An Evening with an Anti: Down the Rabbit Hole with a Sex Work Prohibitionist

Twitter is a horrible place for feminism … a place where intellectual laziness is encouraged, oversimplification is mandatory, posturing is de rigueur, and bullying is rewarded …1

- Meghan Murphy

A few nights back I entangled myself in a debate with a Sex Worker Exclusionary Feminist (SWEF.)* I usually try to avoid such dull, pointless affairs as it’s of little use to argue with anyone so ideologically driven that she would fiercely pursue an agenda which would engender significant harm were it to be adopted. I know this all too well, but occasionally a line is crossed and the next thing you know there goes an hour or so of your life you’ll simply never get back.

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Sex workers, however, are a practical and industrious breed, so if I’m going to waste time, I might as well wrest whatever value out of it I can. As luck would have it, that evening’s discussion was instructive in understanding the ways of the SWEFs, if for no other reason than there appears to be just a single, three point tactic in their entire playbook. And if there’s just a single tactic, few individuals of whom I’m aware do a better job of executing it than Meghan E. Murphy.

Because I think a central tenet in social justice is allowing members of historically marginalized groups the power to self-name and to speak on their own behalves, I’m going to reproduce Ms. Murphy’s bio exactly as it appears on the site of which she is founder and editor:

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If you understood how much it pained me to give Ms. Murphy’s website the single click required to obtain that screenshot, you would realize precisely how invested I am in giving marginalized groups the space to speak for themselves. Seriously. I am super-duper invested. But I digress and you’ll understand why I’m belaboring this point a bit later.

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Back to Ms. Murphy. Another fun fact about Ms. Murphy: Ms. Murphy LOVES ALL CAPS!

Fun facts aside, Ms. Murphy does appear to have accidentally made a few omissions in her bio. Like the fact that some have found her views to be transphobic. Or the fact that several concerns have been raised about her tendency to view things through a less than intersectional lens – and that’s putting it far more mildly than others have. While I found no mention of her on Jez main, a few commenters on Groupthink appear to find her work a bit lacking as well.

Ms. Murphy is also a vocal opponent of sex work.

If you were to read all of the linked pieces in succession, a few underlying trends would quickly begin to develop: Ms. Murphy often denies certain women their agency, and Ms. Murphy talks over other women in a way that indicates she has appointed herself chief arbiter of Real Feminism™

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What follows is not intended as a takedown of any one individual – the information provided above is some general context I discovered while researching Ms. Murphy. Truth be told, prior to starting this piece, I knew nothing of her other than she’s a rabidly anti-sex work faux-intellectual, and that she does indeed frequently talk over other women (especially women sex workers.) But again, this isn’t about her; this is about SWEF attitudes, and how hers is particularly emblematic of all that is wrong with them.

As we enter mid-conversation, Meghan was doing what Meghan does and speaking for/over “prostituted women.” Since this term is highly offensive to erotic service providers, a few of my Twitter friends in the biz had requested that she kindly use the preferred term “sex worker” instead. Ms. Murphy, however, was not about to countenance the whores telling her how they should be named because she respects them too much to allow that. Oh, and also ‘cause global feminism. And probably ‘cause Gloria Steinem.

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The response was, well, if you’ve been doing this long enough, predictable.

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Let’s take a second to deconstruct the reply: First, notice I’m addressed as “sir.” That’s dogwhistle to not only call out my male privilege (which fine, fair enough, though she certainly doesn’t appear to have interrogated her own privilege at any point in the discussion) but also to dismiss me from the conversation entirely: “You have a dick, so you have no say here.” Never mind that people have paid quite a bit of money to do fun things with this dick over the past 20 years, i.e., I’m a sex worker so I absolutely do have a stake in this discussion and a right to participate.

But let’s be realistic: if Ms. Murphy wasn’t willing to listen to the female sex workers who’d already spoken, why would she listen to me? Well, she wouldn’t because step one of the SWEF strategy is deny, and it’s certainly not limited to the dismissal of male sex workers. Deny entry into the conversation, deny the agency of the individuals speaking, deny their right to self-name and speak on their own behalf, and then ultimately deny their very voices entirely. Whatever you do, don’t listen, just continue to talk over and deny.

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Should a pesky sex worker not crawl away with their tail between their legs, the second step is to deflect. Change the goal posts, change the subject, bandy about non-sequiturs, or just do anything at all to completely hijack the discussion without ever acknowledging any of the points being made. You’ll duly note that Ms. Murphy didn’t bother to directly address a single point raised: She didn’t address the fact that there are Feminist views that differ from her own, she didn’t address the very valid assertion made in the quote by Ms. Nagle (a Feminist who’s been involved in erotic service provision) and she didn’t address the fact that she’s monopolizing a conversation about sex workers with her particular brand of Real Feminism™ – a brand that has harmful implications for the very people with whom she’s [grudgingly] engaging.

Deny and deflect.

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Once more, Ms. Murphy denies sex workers their agency by drawing an association between us and slaves. But when she’s again confronted with the truth – that she herself is objectifying other women even as she claims to be the voice of Real Feminism™ – she simply deflects and moves on to the “sex industry.” But this is where the logic really starts to disintegrate. Ms. Murphy can’t adequately answer the charge that she is in fact characterizing the very women who are supposedly her “sisters” as passive objects – likely because she is and she damn well knows it. Instead she simply asserts that the “sex industry” does so as well. It’s at this moment that Ms. Murphy inadvertently admits she disregards the agency of certain women just as callously as she claims the very industry she so vehemently hates does. This is also the point where she just straight up ghosts out of the conversation.

And from here, things get even more tedious as her minions jump in to take over, repeating trite and factually incorrect talking points and continuing to deny sex workers their agency. In fact, it was so mind-numbingly monotonous that I can’t even be bothered screenshotting the tweets. Here are the lowlights:

  • A few cartoons were drawn and posted of me because apparently that’s the state of rational discourse in 2015. One of these toons – with absolutely no trace of irony – insinuated I was talking over other people even though my agency as a sex worker had been viciously erased in the discussion. Another cartoon indicated I was fucking people’s wives for a living, which was interesting considering I’m a MSM queer service provider. Admittedly, the art wasn’t horrible, and if I’m going to be depicted in a sketch, I have to say it was a rather flattering portrayal – so much so that it is now the wallpaper on my laptop.
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And actually, that’s it. The rest was so tiresome that it’s worth neither your time nor mine to go on about it. If you’re weirdly interested, or a masochist (no judgement) you can access the whole thing on Twitter.

But then, just about when I thought I could move on with my night and reclaim a portion of my dignity, one final shot was fired, and this is typically the point where you know the prohibitionists are getting really desperate but just can’t let it go: The caption of the aforementioned cartoon – the one that suggested I make a living fucking other people’s wives – was, “Mike is a serious internet activist. Fighting for the rights of Mike...”

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Aww, hellz no.

That’s always the last resort with the antis: Deny that the dirty, tainted whores are capable of anything resembling pure intentions by suggesting all they really care about is their own material gain. Never mind that many sex workers (apparently also known as the non-existent “pimp lobby”) are some of the most giving, community-oriented, shirt off their back people that I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Never mind that many of us work with truly non-profit organizations – organizations not bankrolled by NGOs, law enforcement, religious institutions, special interests, or massive donations – but rather entirely self-funded coalitions we set up on our own to provide services to our own. And never mind that the only real plan people like Ms. Murphy ever offer the women whose incomes she would so cavalierly destroy in her quest to unilaterally implement Real Feminism™ is some bullshit “rescue” program and a $60 bag of nope.

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Yeah, never mind all that, what’s really driving the impressive grass roots advocacy, outreach, and care by the sex work community is pure self-interest.

Well, I call bullshit. But Ms. Murphy didn’t. She may have exited the conversation about an hour prior because I was attempting to engage in a substantive debate, but apparently she had been watching all along. And she came back to lol.

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(I said the art was decent, not the grammar.)

Now, see, here’s the thing: Ms. Murphy writes and tweets extensively against sex work. Her site, presumably, is monetized and she has written many anti-sex work pieces for both her own property and for other outlets (many of which were doubtlessly paid articles as well.) Ms. Murphy makes her living in part by fighting against the best interests of sex workers, and has made undermining us a component of building her personal brand. So, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m a little offended that she finds a cartoon so L-O-L funny when it libelously indicates any activism I undertake - activism for which I neither receive nor would accept compensation - is strictly for my own self-interest.

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Fuck that noise.

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At which point, of course, she immediately blocked me.

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And that, folks, is a typical engagement with an anti-sex work fascist: Have your identity attacked, erased, marginalized, ridiculed; have your agency denied; have your intellect insulted by the alarmingly vapid and cartoonish state of the discourse; have the prohibitionists claim that they are the real victims (by screaming “you’re talking over me” anytime you attempt to make a rational point in a discussion that involves the livelihoods and very lives of your own); get blocked when they realize they’re losing.

But here’s the real kicker, and I didn’t realize it until I scrolled way, way, WAY back up in the discussion. The whole infuriating dialogue (if you can even call it such) was built entirely upon two major lies. And that is the ultimate maneuver in the single tactic prohibitionist playbook: Deception.

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As you may have heard, Margaret Cho recently came out as a former sex worker. And Margaret – being amazing – asked the sex workers what model they would most want her to advocate for. This may seem like a minor development, but sex workers don’t get many high-profile allies – quite the opposite in fact. Ms. Cho had already generously committed to doing what she can to raise visibility around sex workers’ human rights, and visibility often translates into policy reform. This specter, of course, scares the shit out of people like Meghan, so the fact that she wasn’t asked (given she’s not a sex worker) wasn’t about to stop her from chiming in. Let’s recall, this is a woman who doesn’t think sex workers are even competent enough to self-name, let alone speak on their own behalf. So although the request from Ms. Cho was very explicitly directed at sex workers, Meghan thinks it’s her right – nay, her very duty – to speak on behalf of “prostituted women.”

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Now, I have experienced audacity in my life, and I’ve experienced dismissiveness, but this takes the megalomaniacal cake. Feminism is now reduced to violently speaking over sex workers under the infantilizing pretense that they’re incapable of knowing what they really want — all while the sex worker body count keeps mounting, and all while actual sex workers struggle to be heard when we say this model actively harms us?

Well, thankfully, no: this isn’t everyone’s brand of Feminism and the Nordic model (if you’re not familiar, please see summary explanation at bottom of page) is most certainly not the only Feminist approach. Ms. Murphy seems blind to the pestiferous fact – the one I pointed out at the very outset of our Twitter exchange – that there are actual Feminist sex workers, and that contrary to her seeming belief otherwise, she doesn’t have a corner on Feminism. As for the claim that the Nordic model is the only socialist approach, the reality is the very term “Nordic model” itself is a misnomer given that two of the five Nordic countries have refused to adopt it entirely.

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Both of those inconvenient facts aside, the biggest bullshit whopper was still yet to come: Meghan claims that there have been “no murders” of “prostituted women” under the Nordic model since its implementation.

Well that’s just a bald-faced lie.

Presumably Ms. Murphy means there have been no [reported – and this is important] homicides of sex workers in Sweden given that the oft repeated myth is there have been none in the fifteen (now sixteen) years since the approach was adopted in that nation. Except that’s not actually true. A sex worker was murdered in Sweden in 2013, and many blame the very model that was allegedly designed to protect her life for ending it.

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Further, prohibitionists like Meghan point to this false claim that no sex workers have been the victim of homicide in Sweden as if correlation equals causation. But as is often the case, it does not. Even were the claim true, the reality is there were also no murders of sex workers in the 9 years leading up to the law’s implementation, a time when Sweden was operating in a de facto quasi-decriminalized state. It could be argued – if we rely strictly on causation – that the homicide rate among sex workers has actually increased under the end demand approach.

Sweden’s goal, as is their tradition with homegrown social policies, was always to export the model; at least one former government official responsible for their sex work policy is on record confirming as much. That invested interest in propagating their own system makes any claims of success rather dubious at best, and downright specious at worst. As with most complex issues, once you understand the full context, overly simplistic and reductionist conclusions suddenly seem significantly less compelling.

But neither evidence-based approaches nor nuance are SWEF fortés, and the resulting lack of substance more than explains how the self-serving trinity of deception, denial, and deflection became the essence of their rhetoric; in short, there simply is no there there. The entire SWEF conceptual framework is a tenuously ramshackle patchwork of contradictory, half-baked theoretical spitballing, and it’s about as structurally sound as the straw house in the fable of the Three Little Pigs – a single huff and a puff of rational scrutiny and the whole mess just falls down. It’s positively Orwellian Doublespeak to insist on the full bodily autonomy and agency of all women and then tell others they have none at all; it is equally contradictory to insist women should not be spoken over as they are best able to give voice to their own experiences, and then speak over women whose experiences inconveniently differ from yours and your inane ideology.

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If you denounce gaslighting while simultaneously gaslighting your own, you’re no longer part of the solution – you are the problem. And it’s a really sorry state of affairs when the enemy is no longer the patriarchy, but rather the enemy is within.

*For why I use the term SWEF instead of the more common term SWERF, please see the first paragraph of this piece.

1 Quote synthesis compliments of Angus Johnston; Original piece by Ms. Murphy here.

The Nordic Model

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For those not familiar, the Nordic Model is a sex work criminalization approach based on SWERF ideology that was introduced in Sweden in 1999 with the express goal of eliminating prostitution. Contrary to revisionist history, the primary aim was not to end trafficking or to achieve any of the other harm reduction objectives most responsible and impartial experts believe should be the priority outcomes for any sex work policy reform. Under the model the supply side of prostitution (i.e, selling services) is ostensibly legal, while the buy side (i.e., payment by clients) is criminalized. Harms to sex workers include: continued police brutality, ongoing stigma, dismissive attitudes towards on the job violence and assault, potential loss of parental rights, additional safety risks due to an inability to effectively screen clients, combative interaction with landlords frequently leading to successive evictions, and reduction in prices that negatively impacts sex workers’ ability to earn a living wage due to reduced demand/increased competition. Its implementation is almost universally opposed by all active sex worker advocacy groups as well as numerous notable organizations such as Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, NFPA, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Commission on HIV and Law, Human Rights Watch, The Open Society Foundation, UN Women, and Anti-Slavery International

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