Sex-worker group in Sweden, Rose Alliance, in the news

Rose Alliance in Stockholm Pride Parade

A few weeks ago a flurry of Swedish media articles purported to ‘reveal’ that the national development agency, Sida, gives money (3,611,092 euros) to Mama Cash, a Dutch foundation that, among many women’s causes, supports sex workers’ rights and has funded Rose Alliance, a sex-worker group in Sweden. This wasn’t even new news, but some anti-prostitution folks tried to whip up indignation and manufacture a scandal.

The first story appeared on a news site hosted by Sida itself on 4 December. The same day, another article repeated the news, with a headline saying the money goes to lobbyists for commercial sex. Still on the same day one of Sweden’s delegates to the European Parliament, and a member of the abolitionist European Women’s Lobbydemanded excitedly that Sida stop giving the money (she’s holding up the Say No to Prostitution sign in her photo). The next day saw replies from RFSU (Sweden’s big sex-education organisation) and Louise Persson, defending the financing of groups supporting vulnerable women/prostitutes/sex workers. Then there was another piece from the parliamentarian, followed by another on the Sida site. Neither Mama Cash nor Sida made any reply.

At Rose Alliance we decided to write a short statement acknowledging the flurry and, instead of defending or counter-attacking, presenting the basic facts about the organisation on a news site called Newsmill. It got delayed in the pre-Christmas rush and was published 23 December as Vi sexarbetare kan föra vår egen talan. Here is the English version, just as dry and unexcited as the original Swedish.

Sex Workers Can Speak for Ourselves

Annelie Eriksson, Pye Jakobsson and Laura Agustín

Rose Alliance was recently in the news when it was reported at OmVärlden that Sida gives money to a foundation that has given us two grants. Rose Alliance (Riksorganisationen för sex- och erotikarbetare i Sverige) is an organisation for current and former sex workers in Sweden. We began in 2001 but started expanding about three years ago.

The most important things to know about Rose Alliance are:

We promote economic, labour and individual rights for people of any gender identity who sell sex.

  • We recognise that sex workers have a wide variety of experiences and value all of them.
  • We believe in the theory and practice of harm reduction.
  • We assist and advise each other on legal and self-employment issues and dealing with social and police authorities, on a voluntary basis.

Rose Alliance works on health-promotion projects with HIV-Sweden financed by Smittskyddsinstitutet, and participated in a project funded by the European Commission’s Leonardo da Vinci programme. We are members of the European Harm Reduction Network, an RFSL-coordinated network on male and trans sex work and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (these do not involve receiving money). Last week we took part in the World Conference of ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) in Stockholm, and we have had our own float in Stockholm Pride for the past two years (video clips here).

We received our first core funding in 2011, from Mama Cash, to strengthen our internal organisation. We now have funding for two more years, which we will use to

Some Rose Alliance members blog and publish articles as individuals: Greta Svammel, Petite Jasmine, the Naked Anthropologist are examples. Some members receive invitations to visit, speak and consult both inside and outside Sweden. Host organisations reimburse the usual expenses for this travel.

Political lobbying is not our main focus. But for the record, we advocate self-determination and rights for sex workers – the right to sell sex as well as the right to stop selling sex. The law criminalising the purchase of sex aims to deprive sex workers of the right to run their own lives, so we oppose it.

Here’s the original Swedish

Vi sexarbetare kan föra vår egen talan

Annelie Eriksson, Pye Jakobsson och Laura Agustín för Rose Alliance

23 Dec 2012, Newsmill

Rose Alliance var nyligen uppmärksammade i media när det rapporterades på OmVärlden att Sida ger pengar till en stiftelse som har gett oss två verksamhetsbidrag. Riksorganisationen för sex- och erotikarbetare i Sverige (Rose Alliance) är en intresseorganisation för nuvarande och före detta sexarbetare i Sverige. Vi startade 2001 men började växa som organisation för ungefär tre år sedan.

De viktigaste att veta om Rose Alliance är:

  • Vi arbetar för att främja ekonomiska, arbetsrättsliga och individuella rättigheter för alla sexarbetare, oavsett könsidentitet.
  • Vi inser att sexarbetare har en stor variation av erfarenheter och värderar alla lika mycket.
  • Vi tror på skadereduktion, både i teori och praktik.
  • Vi stödjer och rådgör med varandra i juridiska frågor, frågor kring egenföretagande och hur man hanterar kontakt med sociala- och polisiära myndigheter. Allt på en volontär basis.

Rose Alliance arbetar med ett projekt om sexuell hälsa i samarbete med HIV-Sverige finansierat av Smittskyddsinstitutet, och deltar i ett projekt finansierat av Europeiska Kommissionens  Leonardo da Vinci programme. Vi är medlemmar i European Harm Reduction Network, i ett RFSL Stockholm koordinerat nätverk om manlig och transsexarbete och i Global Network of Sex Work Projects (dessa projekt ger inte organisationen något ekonomiskt bidrag utöver ersättning för eventuella kostnader).

Förra veckan deltog vi i World Conference of ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) i Stockholm, och vi har haft en egen lastbil i Stockholms prideparad under de senaste två åren.

Vi fick vårt första verksamhetsbidrag 2011, från Mama Cash, för att stärka vår interna organisation. Vi har sedan juli 2012 verksamhetsbidrag för ytterligare två år, som kommer att användas till att:

Vissa Rose Alliance medlemmar bloggar och publicerar artiklar som individer:Greta SvammelPetite Jasmine, the Naked Anthropologist är några exempel. Vissa medlemmar blir inbjudna att besöka, föreläsa och konsultera såväl inom som utanför Sverige. Värdorganisationerna ersätter då kostnader i samband med dessa resor.

Politisk lobbyverksamhet är inte vårt främsta fokus. Men för tydlighetens skull: vi förespråkar självbestämmande och rättigheter för sexarbetare – rätten att sälja sex såväl som rätten att sluta sälja sex. Sexköpslagen bidrar till beröva sexarbetare rätten att styra över sina egna liv, därför är vi emot den.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

29 thoughts on “Sex-worker group in Sweden, Rose Alliance, in the news

  1. Mhairi McAlpine

    I disagree strongly with the concept of “sex work”. To my mind fundamental employment rights include the right not to be sexually harassed at work, which is actually the fundamental basis of “sex work”. I guess I simply disagree that there is a “right to sell sex” as that implies that there is a “right to buy sex”. In the same way that I dont think that there is a “right to sell a kidney”, because it implies that there is a “right to buy a kidney”.

    Having said that, I appreciate the transparency of you putting this information in the public domain, as a great many “sex worker rights” or “sex worker advocacy” projects are lobbying tools for the industry, not for those who are involved in the industry.

    1. julie

      Ms. McAlpine,

      You can disagree all you want to with my right to make a living the way I choose – by providing sexual services for a fee. Your analogy to selling an organ is stupid. This is more analogous to providing massage services.

      As for the nonsense about this being sexual harassment – do you consider for a moment who is initiating this encounter? It is the sex worker. So if this were to be harassment it would be us doing the harassment.

      No one will be able to stop myself and other sex workers from providing such services, so perhaps you could just consider our voices and safety.

      1. Mhairi McAlpine

        I do disagree with it, because the existence of the industry makes all women less safe and equal. I also disagree with making a living from providing surrogacy services, or making and maintaining nuclear weapons. But my quarrel is with those who demand those services, which is why I think that any attempts to tackle it should be demand led – hence the criminalisation of clients.

        I think there are some issues with the way that it has been implimented in Sweden and Norway, but not withstanding I think it is the right way to go.

        The harassment is part of the “contract” – either formally in the case of lap dancing or implied in the case of paid sexual services. Just because the harassment is initiated by the person being harassed doesnt make the behaviour OK. You can well imagine a wo/man who initiates a sexual encounter with their boss with an aim of obtaining promotion, just because they initiate and indeed are happy with the outcome doesnt make it OK.

        I do actually think that there is a role to be played by those within the industry to try to make it safer. I think that self-organisation of education, safety advice and self-protection is far better than charity or g’ment led initiatives. But at its root it is a fundamentally abusive and damaging industry.

        1. Thaddeus Blanchette

          Dear Ms. McAlpine,

          I’m wondering what is the empirical or philosophical basis for your comment that “sex work makes all women less safe and equal”?

          More particularly, I’m wondering what sort of answer you can come up with that couldn’t also, equally, be applied to heterosexual, monogamous marriage as well.

          Both sex work and marriage are rooted in heterosexual relations and these, in the west, are PROFOUNDLY anti-women, at least historically speaking. There is, however, no reason why sex work could not be made better – just like marriage has arguably been made better. There is nothing “essentially evil” or “violent” about sex work that can’t alos be found in any sort of heterosexual relationship whatso ever.

          So either you admit that heterosexuality can be improved or your against the whole lot. This idea that some forms of heterosex can be turned into a disneyesque spectacle while others are beyond the pale is just cheap-ass Christian moralizing, masquerading itself as a particularly anemic and liberal version of feminism.

          As much as I dis McKinnon and Dworkin, I do admire one thing about them: if you’re going to attack prostitution on the grounds that it “endangers women”, you need to attack marriage as well, like they did.

          And yet somehow we never see folks like you talking about marriage in the same breath as prostitution, do we?

          Could it be that the reason for this is that the main financing coming for anti-prostitution groups doesn’t come from self-identified feminists, such as yourself, but from highly patriarchical Christian organizations?

          I mean face it, Ms. McAlpine: you Abolitionists are well-supplied with cash compared to us prostitutes’ rights folks. Scratch an abolitionist group and you’ll quickly find a Christian backer. Hell, even the people who once organized the Magdalene laundry slave-labor facilities for the Catholic Church are now in the game as one of Ireland’s main anti-trafficking organizations.

          All the money for my research comes straight out of my professor’s salary. Laura manages to do what she does on a day-by-day basis on spit and wind, as far as I can figure. I WISH the people in the porn industry, for example, were civic-minded enough to stand up for their workers’ rights and donate a little cash now and then to porn actor and sex workers’ organizations, but they aren’t.

          Meanwhile, we have people like you, singing pious little feminist hymns, trying to seperate prostitution (which is supposedly violence against women) from monogamous marriage (which is something you folks never talk about) while your organizations are being funded by the most provably patriarchical and anti-women organizations in the world: the Christian churches.

          Please, bull us no shit about “secret funding”, Ms. McAlpine.

          1. Mhairi McAlpine

            The empirical or philosophical basis for the comment that “sex work makes all women less safe and equal” is that it promotes the commodification of sexuality. As you – rightly – point out, womens sexuality has already been commodified through marriage – although with greater female participation in the workplace, equal pay, easier divorce, state support for childrearing and maternity and equal marriage that is being eroded.

            ‘More particularly, I’m wondering what sort of answer you can come up with that couldn’t also, equally, be applied to heterosexual, monogamous marriage as well.’

            I think that the sex industry can be made safer for women, decriminalisation of the sale of sex, an easing of restrictions of people working together in partnership etc, but it cannot eradicate the fundamental form of violence – that wo/men are paid to engage in sexual activities that they would not otherwise consent to. In a consensual sexual relations you have an ongoing dialogue over consent and desire. In paid sex, you have a contract, whereby one party expresses their desire and the other gives their consent – all of which is mediated through money.

            Now, I’m not suggesting that het sexual relationships (or indeed any relationships) are always like that – there are always power plays which are imported into the bedroom, however here the negotiation is one-way.

            In terms of the equivalence of prostitution and marriage, Kollontai spoke of the need to eradicate commercialised sex, however came down against the criminalisation of clients because no distinction could be made between prostitution and some forms of marriage – with the changes of marriage – particularly the criminalisation of marital rape, that can no longer be held to be the case.

            I do agree there are problems within the abolitionist movement, particularly the “rescue industry” which is massively damaging the women involved in the industry in the third world….and Hitler was a vegetarian.

            The reason, I would suggest that people in the porn industry – the ones who make the real money out of it – dont donate to organisations who argue for womens rights within the industry, is that womens rights are an anathema to all that they stand for. On the contrary, lobbying groups for the industry itself are extensive.

            Thierry Shaffeller got fired from the IUSW because he considered that people in the industry had different interests from managers and clients – hardly an unusual stance within a union context, yet for the IUSW – their interests are considered to be the same.

          2. Thaddeus Blanchette

            Regarding the “commodification of sexuality”, this argument is bullshit from a historical perspective and, if you’re half the feminist you claim, you should already know this Ms. McAlpine.

            As every single anthropologist who’s looked into human patterns of exchange has pointed out, sexuality – or more precisely, the capacity to generate new human beings – was almost certainly the FIRST THING exchanged among human beings. Exchanging sex for gain is not new behavior at all, something that’s suddenly being “commodified” by capitalism. It’s a common human behavior that – like all common human behaviors, including motherly love – is being commodified by capitalism.

            But let’s take you at your word. Let’s say sex work is “commodifing sexuality”. Why is this so godawful horrible that it needs to be singled out – among all the other forms of commodification going on – for repression?

            What, in short, is the horror we face if sexuality is as commodified as anything else?

            Sex work commodifies sexuality. OK. So what?

            Why is that any worse than you paying a maid to clean your house and thus “commodifying” your “traditional” role of domestic labor? Shouldn’t domestic labor remain uncommodified Ms. McAlpine? Isn’t the home a sacred, intimate space which no one should enter for pay…?

            As for your argument that women in the sex trade in engage in sexual activities that they otherwise wouldn’t, for pay, and this is thus violence…. Again, why is that anymore violent that paying a woman to clean your house? She wouldn’t be engaging in THAT sort of activity without you paying her. Aren’t you engaging in violence there?

            This, right here, is where your sort of feminist shows the true, protestant Christian beliefs which underlay your arguments and make you a natural ally of the Christian far right in this debate. You ACCEPT the fact that someone can agree to labor for pay. If you agree to pay me 10 dollars to help you dress in the morning and I accept that agreement, that’s not violence: that’s acceptable labor. I can indeed rent out the use of my hand to help you get into your overcoat. I am not transformed into a slave by doing that.

            However, if you agree to pay me 10 dollars to move my hand just a little bit lower and jerk you off, all of a sudden it’s violence and I’ve become a slave.

            How does that work, Ms. McAlpine? What is it that’s so “different” about sex work that paying someone to do it makes them a victim of violence?

            What, other than a deeply engrained moral belief, allows you to claim that the one sort of labor is acceptable and the other not?

            Regarding on-going dialogues, again, this is where your fantasies about sex work serve you ill. You really think there’s no on-going dialogue between prostitutes and clients, don’t you? You believe that prostitutes are slaves to their clients’ will.

            If you were to take one day of your life to work in a brothel, Ms. McAlpine, you’d find that negotiation and dialogue are as part and parcel of what goes on there as in any marriage – or not. Because as you yourself admit, there are plenty of marriages – perhaps even the majority – that are not based on consensual relations.

            NOTHING about sex work makes it any more or less consensual than marriage. You are vastly over-idealizing marriage when you set it up as some sort of counter-example to sex work. You are also mistaking how human power relations actually work if you think that any relationship can be “consensual”. More or less balanced in terms of power? Perhaps yes. Consensual? Have you actually ever been in a long term relationship with anyone, Ms. McAlpine? One party’s doing something the other party isn’t all that enthused about – or even dislikes – at least part of the time. There ain’t no such animal as the consensual relationship, as imagined by the 19th-century proto-feminist theorists you ascribe to.

            Also, your position is odd, because Kollontai was very clear on one point: she wanted BOTH sex work AND marriage abolished.

            What I find darkly charming about you abolitionists is that you somehow forget that second part of the equation when you quote people like Kollontai. Perhaps because the far-right, patriarchical backers of your abolitionist movement, the ones with all the cash, would be offended if they heard that…? Just a thought.

            But given that most abolitionists I know are married, were married, or are looking to be married, I think I’m safe in suggesting that your movement’s commitment to a radical restructuring of sexuality (as preached by people like Kollonai , Engels and Goldman) is half-hearted to say the least.

            It seems to me, then, that you’ll happily buy into the good girls / bad girls view of female sexuality, as long as you’re allowed to remain on the good girls side of the equation. Oh, and speak for the bad girls yourself, of course. You think you have the “right” to reform them, not your far-right Christian allies. When it comes down to it, that’s the basic difference you have with the likes of Pat Robertson.

            By the way, Hitler may indeed have been a vegetarian. No one that I know of, however, ever suggested that he be made the head of the world’s vegetarian movement. Your Christian rescuers and third world meddlers are indeed the leaders of the world’s anti-trafficking movement. Were Hitler ever proposed as a figurehead of global vegetarianism, then yes, his views of the world and how they might affect it would be fair game for criticism.

            And if you, a good vegetarian, were taking money from Hitler to put up billboards showing Jews ritually slaughtering cattle, then I would be FULLY justified in criticizing the sort of near-sighted and fanatical political stance that makes you think ends justify means.

    2. Laura Agustín

      I’ve been involved in the rights movement for nearly 20 years without ever running into groups that do what you say – ‘lobby for the industry’. I use the term sex industry myself as a convenient metaphor, not because it is a measurable business sector with centralised power. Sex workers advocate for their own rights, not for the rights of business owners. Sometimes there is overlap in values and ways of talking.

      On another point I can make no sense of your remark about harassment, a separate phenomenon with no money involved.

  2. julie

    Ms. McAlpine it sounds like you get your ideas about the sex trade from TV or movies.

    This is nothing like having sex with your boss. Our clients do no have authority over us and do not make demands (or they would be deemed to be bad-clients and denied service). They may make requests and we may decline those or accept them. We make those decisions.

    We put out ads to solicit clients or we solicit them in public. They hopefully take us up on our offers.

    I see the interference by those who want to criminalize our clients as a direct attempt to eliminate our jobs.

    Regular clients are fairly nice people (or they would not be regulars) so you want them criminalized -not for violence or abuse, but for merely giving me money and accepting my offer. So it’s OK for me (in your eyes) to provide for my family this way you just want all my clients put in jail? And of course that would put me out of work so such efforts hurt sex workers too.

    As for my job making all women less safe and equal I must disagree.
    Sex workers come in all genders and sexualities as do our clients. This is not just about women. Perhaps you should take on maids, models and wives.

    1. Mhairi McAlpine

      Yes, its true, its not just women, but if you look at who are the ones paying and who is being paid it is women, trans and gay men who are overwhelmingly the ones being paid and cis-men overwhelmingly the ones paying. It also has a racial dimension with Black women also overrepresented.

      Yes, Julie, quite frankly I do want to eliminate the manner in which you make money. I’ll be honest about that. I think its deeply damaging for women as a whole. I have no issues with how you make your money, I have massive issues with those who pay.

      Ultimately if you decide to sleep with someone and that someone gives you money it is none of the state’s business. But thats not how prostitution really works.

      Once you go outwith the realms of “nice” prostitution, conducted in comfortable flats or fancy hotels with wealthy clients, you quickly come to the reality – not all of it is simply survival work – although that is indeed the extensive horrible bottom end, of drug addicted, impoverished, trafficked or victims of sexual abuse, but the prevolence of women in bad situations – highly in debt, struggling with domestic finances, escaping abusive relationships, prior victims of sexual violence indicates that this is something that women do because they are struggling, not because they made a career choice.

      As for the “nice clients” – I dispute the entire idea that anyone that pays for sex is “nice”. They may be comparatively nice – in that they are not violent and stick to the contract that has been made, but the problem is the contract itself. Making that contract indicates that they view sexual gratification as something which they purchase, rather than a pleasant outcome of a sexual interaction. This feeds through to their attitudes on sexuality generally – that it is a commodity to be purchased.

      1. robin

        Hi, my experience with sex work was more like what you describe but I want to state very clearly that you do not speak for me or for anyone else in those situations. I wonder, for instance, how you think survival sex workers are going to SURVIVE upon having their incomes taken away. I sincerely doubt you actually care enough to make the sort of changes that would actually help (ie universal health care, meeting people’s basic needs, NOT criminal prosecutions). Maybe you advocate for some of those things but until they pass you have *absolutely* no leg to stand on in talking about taking money out of peoples pockets (and causing sex workers to have to do more to compete, and with a more violent customer base remaining). Frankly I think you’ve brought up groups I’ve been part of out of a purely cynical desire to give a moral veneer to something that is actually truly morally inexcusable.

        The “paying for sex makes someone BAD” stuff is kind of baffling but also completely and entirely beside the point. But seriously though, people have sex for all kinds of reasons you might not agree with, *deal with it*. Their business, not yours.

        Finally your claims about sex worker rights orgs are frankly libelous.

      2. Thaddeus Blanchette

        Cis men are “overwhelmingly” paying gay men for sex? Do you REALLY want to make that claim Ms. McAlpine?

        Frankly, we don’t know much about who is over- or underrepresented in commercial sex because studies of commercial sex workers massively over-report street sex sales and under-report sales by middle-class and upper-class men and women, working out of hotels and homes. Sex work is stigmatized, so almost any sex worker with any degree of money or power at all isn’t even going to appear on the radar screen when people like Melissa Farley come calling.

        Also, we don’t know how many women pay for sex because sex work among het women clients follows a completely different business model than sex work among male clients, gay or straight.

        Women, by and large, do not want to admit that they are paying for sex – even to themselves. Male prostitutes serving het women thus generally camouflage their activities with the rubric of reciprocal relationships. There are many, many men, however, who are getting paid for having sex with women. How many compared to women getting paid for having sex with men? I don’t know and NO ONE DOES. I do know two things, however, based on the annecdotal evidence of close to ten years researching the sex trade and as someone who once worked (albiet for a very short time) selling sexual services to het women:

        1) There are a hell of a lot more male prostitutes than you would imagine. Ask any researcher to take you into the field and you’ll get an eyeful.

        2) As more and more het women achieve pay and power equity, there is more and more demand among them for male prostitutes.

        However, women’s sexual socialization doesn’t allow them to acknowledge the truth when they pay for sex. It’s a bit of an open joke among sex work researchers here in Brazil who also deal with U.S. undergrads who come down for summer abroad programs that, in any given group of young, U.S., female, right-thinking, feminist-inspired women, three or four will be going out with gigolos by the end of their first few weeks here.

        Do you think those women admit to themselves what’s going on? Hell no! That young, buff rastafarian is interested in them as a person, not because they’re “helping” him weekly with more cash than he’d earn in three months.

        From a “third world” perspective, Ms. McAlpine, first world, liberal, middle-class, college-educated women don’t come across quite as the righteous bunch of abstemious anti-sex-work crusaders they like to think of themselves as. In fact, as a group, they’re remarkably easy to work with, at least according to the male sex workers I’ve talk to. The kind of simplistic, moralistic notions folks like that tend to carry around in their heads regarding love and sex – not to mention “primitive” masculinity – make them extremely easy to play to when it comes time to spin romantic fantasies for pay. And American and Western European middle-class women have a well-earned reputation for paying top dollar for torrid fantasies of doomed tropical romance. Lifetime, Disney and an endless flood of popular romance novels have got those folks well-trained!

        I give you the case of of Terry McMillan and “How Stella got her Groove Back” for your edutainment.

        Terry and Jonathan have come to some sort of agreement where they’re now both saying the same thing: Jonathan WAS in love with Terry and he only felt safe coming out as gay in the U.S., where he “found himself” after immigration. To anyone whose actually spent time around “exotic, tropical” sexual tourism destinations, however, the situation is quite easily read: young sex worker negotiates brief holliday arrangement into a marriage, emigrates overseas, divorces as soon as their permanent visa becomes truly permanent. He’s even savvy enough to read the U.S. women’s media sufficiently well to cast his story in terms that resonate with their deeply-seated cultural superiority complex: he only felt safe coming out in the States, obviously, because the States is ever so much more socially progressive than Jamaica…

        What’s a marvel in the McMillan case is that no one in the States – and certainly not Oprah, who made the couple famous – is willing to publically breath a word of the obvious. Such is the force of the taboo against women paying for sex, especially if they’re caught out doing it.

        While I agree that it’s probable that we have more het men paying for sex than het women, I notice that gay men seem to pay for it just as much. And powerful, rich women have payed for sex, one way or another, forever. It’s only now that women are conquering a relative degree of sexual liberty and economic strength, however, that you’re being allowed to SEE more and more women pay for sex.

        So really, Ms. McAlpine, when it comes to how many of who’s paying for whom, we JUST DON’T KNOW. One of the reasons we just don’t know is because of the prejudices of people like yourself who only see female street workers and maybe the occasional call girl when you think “prostitute” and don’t bother to look any further because that view of the world slots nicely in with your particular style of “good girl / bad boy” feminism.

        Also, Ms. McAlpine, I find it frankly incredible that you’re here lecturing working prostitutes on how “prostitution really works”. This is arrogant and the position of someone who – as a socially presumed “good girl” – relies massively on unacknowledged priviledge to sustain her arguments.

        I would suggest, however, that the fact that you say “Ultimately if you decide to sleep with someone and that someone gives you money it is none of the state’s business,” reveals a little bit about what you REALLY know the sexual lives of the mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly-educated women who are your peers. You are quite aware of the fact that women (and I’d say men, too) do this sort of thing ALL THE TIME. What you’re REALLY against isn’t prostitution, then, it’s third parties exploiting the prostitution of others.

        Well guess what, Ms. McAlpine: that’s a position almost everyone in the prostitutes’ rights movement can get behind, too.

        So now that we’ve agreed that you have no problem with regards to sex work, per se, maybe we can move along to a better discussion regarding what is and what is not sexual exploitation? Because THAT’S how you improved heterosexual marriage, sin’t it? By making it more egalitarian and less exploitative?

        By the way, I can safely state that I’ve been in more brothels, dives, knocking shops and whatnot in the last month than you have probably been in in your entire life – and this in Rio de Janeiro, which is one of those “horrid third world cities” you abolitionists love to use as examples of “the worst of the worst” in both gender relations and prostitution.

        Over the last 8 years, my wife and co-researcher, Dr Ana Paula da Silva, and I have mapped 289 sex joints in Rio. We’ve personally visited and done field work in about 100 of those.

        Even here, the “horrible bottom end, of drug addicted, impoverished, trafficked or victims of sexual abuse” is not extensive. Women in the worst sex work joints in Rio make two to three minimum wages a month (two or three times what that maid cleaning your hotel room makes when you come down here to visit us). The women in the best places make twice my wage as a university professor. The vast majority of the women – say 4000 out of 6000 – make around 4-7 minimum wages and are not drug addicts, not impoverished (and CERTAINLY not so when compared to the average Brazilian woman), or trafficked. 40% of Brazilian women have been members of abuse, according to a WHO study, but given that 25% of you American women have been sexually assaulted, I’d say that’s about par for the course. I’ve seen no reputable study – either here or in the U.S. – which shows that sex workers have been MORE abused than non-sex workers and if you think you know of one, I’d be happy to read it.

        In short, Ms. McAlpine, your views on prostitution are shockingly stereotyped. Dare I say even bigoted? Were you making the same sort of arguments – based on arrogance and ignorance – about any other minority group, you would rightly be chastized for your bigotry.

        Given that sex workers are one of the few remaining groups towards which everyone can feel socially superior, however, due to socially-inculcated stigma and prejudice, you have no one to call you out on your prejudices but sex workers themselves.

        And you’ve already made it damned clear that, like racists in the American south or homophobes in the Church, you don’t give a good goddamn what the group you want to oppress has to say for themselves.

        1. Mhairi McAlpine

          “Cis men are “overwhelmingly” paying gay men for sex? Do you REALLY want to make that claim Ms. McAlpine?”


          Who do you think buys sex from gay men?

          cis-women? trans-women? cis-men? Really?

          I do agree that it is true that wealthy first-world and predominently white women are indeed becoming an increasing client base, although it is still a very small minority of buyers, and almost non-existant in the West.

          What you dont get is third world women paying first world white men to sleep with them – its about the sexualisation of power. Primarily male power but also colonial power.

          I dont see people who buy sex as some kind of “minority group”. I see them as people who exploit their purchasing power to obtain sexual gratification.

          1. robin

            Actually male prostitution is more like gay or bi men paying a mixture of gay, bi, and straight/gay-for-pay men for sex.

            And I suspect Thaddeus was just mistaken about what cis means.

          2. Thaddeus Blanchette

            Yes, I do know what “cis” means, Robin. What I’m saying is that the world of sex work is much larger than it’s commonly imagined. This is particularly the case once you start poking around outside of urban Europe and the U.S.

            Down here in Brazil, it’s an open question who’s buying sex from whom. I just translated a huge article to English, one that was originally published in one of our most important sex and health scientific journals. In that article, the ethnographer was doing work in a bar in the working class suburbs of RdJ where transvestite and cross-dressing men were routinely paying for sex with self-identified het men.

            Furthermore, Don Kulick’s identified a similar trend among transvestites in Bahia. In fact, pretty much everyone I’ve read who’s studied trans down here notes that they’re paying for sex, generally following the female client pattern rather than the male client pattern.

            I stand by my point: given all this, do you REALLY want to say you’ve got proof that cis men are over-represented as buyers? Given the fact that almost every transvestite and feminine-role-playing male I know in Rio has paid for sex at one point or another, I seriourly doubt that’s true, even though it’d be nice from the point of view “good girl / bad boy”-style feminism were it true.

            In numbers, yes of course more cis men buy sex, because there are many more cis men in the general population! In terms of percentage of population? I really, really doubt that this preposition is true. If you guys don’t, I think you need to look at some of the research that’s now coming out about transvestites, “feminine” males and the purchase/sale of sex.

            Again, Ms. McAlpine, your views on this seem to be rooted in prejudice and theory, not in contact with life as it’s lived among people who buy and purchase sex.

            You show me a cross-sectional study with good sampling and decent methodology overall which shows what percentage of cis men have paid for sex versus what percentage of, say, cross-dressing men, transvestites, etc. pay for sex and I’ll buy your argument. Failing that, you and I can go on down to A Praia das Paraguaias here in Rio and talk to the people there and do some qualitiative ethnographic research.

            But if you don’t want to get your hands dirtied with the icky particulars of the sex trade, then read Kulick’s book.

            You are simply wrong: ALL SORTS OF PEOPLE BUY SEX. IN LARGE NUMBERS.

            And no, we do not know if women who pay for sex are a minority, a small minority, a growing minority… We know little about it at all, again, because the prejudices of folks like you – people who think they know everything about sex work without engaging with it. If you define, a priori, “paying for sex” as a certain pattern of paying for sex that is only or mostly engaged in by cis men, then yes, obviously you’re going to find that only or mostly cis men pay for sex.

            But in that case, you’re falling into the great trap of ideologues everywhere: you are creating a tautology which sustains your theory. You’re not really discovering how the world works.

            Women pay for sex all the time, in any number of ways. They don’t see themselves as doing this, buy and large, however and few people have really looked into this behavior. But I bet many, many more women pay for sex than you realize, Ms. McAlpine. In fact, I bet that there’s a non-trivial chance that, were you REALLY honest with yourself, you’ll discover that you, too, have paid for sex on at least one occasion, although you’ll probably try to push that off as “transactional sex”.

            As for people who buy sex being a “minority group”, I was quite clearly talking about sex workers, not clients. Let me quote to you what I said, again:

            “Given that sex workers are one of the few remaining groups towards which everyone can feel socially superior, however, due to socially-inculcated stigma and prejudice, you have no one to call you out on your prejudices but sex workers themselves.

            “And you’ve already made it damned clear that, like racists in the American south or homophobes in the Church, you don’t give a good goddamn what the group you want to oppress has to say for themselves.”

            I’m saying you are bigoted when it comes to SEX WORKERS, Ms. McAlpine. I’m certain you are also bigoted when it comes to their clients, but seeing as how you’re not even willing to admit that SEX WORKERS are human beings endowed with agency, seeing as how you feel you can objectify sex workers as “battered barbies” in order to make your quaint theoretical equations come out balanced, I’m not even going to suggest to you that sex workers’ clients are also human beings, deserving respect.

            I wouldn’t want you to have a coronary, after all.

            Again, what I find breath-taking about you is your arrogance. First you’re lecturing sex workers about how they don’t understand what they’re doing. Now you’re lecturing me on sex and power relations in the third world – and I’ll lay even odds that you couldn’t even tell me what language we speak in Brazil without a quick gander at Wikipedia!

            Let me explain something to you quyite clearly, Ms. McAlpine: OF COURSE power is sexualized. It always has been and always will be! You are living in a theoretical fantasy world where sexual relations “should” only occur under situations of absolute equality. That is never going to happen.

            Yes, power is sexualized. Power is also expressed everytime you go to a country like Brazil and have a maid work cleaning your knickers for 250 dollars a month. EVERYTHING in human life is a representation of power. There is no Utopia where we’re all going to be brothers and sisters singing from the same hymn book. There never will be. That, my friend, is a Christian myth that you are gussying up with revolutionary rhetoric.

            What I think is ridiculous is the way you are ever-so-concerned about power and its abuses, but you don’t seem to grasp the one simple truth every serious revolutionary has talked about when they’ve postulated change: you need to help the group that has less power ARTICULATE FOR THEMSELVES what their needs and desires are and fight for those.

            Instead, when it comes to sex workers, you deny that these people have political agency. You claim to understand their reality better than they do themselves. You postulate that they needs must be broken human beings to do what they do and you accrue unto yourself the power to speak for them.

            THAT, Ms. McAlpine, is “abuse of power”, right there, according to every revolutionary whoever lived.

            If 8 years of working with and around sex workers has taught me one thing, Ms. McAlpine, it’s that, ironically enough, the vast majority of these men and women’s clients have more respect for them and what they do than self-identified “liberators” such as you. You are not even willing to listen to sex workers unless they say what you want them to say. You are certainly unwilling to help them achieve any power for themselves – which is what a true revolutionary should be doing.

            Clients pay sex workers to enact sexual fantasies, Ms. McAlpine. You abolitionists seem to want to have the police FORCE sex workers to enact your sweaty, amorphous fantasies of sexual slavery and bondage for no pay whatsoever.

            Given the two positions, it’s pretty clear to me which group sex workers are going to prefer.

          3. Iamcuriousblue

            So are you seriously claiming that actual gay men don’t purchase sex from other gay men?

            Damn, you’re really employing some off-base claims in a desperate attempt to shore up your “prostitution is all about social power differentials” claim.

  3. Glenn

    McAlpine, your remark equating sex work with sexual harassment is ill conceived. When you choose sex as a line of work, you understand that sex will be involved. It’s right there in the title– “sex work”. Just as someone who works at Starbucks doesn’t want to be motorboated by their boss, someone who works as a call girl doesn’t want to serve Frappuccinos all day.

    You seem to assume that this line of work is degrading to the sex workers, but I’d bet their clients would beg to differ– I.E., often times lonely, compulsive men who have drained their bank accounts just so that someone will touch them. How emasculating.

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  6. Laura Agustín

    On a factual point only: What is now called the IUSW is not to be confused with the GMB branch called London Entertainment. Thierry has been an officer of the GMB branch for a while and was not ‘fired’ from it because that is not possible. The IUSW is a small group that can throw people out if they want to. Originally the two were the same organisation but spats turned them into two.

    The GMB allows managers to join unions, and the London Entertainment branch cannot overrule that policy. Thierry personally is against it, as are many others.

    Note that comments get delayed when they contain links – so things sometimes get out of order. The software cannot be overruled, either.

  7. Laura Agustín

    Headline from a Bangkok newspaper today: Turnabout is foreplay: Ladies take lead in shifting adult market. From seeking out gigolos and six-pack parties to sex toys and host lounges geared for women, the gentler sex have become bolder in getting a piece of the action in a city infamous for its male-oriented sex industry

    No one has statistics about how many people world-wide do what. Claims that begin with ‘Most are heterosexual men’ or ‘Third-world women are powerless’ don’t make sense for those who do research in the field. And I have to say that the conventional western claim that women in poorer countries are so powerless feels disempowering to them themselves.

    1. Thaddeus Blanchette

      Frankly, Rio de Janeiro’s sex work scene is better than most in the U.S. or Europe that I’ve seen or heard about. You can make more money overseas, of course, but workers have more control over their labor here, by and large.

  8. robin

    Thaddeus- FYI every transgender person I know (granted, all first-worlders) finds the term “transvestite” offensive, and I’m pretty sure some of those people you call “men” probably identify as women. Also I think possibly you think I am disagreeing with you that some women buy sex? I’m not disagreeing with that, that’s clearly true (unfortunately in the US one really can’t make any money just seeing women; if you could, I might go back into the business – I wish more women DID pay for sex, or at least more lesbians).

    1. Thaddeus Blanchette

      Robin, in Brazil the term “travesti” (whose only translation is “transvestite”) is largely considered to be an empowering identifier for a certain form of street politics, as much as “queer” is in the States for a certain form of gay politics.

      I, personally, eschew what I consider to be a protestant-based and largely anglo-saxon (understood very widely here) view that constantly changing labels, so that only a tiny cadre can speak of the subjects the labels refer to without being dismissed out of hand as prejudiced, is an essentially elitist and ultimately self-defeating form of politics.

      On the streets of Rio, we talk about “putas”, “piranhas” and “garotas de programa”, not “sex workers”, so those are the terms I use. When it comes to ‘trans” people, only a tiny, mostly college-educated, mostly white, mostly middle-class and almost entirely U.S.-informed group says “trans”. Everyone else says “travesti”, including the travestis themselves. So I’ll use that term until the base street-level discourse changes, because I don’t think we should be discursively powering a tiny and privileged minority of the sex/gender political field when it comes to discussing these topics.

      Emic terms are generally perferred over etic terms in anthropology, anyway.

      (Btw, I should point out here that the general exile trans people went through in gay politics in the 1980s and ’90s was in large part fueled by similarly politically-correct decisions regarding what were the “proper” representations of homosexuality.)

      I don’t think you disagree with me re: women buying sex. I do think you believe I misunderstand the prefix “cis-“. My point is that travestis and female-identifying male cross-dressers also buy a hell of a lot of sex. In fact, they seem to buy as much sex as other XY individuals in general.

      The feminist presumption (which McAlpine seems to believe) that a male who adopts a female gender performance thus suddenly stops buying sex isn’t supported by the evidence.

      (Another btw: it’s become a bit of a solid point down here that travestis are not simply men adopting a female role, but people who make something of a bricolage between male and female roles.)

      I think that one of the main problems with regards to women buying sex is that women, in general (even lesbian women), are socialized differently regarding sex. The people who make money selling sex to women make a lot of money, but their style is almost entirely based on charisma. It’s very hard to “industiralize” or mass-produce that sort of thing. Men, meanwhile, will happily frequent knocking shops.

  9. robin

    That you took an off hand comment about seeing women as an opportunity to insult my “charisma” is not making me want to address your other points but I guess I will anyway. Don’t think I haven’t revised my opinion of you though.

    That is not at all true of who uses the term “trans” in the US and there’s a reason wide swaths of people have found it more empowering than terms that imply they are playing dress-up. Yes there’s a little animosity that is misplaced sometimes toward crossdressers (the preferred term, seriously, as “transvestite” has been a slur for decades). Believe it or not the terms don’t change that fast and I see some reluctance to change your worldview behind your self-righteous protestations. By all means, use the terms for someone that they choose for themselves, I do that too. But don’t force rigidity in trying to keep anyone else from causing change.

    As for “sex worker” that’s a whole other conversation, yes it has issues obviously, but it’s convenient when more inclusive and descriptive phrases get unwieldy.

    1. Thaddeus Blanchette

      ? “Insult my charisma”…?

      Robin, I was making a general point, not a specific one. It was just an off-hand reflection based on your comment “one really can’t make money seeing only women”. I think that’s true, in general, except for a very small group of very charismatic (and often manipulative) people. If you’re not a member of that group, that’s not an insult. I would love to know what it is that those folks do. Someone really needs to do an ethnography of that crowd. One thing’s for sure, however: it’s a very small group.

      Sex workers in general need a lot of charisma but it’s been my experience that sex workers who sell to women need even more, plus some je ne se qua. Saying that in no way implies anything at all about your charisma, lack of it, or excess of it. But when a market is charisma-based, it certainly becomes difficult to mass-produce whatever it’s selling.

      I think, personally, that selling sex to women is a much harder row to hoe than selling sex to men. There are male client scenes that are just as difficult, no doubt, especially high-end scenes. But there are also tons and tons of simple knocking shops which cater to men where all you need to do is show up, be minimally presentable and yell “Next!” We call them “fast fodas” here in Rio and the women working them can reliably make the equivalent of 5 or six monthly minimum wages there. I know of no scenes like that that cater to women.

      With regards to the term “transvestite”, I generally think of these terms in Portuguese, not English, and the term here is “travesti”, which generally translates to transvestite. “Travesti” has other unfortunate implications but, like “queer”, it’s generally been embraced by the folks working for their rights at a street level.

      People can call themselves whatever they like, but the scene I’m most involved with that sells sex on the street, engages in home-made body modification to create more female-like bodies and also wears women’s clothing calls themselves “travestis” as opposed to “cross-dressers”. And the U.S. American term “trans” does not fit them well, either, at least according to how they present themselves (again, Kulick’s “Travesti” is a great book on this topic).

      Frankly, the American scene and its constant linguistic re-evaluations and policings (as well as its belief in “identity”, not to mention identity politics) is something I’m happy to watch from afar. Again, however, I use what the people I talk to use. When they change their terminology, I’ll change mine. I’m wholly uninterested in “correcting” them.

  10. Laura Agustín

    There is always another way to translate everything. What travesti communicates in spanish and portuguese is probably communicated better by crossdresser or gender-bender or queer-style or make up a term in english since transvestite is no longer heard nicely. Adding translation problems to those arising from identity politics seems a shame.

    1. Thaddeus Blanchette

      Usually when I translate, Laura, I use “travesti” and put in an entire footnote explaining what it means and its differences from “trans”, “transvestite” and “crossdresser”.

      You can’t footnote blog comments, however, and I rip off blog comments rapidly, without the same degree of editing and forethought I use in “serious” writing.

      One advantage that Spanish and Portuguese has that English doesn’t is our constant “engendering” of words, so it’s much easier to play gender-bender games around things like travesti. But I dislike “gender bender” because it presumes a certain intentionality which is not what I hear from the mouths of travestis. They feel that they are male, but not men. They are also women and they can flip back and forth between those categories on a dime, without thinking about it and without any intention of messing with people’s gender categories. They’re real clear about what is “man” and what is “woman” and are, in fact, generally pretty conservative on those points. One category they tend to wholeheartedly reject, however, is “gay”.

      I just translated a great article on this for CLAM which I’ll happily share with anyone who’s interested in reading more about this stuff.

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