Safe Spaces: Does Language Matter?

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

7 thoughts on “Safe Spaces: Does Language Matter?

  1. Hello Feminaust and readers,

    I have seen Gail Kelly give a lecture not too long ago, and she was both engaging and inspiring. I do find it bit of a contradiction though that she is the CARE ambassador for Empowerment of Women and her bank is funding the brothel. I would be interested to hear more thoughts on what people perceive to be the ethics of big business in profiteering from the women in the brothels whether they have exercised the choice to be there or not (such as trafficked women or those that have experienced multiple disadvantage). As I understand this brothel is going to be floated on the ASX. Is the prostitution industry really an industry like any other, such as retail or construction?

    I understand the debate about sex worker versus prostituted women is important, but kind of feel that using this to highlight that the website is a safe space has missed the point of the original letter. Not sure the editorial response is advocating a safe space either with all of the ‘radical’ warning signs.

    Thanks for letting me contribute.

    • Thanks Jacinta, I couldn’t in good faith publish the piece without the warning signs because I was so upset by the possibility that people would be driven from the site based on the author’s opinions and particularly the way that she expressed them. Like I have said in my post I specifically chose not to deal directly with the content of the letter and focused on the language instead because while I can accept different opinions on sex work, I can’t accept infantalising and paternal behaviour towards sex workers themselves. I will be writing a response dealing more specifically with my issue with the “trafficking model” of sex work debate as soon as I have the time but am hoping that someone who works in the industry will step forward first as my first comment will be along the lines of “has the author actually ever spoken to a sex worker?”. While I have on many occasions, I prefer to let communities speak for themselves unless no one can be found to.
      Thanks for your comments, if you feel you could write a piece on whether the sex industry is the same as any other we’d love to read it.

  2. Thankyou for posting this. It means a lot. Many of us “prostituted women” really do not have the energy to constantly engage in pointless online debates with people who think their values are more important than my human rights. It tires us for the real fight. I saw the previous post and concluded that this is yet another “feminist” site that i should stay away from, for my own mental health. So I appreciate this clarification, and I welcome anyone who wants to show us a little support.

    • Thanks for coming back and giving us some time to get our act together!
      I was really fearful that this is exactly what would happen and that we would lose valuable readership because of it but it did result in an interesting internal (as in inside me) debate about censorship and editorial control. I don’t want this site to be all our opinions all of the time because while we may not always agree, part of the beauty of feminism is that we don’t have to.
      I’m glad to hear that my support is welcomed as well, I’m always hesitant to “speak on behalf” of any community from which I do not come which is why I stuck to the language debate for the time being, the language of advocacy is something I feel I have authority to speak about.
      If you have the energy to write something for us, we’d love to have it but we understand that it can be exhausting always having to speak up and speak out.

      Stick around, I’m sure the debate will continue!

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