There are some campaigners, and particularly some feminists, who seem to believe that in order to achieve a more equal society there are people out there who need saving from themselves. We see it in conversations about black women (”How, exactly, does twerking ‘empower’ us?“); about Muslim women (”Wearing a hijab contributes to your own oppression“); about fat women (”Self-hatred and subscribing to beauty norms is the only way you’ll save yourself“), and about trans women too (”Your personal suffering at the hands of people like me is mythical“).
The overarching message is that these women can’t possibly know what’s good for them. They need a self-appointed, morally upstanding woman to tell them what to do – and to silence them in the process.
Sound familiar? The parallels with the forces that feminists are supposed to be fighting against are almost comic.
Sex workers, or anyone in a related profession, bear a heavy weight of unsolicited judgement. For years, some feminist groups have attempted to speak over, convert or rescue anyone whose view about that industry differs from their own, and this week it’s the turn of the Not Buying It campaign.
The group is dedicated to “challenging the exploitation of the porn and sex trade”, with – or so they claim – the support of its “survivors and the many others it harms”.
In the three years since the group has been active, Not Buying It has been busy. It has spearheaded campaigns against strip-club licensing, rallied against sex work advice stalls at Brighton University and accused the Liberal Democrats of being a “pro-pimp” party, over its policy on decriminalising the sale and purchase of sex and the management of sex work.
This week, the group’s attention turned back to stripping, in the form of an ongoing sting operation in which it hired a gang of former police officers working as private investigators to secretly film women stripping at work to prove that “full nude lap dancing in a discreet environment” was taking place in some clubs.
The “campaigning” here was at the expense of, not in support of, the women working at the clubs. Dr Sasha Rakoff, the chief executive of Not Buying It, maintains that the sting was “not about exposing lap dancers”. Yet one of the women who was filmed working at a strip club in Manchester, identified as Daisy, said the sting had violated her privacy. “I consent to being on CCTV,” she said. “I consent to it every night when I go to work [because it keeps me safe] but I don’t consent to them [the campaigners] filming me.
“We have a right to our body, despite what we do for a job, and they’ve taken that right completely away from us.”
The United Voices of the World union, which has been working to help sex workers and strippers “fight the industry from within” since last year, called the group’s investigation an example of “revenge porn” – I can’t see any reason to disagree with that. Rather than prioritising the safety of these women, this anti-stripping campaign values its own members’ moral discomfort over the experiences of those it claims to protect.
The fact that Not Buying It was more willing to work with former police officers – that is, men and women who have worked for an institution already accused of disproportionately targeting sex workers – than the very women they say they’re fighting for sends a disappointingly clear message.
These groups say that it’s impossible to accept both that sex work can be exploitative (which, of course, it can) and also that sex workers have the right to demand better safety and fairer conditions in their workplace. It's all or nothing: strip clubs should be abolished; strippers should be filmed without their consent for their own good; sex workers as well as their clients should be locked up; porn should be banned. Yet none of these draconian approaches tackle the issues that keep the sex industry alive.
They say it’s the oldest profession, and certainly, sex work has some of the oldest collective support mechanisms too. Sex workers and strippers have been speaking out about mistreatment, financial exploitation and a lack of safety far longer than modern feminist pressure groups have taken an interest in their cause. Many have unionised.
Some individual women have dedicated their lives to challenging the arcane and illiberal laws that see sex workers imprisoned, assaulted or murdered at work. Many more are quite literally just making a living – some out of necessity, others out of joy, and some are moved by both.
There is no blanket ban that could ever put an end to the factors that fuel the demand for, and lead workers into, the sex industry.
The sooner feminists such as those in the Not Buying It campaign start talking and actually listening to sex workers, the better. They might learn something about what supporting all women really looks like.
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