On April 9 and 10, Melinda Tankard Reist is hosting a conference marketed thus: ” ‘World’s oldest oppression,’ the first ever gathering of sex industry survivors and abolitionists in Australia, will be held at RMIT University in Melbourne next weekend.” On Tankard Reist’s website it is further described as a “two-day conference for a world free of sex trade abuse,” and a “feminist human rights conference.”
Various parties have called for no platforming action against the conference, on the grounds that it offers an opportunity for hate speech, and the furthering of a religious/moral agenda against all sex work. This agenda intentionally conflates sex work with an international and abusive sex trade of women and girls. The two are not the same, and Tankard Reist et al do their cause no favours by this conflation. Given my knowledge of Tankard Reist and other participants in this forum, I’d be inclined to agree with the apprehension of conflation: these participants steadfastly refuse the possibility of sex work as a choice, and make no distinction between women who are the victims of sex trade abuse, and women who choose sex work as their career.
Reist, Caroline Norma and Julie Bindel have all at some time made the argument that women who choose sex work as their profession are victims of a kind of false consciousness, that is, they don’t actually make a choice because they have been abused to the point where choice is no longer possible, they just don’t know that about themselves. This seems to me a most presumptuous and offensive conclusion for anyone to arrive at, other than the women concerned, and it should be identified and challenged.
I need to disclose here my personal encounters with Tankard Reist, when she threatened to sue me for defamation after I’d written on this blog about her religious affiliations and their influence on her moral and political sensibilities . While it was a difficult period in my blogging career, and brought all manner of people from Anne Summers to Julia Baird to Miranda Devine down on my head, and made me for a nanosecond a global cause and the subject of a change.org petition to save me, it also taught me valuable lessons about efforts to silence a contrary point of view, and it is this learning that I’m drawing on in my argument that Reist et al must be permitted their platform.
After my experience of Reist attempting and failing to bully me into silence with threats of financial ruin if I didn’t shut up and retract, (supported in her efforts by some of the mainstream press) I’m highly sensitised to any form of censorship. As an academic committed to the deconstruction of controversial ideas rather than their silencing, I baulk at the current penchant for refusing a platform to those who hold a position with which I strongly disagree. I can’t support authoritarianism in any form, and withholding the right to express ideas is an authoritarian act. Who is to decide which ideas may or may not be expressed? And since when was it possible to destroy any idea by denying opportunities for its expression?
The fact that RMIT hosts this conference (which at first blush appears perfectly acceptable, after all, who wouldn’t like to abolish sex trade abuse) doesn’t indicate administrative support for views expressed during the conference. Permitting the expression of ideas does not indicate acquiescence or agreement with those ideas. If ideas are forbidden expression on a university campus, we are in deep excrement.
Tankard Reist is adept at tailoring her marketing to fit her desired outcomes: in this instance she is using an understandable abhorrence for the trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery as an opportunity to attack all sex work. This approach needs not to be silenced, but identified and challenged.
Reist also states that survivors of sex trade abuse are speaking at the conference and I cannot, in any universe, agree to the silencing of the voices of survivors. Undoubtedly they are survivors who support Reist’s opinions: they ought not to be denied a voice because of this. I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse: is someone ready to instruct me that I may speak of this only within their terms of reference?
The weapon in situations such as this is not censorship but protest. Demanding that a third-party, in this case university authorities, step in and take action on students’ behalf is infantile. If you don’t want someone speaking on your campus get out there and protest and hopefully the academic staff who agree will support you. No platforming is the first resort of the weak. You can’t no platform the world and everything in it you don’t want to hear. You have to learn to use your own voice for the whole of your life so you might as well start at university.
I’d like to add that Vixen Collective, who are protesting the “World’s Oldest Oppression” conference, have not called for RMIT to no platform. They have simply asked for an opportunity to have a voice in the discussions. That request has been ignored by the conference organisers.