Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Sex Work Shibboleth

For feminists, arguments about sex work have become an ugly, obstructive shibboleth. The debate about whether feminism can ever tolerate the sale of sex has raged for over five decades, and in recent years the question has opened old wounds in the fabric of feminist unity, leading to such embarrassing flashpoints as the verbal abuse and police intimidation of sex workers and their allies at the Reclaim the Night march in 2009.

Many feminists, like Finn MacKay of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution, feel that the purchase of sex from women is always and only misogyny: “Equality for women is a farce in a society where it is considered normal for men to buy our bodies.

“We can't be free while so many of us are literally for sale. As long as I believe prostitution is a form of violence against women, then how can I work alongside anyone who promotes it as a job like any other?”

A Moral Quarrel

Furious debate about sex work and pornography dominated the discussion at the recent Women’s Question Time event in London, organised by the charity Eaves, where feminists were invited to put questions to prospective Women's ministers in the run-up to the General Election.

Pandora Blake, a feminist sex worker, attended the event. “I hadn't realised quite how aggressively hostile most of my sisters are to my ideals,” she said. “It’s worrying that so many of the best female politicians seem unable to see nuance when it comes to the sex industry".

At this event, like so many others, issues such as abortion rights and the pay gap were elbowed out in favour of monolithic tub-thumping about sex work that played out a worrying tendency on the part of contemporary feminists to moralise rather than strategise.

On the other side of the debate, many pro-sex work feminists believe that the protection of sex workers should be the only consideration.

“Criminalisation of kerb-crawling, to take one example, is harmful to sex workers because ultimately they are the ones who suffer,” said Nine, a former support worker for Edinburgh prostitutes. “Sex workers who still need to make their money are faced with doing business with clients they would ordinarily have rejected. It concerns me greatly that the mainstream feminist movement refuses to look at the harmful effect of laws like these, which they support simply in the name of sending a message to men.”

Giving space to abusers

Unfortunately, tolerant attitudes such as Nine’s are too often manipulated by patriarchal apologists concerned with maintaining a status quo that constrains and commodifies female sexuality. Easy examples of such apologism can be found on the popular networking site for johns, Punternet, which rates and reviews prostitutes as ‘pieces of meat’. Worryingly, the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) recently recruited on the site, encouraging punters to write to their MPs to safeguard their favourite hobby.

If the exclusionary tactics of abolitionist feminists are unsound, the unscrupulous attitudes of organisations like the IUSW are hardly more laudable. The attitude that abusive punters are an inevitability, and the related reasoning that one cannot fight the misogynist meat market, hardly offers an answer to people like Rebecca Mott, a former prostitute and abolitionist activist:

“The torment of being prostituted has never left me. On the first night, when I was fourteen, I was gang-raped for many hours. That was the test to see if I was suitable material for prostitution. You learn that your body is there to be damaged. That you have no right to say no. That your purpose is to service men in any and every way they can think of. It is so much easier to speak only of women who appear in charge of their own working environment, rather than the reality.”

Too often, the pro-prostitution lobby is guilty of silencing the voices of women like Mott – just as the abolitionist lobby refuses to acknowledge sex workers whose experiences differ. The sex work debate is a sea of unheard voices, private tragedy and misinformation in which moral squabbling obscures the real-life concerns of many vulnerable women.

A legal no man’s land

The net result of all this wrangling is that the legal status of sex work remains an unworkable, precarious Jenga tower of muddled laws and moral equivocation. Recent changes to the law in Britain have altered that situation very little. Welcome efforts to focus police attention on those who buy the sexual services of abused women, such as Clause 14, which makes it a criminal offence to buy sex from ‘a woman controlled for gain’, has been balanced by more regressive and punitive sanctions against soliciting.

In Britain, as in many other developed countries, women who work as prostitutes are stranded in a socio-economic no man’s land, their work just about legal enough to offer a seedy but acceptable outlet for restrained bourgeois sexual mores and an economic option for women in desperate financial circumstances, and just about illegal enough that the market for commercial sex remains illicit and underground, depriving sex workers of public dignity and of the full protection of the justice system, and satisfying the prudish public drive to punish those who sell sex.

Amongst all of this moralising, misogynist apologism and equivocation, it is stupendously difficult to have a productive conversation about sex work. “There are very few spaces in which feminists with different perspectives on this issue get together and talk about it and find points to agree on,” said Nine. “There frequently isn't even room for debate at all, just point-scoring and shouting over people.”

The stagnation of the sex work debate around a brutal moral binary can be seen as the greatest extant danger to the future of feminism, particularly if one believes, as I do, that if we all stopped shouting at each other for a while we could hold the revolution tomorrow.

Belle De Jour: a misleading cipher

The keenest example of this unimaginative binary thinking is the Belle de Jour problem. Dr Brooke Magnanti of Bristol was recently forced to out herself as the former PhD student and prostitute behind the blog which turned into the book which turned into the lucrative, trashily unchallenging ITV adaptation, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, in which Billie Piper wears a variety of rump-revealing latex dresses and does a lot of heavy breathing.

The show, now in its third series, has become the dominant vehicle for the Belle De Jour meme, stripping out everything that was realistic and challenging about Dr Magnanti's blog and leaving a deodorised husk of middle-class male fantasy in which a massively undercast Piper perkily advises the audience to “'work out what the client wants, and give it to him as quickly as possible”.'

Feminists have justly denounced the show as duplicitous, portraying sex work as entirely safe, glamorous and lucrative for all those prepared to devote themselves entirely to the sexual service of rich men. However, commentators from Kira Cochrane to India Knight have failed to notice that Secret Diary of a Call Girl is ITV's convenient fiction, and not Dr Magnanti's reality.

Dr Magnanti herself was working in the elite eschelons of the sex trade, with no pimp or drug habit to worry about, but even so, critics have failed to notice that the show bears about as much resemblance to the blog as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves might bear to the life of a medieval peasant.

Poor Dr Magnanti. All she wanted was to develop her writing and discuss her experiences. Instead, she has been distorted, idolised, victimised and vilified by anyone and everyone with a barrel to beat about prostitution. From glamorous courtesan to tragic victim, it’s not just Belle's body that can be bent into any position you fancy.

The one thing that almost no-one has asked is why a PhD student might find herself selling sexual intercourse to fund her studies in the first place. Commentators are slow to connect Belle with a bankrupt higher education system in which indebted students routinely live well below the poverty line to afford the degrees their future employers increasingly demand. Just last week, a report by Kingston University suggested that since the abolition of the student grant, the number of students funding their degrees by working as prostitutes and strippers has increased fivefold. Basic socio-economic analysis of this kind is what is missing from both sides of the contemporary conversation about prostitution.

There is a trench of faff and fighting at the core of the sex work debate where a rigorous analysis of work and capital should be. Sex work is an economic question, not a moral one: in a world where shame and sexual violence are still hard currency, the normalisation of the sex industry is a symptom not of social degeneration, but of the economic exploitation of women on an unprecedented scale, in a feminised labour market where all working women are expected to commodify their sexuality to some extent.

Nothing obscures this crucial approach so much as the dogmatic insistence, on both sides of the debate, on the primacy of a faux-feminist notion of ‘choice’.

With sex work, as with many other feminist flashpoints, the notion of ‘a woman’s free choice’ is fetishised and taken out of context in order to obscure useful analysis. The word ‘choice’ has been manipulated by the neoliberal consensus in order to erase the influence of brutal capitalist paradigms on the deeds and decisions of poor people, and of poor women in particular.

Liberated sex workers insist that their work is ‘a free choice’, whilst abolitionists and many exited sex workers claim that prostitutes suffer such abuses that the very notion of ‘choice’ is anathema. The term has already been devalued by wider society to the extent that any sexual choice made by a woman is assumed to be an empowering act of autonomous agency – especially when the net result of that choice is financial exchange.

Abolitionist feminists unwittingly play into this misleading rhetoric of ‘choice’ with their insistence that women in the sex industry have none, that, as Finn Mackay puts it, ‘prostitution is non-consensual sex’ - as if choice and consent are ever enough to justify industrial abuse. As if choice were something made in a vacuum, unconstrained by socio-economic conditions.

The underlying assumption of this analytical cul-de-sac - that any woman’s sexual choice, however restricted, is positive and empowering - could only have currency in a world where female sexual agency is still seen as abnormal.

Decriminalisation: a way forward?

The supreme irony of this sociological stalemate is that, on many counts, the ultimate goals of pro-protection and abolitionist feminists are one and the same. Both camps, for example, believe that women and men who sell sex should not face legal sanctions, and both factions understand that the persecution of prostitutes by law enforcement officers is a form of state violence against women that needs to be eradicated as a matter of urgency.

But achievable aims like these are sidelined by partisan squabbling. So intense was the debate around Clause 14 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that practically no opposition was brooked against other, more directly damaging clauses of the Bill, such as those that gave police greater powers to raid brothels and confiscate any earnings found on the premises. “Women are being turfed out onto the street in their scanties,” observed feminist academic Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon. “Does anyone have an answer to this?”

Even in this bitter debate, however, occasions for hope do occur. A recent collaboration on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog between Thierry Schaffauser of the IUSW and Cath Elliott concluded that feminists should work together on decriminalisation:

“While we've all been busy arguing over other things, those most in need of our help continue to suffer violence. We believe the criminalisation of sex workers/prostitutes helps to legitimise those who attack them. Criminalisation of soliciting is a sexist law.”

Ultimately, all feminists believe that vulnerable women need to be protected from abuse, violence and stigma, and all true liberals oppose cultures that brutally shame and commodify female sexuality. If our goals are to be realised, the sex work shibboleth must be broken. Feminists need to put aside ideological differences and work towards a radical restructuring of neoliberal attitudes to sex, to work and to sex work.

It is not enough to seek to criminalise prostitution at the expense of vulnerable women, and neither is it enough to cede responsibility to misogynist market forces and offer protection within an imperfect, abusive sex industry as the only realistic alternative.

If we want a world where women’s bodies are more than just commodities, feminists need to get radical, we need to get smart, and we need to be prepared to lay down our weapons and take the fight to the real enemies. If we stop fighting each other and turn our energies on the pimps, the abusers and the superstructure of misogynist free-market capitalism, there are exhilarating victories to be won.

This article was published at The Samosa on the 25th of March, 2010.

83 comments:

  1. Excellent article on a very difficult topic. I think, when it comes down to it, that the legalisation of prostitution is one of those issues that has to be looked at in purely practical terms. As you say, the binary divide of current rhetoric is apt to bring the debate to a standstill from an ethical standpoint.
    You're absolutely right that the misogynist superstructure is ultimately the necessary target, and until that can be dealt with we must look at the pragmatics of what can be done to protect and help women in the sex industry.

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  2. I agree that it is frequently attempted to present a woman's choice as something that should be at all times respected, instead of questioned to what extent that choice can actually be made in our socio-economic system. Insistence on simply advocating the possibility of choice, whithout thoroughly examining how that choice is made, is misleading and even harmful.

    Personally, I can't decide what position to take with regard to prostitution, pornography and other sex work. I am opposed to the commodification of women, but at the same time I am aware that limiting women's choice in that respect also represents an attempt to regulate women's sexuality (masked, I might be accused, in the concern for what is best for women), and I'm equally opposed to that too. But that leads me back to my first concern - how does the possibility of a woman's choice exist in our socio-economic context and to what extend it is exercised freely? It is a complex issue that needs careful examination.

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  3. Hear hear.

    But while there are "sex-workers" (a misnomer if ever there was one), all women are vulnerable to the many and varied consequences of perpetuating male views of women as commodities. "Sex-workers" make me more vulnerable. How is that ok? Don't they know that they're hurting all women with what they do?

    I've no wish to take away anyone's career or livelihood, but couldn't they...re-train? With adequate funding and support? Would that be a good thing to campaign for?

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  4. In addressing moral quandaries with direct health implications, I find it useful to turn to the secondary peer reviewed medical literature on the subject. Harcourt et al (2005) "Sex work and the law" Sexual Health 2(3):121-8, http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/164/paper/SH04042.htm is the most recent literature review I can find on the topic, and it seems to agree with you: "decriminalisation may offer the best outcomes."

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  5. For me, the issue is this: to whom are white Westerners accountable in articulating our political positions on matters that are global, not national. Prostitution, no matter what views you hold on it as a practice or a system, is international.

    I have been, until quite recently, against legalisation and for decriminalisation of women in prostitution. (And of men, intersex, and trans people who are prostitutes.) But something caused me to change my political view. And it was gaining insight from women who have significantly less privilege than do I.

    So, for me, I must, as a radical profeminist, hold myself accountable to the most marginalised, most silenced, multiply oppressed (meaning here, by many forces: class, caste, gender, race, region, etc.) members of our community, to tell me what would be most supportive to them, to their liberation. Otherwise, my political actions might, in fact, make their lives worse.

    Given this, I support people looking to activists like the women and girls who have been trafficked in India and surrounding areas, to any Third World women, such as Ruchira Gupta.

    I find that there are predominantly class-privileged white women making the case for looking at prostitution in more nuanced ways. I think the call to see it as nuanced comes from that position of privilege.

    To me, feminism has always been about being in struggle alongside the most dispossessed women and girls on Earth to find the most revolutionary solutions, even if they come in the form of radical reforms. So who to turn to for insight and analysis, for policy and practice, is clear: to the girls and women in the Third World, in the lands colonised by white people. Should white Western women, men, and transgendered people be directly and fully accountable to Third World women and girls on this and many other social justice and liberation issues? My answer is yes.

    Racism and colonialism are at work with heterosexist male supremacy in the production of trafficked prostitutes to meet "consumer" demand. That there are prostitutes who are not trafficked is not questioned by me. I know a woman who has been and may still be a prostitute who has never had a pimp. She is also white, Western, well-educated, and privileged by class in her upbringing. And I hope she is directly accountable to Third World women of color when she speaks out for "legalising" prostitution, which has been her position, at least until recently.

    None of this means that any woman should be assaulted or insulted for holding a different view. It does mean if she speaks from a place of relative and significant privilege and doesn't own that privilege in the construction of her worldview and position on this issue, that needs to be called out (preferably those who are her friends). Her privilege must also be factored into arriving at one's own position on the issue.

    I hold the same view with regard to anyone who is a politically actively for capitalism, white supremacy, other forms of male supremacy, heterosexism, Western "imperialism"--both cultural and militaristic, and for conditions which maintain and encourage unsustainable societies.

    Does that make sense to you? See this for more:

    http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=121770722507&topic=12686

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  6. This is a portion of Ruchira Gupta's statement on matters of legalisation:

    Apne Aap Women Worldwide Legalization of prostitution focuses on women, mostly poor and low-caste, creating a separate class of humans whose bodies can be bought or sold. Legalization will drive up sex slavery.
    Legalisation of prostitution has been suggested as a way to tackle the alarming rise in the sex trafficking of women and girls in India. On the contrary, there has been an increase in trafficking to the two countries - Australia and the Netherlands - where prostitution is legalised.

    Following the legalisation of prostitution in Victoria, Australia, legal brothels proliferated, but the greatest expansion was in illegal brothels - by 300 per cent in one year. Legalising prostitution created a hospitable environment for sex tourists and other buyers, and drove up the demand.

    Women and girls are being trafficked from South- East Asia to meet the demand.

    The same is true of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where there are more Eastern European and North African girls than Dutch ones in the brothel district. [...]

    The only way to tackle sex- trafficking is to increase choices for women and girls through education, safe housing as well as sustainable livelihoods and decrease choices for sexual abusers and traffickers by punishing them severely. This will dismantle the system of prostitution and lead finally to a decrease in trafficking.

    My organisation, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, has been a part of a campaign to amend the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act.

    This campaign is seeking to penalise buyers and traffickers. If the numbers of convictions against buyers and traffickers goes up, the cost of human trafficking will become untenable.

    It will also restore a sense of justice to the survivors of prostitution.

    The only truly effective way to curb trafficking is not to accept the commodification of human beings, including women and children, as inevitable. To do otherwise is to allow that a separate class of economically and racially marginalised women and girls is excluded from the universal protection of human dignity enshrined in the constitution.

    Ruchira Gupta is founder and president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an antitrafficking organisation, and a recipient of the Clinton Global Citizen Award
    December 13, 2009

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  7. I hadn't realised this debate existed, being somewhat out of the loop. Having said that, I agree that the true enemies are the pimps.
    I have no problem with legalising prostitution, as a free exchange of services for money like any other, and a private contract between individuals. Both criminalising this activity, AND invading it for gain (=pimps) run contrary to human freedom and should be stopped.
    I understand this is not in line with what you've said but you made some excellent points that I fully agree with.

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  8. An interesting piece, but I'm unsure of your gist. You don't seem to come to much of a conclusion.

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  9. Solid stuff. I like especially like this line: "The underlying assumption of this analytical cul-de-sac - that any woman’s sexual choice, however restricted, is positive and empowering - could only have currency in a world where female sexual agency is still seen as abnormal".

    In other areas of life we're able to understand agency in more nuanced terms - that is, without making a fetish of it.

    We don't for instance attribute magical properties to male sexual agency, which if anything is somewhat underrated (men are often not held responsible for their own sexual choices and behaviour; belief in the "inevitability" of prostitution partly follows from the assumption that there will always be johns, as if paying for sex were an involuntary reflex - poor things, they have such needs, they can't help it).

    The flip-side of this is magical thinking about necessity - the bugbear of circumstances so constrained and impoverished that no agency is feasible. Two potent figures of destiny in the sex work argument are sexual abuse in childhood - which is imagined to create sex workers through a kind of zombification, a complete erasure of the ability to sustain an autonomous sexual identity - and trafficking, in which the collusion of the trafficked is often overlooked.

    Ordinary agency is precarious, exercised in mutual dependency with other agents, and inexorably situational. Its plans are often thwarted, and its performatives misfire. Why then in our sexual lives must we always be either John Wayne or Justine?

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  10. Comment by Prianikoff:-

    When I was on the Union exec, I used to walk through Kings X to meetings.
    A few times I was approached by teenage girls selling sex. They were obviously runaways and most likely heroin users.

    My reaction was to say "Get out now, while you still can"
    One girl replied; " It's too late"
    All I could say was "it's never too late".

    I'm sure that I had no effect on her life whatsoever. What would have?
    Certainly not arresting her for soliciting on the street.

    The problem with the unionisation argument is twofold;

    (1) There isn't always an identifiable "employer" ;
    It's just too simplistic to argue that prostitutes are always controlled by a pimp or a trafficker.
    Criminalising the punter seems totally false to me, especially in working class areas.
    Successful prostitutes tend to have the living standards and ideology of a self-employed hustler.
    i.e. they are petit bourgeois, not proletarian and quite likely to employ other women.
    That would be the long term consequence of the unionisation/decriminalisation approach within a capitalist society.

    (2) Prostitution is inimical to love.
    It undermines honest relationships between men and women.
    Therefore it's understandable that many people object to its normalisation.
    Do we really want prostitution being discussed as a career option in schools?
    Who wants to live next door to a brothel?

    The existence of prostitution is about a layer of women existing outside the 'official' framework in which sexual relationships are conducted. They are the perennial outcasts, tolerated by a system in which money and power are unequally distributed.
    Such women are inherently vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and must be offered protection by society. But this shouldn't be synonymous with state control.

    The neo "Dworkinite" radical feminists are likely to end up providing a radical fig leaf for reactionary state bans.

    What sort of organisation do these women need?
    Ideally, something that combines representatives of the local community with representatives of the women concerned.

    A "union" would be a misnomer.
    It needs to have a dual role; representing both the interests of the community and the women; ensuring the women's welfare, but providing alternatives.

    It should offer security, health care, education and therapy. Not with a view to making the girls more successful prostitutes, but with a view to helping them get out.

    Had there been something like that, I might have had a better answer.....

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  11. This is really good.

    Thank you.

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  12. Reading this piece, as a sex workers' rights activist and feminist, is very frustrating.

    Suggesting that the "protectionist" side is all about choice is just plain wrong. Insofar as sex workers' rights feminists talk about choice, it is purely to refute the claims by the abolitionist side that there is no "choice" involved. In your piece you claim that abolitionists "unwittingly play into this misleading rhetoric". The experience from the other side is that they are deliberately making it about choice precisely because they make the claim that there is no choice, and that means their position can be framed as "if you're against our position, it means you support rape!" This is a long way from being a useful position from which to have a constructive debate!

    What you're more likely to hear from the sex-workers' rights side of the argument is economic analysis of the type you call for! I have often argued, and I think this is a common position in pro-sex worker feminist circles, that decriminalisation, and applying the same protections as exist in other forms of industry, would genuinely put power in the hands of the sex worker and change the harmful attitudes that were uncovered in the recent Eaves survey.

    It is also disappointing to see the repetition that Rebecca Mott is "silenced" by those in favour of decriminalisation; in general, her experiences are acknowledged and the reason that this side campaigns so hard is because we believe criminalisation makes them more, not less, likely (the "protectionist" element again). The big problem that the decriminalisation side has with Mott and those who champion her is that they paint Mott's experience as universal: "it happened to her, so therefore it happens to every single woman in prostitution". The claims of being silenced come only because people who have not had those experiences come forth and say so - somehow, that is painted as being "silencing" of "the truth". More often it is the sex-workers' rights side that is silenced, for example at the Feminism in London event earlier this year, where only abolitionist voices were allowed on the stage at panels discussing sex work.

    "So intense was the debate around Clause 14 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that practically no opposition was brooked against other, more directly damaging clauses of the Bill"

    Again: in the sex workers' rights activist community there was PLENTY of discussion of, and campaigning against, those other clauses. And that includes a lot of feminist campaigners. If it got ignored by the abolitionist camp, that says more about their priorities than about the debate in general.

    Finally, it is interesting that you quote the "abolitionist" reason for not engaging with the other side: “We can't be free while so many of us are literally for sale. As long as I believe prostitution is a form of violence against women, then how can I work alongside anyone who promotes it as a job like any other?” but ignore the fact that there are plenty of sex worker campaigners who feel just as strongly that they cannot possibly work with the abolitionist camp - and what I hear most frequently from them is "how can I possibly work alongside people who won't treat me as a human being?" Sex workers feel as though abolitionists place theory above the lived experiences of actual women - thus treating them as less than human.

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  13. @ Julian Real:

    The information in the article from Ruchira Gupta is incorrect - New Zealand has decriminalised prostitution with the cooperation of the New Zealand sex workers' rights union and has seen no increase in illegal prostitution; Victoria, Australia legalised but did not decriminalise - it is closer to the Nevada model (which is very much not what sex workers' rights campaigners argue for). IIRC it was New South Wales that decriminalised prostitution, and that state has seen much less of a problem. Holland, as well, is not fully decriminalised and is not the model that is supported by sex workers' rights campaigners.

    You say that "I find that there are predominantly class-privileged white women making the case for looking at prostitution in more nuanced ways." Unfortunately for this position, it turns out that Cambodian sex workers are very much in favour of decriminalisation, for example. Even sex workers in Latin America campaign for decriminalisation rather than the alternatives - even though many of them very much would like to get out of sex work.

    The sex workers' rights activism platform isn't just about decriminalising sex work; it's also very much about making sure that those who are in prostitution but don't want to be, can easily get out; it is also very much about finding ways to stop trafficking (sex workers' rights means ALL sex workers, including those used as rape fodder by traffickers). For a variety of reasons, sex workers' rights activists believe firmly that the first step to solving the problems around sex work is to get sex work out into the open: decriminalise it.

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  14. "Sex workers feel as though abolitionists place theory above the lived experiences of actual women - thus treating them as less than human."

    Because 'abolitionist' feminists are not 'actual women'? Because 'abolitionist' feminists have never been in 'sex work' (a term that arguably most of those who are in it or who have exited do not identify with)?

    'Sex work campaigners' are rarely, in my experience, actual sex workers. And actual sex workers, in my experience, rarely want what the sex work campaigners are campaigning for.

    Who is silenced? On one side we have the English Collective of Prostitutes (yeh right) as the media goto whenever the topic comes up; the International Union of Sex Workers (chinny reckon) as an offical branch of the GMB; Secret Diary of a Call Girl on it's third series; one of the largest industries in the world; and terms like 'sex work' being forced onto every discussion of prostitution despite their controversiality.

    And on the other side, Rebecca Mott and a couple other individual bloggers; some feminist organisations who organise massively attended marches which the press dont even acknowledge; and thats about it.

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  15. @v: I agree.
    @SnowdropExplodes: I appreciate you clarifying that. And, yeah, I have a hard time not advocating for the decriminalisation of anyone who is selling sex, who is trafficked, etc. I believe in harshly punishing those men who are slavers, traffickers, pimps, and procurers. And putting the stigma on them, not on the women who men wish to use and insult. I support Sweden's approach, but don't know if it is workable in countries with very different governmental structures and values.

    I think the focus needs to stay on criticising pimps and procurers, not on criticising feminists. And speaking of...

    @Anonymous 28 March 2010 11:38
    Re:
    The neo "Dworkinite" radical feminists are likely to end up providing a radical fig leaf for reactionary state bans.

    What are you talking about? Dworkin never called for banning and co-created anti-pimp/pornographer legislation that specifically wouldn't function to empower the State, but rather to empower women who would have to prove, in court, that they'd been harmed by pornographers and men who use pornography against women. And, erm, she was no prude or a Puritan, if that's what the "fig leaf" remark is supposed to allude to. Have you READ her work? Your remarks about her don't indicate that you have, at all. I'm calling on you to be responsible in tossing around terms like "neo-Dworkinite radical feminists". Who are you talking about, specifically? Clearly not Andrea Dworkin.

    Re:
    What sort of organisation do these women need?
    Ideally, something that combines representatives of the local community with representatives of the women concerned.

    Why don't you simply consult the women of color around the world who have started those organisations? Why do you need to postulate what would be ideally best in your view? Can you not defer your guidance and opinion to women around the world who live in poverty, who do not have the privileges you do? I mean rich people usually advocate for what keeps rich people wealthy. And men tend to advocate for policies and positions that keep us unaccountable to women. And whites do the same with regard to being fully accountable to women of color. And so, why not just ask Ruchira Gupta and the many, many poor women around the world who have escaped trafficking and sexual slavery, "What would most be supportive of your work?" "What is your perspective on legalisation of prostitution?"

    I call on all of us with Western and white privilege to defer to those without either, on this matter and many others--to be responsive to and responsible in stating out views and doing our political work, and I notice that most privileged folks just want to do what's right for them and advocate for their small group, regardless of how it harms others who are off the social stage of dominant political opinion, and without a mass-media microphone.

    Bottom line: If I want to sell diamonds, shouldn't I consider how me doing so means that many in the diamond mines, and along the "trade route" are losing their lives due to what I think is good because it earns me money and is what I want to do? Do I have "the right" to sell diamonds? Yes. Do I have the choice to? Yes. Can I do so without putting far less privileged people's lives at great risk? No. Not for one second.

    "Individualism" means we don't consider how our actions effect those with less political power and social status. I'm against "individualism" needless to say. ;)

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  16. For the purposes of Laurie's article, Rebecca is only a victim, not an actual woman and not an abolishionist. I could name 50 anti-slavery women from around the world who have gone public about personally being tortured in prostitution, but it's been done before. Like clockwork, a handful of pseudonymous sexworker women will be found to make those 50 women and what they went through just an opinion among many.

    This confused me, "Sex workers who still need to make their money are faced with doing business with clients they would ordinarily have rejected."

    Where are these reject clients right now? I don't believe men who emit rape-pheromones get routinely rejected by rapist-detecting prostitutes then slink home unsuccessfully.

    I don't want men to be able to legally offer me money to fuck them, and I'm going to go ahead and say 99% of the world's women agree with me. The Nordic model doesn't just decriminalize prostitutes, it seriously criminalizes a common form of men sexually harassing women and girls. I've never had a boss offer me money to fuck him, but I have had many men on the street get erections from the act of soliciting me. It is a scary act of casual oppression meant to remind me that no matter what else I may become I'll always be just a cock-socket spittoon in the eyes of men.

    To anyone who needs to split sex workers into the survivalist camp whilst attributing hyperfeminine virtues of "rescuers gone wrong" to abolishionists, I offer to you the unwomanly selfish proposition that I want would-be punters criminalized because I am so very tired of being treated like a natural whore by the fact of my existence as a woman. Can you put aside your allegiances to feminists and sex workers to see the billions of women who are neither?

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  17. @ V.:

    And on the other side, Rebecca Mott and a couple other individual bloggers; some feminist organisations who organise massively attended marches which the press dont even acknowledge; and thats about it.

    Apart from those incredibly unknown "individual bloggers" Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith, et al.! It may have escaped your attention, but there are currently no major political parties who support decriminalisation - and the law as currently passed (the one that, in the OP, also involves turfing women onto the streets in their scanties, btw) is based on the Scandinavian models championed by the anti-sex work side of the debate (strictly speaking, it's the Finnish and not the Swedish model).

    'Sex work campaigners' are rarely, in my experience, actual sex workers. And actual sex workers, in my experience, rarely want what the sex work campaigners are campaigning for.

    Then I question the depth or breadth of your experience, on both counts. But, as I said originally, sex workers campaigning on these issues feel as though they are frequently told by the abolitionist side that they don't count, and that the harms they face aren't real - or else, a necessary evil for the liberation of "proper" women.

    And that is why the OP's call for "if we all stopped shouting at each other for a while we could hold the revolution tomorrow" is unworkable - because right now, your revolution pushes sex workers under the bus, and thus it isn't in any way their revolution.

    So here we are again, shouting at each other, and not "laying down our weapons and taking the fight to the real enemies."

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  18. Prostitution is not a normal job. While I defend the men and women who find themselves in the sex industry and believe it should be decriminalised, anyone who tries to naturalise this desperate way of making a living, with its proximity to violence, disease and dehumanising social alienation, is doing them a disservice.

    It is about economics. If it was so great, the rich would be doing it.

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  19. @ Sam:

    I could name 50 anti-slavery women from around the world who have gone public about personally being tortured in prostitution, but it's been done before. Like clockwork, a handful of pseudonymous sexworker women will be found to make those 50 women and what they went through just an opinion among many.

    Say instead, "50 experiences among many" and you actually have the position correctly. Those 50 experiences do not make them true of everybody's experiences, and that is the only point that needs to be made here. And the fact of the matter is, decriminalisation as proposed by sex workers' rights campaigners, is a stepping stone to making sure that future women don't have experiences like those in the future. That is why the sex workers' unions and suchlike are so vehement about their support for decrim. Decrim is about helping everybody involved in sex work, and the OP actually touches on some of the ways it can do that (e.g. ending law enforcement brutality, and instead meaning that rather than hiding from the law, sex workers can work under its watchful eye).

    Where are these reject clients right now? I don't believe men who emit rape-pheromones get routinely rejected by rapist-detecting prostitutes then slink home unsuccessfully.

    During the debate before the Crime & Policing Bill was passed, I saw many people make this fallacious argument. Consider this: you've got 10 seconds or 3 minutes. How much easier is it to detect a threat from a person in 3 minutes than 10 seconds? Maybe not much, but it surely makes a difference when you've got to screen dozens of clients a week. The actual, lived, experiences of sex workers in Sweden says that this is true.

    I don't want men to be able to legally offer me money to fuck them, and I'm going to go ahead and say 99% of the world's women agree with me. ... It is a scary act of casual oppression meant to remind me that no matter what else I may become I'll always be just a cock-socket spittoon in the eyes of men.

    Unfortunately, nothing would change about the way such men saw you just because the law changed. The problems of street harassment aren't going to be solved by adopting the Swedish model!

    I offer to you the unwomanly selfish proposition that I want would-be punters criminalized because I am so very tired of being treated like a natural whore by the fact of my existence as a woman. Can you put aside your allegiances to feminists and sex workers to see the billions of women who are neither?

    Again, that is a problem that goes a hell of a lot deeper than just whether or not buying sexual services is legal or not. But by making prostitution something to be stamped out, we actually uphold the whole "virgin/whore" dichotomy, that fuels such attitudes as the ones you want eradicated. Because it conveys the impression that there is something evil and wrong about sex, and because we live in Patriarchal society anyway, it doesn't matter whether the buyer or the seller is criminalised: the effect is to say that the women are evil for selling. The problems of sex work come from Patriarchy; the problem of the Patriarchy doesn't come from sex work!

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  20. I find it interesting that you have chosen in this post to only portray my work in a victim-role, and not to acknowledge that it is political.
    I use my experiences and past to show that violence and degradation is the foundation of the sex trade, and it is common practice to treat million of prostituted women and girls in that way.

    I find it interesting you make the choice to like pro-prostitution lobbyists - but I am just some sad individual.
    No acknowledgment that I proud to campaign against the sex trade and for abolition in the long-term.

    I am not a neat victim you just place into a box and dismiss.

    If you do that - then have the respect not to quote me.

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  21. Rebecca, I apologise if you feel dismissed by the way I used your quote. I was there when you made the speech, and I found it deeply moving, and it made me think about the sex trade in a whole new way. Your words and actions are political - I was not intending to suggest that your views are less valid because you speak from a platform of lived experience.

    Nor did I intend to characterise you as a victim - I used the quote to justapose the crass attitude of people like the IUSW who claim that sex work is a job just like any other. If you like, I'll change the quote to acknowledge your activism - although I believe your words speak for themselves.

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  22. V and Sam - thanks for commenting. I don't want to tangle myself up too much in this thread, because the point of the article was to point out a way forward beyond fights like these. But I'd like to acknowledge that I don't believe (nor did I say) that 'abolitionist feminists are not real women', and that I believe you are right on many counts.

    First and foremost, I believe that men who abuse women working as prostitutes ought to be criminalised. Period. I was and remain a supporter of Clause 14 for that reason, something that's caused many arguments between me and other feminist friends of mine. I believe that 'protecting women 'isn't only something you do on a practical level - making it clear that men do not have a god-given right to fuck sex slaves however they choose protects us too, all of us.

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  23. Madam M - Of course it's about economics. That's why the stories of women like Belle De Jour are privileged - they make it seem like prostitution is something that women from privileged backgrounds have a jolly good time doing, like a job you can dabble in for larks, rather than a dangerous industry that's mainly attractive to women who have few other choices.

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  24. A good, thoughtful piece, and what you say about the fetishization of the concept of autonomous choice is true - nowhere is it more true than in the arena of the sex trade that it is assumed that women are empowered by doing it in a seemingly consensual fashion.

    What I miss out on is men's voices in the debate, and in particular men who sell themselves for sex. This is a large group which effectively is technically outside entirely of the arena of misogyny since almost all of them are selling to men, not women. Yet nobody really sees it in political terms and the gay male community remains resiliently silent, in an almost embarrassed manner, on the subject of male prostitution and pornography, just as they are on services which enable non-paying customers to meet for semi or fully anonymous sex (such as saunas and darkrooms).

    Men who accept money for sexual favours are every bit as compromised as women who do, yet there is as little real study into this parrallel phenomenon. Yet it is huge. When I was living in a small hostel full of gay men in late 2001 I was surprised to hear from a newly arrived Italian guy that he was looking for work as an "escort." To me at the time even looking for such work was essential degrading, yet in this context its a question of age, class and possibly race rather than gender. Why then is there not more thought into the subject from this point of view? I mean, I don't think gay hustlers are pimped or trafficked as commonly as female ones - or are they? Do we really know?

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  25. @ SnowdropExplodes
    "But by making prostitution something to be stamped out, we actually uphold the whole "virgin/whore" dichotomy, that fuels such attitudes as the ones you want eradicated. Because it conveys the impression that there is something evil and wrong about sex"

    I don't see how advocating the abolition of prostitution upholds the virgin/whore dichotomy; surely the view is that prostitution is problematic because it is based on buying and selling of women as pieces of meat, and not because there's something "evil and wrong about sex"?

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  26. And Madam M,has hit the nail on the head.Its about economics for most.Where i am prostitution is legal, and has been for some years now.When first introduced there was an outcry from the religious and the propertied class,ie, brothels next door.Many sex workers are single some solo mums and the only reason they work in the industry is for financial reasons,and with it being legal does give them protection from prosecution.

    Although legal it does not stamp out forced participation regarding imigrants from overseas,who are caught in a strange country and manipulated by ruthless individuals who prey on them.

    As we are all aware prostitution is as old as old can be,and for better or worse it is here to stay,so legalising lends to a form of protection for those who choose to work in that industry.

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  27. A Sane Person: I don't see how advocating the abolition of prostitution upholds the virgin/whore dichotomy; surely the view is that prostitution is problematic because it is based on buying and selling of women as pieces of meat, and not because there's something "evil and wrong about sex"?

    Well...If one starts with the possibility that the buyer is agreeing to pay for services rendered (i.e. some form of agreed sexual activity) and not 'buying' the woman/man (who ideally retains the right to say 'no' as well as 'yes')[1], then one has to ask why paying for a legal activity (i.e. sex) is somehow different from any other agreement (on both sides) to provide an equally legal service or activity in exchange for money.

    [redpesto]

    [1] This is where the government's proposals came unstuck: the assumption seemed to be that 'coercion' was inherent in sex work without explaining why, which meant they could not conceive of the possibility of mutual consent between buyer and seller. If clients are abusive/violent, or the seller is coerced, then of course there should be prosecutions - just as they would be if the same happened to any other employee or individual - but where there is consent, perhaps the law could just let people get on with it.

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  28. Absolutely, Penny, and I totally agree with your take on Secret Diary of A Call Girl and Belle De Jour. I do wonder how the good doctor feels seeing her blog — which presumably kept her sane in working out her experience — turned into a saucy romp. Privileged women can fantasise about these scenarios but when it's in your head you still have power. In the real world you don't, whether you are up-scale or poor.

    "Commentators are slow to connect Belle with a bankrupt higher education system in which indebted students routinely live well below the poverty line to afford the degrees their future employers increasingly demand."

    Funny how this aspect is always rendered invisible.

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  29. Madam Miaow: Absolutely, Penny, and I totally agree with your take on Secret Diary of A Call Girl and Belle De Jour. I do wonder how the good doctor feels seeing her blog — which presumably kept her sane in working out her experience — turned into a saucy romp.

    I take your point, but you make it sound as if they stole it without her permission, as opposed to getting the rights to make the series, having Billie Piper meet Belle De Jour as part of her research into the character (pre-outing) and them interviewing each other (post-outing), and Belle De Jour having a bunch of links to the series on her blog.

    Or you could always ask her.

    [redpesto]

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  30. My way of thinking about this is, you absolutely have to stop the law harming the victim _first_. Full legalization, full removal of stigma in the law, possibly even a discrimination ban to protect against private mistreatment. That will pull the whole mess into the open, giving feminists traction to identify and attack abuses and use the whole thing to show how badly sexism still exists - it wouldn't be hiding in the guise of "glamour" any more. But stopping doing harm is the most urgent thing.

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  31. I have to admit, I feel very disappointed that after what seemed like quite a balanced consideration of the arguments, you still maintain your support for Section 14. What sort of a compromise is that?

    So, congratulations, you succeeded in lobbying for a provision which is contrary to the fundamental principles of English criminal justice (actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea), is likely to be impossible to enforce in practice and which aims to address a problem (trafficking) which the government has grossly over-stated. Now you tell us that arguing about this has been a distraction, and we should all play nicely together.

    I think there's a basic problem with the Elliot/Schaffauser line, which is that they fundamentally don't agree. I find it slightly amusing that they couldn't even agree, for the purposes of a joint article, whether to say 'sex workers' or 'prostitutes'.

    They end by saying:

    "So, in the run-up to the election, we're calling on all political parties and on the current government to put an end to the criminalisation of soliciting. In Cath's view, this should go hand in hand with the further criminalisation of those who purchase sex, an idea which Thierry completely opposes, but on this one issue at least, we're both in complete accord."

    But that isn't a joint platform! Either decriminalisation of soliciting goes hand in hand with criminalisation of punting, or it doesn't. In one scenario, prostitution becomes a legal and regulated activity; in the other, it is pushed further into the shadows. Those positions are fundamentally opposed.

    I'm happy to agree that decriminalisation is the way forward, but that has to mean actual decriminalisation, not just shifting the burden of criminality.

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  32. I agree that laying down weapons would be a good idea if we really want to help vulnerable women in the sex industry. But one big problem I see is that many "abolitionists" don't want to see human working conditions in the sex industry, but want to abolish it completely- a goal which is unrealistic, but still fought for. This causes great harm among the workers, and i'm not talking about the educated "fun sex worker", but women already in vulnerable positions(see for example swedish police reports). Even if they know it, they don't care. I just can't take people seriously who talk about "those poor women" and then show no regard for their safety whatsoever, but only for their own ideology.

    I have had discussions with feminists who were against prostitution, but genuinely interested in the well-being of sex workers and had informed themselves properly about the subject. I would not hesitate to work together with them.

    But from other "feminists" I have received plain hate. I have been called stupid, lazy and psychotic because I'm a sex worker and at the same time don't agree that this work, under the right conditions, is terrible.
    I don't see how any person with self-respect would want to work with people who constantly try to humiliate them.

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  33. Magnanti and Mott: a comment in a slightly more thoughtful tone

    I think there's something slightly interesting in your treatment of the experiences of actual prostitutes here. You didn't intend to treat Mott purely as a victim, but it still came across that way. And I'm sure that you didn't intend to Magnanti as a victim, but it does also come across like that. Although you say, "From glamorous courtesan to tragic victim, it’s not just Belle's body that can be bent into any position you fancy," you still seem to be pushing her into your own mould, without reference to what she herself says on the subject.

    Perhaps redpesto is a bit optimistic to say "you could always ask her". She might reasonably feel a bit fed up with being used as a pawn in this debate, although on the other hand, she might welcome the opportunity to put across her own views. And I assume from the fact that Mott commented here, that she would also have been willing to comment beforehand. And of course Magnanti writes a well known blog, in which she has occasionally written about her opinions on this subject.

    So (although I don't want to push this point too strongly) it looks a bit as if you're pushing prostitutes themselves into a passive role in this debate.

    Incidentally, this is what Magnanti wrote about the Policing and Crime Bill on 20 November 2008:

    "The intial idea is to 'name and shame' kerb crawlers, and to impose harsh sentences on men who use the services of trafficked women. As opposed to the more logical route of, say, imposing harsh sentences on those doing the trafficking, which would be difficult but worthwhile. In other words, what Mizz Smith is proposing is shooting at a blank wall and drawing your target around the hole.

    "We know where this will end, naturally - it is no secret that the real agenda of Harriet Harman and Jacqui Smith is to criminalise prostitution as a whole. By dressing up the early stages in faux-concern for exploited women, they are doing nothing more than putting lipstck on a pig."

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  34. An excellent piece. Thanks for guiding us through the complexities of current feminist theory and debate!

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  35. @redpesto

    "Well...If one starts with the possibility that the buyer is agreeing to pay for services rendered (i.e. some form of agreed sexual activity) and not 'buying' the woman/man (who ideally retains the right to say 'no' as well as 'yes')[1], then one has to ask why paying for a legal activity (i.e. sex) is somehow different from any other agreement (on both sides) to provide an equally legal service or activity in exchange for money.
    [1] This is where the government's proposals came unstuck: the assumption seemed to be that 'coercion' was inherent in sex work without explaining why, which meant they could not conceive of the possibility of mutual consent between buyer and seller. If clients are abusive/violent, or the seller is coerced, then of course there should be prosecutions - just as they would be if the same happened to any other employee or individual - but where there is consent, perhaps the law could just let people get on with it."

    You reason with the presumption that the transaction is going on between the buyer and the seller where the seller is selling her own body. But what if the transactions are happening between the buyer and the seller who is selling not his own but another body? To what extent does the prostitute has autonomy over her body when she has a boss who makes decisions as to how he'll run the business of selling her? Also, you only seem to include brute force in your definition of coercion, without the slightest acknowledgment of how economic forces play into this. In that respect, it is important to insist on the woman's right to choose to do what she wants, while the whole discussion of to what extent certain socio-economic conditions actually offer the possibility of autonomous choice is bypassed.

    @ Sina
    "But one big problem I see is that many "abolitionists" don't want to see human working conditions in the sex industry, but want to abolish it completely - a goal which is unrealistic, but still fought for."

    Why is that? Why is it given as a cultural or biological necessity that some men will always insist on buying sex or will be impossible to prevent from doing so and/or that some women will always, under whatever circumstances, find the business of selling sex more appealing than any other, in any other kind of society we might evolve into?

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  36. "Say instead, "50 experiences among many" and you actually have the position correctly."

    Oh but of course! Fragment the instances of the continued and systematic rape and torture of women for the 'sex' industry into separate 'experiences'! Then you can ignore the pattern, the whole system of abuse, and it becomes the problem of separate, unfortunate individuals, instead of the abuses of an entire, globalised, pervasive multi-billion-dollar industry that sells rape.

    Reduce it to 'experiences'; belittle the survivors of sexual violence; refuse to make the connections. Then you can isolate survivors effectively, and persuade everyone else, as the bodies pile up, that all we are speaking of is the misfortunes of the few. And what is that compared to men's rights to women's bodies on demand, eh? That is what they call 'freedom'.

    Never forget the vested interests of many of those defending the 'sex' industry:

    http://laurelin.wordpress.com/2009/07/05/the-bleeding-obvious/

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  37. So what do would-be rapists (or hey maybe he's just a rape fantasist!) have to offer in a discussion like this?:

    http://snowdropexposed.wordpress.com/about/

    Scary as fuck that he is promoting himself as a feminist and "sex workers' rights activist".

    I hope you publish this comment Penny, because women have the right to know which of the men amongst us find the thought of rape a sexually stimulating idea.

    The sad thing is that women in the sex industry have to deal with men with ideas and fantasies like his all the time. Prostitution makes it easy for men like that to act out those ideas. If prostituted women meet the worst on the spectrum their fate is going to be like those of the women in Ipswich, or the women in Vancouver.

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  38. "Too often, the pro-prostitution lobby is guilty of silencing the voices of women like Mott"

    Actually, voices like Rmott's have become a token mention in plenty of pro-prostitution arguments. Rather, if they mention Rmott, there is some self-referential pat-on-the-back akin to marking through an ingredient in a recipe--"well they quoted Rmott sooo obviously the pro-prostitution lobby cares about all the voices!"

    "just as the abolitionist lobby refuses to acknowledge sex workers whose experiences differ."

    'Just as...'?? I certainly hope you aren't comparing the personal and social deleterious effects of silencing 'I was raped!" to silencing "I get off on this job!"
    I don't even agree that the sides aren't listening to each other--we all know the other's side perfectly well. We simply have come to a mutually exclusive impasse as to how the violence men commit to women's bodies will be affected by certain legislation.


    "The sex work debate is a sea of unheard voices, private tragedy and misinformation in which moral squabbling obscures the real-life concerns of many vulnerable women."


    The sea of unheard voices? (aside from the dead women who never made it out in time to start a blog) Those are the men's--the punters. The guys on Punternet, the average guys, the college dudes looking for some fun, the husbands, the city politicians. If we want to get to the bottom of this we need to be reading punternet (those who can stomach it) daily, we need to be blatantly honest with the social appetite sex-on-demand feeds--because that's where the disagreement is.
    These kinds of posts--the ones that try to sum up all the sides and give some "sex work debate" narrative come a dime a dozen.

    I want to know what it will take to get men to stop relating to women's bodies through power-based economic and social channels.
    And then I want someone to tell me, when that dynamic no longer exists, what it is that needs payment.

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  39. @ a sane person

    Because this would have to be a society in which everyone's sexual and social needs would always be fulfilled, no poverty exists or all other available jobs would be better paid. And when all these goals are reached, and no one has to do sex work out of necessity, one still has to eradicate all women who like sex with different men and like to get paid to do something they like.

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  40. A Sane Person:

    You reason with the presumption that the transaction is going on between the buyer and the seller where the seller is selling her own body. But what if the transactions are happening between the buyer and the seller who is selling not his own but another body? To what extent does the prostitute has autonomy over her body when she has a boss who makes decisions as to how he'll run the business of selling her? Also, you only seem to include brute force in your definition of coercion, without the slightest acknowledgment of how economic forces play into this.

    First, the diversity of sex work means that some people are sole operators and others are not. Second, it depends on whether the other person is using force, threats or coercion. If they are, they should be prosecuted. If not, then it depends on whether they are regarded as an 'agent' (see actors, models, footballers, all of whom can say 'no' to any work arranged for them), a 'manager' (see pop stars, ditto), a 'madam' or a 'pimp' (same role, but for some reason sex seems to make it different) - it all depends on what kind of response the speaker wants to get, and what their position is on sex work as a whole (as your insistence that the woman is literally 'sold' indicates).

    As for economic forces, if a job (however crap) is a response to the coercion of poverty or the need to pay the bills/mortgage, on what basis is 'sex work' different as a means of responding to this compared to any other job? Greater equality and a fairer economic system would doubtless offer more opportunities/income for poor people (male or female), let alone women in particular, but it does not necessarily follow that sex work would disappear: it might mean only willing buyers/sellers would participate.

    [redpesto]

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  41. @Robert:

    I think there's a basic problem with the Elliot/Schaffauser line, which is that they fundamentally don't agree.

    That's what I thought too. Perhaps they would have found more common ground on the need to prosecute instances of violence/abuse - but even there, the assumption in Elliott's case is all that sex work (and the men who pay for it) is inherently violent and abusive, which others such as Schaffhauser don't share.

    [redpesto]

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  42. My problem with the sex industry, as a radical feminist, is that it exists because males demand the right to access some females bodies at all times. It is about male entitlement to access female people. If that demand ever ceased to exist, that entitlement vanished, and there were then still female people who chose to sell sexual access of themselves to males, I might still have various *feelings* and *opinions* about that, like I do everything else, but I would not have a problem with it.

    So long as that demand and entitlement continue, there will ALWAYS be some female people who are *required* to be accessible to males. And whether that requirement is fulfilled through voluntary, organized, legal means, or through force (where money may still change hands or money may not even be involved), that will remain of little or no consequence to males themselves.

    THAT is the fucking problem with prostitution.

    And as a highly sexual off-and-on whore myself, I'd greatly appreciate it if male people with a vested interest in that access fucked right off with their claims of fighting the good fight against whore-hating and sex-phobic killjoys.

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  43. @Sina:
    In a society where everyone's sexual and social needs were fulfilled, women would not be able to sell sex because there would be no demand for their services. That doesn't mean they couldn't do some other job, and still enjoy sex with different men in their free time.


    @Redpesto:
    You haven't really replied to my statement that prostitution is seen as harmfull because it is the selling and buying of women, when those women are not sellers. All you did is presume a variety of relationships between a prostitute and her pimp without really explaining the power relations employed in each. And yes, a woman is literally sold when she is seen as an object that satisfies someone's sexual need and another person gets paid for it.

    "on what basis is 'sex work' different as a means of responding to this compared to any other job?"

    A worker sells his skill, a prostitute sells herself. A worker is seen as a person outside of his job, a prostitute is her job. A person's employment in most industries is likely to have significantly lower influence on that person's life than working in prostitution would: prostitutes are regularly met with physical, sexual and mental abuse, are raped, have inadequate access to health care, are prone to substance abuse, etc. I would say this is the basis of what makes sex work different than any other job as a means of responding to socio-economic pressures.


    "My problem with the sex industry, as a radical feminist, is that it exists because males demand the right to access some females bodies at all times. It is about male entitlement to access female people. If that demand ever ceased to exist, that entitlement vanished, and there were then still female people who chose to sell sexual access of themselves to males, I might still have various *feelings* and *opinions* about that, like I do everything else, but I would not have a problem with it."

    This I agree with.

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  44. 'The one thing that almost no-one has asked is why a PhD student might find herself selling sexual intercourse to fund her studies in the first place. Commentators are slow to connect Belle with a bankrupt higher education system in which indebted students routinely live well below the poverty line to afford the degrees their future employers increasingly demand.'

    Here bloody here, it is about time somebody started ramming this point home. Far easier for this government to ban something than address the mess they created, isn't it?

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  45. I loved the article. I believed it was thought-provoking and well-researched. My dilemma is that sex work, and I agree with the poster who said the term was a misnomer, is usually considered to be the lowest rung on the job ladder for women.

    I beg to differ. I think that in the same way a female sweatshop worker in India, for instance, is exploited by a combination of market forces and poverty, a prostitute suffers the same fate through lack of choice and many other social, political and economic factors. My worry is that by focusing on prostitution so much, feminists are giving the impression that any other menial job (and God knows there're plenty about) will be better. No, to me the issue is about choice and how you arrive at that choice. Read today's The Guardian article on 'broken Britain' (my quotation marks) and you'll see that destitution and low expectations can be a catalyst for economic decline with the predictable outcome that the most vulnerable members of that community (and women are probably come top) will bear the brunt totally.

    I think that it is education and economic circumstances that should be at the front of any political agenda. You won't get that from the incumbent government (ever wondered why Harriet Harman's profile hasn't risen more?), forget about the Tories, the Lib-Dems are professional fence-sitters and the Greens care only about the environment. And as for Respect and all the other fringe parties, unfortunately they are ruled by egocentric, megalomaniac leaders. I'm relaly looking forward to that promised hung parliament, if only because I think we'll have a better alternative than just the one-party option.

    Great post. Many thanks.

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  46. Well, if nothing else, Brooke Magnanti shows how you can fund post-graduate studies innovatively. But why choose the "oldest profession" to "work" in as a first choice? Why she didn't get a couple of part-time manual jobs, e.g., as a barmaid or supermarket shelf-stacker, which is what my sister did for three years to fund her D.Phil studies. My sister wasn't forced into prostitution because she failed to get a grant, sponsorship or a fellowship of some sort. Anyway, if you ever hanker after the Masters in Journalism at City University you previously wrote about you have a few avenues to consider as far as self-funding goes: barmaid, supermarket shelf-stacker or sexual servitor.

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  47. @A Sane Person:

    You haven't really replied to my statement that prostitution is seen as harmfull because it is the selling and buying of women, when those women are not sellers.

    I have already addressed your statement, mainly by pointing out how and why I disagree with it, not least with your premise that the women are, in your view, literally bought and sold, which may not be the case in all instances of prostitution. Secondly, by pointing out that having someone who arranges the details (or does the admin, as it were) could be regarded as an 'agent' or yelled at for being a 'pimp' or mysteriously ignored because they are a female manager of an escort agency or brothel, according to one's view of sex work. I take it you assume that the power relationship is inherently abusive or exploitative simply because (a) the arrangement involves sex and/or (b) the buyer is male and the seller is female and/or (c) there's an agreement that involves an exchange of money. As I said in my earlier post, if there is actual abuse or coercion, there should be prosecutions; however, that may not be the case simply because of the positions of men and women in sex work where there is consent on both (or all sides).

    As for your other argument that 'A worker sells his skill, a prostitute sells herself.', the coining of the term 'sex work' suggests that one skill the seller has is the capacity to create or give sexual pleasure to another person, which is in no way an innate ability to do well. The abuse prostitutes suffer is not just the result of misogyny, or a 'given' of the job, but also an aspect of our social attitudes to sex outside marriage, to sexually active women (as well as men) and to money, all mixed up with one another to the point where objections to sex work could in reality be based on one or all of those matters, even if they couched in concern for the seller or hostility to the buyer - though this never seems to go beyond situations where the seller is female and the buyer is male.

    One further thought: Decriminalisation might enable sex workers to get access to better healthcare and support services, and give sex workers the same protection under the law from being assaulted or abused in the course of their work as any other employee. This would mean those who wanted or needed help would helped, and those who wanted to get on with the job could do so knowing that troublemakers will be punished.

    [redpesto]

    PS: Readers please note that the last passage A Sane Person quoted was not written by me.

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  48. @ A sane person: True, if all desires would always be met then the other possibilities to end prostitution would not be required. But how could that be managed? The only way I see is to eradicate all desire. And I hope you do not wish for a society in which everyone has a mind-controlling chip implanted in their brain which makes them feel no desire for sex and closeness?

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  49. "Julian Real" wrote:-

    ....."I'm calling on you to be responsible in tossing around terms like "neo-Dworkinite radical feminists".
    Who are you talking about, specifically?"

    I am quite rigorous about how I use terms and there is certainly a basis for this one.

    The leadership of the London Feminist Network do indeed regard Andrea Dworkin's work as an important ideological inspiration.

    I'm not saying that it doesn't contain important insights. But in terms of practical politics, it has serious problems as your comments about court cases on pornography indicate.

    It's quite possible that the kind of movement that LFN are envisaging today could be turned into a reformist 'moral rearmament' movement and coopted by lawyers and cops.

    The radical Feminism of the 70's didn't decline because of some conspiracy. It was a politically flawed, cross class movement, dominated by middle class women and academics.

    Why repeat these mistakes all over again?

    Prianikoff

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  50. It's quite possible that the kind of movement that LFN are envisaging today could be turned into a reformist 'moral rearmament' movement and coopted by lawyers and cops.

    You mean like how Dworkin and MacKinnon's anti-porn feminism got co-opted by Reagan and the New Right? We'll just have to wait and see...

    [redpesto]

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  51. @Redpesto
    "I disagree with it, not least with your premise that the women are, in your view, literally bought and sold, which may not be the case in all instances of prostitution."

    Maybe not in all, but it is certainly present to a large degree. Ignoring this obviously serves your purpose to promote the idea that not all selling of sex is coercive therefore the concept of selling of sex must be permitted, but it doesn't address all reality but a limited number of situations. And those situations that are left out are those which are harmful to prostitutes. For an example of how women are literally treated as commodities, here's an excerpt from a Guardian article:

    "Frank was offered "two for the price of one" if he visited during "happy hour" (any time before 5pm). One brothel owner offered to send two women to the punter's home for a £50 delivery charge; another offered free oral sex without a condom if more than £50 was spent; and at one suburban sauna, first-time buyers were offered a voucher which entitled them to 50% off the next visit."


    "I take it you assume that the power relationship is inherently abusive or exploitative"

    The power relationship is inherently exploitative whenever someone collects profits that arise from the work of another. It is inherently abusive when the employee is treated not as a worker but as a commodity that is traded and which has no autonomy to decide how it is traded or used - meaning that in that particular relationship subjective agency is denied to the 'subordinate' party. Abusive and exploitative relationships are not limited to sex work: exploitation is inherent to the capitalist system, and abusive relationships are also present in many capitalist enterprises, where the unions and/or legal regulations do not provide workers with any power to influence or shape their working conditions. Only in prostitution this is pushed to the extreme, because of the particular circumstance that prostitution trades bodies as commodities.

    "The abuse prostitutes suffer is not just the result of misogyny, or a 'given' of the job, "

    Yes, it is, actually. The abuse is directly related to whether you view the prostitute as a person or as a commodity that is available to you to satisfy your need. If you don't percieve the prostitute as a person - and I think that most punters and pimps/madams and even the majority of the society don't, otherwise they would be more engaged in caring for their well-being and for their needs and desires - then it is easy for you or anyone else to use that object as you wish, because you are not relating empathically with that person on a fundamental level. The abuse prostitutes suffer stems from the very fact they are traded and perceived as goods, and when they are understood as such this diminishes their autonomy as agents, as subjects. That is why it is easy to approach a prostitute (whether you are a punter or pimp/madam) not as a person but as a thing that satisfies your need, and or as a thing that provides you profit. If you don't percieve a prostitute as an equally valid person as yourself but as a thing, you will lack empathy towards her. This does not occur just in sex work, it is common in our society: immigration is another good example of how we fail to empathize with people who we don't perceive to be equal to us and are willing to have them detained in the worst conditions. Because they are not people equaly worthy us as, we don't sufficiently empathize with their hardship. Lack of empathy is the root of abuse - whether individual or institutionalized. That is why the prevalent violence and abuse in sex work is the direct result of the nature of prostitution which reduces the woman as subject to an object that is used.

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  52. @Sina:
    "And I hope you do not wish for a society in which everyone has a mind-controlling chip implanted in their brain which makes them feel no desire for sex and closeness?"

    Yes. Yes, that is precisely what I wish. I do not approve of the abuse of women by men who believe they should be entitled to have access to women's bodies at any and all times, therefore I must be a heartless automaton who seeks to eradicate all pleasure and desire.

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  53. I am reading a report about men who buy sex, and would just like to paste a couple of paragraphs that illustrate my earlier assertion that abuse towards prostitutes is directly related to their job and how prostitutes are, due to their job, percieved. This was a research done on 103 London men who bought sex:

    The notion that prostitutes are “un-rape-able” was a common belief among the men in this sample. Twenty-five per cent told us that the very concept of raping a prostitute or call girl was “ridiculous.” Nearly one-half of the buyers stated that rape happens because men get sexually carried away (47%) or their sex drive gets “out of control” (48%). Sixteen per cent stated that they would rape a woman if they could be assured that they would not be caught. Acknowledging their sexually coercive behaviours with non-prostitute women, 37% told us that they had tricked non-prostituting women into having sex by lying to them. Twenty-four per cent asserted that the concept of rape simply does not apply to women in prostitution.

    Twenty-seven per cent of our interviewees explained that once he pays, the customer is entitled to engage in any act he chooses with the woman he buys. Forty-seven per cent of these London men expressed the view to a greater or lesser degree that women did not always have certain rights during prostitution. Seventeen per cent of the men agreed that half of the time or less frequently prostitutes have certain rights during the prostitution encounter. Another 22% of these interviewees expressed 60-80% agreement with the statement “women have certain rights in prostitution”. These findings suggest that at various times during prostitution, many of the men who buy women for sex think that the women they buy have no rights in the interaction.

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  54. There's no social space, in my view--and my neck still has reasonable range of motion, for women to not be "sex" or soothers FOR men. Women can resist and rebel, but at the end of the day, a relatively butch lesbian I know is approached by a het man coming out of a het porn shop and he immediately comments to her, a stranger, about the aroma of her p*ssy. And she is shaken and afraid because he does think he has a right to rape her, in a way he doesn't think he has a right to rape me, a non-butch man.

    I don't need to factor men-as-sexually-available-to-men into an equation about why men believing women are "for SEX" and "FOR men" is wrong and something to oppose on human rights grounds. I don't know whether or what percentage of males who are prostitutes are pimped or are going it alone. And let's not forget the ways in which society, dominant society, functions as the pimp.

    As Dworkin noted, at the end of the day, a month, a year, or ten years, a man can walk away from working in pornography and have a socially bolstered sense of self as "not just a wh*re" that is not so readily made available to women institutionally and structurally. We men--of whatever orientation--will let each other think "you're not just a wh*re, man" or "you weren't born to be a wh*re, man". You yourself call the male prostitute a "hustler". Note the status that comes with that. Why don't you call women prostitutes "hustlers"? Because men do have the illusion of a kind of independence and authority in the world, relative to women. And men know it and want to maintain that illusion, by any means necessary.

    Men, collectively, do our best to insist that women, all women, think of themselves as only wh*res or the mothers of wh*res, or the comforters of the men who use women in so many ways. From religion to advertising, from art to music to literature, to the courtroom, to the jailhouse the message is there for women: get on your knees, and either work that dick or work that scrub brush. Men don't tell each other "that's what men exist to do".

    Men do this reinforcing of the idea that women are sex and soothing for men, with practices and policies, often State policies, regardless of whether the women are rich or poor, white or of color, married, divorced, single, heterosexual, lesbian, working inside or outside systems of prostitution. We men want women to think of themselves as existing for us, for the kind of sex and soothing men want; also to do the cooking, the dishes, the laundry, dress the children, and wipe the baby's ass. That's my experience. And the fact that there are some women who escape this or who take great pride in doing that work well, and the fact that there are a few good men who do those dishes and dress their children, doesn't make me radically reassess the reality I've known for decades by knowing hundreds of women.

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  55. @all
    On the matter of sex work vs. non-sex work. When in a motel room, month after month, rented out by a man who called me only for sex, when he callously held my head in his hand moving it along his dick at a pace and rhythm he preferred--as if my head were a melon with a hole in it, that was quite unlike any experience I've ever had doing any other kind of work. I've never had post-traumatic stress from other work I've done. Oh, and he didn't pay me. I thought that's what I was for, so I did it for free, for years. But I never paid for the motel room, as I knew I'd be out of it within an hour or two.

    @Shoe
    What I miss out on is men's voices in the debate [...] and the gay male community remains resiliently silent, in an almost embarrassed manner, on the subject of male prostitution and pornography [...].

    As a gay man, I disagree that men selling sex, to whomever, has nothing to do with misogyny, and for the more on that, see Christopher Kendall's written work on gay men and sex. Homophobic violence, the sexual abuse and incest of boys, the sexual abuse and incest of girls, capitalism, racism, misogyny, prostitution, pornography, trafficking, slavery, and sexism are all bound up in one another, inextricably, to me.

    Which is why I make no profeminist argument for the activist maintenance of any of it.

    Men who accept money for sexual favours are every bit as compromised as women who do, [...] a newly arrived Italian guy that he was looking for work as an "escort." [...] I don't think gay hustlers are pimped or trafficked as commonly as female ones - or are they? Do we really know?

    I don't think men used as sexxx are ever exactly as compromised as women are, for systemic reasons and due to forms of social status afforded each gender. When I left that motel room, I wasn't cat-called and thought of as a wh*re on my way home.

    I don't seek out the perspectives on the rich to tell me what's wrong with capitalism. I don't seek out the perspectives of the least harmed women to find out what's going on that's misogynistic.

    What adult men do by way of selling ourselves as sexxx-things for any number of reasons, isn't important to study in order to arrive at this conclusion: het men believing women are "sex", or are for sex, or sexxx; het men believing and acting as if some women if not all women, some girls if not all girls, MUST be available, somehow--visually or physically, is f*cked up and isn't part of any version of humanity I want to promote or support.

    I don't need to know how white men have survived being enslaved to other white men to arrive at the conclusion that I would be militantly against Blacks being re-enslaved in the U.S. South.

    This is my experience:
    As a gay man it is assumed, by people I know who think of themselves as liberal or progressive, that I exist for sex in a way that het men do not. And with that comes the assumption that "I'm more womanly than is the het man". And people I know assume women, more than me, MUST be available to men for sex and soothing. I'm always "sexual" in some f*cked up sense, according to dominant social stereotypes. But women are "sex" and "soothers" in the most f*cked up ways imaginable, FOR het men, according to what my dominant cultural spokespeople tell me, such as pimps and owners of mass media.

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  56. The radical Feminism of the 70's didn't decline because of some conspiracy.

    It has struggled because of a concerted, extremely well-funded effort by media, politicians, police, lawyers, academics, religious leaders, and pimps to reinforce the idea that women are for sex for men. Have you read "Backlash" by Susan Faludi?

    Radical movements and campaigns are difficult to maintain because the dominants make it impossible for them to thrive. How many radical activists do you know who are well paid to do that work? How much money are men willing to pay pimps to insure that a population of women are always available for a f*ck and a suck?

    We needn't blame the human rights activists for a failure to accomplish reasonable goals when the people with the most institutional power work diligently to prevent those goals from seeing the light of a new day.

    It was a politically flawed, cross class movement, dominated by middle class women and academics.

    I disagree with you about this; the feminism you speak of is the feminism written about by dominant media and academics, as a single story. What really happened are multiple stories that don't fit neatly into a chapter of a book, or a lesson plan, or a sound bite.

    There are many more forms of militant radical feminism now, and none of them are dead. Mostly they are actively resisting atrocities across the many nations and societies of the continent of Asia. You know of RAWA, yes? And the work of Apne Aap? And of Yanar Mohammed? Do you get that where there are atrocities happening against women, there is resistance to it? And that the work of those women you think of as "in the past" fuel the activism of these militant women? And that the atrocities are everywhere, hence the London Feminist Network and many other organisation of women fighting for women to not have to be for sex and for soothing for men, or raped or battered either.

    Why repeat these mistakes all over again?

    I'd ask you the same question, but I see the mistake as you and so many others believing you can collapse patriarchal and racist social realities and women's human rights work into neat packages so as to be dismissive or callous to the work they do. I believe you are quite mistaken about what happened then and what is happening now.

    The intensity of the resistance struggles are perpetually being invisibilised by the pro-status quo forces that actively and unrelentingly seek women's compliance and allegiance in many ways, for many reasons, none of them in service to the efforts by primarily disenfranchised women to stop male domination and exploitation of anyone or any thing deemed feminine.

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  57. @Prianikov
    The leadership of the London Feminist Network do indeed regard Andrea Dworkin's work as an important ideological inspiration.

    I'm not saying that it doesn't contain important insights. But in terms of practical politics, it has serious problems as your comments about court cases on pornography indicate.


    Which "it" are you referring to? Which work by Andrea Dworkin are you speaking about? Her work on racism and white supremacy? Her analysis of James Baldwin's novels and non-fiction? Her book on Israel? Her analysis of Right-wing women?

    The serious problems I was referring to are that a libertarian while conservative society such as the U.S. doesn't give a damn about whether rape is ended or even challenged as a political practice of terrorism. The problem was not the radically pro-woman perspective Dworkin and MacKinnon brought into their law which would have done something to hold corporate pimps accountable to the harm they create and inspire.

    It's quite possible that the kind of movement that LFN are envisaging today could be turned into a reformist 'moral rearmament' movement and coopted by lawyers and cops.

    Let's talk about what's happening in reality, because speaking abstractly about the future isn't going to get us very far. We can all speculate on whatever. Meanwhile, women and girls (disproportionately to men and boys) are being incested, raped, pimped, and (mis)treated as sexxx-things by some men, right?

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  58. @ A Sane Person:

    Maybe not in all, but it is certainly present to a large degree. Ignoring this obviously serves your purpose to promote the idea that not all selling of sex is coercive therefore the concept of selling of sex must be permitted

    You again ignored the point I've made twice now, which is that the law should intervene, prosecute and punish where there has been an offence committed - and not do so where there is no evidence and instance that an offence such as coercion took place. Your response indicates that all instances of prostitution should be prosecuted, not just because an offence has been committed in some cases but because the very nature of the encounter is (in your view) an offence. I recognise the possibility of coercion; by contrast, you appear not to recognise the possibility of consent, which perhaps echoes one aspect of Penny's original post.

    The power relationship is inherently exploitative whenever someone collects profits that arise from the work of another. It is inherently abusive when the employee is treated not as a worker but as a commodity that is traded and which has no autonomy to decide how it is traded or used - meaning that in that particular relationship subjective agency is denied to the 'subordinate' party. Abusive and exploitative relationships are not limited to sex work: exploitation is inherent to the capitalist system, and abusive relationships are also present in many capitalist enterprises, where the unions and/or legal regulations do not provide workers with any power to influence or shape their working conditions. Only in prostitution this is pushed to the extreme, because of the particular circumstance that prostitution trades bodies as commodities.

    This is just cod-Marxism added to the same point you made earlier - that the women are literally bought and sold - yet somehow we don't regard factory workers or most other employees (male or female) as being literally bought and sold within capitalism in the manner that anti-prostitution activists regard sex workers: there's a difference between a slave and an employee. Moreover, unionising sex workers (along with decriminalisation) may be one form of resistance against managements who exploit the workers' pay and conditions - after all, it works in other areas of employment. It's either that or all-female collectively-run brothels based on a co-operative model.

    Lastly, sex work seems to be the only example of 'service sector' work (i.e. not manufacturing) where paying for the service is seen as grounds for prosecution, regardless of attitude, let alone actual behaviour, even though the activity (sex) is legal and consent may be given by all those involved.

    [redpesto]

    PS: Re. Dworkin - it's probably Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

    PPS: The difficulty of citing gay men and sex work is: (a) there are no women for feminist activists to champion; (b) if such activists used the same arguments in a gay context, it would indicate that their issue is more with paying for sex on principle, regardless of the genders of the buyer and seller (male buyer/female seller being simply the most common variant) - but that would reveal more about their attitude to sex in general than anything else.

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  59. Redpesto:
    "Your response indicates that all instances of prostitution should be prosecuted, not just because an offence has been committed in some cases but because the very nature of the encounter is (in your view) an offence."

    I have neither said nor implied that. I haven't addressed the issue of prosecution in any way, not even implicitly.

    I have said, but I obviously need to repeat, that I have no problem with women who sell sex because that is a job they like and not a job they are forced (by whatever conditions) to do. That also means I do not believe those women or their clients and pimps/madams should be prosecuted.

    But I have noted that sex work harbours and gives rise to abuse by its very nature and the characterization of prostitutes as less than human, and I suppose my insistence on this leads you to believe I am in favour of prosecuting everything and everyone, when I am merely trying to examine the reality of prostitution unlike people like you who are in favour of constructing that reality based on your personal beliefs.

    The problem is that I look at surveys that say that the majority of prostitutes want to get out of sex work but are unable to and see that this job is *not* a choice for the majority of those involved, whereas you insist on advocating the abstract notion of consensuality which is clearly in most instances exactly that - completely abstract and not in any way related to reality.

    You call for the prosecution of coercive and abusive behaviour, even though this approach is not working. Netherlands has legalized prostitution and still thousands of women are trafficked into the country every year and forced into prostitution. But you'd rather ignore that in favour of accusing me of things that I don't support nor have voiced, because if I don't find your solution good enough, that must be because I believe all prostitution should be prosecuted and not because the solution you offer is simply not good enough to protect women.

    "all-female collectively-run brothels based on a co-operative model"

    It doesn't have to be all-female, but a co-operative definitively.

    "Lastly, sex work seems to be the only example of 'service sector' work (i.e. not manufacturing) where paying for the service is seen as grounds for prosecution, regardless of attitude, let alone actual behaviour, even though the activity (sex) is legal and consent may be given by all those involved."

    The focus on consent and the legality of the sex act misses the wider context that is created by prostitution. Sex work is also a 'service sector' that is valiantly insistent in the perpetuation of beliefs that women are objects that serve men's desires and sexual needs and that in doing so those women do not have the same rights as other people. Any legalization of prostitution must come after this is dealt with or must at the same time strive towards eradicating these beliefs, otherwise it will merely serve to reinforce them.

    The problem is that there is both a positive and a negative position with regard to prostitutes: a) that women are autonomus subjects who are able to consent to any sexual activiy and should be able to even trade that sexual activity, and b) that men should be able to use women to satisfy their sexual needs and to assume there should always be suffiecent number of women at their disposal. These two seem intuitively contradictory and are hard to reconcile because the latter is frequently detrimental to the former. And the legalization of prostitution may not do enough to reinforce the former position but plenty to justify and strengthen the latter position and it might then fail to eradicate the current harmful beliefs and practices of the sex industry.

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  60. "yet somehow we don't regard factory workers or most other employees (male or female) as being literally bought and sold within capitalism in the manner that anti-prostitution activists regard sex workers: there's a difference between a slave and an employee."

    The difference is between an employee who sells his work and an objectified person who is used as an instrument to satisfy one's biological need and which is used much like one would use a piece of food or some drug, with little regard to that person's personal attributes, wishes or desires, as if she weren't a person at all. The sexual objectification explicitly involved is the reason why it is claimed women are bought and sold. But I suppose we could just eliminate the whole concept of sexual objectification, because it does not have any impact or imporatance for women and the society, right?

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  61. The idea that students have to become strippers, lap dancers or prostitutes in order to fund their studies is specious and ridiculous. I can't think of a single girl or woman I know who would resort to such measures in order to secure tuition.

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  62. @ a sane person:

    The reality of prostitution is as diverse as there are prostitutes - hence Penny's original post citing how, for example, anti-prostitution campaigners insist the glass is half-empty, despite what other sex workers (who disagree and simply want to work) keep telling them. Both arguments are constructed on 'personal beliefs', even if they happen to disagree.

    You call for the prosecution of coercive and abusive behaviour, even though this approach is not working. Netherlands has legalized prostitution and still thousands of women are trafficked into the country every year and forced into prostitution. But you'd rather ignore that in favour of accusing me of things that I don't support nor have voiced, because if I don't find your solution good enough, that must be because I believe all prostitution should be prosecuted and not because the solution you offer is simply not good enough to protect women.

    This is odd: you point out that women are forced in prostitution (a crime), which I think should be prosecuted - yet you suggest that I'm ignoring such occurances, while you argue that the law is not working. Yet there seems no other effective way of dealing with women trafficked into sex work other than prosecuting the people traffickers and/or the men who have sex with those women (and men?) where their free consent has not been given. Consent is not 'abstract', as it is the cornerstone of sexual offences legislation, as well of sex itself (especially as being paid for sex is legal under UK law).

    Sex work is also a 'service sector' that is valiantly insistent in the perpetuation of beliefs that women are objects that serve men's desires and sexual needs and that in doing so those women do not have the same rights as other people.

    That only applies of course if ignore any other permutation of male and female when it comes to the buyer/seller. I would place your argument the other way around: without decriminalisation and full protection under the law (and a greater readiness to prosecute when it is broken), it will be hard to shift attitudes to sex workers, whether of sexism by men or of 'bad girls' by either women or men.

    Regarding your follow-up post, you've simply repeated the same argument again, and thrown in a different, rather faulty, analogy:

    The difference is between an employee who sells his work and an objectified person who is used as an instrument to satisfy one's biological need and which is used much like one would use a piece of food or some drug, with little regard to that person's personal attributes, wishes or desires, as if she weren't a person at all.

    Yet such 'objectification' could take place during sex without any cash changing hands, if it is a question of second-guessing the motivations of the participants (I'm not a mind-reader, and I'll risk assuming you're not one either, so it's hard to tell regarding what other people think when they have sex). It could even happen in a non-sexual service sector job (e.g. waiting tables) - yet somehow sex makes the situation different. You set up an potentially false opposition between the economic process of selling one's labour or skill (which could include sexual skills) and how one is treated or viewed in doing so, based on an assertion that sex work is 'by its very nature' abusive and cannot be considered 'work'. On this, as on so much of what you and I have written on this thread, it looks like we'll have to disagree.

    [redpesto]

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  63. PS: Barbara Ellen in today's Observer. Key quote (for me at least):

    Still, if we are able to tell the difference between prostitutes and the average woman on the street, it seems just as crucial to make the distinction between women who willingly work as prostitutes and those who are forced or trafficked. Instead, what so often happens is that they are lazily bundled together, in one big, whore-shaped ball.

    [redpesto]

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  64. Black Belinda" wrote 'The idea that students have to become strippers, lap dancers or prostitutes in order to fund their studies is specious and ridiculous.'

    According to the online bio of 'Caty Cole', who performs regularly on the satellite channels, she's studying for an Accounting and Finance degree, earns between £75,000-100,000 a year and "loves money" She's also married...

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  65. @Anonymous

    Didn't you notice the presence of the verb "have" in the sentence that you quote? Or are you seriously suggesting that unfunded female students have no alternative but to accept part-time jobs in the sex industry in order to pay for their tuition? What has your 'Caty Cole' biography go to do with the price eggs?

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  66. @ Black Belinda: I think it was where you said 'I can't think of a single girl or woman I know who would resort to such measures in order to secure tuition.' Maybe there are women you don't know who did resort to such measures?

    [redpesto]

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  67. @Redpesto
    Both arguments are constructed on 'personal beliefs', even if they happen to disagree.

    Well, actually, the arguments about the harmfulness of prostitution are based on surveys and statistical data that show that prostitutes are more likely to be abused and raped, that many suffer from PTSD, that more are likely to commit suicide than non-prostituted women, that more of them are likely to be addicted etc. I would really love if you could point me towards a survey that shows that the majority of women prostitutes love their job and would not choose another that paid just as well. I haven't been able to find surveys and statistical data that would support that claim. I will admit I may not have been looking in the right direction, so if you have that information, I'd love to read it.

    The Eaves research to which I linked earlier cites some numbers that paint a very negative picture of the reality of most prostitutes. I know that there are "diverse realities" of prostitution and I do not dispute that. But to insist on the legality of prostitution based on the fact that "diverse realities" are possible, even when the real experiences are overwhelmingly negative, is simply not a good enough argument for supporting prostitution.


    Yet such 'objectification' could take place during sex without any cash changing hands, if it is a question of second-guessing the motivations of the participants (I'm not a mind-reader, and I'll risk assuming you're not one either, so it's hard to tell regarding what other people think when they have sex). It could even happen in a non-sexual service sector job (e.g. waiting tables) - yet somehow sex makes the situation different.

    Well, yes, it does, because the *legality* of paying for sex normalizes the practice of sexual objectification. Why is that so hard to understand? Or maybe you don't see anything wrong with sexual objectification?

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  68. I don't see the logical connexion between "legality" and "normalization"- obviously I am dismissed because this is not "hard to understand" . There may be intersections between what is determined to be "illegal" thorough a largely political process ( policy debates , white papers , parliamentary committees etc) and what is "normalized" behaivour, but they are not necessarily logically connected. There may be reflections of what largely white upper class males thought "normalized behaivour" in the judge constructed common law on which the criminal law is still largely based. But again they are not neccessarily logically connected and "legalized" does not equal"normalized". For example less extreme forms of BDSM are not illegal , but their legal status says nothing about their "normalization" or their status as normal behaivours. In my view a discussion about the normalized status of certain behaivours is not so helpful in deciding what is the best social policy.

    Criminalization of certain behavours is often counter- productive- the classic example of Depression era America's experiment with prohibition is obvious. Our prisons are testaments to the sad fact that making something illegal does not make it impossible, & often does little to limit the proscribed behaivours.

    It is not necessary to criminalize prostitution to achieve a limitation of the viscious exploitation and abuse which often accompanies prostitution. In my experience criminalizing prostitution itself adds to the opportunity for abuse - and does nothing to lessen it. The prostitute whose existence is often marginalized is very much more disempowered when the activity itself is illegal. People whose status is criminalized don't often complain to authorities about abuse. It is much more likey to happen where sex work is legal , and common legal protections are in place , such as occupational health & safety laws , uninhibited and non-judemental access to Police to make complaints of assaults etc.

    I am a lawyer in a community legal centre providing free legal assistance to disadvantaged people in our area- which happens to be in the centre of the red light district of sydney - 1 night a month I go with health workers to give advice to sexworkers in brothels and on the street. Many of my clients are sexworkers. Sexwork itself is not illegal in Sydney- trafficking and other abuses eg "sexual servitude" ( which carries indicia such as holding passports ) are illegal & are prosecuted.

    I am not sure what those adopting an ideological position on this say to some of my clients who may be in Australia with uncertain visa entitlements, speak little English, have limited saleable skills, come from grinding poverty in Thailand and send money back to their families (often looking after infant children). These people have little prospect of other paid work which can earn anything like the money that can be earnt through sex work. "Go and weild a wok in a thai cafe "- or "go sewing in a illegal garment sweatshop perhaps"?

    I know only too well the damage that can result from sex work- but I have never seen it lessened by prohibition ( I have previously worked in another state where sex work was still criminalized). I have however seen the potential damage and level of harm mitigated by the sex industry being controlled to some extent.

    How does criminalizing their source of income help some of the most disadvantaged women in our society ?

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  69. Fantastic article on some issues I've been grappling with recently.

    One thought I had regarding the wise conclusion that decriminalization is the key, though, is that globalization problematises this. Isn't one of the major reasons that legalisation of sex work in the Netherlands has not made huge progress in helping these women out of the cycle of violence (sexualised or state-sanctioned) because of sex tourism, encouraged by the fact that prostitution remains globally criminalized?

    It's depressing, and I hate to be the voice of 'Third Way' feminism, but how do we work toward a decriminalization that isn't also an invitation to the international market to perpetuate the problems?

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  70. Penny:

    First and foremost, I believe that men who abuse women working as prostitutes ought to be criminalised.

    Surely that should be that men who abuse women ought to be criminalised. The separation of prostitutes from other women is one of the key reasons why people like me support legalisation.

    The "she said/she said"ism of presenting both sides as unreasonable extremists misses, I think, something quite fundamental. Prohibitionists have been getting their way for thousands and thousands of years. Don't you think, if prohibiting prostitution was a good way of preventing either prostitution or violence towards women, that it would have happened by now?

    In my experience, the legalisation side doesn't quiet the voices of abused prostitutes at all. Rather they point out that it is the shady nature of prostitution's marginal legal status that assists in this abuse. When prostitution is illegal, cops rape hookers. Indeed, one of the reasons Cambodian prostitutes support legalisation is because of the corruption that illegal prostitution brings about in a police force.

    As to the notion that prostitutes are somehow contributing to the misogyny in society, well, perhaps in some marginal theoretical way they are, but does anyone really think that were we to magic it away tomorrow that rapists would cease to rape and sexists would cease to be sexist?

    Likewise I don't think anyone on the legalisation side believes it to be a magic bullet. Legalisation will not and can not cut out all instances of abuse and rape. We live in a misogynistic, inherently violent and abusive society (and if we want to throw stones about whose fault that is I'd aim them at your local church and your local football stadium before I aimed them at your local brothel). We glorify male violence and out cultural conception of sex and sexuality is, in a word, fucked. It's not a pretty world out there.

    But that doesn't mean we don't want to change it too. We're just staring incredulously at the people who are insisting that the route to achieve this change is the same idea that everyone has had in the history of all countries ever and which has never ever worked. Prohibiting prostitution does not prevent violence against women. Never has and, I'm willing to bet based on this 100% track record of pure, abject failure, never will.

    I'm perfectly happy for abolitionists to say they want there to be no more prostitution, and to work for that goal, as long as the route they choose to take to get there doesn't support the legal constructions that are currently used to lock sex workers in a cycle of abuse and exacerbate the very problems they say they wish to prevent.

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  71. @Rosslyn Helen
    I don't see the logical connexion between "legality" and "normalization"- obviously I am dismissed because this is not "hard to understand."

    The core idea of prostitution is that there need to be a certain sufficient number of womenfolk available to satisfy men's sexual needs. They are seen as instruments to satisfy men's desire, not as persons (any sexual relation involving two persons would involve reciprocity, which is usually absent in sexual relations between a prostitute and a punter). Sexual objectification of women is therefore fundamentally chained to the idea of prostitution. When prostitution is legalized, the view that there must be a certain number of women to serve as sexual objects is normalized among men and in the society. While it is prohibited there is in society at least a pretense that sexual objectification of women is wrong.

    I agree with you that there are dangers and abuse that is hard to fight against when prostitution is criminalized, you are absolutely right about that. However, that doesn't mean that there no dangers or abuse when prostitution is legalized. It would be great to see comparative studies of the welfare of women prostitutes in countries where prostitution is legalized versus in countries where it's prohibited, that might provide a lot of insight.

    But I have to say I refuse to accept this idea that the best way to help the impoverished women around the world is to at least ensure they have plenty of opportunity to engage in sex work. Now that is properly exploitative. The same way Western corporations have moved their manufacture to Third World countries where they abuse and exploit people who work for literally cents per hour, so we will outsource one of the most abusive professions to the poor women of the world and proclaim that to be beneficial for them because, hey - they can make more money than sewing clothes for Nike. But what is ignored is that both these practices of outsourcing are identical in exploiting poor citizens of the Third World countries primarily for the benefit of the First World.

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  72. I've been involved in sex-work. I didn't find it traumatic at all - though at first it was an escape from a very bad situation. I don't feel bad about it when I look back. I may go back to it in the future if I need money.

    However I do understand that it is traumatic for some people. I have worked alongside people who I later found out had been trafficked and I have seen many people who were clearly sinking into a pit of hopelessness and desperation. I also understand that it is not liberating and that it is sexist and mostly women suffer from it. I also understand women who have had horrible experiences in prostitution and want it banned. I don't agree with them but that is ok.

    What really makes me frustrated is that the subject is so often turned into a political football that has nothing to do with prostitution itself, but rather with abstract ideas about feminism. In particular there is a strand of the "abolitionists" who, while always paying lip service to wanting to help sex slaves etc, but actually blame prostitutes for perpetuating the opression of women.

    I don't see any of these people supporting sex-worker struggles because they believe this will "normalise" (like it's not normal already) sex work. I don't see them helping out because they haven't got the guts to stand up against the mafia that run the sex industry.

    I see one of you help us organise a picket line or boycott of a bad brothel owner or even show up to a sex-worker rights event and I'll listen to you. Not before.

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