Feminism in London & Suppressed Voices

An upcoming autumn event, Feminism in London, is planning to hold a panel discussion about sex work – without having any current sex workers on the panel. Ironically, this sex worker-free sex work panel was originally to be named“Suppressed Voices”. (This kind of exclusion is a common experience for sex workers: a recent sex work panel in Australia attempted to discuss sex work without sex workers; a policy discussion in Scotland excluded sex worker-led organisations from a conversation about sex work legislation; and, at a panel in Cork, “anti-prostitution” feminists pulled out  when they learned that current sex workers would also be on the panel. This is to mention only three recent examples.)

For Feminism in London to include current sex workers on a panel about sex work should be non-negotiable, both in terms of the necessity of hearing the insights that only current sex workers can bring, and in terms of simple justice: the people who are most affected by any given issue should play a significant role in conversations about that issue. Listening to the voices of those most affected is basic feminist praxis. A sex work panel without any current sex workers violates that obvious precept.

We’re happy to see that women of colour are represented on the panel (and that this is reflected throughout Feminism in London), but disappointed to note that  the organisers appear to have used this to deflect criticism that the sex work panel does not include any current sex workers. A panel on intersecting oppressions that operate within sex work – focusing on race and class – should centre sex workers of colour, sex workers living in poverty, and sex workers whose identities span both those oppressions and more. It should not be populated entirely by non-sex workers.

An argument sometimes used against sex workers’ demands to have current sex workers included in discussions about sex work rests on the misunderstanding that we want or need every person who sells sex to ‘out’ themselves in order to participate. We’re aware that not every sex worker will feel comfortable being ‘out’ as a sex worker (literally every sex worker member of SWOU is ‘out’ in some contexts, and not in others: we are all constantly navigating which spaces we feel safe in), and we don’t advocate excluding those people from the discussion. A person shouldn’t have to out themselves to participate. However, it is surprising to us that the so-called ‘solution’ to this lack of accessibility for sex workers is to preemptively exclude all current sex workers from the panel.

Events similar to Feminism in London have been able to find current sex workers who are willing be ‘out’ for the purposes of speaking on panels. If Feminism in London can’t find sex workers who want to be on the panel, the conference organisers should reflect on how it is they have made the space feel so unsafe that sex workers aren’t comfortable attending openly. But if a space is so unsafe that no out current sex worker feels able to attend, that shouldn’t be a green light to the organisers to run their sex work panel without sex worker input. If sex workers feel too unsafe to attend the conference, the conference shouldn’t be discussing their issues. Conversely, sexworkers who are in the room are more likely to feel safe, to feel that the diverse perspectives of people currently selling sex are valued – and therefore more able to speak up – if there are current sex workers on the panel.

We’re conscious that we’re likely to be accused of wanting the panel to be cancelled, of wanting to “silence the voices” of activists who ‘disagree’ with us. As sex workers, we don’t have institutional power: even if we wanted to, we couldn’t “silence the voice” of the co-ordinater of the European Women’s Lobby. But to be clear: we want this panel to happen – we just think that a panel on sex work should have non-tokenistic input from sex workers as a basic criteria for going ahead. We’re surprised that this is apparently controversial.

We have asked for allies to help us to amplify sex worker voices. We’re contacting activists and organisations that are participating in Feminism in London, and asking them to raise concerns about the exclusion of sex workers from the sex work panel. For participants who strongly feel the injustice of this, we’ve suggested that they could provisionally pull out of  the conference until this situation is resolved (the principle of women asking pro-feminist men to decline to sit on all-male panels is well established). For people who were considering purchasing tickets, we would be appreciative if you would let the organisers know that you’re waiting to see the addition of sex workers onto the sex work panel before finalising your purchase. For people further afield who’ve heard about Feminism in London via social media or other feminist networks, a useful way to lend support to sex workers in their demands would be to circulate this blogpost and engage with the organisers directly, challenging them about their exclusion and erasure and sending the message that this is poor feminist praxis.

The underlying ‘justification’ for deliberately excluding current sex workers on a panel about sex work can only be that those who put the panel together think that people (especially women) who currently sell sex are somehow not equal to people who don’t – that they think sex workers are less trustworthy, or less worth hearing from. We can’t see any other motivation, once it’s down to brass tacks. Viewing sex workers as less insightful, or less trustworthy than other women cannot be an acceptable feminist position.