Reflection on Our Sexual Well-Being Conference By Katie Halligan

Cork Feminista member , Katie Halligan, who is currently doing her Master’s in Women’s Studies shares a very in depth and fascinating reaction to the Sex Industry talk which took place at our conference :

Having completed the first part of the MA in Women’s Studies in UCC, I am now in the middle of the second part which is a dissertation focusing on how a number of selected countries manage their sex industry. When Cork Feminista announced that the Sexual Wellness Conference would include two talks; one presented by sex workers advocating sex work, and another presented by anti sex work campaigners I was grateful for the opportunity to listen to both sides of the debate in real life! So far my research has highlighted how contentious the issue of sex work is in feminism, with a deep divide between those who want to see sex work decriminalised and those who want the sex industry abolished. The literature I have reviewed, including the works of Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin and Kathleen Barry (abolitionists) and Margo St James, Gail Pheterson and Kamala Kempadoo (advocates who are sometimes referred to as sex positivists) informed me that the topic is highly emotive and a difficult one for feminists to address. This was confirmed by what occurred at the Sexual Wellness Conference.
The sex work advocates, Lucy Smith from Ugly Mugs, Lady Grew and Jenny O, spoke on Saturday in a room full to capacity with people, who gave the speakers their full attention. There was a tension in the atmosphere as each one spoke of their frustration at being stigmatised for working in the sex industry. The anger in Lucy Smith’s voice increased as she spoke about her work with Ugly Mugs, a website that sex workers can access that aims to promote safety in the sex industry. Their presentation generated support from the audience, interest in the ‘other side’ of the debate (the dissenting voice of those who don’t’ condemn sex work), and consideration (it is a debatable topic and there are two points of view – one that condemns the sex industry because it is dangerous, and another view that recognises women’s agency and their choice to sell sex, hopefully in an environment that is hospitable, meets their health and safety needs, needs that people in other forms of work have access to). I spoke to Lucy Smith and Jenny O after their talk, the conversation was brief, but due to the underground nature of sex work in Ireland the opportunity to speak to people engaged in the sex industry was one that I did not expect when I started my dissertation.
In a move that emphasises the conflicting views in this debate the Cork Sexual Violence Centre pulled out of the conference. Their decision disappointed me, and I felt it was a shame that they did not use the platform the Sexual Wellness Conference offered to articulate their standpoint and argue why sex work should be criminalised and ultimately abolished. There is strong evidence to indicate that people engaged in the sex industry experience violence and abuse, and I can understand that listening to people advocate an industry that inflicts harm and pain on those forced into it would be distressing, but I felt it was a great pity that they refused to partake in the conference. It was obvious from the reaction of a number of people who attended the sex workers talk that they were considering a new perspective of the sex industry, one they might not have before, and I believe SVC missed a chance to reiterate why they are opposed to the sex industry, and why the campaign to criminalise purchasers of sexual services was so important for our society.
The sex workers talk and anti sex work campaigner’s decision to remove themselves from the conference illustrated that the sex industry continues to pose some of the most difficult, yet fundamental questions for feminist theory, feminist activism and society in general.

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