Give the people a voice and they will tell their stories. Cultural Studies scholars have long argued the political and social importance of minority and oppressed groups to be heard. Recent years have seen an uptick in news stories, blogs, and social media campaigns highlighting “voices” from the fringes (queers, the homeless, the working poor, transpeople, etc.) with the assumption that allowing individuals that have been silenced or ignored in the past to tell their stories to the broader society will promote understanding and act as a catalyst for change or reformation of flawed policies regarding the groups in question. Unfortunately, the voices in question are often filtered through mainstream outlets or public figures that proceed to “speak for” those on the fringe.
It appears sex workers are getting their turn in the spotlight. Organizations such at The Sex Worker Project, blogs like Sexual Intelligence, and even mainstream outlets like Ms Magazine have managed to draw a fair amount of attention to sex workers and sex workers’ right campaigns, highlighting the importance of protecting and supporting voluntary sex workers and ending nonconsensual sex trafficking and slavery.
However, this new found awareness of sex workers’ rights has also garnered two well recognized mouth pieces, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. The dynamic duo founded the Demi & Ashton Foundation (DNA) and launched the Real Men Don’t Buy Girls campaign to bring peoples’ attention to women sex workers suffering the hardships of sexual slavery and trafficking (the campaign makes no mention of the many men also functioning as sex workers). In their zeal to shine a light on the world of sex trafficking, they have reduced practically all sex work to non-consensual sexual practices and enraged many of the people they claim to be supporting.
Bell Hooks, a well respected social activist and scholar, has often railed against those within the mainstream (despite their good intentions) speaking for members of the oppressed/minority. As a member of a racial and gender minority herself, she sarcastically claims there is:
“No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still colonizer the speaking subject and you are now at the center of my talk.”
Kutcher and Moore, in their desire to bring attention to an important issue, have failed to really listen to many of the individuals they claim to be trying to help. Instead they have forced the conversation in one particular direction, further silencing and ignoring those that don’t fit their tightly defined parameters of sex work.
While Hooks and Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, a literary critic and theorist best known for her work “Can the Subaltern Speak,” argue that academics cannot speak for the other unless they decenter themselves as experts and merely relay the words and experiences of the individuals that have lived the life they wish to give voice to, one could claim that Kutcher and Moore are doing more harm than good by speaking out for sex workers instead of allowing them to use their own voices. By centering themselves as experts on topic and focusing only on nonconsensual sex work, they shut down the variety of directions conversations surrounding sex work can take and imply that sex for money is always negative.
It is arrogant to assume that you can speak for an entire collective of people and when arrogance and advocacy collide the result is often an oversimplification of complex matters. Yes, sexual slavery and trafficking are important, but choosing to discuss sex work purely through that lens stunts society’s ability to understand and adapt. Many of the facts get lost in the hype and the real life participants are often overshadowed by their “advocates.” After all, for many sex workers, the problem isn’t the exchange of sex for money, the problem is there are people being forced) to provide sex for money. Perhaps it’s time to allow the true experts to speak for themselves so society has the possibility to move toward creating a world where those who desire it have the freedom to engage in commercial sex AND the rest of the population has the freedom from having it imposed upon them.