The notion that feminists are moralistic, man-hating prudes is nothing new. As long as there has been a women’s movement, there have been efforts to tar feminists and their work.
A conversation on Twitter, under the hashtag: #notyourrescueproject, which argues that “sex workers don’t need rescuing from [their] choices”, highlights many of these stereotypes and myths about feminists, as well as creating new ones. And while all women’s experiences and perspectives are valuable, the framing of #notyourrescueproject leaves out and erases so much that what we are left with is not only an incomplete picture, but a dangerously misleading one.
The imagined feminist "rescue industry"
The claim that there are feminists invested in and profiting off of a "rescue industry" is largely unfounded. Andrea Matolcsi, a trafficking officer at Equality Now, an organization that works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world, says it’s the pimps and traffickers who really benefit from prostitution. "We are unaware of any industry which profits from prostitution apart from those on the demand side," she adds.
Feminist organizations and those who work with victims of male violence are hugely underfunded. To represent this work as being part of any "industry" is misleading.
Hilla Kerner, a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, says the notion of “profit” in terms of their work is absurd and notes that much of the work they do is on a volunteer basis because they operate on such a small budget. “The assumption that people will not put time, labour, and effort into a cause without economic gain is a reflection of their values and motivation, not ours,” she says.
Many women I spoke with felt the term, “rescue industry”, was a strategic misrepresentation aimed at, in Kerner’s words, "undermining women’s solidarity".
Megan Walker, the executive director of the London Abused Women's Centre (LAWC), says: “Accusing abolitionist agencies of being ‘rescuers’ minimizes the important role these agencies play in providing exited prostituted women with the valuable supports they identify to live their lives free from violence and abuse.”
Trisha Baptie, a survivor of prostitution and an activist, says she feels torn about the term: “I do think that some ‘rescuers’ think prostitutes are all mindless drones waiting for them to come along and save them... Which is not true. Prostituted women are strong, resilient, and smart.”
At the same time Baptie says that many women who find themselves in prostitution do need help to leave the industry and “transition to a healthier life”.
She points out that it isn't individual feminists or feminist organizations who are guilty of this condescending approach: "Feminism knows that every woman has her own voice, her own story, and knows what she needs. Feminism works really hard to uphold those voices—especially abolitionists."
Responding to concerns that those who want to help women exit prostitution don’t consider what happens after they leave the industry, Walker points out that the LAWC “works collaboratively with women to provide access to their children, housing, financial support, substance-use counselling, secondary and postsecondary education, job training and job opportunities, and family reintegration.” It is a comprehensive model that considers the fact that, once a woman leaves prostitution, she continues to need to support in a number of ways.
"They are conflating a supposed 'rescue industry' with exiting services," Baptie says. "We're talking about a holistic approach to getting women off the street."
Race, class, and the myth of the white upper-class abolitionist
An oft-repeated accusation, reinforced under #notyourrescueproject, says that those who oppose the sex industry are simply rich white ladies looking for a pet project.
Baptie says she has no idea where this idea comes from. "We can clearly see that the movement is made up of a diverse cross-section of women and I can't say I know of any women who are making tons of money off of this movement or are rich. Those claims are ridiculous."
Despite the fact that working class women and women of colour are founders and leaders of the abolitionist movement (a feminist movement that works towards an eventual end to prostitution), the myth of the middle or upper class white woman as moralistic crusader persists.
Jackie Lynne, a survivor of prostitution and a member of Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry, thinks “it’s a strategy for prostitution perpetrators, pimps and others who profit from prostitution to attempt to derail the global fight for freedom and equality which feminists have spearheaded worldwide.” She also says these accusers lack a global perspective on the issue.
Indigenous women remain overrepresented in prostitution. It is, and has long been, an industry that targets marginalized women of colour, in particular, which is one of the reasons so many feminist and antiracist organizations oppose the industry. Yet these voices and arguments are consistently erased.
Suzanne Jay, a member of Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, points out that “prostitution promoters embrace racist stereotypes as a means to package and market women to customers." She says that the normalization of prostitution also normalizes those racist stereotypes which, in turn, “affects any woman who is a member of the stereotyped group".
Lynne, who is Métis, researched the connections between colonialism and prostitution on indigenous women and says that "prostitution came over with the European male." She told me that in the first 100 years of colonialism in what is now Canada, white women were not allowed to emigrate. As a result "brothels were established around military bases and trading posts. Indigenous women filled these brothels as sexual captives."
Lynne also points out that feminist research is one of the few places indigenous women's lives and experiences are represented in academia.
"Fortunately," she adds, "grassroots and academic feminists have now been joined by a growing global movement of survivors who are telling the truth in powerful political narratives."
Is prostitution about free choice?
The concept of "choice" is central to this debate. One of the primary arguments made under #notyourrescueproject is that sex work is a choice and that women should "have the right" to make said "choice".
But that argument is troubling to those who see “choice” as something that happens within a larger social context, shaped by inequality and systemic oppression.
Baptie says that, while some “women and girls may feel like they are ‘choosing’ the industry, the truth is that prostitution chose them.” Issues like poverty, addiction, mental-health issues, precarious housing situations, Baptie says, along with gender inequality, lead women and girls into the industry and keep them there.
What isn’t often acknowledged is that efforts to frame prostitution as a free choice are based in libertarian and pro-capitalist ideology.
A libertarian notion of freedom is one that prioritizes individual rights above all else—this means that one's "personal" choice to do whatever one wishes, without interference from the state, is the goal. Michael Laxer, chairperson of the Socialist Party of Ontario, says that socialists, on the other hand, see systemic inequality and oppression as barriers to freedom and argue that interventions are necessary in order true equality.
" 'Choices' are framed in a fundamentally different way for various people due to issues like class, systemic racism and sexism,” he says.
What’s troubling about the discourse surrounding "sex as work" or prostitution as a "free choice" individuals make, is that, while positioned as a progressive argument, it’s actually grounded in notions of the free market as both liberating and an equalizer. Under this ideology, "anything is 'fair' because, no matter how demeaning, dangerous or awful the work, you 'chose' to do it and therefore it is a part of your freedom," Laxer says.
When it comes to prostitution, many talk about "allowing" women the "freedom" to "choose" it, without questioning why they are "choosing" it and what can be done to offer women real choices.
"We know the reasons women get caught up in prostitution, and all of them speak to injustices: sexual, racial, and economic," Lynne says. "When women gain true equality and freedom, then let’s talk about 'women’s choices' to be in prostitution."
The feminist prude
Tied to the notion that feminists who oppose the sex industry are all rich white women, is the one that says we are moralizing prudes, "in bed" with the religious right. But if you talk to abolitionists, they say the opposite.
"The practice of prostitution is deeply conservative," Jay says. "It relies on socially enforced prudery and racial divisions to give the male customers a sense of excitement and transgression."
Feminists want real sexual liberation and see the opposite happening in the sex industry. "Feminists fight for a much more liberated and liberating development of human sexuality—one that is not so rigid and dependent on gender, race and class stereotypes," Jay says.
Lynne says that efforts to label feminists who oppose prostitution as "moralistic" or "prudish" is "name-calling at its political worst—it confounds and confuses the real issues. It’s political gaslighting."
Baptie disagrees with the notion that prostitution is about a liberated female sexuality or bodily autonomy: "Prostitution is not about women expressing our sexuality on our terms, it is about playing into patriarchy to make ourselves marketable to men who want to have sex on their terms."
No more victims
Abolitionists aren't opposed to the sex industry because they believe that every single individual woman in prostitution is a victim, point-blank. The reality is, of course, much more complicated; but to acknowledge those complications does not mean we must deny the exploitation that exists in prostitution.
"To tell the truth about the sex industry means to speak of victimization," Lynne says. She told me that her mother, also Métis, was prostituted on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for over 25 years. "But if you had asked my mom, when she was prostituted, if she was a victim, she would have said 'no'."
"I don’t think all prostituted women are victims," says Baptie, "but most are." She says we need to offer women alternatives, despite the fact that most will say "no" to help at first. "You are asking them to change their whole lives that is scary and daunting to anyone."
"It took many years for me to transition into a healthier life and my 'no's' had to be respected… But when I said 'yes', people moved heaven and earth to make sure I could leave," Baptie told me.
Lynne says she thinks her mother felt a sense of agency in terms of her "safety plan"—the tactics she would use to try to protect herself from violence. "But did her plan keep her safe? No! Not from her pimps or her johns."
We’ve worked (and continue to work) very hard in the feminist movement to stop the shaming of those who have been sexually assaulted—"blame the perpetrator," we say. In the case of prostitution, erasing the word "victim" from the conversation seems simultaneously to erase the perpetrators of violence, as well as the oppressive systems that funnel women into the industry.
Whose voices are left out?
That some women are happy with their choice to do sex work is inarguable, but whose voices are left out of #notyourrescueproject?
Baptie says that one of the problems with the hashtag is that only privileged people are participating: "Twitter simply isn't accessible to everyone and it happens that the people it is not accessible to are some are the most marginalized. There are a whole lot of people missing from that conversation."
The reason Baptie supports abolition, she says, is because "it deals with the core issues." It doesn’t simply accept things as they are and give up. "[Abolition] addresses poverty, patriarchy, affordable child care, housing, addiction, mental illness, racism, etc.," she says.
Lynne, who suffers from PTSD as a result of her years in prostitution says: "I am an abolitionist because I know about prostitution firsthand, growing up and seeing what it did to my mom, and to other indigenous 'Aunties' of mine. I am an abolitionist because of what prostitution did to me."
Walker points out that "The voices of [those] supporting #notmyrescueproject do not represent prostituted women currently incarcerated, hospitalized, or in a residential rehab facility; homeless prostituted women without access to technology; trafficked women and children around the world; and those prostituted women too fearful to post opposing views because they’ve seen the backlash and bullying that arises when anyone dares to have another opinion."
Despite claims to the contrary, women with direct experience in prostitution are very involved in the abolitionist movement. Hilla Kerner, of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, says: “We’ve always have women who exited prostitution as members in our collective. They, and the women who call us, inform our analysis of prostitution, the reforms we demand, and our fight for abolition.”
At the end of the day, Baptie says we need to look at whether prostitution creates equality. Those who want to normalize prostitution, she says, are "promoting a very different brand of feminism (if they call it that)—one that isn't about challenging patriarchy."