Epistemic exploitation of sex workers, or why debates about sex work are never a good idea

The other day an email landed in my inbox from someone who was putting together a panel for a debate. The motion was “‘This House Believes That Sex Work Is Real Work’ and I was asked to propose the motion “speaking about why you believe that sex work, notably prostitution, is moral and legitimate work, and in the best interests of the workers themselves.” I would be debating two radical feminists, both of whom have regularly and loudly supported The Nordic Model, and both of whom believe that sex work is paid rape and exploitation. I could put forward my case about why giving sex workers’ labour rights would keep them alive. I could let my voice be heard.

I declined.

I do not believe that sex workers should spend time advocating for their own existence. I do not believe that sex workers owe it to non-sex workers to justify their place in the world. This type of advocacy is uncompensated, emotionally taxing, time consuming, and, evidence shows, pointless. Verbal jousting matches against people (in this case, with no lived experience about the subject they would be debating) do not allow room for nuanced conversation. Instead it is an opportunity for an audience to watch a cat fight. Nora Berenstain has coined an apt phrase for when the privileged demand evidence of oppression from marginalised communities, and I will use her argument to explain why debates around sex worker rights are ‘epistemically exploitative’ and why I, and many sex worker rights activists generally, will play no part in them.

Epistemology relates to the study of knowledge. Epistemic exploitation is the exploitation of knowledge, or of someone’s resources and capacity as a knower. Berenstain explains that “Epistemic exploitation occurs when privileged persons compel marginalized persons to educate them about the nature of their oppression. [It] is marked by unrecognized, uncompensated, emotionally taxing… epistemic labour”. One argument given by radical feminists as to why sex work is not ‘real work’ is the physical coercive exploitation inherent in the labour/capital exchange of sex work (though oddly these same feminists don’t think that this standard applies to cleaners, nannies or any other worker, domestic or otherwise).  Odd then, that on top of the exploitation sex workers already live with, we are asked to be exploited further by giving up unpaid time and emotional resources to engage with people to argue for fundamental rights.

Epistemic exploitation is defined by its use of energy, labour, time and resources which could be spent elsewhere such as casework, mutual aid and research. The information that we would be using in a debate is available for anyone who wants to learn, but a debate is never against people with intellectual curiosity. It is little more than trolling; a distraction, a ‘diversion of energies’. If carceral or radical feminists were genuinely interested in learning about sex worker rights, they could educate themselves instead of asking an already marginalised group for free labour. In this regard, their motive at these debates is functional: it uses activists’ energy, forcing us to explain repeatedly our reason for being, instead of concentrating on our own work or working with sex workers who need support.  

Why would a radical feminist engage in a debate with me, or any other sex worker rights activist? If they don’t want to learn, why bother talking in the first place?

A debate is quick, with opponents given a few minutes in which to speak. These chunks of time are so fast, they are structurally set up to have no time to fact check, resulting in people spouting off made up statistics about the age of entry into the sex industry or and claims about human trafficking without factual basis. It leaves no time or space for their opponent to lay out an educated refutation or seek empirical evidence. Arguments can be projected ad homenium, attacking the credibility of sex workers as knowers of our own experience, rather than engaging with the subject or the evidence. Assertions about pimp lobbying (with no proof or evidence) are often used to attack the integrity and intention of sex worker activists. Accusations and arguments aside, either you believe that sex workers are human beings deserving of worker rights, same as every other worker, or you don’t. There is no debate.

Calling it a debate gives credibility where there is none. But sharing a space with sex workers and performing listening and conversation seems a virtuous display of educating oneself about a subject. So often are sex workers told that we do not have the opportunity to represent ourselves perhaps it is assumed that we would jump at the chance to do the necessary labour to correct non-sex working people’s mistakes. Berenstain talks of this as a ‘masquerade’ of intellectual engagement. These debates may be considered an ‘indispensable method of attaining knowledge’ but underlying are the oppressive power dynamics at play.

These conversations centre the needs of dominant groups, not the oppressed. Regular arguments which sex workers are expected to defend include, “The effects of sex work on the rest of the population… lap dancing clubs generate more violence… men will think its ok to buy women and the implication of these statements are that women who are not sex workers will suffer. The sex workers involved in the debates are often told that they are not representative of the majority, even though evidence shows that the majority are not trafficked, not coerced and do not want the Nordic Model. Laying out this evidence time and again when it is never listened to is exhausting and traumatising.

Ironically, radical feminists are more likely to be believed because they are NOT sex workers. Their ‘credibility surplus’ comes from not being tainted with the stigma of selling sex. Their argumentative claims come with more credibility than the evidence ought to allow for. They, and perhaps even the audience watching, have a default scepticism toward our experiences of harassment, forcing the marginalised group to ‘relive experiences’ and ‘defend [our] interpretation of it in the face of doubt and disbelief’. Sex workers, by contrast, have a credibility deficit. Like other marginalised groups we often fear our experiences will be disbelieved. A concern with potentially fatal consequences which prevents them from accessing help when they need it. It perpetuates and reinforces the damage done which radical feminists claim to be trying to eradicate.

People of colour, trans people and disabled people have spoken about this expectation of marginalised groups to educate the more privileged. If people have a desire to learn there are resources and information out there. Conceptualising these debates as a form of epistemic exploitation can help us point to new ways of sharing information with those who want to learn, open up new forms of engagement with possible opposition or resistance and challenge dominant framework of intellectual pursuit.  

Thanks to L for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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