An Argument for Excluding Men from the Prostitution Debate

I’m beginning to think that men shouldn’t be allowed to have an opinion on the sex trade, let alone be in charge of deciding the legislation around it. In the last few weeks we have found out that Keith Vaz is a punter, that the Lib Dems are happy with the idea of prostitution being on the careers curriculum at school, and that Jeremy Corbyn just doesn’t care that much:


On top of that, any of us foolhardy enough to air our opinions about prostitution on social media can expect without fail an onslaught from mansplainers such as this one:


This man is talking to a prostitution survivor.

So why do men have such difficulty understanding women on this subject?

Well, heterosexual sex is obviously different for men and women, partly due to physiology and partly due to social factors. Regarding the physiology of our sexual differences, the act of penetration for a man is not as intimate an experience as a woman’s experience of being penetrated; men usually orgasm from penetrative sex whereas the majority of women don’t. The way that women and men masturbate tells a story: men mimic the action of penetrative sex, women do something entirely different, involving the clitoris. Women can’t rely on sex with a man being any good, unless there is a certain amount of understanding from the man; men can usually come anyway.

Regarding social differences, women get all the bad sex words: slut, whore, hussy, slag, cock teaser, frigid bitch, prude, whereas men just get stud or player or the rather approving euphemisms Cassanova or Ladies’ Man. Men may get called impotent or worry about sexual performance, but they are not judged on the number of sexual partners they have in the same way that women are. Women get nearly all of the objectification and focus on body size and shape, whereas men don’t usually get this forensic examination of their ‘attributes’, and do not become public property for sexual appraisal as soon as they hit puberty. They therefore tend to have fewer body issues than women do.

Rape is a thing. Men commit 98% of sex crimes and around 96% of violent crime, and they tend to be generally bigger and stronger than women.

The cultural forces that shape men’s attitudes to sex are completely different to those that shape women’s. It’s not that women innately dislike sex, anymore than men do, but that the potential damage that heterosexual sex can do to women, both physically and mentally, is serious. A lot of men don’t get this: sex is good, therefore even if it’s coerced or forced or with someone you don’t fancy much, well, hey, it’s still sex – just not the *best* sex. Many men have a sneaking envy of women working in the sex trade: having sex all day for a living is a male fantasy: if you get to be a male porn star it’s an envy-inducing status to your mates. I believe that many men really don’t see that working in the sex trade can be such a bad thing for women. They think we’re making it up.

But if sex goes wrong for women, it’s not just disappointing – it can be painful, demeaning, damaging and soul-destroying. Or even life-threatening.

Men create and consume a sexual culture antithetical to women but which they see as normal, and pretty pleasurable. Under these circumstances it is very difficult for them to see that it might not be the same for a woman: it can take a huge leap of imaginative empathy, and not all men are capable of that. If men are to make the laws which predominantly affect women, they need to have an understanding of exactly why the law needs making, and unfortunately when it comes to sex many men still think with their dicks.

Of course it wouldn’t be possible to ban men completely from the discussion, but you’d think that if the laws around being a punter are up for debate, the very least you should expect is that it won’t be a punter who’s making them.

The campaign group Nordic Model Now! has a template letter if you’d like to write to your MP:

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Is Amnesty Throwing us all Under the Bus?

Amnesty’s draft proposal to decriminalise all aspects of the sex trade is being debated this week and there have been numerous articles, blogs, research reports, comments and tweets about it all over the media. There is an enormous amount of research and counter-research which seems to prove one thing and then proves another, depending on whose interpretation you read, and which side you’re on. Funnily enough, despite the strong feelings on both sides of the argument, and the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between us, we do actually agree on the main premise, which is that the (mainly) women who provide sexual services to (mainly) men should be decriminalised. You wouldn’t know that from the decrim lobby, but it’s true! Feminists opposing the Amnesty International proposal are doing so, not because we want the women in prostitution to be punished in any way, but because we want the men who exploit the women to be held accountable. Full decriminalisation, however, would mean that all ‘sex-workers’ would be free to work legally with no restraints, and that includes pimps, brothel owners, strip club managers and other people who make money out of women’s sexual services. It’s that aspect which causes the conflict.

When this concern about decriminalisation is expressed though, (because of misgivings about the resultant free-for-all), the decrim side points to Amnesty’s assertion that there would need to be some regulation of the trade to make sure this doesn’t happen. Although nobody on either side is arguing for legalisation, it seems to me that ‘decriminalised with regulation’ is just another way of saying ‘legalised’. State regulation is definitely not wanted by ‘sex workers’ as it would interfere with the freedom of the individual to work, and the example of Germany with its legal mega brothels and vastly expanded sex trade is seen as a red herring. Decrim, we are told, would not be like that. The example of New Zealand is used to illustrate successful decriminalisation, but aside from the fact that there is no reliable evidence to suggest that the violence inherent in the trade has been reduced there, there is also the important point that New Zealand is a small and remote country compared to Europe, and therefore not as attractive to traffickers. None of the examples used by the decrim camp can comprehensively provide evidence of an increase in safety for the women in the sex trade there, or of a reduction in trafficking.

This is a complicated issue because, uniquely in this trade, empowering the ‘workers’ means unavoidably empowering the exploiters and abusers as well. Reducing the stigma for the women who sell sex automatically reduces stigma for the men who buy it. The side you pick then, depends partly on whether you are focusing on the women in the trade (and their safety), or the men who are paying for their services (and their exploitation), or on whether you think it’s possible to protect the women whilst discouraging the men at the same time.

Traditionally, prostitution has been a ‘women’s’ issue, in that the focus has (unfairly) been on the women’s role in the transaction: women are ‘whores’, ‘harlots’, ‘sluts’, ‘temptresses’, ‘fallen women’, whilst men are just men, in the background somewhere, being men. In one of the first stories we have that features the subject, Jesus famously forgives the prostitute her ‘sins’, but nowhere is there even any question that her customers may have needed forgiveness too. The assumption that the prostitute needed forgiveness is a given: the social stigma is all hers. Prostitution has never been equal: fallen women are sinners who lead men astray. A man does not suffer the same stigma for being a punter as a woman does for being a prostitute. If a man is murdered in the street he is not defined by whether or not he has engaged in paid-for sex, but a woman always is if she has offered it.

The focus on men and the part they play is way overdue. It’s currently fashionable to talk about agency, out of respect for those women who ‘choose’ to sell sex of their own volition and do not see themselves as victims. I can appreciate that, and acknowledge that they know their own minds, and their lives, better than I do – but as many women in the sex trade are there because they have been trafficked, forced or otherwise coerced, or indeed because their life choices are so limited, I think the agency of the men who buy should not be overlooked. Their agency is more unequivocal: they buy sex because they want to, and they can. When people define ‘sex work’ as ‘consensual sex between adults’ they fail to put it into the context of unequal choices, and therefore they conveniently ignore the exploitation involved. The Nordic model, favoured by the opponents of the Amnesty proposal, takes this on board by criminalising the buying of sex but not the selling, with the aim of reducing demand as well as protecting the women.

In my opinion, it is the reducing of demand which is the most important factor in the debate, in that only this will ultimately protect the most women in the long run. When legal restraints on the sex trade are lifted it means that the most vulnerable women and girls are even more vulnerable to exploitation. When an activity is illegal or regulated you know that the society you live in sees it as wrong, and sometimes that knowledge acts as a final safety net for girls vulnerable to coercion or grooming. Take that away and it can be much more difficult to say no: it’s like your abuse is state-sanctioned. In Germany the favoured method of pimping now is the so-called ‘lover boy method’, which, as it sounds, means forming a relationship with a girl with a view to persuading her to work in one of the brothels. The fact that prostitution is legal and state-regulated has not reduced the stigma, or the threat of violence, for the women, but it has made it easier for a man to persuade his ‘girlfriend’ to do something which, after all, is not illegal any more. And the punters are still not interested to know whether a girl is working there by choice or not, as long as they have access to her.

The other important point about removing any legal impediment to the trade is that market forces will then determine the fate of many women and girls. Businesses succeed by creating and then meeting demand, and an unregulated sex trade would have a business model like any other. The mega brothels in Germany have ‘Specials’ where customers are offered food and drink and a certain number of girls at a fixed price, in order to attract new customers: much like an all-you-can-eat buffet or a buy-one-get-one-free offer. In New Zealand some enterprising spin-off businesses offer ‘classes’ for girls wishing to enter the sex trade. People involved in legal businesses are free to advertise and recruit and find ways to grow their business. This will inevitably lead to an increase in demand, and as there are never enough women to meet the demand, there will have to be an increase in trafficking too.

In this particular sense it makes very little difference to outcomes whether the sex trade is legalised or decriminalised. Either way, the removal of restraints on business gives the green light to those who would exploit the demand and expand the trade. This is not a preferred outcome for women in general.

There may be a minority of women who identify as ‘sex-workers’ who wish to make their own choices and be protected from the harms of their chosen trade, and they deserve to be protected from the men that would harm them. Supporters of the Nordic model do not want to ‘throw these women under the bus for the sake of ideology’, as is sometimes suggested, and nor does their concern constitute a ‘moral crusade’. The Merseyside model of hate crime goes some way to helping protect women in the trade, and should be rolled out more widely, but at the end of the day the sex trade is a dangerous place to be, and being able to report a crime with more confidence does not mean you will be protected from suffering it in the first place. Whether indoor or outdoor, in a brothel or a flat, the violence can happen to anyone anywhere who is alone with a punter, and the idea that you can screen out the bad ones is a myth, according to many women who have exited the trade.

Unless the behaviour of the men who are punters can be challenged, the sex trade will continue to claim more and more victims, and most of these will be women and girls. The criminalisation of paying for sex would act as a deterrent to men, and send a strong message about what our society deems acceptable, and how it views and respects women. At the same time further work on equality needs to be made an urgent priority to provide better economic and life choices for women so that prostitution does not have to exist as a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society. It should be a source of shame to us all that this state of affairs exists in the twenty first century.

It should be possible, if the will is there, to protect current ‘sex workers’ whilst at the same time reducing the scale of the trade for future women and girls. The sex trade impacts disproportionately on women who are economically disadvantaged, indigenous women, migrants and BME women. Concentrating legislative decision-making on a minority of currently self-identified ‘sex-workers’ instead of looking at the broader picture of the devastation the trade brings to the lives of the most vulnerable women all over the world, will lead effectively to the ‘throwing under the bus’ of many many more women and girls – now and in the future.

”Standing up for All Women”

A motion is due to be proposed at Young Labour in London on Sunday June 7th regarding the decriminalisation of ‘sex work’. The motion is here.

In response to this, here is a post called Standing up for All Women, compiled by WAPOW (Women Assessing Policy on Women), which sets out the arguments against this proposal, and shows where the assumptions it makes about sex work are flawed. If you are a Labour supporter, please read and share this important post, particularly among younger Labour supporters, so that the counter-arguments are available to everyone involved in the debate.

Objections to the Sex Trade

This article by Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes has been circulating on social media this week, following the failure in parliament of the proposed amendment to the modern slavery bill, which would have criminalised the clients of the sex trade:

There is so much in it that I disagree with that I thought I would jot down my objections. So here’s my response, paragraph by paragraph:

Para 1:  ‘…attempts to attack sex workers by criminalising their clients.’                              The tone is set in this first sentence: I think it is acting in bad faith to use emotive and incendiary language such as ‘attack’ in an attempt to discredit those with opposing views. No one I know who supports criminalisation of clients wishes to ‘attack sex workers’, in fact the opposite is true. The debate is around removing the historical stigma attached to the women in prostitution and placing it firmly on the client (as the people with more real choices in the transaction), thereby reducing demand. At the same time there must be put in place exit strategies for those who wish to leave prostitution (estimates vary from 85-95%). Damage limitation is an important part of the argument: nobody wants to throw any other woman under the bus for the sake of ideology. For my part I take the view I do because I believe that in the long term more women will suffer if prostitution is completely decriminalised than will suffer if buying sex is criminalised. That is not an ‘attack’ on anyone. Furthermore, the link in this paragraph to an article about Swedish prostitution law is almost wholly in support of the Nordic model, with a few reservations, and points out that the liberal approach is not working. It does not support the view of the English Collective of Prostitutes regarding the safety issues. I’m not sure why it was used in this article.

Para 2: ‘…plea from sex workers that mobilised hundreds of individuals and organisations…to oppose legislation.’                                                                                               In response : hundreds more support it:

Paras 3 and 4: Prostitution is already underground, but see point 1 above and read the article about Swedish prostitution law. You can be against prostitution and for the safety of the prostituted at the same time.

Para 5: ‘LBGTQ groups called for an end to this “last vestige of Victorian moralism”, asking why some feminists had allied themselves with evangelical Christians who oppose gay marriage, sex outside marriage and abortion.’                                                                           This is my least favourite paragraph in the whole article. Firstly, as a seasoned supporter of the NoMorePage3 Campaign, I am used to being name-called, and the accusation of ‘Victorian moralism’ is a favourite, as though it is simply a matter of old-fashioned prudery to want equality for women. It’s a straw man, but I can see why it’s popular: nobody wants to identify with a description that neatly combines the idea of  prudishness with an out-of-touch, old-fashioned right-wing moral panic, and in using it the accusers place themselves firmly in the camp that is hip, young, cool, exciting and chilled about such things. Win-win. Except that it’s a misrepresentation. The same is true of the list of ‘allies’ we are supposed to have joined with – this is a particularly bad argument because nobody can police who does or does not support the same issues as them, and having one belief in common does not mean you agree on everything else. Again: see the NMP3 Campaign, with its fantastically diverse set of supporters who are opposed on many other issues but all come together to support the one issue they agree on. (But, if you insist on using that argument as if it is meaningful, I am quite happy to point out that the groups you have aligned yourself with include pimps, johns, traffickers, pornographers, misogynists and MRAs…)

My other problem with this paragraph is that it is the voice of LGBTQ groups that is cited. I think this group has a meaningful voice on other issues, and of course something to say on this one, but I question the prominence given to a minority group when the overwhelming majority of prostituted people are women and girls who do not identify as LGBTQ. When you demand we listen to ‘sex workers’ should they not be more representative?

Para 6: ‘…exploitation is rife…Why this double-standard with sex workers?’                 Exactly for the reason that ‘sex work’ is not like other work, however often you call it that. The sex trade, apart from the damage it does to people trapped within it, reinforces the patriarchal status quo, whereby women are the ‘sex class’ so it’s only natural to exploit them. It is both a symbol of, and a contributor to, inequality. It is very highly gendered, and more demand leads to more trafficking. A society that endorses that view of women is not a safe society for women to live in. Decriminalising prostitution and earning taxes from it makes the government a pimp. It is definitely not like any other ‘work’. So there are no ‘double standards’ there, just different standards, as there should be.

Para 7: ‘…claim that 80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, their pimp or their trafficker…discredited’.                                                                                 This is not quite true. The 80% figure has not actually been discredited, but questioned. There is agreement that the figure is hard to calculate, but no consensus on whether or not it still might be true. As for the fact that the BBC is one of the discreditors, that’s nothing to boast about: since when were the BBC experts on the sex trade? They have something of a record themselves, on ignoring sexual exploitation in their midst…

Para 8: ‘Scores of women, trans and male sex workers wrote to MPs…’                                     I have to point out again here that although trans and male ‘sex workers’ have their own experiences, particular to them, within the sex trade, and need to be heard, they are still a tiny minority of the prostituted class, and cannot be representative of the majority, and especially not of trafficked women and girls who do not have a voice at all. As for the Swedish stories, this is anecdotal evidence, not born out by the statistics, and anecdotal evidence is plentiful on the other side too.

Para 9: The ‘conflation of prostitution and violence’ does not assume that ‘sex workers’ don’t know the difference: that would certainly be insulting to the women concerned. However the fact can’t be ignored that for vast numbers of (mostly) women, violence is exactly what prostitution is.

Para 10: Two MPs quoted – both men: ‘We must listen to sex workers’.                                   In my view we should also listen to survivors. Globally it is overwhelmingly women and girls who are exploited sexually, many of whom don’t have a voice. I would be happy to listen to them, given the chance, and listening to survivors is the closest we will get to hearing the voices of all the women trapped in prostitution who don’t want to be there. The term ‘sex worker’ is self-selected: people who identify as ‘sex workers’ have to a greater or lesser extent, chosen, accepted or resigned themselves to a way of surviving that many others cannot freely choose. If we have to take into account the views of self-identified ‘sex workers’ (which we should) we need also to have represented, in every discussion, a survivor, a trafficked woman and a groomed and pimped teenager, to ensure a balance. I would like to know of the English Collective of Prostitutes: have you listened to survivors? If you have, did you believe them? Their voices are more representative of the prostituted experience than trans or male ‘sex workers’ but are often absent from the debate.

So here they are on the terminology around ‘sex work’:

I will let survivors have the last word.

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