Friday, 24 January 2014

What is really Missing from #notyourrescueproject

In the recent times the twitter hash tag #notyourrescueproject has become a battleground between a group of radical feminist abolitionists and many of the sex working women who were speaking out on the hash tag about their experiences.

The abolitionist group have apparently chosen as their spokesperson @meganemurphy and have in consequence repeatedly reposted a link to her analysis of #notyourrescueproject at

In her analysis Megan critiques a number of issues and seeks to show how radical feminist abolitionists have been misunderstood and misrepresented. She also posits sex working women as all being victims of exploitation and quotes others who suggest that sex workers who represent themselves otherwise derail the global fight for freedom and equality.

There is obviously a deeply contested notion of sex work that has fuelled quite angry and bitter exchanges between the different groups.

I would like to unpack some thoughts about why so many Sex Workers feel so much anger and then consider the misunderstandings and misrepresentations raised by Meghan.
Firstly I want to make it clear that I am fully seized that many women experience considerable harm when in sex work. I believe the marginalised nature of sex work and its stigmatisation has often allowed exploitative people to abuse the consequentially vulnerable sex workers. I believe many women have been compelled by coercion to sell sex, while others have been emotionally manipulated into exploitative sex work. I know of other women who through poverty have resorted to selling sex and have felt devalued by that experience. I have also noted that many women can only pay for their drug use by selling sex. Therefore I am fully seized that many women resent their sex work experiences and want to protect other women from the abuse they suffered.

I am also quite convinced that many privileged actors resent women demanding to be paid for their sexual labour and as such they want to constrain and punish us for our insolence. Furthermore they have legislated and socially constructed sex work to push sex workers to the edges of society so criminal elements can easily harass and exploit sex working people often in collusion with law enforcement.

I believe the barriers to be able to sell sex safely and free of exploitative forces makes sex work unnecessarily dangerous. However the exploitation of sex work is not inherent in sex work it is a consequence of allowing structures and legislation that prevent sex workers from organising effective resistance.  The idea that women need to be protected from men is a patriarchal myth that underpins the practice of woman exchange, marriage to ensure patrimony, and purduh. Laws that protect women are usually grounded in the notion that women must be protected from sex that might compromise patrimony. I believe women need rights that allow them to organise their own resistance, however abolitionism demands to control the legitimacy of sexual access to my body; as such it is predicated on the patriarchal notion of “woman protection” rather than effecting “woman autonomy”.

My own matriarchal culture has been all but destroyed by centauries of deliberate persecution by powerful actors who resented our rejection of marriage and patrimony. This matriarchy predates patriarchy and as such it is not a reaction to patriarchy but an alternative. However it is now a weak and mostly forgotten tradition buried under the opprobrious rhetoric of those who demanded to control our sexual behaviour. (You can read something about the Devadasi here)

So apart from the many women who experience exploitation and abuse in sex work there are also many women who successfully negotiate the various sex work environments and find sex work to be interesting and meaningful work. These women do not deny the hazards nor do they deny the experiences of those who have suffered harm and hurt. These sex working women believe that their stories and experiences should also be heard and used to inform a better understanding of the diversity of sex work. When they are told that their experiences and opinions are not useful and that they do not properly understand the dynamics of sex work some of these sex workers have become quite angry at such contrived exclusion. They are also sometimes accused of being “not representative” or being “pimps” or “men”. These dismissals are hurtful and provocative; they also suggest that when someone doesn’t exist theoretically there is a tendency to obfuscate that possibility so as to protect the theoretical canon over contradictions that challenge its validity.

Before I spoke English and could use Twitter I was representative of some young Indian sex workers now I have broken through that technological and cultural glass ceiling I am no longer representative and I can be ignored according to Meghan’s analysis. I do not believe it is likely that will be any reach out to enable the voices of young Indian sex workers to speak in open social forums unless such voices are mediated by more powerful agents. In any case, any of us who do access twitter will, by definition, no longer be representative. This is a disingenuous argument and disqualifies our attempts to participate. It also allows for the unheard voices of my still "representative" friends to be appropriated and spoken for by others.  I think many people would be very surprised to know how many simple Indian sex workers use facebook, but unless you are willing to learn an indigenous Indian language they will remain unheard by English speakers.

I will now try and address the misunderstanding and misrepresentations raised by Meghan.

Meghan contends that many women consider the use of the “rescue industry” to be strategic misrepresentation intended to undermine women’s solidarity. She also highlights that much abolitionist work is undertaken by volunteers and is underfunded. As a survivor of the “rescue industry” I am convinced that women are sometimes “rescued” and then detained in abusive circumstances so they can be used to entice donors to fund NGO rescue projects. I do not believe that many individuals actually profit directly from such activities but I believe that many “rescue” agencies receive considerable funding from the US government and religious organisations to conduct “rescues” regardless of the desires of the “rescued”. The policy of the US Government not to fund agencies that refused to consider prostitution abusive prevented many Sex Worker led NGOs from receiving funding and privileged funding to “rescue” NGOs. This prejudicial funding stream spawned a myriad of anti-prostitution NGO opportunists that slavishly repeated the moralistic polemic of Ambassador John Miller. Agencies such as the DMSC in Songachi lost USAID funding while abolitionist agencies increasingly received substantial funding. The underwriting of abolitionist agencies with such preferential funding required the delivery of various outputs and that included so many “rescued” women and girls. Anti-trafficking is dominated by the 4 Ps, prevention, protection, prosecution, and policy.

Consequently for our protection we were rescued to order and then detained with safe custody orders so we could be displayed as so much rescued “flesh”.  When we were visited by white women feminists, I was allowed to do a dance display and then I was taken upstairs and locked in a room because the NGO staff knew I could speak English and they did not want me to translate for the other detained women. During the Q&A the other women repeatedly said they wanted to go home and this was translated as them appreciating the safety of the home. Eventually most of us managed to escape and then other women were “rescued”.
I believe that there is a “rescue industry” and that it is preferentially funded and that this funding has created and sustained the abusive detention of many women and girls. I believe many residential rescue centres are not centred on the needs and best interests of detained women and girls but are often driven by the prosecution agenda. Many rescue NGOs need to deliver prosecution outputs and as such women and girls can be held by the NGOs for years as material witnesses demonstrating that the NGOs are engaged in “prosecution”. So there is a conflict of interest between the best interest of a woman wanting to move on from a rescue centre and the NGO detaining her who also needs to deliver a prosecution output even if that means years of detention for the woman or girl involved.

So while not every abolitionist group is preferentially funded enough are so as to have created a “rescue industry” model of intervention in many places.

With regards to Maghan’s comments regarding race, class, and the myth of the white upper-class abolitionist, I am not well positioned to respond as I find the nexus of these matters to be confusing in Europe. I come to these issues in a post-colonial world were sex workers in my country are subaltern to various elites, these elites most certainly once included white upper class abolitionists who petitioned for draconian laws against Indian sex workers and the LGBT community. Now we are confronted by other elites whose moral authority is intended to reinforce patriarchal and heterosexist norms. The NGO sector in South Asia is dominated by the elites who often then keep the third sector as the means to police the poor. These seem strange allies for those who would like to break the stranglehold of patriarchy.

With regards to choice I consider this to offer little in helping to understand the intentions of women and girls. I did not have the choice to become an astronaut or the wife of a rajput or a bus driver, but equally I did not have to be a sex worker. I do not intend to be a sex worker all my life. I have met people in the UK who deliver leaflets about home delivery pizza services the work is dreadful in the winter but they tell me they have no choice. I know a woman teacher who really does not like her job but she says she will stay for two more years because of her pension. Most poor women do not sell sex but many choose to get married in exchange for the security of being considered male property. I decided if a man wanted sexual access to me he was going to ask very nicely, and then if I agreed he would have to pay me what I considered appropriate. I have met arrogant Rajput men who have a sense of entitlement to the bodies of women but these men are so angry if you say to them if you want me you must pay! Arrogant men want free sex not paid sex. My clients are overwhelmingly simple kind men who are trying to deal with their sexual needs in an honest, transparent and equitable way. The only men I have ever been really scared of are Policemen and Politician family men.

With regards to notions of the “feminist prude” it is a matter of record that the abolitionists have achieved a great deal through their alliance with the religious right, and frankly I think their manipulation of the religious right was and is a masterful political coup. The moral panic sustained by the religious right allows the more astute feminists to often direct policy and practice regarding sex working people.

However I would like to return to the notion that it is considered acceptable to legislate regarding what is legitimate sexual access to women.

Many years ago women were allowed to have sex for procreation with their husbands. Then women were allowed to have sex with their husbands for procreation and pleasure. More recently women are being allowed in some places to have sex for pleasure.

Laws that determine who is to be allowed sexual access to women are driven by patronymic concerns. If women seek to subvert patrimony especially sex workers they have always been subjected to extreme penalties including death. If women are to live free of patriarchy we must strike down every law that seeks to determine what is or is not legitimate sexual access between non-consanguineous adults.

I do realise that I have probably missed so much but I hope that will help some to see how radical feminist analysis of sex work needs to be revised to go beyond Eurocentric constraints and that it needs to welcome the voices of all sex workers not just survivors.

To those who felt compelled to invade #notyourrescueproject with links to meghan’s analysis, you are welcome to ignore me as not “representative”

I acknowledge the help of the @nagarvadhu in translating some of this from my mother language to English  


  1. Thanks for these informed comments, and I especially appreciate your thoughts on choice. I've worked with many Canadian sex workers whose lives have been made particularly miserable by the laws and the attitudes that condemn them to work in the shadows and in shame. There is no conflict between working to support people who are experiencing violence and exploitation in the industry, while also working to improve conditions and societal attitudes for adults who have made a clear-eyed choice to work as sex workers, and deserve the same commitment to workplace safety, dignity and respect that we show all other workers. Thanks for your powerful voice.