#MeToo on the fringes: Including sex workers
Autumn of 2017 has been the site of an uproar. In the wake of the #metoo movement, power relations have been turned on their heads and the culture of silence surrounding sexual harassment and violence has been replaced by a roar by its survivors. The movement has however seen a fair deal of criticism, one of which has been the lack of representation of underprivileged women and women of colour.
It has been acknowledged that the movement was started in 2007 by a black woman: Social activist Tarana Burke. Burke started “Me Too” as a grassroots movement of survivors of sexual abuse and assault in underprivileged communities, whose access to rape crisis centres and other specialised services was often non-existent. The catch-phrase was meant to be used from survivor to survivor in order to show to one another that they were not alone. Hence, the origin of the movement is not a tweet from a white American actress, but a platform for marginalised, underprivileged women whose voices are never heard.
Keep that thought.
For decades, Pro Sentret has reported on the violence our service users suffer. Survey-based reports in 2008 and 2012 showed that episodes of violence were frequent, and often grave in character. The perpetrators of the violence were clients and partners, as well as acquaintances and family members.
Harassment of street based sex workers is ubiquitous, and often carries a component of racism. An absolute majority of our service users are migrants and ethnic discrimination often interacts with gender discrimination and whore stigma in a particularly toxic way. Almost all the harassment is carried out by men, and it includes both planned and impulsive acts. We also observe episodes in which male passers-by subject the women to severe verbal abuse, or throw coins or food, or shout derogative remarks based either on gender, ethnicity or both.
There are several factors that influence the women’s choice of whether to report incidences of violence or not. Often, there is a profound fear of being shamed or not believed by e.g. the police and/or of reprisals from the perpetrator. With women who are in Norway illegally, we know of incidences were women have reported violence, only to find that the illegality of their residency has gotten precedence over the crime they have been subjected to. The outcome is then forced return.
People who sell sex are often kept outside public discussion on sexualised and gender based violence. Often, the phenomenon in itself that is seen as inherently violent, not the patriarchal structures that already exists. The abuse persons selling sex suffer is then viewed as collateral of violent phenomena, rather than an expression of men’s violence against women.
Although the phenomenon of prostitution can indeed be subjected to criticism from a feminist standpoint, solely focussing on the phenomenon in itself as inherently violent risks missing the point. The clandestine nature of prostitution, operating as it does on the fringes of legality, works as an amplifier of gender based and often racialised violence, leaving the persons selling sex as more or less as free game.
Today, the 17th of December, is The International Day to End all Violence against Sex Workers. It was established in 2003 in remembrance of the 49 victims of Gary Leon Ridgeway, known as the Green River killer. Ridgeway’s victims were young women, mostly teenagers; runaways, sex workers and drug addicts; women and girls no one would miss or look for. Easy prey.
Since the end of November Pro Sentret has shared our service users’ narratives on violence under the hashtags #utensikkerhetsnett (without safety net) and #metoo. Our hope is that the testimonies of persons selling sex are included whenever sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination are discussed, particularly in the wake of #metoo.
May we never forget that the root of #metoo is solidarity.
Ida Elin Kock, Senior Executive Officer, Pro Sentret
Bjørg Norli, Director, Pro Sentret