This week the story of Ched Evans, the Sheffield United footballer convicted of rape, has been all over the news. Debate has been centred around whether on release from prison he should get his old job back, and the feminist position has been largely that no, he shouldn’t: as a highly-paid footballer he has a privileged position as a role model to young people, especially boys, and his reinstatement would be to minimise the damage he has done and to reinforce a structural misogyny within football. There is broad agreement amongst feminists that the message this would send out would be detrimental to women as a whole.
Judging from the accounts of the case I have read, the 19 year-old victim was picked up in a drunken state by a man who then texted his friend that he’d ‘got a bird’. She was then taken to a pre-booked hotel room, where the first man had sex with her, and then the friend turned up and also had sex with her whilst some more friends filmed it. This part was rape because she was too drunk to consent. When she woke up in the morning she was alone in a strange room, wet with urine, and unable to remember what had happened the night before. She went to the police, and examination confirmed the sexual activity that had taken place.
These are the bare facts of the case, without projecting any assumptions about the victim’s feelings, which we can’t know. I am sure though that a lot of women reading this will be able to fill in the ‘feelings’ bit themselves, drawing on bad sexual experiences, or worse, in their own lives. Leaving aside the rape part of the story, these two men picked up a woman, used her for sex, and then left her on her own when they had finished with her. They planned it beforehand.
What I would like to know, from feminists who are pro-‘sex work’, is whether it would have made a tangible difference to their view of the men’s behaviour in this case, if they had paid money for what they did? Would the presence of a few crisp twenties on the bedside table make a substantive difference to what happened in that hotel bedroom? Would it have made a difference to the way the woman felt the next morning? Because this is essentially what happens in prostitution – the using of a woman for sex, without having to worry about her pleasure, or even her consent (”the money takes care of consent” right…?). In other words, is this the kind of male behaviour that can be legitimised by money: does money make it ok?
If it doesn’t: if you still feel that the kind of male behaviour on display should be discouraged in a civilised society, if not actively criminalised, then the issue of ‘sex-worker’ rights becomes more complicated. Respect for, and advocacy of, ‘sex-work’ is an intrinsic endorsement of pimps and punters too. You also cannot help but accidentally endorse the pimps and punters of prostituted and trafficked women and girls, and give them more power, because the rebranding of prostitution as ‘sex work’ lends it a sanitised respectability it otherwise would not have. I think the behaviour of those men in that hotel bedroom replicates the behaviour of a lot of men with prostitutes (it is not unknown for a footballer to book a hotel room and order a prostitute to go with it). If we can see that prostitute in the same way as we see that drunken teenager: with *outrage* that she can be treated like a piece of meat and then discarded, then how as feminists can we accept prostitution as a ‘job’ like any other?
I fully believe in the freedom of individuals to do as they wish with their own bodies, but when that choice is monetised, then in a capitalist society with its entrenched inequalities, it becomes the business of us all. There are laws on what we can and cannot sell, determined by morals and ethics. We already have laws on the limits of bodily choice – surrogacy, organ harvesting and assisted dying for example. A judgement is made concerning the basic rights of humanity, the right to bodily integrity, the right to be treated as a human being. Often the law is there because it recognises the potential for exploitation that occurs when you introduce a monetary reward: the law protects the most vulnerable, those least able to protect themselves: often the poorest, most marginalised in society, often women. The fact that ‘some people like it’ makes no difference to this argument. Why is it so difficult to take a consistent feminist stance where prostitution is concerned? I believe it is because it’s about sex. The insults people can hurl at you for taking a stance on anything to do with sex are often too painful to contemplate because they drive at your own private sexual insecurities. You will become all those things you really don’t want people to think you are: a prude, a sex-negative feminist, a whorephobe.
Some of the supporters of Ched Evans think they have irrefutable proof that he didn’t rape anyone: he could have ‘any woman he wanted’ so why would he need to rape? I disagree. I think the fact that he could have any woman he wanted makes it more likely that he would rape. When you have that high level of entitlement I think it is less likely that you will be able to recognise ‘lack of consent’ when it stares you in the face. Famously there have been professional footballers who cannot stop having sex with prostitutes, despite having a *gorgeous* wife or girlfriend back home. I think there is a power thing going on here, as much as a sex thing: the rise in the numbers of men visiting prostitutes has happened at the same time as an increase in women’s (comparative) sexual freedom. So there is more sex available for men in general: casual sex, hook-up sex, first date sex – but maybe what there is *less* of is non-consensual sex (rape exists even in marriage now! Imagine!). And maybe that is what prostitutes and drunken teenagers are for?
I would like pro-‘sex work’ feminists to look at this young woman’s experience and to make the connection between her and the prostituted women who experience this, and much worse, every day. If you have ever hashtagged ‘IBelieveHer’ about a rape victim, then please do the same with #ListenToSurvivors – they are not believed either, and they suffer too, and it hurts them every time a feminist uses the term ‘sex work’ to describe their torture. I will not use the term ‘sex work’ out of respect for survivors, and it’s time to stand up and be counted and to face the inevitable backlash from the very rich and powerful lobby that is the sex industry. I hope a few of my feminist friends will join me.