(by Audacia Ray)
On Wednesday night I attended a panel on feminist men, put on by Paradigm Shift, a feminist organization I recently discovered that is doing great community building work. [And before I dig into the ugly stuff, I want to make very clear that I really loved the event, will definitely be going to future Paradigm Shift events, and I was really impressed with not only the organization of the event but also the friendliness of the Paradigm shift staff – they were greeting folks as we came in, which was just lovely. Well then.] Over the last few years, people have said really fucked up things to me or in front of me about sex workers in private, in public, on live broadcasts, intentional and unintentional. I’m really proud to say that I handle most of these comments with grace and aplomb – I strive for that. I think it’s a big part of the value I can add to the debate – I’m pretty unflappable, and I see pretty much all conversations as teachable moments. But that night, I got rattled. It has been a long time since someone said something that made me feel so small, so raw, and so. fucking. angry. One of the panelists was Robert Brannon. He works with the Pornography and Prostitution Task Force at the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). He spoke about some recently emboldened anti-trafficking legislation and his general mission to end the sexual exploitation of women and youth. Which are admirable goals, to be sure. But his words got ugly. He blurred the womenandchildren lines. And he repeatedly used the phrases “women used by the sex industry” and “people used in prostitution” which made me shudder to my core. Let me just quote Melissa Gira, who I was sitting with and was able to articulate her rage enough to stand up and make a comment (which she blogs further beyond the below quote here). I stole a play from the book of the Latin American sex worker activists, who open every critical statement with a bit of gratitude before launching into their take. (And this mostly works, even for long meetings, conducted with simultaneous English/Spanish translation, in headsets. It was like the sex worker UN up in there some days at the AIDS Conference in Mexico City last summer. It was fantastic.) I said to Brannon that I was sure I was the beneficiary of some of his good work, the year I joined a community advocacy program against violence against women in college, we just integrated men into the group. That it was so valuable to work together with men. But that I had real concerns for how his group addresses trafficking without including the people most impacted by their advocacy around trafficking: people in the sex industry. Had they spoken to people who had been raped and assaulted by the police when they were arrested for prostitution? Because to hear him just speak, I didn’t feel that he had. And to hear him just speak, it made asking this question of him that much more challenging, as I, a sex worker, actually did prefer to be called a sex worker, and that for anyone else in the room curious about how to refer to someone who sells sex, they should defer to what people call themselves and want to be called by others. Did they understand (I continued, I mean, I really continued and graciously, no one cut me off) that relying on police to arrest people who sell sex was therefore problematic, and that the raids and “rescue” missions themselves are traumatic and re-victimizing? What was his group doing to ensure that sex workers had access to housing, health care, and education? Rather than focus on what they believed was the inherent abuse in selling sex, how were they working to end the rape and abuse of sex workers at the hands of the people that his group believe can “protect” them — the police? Had they listened to sex workers at all? Brannon again claimed that this wasn’t really his issue, or his concern, and that though his people had worked with people who had left the sex industry and were trying to “make a fresh start” (or some similar metaphor, which I forget, at this point, not having had a notebook out to record anything so much as I was just trying to hold my ground and his eyes) but that he “didn’t believe that sex workers [were] the experts” on these issues or deserved a place at the policy table. So here we are again. None of this is surprising. I have friends in the community of sex worker advocates who do this all the time: try to get on some common ground with the “anti-trafficking” people in the feminist movement, go to their events, ask questions. It may seem like sanctimonious barnstorming, to show up where they show up, but some of these “anti-trafficking” activists are not people who respond to kind emails or invitations to debate or discuss. They use scare tactics and smear campaigns, and frankly, I don’t feel all that safe in one-on-one discussions with them. I preferred the open forum of this panel as a way to ask for some accountability, and I knew full well I probably wouldn’t get a response that even shimmied near anything resembling ethical consideration. So how does one even respond to someone that a feminist organization has pitched up on a pedestal for a moment as “the good guy” telling you, for your own good, that you have been used and to just be quiet and let him get back to work? To this man, and others who want to help: you need to listen. When a person who has worked in the sex industry tells you the words they prefer to describe themselves and their experiences, you need to respect that. Brannon spoke about “people used by the sex industry” as if there couldn’t possibly be someone with that experience in the room. Guess what? We were there. Not all of us felt like we could speak up and correct him. I for one felt a wave of shame quickly followed by the kind of rage that made my skin feel hot and my ears ring. If Melissa Gira hadn’t been there to stand up and say her piece, I would’ve said something. But I wouldn’t have been calm and collected at all. It would have been purely emotional vitriol. It takes a lot to make me feel that way. And the thing that made me feel that way, the thing that actually made me feel triggered and sick and just awful – was the word “used.” A man who probably (giving him the benefit of the doubt) thought he was speaking of other people out there in the world, not humans in the same room as him – that man called me used. I am not “used.” I’m not a car or a million other things that can be used. Used implies a permanence of damage – and yes, I certainly have been altered by my experiences in the sex industry, admittedly in ways that aren’t all good. Some of those alterations are things I’m still figuring out, healing from, mourning. But I am not “used” – and a word like that does violence to my psyche and my ability to speak out and maintain my autonomy and my personhood. And that, in my book, is not what a feminist man should be doing with his words.