There’s a public blog which is a companion to the Survivors Connect Network, “a private online meeting place for survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking”; the bog is where I found an interesting post by Stella Marr, a former prostitute and call girl who, after a decade of sex work, “escaped prostitution” by being “kept” by one of her Johns for two years.
Before I get into the specifics of that post, I want to say that I am not against any such network, nor any person, trafficked or otherwise, who feels they have endured enough in the sex industry to apply the word “survivor” to their status. Anyone who feels so victimized has a right to their stories, to a sense of community, to their pain ~ as well as joys. While my own experiences were, obviously, quite different, no one has the right to silence me and so I fully support the rights of others to voice their own stories and opinions and form/find communities. Those of you who feel compelled to send me hate letters, flaming comments, etc., please get that fact straight before you start foaming at the mouth and incorrectly accuse me of being against this ~ or any similar ~ group. Capiche?
Now onto the real conversation; Marr’s post Pimps Posing as “Sex Worker Activists” & Other Conflicts of Interest:
Well meaning people think most “sex workers activist” organizations/unions speak for women in prostitution. They are mistaken. A shocking number of these “sex worker” organizations were started by women and men who are admitted pimps and madams, or have been convicted of pimping, pandering, or conspiracy to promote prostitution. These people call themselves ‘sex workers’ but it’s a ruse. This is a huge conflict of interest. These organizations and their ‘partners’ and affiliates cannot be allowed to speak for women in prostitution or collect funds on their behalf. Any NGO, university, college [or] nonprofit organization that engages with these pimp-affiliated organizations or their partners is tainted by association. These organizations benefit the predators who profit off of sexual exploitation; they don’t help women in prostitution.
From there Marr provides what appears to be a great bit of research on just which sex worker organizations have been started by pimps and madams. Commendable; but I’m more interested in the salient issues raised here.
Firstly, that of a rose by any other name… Are a pimp and a madam the same thing?
I don’t want to take a lot of time to play with semantics, but words have power and it’s an important issue. To some of us anyway. I realize that to those who feel they have survived sex work, it’s all the same; but for me, the terms are vastly different. And not just for any implied (yet often true) gender differences either.
A pimp is a street thug, running a street game, and much more likely to exploit if not out-right traffic girls and boys. And, as with real estate, location matters; street prostitution ~ as with virtually anything “street” ~ remains the least safest environment. Even if the game isn’t literally run on the streets, his business is run as if it were; along with the sexual, emotional and physical abuse, there are often drugs involved. These distinctions connote the absence of choice on the part of a real victim; he or she is then not a sex worker, but a sex slave. Rarely, if ever, have pimps been sex workers, i.e. actually serviced clients.
A madam, on the other hand, has typically worked with clients ~ and not on the streets either. She’s made the choice to enter sex work, and, in true entrepreneurial fashion, opened or expanded her own business to include other sex workers ~ people who truly choose to enter sex work. The madam takes all she’s learned as an escort, prostitute, dungeon mistress, etc., and profits not only off those who work for her, but off of her knowledge. Those who work for her, more safely benefit and profit from her experience, contacts, clients, etc. I’m not saying each female madam is the “hooker with a heart of gold” character seen running brothels in old Westerns; but it’s a completely different world from that of working for a pimp.
[When Marr says she would "never feel safe around a madam" and that most women in prostitution wouldn't either, I have to say I've only had the opposite experiences. Not just the fact that when I began my career in sex work I began working for a woman who had left an agency to start her own escort service, but the fact that I've heard from a number of women over the years who either A) began the same way and were thankful for it, or B) wished they had been so lucky.]
Are there exceptions to these definitions; sure there are. Are those who feel they have survived the sex trade (trafficking) and sex work entitled to see them all as the same thing? I’m not so sure…
Neither am I sure that being a madam or manager, even without having performed the duties of a prostitute, excludes one from being a sex worker or sex worker advocate.
[Since we're on the subject of labels and labeling, I'd also like to say that legal charges and convictions regarding pimping, running a house of prostitution, conspiracy to promote interstate prostitution, and the like are about as fair as charges brought against workers in oldest profession; charges and convictions aren't meaningless (they sure do have their affects!), but they are most often sought and brought unfairly against those the industry (especially women), while those using the services (clients, Johns; usually men) are somehow exempt.]
The second big issue raised by Marr is that of conflict of interest.
Marr’s main argument is that “in the ‘sex worker activist’ movement, pimps pretend to be workers when in fact they are management — the ones in control.” If we are speaking about issues between workers and management, then, yes, this is a fundamental conflict of interest. But when it comes to sex for sale, we first have to make the distinctions between workers (and even management) who are there by choice and those who are not. Sex workers are not the same as trafficked sex slaves because sex workers made the choice to be there. Treating or even addressing trafficked persons the same as those who opted for the work as “the same” means no success in helping anyone.
Making the choice to be a sex worker means the act of selling sex a victimless crime. That is vastly different from sexual or any other form of slavery.
But that doesn’t mean that those who chose to become sex workers cannot be victimized. Simply working in an illegal, criminalized profession offers many means of being victimized. You can be abused, penalized, and exploited by a consumer of your product; you can be abused, penalized, and exploited by the very people who are supposed to be there to protect and serve, to treat and heal; you can be abused, penalized, and exploited by anyone in society at large who discovers that you are a sex worker. Once you’re a sex worker, all your other rights and protections are fuzzy things… Not facts. These are the issues that sex work activists are trying to address.
And that means it’s not necessarily a conflict of interest for a madam or manager to begin or run an organization for sex workers.
Pimps or sex slave traders shouldn’t run anything. Period. That’s a conflict of interest for any of us with a soul.
The context of Marr’s argument misses the fact that the main issues in sex work are not between workers and management, escorts and madams, or even prostitutes and pimps ~ because ultimately “the ones in control” are society, its institutions, and the individuals which make them up. And these folks do not see the distinction between sex work as a choice and sexual slavery. These are two incredibly different segments of “sex for sale.” And I must repeat, treating them as if they are the same serves no one. Save for perhaps the most vile: the sex traffickers and those who would/do exploit sex workers. To this end, I argue that working against legitimate sex work, i.e. an industry made up of people who have opted to be there, is a conflict of interest in addressing the sex slave trade.
Thirdly, I’d like to address what Marr calls the fruit of the poisonous tree, that any organization which partners or collaborates with the “pimp-affiliated” organizations or their partners/affiliates is “tainted by association” and “cannot be allowed to speak for women in prostitution or collect funds on their behalf.”
What I have to say here will likely be no surprise after all of the above, but it does deserve to be stated directly: Just as those who call themselves survivors of prostitution and trafficking have the right to have their voices heard, respected, so do sex workers who walk on the other side of the street. And organizations, groups, universities, etc. not only have the same right, but also the rights to amplify the voices they wish to, including by collecting funds and financially supporting the groups and causes they wish to.
Instead of trying to invalidate one another’s experiences, trying to out-shout or silence each other, or otherwise marginalize individuals and “sides,” we should be listening , building working definitions from which to identify and discuss problems, and respectfully collaborating to reach solutions that will address the issues of safety and rights for all.