Originally published in the New Statesman, 24th November 2014
There are several stories circulating about what happened at this year’s London Reclaim the Night march. The Sex Worker Open University have criticised the organisers for including a speaker from Object, a campaign group they claim oppresses those in the sex industry by picketing their workplaces and attempting to put them out of jobs. The SWOU have also alleged the distribution of transphobic leaflets by some march attendees. This has been corroborated from the other side of the political divide, with a group of radical feminists confirming that they carried a banner stating “Reclaim the Night is for WOMEN” and distributed leaflets “to raise awareness of violence perpetrated by male transgenders” [sic]. This group has also reprimanded RTN organisers for reiterating that trans women were welcome on the march.
What both accounts acknowledge is that many women at Reclaim the Night London spoke out and marched in solidarity with trans and sex-working sisters. They were right to do so. Feminist events must not make the most marginalised women among us feel unsafe. But over and above ideas about inclusion, we also need to recognise that trans people and sex workers* have much to offer feminist thought and activism.
What can trans people tell us about gender? Well, they do a pretty good jobdivesting it from what our culture calls biological sex.** Trans feminists – indeed, all trans people – share with cis feminists the desire to live lives that challenge gender essentialism, and the spectrum of trans and gender-fluid identities shows us a variety of ways of being which split apart our cultural binaries of male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. Trans people are under no obligation to share their personal journeys with the world at large, but when they do they crystallise the ways in which gender oppresses all of us.
Sex workers are part of an industry which, although diverse, is profoundly gendered and based on the commodification of sex and desire. From this position they have unique insights into how gendered power relations and sexual scripts work. Some sex workers may tell us how these can be reworked and resisted, perhaps more easily when an explicit transaction is taking place. Others may have harrowing stories about being the target of the worst misogynist impulses of our culture, compounded by social stigma. Or we may very likely hear from sex workers who have experienced both.
Contemporary feminists can be quite neoliberal in their emphasis on identity and choice, partly in answer to the co-option of 1970s radical feminism by reactionary forces. We need to hold on to the best of radical feminist thought – in particular, its analysis of gender as a structural and discursive hierarchy between “man” and “woman” (which, of course, doesn’t stop it also being a spectrum in terms of individual identities). But the gendered structures that radical feminism identified in the 1970s may have already become more complex and slippery in our postmodern world.
Surely, those most likely to understand these present-day structures are those oppressed by them the most. Feminists have long argued that due to their marginalised position, women have an unique perspective on how the world works. But feminists who are more privileged need to listen to others within our ranks when they tell us our own mindset is partial.
How can we appreciate the social construction of the gender binary without listening to people who live in the spaces in-between? And conversely, how can we fathom how deeply felt the binary can be without the help of those who know they have been assigned to the wrong side? How can we understand gendered objectification in isolation from those who handle it, in various ways, as part of their jobs? How can we debate how the sex industry should be regulated while ignoring people who work in it? And crucially, how can we understand and organise against gendered violence in isolation from those who are most at risk?
I have yet to come across a feminist who doesn’t have good intentions. Although our theories and methods differ, feminists of all stripes share a desire to make women’s lives better. But in order to do that, we need to listen to what all women have to say. Experience is not an end in itself – but we cannot theorise or organise in a vacuum or only in relation to our own personal stories, because in the eyes of the world some narratives – and some lives – matter more. This means that those of us who enjoy privilege have a lot to learn and a duty to refuse to see our own experience as universal.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to control or predict events sufficiently to guarantee completely safe spaces, and perhaps it would be dangerous to try. But it’s certainly possible – indeed essential – to create a welcoming atmosphere and a culture of zero tolerance around discrimination and abuse. A good place to start is to ensure that we centre and accept leadership from the women who can teach feminism the most. Trans women and sex workers should be marching at the front of the feminist bloc.
Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonphipps
* of course, there are many trans people working in the sex industry so the separation of these two categories is in some ways arbitrary.
** intersex people, of course, call this term into question – which could be the subject of a whole article in itself.