Mirha-Soleil Ross on Justice for Sex Workers and Nonhuman Animals

Today (Dec. 17) is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. In honor of this day I'd like to share some excerpts from a couple of interviews with Mirha-Soleil Ross, a vegan, transsexual and sex worker justice advocate, regarding her seven-part monologue, Yapping Out Loud: Contagious Thoughts from an Unrepentant Whore. In Yapping Out Load, Ross addresses "anti-prostitution discourses and campaigns, detailing the way they impact, often tragically on prostitutes' working conditions and lives." In the following excerpts Ross confronts the problems with anti-sex worker discourse within nonhuman animal advocacy.

From "Queer Rights - Animal Rights," by Claudette Vaughan for the Australian magazine The Vegan Voices (Sept - Nov 2003):

Vaughan: Sex workers have become increasingly organised this past decade demanding reforms of laws that punish consensual commercial sex. Are you disappointed with the hypocrisy of feminist groups who have shunned the issue while still professing to work for women's rights?

Ross: Western feminists have conveniently treated prostitution as the ultimate symbol of male violence and of women's economic and sexual subjugation. But for the last three decades, we've had in the West (and for even longer than that in so-called "third world" countries) groups and networks of prostitutes who have clearly articulated what our political needs are and what needs to be accomplished legally and culturally in order for us to work and live more safely and with more dignity. Internationally at this point, we have consensus on basic goals such as the need to have prostitution recognised as legitimate work and decriminalised. We do not believe that prostitution is inherently exploitative, degrading or hurtful. Instead we think that the various anti-prostitution laws and vicious cultural attitudes towards prostitution and prostitutes create a context within which our most fundamental human rights can be violated, a climate within which some think it is ok to harass, rape and kill us. Our analysis and positions as working prostitutes have been elaborated from years and years of daily experience of prostitution. They are not the results of abstract theorising conducted by feminist social scientists who have never turned a trick and who have spent most of their lives buried deep down within their library books. Unfortunately the animal rights community has been one social justice movement where the voices of prostitutes have been painfully absent, and this in the presence of very disparaging and hurtful attitudes and propaganda. Writers like Carol Adams, Gary Francione and Jim Mason all regurgitate old seventies misinformed radical feminist ramblings around prostitution and pornography. They make offensive and trivialising comparison between consenting adult women working in the sex trade and non-consenting animals murdered by the meat industry. And they do so without ever speaking to us. If anyone is going to start writing articles and developing theories linking meat to pornography and prostitution and the so-called objectification of women's bodies, then I insist that we – as women and as prostitutes and as sex workers – be the first ones consulted regarding these matters!

Vaughan: In your one-woman show Yapping Out Loud: Contagious Thought from an Unrepentant Whore, you've made a connection between coyotes and prostitutes. Please tell us about that.

Ross: In 1999, I got funding to write and produce my first full-length performance, a series of character-based and autobiographical monologues addressing anti-prostitution discourses and campaigns. I wanted to detail the way various groups like feminists, social workers and law enforcement agencies all work together to create a society within which both our work and our lives as prostitutes are devalued with often tragic consequences. I also wanted to show how the violence that is perpetrated against us ends up being used by all of them to fuel their own anti-prostitution ideologies and further their own agendas with absolutely no regard for what we – as working prostitutes – say we need in order to improve our working and living conditions. So when I started thinking about what I wanted to do, I got interested by one of the longest running prostitutes' rights organisations in the United States. That organisation is called COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and I read that the acronym COYOTE was originally picked by founder Margot Saint-James because the animal stood as a perfect metaphor for the way prostitutes were and continue to be viewed and treated in our culture: as threatening intruders, carriers of diseases, and as vermin to be eliminated. So on one hand I was intrigued by this comparison, but on the other very uncomfortable with having an entire nation of animals used once again as a metaphor so gratuitously – that is, without any proper representation or compensation. And I decided that as a prostitute and as an animal rights activist, it was my duty to try to give a little bit back to the coyotes and show people the brutal reality faced by hundreds of thousands of them every year in North America – being poisoned, shot and trapped as part of various hunting contests and "control" programs. Indirectly, I also wanted to ask some hard questions regarding our use of animals as "metaphors" for human suffering. How appropriate is it to compare our own human suffering to that of animals when most of the time, quantitatively and qualitatively, there is so much disparity between the two? I presented the show here in Toronto in 2001 and I will perform it again in September 2003 in New York as part of WOW Café's first National Transgender Theatre Festival.

From "Yapping Out Loud for Animals and Prostitutes!," by Nadja Lubiw for Toronto's Animal Voices Radio (April 26th, 2002):

Lubiw: I'm wondering if we can broaden what we're talking about, not just focus on the show but talk a little bit about the animal rights community and especially the feminist animal rights community and their discourse around prostitution and pornography. I know that you have a lot of concerns and a lot of issues with some of the theories that are out there. A lot of the theory that's out there in terms of the animal rights community is very strongly anti-pornography and anti-prostitution. The theories are based on ideas of women as commodities and animals as commodities, animal being consumed literally as meat and women being consumed figuratively as sex objects. Tell me a little bit about how you feel about those theories and what you see as some of the problems with those theories, especially coming from your perspective as someone in the sex trade.

Ross: Just to start, I have to say that the biggest problem politically right now in terms of the feminist representation in the animal rights movement is that there's only really one group of feminists that is represented. And they come from a brand of feminism we call “Radical Feminism.” So traditionally, that brand of feminism has been theoretically and politically anti-prostitution as well as anti-pornography as well as anti-transsexual. There's a whole whack of shit that comes with that brand of feminism. And of course there are many more feminisms than radical feminism in the feminist world but in the animal rights movement, the only feminism that seems visible and vocal in discussing issues of sexual representation and sex work is radical feminism. There are many, many more feminists in the animal rights movement besides those who dictate the analysis and campaigns of Feminists for Animal Rights. But they are just doing work that's animal rights oriented or they are silent and don't challenge Feminists for Animal Rights and writers like Carol Adams on their anti-sex, anti-porn, anti-prostitution, and anti-transsexual biases and prejudice. I know tons of feminists who are involved in the animal rights movement who do not share these views but they are not starting a new feminist wave of feminist animal rights theory and politics. So that's one of the biggest political problems right now. Then there's a shit load of problems with the kind of feminism promoted by Carol Adams, Marti Kheel, Batya Bauman and their acolytes who are currently dominating the discourse on feminism and animal rights. I think that one of the biggest problems coming from them is that they compare the treatment of women to the treatment of animals and one of the main places where they've tried to illustrate that comparison is through women in pornography and women in prostitution and women in the sex trade. So my first reaction, what I first have to say is that you have to get the voices of the women who work in pornography and prostitution involved. I'm talking about the women who are currently working in the sex trade. For the last two decades we have had women working in the sex trade – most of whom also identify as feminists – articulate exactly what our political needs are. And we have an analysis of prostitution of course that is very different from these feminists in groups like Feminists for Animal Rights so it's very threatening for them to consider including our voices in these discussions and discourses because we do not agree. We speak at the first person about our own real experiences in the sex trade and about our own real day-to-day working needs. So while they are theorizing about the so-called use and objectification and commodification of our bodies, we ARE those bodies. And we have a very different perception than theirs of what's happening to us and what's going on in the sex trade. So we have groups like Feminists for Animal Rights and their members getting away with speaking on our behalf, giving lectures, presenting slide shows, and leading campaigns that hurt us and getting away with excluding us from their discussions. And I was always offended that women who are prostitutes or who work in pornography could be compared to animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Frankly we are talking about two different things. Yes there's this image that appeared in a magazine a decade or two ago of a woman's body going through a meat grinder but that was an image, big deal! There are real animals going through that grinder! What animals are enduring on factory farms, during transportation to the slaughterhouse, and during the slaughtering process is absolutely incomparable to our experiences as women consenting to being paid – and quite well thank you – for providing sexual services. Women who work in the sex industry do not think of themselves as pieces of meat and frankly if one did, she'd need a serious reality check. She would need to be dragged to a shed where hundreds of thousands of hens are piled up and rotting in battery cages. She would need to smell and hear and feel the blood and the fear and the agony that goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 12 months a year for billions of animals in thousands of slaughterhouses across this continent. So I always found that the comparison was offensive and really minimizing what the animals are actually going through. And so much of their theorizing revolved around that comparison that it should come as no surprise to anyone that we are kept outside of the discussion because if we were to come in, a huge chunk of the animal rights feminist theorizing that's been developed over the last decade and a half would collapse and have to be recognized as having contributed to making it impossible for sex trade workers to gain basic human rights.

Lubiw: We're talking about the problems feminism has brought to the animal rights movement and your concerns with Feminists for Animal Rights. In terms of the show Yapping Out Loud, I know that there's a lot of dialogue that you put in there that is critical of the feminist movement. What do you think feminism can bring to the animal rights movement and how do you see the oppression of animals and the oppression of women connecting?

Ross: I'm not sure. I'm not someone who really tries to force connections. I'm somebody who says: "This is what I'm going through. What are you going through? Let's see how we can help each other. And ok yes, if there are some connections we realize are going on along the way, then let's recognize them." One of the things I'm doing with my show is make a point that yes somehow prostitutes are treated like animals, like coyotes. But this treatment is not inherent in prostitution and does not come from the clients of prostitutes. It comes from residents' groups, from cops, from social workers and it comes from feminists. I find it is feminists who are objectifying us. I represent the treatment of prostitutes at the hands of feminists in my show by using three inflatable dolls. When a man is fucking an inflatable doll, he knows he's not fucking a real woman. When these feminists talk about us, they really see and perceive us as these inflatable dolls. I find that they, the feminists, are the ones who are objectifying us. If I was not Mirha-Soleil with my personality and face and charm and wit and everything that makes me Mirha-Soleil, my clients wouldn't see me. They see me because there's a certain personality and a particular sex appeal that's part of my whole package. They're not coming to see a pair of tits or a nipple or a butt cheek for Christ sake. It's the feminists who are anti-prostitution who objectify us and reduce us to tits and asses by perceiving us that way and by propagating the myth that in prostitution this is all we are as prostitutes: vulgar orifices, and that this is all we are really worth. So what I do is turn the tables around and say "You think that our clients or men who watch porn are treating us like animals and pieces of meat? Then if that's what you think, YOU are the ones who can't see further than tits and asses and fuck holes. You are the ones treating us like animals and pieces of meat and your discourses, your campaigns, your theorizing are hurting us and helping create a context where prostitution is seen as a social evil to be eliminated, a context that makes it possible for people to kill prostitutes and think they are doing a service to the community.

Re: Mirha-Soleil Ross on Justice for Sex Workers and ...

Thanks for this post, Ida. I definitely agree that the voices of people in marginalized groups are often drowned out by the shouting of so many privileged people; what's especially scorching is when the privileged folks are purporting to be helping or advocating for the people they are steamrolling right over. This happens a lot in discussions of sex work and sex workers. I appreciate Ross' really important assertion that men, women, animal activists, feminists, sex workers-rights activists, etc. would do well to allow the sex workers themselves to not only enter the dialog, but to control it.

That said, I would also encourage readers to consider that many sex workers would offer a much different testimony to their experiences than Ross does. This is really just an extension of my previous comments, but as atrocious as it is for advocates to assume that all prostituted women and men think of themselves as "pieces of meat," it is also problematic for everyone to think that the lives and experiences of some sex workers are not dangerous or that some sex workers wouldn't choose different circumstances for themselves. We have to be willing to listen, and we have to make it possible for others to speak.

As usual, we could all benefit from a general increase in the respect we have for others and our willingness to acknowledge the lived experiences of people in different situations than ourselves. Most importantly, I would encourage vegans to leave anti-sex worker rhetoric out of our calls to compassion. The Vegans of Color blog highlights this in a recent post, which made my skin crawl a little bit: Don't Use Classism and Anti-Sex Work Rhetoric to Protest Fur

Thanks again.

Justice Regardless of Choice, Circumstance, or Coercion

Hi Jenna:

There's a couple points in this paragraph from your comment that I think need to be clarified:

I would also encourage readers to consider that many sex workers would offer a much different testimony to their experiences than Ross does. This is really just an extension of my previous comments, but as atrocious as it is for advocates to assume that all prostituted women and men think of themselves as "pieces of meat," it is also problematic for everyone to think that the lives and experiences of some sex workers are not dangerous or that some sex workers wouldn't choose different circumstances for themselves.

I'm concerned that this comment frames an unwarranted opposition that undermines rather than supports Ross' justice advocacy work by claiming "many sex workers would offer a much different testimony to their experiences than Ross does." Of course there are no universally shared experiences. As such, it's not that sex workers have different experiences that is a problem, but the way these differences are used to frame Ross' experience as being at odds with that the needs and interests of other sex workers.

Ross doesn't deny that sex work is dangerous work – quite the opposite in fact. As an active participant in the international movement for prostitutes' rights, a major focus of Ross' work in this movement is addressing the myriad dangers that sex workers experience. So it's important to remember that these dangers are found at the intersections of capitalism, classism, sexism, racism, xenophobic-nationalism, cissexism, homophobia, ableism, and so on, as opposed to being inherent to sex work itself. Since Ross is merely speaking on behalf of sex workers' collective needs for safety, dignity, and respect, I don't see how her position or advocacy is in opposition with that of other sex workers, and I'm troubled by how the oppositional framing suggests that it is.

Additionally, I think it is inappropriate to speculate as to whether Ross or any other sex worker would "choose different circumstances." As Emi Koyama points out in her call to "Support Prostitutes' Rights Now!":

Like many other workers in a capitalist society, our options are limited by many factors, including poverty, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. But to the degree many workers choose their occupation, many prostitutes do choose ours. To the degree many workers are forced into an occupation that they do not want to enter, many prostitutes are forced into prostitution. One of the goals of the prostitutes' rights movement is to empower everybody who works in the sex industry regardless of how we entered this field, creating many options for ourselves, both inside and outside of the industry.

Hence the approach used by the Sex Worker Project in New York: "Using a harm reduction and human rights model, we protect the rights and safety of sex workers who by choice, circumstance, or coercion remain in the industry." That one might choose other circumstances doesn't mean that Ross' position is problematic. Regardless of whether one chooses to be a sex worker or not, the dangers perpetrated by those feminists and others advocating anti-prostitution policies and positions – to which Ross is speaking out against – systematically harm all who are or are profiled as sex workers as a group of people. So again, it is worrisome to see it suggested that Ross is at odds with other sex workers on these points.

Not unlike other workers' movements, Ross and others in the sex workers' movement are organizing against imposed dangers and limitations – although the dangers and limitations sex workers' face obviously come in different forms and from different sources. For a more in depth analysis, I highly recommend reading Koyama's "Instigations from the Whore Revolution: A Third Wave Response to the Sex Work 'Controversy'" (available by PDF preview and purchase).

Respectfully yours,