Guest post: Doesn’t that sound like the opposite of empowerment?

Originally a comment by Artymorty on Needs.

Here’s a personal anecdote about an encounter I had with Canadian pro-sex-work feminists:

A couple years ago when I ran an event venue I booked a women’s storytelling group and the theme of this particular gathering was something like “What makes you happy?” It was billed as an evening for amateur women speakers to share stories of finding empowerment in doing things for themselves — doing what makes them happy instead of doing things for the sake of others’ feelings. Quickly sold out; 200+ capacity; about a half a dozen speakers. Sounds great! I happened to be filling in as a bartender in the Hall that night so I was able to watch the whole thing.

Turns out not one, not two, but THREE of the speakers were former sex workers — two prostitutes and a phone sex operator. (And by all appearances they all seemed quite middle-class.) Two of them gave talks that were entirely about their sex work and how “empowering” it was. It was so bizarre. I mean, an event that’s supposed to be about women doing stuff for themselves instead of for others, and it was completely overrun by women talking about men paying to use women’s bodies for the sake of men’s pleasure. (ALL of the speakers preambled some blather about it being a safe space and pledged that they were opposed to “TERFS AND SWERFS” — ugh, “TERFSANDSWERFS TERFS’N’SWERFS TERFSSSWERFS” they kept saying it, and they slurred the words together as if the phrase was so familiar by now it just melded into one word and there was no need to bother enunciating each individual syllable anymore.)

As I recall it, the two sex worker talks had the same themes: they both kept repeating that their sex work was empowering and I did it because I wanted to, not because I was forced to. But they both endured horrible childhood sexual abuse from older relatives; both were suicidal as teens as a result of the sexual abuse; both were explicit that they turned to sex work in a kind of self-harming way, as an attempt to process debilitating mental health issues around their sexual abuse — self-hatred; body hatred; psychological issues to do with father figures; sexual trauma; etc. Doesn’t that sound like the opposite of empowerment to you? Sure as hell does to me. They sounded like victims. What it sounded like to me was that these women were seeking to destigmatize their trauma; they wanted us to understand why they dropped out of university and fell into prostitution for a while, and their doth-protest-too-much assertions that it was all so “empowering” were, like, a way to try to claim some control of their life’s narrative and frame it around courage and dignity, or something. It’s one thing to want people to understand that prostitutes are human beings deserving of compassion and dignity but that’s not the same thing as endorsing prostitution and even going so far as to celebrate it as female empowerment. (Of course, it’s exactly because prostitutes are human beings deserving of compassion and dignity that rational people want to end prostitution.) I think that distinction was entirely lost on every one of those speakers. Like with the trans debate, this is a men’s rights movement masquerading as a women’s rights one, and it’s turning everything upside down. I still can’t believe 200 women paid to see a group of women talk about self-empowerment and self-enjoyment and got an infomercial for prostitution instead, and the current social climate is so toxic and intimidating that I didn’t see a single one of them withhold her applause.

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