SWERF vs. Historian: Literature Review-2019

This literature review analyses two articles that focus on the broad concept of ‘sex work’. From the onset it is important to make clear that sex work encapsulates all forms of sexual labour being exchanged for a resource, which in most cases is money but may also include shelter, drugs or alcohol (Mac & Smith, 2018, pg. 1). It is also important to note that sex work, by definition, is not the same as sex trafficking, a conflation which will be discussed in detail below. Sex work (prostitution) has long been considered the oldest profession but the stigma and perception of deviancy still remains (Basserman, 1967 & Pomeroy, 1994). Different perspectives on sex work exist; from those who believe that as a society we must eradicate all forms of sex work in order to protect women, to others who understand the industry as work and are actively seeking ways to counter the essentialisation of sex workers identity. Melissa Farley is a staunch anti-sex work campaigner who has been researching and writing on the topic of prostitution and the sex industry for over 35 years. Her article ‘Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart: Prostitution Harms Women Even if Legalized or Decriminalized’ (2004) showcases her radical feminist ideology focusing on the victimisation of women in the industry ignoring the possibility of individual agency or choice. The second article also focuses on the sex industry, however the approach is vastly different. In Julia Laite’s article ‘Between Scyalla and Charybdis: Women’s Labour and Sex Trafficking in the Early Twentieth Century’ (2017) the focus is not on the sex, the clients or the victimisation, instead Laite focuses on the labour. She provides a discursive analysis of what was happening in the context of the early twentieth century in an attempt to deconstruct the contemporary understandings of sexual labour and sex trafficking.

Farley’s article was written in 2004 and is a response to the decriminalization of the sex industry in the state of New Zealand. Farley asserts her view that all aspects of prostitution are inevitable forms of violence against women stating “Prostitution is an institution that systematically discriminates against women, against the young, against the poor, and against ethnically subordinated groups. Prostitution cannot be made safer or a little bit better by legalizing or decriminalizing it” (Farley, 2004, pg. 1117). Her ideological stance is representative of a radical faction of feminism known as SWERF: Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminism (Sugathan, 2015). In line with ‘radical feminism’ Farley’s understanding of the sex industry is based off the idea that “patriarchy rests on the subordination of women through sexuality and reproduction” (Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 409). By framing all women within the sex industry as victims rather than workers providing labour, Farley’s reductionism actually creates more harm as explained by Gira Grant; “The experience of sex work is more than just the experience of violence; to reduce all sex work to such an experience is to deny that anything but violence is even possible” (Gira Grant,2014, pg. 104). Farley and other SWERFs are working towards the full eradication of the sex industry from their ideological high horse by putting forward source-less assumptions within her academic pieces. These assuming statements help situate the reader within the ideology of the author, for example; “Often they [sex workers] do not think that their health has benefited or that they are offered more protection under legalized or decriminalized prostitution” (Farley, 2004, pg. 1089). Without referencing this particular statement, Farley is subjecting her own voice as the speaker of the workers presenting her opinion as an objective truth. As discussed by Hall “It is we who fix meaning so firmly that, after a while, it comes to seem natural and inevitable” (Hall, 1997, pg. 21), representing the importance of history to further understand the way in which we make sense of the world today. Hall is also highlighting the fact that if we only expose ourselves to one story, after enough time that story becomes our truth. In this regard it is important to recognise that Farley constantly references her own work perpetuating her own opinion and voice on the issue.

The way that Farley has given herself authority on this topic is especially troubling given all the silencing that actual sex workers face, a point that Farley herself is aware of; “Women in prostitution are silent for many reasons. They are rarely given the opportunity to speak about their real lives because this would interfere with sex businesses. The silence of most of those in prostitution is a result of intimidation, terror, dissociation, and shame” (Farley, 2004, pg. 1117). Given the social and academic capital Farley already holds, she’s ignorant to her own silencing practices as has been pointed out by other academics, as well as those within the industry (Pit, 2019). Ronald Weitzer has written a number of responses to Farley’s work, critiquing her biased perspective and interpretations of research (Weitzer, 2005). Weitzer found that when women in the industry had views in opposition to Farley’s she would discount their voices claiming a ‘false consciousness’ on behalf of the women. This ‘false consciousness’ stems from a Marxist model and is understood as “a phenomenon undermining the agency of the working classes whereby the individual ‘imagines false or apparent/seeming motives’” (Engels cited in Levy, 2016, pg. 47). This model represents the manipulation possible for those who hold power to discredit the experiences of marginalised people. Miller argues that discourse does not mirror the ‘true reality’ of the world, rather it holds power and “we cannot get ‘outside’ of discourse and gain access to anything beyond it” (Miller, 1990, pg. 116). Weitzer also critiqued her “methodological problems” and noted that “many of her citations are to her own co-authored articles” (Weitzer, 2005, pg. 971). Weitzer’s main concern was that “it is quite possible to replicate a flawed study, reaching similarly flawed conclusions” (Weitzer, 2005, pg. 971); a perspective similar to Hall.

In discussing the positive public health conditions surrounding HIV and the work of the NZPC (New Zealand Prostitutes Collective) Farley resigns to the fact that sex workers peer education and activist work “.. has undoubtedly saved lives” (Farley, 2004, pg. 1112). However she continues the section by implying that organisations that encourage HIV and health awareness within sex worker communities only encourages and proliferates prostitution on the whole. She suggests that the goals of many of these groups is based on financial incentives and argues “The distribution of public health funds for HIV prevention has occurred with little oversight of recipient goals, program implementation, or ethics.” (Farley, 2004, pp. 1113-4). This alludes to a conspiracy theory around funding and the intentions of these organisations even though it is highly hypocritical for Farley to suggest this. Much of Farley’s own research has been done through ‘Prostitution Research and Education’ which is a not-for profit organisation that Farley herself founded (Talavera, 2012). She uses extremely strong language which is deliberate in order to capitalise on the shock value in an already highly politicised topic. An example of this is the way in which she describes workers as ‘prostituted women’. This problematic description emphasises Farley’s perspective that prostitution is something that is done to women, and symbolises her view that women lack choice/agency within a sex industry that exists in a capitalist society.

Unlike Farley, Julia Laite’s perspective is a lot less clear as she takes a more objective approach to her topic of inquiry. While the first article viewed all women within the industry as prostituted women and conflated sex work and sex trafficking to be a singular concept, this article takes a look back through history to understand the origins of the concept of sex trafficking. Through her research Laite discovers the moral concern over labour conditions of women during a time of increased employment opportunities for women. The discursive analysis that Laite undertakes is in part due to the context of her research, as she is researching the historical construction of trafficking. The importance of discourse in relation to knowledge and power is crucial to this topic as “discourses are now active agents, not even merely performances, in the material world of power” (Grossberg cited in Fornas, 2000, pg. 50) a point which Laite is clearly aware of.
Laite’s main argument is that exploitation is not unique to the sex industry; rather, exploitation is actually the very thing that upholds the capitalist system. Through her research Laite proposes that the discourse surrounding both licit and illicit womens work was calculated to uphold certain ideological notions specifically in regards to capitalism, gender and race. Where Laite and Farley differ dramatically is in the way they view ‘prostitution’; for Farley the focus is on the sex, the body and the dynamic between ‘john’ and ‘prostituted woman’ (Farley, 2005) whereas Laite recognises that prostitution is a form of labour and focuses much of the article on the way in which trafficking first came to be understood at the turn of the twentieth century. Given her understanding of prostitution as work, Laite’s article focuses on more than just the morality of the industry through her discursive lens to suggest that there were a number of events that occurred during that time which helped shaped the way we view the sex industry. Laite outlines the forming of a special committee under The League of Nations known as the Advisory Committee (AC) to investigate the increased number of women entering into the sex industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through her research she discovers that the committee found that exploitation under capitalism was a leading cause of women entering into sex work; “Key studies on prostitution throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found, repeatedly, that women and girls were motivated to sell sex because of economic factors and because of exploitative experiences in other kinds of work” (Laite, 2017, pg. 48). The AC framed the issue as a moral issue, creating a public moral panic surrounding “white slavery” distracting the public from the real issue that all work under capitalism is exploitative; “[AC] delegates could only understand exploitation as sexual exploitation and in so doing were blind to both the way that sexual labour could (like other work) be done in good and bad conditions, and the way that women might articulate their positive engagement with that work” (Laite, 2017, pg. 50). Admitting to the real catalyst for women entering the sex industry would be to publicly announce that the social structures that uphold Western societies in modernity are exploitative and harshly unequal. It was in the best interest of the AC to reshape the issue through a moral lens in as a way to keep the social subjects in order through governmentality.

In line with her first argument, contradictions and double standards surrounding not just sex, but also labour are highlighted throughout her article. She gives a number of examples of figures of authority turning a blind eye, much like Farley, when the information provided did not align with their own beliefs. Much of the evidence that Laite references throughout her article focuses on the international entertainment industry which was heavily saturated with young women and girls being transported across state lines to engage in the legal entertainment industry which was commonly linked to clandestine prostitution (Laite, 2017, pg. 51). An example of the double standards surrounding the public discourse includes the blatant ignorance of actual abuses by recruiters and employers and focusing on the moral aspect of promiscuous sex. This double standard speaks a lot about gender at a time when women were largely entering the paid realm of labour and helped set the foundation of gender labour roles that continue to exist today; “Indeed, this period, which witnessed the sharp rise in the migration of women to work in care and service industries in Britain, helped lay the ground work for what has today grown to be an army of foreign domestic labourers who work under exploitative conditions” (Laite, 2017, pg. 56). Many of the arguments that are presented by Farley also contain double standards that she distracts with her emotive language that describes the experiences of prostituted women, however as Laite suggests many of the abuses and possibilities of exploitation exist in all forms of labour and again highlights the link between discourse and power.

Basserman, L, 1967, The Oldest Profession: A History of Prostitution, Dorset Press, New York
Farley, M, 2004, ‘Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart: Prostitution Harms Women Even if Legalized or Decriminalized’, Violence Against Women, Vol. 10, No. 10, pp. 1087-1125
Gira Grant, M, 2014, Playing the Whore, Verso, London
Hall, S, 1997, ‘The Work of Representation’, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Safe Publications, pp. 1-74
Laite, J, 2017, ‘Between Scyalla and Charybdis: Women’s Labour Migration and Sex Trafficking in the Early Twentieth Century’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 37-65
Mac, J & Smith, M, 2018, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Worker Rights, Verso, London
Miller, S, 1990, ‘Foucault on Discourse and Power’, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, No. 76, pp. 115-125
Pit, O, 2019, ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Melissa Farley’, Medium, 18 August, viewed 6 October 2019, < https://medium.com/@anarchoadhdism/lies-damned-lies-and-melissa-farley-13ef15090712&gt;
Pomeroy, S, 1994, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, & Slaves, Pimlico, UK
Sugathan, P, 2015, ‘Think Twice Before you Manterrupt’, The Times of India, 19 January 2015
Talavera, C, 2012, ‘DREGS Magazine: Response to Melissa Farley’, English Collective of Prostitutes, < http://prostitutescollective.net/2012/07/response-to-melissa-farley/&gt;
Weitzer, R, 2005, ‘Rehashing Tired Claims About Prostitution: A Response to Farley and Raphael and Shapiro’, Violence Against Women, Vol.11, No. 7, pp. 971-977
Weitzer, R, 2005, ‘Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution’, Violence Against Women, Vol. 11, No. 7, pp. 934-949