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When former Sex Workers become SWERFS

Why do many women who claim to be former sex workers sound so much like SWERFs? (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists). Surely someone cannot be exclusionary of themselves? Yet this is a common dynamic, and I’d like to share my thoughts on why.

Because I’m a former sex worker. And I’ve expressed views that are most definitely SWERFy, out of a genuine belief that I was ‘helping’ other sex workers. That I had a duty to go public about the very real horrors I’ve experienced within the industry. I supported the Nordic model. I wrote an open letter to Amnesty International denouncing their support of the legalisation of sex work. I genuinely believed that the sex industry was inherently exploitative of and violent towards women and decriminalising sex work meant letting abusive pimps and punters off the hook. I read Rachel Moran’s ‘Paid For’ and cried.

Recently, I’ve been rethinking my position. Firstly, the Nordic model isn’t working. It hasn’t actually reduced violence against sex workers. Most current sex workers don’t want it; they seem to overwhelmingly want, if not actual legalisation (which can cause its own problems for sex workers, a la Germany) then full decriminalization and expansion and protection of their rights. Why aren’t we listening to them? And when I saw so-called feminists shout down sex workers themselves and continue to advocate for something that isn’t working and in fact harms the very people they are claiming to speak for, I began to realise there was something very wrong with this picture.

So why do so many former sex workers metamorphose into SWERFs? Speaking both as a therapist and out of my own experience (and I’m certainly not claiming to speak for everyone) I can offer the following perspectives;

. Many of these former sex workers have had genuinely traumatic and exploitative experiences and misguidedly want to protect other women from the same

. As trauma survivors, or even just dealing with societal stigma, shame becomes internalised and projected onto those still working within the industry

. Genuine SWERFs will play on these very real fears and feelings to recruit former sex workers to their cause (in much the same way that TERFs play on women's fears of assault by making up a narrative whereby trans women are in fact cis male predators in disguise, just lurking around waiting for the right opportunity to rape us)

. Typical liberal feminist rhetoric often paints a ‘fluffy bunny’ picture of the sex industry where everyone is happy and safe and getting along making empowered choices, ignoring the very real power dynamics, including those of race and class, exploitation and violence that does in fact occur. To a former sex worker with traumatic experiences of the industry, this is both dismissive and dehumanising

After a lot of soul-searching, research, and actual listening to current sex workers, I’ve realised a few counterpoints to those above

. Not every woman’s experiences are the same as mine. While levels of abuse and violence are indeed rampant within the sex industry, not everyone is a victim. Not all sex workers need saving. Who am I, Lancelot? There is nothing feminist about trying to convince a sex worker she is a victim. This is doing nothing to help and support people who are actually being victimised.

. Shame around sex work comes from the same place as shame around sex — paternalistic, patriarchal, moralistic conservatism. There is nothing feminist about this. We need to heal our own wounds, not project them onto others.

. SWERFs are not my friend. They don’t actually care about my pain or my story, they just want to exploit it for their own agenda. They don’t care about sex workers. Hence why they’ve been dubbed ‘Exclusionary’.

.Liberal white feminism is dripping in class and white privilege and rarely provides a valid analysis of anything. That doesn’t mean sex workers who genuinely enjoy their job and make empowered choices on a daily basis don’t exist. They do. And often they are blazing trails within the sex industry, particularly within the pornography industry, to transform it from within into a genuinely sex-positive and inclusive occupation. This is to be applauded and encouraged.

The bottom line is that the liberal ‘go whores, get coin’, and the SWERFy ‘all sex work is evil and should be abolished’ are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and as a result generally fail to capture the lived experience of the majority of sex workers (I need to make it clear at this point that in this article I’m addressing sex workers as those who chose, for whatever reason, to enter the industry, not victims of sex trafficking. SWERFs often conflate the two just to further confuse everyone).

The truth is the sex industry can indeed be and often is misogynous, abusive and traumatic. Sex workers in general show high rates of PTSD. Do you know why? Because its a reflection of the society we live in. The problem isn’t the industry. It’s misogyny and gender violence. Hardly exclusive to the sex industry now are they? The industry functions as a microcosm of wider society and a mirror to the sexual dynamics operating within it. Yes these structures need dismantling. Precisely how is targeting sex workers themselves and completely ignoring their voices going to do this?

Yes my experiences were often horrific, but you know what? Some of them weren’t. I met a lot of really cool people. And I entered the industry already traumatised from childhood abuse, domestic violence and as a drug addict, which meant my choices were of course impaired. Had I entered the industry for other reasons, without these existing vulnerabilities, which of course put me in the firing line for the worst kind of predators, my experiences may have been very different. While the correlation between sex work and violence can’t be ignored, it shouldn’t be oversimplified and used to score points on a moralistic agenda either. This does nothing to help actual victims and is in fact exploitative of their experience.

SWERFy attitudes towards abolition also completely fail to take economic structures into account. Many women choose sex work to escape poverty, and experience this as an empowered choice. By advocating for the abolition of sex work without actually a complete dismantling of the current capitalist system, SWERFs are denying sex workers their right to survive. All work under a capitalist and neoliberal system is exploitative. Denying sex workers basic rights is adding to this.

So I want to say this to other former sex workers whose experiences were difficult at best and traumatising at worst; I hear you. I love you. Your experiences and feelings are real and valid.

But so are other peoples.

Don’t be a SWERF.

References and Resources

Moran, Rachel ‘Paid For; My Journey through Prostitution’ WW Norton Books

https://www.collegium.ethz.ch/fileadmin/autoren/pdf_papers/10_roessler_sexwork.pdf

  • Photo credits — Juno Mac/SWARM