Hosted by Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, Nora Berenstain spoke to students on Friday afternoon about sex work and administrative violence.
This event comes at the tail end of Sex Week, SEAT’s annual weeklong event that celebrates sexual empowerment and safety.
Berenstain is a philosophy professor at UT and is a faculty advisor for SEAT.
In her presentation, Berenstain defined administrative violence as a form of structural violence that is routine, systemic and designed to unevenly distribute population-level harms through administrative systems and institutions.
The border policies between U.S. and Mexico are an example of the type of structure that comes with this violence.
“It’s not accidental … when migrants die in the desert because of a lack of water, that’s administrative violence,” Berenstain said.
Other examples of this type of violence include the Texas energy crisis, the Flint water crisis and the criminalization of sex work, which Berenstain focused more on in the next section of her lecture.
Berenstain made it clear that this lecture focused on looking at sex work as morally neutral, rather than as good or bad.
Berenstain discussed sex workers as a marginalized group. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recognize that sex workers’ rights are human rights.
“Capitalism is a violent system, and when you have to work to survive, that produces a lot of vulnerabilities,” Berenstain said.
By criminalizing sex work, acts of violence against sex workers are not often reported because those committing these acts of violence have impunity, Berenstain explained. Law enforcement also usually does not support sex workers in court.
“When sex work is outlawed and criminalized, sex workers are always criminalized,” Berenstain said.
Berenstain also marked the distinction between sex work and sex trafficking. While sex trafficking often involves kidnapping and is not voluntary, sex work is voluntary and consensual. In her presentation, she wrote that a lot of policy reforms aimed at stopping sex trafficking actually harm sex workers.
Two acts, Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), are two examples of this kind of harm. These acts seek to stop online sex trafficking, but actually harm sex workers, because these online spaces are no longer available for them to safely navigate their clients.
“It’s increasing the level of risk and responsibility for websites if a crime is committed on the platform. … We don’t treat other crimes this way,” Berenstain said.
Sex workers were vocal about the harm that they knew would come from these bills when they were being lobbied for, but the bills passed anyway.
“Denying that sex workers have bodily autonomy promotes violence against them,” Berenstain said.
Then, there was a question-and-answer portion following Berenstain’s discussion.
Ally/Alyx Boyte (she/they), SEAT’s advocacy and outreach chair, spoke about the open discourse in this event.
“No question is a bad question,” Boyte said.
Gregory Whited, a Junior and College Scholar at UT, asked a question about capitalism and sex work.
“Do you think another reason sex work is so looked down upon is because it’s mainly worker-run and not controlled/profited from by the power-holders? Does this run counter to a capitalist society?” Whited said.
Berenstain agreed and responded that the criminalization of sex work is a form of punishment to women making money doing things that men feel entitled to, and that it’s a threat to capitalism and capitalist exploitation.
Berenstain ended the event with encouraging participants to look to sex worker-led activist groups in order to help sex workers in ways that are helpful to them.