The Guardian published on Monday a rather disjointed, poorly thought through pro-prostitution article, written by SA Jones, and republished from Overland, an Australian website. It’s still worth going through and pointing out all the flaws, as these arguments aren’t going to go away:
I feel uneasy about sex work. I worry that it objectifies women and compounds our difficulties in carving a place for ourselves as cerebral and corporeal, as full persons. But here’s the thing: it’s not about me.
However sincere my concerns, however fluently I may be able to quote Andrea Dworkin, such views tacitly align me with the slut-shamers and the conservatives who do such a good job of “othering” sex workers, of making them a thing apart – alien and aberrant.
Two paragraphs in and she’s already dragged out this battered old straw feminist; if you’re not for ‘sex worker rights’ as defined by sex industry advocates (that is, the pimps, pornographers, johns, and those who make a career out of keeping women in prostitution) you’re on the side of the ‘slut-shamers’ and ‘conservatives’, and you hate ‘sex workers’ – and those are the only two options available.
The existence of the sex industry, in it’s legal and illegal forms, is incompatible with the human rights of the women and children and men it chews up and shits out, and it is incompatible with the human dignity of all women and girls – so it is about her, because it’s about all of us.
Jones says later in the piece that most of the ‘sex workers’ she knows are white, middle-class and well educated, with lots of choices. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep on saying it, the sex industry is a pyramid with a very broad base, the minority of women at the top who get to pick-and-choose, and make a lot of money, and have a great time, are doing so on the backs of all the women and girls who don’t get any real choice.
But Jones is only really interested in talking about the tiny minority who get to make any kind of real choice; talk about the very real lack of choice most women and girls in the sex industry have and your ‘othering’ ‘sex workers’, as if prostitution itself, being reduced to a commodity, isn’t ‘othering’, as if being so poor that prostitution was your only ‘choice’ isn’t ‘othering’.
This othering means that when a sex worker is murdered – as happened in Melbourne’s St Kilda suburb last week – our outrage is muted. Yes, we think it’s awful and we hope the assailant is caught, but she was putting herself at risk, but she knew the dangers, but she didn’t “keep herself safe” – as if what Tracy Connelly experienced in the last moments of her life was any less horrifying for her than it would be for us. Or as if her family and friends grieve differently, or her partner is any less traumatised by finding her body, or her assailant will confine their violence to sex workers so the rest of us can live without fear (Adrian Ernest Bayley, anyone?)
Who is this ‘we’ she is talking about exactly? The mainstream certainly, but radical feminists and abolitionists don’t think prostitutes’ lives are worth less than the lives of ‘normal’ women (but Jones wants people to think we are, by jumping from a reference to Dworkin who was a prostituted woman herself in one paragraph, straight to mainstream callousness in the next).
It’s worth pausing here in my analysis of Jones’ article, to look at what happened to Tracy Connelly, as it is being used to call for the legalisation of street sex work. According to the press reports Connelly was a homeless 40-year-old woman, who had been prostituting for over a decade, and was murdered inside the van she had been living in for the past month.
Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, has legal brothel and escort service prostitution, perhaps Connelly’s life-style was too chaotic for her to be employable in a brothel, or perhaps she couldn’t deal with the 10 hour shifts and the fines for refusing to service a john.
The classic line on street prostitution is that legalising it (providing zones etc) will make it safer, as if any woman can spot a potential abuser in 5 minutes. Both Steve Wright (the Ipswich serial killer), and Stephen Griffiths (the “crossbow cannibal” killer), were regulars who were well known to the women they targeted. The fact that there was no forced entry into Connelly’s van, implies that her killer may have been known to her as well.
Any meaningful abolitionist approach needs to acknowledge that exiting is not easy, and it does not happen overnight, and that short-term harm-reduction measures are going to be needed as well, but what women like Connelly need are real options, real choices; Connelly wasn’t making any kind of empowered choice to be a prostitute, and it’s a safe bet that Jones’ middle-class ‘sex worker’ friends aren’t choosing to sell sex the way Connelly was forced to sell sex.
This is what I mean by disjointed, it’s all about ‘choice’, but confronted with a woman like Connelly, Jones doesn’t want to talk about Connelly’s lack of choices. Instead she would rather use her as an excuse for bashing ‘sex negative’ feminists, who are, apparently, the cause of violence against prostitutes, rather than talk about the actual men committing the violence.
So, then, back to Jones’ article:
Feminism has always been conflicted on the question of sex and sexuality, inheriting as it did two such different traditions. One tradition is devoted to protecting women from the laws and customs that subjugate them to men and men’s bodies; and one argues for the reclamation of the female body and its pleasures. For various reasons, my own politics tended towards the former for a long while. The problem with this position is that it so easily falls prey to the model of men’s sexuality as rapacious and threatening.
Well, at least she actually has some kind of basic understanding of what radical feminism is (she is right about us wanting to get women out from under men), the problem, though, with the dichotomy she sets up, is that ‘reclaiming sexual pleasure’ is impossible while we are still under that subjugation; individual, already privileged women (women who can pass along the abusive sex to a ‘sex worker’), may be able to achieve it, but feminism isn’t about individual women, it is about all women. Liberation from men’s sexual violence has to come first, and we don’t have to theorise about what this ‘reclamation’ looks like without liberation, we can just look at so-called ‘sex positive’ ‘feminism’ which is about celebrating every cruel, violent, degrading thing that ever got a man (or woman) off, never ever criticising what men do, and ‘prude shaming’ any woman or girl who isn’t into eroticising her own dehumanisation.
Many women do experience male sexuality, as it exists, for real, in the real world, under patriarchy, as violent and threatening; it doesn’t have to be that way, and radical feminists, not ‘sex positive’ ‘feminists’ are the ones actually saying this. What ‘sex positive’ ‘feminism’ does is victim-blame any woman who doesn’t find sex under patriarchy enjoyable; men don’t have to change, women do, and women are told that sexual liberation is to be found, not through changing the status quo, but through embracing it.
A former professor of mine, the late Patricia Crawford, referred to this as the “sex or burst theory”, whereby men’s sex drive is an unsophisticated hydraulic system requiring periodic release, or catastrophic consequences will ensue. Sex workers and porn are socially positioned as providing this “release valve” that supposedly keep the rest of us (good) women safe.
Radical feminists don’t believe that men are animals who are incapable of controlling themselves, we believe that it is a function of male supremacist power that men don’t have to control themselves, so they don’t, and the epidemic levels of violence against women and girls, inside and outside of the sex industry, are testament to that. Many mainstream men and women do believe that men have sexual ‘needs’ and that these ‘needs’ have to be met, and that a sacrificial class of prostituted women is the best way to meet those ‘needs’, but radical feminists do not.
How does Jones think the sex industry came about? It’s hardly as if it exists only because a handful of middle-class women want to be ’empowered sex workers’, it is driven by the twin forces of male demand and female poverty – and the demand (and, therefore, the motivation for the traffickers and pimps) would still be there even if we really tackled poverty, without tackling patriarchy as well.
The objections to this model are manifest, not least in that it sets up a dichotomy between men and women, where (gendered) desires are oppositional and women whose sexual experiences fall outside a fairly narrow, vanilla band are cast as aberrant. Even mad. It makes black and white what in reality is the complex, messy and contestable nature of desire. It means we agree to sacrifice “release valve” women like some kind of human shield. It reinforces sexual double standards whereby sex amplifies men but diminishes women. So the same act makes men studs or virile or magnetic, whilst rendering women sluts or needy or a bit pathetic, with sex workers the ultimate example. Throw in all our baggage around sexual competition and fears about fidelity and there’s a potent recipe for women’s hostility towards sex workers.
“Women’s hostility towards sex workers”? Dear oh dear, Jones has fallen in with the sex industry advocates line that it’s women who are causing all the violence against ‘sex workers’, rather than the men who are actually committing the violence. Men are the ones beating and raping and murdering prostitutes, not women, and they are doing it because of patriarchy and misogyny, not because of women’s ‘sexual baggage’.
How does an article that talks about the real murder of a prostitute, which I am 100% certain was committed by a man, suddenly start talking about “women’s hostility”? Why does Jones not want to name the agent in violence against prostitutes?
Perhaps it is because bashing a straw woman (whether that straw woman is a ‘conservative’ or a radical feminist) is easier than actually confronting and challenging men, male supremacism, and patriarchy? It’s far easier to talk about a phony ‘war’ against ‘sex workers’ than actually talk about men; it’s far easier to talk about radical feminists being ‘sex negative’, than to actually confront men’s systemic sexual violence.