Cops, Borders, and Carceral Feminists
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Sex workers are everywhere. We are your neighbours. We brush past you on the street. Our kids go to the same schools as yours. We’re behind you at the self-service checkout, with baby food and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. People who sell sex are in your staff cafeteria, your political party, your after-school club committee, your doctor’s waiting room, your place of worship. Sex workers are incarcerated inside immigration detention centres, and sex workers are protesting outside them.
Although we are everywhere, most people know little about the reality of our lives. Sex workers are subject to a lot of curiosity and discussion in popular culture, journalism, and policy. When we are visible as workers – on the street, in signposted brothels, in digital spaces – our presence provokes disquiet. We are increasingly visible as workers in political spaces, and here too our presence provokes disquiet. Many people want to stop us from selling sex, or fix the world so we don’t need to, or just ensure they don’t have to look at us. But we are notoriously hard to get rid of, at least through criminal law.
Prostitution is heavy with meaning and brings up deeply felt emotions. This is especially the case for people who have not sold sex, and who think of it in symbolic terms. The idea of prostitution serves as a lightning rod for questions about work, masculinity, class, bodies; about archetypal villainy and punishment; about who ‘deserves’ what; about what it means to live in a community; and about what it means to push some people outside that community’s boundaries. Attitudes towards prostitution have always been strongly tied to questions of race, borders, migration, and national identity in ways which are sometimes overt but often hidden. Sex work is the vault in which society stores some of its keenest fears and anxieties.
Perhaps the most difficult questions raised by prostitution involve what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society. Feminist writer Kate Millett notes feminist rhetoric suggesting ‘that all women are prostitutes, that marriage is prostitution’. Sex workers have long noted with ambivalence the interplay between prostitution as a site of metaphor and as an actual workplace. In 1977, the sex worker led collective PROS – Programme for Reform of the Law on Soliciting – wrote (in the iconic UK feminist magazine Spare Rib) that it wanted the women’s liberation movement ‘to think about the whole thing [prostitution] and discuss it, but not just use it’, explaining that the women’s movement has ‘used the word prostitutein a really nasty way – about housewives, to sum up their idea of the exploited situation of women’. They noted that this interest in the metaphorical uses of prostitute was not accompanied by much practical support for sex workers’ efforts to tackle criminalisation.
In some ways, little has changed. Contemporary feminists’ disapproval of prostitution remains unmoored from pragmatism. More political energy goes to obstructing sex work than to what is really needed, such as helping sex workers avoid prosecution, or ensuring viable alternative livelihoods that are more than respectable drudgery. As trans sex worker community leader Ceyenne Doroshow has said: ‘If you don’t want sex workers doing the work, sweetie, employ them! Employ them, have a solution!’
Our concern is for the safety and the survival of people who sell sex. Like Doroshow and PROS before us, we are ultimately focused on the practical and material rather than the symbolic or metaphorical. Approaching sex work from this perspective provokes certain questions. What conditions best enable someone who wants to quit sex work to do so? What conditions lead people to sell sex, or make sex work their only opportunity for survival? What gives a sex worker more power in negotiating with an employer, and what reduces their power? All over the world, sex workers use strategies to stay safe: working with a friend in the next room, or in a small group on the street; visibly noting down a client’s car number plate or asking for his ID, to show him that he is not anonymous. Can a sex worker call a colleague in as back-up if a client refuses to use a condom? What are the consequences of calling the police – or of being visible to them as a gaggle on the street? What does it mean for a sex worker when their client or manager is afraid of the police? Who is at risk of deportation and homelessness, and why? These are the kinds of questions – questions about people’s material conditions – that concern us, as authors and as sex workers.
Cops, Borders, and Carceral Feminists
There is a huge emphasis on policing – including border policing – as the ‘solution’ to prostitution. This is the case even among those on the left. However, it is remarkable how little you will find about the police and borders in such discussions. These omissions have led to the illusion that one can discuss the laws that govern sex work without any discussion about how such laws are implemented and by whom. But laws are not just ‘messaging’; they are what the police are permitted to do in the world.
The institutions of policing and borders may seem natural or inevitable, but they are recent inventions. Their modern forms date back only to the nineteenth century, and a look at their history illuminates their present.
In the southern United States, the first centralised and specialised policing organisations were slave patrols, whose major function was to capture and punish runaway slaves. Historians of the region argue that they ‘should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.’
In the early-nineteenth-century northern United States and in the United Kingdom, professionalised police forces were set up in response to a restive urban working class organising against bad working and living conditions. As historian David Whitehouse explains, the state needed a way to control burgeoning crowds, protests, and strikes without ‘sending in the army’, which risked creating working class martyrs and further radicalising the populace. Thus the police were designed to inflict generally non-lethal violence to protect the interests of capitalism and the state. The situation is not so different today, with police citing ‘authorisation from the president of McDonald’s’ to justify arresting restaurant workers protesting for better wages.
Today’s immigration controls are also largely a product of the nineteenth century. They rely on ideas of racial inferiority propagated by white Europeans to justify slavery and colonialism. Jewish refugees arriving in Britain in the 1880s and 1890s were met by a surge in anti-Semitism; anti-Semitic tracts claimed at the time that ‘the white slave traffic [is carried out] everywhere ... by Jews’. This racist panic led to the enactment of the Aliens Act of 1905, which contained the first recognisably modern anti-immigration measures in Britain. In the US, the first federal immigration restrictions included the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Scott Act of 1888. These targeted Chinese migrants, particularly sex workers, and devoted substantial resources to attempting to discern wives from prostitutes.
Along with racism, anxieties about commercial sex are embedded in the histories of immigration controls. These are legislative spaces where race and gender co-produce racist categories of exclusion: men of colour as traffickers; women of colour as helpless, seductive, infectious; both as threats to the body politic of the nation. These histories help us see that police and border violence are not anomalous or the work of ‘bad apples’; they are intrinsic to these institutions.
The feminist movement should thus be sceptical of approaches to gender justice that rely on or further empower the police or immigration controls. Black feminists such as Angela Davis have long criticised feminist reliance on the police, and note that the police appear as the most benevolent protectors in the minds of those who encounter them the least. For sex workers and other marginalised and criminalised groups, the police are not a symbol of protection but a real manifestation of punishment and control.
Feminism that welcomes police power is called carceral feminism. The sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, one of the first to use this phrase, uses it to describe a feminist approach that prioritises a ‘law-and- order agenda’; a shift ‘from the welfare state to the carceral state as the enforcement apparatus for feminist goals’. Carceral feminism focuses on policing and criminalisation as the key ways to deliver justice to women.
Carceral feminism has gained popularity even though the police – and the wider criminal justice system – are key perpetrators of violence against women. In the United States, police officers are disproportionately likely to be violent or abusive to their partners or children. At work, they commit vast numbers of assaults, rapes, or harassment. Sexual assault is the second-most commonly reported form of police violence in the United States (after excessive use of force), and on-duty police commit sexual assaults at more than double the rate of the general US population. Those are just the assaults that make it into the statistics: many will never dare to make a report to an abuser’s colleague. Meanwhile, the very nature of police work involves perpetrating violence: in arrests or when they collaborate in incarceration, surveillance, or deportation. In 2017, there was outrage in the United Kingdom when it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had arrested a woman on immigration charges after she came to them as a victim of rape. However, it is routine for police to threaten to arrest or deport migrant sex workers, even when the worker in question has come to them as a victim of violence.
Carceral feminism looms large in sex-trade debates. Feminist commentators pronounce that ‘we must strengthen police apparatus’; that criminalisation is ‘the only way’ to end the sex trade; and that some criminalisation can be relatively ‘benign’. Anti-prostitution feminist Catherine MacKinnon even writes with ambivalent approval of ‘brief jail time’ for prostitutes on the basis that jail can be ‘a respite from the pimps and the street’. She quotes like-minded feminists who argue that ‘jail is the closest thing many women in prostitution have to a battered women’s shelter’ and that, ‘considering the absence of any other refuge or shelter, jail provides a temporary safe haven’.
Sex workers do not share this rosy view of arrest and incarceration. One sex worker in Norway told researchers, ‘You only call the police if you think you’re going to die ... If you call the police, you risk losing everything’. Sex workers in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Siberia, Lithuania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria all view the police as more of a threat to their safety than any other group, according to research by the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN). In 2017 in New York, a woman called Yang Song was caught up in an under-cover sting at the massage parlour at which she worked. She had been arrested for prostitution two months earlier and had recently been sexually assaulted by a man claiming to be a police officer. (It remains unclear as to whether he was.) When the police returned, looking to arrest her again for prostitution, she fell, jumped, or was pushed from a fourth-floor window. Yang Song died.
On Speaking and Being Heard
Who are prostitutes? Ideas seem to lurch between contradictory stereotypes, perhaps unsurprisingly for a group more often spoken about than to. Much as immigrants are seen as lazy scroungers while somehow also stealing the jobs of ‘decent people’, sex workers are simultaneously victim and accomplice, sexually voracious yet helpless maidens.
When our society attempts to reconcile these wildly contradictory expectations, sex workers are asked to produce a spokesperson who ‘represents the community’. This is impossible – just as there can be no one ‘representative’ token woman who can stand in every time ‘women’s issues’ are on the table. One sex worker may be nothing like another in their identity, circumstance, health and habits. From the single mum with a weekday job in a Scottish massage parlour, to the young Cambodian bar hostess keen to travel to Europe, to the group of black trans sex workers forming political collectives in Cape Town, to the undocumented Nigerian migrant hustling on the streets of Stockholm, across the global north and south, across an age spectrum that spans many decades, sex workers are unimaginably diverse in race, religion, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and disability. To achieve anything like real representation, this book would need thousands of authors.
Many sex worker activists find their testimonies are dismissed in feminist spaces on the grounds that, by virtue of being activists, they are not representative; that they speak from an exceptional, privileged and anomalous perspective. Questions over whether a sex worker is ‘representative’ become recursive: in their claimed eagerness to hear from ‘the voiceless’, anti-prostitution campaigners position anyone they can hear from as by definition someone who no longer needs to be listened to. This is, of course, not a logic that anti-prostitution campaigners apply to their own voices.
The authors of this book could certainly not be described as representative of all people selling sex. Both of us are cisgender and white, born and raised in the global north, working in a country where the sex work we do is less criminalised, with middle-class educations and the access to power and capital that brings. It is not by accident that opportunities to speak on television, publish articles, and be appointed to salaried activist positions come to us or people like us. Just as in any radical movement, a select few activists often receive unfair credit for doing the same work that more marginalised sex workers, who cannot risk being public in their activism, are doing alongside them.
The existence of this book – which is written in English and which focuses on the UK, where we live and work – itself illustrates a way in which some modes of discussion are legitimised by society, while others go unrecognised. The service provision and community building created by marginalised, grass-roots communities is sometimes relatively unknown. These ephemeral forms of resistance can be incredibly joyful or life-saving, and the memories of them invaluable to a movement. On the other hand, books, blogs and policy documents are forms of advocacy that make easy passage into history. A book gives us a substantial amount of space to critically explore the sometimes painful aspects of sex work politics – space and nuance not afforded to people taking two-minute turns on a megaphone at a rally. This book is forged from our perspective, and our perspective is shaped by our privileges. However, we strive to include a range of sex worker voices in our writing – from triumphant, to reflexive, to critical, to mournful. All these forms of political speech are valid.
Sex workers sometimes pay a high price for political speech. In 2004, Argentinian trade union activist Sandra Cabrera was shot dead in her home in retribution for her work challenging police corruption and police violence directed at sex workers. Her murder remains officially unsolved. Kabita Roy, an activist with a sex worker trade union in India, was murdered in the union’s office in Kolkata in 2016. In January 2018, three prominent sex worker activists were murdered in Brazil. In 2011, criminal gangs murdered the president of a migrant sex worker trade union in Peru. Sex worker Angela Villón Bustamante, a colleague of the murdered trade union- ist, said, ‘It’s not in the Mafia’s economic interests that sex workers organise.’
Nor is the high cost of political speech evenly distributed among sex workers. Precarious immigration status, fear of eviction and police violence, and potential loss of child custody mean that migrant and indigenous workers, the insecurely housed, and parents (particularly mothers) all face higher stakes when organising or speaking up than sex workers who have secure long-term tenancies, hold a passport or citizenship, or have no children. Cisgender sex workers are safer from these risks than transgender sex workers; white sex workers are safer than sex workers of colour.
Nonetheless, even as sex workers with relative power, demonstrating that we can speak for ourselves is often a gruelling task. The ‘prostitution debate’ is in many ways shaped far more by invisible actors – such as the media staffers who write article headlines and choose the photo that will accompany an article, or local government workers who process planning applications – than by anyone who actually sells sex. Even the most privileged sex workers take a considerable risk by becoming publicly known, so online anonymity is a vital tool of diverse speech. Yet this anonymity is often used to discredit us as nefarious ‘sex industry lobbyists.’ Websites where sex workers have anonymously connected with the public, with each other and with clients are rapidly being dismantled. As this book went to press, US president Donald Trump signed into law a bill that seeks to stop sex workers from communicating online, with disastrous implications not only for privacy and political advocacy, but for sex workers’ safety and survival, too.
We write this book with thoughtfulness about where we stand, but also with a sense of satisfaction that you will hold in your hand a book about prostitution written by prostitutes. This is, unfortunately, all too rare. Sex workers – not journalists, politicians, or the police – are the experts on sex work. We bring our experiences of criminalisation, rape, assault, intimate partner abuse, abortion, mental illness, drug use, and epistemic violence with us in our organising and our writing. We bring the knowledge we have developed through our deep immersion in sex worker organising spaces – spaces of mutual aid, spaces that are working towards collective liberation. As two friends writing this book together, we strive to make the demands of our movement visible.
The man responsible for the killing spree in Thika, Kenya, was apprehended in 2010. He confessed and claimed that he would have continued killing until he’d reached a hundred prostitutes: ‘I managed 17 and there were 83 to go.’ Aisha, a sex worker in Thika, who with her friends protested in the streets during the frightening time before he was caught, says, ‘We wanted people to know that we call ourselves sex workers because it is the wheat our families depend on.’ Even in the face of such overwhelming vulnerability, they openly identified themselves as sex workers in public for the first time, with bright red T-shirts and loud chanting. As one sex worker at the protest remarked, ‘The community should know we exist. And there’s no going back.’
- the above is an edited excerpt from the Introduction to Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights (40% off on our website until November 11).