feminaust recently published an Open Letter to Gail Kelly, the CEO of Westpac, in relation to the financing of a brothel in Sydney. In this letter she argued that prostitution is violence against women and an abuse of human rights a sentiment held by many people around the world. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that in her letter she was speaking in defense of the rights of women and in advocacy for their protection from violence.
Or was she?
In her letter, the author used the term “prostituted women” when referring to women in sex work. If you were a sex worker would you feel protected or advocated for by being referred to in such a way? I certainly wouldn’t. The use of the term “prostituted women” is infantalising and paternal, two attitudes which are both disrespectful and deeply insulting to the people for whom the author takes responsibility for speaking. Firstly, as advocates do we not first and foremost have to demonstrate respect for the objects of our advocacy and secondly, surely a lack of respect indicates a fundamental failure to understand or appreciate the autonomy, agency and independence of ALL women, no matter their circumstances, behaviours or beliefs?
No matter what your personal opinion of sex work, brothels and the organisations, corporations and individuals involved in their finance, operation and business, in my opinion, attacking the “perpetrators” (or in this case, financers) of human rights abuses by subjugating and infantalising the “victims” is totally unacceptable. In fact by using this type of language it is my belief that the author is perpetrating her own violence against women by destroying the safety of this online space for women who are or support sex workers.
In the end, feminaust is designed to be a space where ALL feminist viewpoints can be aired, viewed and debated and subsequently despite fundamentally disagreeing with the attitude and opinion of the author I did approve the letter’s publication (if after some heated debate and disagreement). What I don’t approve of is the potential that the publication of this letter rendered this site an unsafe space for women in sex work, their families, friends and supporters. feminaust is designed to be a space where all opinions are encouraged but I’m not pleased about this being at the expense of the safety of the space, particularly to
“overwhelmingly … economically and racially marginalised women”
SO, result? In my opinion, language does matter in creating a safe space, especially an online safe space. I doubt very much (or at least deeply hope) that the author of the Open Letter to Gail Kelly, thinks that sex workers really are as infantile as she makes them out to be, however her use of language strongly indicates that opinion and as such is distressingly offensive, rendering the feminaust space unwelcoming and more importantly, unsafe.
It is in an effort to redress this issue I have written this post, however as always I’d really love to hear from others. I purposefully didn’t address the premise that sex work automatically equals violence because this post is about language, not the politics, ethics and debate around sex work. I do however, invite any readers to bring their opinions forward for publication. feminaust remains a space for debate and discussion so let the conversation begin!
Image of a safe handle taken from Flickr user Auntie P under Creative Commons license