Published: Nov. 1, 2001 By

[1]   The speech of women who work in prostitution lacks credibility for many people. This is particularly true when they testify about the violence they face. It is often difficult for others to perceive violence against prostitutes as something real. Many women describe this contradiction in which they are caught when they speak as prostitutes. In what spaces can they speak and be understood when they describe the violence they face?

[2]   Women who work in prostitution employ a variety of rhetorical strategies to challenge those contradictions, or in some cases finesse them. I would like to examine whether the category of a ‘counterpublic sphere’ is a useful one to think about battered prostitutes’ speech on violence as political intervention. The term ‘counterpublic’ was coined by critics of Habermas’ category of an explicitly ‘bourgeois’ public sphere. Most theoreticians of the counterpublic see it as a useful communicative sphere for oppressed or excluded groups. (See Landes 1988 on the counterpublic in the salons until and through revolutionary France; Negt and Kluge [1993]{1972} thematize a proletariat counterpublic in which the proletariat’s experience is unsundered. Robbins [1993] sees the notion of a counterpublic as a useful substitute for the culture concept; Muñoz, [1998] draws a portrait of Pedro Zamora, the Latino AIDS activist, as cleverly exploiting the counterpublic potentialities of MTV; also see Fraser 1993; Felski 1989; For literature by prostitutes see for example Delacoste and Alexander 1987; Nagle 1999; Giobbe and Quan 1991; See Sanchez [1997; 1997a] for a good analysis of violence against prostitutes and a critical analysis of liberal jurisprudence). Exploring the usefulness of “counterpublic” will also give me a framework to take up the discursive strategies particular women employ when they are theorizing and trying to communicate their understandings of violence.

[3]   Some versions or accounts of the counterpublic sphere are not helpful because they are predicated on sameness of experience or common experience of oppression. But many prostitutes point to the significant differences among prostitutes as well as the differences between them and battered women who are not prostitutes. Another kind of difference among prostitutes is ideological. As we shall see below, some prostitutes use the language of choice and decision-making to describe a woman’s agency in prostitution, while others reject this as they reject liberal contractarian thought in favor of an account of prostitution that emphasizes systematic and structural oppression of women.

[4]   In this essay, I first locate myself as critical listener to women testifying about violence and describe my motivation and methodology. Then, much of the substance of the essay is devoted to prostitutes’ own accounts of violence against them. Finally, I argue for a version of a counterpublic sphere that can make space for the discrepant understandings and interpretations different women have of the violence against them. Nevertheless, I do not think that even this modified basis is sufficient to take up the range of voices and the discursive strategies women employ. Aided by the work of James Scott and María Lugones, I end by gesturing towards the enormous and effervescent realm of “hidden transcript” of activity contesting domination. The hidden transcript captures voices not expressed within any version of a counterpublic sphere and indeed highlights the limitations of the conceptual approach of the counterpublic to capturing women’s testimony about violence against them.


A lot of men enjoyed bringing me in as a third party with their wives. Usually what would end up happening is we’d watch some pornographic film, say, and then he’d say, “All right, I want you to do that to my wife.” Now, in these instances, I felt the wife was the victim, and that I was there to hurt the wife. I felt there was a real power play there, where the man was obviously saying to the wife, “If you don’t do this, I’m going to leave you.” I mean there were great overtones of manipulation and coercion (cited in Giobbe 1994:124).

[5]   Different women, positioned differently, face different forms of manipulation and coercion. The prostitute, the wife, and the actors in the pornographic film encounter distinct shades and forms and tonalities of power and violence against them. Paying attention to difference allows us to extract the different meanings of the same space for the different women in the situation. And seeing the different meanings is a precondition to analyzing the differences in the violence.

[6]   Looking at the ways in which different women, like the prostitute I quoted above, make decisions (Hoagland 1988) or are prevented from making them, would also be crucial in understanding the character of the resistances offered by the different women. This would help us to forge a multifaceted movement against violence against woman that emerges from women’s actual forms of activity and analyses. Solutions need to be discerning and need to speak to the particularities of different women’s situations and their ways of responding to them.

[7]   Not only do different women face different forms of violence, but violence against certain women depend upon, or are linked to, violence against others (cf. Barklay Brown 1988). The passage above makes that clear: the prostitute, herself sexually exploited, was to participate in the violence against the wife, all in an attempt to re-enact the sexual exploitation of the women in the pornographic film who are on display for the husband. The violence is not identical in each case even if it is interrelated with the others. Arguing for sameness disguises the particularity of the violence and hence is counterproductive.

[8]   The woman I cite registers a clear perception of power and difference at play in her analysis of sexual violence. But even the way in which different women articulate their experiences, to whom, where, and how they are heard, how they are perceived, is different from woman to woman. What then of the communicative sphere in which she speaks? Does the space in which she communicates make room for her understanding of violence? Is there a space or are there spaces in which violence against women can be explored that do not exclude some women but at the same time is not predicated on sameness? What are the terms in which a political movement against violence against women could be grounded that does not erase or exclude, rank or simplify? This set of questions motivates my larger concern as I take up the voices of women often excluded from mainstream discourse on violence against women. Correspondingly, as I take up different voices by different women, I am interested in how the accounts of violence point us towards a multiplicity of solutions, responses, and interventions.

Location, Method, Voice

[9]   This writing is a performative. I strive to occupy the position of critical listener. This is in an exercise of pivoting the center of my own previous perceptions in order to develop new ones. Elsa Barkley Brown (1988), following Bettina Aptheker, recommends instead of decentering one’s experience, ‘pivoting the center’: “I believe that all people can learn to center in another experience, validate it, and judge it by its own standards without need for comparison or need to adopt that framework as their own. Thus, one has no need to ‘decenter’ anyone in order to center someone else; one has only to constantly, appropriately, ‘pivot the center.'” The effort to put myself in the picture is also intended to mitigate the possibility that this work participates in putting women on display. I have tried to cultivate an ear for the speech of women who work in prostitution, for their understandings of freedom, decision-making, and their glosses on the consequences of being perceived as prostitutes. This ‘ear’ is against the grain that men have been groomed for. In positive terms this writing seeks to forge or bolster communicative links. Such writing entails moreover, breaking with the putative “voice from nowhere” typical in the social sciences, by positioning myself as engaged in a communicative posture of listening.

[10]   Methodologically, I have taken published accounts by women involved in sex work as the medium through which I read their words. Most, if not all, of the citations that follow were intended as public or semi-public utterances. Most are polemical in the sense that the women are moved to speech in order to articulate a critique, justify a stance, or contribute a critical insight. They are women actively or implicitly engaging in speech acts that are intended to contribute to clarifying their own understandings, experiences, political positions, and the violence they face. I have drawn on published interviews with prostitutes, political platforms put forward at whores’ congresses, speeches, published accounts, and position papers. As I interpret those voices and words in the following I will strive to give a sense of the context in which each position emerges and through what forms of mediation I encounter their respective texts. They are different forms of public utterances. They have all been written. Nevertheless, most of these utterances have the character of oral speech because many of them were originally interviews or public speeches.

[11]   What is important to mark is that I encounter all of these discrete and distinct discursive interventions not as the direct addressee except insofar as I encounter these texts as a reader in a public. I am interested in their speech as public speech and the barriers to their speech being public, and specifically the blockages to their speech in the traditional public sphere. I would like to explore in what transformed sense of public would violence against prostitutes be understood, and what understandings would be had.

[12]   Through this exercise, one may fairly ask how and whether my intentions are working in conjunction with theirs. One may also begin to see whether, in the case of interviews, the “public” nature of their discourse is a consequence of the interviewer’s intentions or those of the prostitute being interviewed. By putting forward these questions, I hope to instigate other questions. In this way I seek to prepare the groundwork so that my own epistemological orientations and rhetorical strategies can be interrogated.

[13]   Although many of the speech acts may in fact be incommensurable, my project is to explore the contours of a discursive realm (or discursive realms) that can be introduced even into communicative spaces antithetical to the voices of women who are marginalized or actively muted. This is the justification for trying to bring them into dialogue with one another in the context of this essay. But this requires pivoting the center.

Listening differently

[14]   I want to work at just such a shift of interpretive framework. The shift in interpretive framework is part of the methodology. Part of my own socialization into gender in my childhood and adolescence included ingesting an enormous amount of pornography. That is a highly conventional form of socialization for young men, gay and straight, in the U.S. The “words” of sex workers in that context were, and are, heard, marked, as erotic utterances. As the communicative sphere was framed, speech was for male arousal. That’s what it meant. That was its function (Dworkin 1981; MacKinnon 1987).

[15]   I put “words” in quotation marks because I do not presuppose that the pornographic material was in fact the sex workers’ own words. Indeed, that (male) cultural transcript for pornography designs and polices what is erotic, puts words in sex workers’ mouths in short stories, novels, captions, videos, and so on. The words come from the pornography industry. At the very least, the institutional location and power of the porn industry from which the utterances emanate cast a doubt on the status of those words and their authorship. This is not to undermine the arguments offered by women writing about the experience of phone sex operators as a powerful experience of control and sexual agency (see Hall 1995). But if men were to understand the words as directly issuing from the imagination of other men, would the turn on need to be understood differently?

[16]   I want to de-center the understanding, the matrix for interpretation of speech acts as eroticized, fetishized, commodified, really a solidified presupposition about what speech by sex workers is for, what it is about. Listening to their voices, reading their words, involves not only hearing them differently. I take it as charting an alternative course for my location in a sexual economy. Some years ago, at a gathering of women who work against violence against women I helped organize for a center for popular education, the Escuela Popular Norteña, one woman remarked that unless being a queer man involved taking a stance against violent masculinity, it was no more interesting to her politically — or any less immune to misogyny — than was male heterosexuality. In that spirit of charting a queer way of seeing, hearing, and acting that stands against violence against women, I work to listen to sex worker’s voices. That refusal, that no saying, to (putatively heterosexual) male consumption of sex worker’s speech, is a no saying to that way of hearing, reading, women’s speech that I link to a queer project: a declared non-allegiance with institutionalized heterosexuality.

Framing the Voices of Prostitutes

[17]   Hearing them as credible would require framing prostitutes’ speech as the speech of active subjects (Lugones forthcoming) rather than as commodified (Marino 1994). Evelina Giobbe speaks as a public spokesperson:

To be a prostitute is to be a blank screen upon which men project and act out their sexual dominance. Thus the word “prostitute” does not imply a “deeper identity;” it is the absence of an identity: the theft and subsequent abandonment of self. What remains is essential to the “job”: the mouth, the genitals, anus, breasts . . . and the label (Giobbe 1991:35).

The first problematic to undertake in pursuit of discourse and violence: I interpret Giobbe’s speech act to reference the limitations of the category “prostitute” because as she speaks her rhetoric opens the space to pose the question of how one can work around and through the absence of an identity. As I argue below, she points to the incommensurability between contentious referential frames for meaning and what resistant utterances, forms of comportment, gesture towards in alternative social forms and meanings. (This reading benefits from the “Dialogue on the Politics of Resistance” held at SUNY-Binghamton, April 1999 and by summary comments made by Nahum Chandler). Consequently, in approaching the different accounts of violence we forestall the overdetermination of voice and meaning, semantic content of discourse given Giobbe’s remark that to be a prostitute is to be a blank screen.

[18]   On the level of reception — listening, reading her words — Giobbe’s work opens up new vistas for communicative exchange. At least it does for me. Rather than recapitulate an exchange where her words are eroticized (see Hall 1995) and commodified for heterosexual male consumption, Giobbe’s words are arresting, challenging. Though describing prostitutes as blank screens for (heterosexual) male fantasies, her account ought not be taken as merely providing a description. Instead, her words gesture towards a reconstruction of the terms of discursive exchange where she is no longer taken as a blank screen but rather as an agent of social change. Part of the speech act, part of the work it is doing, is to beckon to others to join her in solidarity. I interpret her as deftly, paradoxically, departing from and breaking up that perception that reads or projects prostitutes as blank screens even as she signifies that being a blank screen marks the limits of, and stands in place of, an identity.

[19]   Crossing spaces and having the weightiness of one’s words, one’s credibility, even one’s identity change fundamentally is a recurrent theme in the accounts of women who work as prostitutes. Many argue that they frequently have the experience of going from places where they might be raped to places where their words counts as nothing and where prostitutes are seen as nothing but criminals and liars. The risks run in each of those spaces are complex and need to be maneuvered.

[20]   Many women who work as prostitutes have the perception that the public believes that all prostitutes are liars. The International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights World Charter at the Second World Whores’ Congress reflects this belief in the statement. Under “Violations of the Human Rights of Prostitutes,” one reads,

Freedom of expression and to hold opinions. The word of prostitutes is generally assumed to be invalid in public, for example as evidence in court. The opinions of prostitutes are rarely given a hearing, even in relation to their own lives. In private, prostitutes are often used as police informants and as counselors to male customers. In public, be it on the street or in court, their testimony and opinion are silenced (1994:141).

The activists draw attention to the hypocrisy of the private/public split as it applies to them. Publicly their voice has no authority, their testimony is disbelieved, while on the street they are silenced. In private spaces, they serve as johns’ confidantes or as police informers. This assertion has even darker implications once one considers the phenomenology of speaking as a prostitute. Within the spaces that prostitutes occupy, the multiple forms of violence to which prostitutes are subject are variously erased or permitted institutionally. Or, as Giobbe has pointed out (see below), institutions, and representatives from institutions are themselves agents of violence. As one woman comments in an interview,

I can’t tell you the countless times I’ve heard police say that a prostitute can’t be raped. It really upsets me. I think a lot of men believe that. It’s totally ridiculous. I’ve had friends who’ve gotten hurt. After a while you stop telling the police. Their attitude is, “Hey, that’s part of your job.” Probably a lot of women believe that, too. Though I’ve had less of that attitude from women than men — the attitude that a prostitute is putting herself out there and that she deserves what she gets, whether it’s rape or getting beaten up (Debra and Carole 1987:95ff).

Debra’s experience has been that many men, and many police, believe that prostitutes cannot be raped. She also has encountered the attitude that being hurt is part of the job of being a prostitute. The belief that sexual intercourse with a prostitute cannot count as rape in turn opens several conceptual possibilities. One is that prostitutes are never forced to have sex. Another possibility is that prostitutes would not allow themselves to be raped. A third possibility, which seems to be the one being entertained by the police here, is that prostitutes, having made themselves sexually accessible in a certain way, have surrendered permanently their right to withhold consent (The possibilities are logically non-exclusive). This would be analogous to the way that certain jurists have argued that married women have enthralled themselves to a condition of permanent sexual accessibility to their husbands, rendering marital rape an oxymoron. (See Russell 1990)

[21]   While forced sexual intercourse with a prostitute is elided from the imagination of the police, violence is not. Rather, receiving violence is conceived of as inevitable. Another woman echoes this perception of police:

I’ve heard them say many times that you couldn’t rape a prostitute. Once my girlfriends were attacked by some guys. They were in Berkeley and called the police. The police just said, “That’s the price you pay, it comes with the trade . . . so why bitch and scream, you’re a prostitute.” Which is totally ridiculous (Barbara and Carole 1987:171).

The police response, “That’s the price you pay, it comes with the trade,” has an inner tension. “That’s the price you pay,” implies that rape is the consequence of prostitution. “It comes with the trade,” suggests that violence is one of the conditions of the work, much as a sore back or a calloused hand come with handling a shovel. Both women understand the responses as revealing a set of perceptions of them and the conditions of their lives that is worlds away from their own perceptions. Nevertheless, they understand those other sets of perceptions (Lugones 1987). At the same time, their alternative perceptions are not easily communicated. The first woman comments, “After a while you stop telling the police.” The intersection of contradictory logics — one that defines prostitutes as unable to be raped, and another that finds that logic ridiculous — makes communication difficult.

[22]   The difficulty is not a question of mere miscommunication that could be remedied through straightforward explanation. These discrepant perceptions stand in a position of power to one another. Certain perceptions are institutionally backed and eclipse other sets of perceptions. Taking stock of subordinate perceptions requires countenancing the dominant set of perceptions, since the latter are so prominent in the conceptual horizon of subordinate people. For women who work as prostitutes, even if they find the dominant perception of the connections among violence, space, rape, and their identity to be ridiculous, they have to take stock of that perception, to know that perception, to live with it.

[23]   Tracy Quan, in speaking to the question of difference in the forms of violence to which prostitutes are at risk, also writes of the difficulties of being heard as she intends. Yet the meanings she intends are quite different from those of Barbara or Debra:

The darker side of sex is something I accept but try to protect myself against. Rape is always a danger. What prostitute in her right mind believes it can ever be totally eradicated? There are just too many guys who would like to get it for free — and some will go to lengths, brutal lengths. This is obvious to a woman who puts a price on sex. But this is not a desk job devoid of physical risks. The dangers of prostitution — that a hooker might meet up with a murderous kook, that a condom might break and she could contract AIDS — are often presented as reasons to get out of prostitution. But a woman who becomes a fire fighter is applauded for taking “non-traditional” risks with her life. She is expected to wear all the right gear and advance into fire. I acknowledge risks and take steps to minimize them, but life is never risk-free. Being brave enough to understand this is integral to self-protection. There is nothing darker than ignorance, or a false sense of security (35).

Quan, a representative of the organization PONY, pointedly distinguishes her job and her identity from those of other women. “This” she says, “is not a desk job devoid of physical risks.” Violence is intrinsic to working as a prostitute. Prostitutes run a risk since they go with the men outside of the public eye. Quan concedes the risks of contracting AIDS, of being raped or battered or tortured or even killed. Nevertheless, she gives a different understanding of what the risks mean from Giobbe’s. Giobbe sees prostitution as a system that terrorizes women as it is structured to oppress them. The danger is built in:

There are thousands of books and classes that provide women with information on self-defense or rape “avoidance” strategies. Some of the basic lessons they teach us are not to walk alone at night on dark deserted streets, not to get into cars with strange men, not to pick up guys in a bar, not to let even the delivery man into your home when you’re by yourself. Yet this is what the “job” of prostitution requires; that women put themselves in jeopardy every time they turn a trick. And then we ask “How do you prevent it from leading to danger?” The answer is, you can’t. Count the bodies (Giobbe 1991:34).

One of the significant elements of the discourse among prostitutes is a debate about rape: whether prostitutes can have sex without being raped. The different strands of the argument are important for a deep and textured understanding of what counts as rape. Giobbe sees rape as intrinsic to what happens to prostitutes, as an inevitability given what prostitution requires.

[24]   Quan, on the other hand, describes the work in terms of presenting a challenge to her character and to her courage. Entering those private spaces where there could be a kook and where the distance will be systematically violated is like “advanc[ing] into a fire.” She puts herself in situations of risk but tries to prepare for them, knowing that she is subjecting herself to danger. She continues,

When I first started hooking, I didn’t know that sex could bring danger with it. One of my first clients asked if he could tie me up, and I readily agreed because I had no understanding of his fantasy’s deeper implications. As soon as I was unable to move, I got scared because I didn’t know this man at all — and my stupidity became very clear. Although he didn’t threaten my life or hurt me, I found the experience terrifying enough not to let it happen again (35).

This john’s fantasy was precisely to play on the norms of civil society. He asked if he could tie her up. Quan realized that what had begun as play-acting of a state of lawlessness could turn into real lawlessness, where he could batter her, take her money, rape her, torture her. It was as if he were taking a fantastic tour of the state of nature, but could at any time impose real violence on her. Quan glosses the danger as something that can be known, minimized, prepared for, not allowed to happen. Giobbe, on the other hand, sees the dangers as something one survives. The description of prostitutes, that each sets forth, is paradigmatically different from the other. One equips oneself to cross-spaces like a firefighter entering a fire. The other survives those spaces the way one survives a concentration camp, prison, or a rape.

[25]   Both fundamentally contradict the interpretation of prostitution supplied by liberalism (Pateman 1988; Sanchez 1997, 1997a). In fact, the situations they feel themselves in when they are with johns more closely approximate the state of war of all against all. Quan tacitly supports this construction of the “prostitute” as thrown out of the protections of civil society when she bemoans the vicious perceptions people have and the mendacious and dangerous assumptions that prosecutors hold that is based on an erasure of violence against prostitutes:

Supporters of the young men accused of raping the Central Park jogger accused her of being a prostitute — as though the rape of a prostitute, or an ordeal that left a prostitute nearly dead, should be of less concern to our legal system than any other violent crime. Prostitutes often find this to be the case, of course, since many prosecutors assume that all prostitutes are liars (Quan 1991:29).

[26]   If the public speech of the prostitute is assumed to be untrustworthy, then to speak in public as a prostitute is to have one’s words count as nothing. To have one’s speech regarded in this way could only be a violence that would be both twin and prop to other psychic or physical violence one experiences as a prostitute. In their charter statement, the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights (ICPR) demands legal recognition and relief from rape and other forms of sexual harassment:

Within the context of prostitution, women are sometimes raped or sexually harassed by the police, by their clients, by their managers, and by strangers who know them to be whores. Prostitute women, like non-prostitute women, consider rape to be any sexual act forced upon them. The fact that prostitutes are available for sexual negotiation does not mean that they are available for sexual harassment or rape. The ICPR demands that the prostitute be given the same protection from rape and the same legal recourse and social support following rape that should be the right of any woman or man. . . Battering of prostitutes, like battering of non-prostitutes, reflects the subordination of women to men in personal relationships. Laws against such violence are often discriminately and/or arbitrarily enforced. The ICPR affirms the right of all women to relational choice and to recourse against violence within any personal or work setting (ICPR 1994:137).

The ICPR think that prostitutes should be treated the same as other women and men should be. They point out a paradox about their public speech and then act within the paradox: As I cited them above, they observe that their public speech is not taken as credible. But here they affirm their legal rights and demand legal protections. Yet as they themselves observe, their discursive position is one in which their words are assumed to be invalid. Are they involved in a performative contradiction?

[27]   Parenthetically, the issue of legalization is an important subtext here as they maneuver this contradiction. Some prostitutes believe that a remedy to the dangers would be equal protection under the laws, laws that are currently either unequally enforced or as written unfair to prostitutes. At the same time, many prostitutes argue that the legal system itself is oppressive; some of the women in this latter camp advocate education and reform, while others see the legal system as antithetical to their well being, to their voices, their possibilities — it is bankrupt and incapable of being reformed. A full exploration of the issue of legalization is beyond the scope of this essay.(But see e.g. Nagle 1999; Delacoste and Alexander, 1987).

[28]   The strategy the ICPR employs has important implications for a political theory concerned with forging a space where women can testify to violence. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge are two theorists concerned with developing public space where the proletariat can articulate experience and voice positions. According to them, the proletariat also runs into difficulty if he or she tries to use the public sphere as his or her venue. Though the logic of their argument is different, they echo the ICPR’s worry that public speech is perilous for oppressed peoples:

The public sphere . . . lies, without a doubt, far outside the proletarian context of living; it provides new, largely technical experience, which relates to the functioning of individual social forces. It is possible for the worker to have new individual experiences here; however, none of the barriers of his [sic] libidinal structure, of language, of socially recognized modes of intercourse are torn down. He has increasingly distanced himself from the production process, yet neither alone nor with the aid of the organization at his disposal is he able to set in motion to a sufficient degree new production processes, whose object is, for instance, the production of social relationships among people. What is more, after a while he comes to the conclusion that he is dragging around inside himself the proletarian context of living, with which both his experiences and the blocking of this experience are bound. Thus prepared, he encounters a universal fact of the labor movement experience: as soon as the worker participates in the bourgeois public sphere, once he has won elections, taken up union initiatives, he is confronted by a dilemma. He can make only “private” use of a public sphere that has disintegrated into a mere intermediary sphere. The public sphere operates according to this rule of private use, not according to the rules whereby the experiences and class interests of workers are organized. The interests of workers appear in the bourgeois public sphere as nothing more than a gigantic, cumulative “private interest” not as a collective mode of production for qualitatively new forms of public sphere and public consciousness. To the extent that the interests of the working class are no longer formulated and represented as genuine and autonomous interests vis-à-vis the bourgeois public sphere, betrayal by individual representatives of the labor movement ceases to be an individual problem. It is not a question of an individual’s strength of character. In wanting to use the mechanisms of the bourgeois public sphere for their cause, such representatives become, objectively, traitors to the cause they are representing (1993 [1972]: 7; emphasis added).

Negt and Kluge argue that the discursive architecture of the public sphere entails, requires disloyalty to the proletariat’s own set of experiences, projects, because his or her whole context of living is bracketed as a set of concerns extraneous to public life. Even when the proletariat wins access to the public sphere, he or she still loses. For Fredric Jameson, the originality of Negt and Kluge resides in their analysis of the alienation of “experience” within public speech:

What is significant about Negt and Kluge’s extension of the notion of the public sphere, however, is that, while continuing to include the institutional referents of Habermas’ history, they seek to widen it in such a way as to secure its constitutive relationship to the very possibility of social or individual experience in general. The structure of the “public sphere” is now seen as what enables experience, or on the other hand limits and cripples it; this structure also determines that fundamental modern pathology whereby “experience” is itself sundered, its uneven torn halves assigned to stereotypical public expressions on the one hand, and on the other to that zone of the personal and the private, which seems to offer shelter from the public and political at the same time that it is itself a social fact that those produce (Jameson 1993).

Different subaltern groups, including women who work as prostitutes and the proletariat, register a self-conscious ambivalence towards the public sphere given its limitations as an avenue for authentic, unalienated speech.

[29]   The ambivalence is heightened by the knowledge that such speech is rarely given an adequate hearing. For if bringing one’s experience to articulation is difficult, a person’s speech nevertheless means little if enunciated in spaces where it is marked as illegitimate, unreliable, self-serving, or where its content is overdetermined as meaningless or as concocted. In the case of women who work as prostitutes, ICPR suggests their public speech is marked as a consequence of who they are as speakers. Debi Sundahl, a stripper and founder of the lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs expresses frustration with being ostracized because of her practices. She links education and the ability to communicate as key preconditions for recognition and consideration of sex workers’ voices and identities:

I for one am tired of being the moral guardian of male sexuality and of suffering ostracism and condemnation if I choose to be sexually active or sexually autonomous. Sex education and the ability to communicate about all aspects of sex is essential to fostering social respect for sex workers as well as respect for personal sexual choice and expression. Like many oppressed minorities, we have suffered under the assumption that we must be protected from ourselves. The quasi-illegal and illegal nature of our work robs us of the power to define and control the conditions under which we are employed. We know better than anyone what is healthy and what is not healthy about our work (Sundahl 120:1994).”

Sundahl writes that the legal conditions under which sex workers work rob them of the power of self-determination and definition of the conditions of work. Given the difficulties she faces in being heard, part of the challenge for her project to define and control the conditions under which she and others work is to prepare the communicative situation. This brings us back to the concern raised by Negt and Kluge. The public sphere is not amenable to the context of living of sex workers, hence voicing in that sphere promotes self-betrayal. Though as several women point out above, the contradictions of public speech for prostitutes are complicated not only by the disjunction between their context of living and the requirements of public speech, but also by their identity.

[30]   Sundahl provides an account of the contexts that frame her identity that forces a rupture in a univocal account of the meanings associated with different spaces that sex workers occupy. She gives a much different version of what spaces are safe or objectionable from that of other women I have cited — of which spaces permit certain perceptions of her that she would object to in other circumstances. Studying how she discerns and differentiates these different spaces prevents abstraction by giving a concrete description of violence faced by women:

The hardest part of the job was dealing with my feminist principles concerning the objectification of women. Dancing nude is the epitome of woman as sex object. As the weeks passed, I found I liked being a sex object, because the context was appropriate. I resent being treated as a sex object on the street or at the office. But as an erotic dancer, that is my purpose. I perform to turn you on, and if I fail, I feel I’ve done a poor job. Women who work in the sex industry are not responsible for, nor do they in anyway perpetuate, the sexual oppression of women. In fact, to any enlightened observer, our very existence provides a distinction and a choice as to when a woman should be treated like a sex object and when she should not be. At the theater, yes; on the street, no (Sundahl 1994:118).

Sundahl likes being treated as a sexual object in adult theaters; indeed, she implies that in (sex) theaters, women should be treated as sex objects (although it is not clear whether she is referring to all women who happen to be in sex theaters or just sex workers in sex theaters). In a way strangely consonant with liberal beliefs, she sees sex workers as providing the paradigmatic example of choice, since (as I interpret her) they choose in what context they want to be, and therefore whether they want to be treated as a sexual object. Both Quan and Sundahl challenge the idea of an immutable identity independent of context. According to them, not only their identity, but also their sense of boundaries, how they want to be perceived, and their choices, shift in different situations.

[31]   It ought to be pointed out that in terms of danger and oppression, Quan and Sundahl, having acknowledged the dangers, are at a disadvantage in arguing that they prepare for them or that they otherwise choose to put themselves in those situations. For even if they have not been violently assaulted, raped or killed, they remain vulnerable to that kind of attack. Given their mitigated positions as sex workers, they themselves remark that they are in little position to do anything about it. They both insist on one issue: prostitutes possess agency. They can perform well or poorly, they can take safety precautions or not; both take their job as something in which they can take pride.

[32]   Giobbe dissents. In giving multiple examples of the systematic misinterpretation given to her identity, she countermands the notion that working as a prostitute is something in which a woman has control. Pace Sundahl, Giobbe does not hold women responsible. Their status exemplifies a form of oppression, but Giobbe does not hold them responsible for it. She puts forward her position to underscore the necessity of including prostitutes in the battered women’s movement. In a written account taken down apparently from a speech, she testifies:

    I’m a survivor of prostitution. Three years ago that term didn’t exist. Women who’d been abused like I’d been abused for eleven years of my life were called whores. Women who were abused like I’d been abused were called sex industry workers. Women like myself who escaped prostitution now have named ourselves as survivors. Between the ages of 13,14,15,16, when adult men paid for the right to rape me while I cried, when the family court system finally caught up with me, I wasn’t labeled as a survivor and offered support. I was labeled as a delinquent and I was put in jail, while the men who paid for the right to rape this child were free to roam the streets and pay for the right to rape other children when they weren’t availing themselves of their own children in their homes. After I was locked up for my own protection in what I like to call “kid hell” — that was the House of Detention in New York for juveniles — I was raped again by staff members.

When I ran away from there for my own safety and ended up back in the streets and in prostitution and turned 18 years old, I was still not called a survivor. Now I was told that I was a career woman, embarked on a glamorous career. What I’d like to say here today is that women who are in prostitution, myself and my sisters with me in WHISPER [Women Hostage In Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt], have been subjected to the same abuse that every battered woman has spoken about in this room, except men paid for the right to do it. It’s not a job. We’re abused, and we need help in the movement. (Giobbe, quoted in Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women Service Groups, Inc. 1992:70).

Giobbe is providing important testimony on the abuse faced by women who work in prostitution. She is also commenting with bitter irony on the abusive character of the institutions that were supposed to help her, provide shelter, protect her. Implicitly, she is also framing prostitutes as social subjects who experience enormous abuse. I would like to emphasize the performative aspect of this counterpublic utterance. On the level of rhetoric, Giobbe’s work might be interpreted by some as simply supplying a descriptor for women: viz, as victims (that is, as young girls, as passive, as injured subjects, as a call for retreat, and so on) (see Berlant 1997 for a critique of anti-pornography feminists along these lines).

[33]   Instead, I interpret Giobbe’s work as speaking within a feminist counterpublic, an outraged condemnation of prostitution’s construction of women. When Giobbe says prostitutes are blank screens for the projection of male fantasies, surely it would require a tin ear and an overly literal imagination to think that she really thinks of herself as a blank screen (indeed, she would be caught in a pragmatic contradiction). Instead, she is condemning a construction of reality that has constructed her that way. But she is not a fatalist, she is an activist. Her words are intended to expose, condemn, exhort, incite.

[34]   Evelina Giobbe is not providing a version of social subjects as infantilized (Berlant 1997). She is providing a description of women like herself moving through multiple institutions. Each institution, each space, had a different construction of her, meanings were attached to her that had concrete implications for her identity. But she is also — and this must be emphasized — enlisting support of activists to stop violence against women who are marginal in the society, women particularly vulnerable in many ways to abuse, including institutional abuse. In the context in which she is speaking — a space where battered women were naming the violence against them — she claims a space as a battered woman, a survivor of prostitution, someone who needs help in the movement. And in that context, she makes an important transition, making a case for inclusion in a movement against violence composed largely of non-prostitutes: “Women who are in prostitution, myself and my sisters with me in WHISPER [Women Hostage In Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt], have been subjected to the same abuse that every battered woman has spoken about in this room, except men paid for the right to do it. It’s not a job. We’re abused, and we need help in the movement.”

[35]   Now, that she was abused by men who paid (that surely was not her only difference from other battered women) would seem to make the violence itself different. What would otherwise appear to be the same thing means different things depending on whether your batterer is your husband and rapes you in your bedroom or the person is a stranger who has paid your pimp and rapes you in a car — or in the back of a police station. The resources available, the accounts you can give of the violence, as well as the meanings of the acts themselves, the places where people will validate your account, and who those people are, are different in each case. Even the cognitive operations that institutionally deny the appellation of “rape” in each case are subtly different. A prostitute who claims a police officer raped her lacks credibility since she is seen as an unreliable witness, regardless of the validity of her claim. A wife, on the other hand, might be denied claim to being raped by her husband because of the nature of the agreement between them; even when it is legally possible to prosecute a husband for raping his wife, as it is in some states, it is conceptually difficult to lend credence to that account (cf. Benedict 1992 on the case of the Rideouts; Russell 1990). The meaning of the violence is contextually driven.

[36]   So, why is it that Giobbe, even after giving every evidence of the particularities of her own history, nevertheless refers to her experiences as fundamentally the same as those of other battered women? This question is a painful and complicated one and I pose it with care. The pain that forms the background to the question has a lot to do with its imbrication with questions of identity, and a host of questions that that engenders: how expansive or restricted one’s identity is, what motivates identification with which other people, in what contexts, who you are when you identify with someone unlike yourself, what the cognitive operation is, and what the implications are for continuity and discontinuity of one’s own sense of self and one’s group identity.

[37]   Giobbe is claiming a common identity with people different from her. I want to think about the cultural and political consequences of that kind of identification, as well as the logics that govern that identification. Ideologies of commonality pervade American political discourse and are also internalized by battered women who voice ideologies — although they have nothing to gain from these ideologies that level their experience as battered women and hence are responsible for the erasure of those experiences.

[38]   What I am calling ideologies of commonality are a contributing feature, but what I have come to realize is there is more to it. Rather than see identification as merely the function of ideology, the impulse to negate the particularity of one’s own experience in many of these cases also can also be attributed, at least in part, to a process of self-abstraction characteristic of public voicing (cf Warner 1993). I suspect that certain demands of the “public,” particularly when people are seeking to form a coalition against violence against women, pressure women to assume a posture and articulate a position that belies their own first-hand experiences and perceptions of violence.

A set of questions takes this conundrum in the direction of its resolution:

Who are you when you speak in public?

What identity are you claiming when you claim an identity with other battered women?

Are there contexts, understandings, theories of and for communication and political decision-making that we should look to?

Is the concept of a “counterpublic” a useful and helpful one in clarifying the communicative possibilities?

Bringing in the voices of women who work as prostitutes is a performative that denies their erasure, the evacuation of their subjectivity. They have already voiced their positions, vociferously, over the course of years, and in many different contexts. What Giobbe has done is to align herself with non-prostitutes, and seek recognition for her abuse through describing it as the same as that experienced by other women who do not work as prostitutes. How does one weigh the political consequences of this strategy? Here Michael Warner’s description of public subjectivity is instructive:

As the subjects of publicity its “hearers,” “speakers,” “viewers,” and “doers” we have a different relation to ourselves, a different affect, from that which we have in other contexts. No matter what the particularities of culture, race, gender, or class we bring to bear on public discourse, the moment of apprehending something as public is one in which we imagine if imperfectly indifference to those particularities, to ourselves. We adopt the attitude of the public subject, marking to ourselves our nonidentity with ourselves (1993:234).

Warner insists that in speaking as a subject in public, we adopt an attitude of indifference to our own particularity. We speak as abstract subjects. In his account, that is a condition for the possibility of voicing in the public sphere. Speaking as a public subject means bracketing our particularities of race, culture, gender, as private interests. Negt and Kluge put the point slightly differently:

Having experience within this public sphere means to have dominant knowledge — a specialized knowledge of how to exploit this public sphere properly. This knowledge includes the capacity to cloak the immediate fractionalized interests of capital in the form of an imagined sovereignty, a feigned collective will. (1993 [1972]:11)

They see the public subject as possessive of an alien experience — that of dominant knowledge, which includes that instrumental knowledge of how to comport oneself in order to take best advantage of the public sphere within the logic of bourgeois liberalism.

[39]   Warner thinks we have a different relation to ourselves, a relationship of nonidentity, as we speak in public. Is Warner right? Do battered prostitutes, then, face a cruel either/or: to speak as a prostitute and experience the icy frost of having one’s identity overdetermine one’s speech as false, or to speak as another, and to engage in a rhetoric of disincorporation?

[40]   Tracy Quan also addresses forthrightly the antinomies of her identity, recognizing the contradictions of public speech even as she valorizes her identity:

. . . I am in favor of decriminalization, yet enjoy the mystique that surrounds outlaw status. I may turn up my nose at women too prissy to turn tricks — but I myself am too chicken to work the streets. I am angry with feminist prostitutes who have come out against the profession itself, but I am not completely “out” as a Prostitute. Decriminalization has been my pet issue, but illegality helped to form the identity I’m so proud of (Quan 1991:35).

She points to the tie between identity and context, the complex way in which her identity has been formed by working illegally. The ambiguities, self-conscious contradictions, and the ironies she takes as central not only to her politics but also, one senses, as things she embraces as intrinsic to her character. She positions herself haughtily vis-à-vis women who are not prostitutes, yet her own sense of boundaries makes her fearful of the streets. She writes articles like the one from which I have just quoted, yet she does not identify publicly as a prostitute. In this last sense, then, she perhaps does not so much confirm the awful either/or that I articulated above of engaging in disincorporation or self-erasure, so much as evade the issue by not identifying publicly as a prostitute. On the other hand, her speech act, “I am not completely ‘out’ as a Prostitute” gestures towards being a performative contradiction, except insofar as she is referring to other contexts, besides the public nature of coming out in print media, which is certainly a public sphere (cf. Warner 1990). She also may be being ironic, in playing with the obvious contradiction.

[41]   Prima facie, Quan stands in contrast to Giobbe in claiming her outlaw status. But she, too, finds herself in a contradictory position, where discourse and identity are in tension. WHISPER, ICPR, PONY, the different voices — and different positions — give fabric to the question of difference — difference not only among women, but also among women who work as prostitutes. Each position addresses itself to a different agenda, a different set of values, and a different problematic. Each has a different understanding of the agency they confer upon prostitutes (or find lacking in prostitution). Each takes stock of the context of violence in which prostitutes operate, but the institutions, mechanisms, groups from which they hope to wrest support are different. They are speaking in part to develop political support for there position, but their audience and goals are different and often multiple: they may be trying to win support from the law, from the movement against violence against women, or from the public opinion at large.

Does the concept of a counterpublic sphere help in fixing a space where communication across difference would be possible?

Two Accounts of “The Counterpublic”

[42]   In order to consider whether it provides a viable framework, we first need to designate the communicative contours of “counterpublic.” Two versions of counterpublic are already emerging in the discourse of women who work as prostitutes. One fixes a sphere or zone for oppressed people or groups in which they forge solidarity through commonality, whether through common experience of oppression, through identity claims, or through common interest. Giobbe seems to take part in this account of the counterpublic sphere when she makes a claim based on sameness. A second version of the counterpublic would not be predicated on sameness, but rather find its possibility housed at the liminal moments of insight born of inner tensions, struggle, multiple consciousness, and an openness to new identities founded in discourse and out of incipient forms of solidarity, often marked by irony. I see this latter version present in the discourse of Tracy Quan and in the language and positions taken by the ICPR.

Version I: Counterpublics and Commonality

[43]   Rita Felski, in her book Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, designates a counterpublic sphere that will be a feminist domain in contradistinction to the masculinist public sphere of Habermas:

The women’s movement has offered one of the most dynamic examples of a counter-ideology in recent years to have generated an oppositional public arena for the articulation of women’s needs in critical opposition to the values of a male-defined society. Like the original bourgeois public sphere, the feminist public sphere constitutes a discursive space which defines itself in terms of a common identity; here it is the shared experience of gender-based oppression which provides the mediating factor intended to unite all participants beyond their specific differences… it constitutes a partial or counterpublic sphere; as in the case of other oppositional communities defined in terms of racial or ethnic identity or sexual preference, the experience of discrimination, oppression, and cultural dislocation provides the impetus for the development of a self-consciously oppositional identity. Yet insofar as it is a public sphere, its arguments are also directed outward, toward a dissemination of feminist ideas and values throughout society as a whole (1989:165).

Felski is quite explicit in her premises for the counterpublic sphere:

1) It is defined in terms of a common identity.

1a) In this case, the common identity rests on a shared experience; specifically of:

1b) Gender based oppression.

2) The arguments generated within this sphere are directed towards the greater society.

[44]   Her account of a counterpublic seems to capture the discursive strategy of Giobbe’s plea for inclusion with other battered women in the fight against violence against women. I refer to Giobbe saying that prostitutes are subjected to “the same” forms of violence as those of other battered women. As Felski describes it, the stipulation of a shared experience is a necessary component of a counterpublic. As Felski writes, “Some form of appeal to collective identity and solidarity is a necessary precondition for the emergence and effectiveness of an oppositional movement (Felski 1989:168).” The consequences of this stipulation are important. The aim of political movement, the strategy of its rhetoric, the style of its activism, the assumptions made about the participants in the struggle, what connects them and the importance of the differences among them are all significantly affected when one makes the assumption of (or otherwise insists upon) commonality of a movement’s members and their experiences. Differences are suppressed, people who fall outside of the domain are at risk of having their experiences distorted or excluded. Felski does seek to house difference within a feminist counterpublic when she promises that she does not understand it as a unified interpretive community governed by a single set of norms and values.” So, a sociologically based model of feminist theory and practice that grounds its analysis in a recognition of the empirically diverse constitution of this feminist public sphere rather than in an abstract model of a gendered identity or a gendered text is thus able to account for the plurality of feminist practices as shaped by the conflicting interests of its members (10-11).” This account of a feminist counterpublic is consistent with how she thinks all counterpublics differ from Habermas’ canonical account of a bourgeois public sphere. She writes of counterpublics that:

… their emancipatory project no longer appeals to an idea of universality but is directed toward an affirmation of specificity in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual preference, and so on. They seek to define themselves against the homogenizing and universalizing logic of the global megaculture of modern mass communication as a debased pseudopublic sphere, and to voice needs and articulate oppositional values which the ‘culture industry’ fails to address. These new sites of oppositionality are multiple and heterogeneous and do not converge to form a single revolutionary movement (Felski 1989:166 emphasis in the original).

Nevertheless, Felski herself clearly thinks a necessary starting point is a commitment to commonality and representative experiences of women as the ideal of a counterpublic, even as she contradictorily acknowledges the utopian and repressivedimensions of such a thought. She remarks that this can be constricting, since this step is often attained by a suspension of other forms of difference, an erasure felt most painfully by those whose unequal status and particular needs are suppressed by the fiction of a unifying identity” (168). Yet she lays down the gauntlet: feminist theorists who reject any notion of a unifying identity as a repressive fiction in favor of a stress on absolute difference fail to show how such diversity and fragmentation can be reconciled with goal-oriented struggles based upon common interests” (169).

Version II: Counterpublics and Contradiction

[45]   Is difference always “absolute difference”? Is stressing commonality the only alternative to marking difference? Commonality is not a necessary ground for a counterpublic. Difference need not be irreconcilable or absolute. A counterpublic ought to make room for multiple voicings, even multiple projects within a communicative sphere. What I would like to venture is that a counterpublic that does fully countenance difference and constitutes itself in terms of that recognition is not only possible but preferable to one based upon commonality. Rather than being predicated within a utopian commitment, counterpublics, that do after all actually obtain, need to be pliant enough to countenance both the enormous differences among participants as well as offering a space to theorize subtleties of difference as well, even while claiming solidarity across those differences.

[46]   Here the example of the actual discursive practices of women in prostitution enacts this constitution of a counterpublic. Many prostitutes testify to differences in experience, especially between women who work as prostitutes and those who do not. But they also point out the significant differences among different prostitutes and how consequential those differences are. Nell, an African-American who works as a prostitute, testifies both to the tie between space and identity and how that tie is given different readings:

I think there are class-divisions in prostitution. It breaks down around race, but also class background. I am in an elite position because some friends who had worked for years on the street built up a different kind of clientele, businessmen. When they stopped working, they passed their clientele on to me. That’s the only reason I got into this position. When I thought about hooking before, I always thought I’d go to go-go places, massage parlors, and street walking. I thought those were the avenues open to me. I identify more with women on the streets, because we share the same background.

When people talk about hookers and whores, they don’t mind the women who are on call, you know, the women who have clientele, it’s the women on the street they nab on. They’re the ones who get so much shit. When they attack them, they’re attacking me. I grew up in projects, and when people start talking about black people and women on the streets, it gets into a whole lot of racism, and sexism, and shit they don’t understand. It makes me angry. That’s why I defend all whores and all women on the streets (Nell and Alexander 1987:53).

Nell draws attention to location. Some hookers and whores are on the street. They are in massage parlors. Elite women with a clientele are not found in those spaces. Within the spatial distinction is an encoded class and racial distinction. The elites have a “different kind of clientele, business men,” from streetwalkers.

[47]   The distinctions that Nell draws, however, are not uncontested. Evelina Giobbe comments:

My experience in prostitution gives the lie to . . . common beliefs about the hierarchy of prostitution, the streets being the worst-case scenario and call service being the best. As for my well-heeled clientele and their fancy hotel suites, all I can say is, whether you turn tricks in a car by the Holland tunnel or in the Plaza Hotel, you still have to take off your clothes, get on your knees or lie on your back, and let this stranger use you in any way he pleases. Then you have to get up, get dressed, and do it again with the next trick, and the next (Giobbe 1991:32).”

For Nell, on the other hand, the differences between whores and hookers on the street and those on call is not merely a question of semantics nor a false distinction; the form of life is different, the women are different, the space is different, the danger is greater as women on the street are singled out, relatively speaking, for attack. This spatial relation is also connected to a distinction in people’s thinking between women who are on call and streetwalkers. It is the latter that “get so much shit,” are “talked about.” Nell draws a clear connection between space, perception, and violence: “When people talk about hookers and whores, they don’t mind the women who are on call, you know, the women who have clientele, it’s the women on the street they nab on. They’re the ones who get so much shit.” Note here that she is making a claim about popular perception of prostitutes and its implications. She does not address the question of whether call girls are treated any better by johns than streetwalkers are. Streetwalkers are the ones who are nabbed, as they are perceptually distinguished from women on call. Her claim for inclusion is not based on sameness.

[48]   Nell points out that when people talk about black people and women on the street, they are talking about “shit they don’t understand.” The communicative situation is one in which the different forms of oppression, including sex work, race, and gender — and their interconnections — are not fully fathomed by all participants in the discursive exchange.

[49]   Given this state of affairs, the character of the speech, the meanings attributed to it, the identities that a person inhabits or claims, may be perceived or interpreted in ways inimical to the speaker. Despite the distance, physical as well as conceptual, Nell complicates the politics still further by claiming solidarity across this space. The conditions of claiming identity with another, what it means in terms of one’s own identity, how space and violence can be fought against, transformed, as well as what ‘solidarity’ means, on whose terms, and with what depth it is held, are central concerns for working towards solutions against violence against women (Also see Crimp 1993). Nell seeks to strike solidarity while affirming difference and acknowledging the power at play in hierarchies among prostitutes.

[50]   Is the “shared experience” of oppression really a requisite for a counterpublic? The requirement that experience must be shared excludes many women and on that count alone it is politically misguided. More subtle and insidious but no less unfortunate than the exclusions consequent on this conceptualization of the counterpublic is that others’ experiences are reworked and their identities recast as they give voice to their positions within that counterpublic. A call for solidarity that levels one’s particularity in favor of a subject that is common to all is, as Warner alerts us, a call to participate in a rhetoric of disincorporation. This is not to say that calls for solidarity are tantamount to self-betrayal, since solidarity does not necessitate the category of the “public” or public voicing.

[51]   So, then, if a speaker denies the differences, as Giobbe seems to, is that speaker engaging in public self-betrayal?

Counterpublics and Multiple Consciousnesses as Discursive Method

[52]   Judging Giobbe as engaging in self-betrayal may be overhasty. Though she does identify herself as the same as other battered women and minimizes the importance of differences among prostitutes, it would bespeak wooden theorizing if we did not look deeper for the method in Giobbe’s self-positioning. What we need is a more flexible theory of discourse so that we can attend to the rhetorical positions taken by different women who work as prostitutes, including Giobbe, the ICPR, and Quan. The legal theorist Mari Matsuda has adroitly theorized the multiple consciousnesses of women of color and other outsiders to the law and recommended that multiple consciousnesses be viewed as a valuable jurisprudential method. According to her account, what would otherwise seem inconsistent positions taken or voiced by outsiders in fact make perfect sense; indeed, they are characteristic of a valuable jurisprudence. She takes as one example Angela Davis’s denouncing the authority of the law courts during her trial in the 1970’s even as she made her case to the jury within it:

There are times to stand outside the courtroom door and say “this procedure is a farce, the legal system is corrupt, justice will never prevail in this land as long as privilege rules in the courtroom.” There are times to stand inside the courtroom and say ‘this is a nation of laws, laws recognizing fundamental values of rights, equality and personhood.’ Sometimes, as Angela Davis did, there is a need to make both speeches in one day. Is that crazy? Inconsistent? Not to Professor Davis, a Black woman on trial for her life in racist America. It made perfect sense to her, and to the twelve jurors good and true who heard her when she said, your government lies, but your law is above such lies (Matsuda 1989:8).

Matsuda advocates fluidity in engaging in practices includingdiscursive practices, practices that may contain contradictions. This fluidity is made comprehensible through acknowledging one’s multiple consciousnesses. Cynthia Young has pointed out a similar phenomenon in the discourse of the Black Panthers, who would liken themselves to the Founding Fathers in public speech and then positioned themselves as quite opposed to the Founding Fathers in other contexts (oral communication).

[53]   Correspondingly, Giobbe’s bid for inclusion-based-on-sameness, or the ICPR’s ambivalent attitude towards the law may be interpreted as exemplifying the multiple consciousness they possess. It makes sense, in other words, that the ICPR would declaim publicly their inability to be heard publicly. The contradiction may be part of their situation. Their words may moreover be a rhetorical gesture, a necessary provocation, a conscientious weighing of the discursive options and making intervention at the risk that their words will be misinterpreted or discounted. They may be speaking against silence. According to Matsuda, multiple voicing resulting from multiple consciousness may be not only judicious, but also a necessary survival mechanism.

Professor Davis’s decision to use a dualist approach to a repressive legal system may very well have saved her life. Not only did she tap her history and consciousness as a Black, a woman, and a communist, she did so with intent and awareness. Her multiple consciousnesses were not a mystery to her, but a well-defined and acknowledged tool of analysis, one that she was able to share with the jury. (1989:9)

[54]   Taking account of multiple consciousnesses as grounding a sophisticated rhetoric of public speech does not mean we approach such speech or public performance of identity uncritically. People do engage in strategies that can have bad consequences. Giobbe is an influential activist who has done much to bring attention to the situation of battered prostitutes. Her work and her writing have been noteworthy and stalwart, justifiably meriting attention. Her claim to identity with other battered women helps structure the shape of the movement to end violence against all women. One could suggest that the form her bid for inclusion takes has the consequence of buttressing the idea of homogeneity in the movement homogeneity of movement, of location, of what it means to be a woman, of what forms violence against women take. What is elided, in other words, is what difference means and how it operates, to paraphrase Joan Scott.

[55]   It is crucial to understand rhetorical strategies and resistance to domination given the complex and often painful exigencies of voicing for oppressed peoples. Attention to those voicings in all their tonalities and shows of resistance serves would be a precondition to creating an interpretive framework supple enough to access the communicative complexity involved. This requires cultivating an ear for the highly contextualized subject positioning of different actors, including discursive positionings that ought to be critiqued. A theory of a counterpublic that would be adequate, furthermore, must make ample room and must provide a space critical of normative standards of credibility, acceptability, validity, and logic. Without that, the counterpublic would seem to me either to condemn or exclude some voices, while interpreting others within canonical understandings of what it means to be and to live as a battered woman.

Witness to Counterpublics — With a Caveat

[56]   The voices of battered women and battered prostitutes give an abundance of detail that belies attempts to simplify. The framing of the voices in a way that reveals the differences among them is an antidote to the tendency to see all violence against women as the same and as domestic. I advocate an emphasis ondifferences rather than diversity because of the way Homi Bhaba in a different context, distinguishes between cultural difference andcultural diversity. Though the differences we take up here do not seem to be particularly cultural, I do find his way of drawing distinctions quite helpful as we build a politics. As Homi Bhabha glosses it:

Cultural diversity is the recognition of pre-given cultural contents and customs; held in a time frame of relativism it gives rise to liberal notions of multiculturalism, cultural exchange or the culture of humanity. Cultural diversity is also the representation of a radical rhetoric of the separation of totalized cultures that live unsullied by the intertextuality of their historical locations, safe in the Utopianism of a mythic memory of a unique collective identity (Bhabha 1994:34-5).

Difference implies instead a “negation of the certitude in the articulation of new cultural demands, meanings, strategies in the political present” (Bhabha 1994:34-5). Incorporating voices of women who have faced violence counteracts the tendency to reduce prostitutes or lesbians each to a common type and focuses instead on the multiple voicings of location and direction, and the modalities of self-identification. The voices I have included give ample testimony to the multiplicity of positions, politics, and spatial trajectories, places of fear and places of safety. At the same time, they are taken to be all the same.

[57]   Conscious or not, attempts to homogenize or to exclude outright the voices of women who work in prostitution do not seem to me to be politically helpful. Looking at the narratives of how spaces are imbued with violence acts as a corrective to the impulse to see women, or subsets of women, as internally undifferentiated because the narratives complicate one’s understanding of violence towards countenancing difference.

[58]   Can one call a ‘counterpublic’ the discursive arena in which women working as prostitutes voice their accounts of violence? I think one can, as long as the version of ‘counterpublic’ countenances the contradictory logics that overdetermine prostitutes’ public speech as false; as long as one takes stock of the fact that many listeners are likely to begin by assuming that prostitutes cannot be raped, or that violence comes with the territory, or it is deserved. With that discursive context in mind, one can see and appreciate the innovative strategies that activists employ in order to register their voices. Some accounts of the counterpublic are helpful moreover in theorizing the formation of collective identity in a contestatory discursive domain. For example, Bruce Robbins proposes that ‘the public sphere’ could replace ‘culture’ as an important category for social analysis: “It serves as a critique of monolithic notions of power. . . This nuancing of power is a major benefit of thus rephrasing material more often and less consciously put in other vocabularies. Unlike ‘hegemony,’ the public sphere is less on the side of rule, more open to opposing views. Unlike ‘culture’ it is more obviously a site of intersections with other classes and cultures. . . To speak of a working class public sphere, as Negt and Kluge do, rather than working class culture is to stress a site of interaction and continuing self-formation rather than a given or self-sufficient body of ideas and practices distinguishing one from others. Public sphere invokes ‘identity,’ but does so with more emphasis on actions and their consequences than on the nature or characteristics of actors’ (Robbins 1993). I think one can endorse a version of the counterpublic, if it designates a discursive scene in which women who work in prostitution can try to make sense of their situations, communicate their interpretations of their situations, and forge solutions to the multiple forms of violence they face.

[59]   And as long as one’s analysis or political commitment does not stop there. The idea of a counterpublic is interesting only if one wants to take up the complicated voicings that exceed or contravene or move beyond or are at odds with conventional notions of “the public.” The counterpublic has its place. But it is not the only place. Many of the women I have cited observe in different ways that they are publicly denied any alternative identities or alternative contextual interpretations that would not only allow them to give accounts of the violence they face, but would also provide a space for a thoughtful hearing, critical engagement.

[60]   What of those places that do not conform to the “public” in counterpublic where they are heard? Commenting on Iris Marion Young’s pluralist public decision making situation, María Lugones comments, . . . [Young] doesn’t consider that their voice is thoroughly constituted by a marginalization in a way that is not negative” (Lugones 2000). Lugones recasts and re-frames voicings and identities formed outside of the public. She centers her focus on these outside spaces and their significance, rather than rendering them epiphenomenal to the centrality of a counterpublic sphere. She reminds us that sense making, meaning making in liminal spaces, private spaces, in the doorways and side streets need also hold our attention. Maria Lugones’ work has been helpful for theorizing contexts for voicings that operate outside of counterpublics, and the significance of those alternative contexts in the formation of rich, complex, resistant identities. Because they do not follow the same rules, these spaces offer possibilities resources for communication and action excluded by the logic of counterpublics:

Those who deviate from a particularly public path can’t be easily captivated by a linear sense of time and an abstract sense of space. Rather, they make use of tight relationally understood spaces or zoom out of tight spaces without horizons through a perspectival imagination that is guided neither by the standpoint of policy nor by the abstract realism of utopian visions… It seems to me to make sense that one needs to attend to the logics and politics of these alternative senses of space and time as one is addressing those resisting oppressions in an emancipatory vein.

[61]   Lugones enjoins us to look at alternative spaces that follow logics incommensurate with the logic of the public and to see their constitutive and politically rich capacities or potentialities. From the standpoint of the public, on the other hand, these spaces appear only as absence, remainder.

[62]   Like James Scott (1990) and Robin Kelley (1994), she sees these “hidden transcripts” of resistant behavior as operating contrapuntally to the counterpublic. Noticing the existence of the hidden transcript allows us to view public sphere speech as only telling part of the story. Scott uses the term “public transcript” as a “shorthand way of describing the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate. The public transcript, where it is not positively misleading, is unlikely to tell the whole story about power relations.” He avers to a politics of disguise and anonymity that takes place in public view but is designed to have a double meaning or to shield the identity of the actors. Rumor, gossip, folktales, jokes, songs, rituals, codes, euphemisms–a good part of folk culture of subordinate groups–fit this description (Scott 1990).”

[63]   This framework, premised on recognizing hidden transcript activity, allows us to understand two things. First, it marks the limits of public speech as the realm for the formation of identity and of politics. Lugones suggests that oppressed subjects do not achieve self-realization and autonomy merely or entirely through a process of public recognition of their subjectivities (2000). In positive terms, the hidden transcript points to a set of enormous discursive realms and alternative spaces. Second, even within the emphaticallypublic aspect of counterpublic spheres, public speech is quite possibly maneuver, dissimulation, and contestation of oppression by the subordinate. This realm of activity is unsanctioned and misread indeed, it is resistant to the logic of dominant public sphere discourse, even as it occurs within it. As Manuel Chávez (1998) argues a fortiori, it is in the best interest of the subordinate not to place her interests and desires transparently in the public political sphere because of possible punishment, distortion, and/or co-optation.

[64]   I would suggest, in conclusion, that the concept of counterpublics is useful, as long as one takes full stock of the significance of the realm of activity that occurs beyond it, as a necessary and inevitable counterpoint to the counterpublic, and as an antidote to reading communication within it naively as transparent to meaning, position, identity, and intention.


Acknowledgements: I wish to thank María Lugones, Elizabeth Povinelli and Anita Allen-Castellito for their formative suggestions, Ann Kibbey for her comments and encouragement, and finally participants in the Radical Interdisciplinary Dialogue and the Working Group on Resistant Methodologies at SUNY – Binghamton for their discussion of this material.


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