Massive straw-woman attack on radical feminists and prostitution abolitionists in the Guardian this week
Hannah Betts has a truly awful CiF piece up this week on prostitution. From the title and subtitle: “We need to face up to hatred of prostitutes – among feminists, too” and “Prostitutes are often the target for cultural anxieties about sex: a kind of kneejerk brutality against them has become acceptable”, one might imagine that she might actually spend some time looking in detail at the men who commit violence against prostitutes, but no, the majority of the piece is spent bashing straw-radical feminists and straw-abolitionists.
Sunday was International Sex Worker Rights Day. This year it provided an occasion for sex workers and erstwhile colleagues including Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour) to highlight the vicious abuse they have received under the Twitter hashtag ‘whenantisattack‘.
It’s very telling that on ‘International Sex Worker Rights Day’, instead of talking about the actual violence committed by men against prostituted women and children, the day is being used to attack straw-radical feminists and straw-abolitionists. It’s obvious why this should be the case, sex industry advocates are not going to be critical of men, of the johns, because they are not going to bite the hand that feeds them.
Instead what we get is feminist bashing, and the main contributors on that twitter thread are pimps, johns, pornographers and pro-sex industry academics. Naturally, since they are not prepared to talk about men’s violence, they don’t actually have much of substance to say, and the vast majority of the claims about ‘antis attacking’ aren’t backed up with any references. The twitter thread is mostly hot air, with pimps and pornographers complaining about their hurt feelings.
Remember girls and boys, ‘sex worker rights’ is about not hurting pornographers’ feelings!
Writer and former call girl Magnanti is forced to live in secrecy, her number taken to the top of any 999 summons list because of the innumerable threats she has received. One recent example proposed that she should be gang-raped and then executed. She has been accused of being responsible for rape, sexual slavery, and prostitution itself. Her family’s privacy has been invaded to find the “causes” of her choice and her personal appearance derided, not least within what might otherwise be called the sisterhood.
Who is making these threats towards Magnanti? Is it radical feminists, or is it men? Most men hate women, most of those men will have a particular hatred of prostitutes, and they will hate prostitutes for a variety of reasons, but none of those reasons will be radical feminism, or an abolitionist stance to prostitution that wants to decriminalise the prostitute herself while criminalising the john.
Patriarchal society has always regarded prostitutes as an underclass of women whom it was acceptable to abuse, and this attitude predates the first wave of western feminism. Men hate prostitutes because of patriarchy and misogyny, not because of radical feminism. It was male police officers who invented the term ‘NHI’ – ‘No Humans Involved’ to describe crimes committed against prostitutes and strippers, not radical feminists. It is men committing the real violence against prostitutes, not radical feminists, and I’m willing to bet that the small number of those men who are aware of radical feminism will hate radical feminists too, because we want to take their porn and prostitution away.
Let’s remind ourselves of who Brooke Magnanti is. She spent 14 months as a ‘high class escort’ while waiting for her PhD funding to begin, she entered the shallow end of the sex industry as an articulate, educated, middle-class, white adult with other options waiting for her, and she made a lot of money from her idealised, glamourised account of her time there. She now has a job as a research scientist, and has also published a ‘popular science’ book about sex which was roundly criticised for being biased, inaccurate and dishonest.
“I’ve tried to give a shit about maternity leave and who does the housework, and all I can come up with is, if your job doesn’t give you as much time off as you want, suck it up or get another job. If your partner doesn’t do the washing-up, same.”
As if getting the children to school on time plus yourself to work on time is some decadent lifestyle choice that no woman really needs, as if people can just walk into any job they want, as if a lack of flexible working isn’t trapping mothers in unemployment and poverty.
Magnanti is very publically advocating for the decriminalising of the sex industry, for the decriminalising of the pimps, pornographers and johns, for the expansion and normalisation of the sex industry. She is trying to make it easier for pimps and pornographers and johns, and her writing glamorises prostitution, but apparently we are not allowed to criticise her in any way – if we do that we are no different from the men sending her death threats.
Magnanti reminded us of Julie Burchill’s observation in her 1987 essay “Born Again Cows” in the book Damaged Gods: “When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women.” This would seem crazed were it not for MSP Rhoda Grant, who is sponsoring an “end demand for sex trafficking” bill in the Scottish parliament, declaring violence against sex workers a price worth paying to secure her proposals. As Magnanti tweeted: “Let that sink in. Politician thinks it’s OK if people die b/c of her bill. No one bats an eyelid.”
Magnanti has to go back 25 years, and quote a woman well known for being a polemicist and provocateur and for representing only herself, to find an actual example of a feminist threatening a prostitute.
As to the accusation against Rhoda Grant, this is the paragraph from the Huffington Post article that is being referred to:
“Considerable emphasis was placed on the concept of ‘poverty as a form of coercion’ into the sex industry. And whilst Rhoda Grant pledged to fight poverty she was not prepared to recognise that her proposals would plunge sex workers into even deeper financial straits. Indeed, when asked about her justification for the collateral damage her legislative changes would cause, she suggested that damage to individual sex workers was a price worth paying for the settlement to be established. A fascinating insight into the mind of an individual so focused on the ideology that the impact for those she seeks to ‘help’ is of little consequence.”
The article is written by Alex Bryce, the coordinator of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, ie someone who is already politically biased in favour of the decriminalisation, expansion and normalisation of the sex industry, and who is part of the ‘keeping women in prostitution’ industry. The article doesn’t give any direct quote of what Grant actually said, or what exactly the question she was responding to was. Since the rest of the paragraph is about poverty and income, it seems likely that the ‘damage’ she was talking about was lost income, not quite the same as Magnanti’s claim that Grant thinks it’s ok if prostitutes die, but then Magnanti does seem to have a lot of difficulty with interpreting data outside of her lab.
Is it not time we came to terms with prostitution? Instead, the prostitute herself (and it is usually her as regards societal venom) becomes the target for culture’s anxieties about sex. The collective attitude would appear to be: “They gets their money, they makes their choice”; that choice being to surrender all claim to humanity’s most fundamental physical and intellectual rights. The result being that across societies, our own “liberal” state included, whore-bashing – literal and metaphorical – is somehow deemed acceptable.
This may well be the ‘collective attitude’ of mainstream patriarchal society, but it is not the attitude of radical feminists or abolitionists. I, and all other radical feminists and abolitionists, believe passionately in the human rights of prostitutes, that’s why we want to abolish prostitution; because prostitution, submitting to unwanted sex, is incompatible with human rights and human dignity.
Notably, said bashing includes a cohort of feminist critics who, in abhoring the activity, choose to hate the perpetrator. This is evident not only in Burchill’s string ’em up stance, but the notion that, as “all prostitution is rape”, sex workers cannot know their own minds, or be in control of their bodies, and thus consent.
The thing is, many women who have exited prostitution have said it is like being raped in exchange for money; they have also said that while they were in the sex industry, they had to tell themselves that they chose it in order to survive.
Why is Betts not listening to what those women have to say? Why is she only listening to sex industry advocates who spend a lot of energy trying to discredit and intimidate into silence sex industry survivors?
There is a physical and psychological reality to sex, and there is a physical and psychological reality to submitting to unwanted sex. Being penetrated when you are not aroused is an act of violence, to argue otherwise is to say that women’s bodies are insensate lumps of meat that exist to be fucked.
‘Choice’ and ‘consent’ have to be meaningful. The teenage girls groomed and abused in Rochdale were ignored by the adults that could have helped them, because those adults decided that those girls had made a ‘lifestyle choice’ to be prostitutes. A runaway thirteen-year-old who goes home with a man to avoid another night on the street has made a choice, but it is not a free or meaningful choice. If we are going to count every coerced, manipulated or blackmailed ‘choice’ as being valid, then the term ‘choice’ becomes meaningless.
If a woman ‘consents’ to sex because the alternative is starving, that is not meaningful consent, it is a coerced ‘yes’ – we may as well say that when a rapist holds a knife to a woman’s throat to make her say yes, that that women has then ‘consented’. A ‘yes’ has to be freely given, that means that there are no negative consequences (poverty, violence, homelessness) to saying ‘no’.
The upshot is a curious coalition with streetwalker-hounding religious extremists who are unhappy not merely with the low-hanging fruit of selling sex, but with women having sex at all
This is a blatant straw feminist attack that deliberately confuses radical feminist objections to any and all compulsory sexual activity, and religious fundamentalism. There is a very obvious difference between saying that consent to all sexual activity should be meaningful consent, and saying women shouldn’t have sex except within the ‘sanctity of marriage’.
Hatred of prostitutes has implications for all women who desire to determine their sexual existences. These obviously stigmatised targets allow a kind of thin-end-of-the-wedge, sanctioned misogyny. It is a small step from being able to dismiss some women as stupid sluts to dismissing all women as stupid sluts, the former operating as some sort of entry level for the latter. As Magnanti noted: “Ladies wearing shiny things, high heels, and makeup also Very Suspect”. That’s me guilty as charged, then, and my eight- year-old niece.
Another straw feminist attack from Magnanti (again, she’s describing the behaviour of men not radical feminists), and more lazy journalism from Betts. But, more important, is Betts claims that prostitution has any meaningful link to women’s sexual autonomy. ‘Prostitute’ is not a sexuality, and to claim otherwise is to say that some women are simply ‘born whores’.
Sexual freedom is, most importantly, about not having to submit to unwanted sexual activity, not in prostitution, not in marriage, not anywhere. It is about not having to submit to unwanted sex due to any social or economic inequality – it is social and economic inequality that puts and keeps women in prostitution, and in all other patriarchal and unequal sexual relationships with men.
Marriage continues to be considered to veil sex with respectability, whatever its financial motivations. Nobody campaigns against the career courtesans who are Belgravia bankers’ wives, or the footballers’ consorts of Cheshire. The message: sex for money is fine – just put a ring on it before you put out. Prostitutes, in contrast, are “asking for it”, and by “it” we appear to mean everything: rape, aggression, murder. It is as if their work renders them inhuman. They are “fallen women”, and what they have fallen from is humanity itself.
Again, many men, and religious and/or right wing women, may well think this way, but radical feminists do not. We do not champion marriage and we do not think that sex is ‘dirty’, and we certainly don’t think prostitutes deserve to be murdered. We are against compulsory sexual activity in any institution.
The highest level of ‘courtesan’ prostitute, who is paid a monthly retainer worth more than many women earn on minimum wage in a year, is indistinguishable from a ‘kept mistress’, and if all prostitution was like that, I wouldn’t bother spending time campaigning for abolition, but that isn’t the reality for the vast majority of prostitutes; as I have said before elsewhere on this blog, the sex industry is a pyramid with a very broad base.
As a teenager I witnessed this punitive pack mentality inflicted on a child. One of the brightest girls at my school entered care at 13, and ended up being paid for intercourse – thus also raped – by a man old enough to be her father. Her inadvertent exposure in a documentary a couple of years later provoked an animal savagery among her peers that militated against her even sitting exams. Her transgression was too close to home, provoking a mob rule that dictated she must be shamed and ostracised.
I think of her often, appalled by the loss of potential I hope she has been able to confound. A quarter of a century on, I see no sign of this kneejerk brutality changing – including among too many feminists.
This is a truly appalling account, but it wasn’t caused by radical feminism, it was caused by patriarchy, as is all the violence committed against women and girls. Betts has not seen kneejerk brutality from ‘too many feminists’ she has seen a handful of straw feminists set up by sex industry advocates who don’t want to talk about men’s violence against women.