'Proud to be whores'. Prostitutes demonstrate in Paris in 2008. philippe leroyer/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)
Gail Pheterson began organising with the sex workers of COYOTE in San Francisco in 1984 during a sabbatical year at the Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley. While in San Francisco she designed an alliance project of whores, wives and dykes that transformed into a network of Bad Girl Rap Groups. Co-facilitated with Margo St. James, Scarlot Harlot/Carol Leigh, Priscilla Alexander, Sharon Kaiser, E. Kitch Childs, Gloria Locket and others, the Bad Girl Rap Groups were open to "any woman who had ever been stigmatised as bad by her work, colour, class, sexuality, history of abuse, or just plain gender".
Upon her return to Europe, she co-founded the Red Thread and Pink Thread, two interwoven Dutch organisations of sex workers and allies, with Margot Alvarez, Ans van der Drift, Martine Groen, Violet and others. She also co-organised with Margo St. James the First World Whores’ Congress in Amsterdam and the Second World Whores’ Congress at the European Parliament in Brussels, and co-founded the International Committee for Prostitutes' Rights.
Gail Pheterson edited the transcripts of the Whores' Congresses for publication in A Vindication of the Rights of Whores (released in Spanish under the title Nosotras Las Putas) and published a series of essays titled The Prostitution Prism (also in Spanish and French), including her most known and widely translated essay, ‘The Whore Stigma: Female Dishonor and Male Unworthiness’.
Women mobilised a grassroots liberation movement fifty years ago in defiant resistance against oppression. Those feminists knew their struggle was dangerous but they were unrelenting in claiming rights for women as autonomous persons. Where are we now in this crusade for freedom?
The idea of equality between the sexes has moved into the global limelight over the past decades, but women's liberation is still a far cry from home. Government authorities, world organisations, and social reformers continue to undermine radical analysis of pervasive sexism with emotionally-charged rhetoric of individual female misfortune and male misconduct. Exposés of criminal and perverse men capturing helpless women ignite public outrage while leaving intact institutional obstacles to women’s mobility, work, and bodily self-determination. This rhetoric sabotages liberation strategies by taking women-on-the-run into protective custody of the status quo. Anti-violence discourse then serves to reinforce state repression of women. Knowingly or unknowingly, the establishment has succeeded in wrenching the feminist agenda from its subversive fibre. The result is effective camouflage of the political cause for women's flight and disregard for women's material needs, social choices and, most insidiously, agency in thinking and shaping their destinies.
All women have reason to seek liberty, but all do not face the same life conditions. The contemporary foot soldiers of our movement are rightless migrant women disallowed from leaving home, crossing borders, earning money, or living independently. Without rights, they are forced to bargain their survival with abusive profiteers inside and outside the law. In legislation, popular media, police records, UN conventions, and even ill-founded feminist tracts, they are branded trafficked women, trapped in the nexus of global power relations, and categorised as this or that kind of victim or tramp.
Sex worker activists are savvy feminist analysts of these machinations, their consciousness undoubtedly sharpened by daily trials of (escaping) state entrapment, extortion, imprisonment, and slander. As intimates of both backroom and front stage men, prostitutes are solicited by government officials to serve as undercover agents and informants. Their advantage over socially reputable women is their exclusion from polite society and direct experience of institutional vice. Mainstream feminists would do well to listen to their word in public as male authorities do in private. Their first demand is decriminalisation of sex work. This implies repealing prohibitions against negotiations and services attached to the sex industry, including the hiring of third parties to facilitate management of businesses and travel to foreign markets. In other words, sex workers demand the abolition of anti-prostitution, anti-pimping and anti-trafficking laws. They know that such laws invariably translate into discriminatory surveillance, fines, arrest, detention, and expulsion of migrant women.
Since popular opinion equates pimping and trafficking with the vile use and abuse of women, well-intentioned reformers persist in promoting restrictive legislation that curtails women's sexual negotiations and geographic displacements. Most existing criminal laws against pimping and trafficking are about sex, money, and travel – not about violence. Some countries do require evidence of force to proceed with prosecution, but women are nonetheless subject to discriminatory surveillance rationalised as preventive measures ‘for their own good’.
Violence, coercion, and deceit do, of course, occur in prostitution, as elsewhere in the sex class system. Certainly sex workers should have the same recourse to laws against those crimes as any legitimate plaintiff would have in cases of battery, rape, fraud, kidnapping, or other offense against their person. But equal juridical treatment is incompatible with prejudicial classification as prostitute or trafficked woman. Sex workers demand generic, gender-neutral consideration undifferentiated from other workers, citizens, or human beings. Crimes against women are not crimes against incapacitated dependents, property, or morality; they are crimes against individuals.
Women have ample cause for class action to claim compensation for a host of injustices, whether unpaid labour, insult, assault, or discrimination. Reparation could be a feminist collective demand. Matrimony and maternity are clearly the key historical sites of subjugation for women in terms of toil and sacrifice. But feminists have never called for prohibition of marriage or pregnancy, regardless of the risks and documented damages. Feminists have fought to give women alternatives or escapes from heterosexual coercions with divorce rights, battered women shelters and lesbian legitimacy. And they have fought to give women escapes from forced pregnancy or forced sterilisation by demanding reproductive choice and by facilitating access to contraception and abortion. But surely they would not deny women the right to decide for themselves whether to marry or bear a child or even whether to remain with an abusive husband. And they would not deny the rewards and satisfactions some women experience as wives or mothers. Why do sex workers not receive the same respect?
There could also be a feminist class action to claim compensation for injustices in the sex industry. And clearly, alternatives and escape channels depend upon feminist struggles for migrant rights, labour rights, and residency permits for independent women. But there is no justification for denying the right to negotiate payment for sexual services. Individually we are each in the grip of specific realities, each a unique person, and each entitled to our own thought processes and life choices. Collectively we can shape visions and common liberatory goals without judging any individual woman for her meanderings in the sex class system.
This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.