“Sex workers are experts at sexual consent” - femifesto
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“Sex workers are experts at sexual consent”

“Sex workers are experts at sexual consent”

A conversation with Chanelle Gallant on media reporting on sexual violence and sex work

 

We’ve seen the headlines before:

 

“Toronto man posing as undercover cop to demand sexual favours from prostitutes, police say” (National Post)

 

“Manchester United’s David De Gea accused of organising prostitute sex ‘party’ for Spanish U-21 teammates” (Manchester Evening News)

 

When we see stories of sexual violence against sex workers, we often aren’t told that a sexual assault happened. The assumptions are the same: that it’s not sexual assault if a person sometimes accepts payment for sex. That you can’t rape a sex worker you’re paying. That the sex worker was asking for it. Deserved it.

 

This perspective obscures the fact that sex workers are often made more vulnerable to sexual violence through cultural, legal and economic oppression. While not much current research exists, a 2001 study of street-involved sex workers in Vancouver found that 45.8% of respondents had been sexually assaulted without a weapon, and 40.7% with a weapon. (PACE Society, 2001, http://www.pace-society.org/library/sex-trade-and-police-response.pdf) Yet because of criminalization and stigmatization, sex workers are often unlikely to report the violence they experience.

 

Chanelle GallantTo learn more about how we can shift conversation about sex work and sexual violence, we spoke with Chanelle Gallant. Chanelle is a long-time organizer in sex working and feminist communities in Toronto (Haudenesaunee, Mississauga of New Credit, Huron, Wendat territory). She is the co-director of the Migrant Sex Worker Project and STRUT, co-editer of the prison/policing abolition blog Everyday Abolition and on the advisory board of the Transformative Justice/Harm Reduction Project. She also answers to the names rabble-rouser, fallen woman, comrade and sister. You can learn more about her work at chanellegallant.com.

 

Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence and rape enacted against sex workers? What changes would you like to see?

 

Chanelle: “There are cultural and legal systems that [are] designed to disadvantage sex workers, and media is one of those institutions.  Media reproduce a lot of the myths about sex work that increase the risk of sexual assault for sex workers. One of the main myths about sex work is that it’s not work and that you cannot rape a sex worker because a sex worker has already given consent to sex with anyone and everyone. And this isn’t true. Sex workers say yes and they say no. And they get raped and they experience trauma from it. But in the media we often see the idea that a sex worker is somehow asking for any and all sex including non-consensual sex because they are trading or selling sex. And so what we want to see is more recognition that sex workers exercise consent and have agency over their bodies and do not sell their bodies. They sell sex. And that sex workers have the same right to say no to sex as anyone else at any point at any sexual encounter.”

 

“The media does not have systematic awareness of the problem of sexual violence against sex workers. They focus on violence on an individual level while leaving out or dismissing the systematic oppression of sex workers. Which leaves out a lot of really important context about why violence against sex workers is happening and shifts the blame to individual sex workers. [The media often uses] language like “high risk lifestyle” rather than… focus[ing] on systemic issues like why some sex workers are more exposed to violence than others including those who are forced to work  without basic safety protections. The media and our culture more generally individualize what is really a social problem. Very frequently the media implicitly blame sex work for the violence–which is effectively blaming the sex worker. But there is nothing intrinsically unsafe about selling or trading sex (in fact people trade sex all the time and don’t consider themselves sex workers!). I would like to see the media look at the structural factors that lead to violence.”

 

Interviewer: How would you like to see/have you seen sex workers creating consent culture?

 

Chanelle: “Sex workers are experts at sexual consent unlike any other professional… I can’t think of any community that has more direct lived experience of having to negotiate sexual boundaries and an awareness of right to negotiate every part of the sexual encounter. So for example, non-sex workers might just assume that things like kissing and touching anywhere are a part of any sexual encounter–but sex workers know that all this is open to negotiation–and that that negotiation is strongly shaped by the power of each person. I believe this is the most valuable lesson of sex workers to consent culture: the knowledge that consent is about power. Less power means less ability to establish meaningful consent. So if a sex worker is selling sex in an environment where they have a lot of power… they can better negotiate for safer sex, they can better protect their boundaries, they can be really clear about what they want, what they don’t want, at what time, and when and with whom. If a sex worker has less power, then they have less control and there is less real consent in the sexual interaction. The other thing that sex workers understand is the difference between unwanted and non-consensual sex. Many many of us have had sex that we didn’t really want but we decided to offer–we consented to–for some reason. Maybe it was because it was in exchange for something, maybe it was because we were experimenting with a kind of sex we weren’t sure we’d like, maybe it was to impress someone or make our lives easier. But as a culture we have no way to talk about this and to make sure that people feel empowered in those situations. Sex workers know the difference and know that we can choose to have sex that is not just about pleasure–and still get our needs met.

 

“To be clear: No sex worker asks for sexual violence, ever, at all, under any circumstances. Sex workers negotiate sex more explicitly than non-sex workers and they say no and yes, and expect and demand to be listened to. And we want the media to take their no as seriously as anyone else’s.”

 

Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that no not fit this description/narrative?

 

Chanelle: “I think we need to start valuing the lives of all sex worker and offering respectful, accurate and fair coverage of sexual violence against them  that affirms their dignity and the value of their work.”

 

“I would like really to see the media change how they cover violence against sex workers who are particularly marginalized. Because very frequently that is where we see the most victim blaming. You have someone who has been pushed into more dangerous parts of the industry due to issues like poverty, homelessness, colonialism, racism, lack of services available to substance abusers and then when that person experiences sexual violence they are actually the most likely to be blamed for it. When they are often the people with the least power.”

 

“ It is really disappointing and sad and shameful that the most marginalized sex workers are the ones that are most blamed for violence against them. They are the ones who will be described as “living high-risk lifestyles” even though they have the absolute fewest options and have been literally locked out of formal economies. And so I think it is really important for us to push back on this dehumanizing and disrespectful language of “high risk”… media needs to avoid the dichotomy between sex worker and “happy hooker” and to dig deeper to highlight the disparities of different sex workers that are based on systemic oppression. “

 

“I’d also like to see the media stop using  stereotypes about pimps that are loaded with anti-black racism. And they need to ask sex workers– particularly sex workers who have experienced sexual violence–how they identify the men in their lives. Because having a manager is a pretty normal part of most people’s work life and it is for many sex workers too. Racism often shapes how media perceive these relationships. So it’s important that we are accurate about the language that reflects a sex worker’s relationship to the men in their lives. And avoid racially charged dehumanizing language like pimp.”

 

Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors do not report. Why is it important to have diverse representations of survivorship in media reporting? E.g. challenging the notion that there is only one  “correct” way to survive, heal and access support.

 

Chanelle: “Sex workers in general don’t report for very obvious reasons because they are criminalized. The legal system is notoriously abusive to survivors of sexual violence and this goes double for survivors who are further marginalized  (eg trans women, racialized, HIV+ or drug-using sex workers). And so the criminalization of sex work and criminalization of entire communities means that the criminal legal system is simply not available to many people… And so I don’t believe it actually makes sense to encourage sex workers or any marginalized survivors to report to police as long as the criminal legal system exists in the way it does now. Which is that it will continue to traumatize and re-victimize survivors of sexual violence. ”

 

“It’s important to show that sex workers survive in their own ways, using their own strategies that are distinct to their experiences, that are valuable, that are strong, that are resilient, that other people have to learn from. I would love to see the media show how sex workers have come together to develop creative and compassionate means to respond to and prevent sexual violence. ”

 

Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address – specifically on the topic of reporting on sexual violence against sex workers?

 

Chanelle: “We haven’t seen any change on reporting on sexual violence against sex workers. In Canada, we have a new set of laws that continue to make sex workers very vulnerable to sexual violence. At the same time, there is a very strong community of sex workers who are fighting back across the country… I’m really glad to see that there’s been an increase [in] coverage around sex workers’ community-based message of organizing for justice, for advocacy. Let’s talk about strategies that are not about increasing access to cops and prisons because those solutions are never going to be useful for many sex workers. Let’s talk about the ways that sex workers work together to stay safe. Because sex workers have incredibly smart, thoughtful and effective systems for staying safe. Most of these systems are illegal. For example, working together, taking information about clients, screening clients, all this kind of stuff is made more difficult by our legal system. But I would love to see there be more support for community based message of safety.

 

“Often the media talks about people who have raped sex workers having been “johns” or “clients.” And we don’t feel this is appropriate language because if someone knowingly targets a sex worker for sexual violence they’re not actually a client, they’re an aggressor. If you hire someone to come fix your pipes but they are actually there to rob you, they are accurately called a thief not a repair-person. Someone who chooses to harm a sex worker because they know that person has less protection is an aggressor, not a customer.

 

“Lastly, sex workers face this strange situation where they are sometimes described by media as survivors of sexual violence when they are not. For example when trafficking is conflated with sex work or when media use the term “prostituted” because they want to insist that sex work is itself violence. Sex workers need to be believed when they say they are not survivors too! In addition, when sex work is assumed to always already be a form of violence, then if a sex worker does experience sexual violence in their personal or work life, these realities and their demands for change are completely dismissed.  

 

“This is a political move that increases the stigma, shame and powerlessness of sex workers and it often reflects misogyny and racism:  male sex workers are universally assumed to be able to choose the work–but women of colour very frequently are not. When someone reports that they are a survivor of sexual violence, we need to respect their self-identification. Equally important when someone identifies as a sex worker and not a survivor of sexual violence, we must respect that  Sex workers know what is sexual violence and what is not.”

 

This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.

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