I've called myself a feminist pretty much as long as I can remember – it was certainly one of the labels I applied to myself by the time I started secondary school at 11, and was a central part of my identity as a teen. My A-level English teacher (probably, I realise now, as much out of boredom as anything) would even make slightly provocative statements about gender and then look at me, knowing I would always take the bait and argue back.
So it's not surprising that, while I've continued to call myself a feminist, some of my views have changed. And those that have changed the most are connected to sex work.
I don't think that any more. There wasn't one grand moment of realisation that things might not be quite like that - it was a slow process over many years. Reading, chatting to sex workers online, and meeting some in real life. It's never a pleasant experience to realise that you've collected a rather unpleasant set of prejudices and beliefs, but that's what slowly dawned on me. In reducing sex work to one homogeneous mass and lumping together all sex workers, stereotyping them as people who had no other option, or had been abused, or who had been brainwashed by the patriarchy and didn't know any better, I was guilty of treating sex workers as badly as our society does – as something to be patronised, silenced, ignored and brushed aside. Not as adults who have made their own decisions for a variety of reasons and who are intelligent and able to talk about their own lives and actions.
But by shaming and dismissing sex work, we add to the problems sex workers face. All work has the potential to be, and often is, exploitative. Sex work is not unique in this regard. (For a brilliant expansion of this point, read this post by Stavvers).
What is unique to sex work is that people doing it are often blamed for any problems they face in their work, or told that they should expect this as part of what they do.
if all sex work is abuse, then we can't distinguish between a normal working day for a sex worker and one in which their consent is breached
In other words, if all sex work is abuse, then we can't distinguish between a normal working day for a sex worker and one in which their consent is breached or they are attacked. It's all the same, after all.
Meaningful conversations about consent, about working rights and about choice, can only take place if we listen to and prioritise the voices of people who know best – sex workers themselves.
Oddly enough, these are also the people who know what they need in terms of support. X:Talk is a project run by sex workers to provide free English language classes to sex workers in London, to give those who don't speak English as a first language the tools to communicate clearly with clients and work in safer conditions.
Their website quotes Australian aboriginal activist Lila Watson: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
They're right. A feminism that dismisses sex workers, silences them, or treats them as victims, is no feminism at all.
I am still learning, but I want to learn to be a better ally.