Swerfing the Net
by Nia Large | September 3, 2022
Many so-called feminists argue in the same breath that sex workers are victims of exploitation, and propagators of the patriarchy. These feminists are SWERFs: Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists. They reject the argument that sex work is work, resist calls for its decriminalisation, and ignore and belittle sex workers’ own accounts, saying sex workers must either be delusional or must have been coerced into thinking that they are not being exploited. Though SWERFs pre-date the internet, the internet has changed both the nature of sex work and the ensuing debate around it.
In this investigation, I spoke with two representatives from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a grassroots organisation campaigning to decriminalise sex work.
SWERFs argue that their views protect women, positing that sex work is a consequence of a patriarchal society. They claim sex work is a direct and personal threat to them as women. Thinking of sex workers only as a symbol of women under the patriarchy causes them to overlook the humanity of sex workers. They forget that they are talking and theorising about real people.
I started researching for this article with the incorrect assumption that these SWERF-y views were in some way new: a symptom of the epidemic of internet hatred. It soon became apparent that this was not the case. Feminists like Andrea Dworkin have been making these arguments for years. In 1993 Dworkin argued, in her lecture Prostitution and Male Supremacy, that “prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman’s body.” This is an idea still repeated by SWERFs online. Although it is clear these ideas and their effects have been around for decades, the internet has impacted the scope and form of their effect. Pre-internet, legislative authority was bound by borders. Now online, legislation can be felt globally. In 2018 the US passed SESTA FOSTA (the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Acts). These acts, purporting to prevent sex traffickers from operating via the internet, instead prevented sex workers from advertising and screening clients, a process crucial to their safety. As many of the websites impacted by the legislation were based outside the US, it affected sex workers all over the world. The internet has also facilitated the harassment and doxxing of sex workers. As a result they must now consider both their online and physical safety.
Anti-sex work views have been weaponised by SWERFs online, realised into harmful legislation, and championed by the far right. These arguments are not mere rhetorical tricks from one side of a culture war – they encourage real harm to real people.
National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a charity that works with sex workers, surveyed 162 sex workers: 57% said they had been subject to online harassment. They not only named clients but also “Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists (SWERFs), police, judges, politicians, so-called welfare workers” as victimisers and individuals who are potentially detrimental to sex workers’ safety. A spokesperson for the ECP commented that “dehumanising language” used by SWERFs online claws at the self-confidence and “mental health of sex workers posting online”.
Leaving the online sphere is not an option. While someone like Julie Bindel, Times columnist and prominent SWERF, can delete Twitter without much effect on her career and life, sex workers do not have this privilege. They use social media for advertising and screening clients, and to communicate with other sex workers for advice and support. Beyond the Gaze, a survey of 641 sex workers, found that 34% said they used Twitter for this purpose. One sex worker told the surveyors: “I am actually part of a private Facebook group […] although people do put warnings in, it’s more of like a support group.” These discussions and groups are sometimes infiltrated by SWERFs, continuing their witch-hunt.
The stigma against sex workers that SWERFs have helped create has made it even more difficult for sex workers to access critical mental health services. The NUM survey reported: “various situations of sex workers being actively excluded from mental health provisions if they refused to give up sex work altogether.” A respondent said they “would be too afraid to talk to a mental health service as [they] wouldn’t want [their] profession in sex work to be kept on file and used against [them].” One Twitter user wrote that, after telling her therapist she’d returned to sex work, her therapist replied that “she felt uncomfortable that [the Twitter user] will pay her from sex work earnings” and that they “spoke about whether to suspend sessions until [she’d] left.”
“Feminist” anti-sex-work arguments have been adopted by the far-right as well. The pearl-clutching conservative response to sex work as “sinful” and the labelling of sex workers as “loose women” is now unfashionable. In their place, they have co-opted superficially feminist arguments. In 2019 the Conservative Party published a report concluding that “the most effective way to safeguard sexual consent while reducing the market for prostitution […] is to legislate to make paying for sexual services an offence.” It stated that it is “accurate to characterise our system as allowing for the purchase of sexual consent, and [the commission] believes that this undermines the principle of sexual consent itself.” The idea of purchased consent is one circulated by anti-sex work feminists, and the Nordic model is a favourite “solution” amongst SWERFs. A dominatrix on Twitter wrote: “I HATE these Marxist types that participate in SWERF, TERF, and respectability politics. All of these signs are just dog whistles for being closeted bigots. They are no better than far-right types at the end of the day. And they have quite a lot in common.”
The ideologies of anti-sex worker feminists have been systematically realised in legislation. This legislation has had devastating effects on sex workers. In advocating and fighting for the realisation of this legislation, anti-sex work feminists are responsible for bringing about this harm.
Criminalising legislation exposes sex workers to abuse by police. Amnesty International reported a sex worker telling them that “every night [they are] taken into an alley [by police] and given the choice between having sex or going to jail,” an experience that represents the experience of many others who spoke. Amnesty International also said that an “advocate for LGBT youth” had told them “the vast majority of young people she works with have been asked to perform sexual acts on police officers […] who suspect [the young people] are involved in sex work.” A 2002 study of sex workers in Chicago found that 24% of the reported rapes against sex workers, 30% of those against ‘exotic dancers’, and 20% of other sexual abuses were perpetrated by police officers. An ex-police officer who worked in Charing Cross station said that officers “would often arrest the prostitutes and take them back to the station [for sex].” Advocating for legislation further criminalising sex work supports this systematic abuse. At a panel on sex work one ECP spokesperson said that feminists who advocate for carceral approaches to sex work see police as a solution, whereas sex workers see them as rapists.
Criminalisation also hinders sex workers from finding other work. SWERFs claim they want nobody to be forced into sex work, yet their solutions have helped create a situation where sex workers are excluded from other forms of work. The ECP representatives said that on a DBS check, sex-work related charges appear in the same category as rape. This makes getting any other job difficult.
Migrant sex workers in particular are vulnerable to criminalisation of sex work. The ECP spokespeople said that “trafficking raids are just immigration raids in disguise.” It is difficult to see how the state can see these women as victims of awful abuse while simultaneously punishing them. In the NUM survey, one woman reported reaching out to the state for help: “Instead of helping me, they gave me a paper saying I had to leave the UK.” The ECP spokesperson commented that these issues had only been worsened after the decision to leave the European Union: “migrant sex workers are being screwed over by Brexit.”
Along with the effect of legislation, the stigma encouraged by SWERFs leads to financial discrimination against sex workers. The ECP spokesperson said it is difficult for sex workers to get mortgages. When sex workers are under investigation by the police, their bank accounts are frozen. Further, banks often have “morality clauses” which preclude sex workers from getting loans and accounts.
In the discussion of sex work online and in the academic sphere, there is a gulf between what is at stake for anti-sex work feminists and sex workers. The SWERF agenda would subject sex workers to working in ever-darker corners, with no ability to report harassment and assault, and remaining at constant risk of deportation. Decriminalisation of sex work, on the other hand, would foster a safer environment for sex workers, who would be able to report incidents more readily, and be more protected from the police force – SWERFs could just find a new passion project.
These ideas are not only propagated on social media, they are also firmly rooted in a journalistic and academic tradition. One of the ECP spokespeople said that an influential group of women in journalism had banded together against sex work, encouraging newer journalists to write anti-sex work articles to be welcomed in, fostering a pattern of anti-sex work journalism. Student journalists add to the onslaught by cutting their teeth on anti-prostitution articles – just controversial enough to grasp your attention, but not controversial enough to get you cancelled. Even objective journalists can get it wrong. The ECP recounted one sex worker who was evicted after her front door was shown in a documentary she was interviewed for. Equally, academics who claim to support sex workers are not always helpful, as their solutions are not practically implementable and do little to make sex workers safer. An academic once interviewed sex workers about vigilante attacks, collected honest accounts of sex workers fearing for their safety, and then wrote a paper about urban spaces. NUM reported “respondents detail the oppression of being ‘spoken-over’”, of not being listened to, particularly by those in positions of power: “Politicians claim to know what’s best for us. Journalists spread lies about us. None of them talk to us, and when we try to talk, we get told we’re not exploited enough if they can hear us, or else we’re so blinded by our exploitation that we can’t realise the truth of our own oppression.”
In Dworkin’s lecture she says: “when men use women in prostitution, they are expressing a pure hatred for the female body.” This is a complete failure to consider sex workers as a people, reducing them to symbols. If you find yourself deviating from the idea that sex workers are people, you have taken a wrong turn. One of the ECP representatives pointed out how unhelpful it is to use arguments about morality when deciding what should be evidence-based policy. This idea is perhaps one that we should keep in mind when we discuss sex work: the discussion should not be about what you want to happen to your body, nor should it be about sex workers as a symbol of oppression. It should instead be about what we are told by sex workers and rooted in the empirical evidence found by sex worker organisations.
NSWP, an organisation that advocates for the health and human rights of sex workers’, published a handout about talking about sex work: “the way we talk about sex work is anything but neutral – it communicates meaning and influences how people understand it and create policy about it. The words we use when speaking about sex work – whether in media or legal arguments, with our friends or in discussion with a stranger – matter.” When discussing sex work we have a tangible effect on real lives. In supporting anti-sex work positions, you are not just taking a radical stance, engaging in an interesting political discussion or furthering your career; you are advocating real harm to real people.∎
Words by Nia Large. Art by Niamh McBratney.