Talking to Sex Workers About Fighting for Their Rights, Feminism, and More

Rewire recently spoke with sex workers Minnie Scarlet, Darby Hickey, and Violet Rose about what role they think feminism can play in sex workers' rights, among other issues.

Women carrying a banner about sex workers' rights in the Capital Pride Parade on August 26, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario. David P. Lewis / Shutterstock.com

Few issues are as contentious within the feminist movement as prostitution. This is certainly not a new divide—in fact, it dates back to radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s fierce opposition to pornography in the 1980s. But the issue continues to split feminists, and thus we lack a unified response in support of the human rights of sex workers.

Some radical feminists maintain that prostitution is inherently harmful and exploitative, regardless of the circumstances under which a woman enters the sex trade. Equality Now, a radical feminist organization that focuses on “ending violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world,” has a campaign to combat the United Nations recommendations that sex work be decriminalized.

Meanwhile, sex-positive and intersectional feminists emphasize the importance of agency and a deeper understanding of how class, race, and gender identity intersect in prostitution and openly advocate for sex workers’ rights. This conversation is an important one, yet it all too often ignores the voices and perspectives of actual sex workers themselves. If we as feminists claim to be about elevating marginalized women’s voices, why do many feminists continue to talk over and speak for sex workers?

Rewire recently spoke with Minnie Scarlet, a porn model and performer; Darby Hickey, a sex worker and transgender rights activist; and Violet Rose, a sex worker from the United Kingdom, to hear about their experiences with feminism, what role they think feminism can play in sex workers’ rights, and more. Below is a lightly edited version of that discussion, which took place via email.

Rewire: Many people have a preconceived notion about what “sex work” is or looks like. What do you want people to know about the kind of work that you do?

Darby Hickey: I think what is really important is to listen to people with actual experience in sex trade, because those experiences are extremely diverse (just like many other activities in life!) and do not conform neatly with ideological assumptions about empowerment, abuse, gender equity, etc. Doing sex work is not just like any other job, but sometimes, for some people, it is, or it’s even better. And sometimes, for some people, it is nothing at all like a job. And a million other variations in between and beyond. At the end of the day, the people directly involved need to have their rights protected, have their choices respected, and get support to increase their self determination in whatever ways they deem necessary. By closing down websites, increasing criminal penalties, or telling people they have to identify as victims to receive help, people are reducing the options available to those engaged in sex trade, and that is the opposite of what feminism should be about.

Minnie Scarlet: I love that I’m in a position where people listen to me. Granted, with the stigmas in our society, some will immediately write me off as some “porn slut” ([porn actress] Bree Olson herself called me that one time—the inner misogyny is so real), but it has given me an audience that I would not have had otherwise. Growing up a conventionally attractive woman, I realized quickly that there were many things I could use my looks for and could really take advantage of it. I know that people will always speak badly on women who use their looks or girls who are too focused on their aesthetics, but as a woman, it’s the best bet you have to be heard sometimes. Kind of like the double standard of teenage girls taking selfies, yet the selfies are what get the most likes, if that makes sense. I realized I had a lot to say at a young age, and using my sexuality and job, I have an amazing fan base that appreciate what I have to say about specific issues. I love the work that I do, but I love when my followers can really appreciate me, aside from the content I have out. I love when they realize the work put into everything and the tribulations women in this industry endure. That’s what makes me love my job and makes me want to shoot more scenes and keep going.

Violet Rose: Having “sex” for money does not mean I do [penis-in-vagina] penetration all day every day. Lots of my clients want to chat, do some other sex acts, or do something else entirely. BDSM isn’t weird or wrong. My clients mostly aren’t creepy, old, unattractive men. Clients differ as much as the rest of humanity (but financial privilege to afford to see sex workers still tends to rest with the most privileged). Sex work isn’t going to end. Policies to end demand cannot work. And in a world where opportunities to work are increasingly small, policies to end demand are violence against the most marginalized. Doing my work doesn’t prevent me from having a valid opinion (I don’t have false consciousness), and I deserve labor, human, and civil rights at work. I call my work a feminist act.

Rewire: What has your experience been like as a sex worker in feminist spaces?

VR: I have had diverse experiences. Some feminist spaces I go to are full of sex workers, which is awesome. Sometimes I have been to feminist spaces and been talked over, ignored, othered, patronized, demeaned, and insulted. Since I am not fully out, I can inhabit political spaces without outing myself if I want to, so I can check the temperature of a gathering before I make myself vulnerable by exposing my identity as a sex worker. Sometimes though, it is good for me to out myself before people even start. Sometimes I prefer they say stuff behind my back rather than to my face unknowingly.

Mostly though, I feel unsafe. Feminists have driven some of the most violent and dangerous legislation against sex workers’ rights, health, and safety worldwide, and I can’t feel great about that. I have to wait for someone in a feminist space to not only declare themselves in solidarity but also to show they are a good ally with certain behaviors before I feel like I can trust them not to be oppressive to sex workers.

MS: I have mixed experiences with feminist spaces because the different feminists I have met all tend to have different views on the sex industry. There is nothing inherently comforting to me about the word “feminist.” I used to see or hear that word and think it was someone I could feel a tiny bit safer with or at least relate to on a basic level. Unfortunately, I’ve been told by some feminists that by being in the porn industry, I was degrading and hurting women. Most of those feminists have been white scholar-types, which made it hard to notice that feminism has extreme class and race issues. Feminism without intersectionalism is nothing, especially when we’re talking about sex workers’ rights, considering a lot of sex workers do sex work for survival, not for empowerment/liberation/fun.

There have been feminists who have spoken over my sex worker peers and myself about how degrading porn is because you can’t prove what is consensual and not. They know this because of things they have read and they “know a couple of girls in the porn industry.” Hello! I’m a sex worker who works in porn! And I happen to know reputable companies generally give you a release to sign—a form that says you aren’t pressured to do anything you don’t want to—and even film you saying that before you do anything.

Obviously, there are flaws because the industry is run by humans, and I will never deny the incredible amount of terrible things in porn that need to be reformed. My point is, I have felt dismissed and silenced by feminists who thought their research was more credible than my first-hand experience. There is room for both opinions and both things to be talked about, but the moment their research is given more representation than my voice, it’s a problem. That’s my main concern.

The feminist spaces that have made me feel completely safe as a sex worker are usually accepting of trans/queer peoples and have little to do with what mainstream feminism focuses on.

DH: My experience with feminist spaces predates my involvement in sex trade/sex work, and it was already complicated. As a trans woman who grew up poor, the many ways in which what we are calling “mainstream feminism” failed me and my communities were obvious. On the other hand, like Minnie alludes to, feminism, feminist spaces, feminist individuals (whether friends/colleagues or writers/activists) helped me develop my own analysis a lot and changed how I look at the world.

There have been times when I have disavowed the label feminist, but I also used it to help organize a conference in D.C. that centered the intersectional feminism we are discussing here, that centered the experiences and thoughts of women of color, trans folks, and sex workers (shout out to Visions in Feminism). I was recently at a multi-generational gathering of academics and activists reflecting on the history of reproductive and sexual health and rights, and some of the speakers introduced me for the first time to the idea of “power” or “governance” feminists/feminism [Ed. note: “governance feminism” refers to the strategy of implementing feminism through the law.] I like this term better than “mainstream” because it really highlights how one set of folks in the feminist world prioritize gaining specific types of power and using the tools of that power (for example, government) to further their agenda. I think that stands in stark contrast to the more complicated approaches that many of the feminists who I stand with, feminists who focus more on dismantling power and creating alternative structures for holding those in power accountable. It is governance feminism that got us “feminist groups” advocating war in Afghanistan, for example, as well as of course anti-sex trade laws.

Rewire: Given that you’ve all had such diverse, and often contentious, experiences with feminists, what role, if any, do you think feminism can play in sex workers’ rights and advocacy?

MS: My wishes are for people in general to gain the knowledge necessary so that women wouldn’t have to elaborate their choices to such an extent, or at all, anymore. Most of the slut-shaming, whore-phobia, and other problems that contribute to the stigmatization of sex work manifest because of ignorance. Feminism has always been a learning process for me. My personal feminism stems mostly from wanting to understand normalized sexism and how it affects the big picture. In this situation, the normalized sexism can be something as common as casual slut-shaming, but in the bigger picture it adds to a problem that actually makes it physically unsafe for sex workers in certain situations.

If feminism has any role, it would be to educate people in general that women, whether you agree with their choices or not, are people who are capable of making their own decisions. By teaching people that, it would show people that things like calling a girl a “slut” actually is detrimental in ways that are much bigger than just the word. With that mentality, I think it’s easier for other changes in the industry to happen like better treatment to women on sets, better representation for what women want, less hate for the industry.

Feminism has so much power to change the industry by changing things that affect the industry. Feminism is about women’s rights and is much bigger than just how porn girls are treated, but I feel it definitely has an indirect place in the industry.

VR: Mainstream feminism has power—much more than the sex workers’ rights movement, and I think more political power than the sex industry itself, regardless of the financial disparity. I think feminism has the capacity to evolve an understanding of how power, sex, and gender affect people in an intersectional way, and I hope that when it does, the only acceptable standpoint within feminism will be for sex workers’ rights. I feel like feminist ideals like the right to vote are part of a wider understanding that minority groups need to represent their own interests. Feminists could support sex worker organizing and help amplify sex worker voices for their own representation at policy level.

DH: I think that Minnie and Violet really hit the point here already: In as much as some feminists and their sectors, organizations, and movements have more resources or credibility than those of us working for social justice for people in sex trade/sex work, they really need to step up. They are the ones better suited to go toe-to-toe with the anti-prostitution forces who cloak themselves in feminism. But I also am disillusioned that the “governance” feminists would ever change their tune, so I think we need to focus more on the sectors within feminism that are committed to grassroots movement building and alternatives to the current power structure, as well as seek cross-movement allies in the fights around immigration, criminal justice, or LGBT issues.

I think I would also disagree slightly with Violet—I think some of the most dangerous legislation regarding sex work has actually been driven by people who are not feminists, who are anti-feminist even, but who jump at the opportunity to work with “governance” feminists when they can. For example, the “anti-crime” or “social cleansing” people push for increased punishment for sex workers, “prostitution-free zones,” and so on, whereas the “feminists” push for increased punishments for clients, which we know also affects sex workers. But I do see a difference there. And while I’m not sure that one is worse than the other, if I had to choose the lesser of two evils, I would say that the law that claims to penalize clients is the lesser of the evils. It’s still not good by any means, and I want to fight it against such laws, but we should have a complex analysis.