Confessions of a Former SWERF

Ok, so maybe I wasn’t a full on SWERF, like I didn’t want to take rights away from sex workers but I did think that sex work was exploitative and a direct result of centuries of patriarchy. I thought that anyone who tried to purchase sex from another person should be criminalised, because I naively believed that that would end demand. I also thought that everyone working in the industry was there under duress. And all of these assumptions were based on complete and utter ignorance.

I have since been fortunate enough to meet lots of people who work in the sex work industry (most of them women). What an eye opener that has been. I’ve had a lot of my ideas and illusions shattered. One of my friends was forced into sex work as a teenager and her experience was awful. But aside from that friend — and I would say she was a victim of sexual assault and coercion, not a sex worker — every other woman I know who is a sex worker has chosen their line of work.

For some women the choice is financial. Other women just fucking (excuse the pun) love it. Some women I know find sex work to be hugely fulfilling and rewarding and enjoyable work. I know! Amazing isn’t it? I was shocked too when I first realised that not everyone is like me! (I’m being sarky of course but mostly towards my former self).

Meeting and listening to sex workers and former sex workers opened my eyes about why people work at sex work, and how those people feel about it, but what about patriarchy? How to reconcile the selling of the female body following centuries of gendered degradation, sexualisation and exploitation? As we currently live in a patriarchal world it is almost impossible to know if sex work would still exist if we lived in an equitable world, or even a world that wasn’t so hung up on shame, fear and secrecy. I have a feeling that even if society was equitable in every way and there was no fear or shame around sex there would still be people wanting to be sex workers. I’m basing this feeling on the genuine sense of joy and fulfilment some sex workers say they get from their work and because the majority of the women I know who are sex workers tell me that they are happy with the work they’ve chosen.

I’ll never forget the question I asked a sex worker (who has now become a friend) when I first met her:

“Are you saying that some people actively choose sex work”
“Yes.” She said.
“But aren’t some women doing it because they can’t afford not to?” I asked.
“Yes. There are people who don’t like their jobs no matter what job they’re doing, like there are cleaners who don’t want to be cleaners but are forced into it by poverty.” She said. “Just because we use other parts of our body to do our job — does that mean we shouldn’t have the same rights and safety as you?”

I couldn’t argue with that. And that was the end of my SWERF-iness.

I know a lot of women are anti-sex work and to me these people are much like anti-choicers. They wish to deny women their own agency and experiences and show little interest in addressing the core issues that cause some women to take up sex work — for example, poverty, high university fees or child care costs. Why aren’t SWERFs fighting hard to end poverty, to provide more supports for lone parents or bring down uni fees? Why instead attack women who are - like the rest of us — just trying to make a living. I know of women who wouldn’t chose sex work if they had enough financial security but since they don’t sex work is the option they’ve chosen to keep food on the table. And of course there are the women who want to and enjoy being sex workers. Why should these women be criminalised, stigmatised and negated, just because of the type of work they’ve chosen to do (and regardless of why they’ve chosen it)?

There is an essential paradox in being a SWERF, how can you truly be a feminist if you do not listen to and believe the experiences of other women? How can you take such a paternalistic view of sex workers and think you know what is best for them even when they are clearly telling you otherwise? My own SWERF views came from ignorance and a patronising kind of moral crusader vibe, “I know what is best for you fallen women. Come on and I’ll help you out of your awful life.” I never said that or thought it but it was at the root of the beliefs I had about sex work and sex workers. I cringe to think of it now, how condescending, how arrogant, how offensive. I’m publicly atoning for my prior awful SWERFy ways now and hoping that by doing so I might reach out to a few people who are open to some new ideas about sex workers.

There were plenty of SWERF voices delighted by the introduction of the Swedish/Nordic model to Ireland. And yet this model has not reduced the selling of sex in Sweden and has only made it more dangerous for sex workers, so it begs the question who is it serving and why would anyone feel happy about it being introduced? SWERFs seem happy to ignore the evidence and research that shows the many dangerous failings of the Swedish/Nordic model. I have argued previously that SWERFs be called SWERs, as I cannot find any trace of feminism in a dogma that removes the voices and agency of the women who are being discussed and who are most affected. Our sex worker sisters should not be thrown under the bus for the sake of a moralising few.

I’d love to know how SWERFs reconcile their ‘feminism’ with beliefs that are harming and in some cases killing women? Perhaps like me, most SWERFs had never met a sex worker or thought much about how dangerous and hurtful their ideas are. I hope some of you might consider joining me in supporting the rights of all women, regardless of what profession they have chosen for themselves.

  • A note on trafficking: Trafficking and sex work are often discussed together as if the two things are the same — but consensual sex workers are not the same as someone forced into sexual activity against their will. I don’t know anyone who thinks human trafficking of any kind is ok. And no sex worker I know wants to force anyone to work at sex work against their will. Consent is key in sex work (and in sex). Fighting for the decriminalisation of sex work and safety for sex workers is not a win for traffickers. It is somewhat beyond the remit of this piece for me to go into but you can find great piece on the problems with the Nordic model/linking it to trafficking here and the fundamental difference between sex work and human trafficking explained beautifully here.

I want to acknowledge and thank all the women who have given so much of their time and energy to teach me and others about sex work, (with a special thanks to Lucy Smith of Ugly Mugs who is a total Shero).