Content warning: This article contains references to sex work slurs and sexual assault.
Let’s face it - the sh#t people say about sex work is often the worst part of the job.
I remember feeling shocked when a friend from my gym confided, “I’m a feminist, but I just don’t think prostitution is okay.” Unfortunately, my (ex) friend was a SWERF - a ‘sex work exclusionary radical feminist.’
Queer Majority magazine describes SWERFs as ‘a faction within feminist thought that is fundamentally opposed to sex work.’ They show up in all sorts of places - columns in the paper, your local women’s group, even lecturing at my university. SWERFS are especially annoying on social media platforms such as Twitter, where they attack sex workers with comments such as, ‘Prostitution is rape!’ and ‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’
Are you tired of this stuff? Angry? Maybe, like me, you’re frustrated that these old attitudes about sex work persist. Online or in person, how can we put up a fight?
To craft the perfect comebacks to SWERFs, trolls, and the painfully ignorant, I’m speaking with Lucie Bee - an Australian and international porn star, independent escort, and sex work activist. Lucie stars in adult productions, produces their own content, and advocates for sex worker rights. And because they have an Internet presence, they’re often targeted online.
Together, we consider a few ways sex work is criticised….and find ways to clap back.
Before you start: Is the conversation worth it?
Not everyone has the ability to wade into an argument. No matter how strongly you feel, your own safety is priority. Lucie admits that it’s often easier for them to defend their peers than themselves. “I don't like when people [attack] people I care about or who have more to lose. So I will gung-ho it in to defend other people, infinitely harder that I will do for myself.”
Their first piece of advice is ‘pick your battles’. Not all debates are winnable! But even if your opponent doesn’t back down, you could convince others.
On Twitter, for example, Lucie considers the audience first: “If it's someone with less than one hundred Twitter followers and a profile picture of an egg, probably just ignore them, block them. If it's someone with a big following then you can bring them into conversation...because the people that follow them will see it and potentially, you've changed some minds.”
Here are some tech tips: if you’re calling someone out online, don’t respond directly to their post. Instead, quote or screenshot their message and post a response on your own feed. “It means that [they] might not notice it straight away,” Lucie says, “That will give you time to actually get the info in there. And you can create something that can potentially be shared.”
What you could do:
- Speak up only when you feel safe and able to do so.
- Speak up when you think bystanders might be convinced, even if the person you’re arguing with isn’t likely to listen.
- Quote or screenshot a comment then post it on your own social media page, to create something that’s easy to share.
“Sex work isn’t a real job. You’re just selling your body.”
SWERFS often argue that sex workers don’t count as workers at all. It annoys Lucie, less for the prejudice and more because it’s illogical. “This selling your body thing...arguably, it's just inaccurate. Realistically, it would be more like a rental agreement.”
Lucie reminds us that most anti-sex-work arguments come from a sex-negative perspective. “You have to remember that a lot the way people attack sex work is because of some really squicked out, weird ideas they have about sex. And as a result of that, [it] doesn't really make a lot of sense.”
After all, anyone can use their body to provide paid services. “A really good massage, you can have someone literally clambering over you, right? Yeah, so it's physically taxing. But as soon as genitals get involved, everyone's like, oh my God.” Her words echo Dr Eric Sprankl’s often-shared tweet about construction labourers - if they can use their bodies to make a living, why can’t we?
Lucie likes to turn this conversation back on the person who started it. “I ask them, ‘You wouldn't say this to people in these industries, why?’ And, often, they can't explain themselves.” This strategy - asking ‘why?’ and letting people fumble with their answer, helps show onlookers that the logic is faulty, with minimum effort.
What you could say:
- “Anyone can use their body to provide services and make a living. But you’re not saying this to construction workers or massage therapists...why is that?”
- “There are lots of physically demanding jobs out there that nobody complains about, I think maybe it’s your feelings about sex that are the problem.”
“Nobody really chooses to do sex work.”
There’s this idea that sex work is so awful, nobody would ever do it voluntarily. “Having sex with strangers?” my (ex) friend might say, “People you don’t even find attractive? Gross!” SWERFs often assume that sex workers hate their jobs. From there, they argue that we’ve been forced into it by circumstances outside our control.
Confronted with this argument, you may feel tempted to insist, ‘I love my job!’ That’s what I did when I was new to the industry. But it became tiring - we all have bad days at the office, right? Lucie feels the same way.“If there's an insult I despise, it's happy hooker.” they say. “I did a keynote speech at a university and I was like, 'I am a tired disgruntled, worn down, exhausted hooker and I've had it up to here with people shit'. Just because I like my job, doesn't mean I ALWAYS like my job.”
Unfortunately, it’s hard to admit to having a bad day when talking about it will be used by SWERFs as evidence that I’m lying about the good ones. Like me, Lucie has felt the temptation to emphasise the ‘glamorous’ stuff - a trip to Paris with a client, for example. “One thing I've been guilty of is when people say 'you don't even enjoy your job' I often talk about these big gestures and big experiences.” Lately, they’ve also been mentioning the small things they enjoy - taking care of themselves with hot baths and pedicures, acts of self-care that might not otherwise feel justified.
Lucie also reminds us that self care involves financial security. “Sometimes it's about knowing that you can keep a roof over your head, get your medication if you need it, help your friends and your family, look after your children...Maybe it's not money that buys you happiness, but security and safety absolutely does this, that's what we're after.”
And what about the ‘gross’ factor? Well, having sex with someone you don’t find attractive is hardly the end of the world. “You can't tell me that you've never been in a situation where you bumped uglies with someone you wouldn't normally - whether it was a mistake, whether it was a one-night stand, whether it was a drunken hook up... everyone's done it.”
What you could say:
- “Actually, it’s pretty boring. I have good days and bad days, same as any other job.”
- “Just because you couldn't do it doesn't mean that other people can't do it. Your awkward feelings about sex shouldn’t be the basis on which we judge other people’s choices.”
- “So you think sex work is gross? Are you telling me you’ve never had a drunk one-night stand or Tinder hook up with someone who wasn’t your type?”
- “Of course I’m doing it for the money. Isn’t everyone? Anyway, money is great - it means I can feel secure and look after myself and my family.”
“Banning sex work is the only way to stop sex trafficking.”
Sex work abolitionists will tell you that the only way to prevent sex trafficking is to ban sex work altogether. “We need to end demand!’” they insist. As an inexperienced sex worker, I found this attack difficult to counter. I was worried that sticking up for sex work would make it seem that I didn’t care about sex trafficking.
I now know better. As Lucie points out, sex trafficking and sex work are completely different things. “Sex trafficking - especially within celebrity culture - is a hot-topic issue.” Lucie says, “It looks good, especially for male celebrities.” But many celebs have no idea what trafficking really involves. “Countless victims of trafficking will tell you, that isn’t what it looks like,” Lucie says.
Trafficking affects many types of labour, not just sex work. Often, trafficking in other industries is more common but isn’t given as much attention. This is something Lucie talks about regularly. “I’d say, 'I think it's incredibly selfish that you're focused on sex trafficking because it doesn't impact you. But the people who potentially make your clothes, which is a form of labor that you benefit from, you don't want to talk about that.’”
They also point out that policing sex work makes things worse for everyone. “In order for governments and organizations to make it look like they're doing something about trafficking, they've undertaken actions that have made sex workers less safe, and negatively impacted trafficking victims.”
Decriminalisation of sex work helps protect both sex workers and trafficking victims. Lucie says, “I just want to be safe at work...and I want to know that if someone has been sex trafficked, they can get help. That should be the only thing in their mind: ‘I'm going to go [to the police] and get help’, instead of, ‘Am I going to get in trouble?’”
What you could say:
- “It’s good that you care. But you also need to understand that when governments and organisations try to make it look like they’re doing something about trafficking, they often do things that not only make sex workers less safe, but also leave trafficking victims worse off.”
- “I'm not hearing you talk about the trafficking of labor in other ways. I think it's incredibly selfish that you're focused on sex trafficking because it doesn't affect you, but the people who potentially make your clothes, for example, which is a form of labor that you benefit from, you don't want to talk about that?”
- “I just want to be safe at work, and I want to know that if someone has been trafficked they can immediately get help. That’s hard to do if sex work is criminalised.”
Afterwards: Deciding when to walk away.
How do we know when we’ve won the argument? Often, we simply don’t. Lucie says there’s a natural point where you ‘just tap out’...and the best thing you can do is make sure it’s on your own terms. “Sometimes when we enter these conversations...we want to defend, as strongly as we can, what we do. But there's a limit to how much time you should have to spend on that.”
Online, this could look like stepping back and letting other sex workers pick up where you left off. If you’re using a social platform like Twitter and blocking feels like an admission of defeat, Lucie suggests muting your opponent instead. In person, you might need to physically walk away, if you can’t make it clear that the conversation is over.
Like many arguments, whether we win or lose is often out of our control. Lucie doesn’t take it too personally. “You've just got to look at these people...some of the ones who are really nasty, you've just got to be like...what happened to you? Why are you so messed up?'”
What you could do:
- Leave the conversation before you become overwhelmed or distressed.
- Ask friends or sex industry peers to take over from you.
- Remember that not everyone can be convinced, and it’s not your fault.
When we speak up about sex work, it has an impact.
Here’s the good news: Even if you can’t change someone’s mind straight away, you’re probably still making a difference.
Lucie says, “Sometimes people have to take these journeys on their own. You can say things and that might contribute to a small part of that person's journey...and years down the track, they may figure some stuff out.” Speaking up isn’t always about a quick win - there are other benefits, even if it’s just reminding ourselves that our choices are valid.
“You have to have faith that what you're doing has an impact,” they say. “That's what I believe personally with everything I put out in the world. And, eventually, that becomes enough.”