During last November’s Reclaim the Night march, a group of women broke off from the march to stand outside Spearmint Rhino in order to ‘protect’ the women working inside, and to call for the decriminalisation of prostitution (meaning deregulation, the removal of punitive measures across all parts of the sex industry: buying, selling, facilitating or controlling commercial sex acts). Other women on the march (myself included) sang ‘women’s bodies not for sale’ as a counter to their counter protest.
Reclaim the Night is a march against all forms of violence against women, and radical feminists recognise prostitution and pornography – the sex industry – as a form of violence against women.
The women standing outside Spearmint Rhino identified themselves as socialist and anarchist feminists; there is something truly bizarre in the idea of anarchist women defending one of the biggest, most exploitative global industries there is.
If those women were so concerned about the welfare of the women working there, why weren’t they inside making sure they weren’t being raped in Spearmint Rhino’s ‘VIP Booths’?
Remember, both ‘sides’ here want prostitute women (and men and trans people) themselves to be decriminalised; to have the police take it seriously if they are beaten up or raped (but, with a rape conviction rate of less than 6%, realistically, no woman has access to justice in this country if she is raped); that decent, accessible, non-coercive exit services are made available; that all women (etc.) are offered a better ‘choice’ than between prostitution and poverty.
Once upon a time, socialist feminists campaigned for universal, free, twenty-four-hour childcare, now, it seems, they campaign for the ‘right’ to prostitute because, it is claimed, it’s the only well paying job a woman can fit around her childcare responsibilities.
The Left has a long and ignoble history of failing women, from the trades unions refusing to grant women full membership because they saw them as undercutting male workers, to Fidel Castro telling women to serve the revolution by exiting the public sphere and going back home to be good wives and mothers (See Marge Piercy’s ‘The Grand Coolie Damn’ and Germaine Greer’s chapter ‘Rebellion’ in The Female Eunuch), to right-on lefty men in the 60’s insisting on their right to violent pornography; “I remember in particular a photo of an Asian woman inserting a huge, glass, bowl-shaped jar into her rectum.” Andrea Dworkin, ‘My Life as a writer’ in Life and Death.
The left’s embracing of the sex industry leads to some strange contradictions. An Education Not For Sale/IUSW (International Union of Sex Workers) leaflet says, on the one hand, that the government has the obligation, moral authority and competency to interfere in all our lives by taxing us and then redistributing that income to provide free higher education for all. On the other hand, it says, when it comes to some of the most vulnerable women in society, the government has neither the moral authority nor the competency to interfere, and should instead adopt a neoliberal laissez faire approach, deregulate the sex industry entirely and trust it to self regulate (just like the banks have done!). The response of the Communist woman handing these leaflets out at Fem08 in Sheffield? Everything would be OK after the revolution, when nobody would have to work (and radical feminists are accused of being naive about the way the world works)!
Marxist historians (at least according to the workshop I attended at Marx08,) claim that humans are not biologically destined to conflict, that a Hobbesian struggle of ‘all against all’ is not inevitable. It seems that there is no similar Marxist analysis of the demand for prostitution, of the idea that men have ‘biological needs’ and that these ‘needs’ are inevitable.
The demand to decriminalise prostitution coming from the ECP (English Collective of Prostitutes) and the IUSW goes way beyond ‘safety first’; they are not sex worker advocates – since we are ALL pro sex worker – they are sex work advocates and sex industry advocates.
It is important to be aware of the range of people the IUSW allows to call themselves ‘sex workers’ and to join their union. The IUSW/GMB membership leaflet states that you can join if you work in ‘a shop selling adult videos’, so someone who’s only experience of the sex industry is sitting behind the till in a sex shop can call themselves a sex worker, join the IUSW and then speak on behalf of all sex workers (which, to the general public, means that they speak with the knowledge and authority of someone who works as a prostitute).
The IUSW also accepts pimps (Douglas Fox runs an escort agency and is a member of the IUSW; in this 2006 article, he claims to be little more than a receptionist, and that the escorts were selling time not sex; however he now calls himself a ‘sex worker’, and refers to ‘his’ clients, as if he is sexually servicing them himself – this is a deliberate obfuscation), pornographers (from the same IUSW/GMB leaflet, you can join if you work ‘behind or in front of the camera making adult entertainment’) and brothel keepers (see the BBC article ‘Christmas under city’s red lights’, which reads as nothing more than a press release from the IUSW and states: ‘The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) includes middle-aged parlour owners’ while the IUSW/GMB leaflet doesn’t specify how one must be working in a brothel to join) as members, and presumably johns too (from the same leaflet: ‘we also welcome applications for membership from allies, supporters and friends of sex workers). This is like the International Union of Factory Workers accepting factory owners as members, and allowing those factory owners to speak on behalf of the needs of factory workers.
I cannot think of any other business that has managed so well to be a massive, well-organised, international, multibillion-dollar earning industry, but to portray itself as being individualised, localised and grass-roots, and to get feminist/workers rights campaigners to work and propagandise for them for free. The oil industry has to pay big money for this kind of lobbying.
At the turn of the last century, workers saw themselves as being literally at war with the bosses, but now, in the happy utopia of the sex industry, the needs of the bosses (the pimps, the pornographers, the brothel keepers, the johns) are seen as being perfectly aligned with the needs of the workers (the prostitutes, the pornography performers); and anarchists, who used to try to assassinate industrialists, now stand guard outside big business.
The sex industry advocates, including the ECP and the IUSW claim that trafficking is a myth and that prostitution is ‘work like any other’. There are now a number of pro-sex work academics busy trying to redefine the meaning of the terms ‘trafficking’, ‘harm’ and ‘choice’ to try to make reality fit these claims.
This paradigm is now so entrenched in the main-stream that recently, a BBC presenter suggested to the Amnesty International spokeswoman he was interviewing, that trafficked women may actually enjoy the sex that was forced on them ten times a day.
‘High-class’ prostitution is characterised as a great job and one that lots of women actively want to do; they make a load of money and have a great time. It is even seen as a woman expressing her sexual freedom and autonomy, which is an odd way of looking at being paid to fulfil someone else’s sexual fantasies.
The sex industry advocates will not criticise johns in any way, because they need them to make money. As with the myth that rape is rare and only carried out by psychopaths, not ordinary every-day men, so the harm done to women in prostitution is perpetrated only by a few rotten apples – most johns are lovely, they’re only looking for uncomplicated sex, someone to talk to, a cuddle.
The sex industry advocates then claim that the johns can police the system, even though only 2% of tip-offs to the police re. trafficked women came from johns (who all had sex with the women anyway) (source: The POPPY Project). We read the report, which is not unusual or unique, of a trafficked woman beaten and burned with cigarettes, then forced to dance naked for customers; that means a large number of men must have seen the bruises and burns, but didn’t care. The idea that the johns are on the side of prostitute women is ridiculous.
Invisiblising the johns in this way, and treating prostitution as if it was something women did to themselves, places the onus on prostitute women not to get themselves raped or battered – and therefore blaming them rather than the rapist/batterer – in a way that parallels the ‘safety’ advice given to women to not go out at night etc. in order to avoid being raped. Male violence is treated as an inevitable, unavoidable force of nature, not something that men can and should control themselves (all of which also contradicts the claim that the johns are overwhelmingly nice).
To maintain the illusion that prostitution is ‘work like any other’ that a lot of women want to do, what is actually involved in prostitution, in the need to mentally disassociate mind from body in order to submit to unwanted sex, is not talked about. Sex industry advocates all take an individualistic approach, without looking at prostitution in any wider context.
For example, the UKNSWP (UK Network of Sex Work Projects) ‘Keeping Safe’ guide (all their guides are available as PDFs here) contains the suggestion (p39): ‘Many sex workers recommend sitting astride (on top of) their customer for vaginal or anal sex [...] In this position, you can sit on your knees for penetrative sex and guide how much the penis enters you, particularly useful for large boys and when you are sore!’ So, this ‘work’ involves engaging in vaginal or anal penetration even when you are ‘sore’ – a minimising term for ‘in pain’ – never mind that being ‘sore’ means likely to have suffered injury to the membranes of the vagina or anus which makes contacting an STI such as HIV more likely. What other ‘job’ involves these kinds of risks or working conditions?
Another example, from the ‘Working with Male and Transgender Sex Workers’ guide, the section on ‘Anogenital health’ (p13) states: ‘some sex workers wash themselves too often and may use harsh chemicals.’ There is no mention of why this may be, or what the underlying causes are to this behaviour – that would mean having to acknowledge the psychological harm evolved in having to engage in unwanted sex on multiple occasions – which doesn’t chime very well with their claim (p6) that ‘sex work is, of itself, not inherently exploitative’. The guide’s advice to outreach workers in this situation? Recommend ‘pH balanced products, which help maintain the natural flora of the skin.’ So the only problem here is a poor choice of toiletries and nothing more.
The ‘Working with Sex Workers: Exiting’ guide acknowledges the multiple difficulties of exiting, and the severe health and social problems experienced by women resulting from violence and drug use, but still in some cases is vague about the abuse involved in prostitution. In the section ‘Domestic abuse and sexual assault’ (p20) it states: ‘For some, domestic abuse will be one factor preventing them exiting and this will need to be addressed alongside their other issues’, it doesn’t say that their partner may also be their pimp and have an active interest in keeping them in prostitution.
To be clear, I am glad this advice is available – a lot of it is very good and valuable – but pro sex industry ideology, ‘choice’ rhetoric, and obfuscation of what is actually involved in prostitution – the act of submitting to unwanted sex – is tied up with it. Helping the most vulnerable people in society should not be contingent on legitimising their exploitation.
These pro sex-work guides at times come across as a bizarre hybrid between alternate-universe etiquette guides and military training manuals – there is no one else outside of the military or the emergency services who is expected to accept this much risk and violence as a regular part of their ‘work’. Soldiers, at least, are allowed to acknowledge that they are in a war zone; sex workers – for the sake of their ‘agency’ – are not allowed to acknowledge that they are being abused, exploited or oppressed in any systematic way, and this again serves to render those who do the abusing, exploiting and oppressing invisible.
If you think the advice for prostitutes is only like this because of the criminal status of most aspects of prostitution in this country, the advice for sex workers in the state of Victoria in Australia, where prostitution is legal, is similar; for example advising ‘escorts’ to stake out the properties for ‘out calls’ to look for signs that a gang-rape is being planned, and to be careful when injecting local anaesthetic into the vagina, since it can mask serious injury.
For an alternative take on such outreach work, I highly recommend the article ‘How to get an activist movement to keep women in prostitution’, written by a journalist who has experienced prostitution herself.
As long as there is demand for prostitution – and especially when the structure of prostitution is entrenched within the state (including the state collecting taxes from prostitution) – then supply for the industry will be found. If it’s not poor women from this country, it will be poor women from another country, and if it’s not poor women it will be women and children more directly coerced.
If prostitution is accepted as ‘work like any other’ it will become reasonable to expect poor women to do it if they don’t want to be poor anymore, and if the local brothel is the only source of employment in a small town, it becomes de facto compulsory for women. The sex industry – escort agencies, strip clubs, ‘web-cam operators’ – is already allowed to advertise in Jobcentres; once prostitution is seen as ‘work like any other’ how long before a poor woman is told: take a job in this brothel or lose your benefits?
What socialist feminists, with their insistence that class is the root of all inequality, don’t seem to grasp is that there are many forms of hierarchy – class, race, sex, gender, sexuality, religion, able-ness – and that they all feed into and off each other. Rape, battery, incest and child abuse happens to women and children of all classes, races and religions.
It is hard to imagine capitalism existing without patriarchy, but not so difficult to imagine patriarchy with out capitalism. As long as men are not prepared to give up their male entitlement and their male privileges – including the ‘right’ to sexually access the bodies of women and children through pornography and prostitution – nothing in society is going to change.
To challenge the sex industry is to directly challenge patriarchy. To accept it, to try and whittle away at the edges to make things ‘better’ is to give up on any hope of meaningful change to society.
This is what we are Reclaiming for.