Meghan Murphy: What's missing from #notyourrescueproject

A conversation on Twitter that criticizes what’s referred to as the "rescue industry" misrepresents feminist advocacy around prostitution

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      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."




      Jan 22, 2014 at 9:47pm

      I've thought about this mostly from an academic point of view since personally I am in no danger of being required or for that matter asked to sell myself, but as a matter of principle, I feel that if there are people who can do this work with informed consent and without being hurt, then it should not be banned.

      What this article seems to say is that while not all of the participants are victims and some are happy in their work, victimization is so frequent as to merit its abolition.

      If that's so - and correct me if that is not so - then that takes what one might call an actuarial approach to banning certain trades. Would mining, forestry and taxi driving ever come under a ban because they too have high mortality and injury rates?

      Or does the impulse to abolish get back to the nature of the work itself - invasive, dehumanizing, demeaning? In other words, the moral argument?


      Jan 23, 2014 at 1:48pm

      Now if only Meghan Murphy would stop spreading stereotypes and myths about sex workers, as well as creating new ones such at the concept that any sex workers rights advocates on twitter somehow don't represent actual sex workers (even though, of course, they are actual sex workers). But then, if a sex worker doesn't support your narrative then you might as well ignore them anyways, right? Might throw off the numbers if you actually acknowledged the sex workers who want to be there.

      And while feminist experiences and perspectives are valuable, the framing of sex work advocacy by Meghan Murphy leaves us not only an incomplete picture, but a dangerously misleading one. After all, this is someone who is concerned that "prostituted women" are being left out of the discussion revolving around "#notyourrescueproject", but thinks nothing of ignoring the voices of those sex workers she finds so very inconvenient.


      Jan 23, 2014 at 2:25pm

      Regarding the section: "The feminist prude"

      I think the reason people feel that feminists and the religious right are "in bed" together is simply that they're so often working side-by-side to achieve the same goals. The motives and ideology of feminists and religious conservatives may be significantly different, but when they're sharing the same platform, promoting the same policies, and using each other's arguments, it's not surprising that they get linked together.

      It happens when other disparate groups form coalitions. People concentrate on the similarities in what they're campaigning for, rather than the beliefs underlying their actions.

      Also, as the quoted tweet pointed out, it can be Christian groups who run the forcible rehabilitation of prostitutes. That's one of the concerns I've seen raised regarding the "raid and rescue" model of fighting prostitution. For example, feminists in Ireland have been working with conservative Catholics who used to run the Magdalene Laundries, and their track record of helping "fallen women" isn't one to be proud of.


      Jan 23, 2014 at 3:08pm

      Thank you, Meghan, for the timely reminder that feminist activism must always be considered alongside critiques of capitalism and notions of 'free choice'. None of our choices exist in a vacuum, and the notion that they do is a testament to the success of free market ideas in the West.


      Jan 23, 2014 at 3:19pm

      Sadly, Abolitionists still don't get that attempting to abolish prostitution only leads to further harm and violence. It pains me to say this but these Abolitionists have a really distorted perspective on this issue. Criminalization of prostitution has had as its intent the eradication or abolition of prostitution and as we have seen this has had disastrous consequences for those involved in the sex trade. Abolitionists point to the Nordic model as a way to abolish prostitution. The Nordic model still criminalizes and punishes sex workers but under the guise of criminalizing customers of sex workers. In places like Swweden which has adopted this law, prostitution has not been reduced or abolished and in actual fact street-level Swedish sex workers claim this has put them at further risk of violence because the bad customers remain while the good customers choose, free of risk, to obtain services from indoor-level sex wworkers. While Abolitionists claim that prostitution leads to women's inequality this is simply distorted thinking. In fact there is a wide spectrum of prostitution and the sex trade has provided many sex workers with opportunities at economic survival when in fact previous to deciding to engage in prostitution we had little or no options available to us. Abolitionists may argue that prostitution is evil and needs to be eradicated, however, all attempts of eradicating it have failed including the highly touted Nordic model which Abolitionist feminists promote. While Abolitionists may consider prostitution evil and the customers of sex workers as vile Men, I ask you what does that type of thinking accomplish? I know for a fact it has contributed to the countless murders of sex workers. I for one will never drink the kool aid of Abolitiont feminists since it will only contribute to more violence and more murders and in fact does absolutely nothing to end oppression or inequality.

      Alan Layton

      Jan 23, 2014 at 4:35pm

      I wish there was more attention put on helping the victims than elevating feminist ideology. I see a lot of self-serving feminists on both sides when all that really matters is the health and safety of prostitutes, many of whom don't have many options and are making decisions when they are traumatized and backed in to a corner.


      Jan 23, 2014 at 4:40pm

      It's amazing how, if the Nordic model leads to murders, Sweden has only had one prostitute murdered since 1997 and Amsterdam has seen over 100 prostitutes murdered in the same time.


      Jan 23, 2014 at 5:06pm

      Hey JamieLee,

      It seems you may be misinformed about the Nordic model. It's actually been very successful in terms of reducing prostitution and trafficking. You might find this interview with Swedish journalist, Kajsa Ekis Ekman of interest, she's studied the impact of the Nordic model in Sweden and addresses many misconceptions:

      Regarding your claim that abolitionist "thinking" contributes to murders of sex workers, that is simply not true (and a particularly horrific thing to make up...). Men are the only ones responsible for committing violence against prostituted women and they should be held accountable.

      Elizabeth Pickett

      Jan 23, 2014 at 5:11pm

      What's amazing is that people with a vested interest, like a few women who are afraid of having their clientele interfered with, and men who want to use and abuse women's bodies, persist in arguing against the facts to the detriment of most women engaged in the sex trade and women everywhere. As if that isn't an ideology. It's quite possible that there are real and sincere arguments on the "sex work" side. Unfortunately whatever those real and sincere arguments are, are so buried in ridicule of anyone who sees something and thinks something different, that I never get to the point of understanding what those arguments really are.


      Jan 23, 2014 at 6:03pm

      Well, the prostitution industry is very old you see... And they don't like being told the end is near so they invent new words, new insults, new ways of making us believe they are many (like using twitter and being in the courts) but the reality is that we (the abolitionists) will win, plain and simple.