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:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/06/sex-workers-decriminalisation-amendment-modern-slavery-bill

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:     http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/2014/10/end-demand-fawcett-supports-new-sexual-exploitation-campaign/

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’:

http://www.catwinternational.org/Home/Article/587-over-300-human-rights-groups-and-antitrafficking-advocates-worldwide-weigh-in-on-sex-work-terminology-in-media

I will let survivors have the last word.

Disclaimer:  Although I have mentioned the NoMorePage3 Campaign here, and my blog is called Not The News In Briefs as a reference to it, I would like to point out that all views on this blog are my own. I am not a spokesperson for the campaign, just an enthusiastic supporter. The campaign and its supporters hold many different views on other issues apart from Page3. If you started following my blog on the strength of your support for NMP3 and now feel disgruntled with the direction it is taking, please feel free to unfollow.

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Footballers, Prostitutes and Feminists

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.