Everybody Be More Dialectical

Round about now seems like a good time to say a word or two in defence of Sarah Ditum, if for no other reason than that it will annoy people.

I should start by admitting that I’ve often found Ditum’s attempts to push back on terminology to be quixotic, to say the least. For example, I think she’s at least half-wrong about TERF (which she claims is a “slur”) – there have been historically, and are still, radical feminists who maintain a separatist line that excludes from feminist political organising not only men but also transwomen on the grounds that the latter “are” men (and men intent on infiltration of sacred women’s space, to boot). Mary Daly was in this sense a trans-exclusionary radical feminist; Sheila Jeffreys was and is likewise. Whether someone like Gia Milinovich merits the label is another matter. I agree that it’s become a term of attack, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to use it; rather, I think it’s a reason to use it with precision against the right targets. Some people seem to think that no man, and perhaps even no woman, should ever employ any term of attack against any woman whatsoever. But I cannot think of any good reason, other than her notorious fondness for litigation, not to call someone like Cathy Brennan a TERF and, moreover, a transphobic bigot. I will own that I am attacking her in doing so; but I do not think I am subjecting her, or the language, to abuse. Even if you don’t agree with me that this distinction can be made about my own conduct here, you can probably think of a scenario in which it could and should be made. Sometimes it is right and just to go on the attack, and to use attacking language in doing so.

But enough of that for now: on to the main event, which is Ditum’s recent article opposing the adoption of “sex work” as a term for selling sex (or performing sexual services) for money.

A term like “sex work” is intended to push some things into the background – notably, as Ditum points out, the overwhelmingly gendered character of that work – and foreground others. It’s a baby-and-bathwater question. Most of what proponents of the new terminology are trying to clear out of the language is moralistic dreck and prurient fantasy that gets in the way of making proper sense of things – all the stigmatising muck that clings to words like “prostitute” and “prostitution” (which Ditum also acknowledges is dehumanising and distracting). What they are trying to bring out instead is the character of “sex work” as labour, and so amenable to labour organisation as a tool of political change, with the goal of bettering the lives of the (mostly) women who perform that labour.

This is a program with which many but not all of the people in that – perhaps unhelpfully broadly defined – line of work are increasingly aligned, along with a vocal chorus of allies. It’s a bit disingenuous to say that “sex work” is the term that sex workers prefer: it’s rather the term that people who prefer to think of themselves as “sex workers” prefer. There seems to be a general agreement among left-thinking people to see those who’ve adopted this form of self-definition as the conscious and militant fraction of their class, and as especially representative of it for that reason (irrespective of their actual numbers, which I’m not competent even to guess at). Ditum and others – I’ve recently seen Kate Smurthwaite taking a similar position – stand outside of this agreement, seeing sex-workers-who-prefer-to-be-called-“sex workers” as atypical; where many people see the political and polemical initiative being taken by a hitherto ignored and disrespected minority, they tend to see it as PR bluff and “industry” money amplifying the voices of a relatively privileged (and self-interested) subset of that minority.

There comes a point when the incessant demand to “listen” to such voices arouses impatience: when what is posed as urgent and authentic testimony begins to sound, on the contrary, like someone rehearsing a very familiar ideological narrative. At some point you’re going to want to question that narrative, at which point you will likely be placed automatically in the camp of “people who refuse to listen”. It is, as I well know, very tempting to double down at that point, and dig in to the contrary position just because.

The thing is, it’s a genuine differend: you can’t resolve the issue by calling on an authoritative subject – “sex workers themselves” – which just transparently knows how things stand. That’s begging the question, which is precisely whether this subject is a genuine political subject in the sense demanded (that is, a “conscious and militant fraction”, if not a numerical majority). If it is, then an attempt like Ditum’s to arrest its self-definition is arguably reactionary; if it isn’t, then Ditum’s is a timely and useful skepticism. I’m genuinely undecided about this. I don’t think it’s at all a simple matter, or simply resolvable. “It’s not work, it’s abuse” is also the statement of someone who knows, from experience, “what it is like”. The synthesis of contraries is a tricky business.

Ditum’s a thoughtful and nuanced writer, which in the context of internet polemics is a bit like being Tim Roth doing all that fancy fencing shit in front of Liam Neeson in Rob Roy and then getting cloven from shoulder to navel with a bloody great claymore (or, if you prefer, there’s a scene in one of Neal Stephenson’s books where one of the finest swordsmen in England is battered to death by an adversary wielding a large log). Defensive auto-stupefaction is the order of the day: people will “what is this I can’t even” you the moment you go off-script, and all the care you put into examining what the script actually says and what that really entails will be lost. You may press on anyway, in the hope of finding a sympathetic audience somewhere, but the crowd of people making “durrr” faces at you and telling you you’re dumb and obstinate will just go on getting bigger. I like and (in case it’s not obvious) identify a lot with Ditum’s cussedness in the face of that kind of treatment, even if I’m not convinced that it’s always properly directed. But there is a danger that the wind will change and you’ll wake up as Brendan O’Neill.