Can the Sub-Alterns of the Sex Industry Speak?

The sex industry is a highly conflicted site within modern feminism.  A global industry tainted with extensive forced labour and trafficking, it is situated at the crossroads of labour and abuse.  Those who argue for “sex worker rights” position it within a service industry narrative; those who argue for an “abolitionist” position frame it in the context of sexual violence.   On both sides there are claims to be representing the “authentic voice” of women in the industry, but can the sub-alterns of the industry speak?

At the moment there is a consultation going through the Scottish Parliament to criminalise the clients of the sex industry.  Over 900 responses have been received.  Several bloggers who work in the sex industry have been critical of not only the bill itself, but of the submissions made by organisations such as Womens Aid, Rape Crisis and LGBT youth.  A sex worker rights organisation, Scot-Pep has been approaching women in the sex industry asking them to submit responses in their own right as individuals.  There is a suggestion from what I have read that this encouragement is to submit responses opposing the proposals, but as I havent seen the document in question I cant confirm, but at least they have encouraged women to respond and as one of its activists points out, it is disappointing that other organisations have not done similar.

Scot-Pep have responded to the outcomes of the consultation, critising her summary of findings and including a selection of quotes from wo(men) in the industry.  The five of the quotes are from named individuals, while two are submitted anonymously.  There appears to me to be a radical break between the responses that are submitted by named individuals and those which are submitted anonymously.  I’ve reproduced all seven below, where their gender is not explicitly mentioned, I’ve guessed based on their name.   The differing tones of the contributions by those who use an identifiable name and those who submitted anonymously are clear.

If Rhoda would open her closed mind and listen to the voices of sex workers she would hear stories of resilience, strength and pride, all of which she sidelines in her portrayal of us as victims in need of rescue and rehabilitation. We deserve the right to work and live free from violence, discrimination and labour exploitation, all of which will flourish* under the legal system Rhoda is proposing.

Lily, woman involved in the sex industry


I am appalled that Rhoda Grant has chosen to ignore the evidence as presented to her on numerous occasions as to the harm that this proposal will do to the very women she is purporting to protect.

Laura Lee, woman involved in sex industry

The definition of commercial sex work as a form of violence against women is extremely offensive to both us women who have made autonomous decisions to engage in commercial sex work as well as to the clients who treat us with respect and dignity. Something Rhoda Grant seems incapable of affording to adult women.

Sia, woman involved in sex industry

Many reports from Sweden and internationally show that the criminalisation of clients is not only ineffective but dangerous. To ensure sex worker’s access to rights, health and justice, the right legal framework is decriminalisation

Luca, man involved in the sex industry

Rhoda Grant seems to think that any sex worker who disagrees with her is by definition ‘not representative’. This is a handy device for pre-emptively ignoring the many voices of those working who think her understanding of the sex industry is both flawed and dangerous. The women I work with in the saunas aren’t fancy, we don’t have lovely Holyrood careers. We just want the legal protections that come from recognising our work as work. If she had listened to any of us she would know that.

Veronica, woman involved in the sex industry

In each of the above, appeals are made to the universality of wo(men) in the industry,  The only “I” statements in there is from Laura Lee expressing her feelings at her belief that Grant has ignored evidence, however there are several “we” statements, situating the person within the grouping of “sex-worker”.  None of them make any reference to their own particular situation.

Contrast this with the voices of the two anonymous women who are also quoted.

Where was  [Rhoda Grant]] with her help 10 years ago when I had nowhere to spend the night and no money to buy food? Now, when through sex work I have a home, a comfortable life and, above all, a job that gives me purpose in life and pride in my own achievements, she suddenly wants to take it all away from me. How is this helping me? If she really wanted to protect women, she’d be dealing with what makes women enter prostitution in the first place: poverty, cuts and poor child support.

Anonymous woman involved in sex industry

I feel extremely let down. Has she forgotten that she entered politics to represent the people and not just to pursue her own agenda? I wonder if Ms Grant has any suggestions as to how I should support my family if she succeeds in effectively taking away my livelihood.

Anonymous woman involved in sex industry

In both of these statements, their personal voice and experiences comes across very strongly, as does their economic motivation for participation.  Both of them, like the other five oppose the bill, but from a very personal standpoint.  That their personal situation has been made better by their entry into the sex industry.  Although there are allusions to past poverty and homeless in the statement of the first, both women now have a stable homelife.

Involvement in the sex industry is highly stigmatised, being able to publically use a name that you can be identified with, even if it is not your real name, is a risk.  And its a risk that you can only take if there are safety nets underneath you: a home, education, a support system, friends, family, stability and above all a back up plan.  The two women who have submitted anonymously make it clear in their statement that they have stable homelives.  But what about those women in the industry who don’t have that.

But if you look at the narratives of those who have formerly been involved and have subsequently left the industry and you see a catalogue of abuse and exploitation that they suffered within it.  Drugs use, domestic violence, and child sexual abuse all feature heavily both as motivators to entry and as things which kept them in the industry long after they wished to leave.

So what we have on the one side is the relatively privileged members of the sex industry, who are able to use an identified name in public or who in their statements make reference to their stability, competing with former members of the industry who reveal a shocking level of violence, coercion and abuse within it.  What we don’t have is the voices from within the industry who are in a difficult place in their lives

I have personally known around a dozen women who have been involved in the sex industry at some point, and although I am no longer in touch with any of them, I’m sure that some still are.  Every single one has entered the industry for economic reasons, the precise reasons vary, but are usually a combination of a high rate of payment per hour, cash in hand work and immediate payment.  All but two have entered through the use of hard drugs, either by themselves, their male partner or their son (of the other two was a migrant woman, the other a skint student).  Of those who entered the industry through other people’s drug use, two of the three ended up themselves addicted, as did the skint student.

Only two ever worked in any kind of formal setting,  one in a flat setup, the other in a sauna.  Neither of which ended well.  The skint student who worked in a flat had to be rescued by her family after she got entrapped through a combination of drug dependence and violence; the one who worked in a sauna was kicked out and moved to street-work when her drug addiction worsened and could no longer be hidden from the proprietors.

Gayle Spivak, in “Can the Sub-Altern Speak?” used the example of Sati – where widows would throw themselves on the burning pyres of their husbands to demonstrate that the voices of Hindu women were silenced as they were interpreted through colonial discourses.  Caught between the competing narratives of patriarchy and colonialism, their choices were framed within either a support for their “native” patriarchal culture, or support for the “civilising” imperialism.    The conclusion that Spivak came to was “No”.  They cannot speak as long as their words are interpreted by a dominant force, and they cannot escape the dominent forces which are shaping their experiences because their conflicted experiences will always be interpreted in the light of one or the other.

What we have a similar situation with marginal women in the sex industry, women addicted to hard drugs, destitute, migrant and/or in coercive or violent relationships,  shoved out of the picture.  The sub-alterns of the industry cannot speak, for their words are continually represented on the one hand by relatively privilaged women in the industry and on the other by exited women who are no longer involved.

The thesis of those opposing Rhoda Grant’s bill is that

Moral women are saving the immoral women from immoral men

As those who have exited are necessarily not currently involved in the industry, they then join the class of “moral woman”, which feeds into a wider discourse of sexual morality. When opposing the criminalisation of men who purchase sexual services, it is seen through a lens of the control of sexuality.  By denying men the legal right to purchase sexual services they assert that the purchase will continue but under conditions of illegality, which will impact on those who continue to be involved in the industry.

This feeds into the “sex-positive” form of feminism, whereby women are centred as sexual agents capable of making independent choices over their participation in sexual activities, and that it is only patriarchal beliefs about women’s virtue which leads to the shame and stigma associated with the industry.

The thesis of those supporting Rhoda Grant’s bill is that

Stable women are saving the unstable women from unstable men

Women who speak publicly while still having involvement in the sex industry necessarily have the social and emotional capital to withstand of the label of “whore”, although elements of their lives may be difficult at times and vulnerable to being exploited by being outed, the fact that they take that risk belies a level of stability.   When supporting the criminalisation of men who purchase sexual services it is seen through the lens of violence against women.  By allowing the continuation of men legally purchasing sexual services, they assert will justify the continuing violence against women, which the sex industry both encourages and hides from view.

This feeds into the “sex-critical” form of feminism, most notably represented by Dwarkin who analysed the conditions of sexual intimacy, intercourse and violence under patriarchy, to conclude that the entire area was problematic – as even where consent was given, the conditions of patriarchy conspired against a truely free choice of whether to engage in any particular encounter.  Once money is added into the mix of coersion, bad things happen.

Neither sex positive nor sex negative feminism tells the whole story.  They work in a matrix.  The thesis of patriarchy is that the purpose of women is for fucking, and that being fucked is a shameful thing.  Sex-negative feminism challenges the first part, but holds no challenges to the second; while sex positive feminism challenges the second part, but leaves the first untouched.  This dualism can be seen coming through in sex-industry narratives, where sex-positive feminists generally support the “workers rights arguments” arguing that it is only stigma which renders purchasing sexual services as shameful; while sex-negative feminists consider that it is the overall position of women in our society as sexual objects which leads to the purchase of sexual services as acceptable.

Kotiswaran in “Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labour” explores both positions, talking to women involved in the sex-industry in India.  Although India is a long way from Scotland and consequently the industry differs in a variety of ways, there are similarities.  Most notably that there is a strong conflict between Western funded rescue industry based on a narrative of violence against women, and the indigent “Sex-worker Rights” movement, based on an assumption of sex-work as labour.

Some of the findings were that the women there see their involvement as work.   They did not see it as a “profession” as some Western sex-workers tend to promote, but as marginal labour, on a par with scavenging, peddling, domestic workers and other forms of informal labour where it is largely cash-in-hand work done to get by and/or supplement other income.  One interesting part of the book, is where she talks of “dignity” and how that leads into the industry, where women enter the industry as a means of shoring up family dignity through the supplimental income that involvement brings.  That resonates with the contributions above from the two anonymous women, where the subtext of them being denied access to the industry through the criminalisation of their clients would see them lose the dignity of a comfortable home and ability to support a family that they had built up through their involvement.

She notes that the industry is not a monolith, and that choices are made (but not under the circumstances of the womens own choosing), to utilise their agency within the confines of their situation to improve it, while noting that the industry as a whole is still problematic; she also highlights the role of sexual bartering plays, where although money may change hands, it is not seen as payment, and indeed the exchange may not be one of payment, but be in kind.   This kind of bartering also exists in Scotland, particularly in housing schemes, where men are known to be favourable to “helping someone out” in cash or in kind, where the sexual favour may not be immediate, but is implicitly demanded for a continuation of their assistance.  Interestingly, she concludes that some form of legalisation is the most productive way forward, a position that no-one in the “Sex-Industry Wars” in Scotland seems to think is a good idea (and for the record, I don’t either).

While I still support the Rhoda Grants bill to criminalise the purchase of sexual services over the alternative proposed of decriminalisation, it is worth looking again at how it can be implemented in a manner which centres women – all women – in the industry and allowing them to define who is sexually exploiting them, and critical to that is exploring the experiences of the sub-alterns of the industry.  Above all, as the anonymous woman above said if we really want to protect women, we need to deal with “what makes women enter prostitution in the first place: poverty, cuts and poor child support“.


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