that 90% of women involved in the sex industry would leave if they could.  Sounds awful until you consider what the figure would be if you asked people in your place of work whether they’d stay there if they could leave.  I’d suggest that unless you’re really lucky, most of your co-workers dream of doing something else, or nothing, but they can’t afford it.  And the figure is likely to rise as the work gets increasingly menial, or lower in status.  Nobody is arguing that sex work isn’t, for the most part, a shitty job (although many of the reasons are external, and might be ameliorated), but the fact that lots of people would rather not be doing it doesn’t invalidate it as work any more that it does to, say, contract cleaning.
  • The very term ‘sex work’ is objected to, and it is claimed without any apparent basis that: “Interestingly, very few women in the sex industry use the term “sex worker” to describe themselves.”  Which is an odd thing to claim when you haven’t actually talked to any of them.  Odd, then, that various of the collectives within the industry refer to themselves as sex workers’ and instead reject language like Bindel’s preferred ‘prostituted women’ as it completely obliterates their agency.
  • Finally, in a series of examples of unvarnished egotism, several of Julie Bindel’s own pieces are approvingly quoted as examples of how best to write about sex work (but referred to in the third person; no honest ‘this is how I might do it’), and a report is applauded for its use of research, in citing Bindel and Kelly.

Again, I’d emphasise that trafficking is a terrible crime, as is forced labour of any kind, be it sex work or other.  And the sex industry clearly has many issues that need to be resolved.  But none of this can be successful without talking to those involved.  We cannot, nor should we, attempt to ‘rescue’ every person involved in sex work.  All we can do is listen, and if we are committed to allowing every sex worker the opportunity to leave the industry, work to provide them with other, better jobs.  It may be that all, or nearly all, sex workers are coerced, but the factors coercing most are simple poverty and lack of alternatives, rather than the concrete villains we might prefer to picture.


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