QotD: “If someone had told me 10 years ago that so-called feminists would be demonstrating outside a lap-dancing club, waving placards in support of stripping for a living, I would have laughed”
I am, according to those who seek to legitimise prostitution, a Swerf — meaning sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminist. This is a fairly new insult brought to you by the nice folks that introduced Terf (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).
Swerf means a feminist who considers prostitution to be harmful and abusive, which it most certainly is, and I have been labelled a Swerf since the acronym first emerged online in 2013 on a website called Everyday Whorephobia. Before that I was merely a “pearl-clutcher”, “prude” and “anti-sex puritan”.
In 2017, during the Sheffield launch of The Pimping of Prostitution, my book on the sex trade, a group of blue-fringed “feminists” (and a few bearded men) picketed the venue, shouting slogans such as “Blow jobs are real jobs!” and “Proud whores!”.
Swerf and Terf — which when used together sound like a bad meal at a tourist-trap steak house in Leicester Square — are misogynistic insults aimed at us uppity women who refuse to accept the erosion of women’s hard-won rights.
The former prostitute Rachel Moran, whose memoir, Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, laid bare the reality of the sex trade, was compelled to embark upon a lengthy defamation case against a pro-prostitution lobbyist who repeatedly claimed, over a period of eight years, that Moran had made up her entire story of child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse and being bought and sold on the streets of Dublin. The “happy hooker” crew cannot easily deal with the abuse and exploitation inherent in the sex trade, and often attempt to shame and silence its victims. Every high-profile sex-trade survivor who exposes the truth of prostitution comes in for similar treatment.
Where did this valiant attempt to sanitise the sex trade emerge from? The Labour Party officially supports blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade, but I am not sure Jeremy Corbyn realises that this means the removal of all laws against pimping, brothel-keeping and paying for sex. Many assume decriminalisation means stopping the arrest of those selling sex, but don’t realise it also means exploiters go free.
The Liberal Democrats also take the view that prostitution is a job like any other, and have ignored survivors telling them otherwise. One of the party’s prominent female members, Wendy Chamberlain, argued against criminalising the punters by saying that “sex work has been going on for thousands of years and sadly no policy will end it”. So has murder, but I have yet to hear calls for its decriminalisation.
When Caroline Lucas was its leader, the Green Party supported an increasingly popular strategy of criminalising the demand while supporting those in prostitution to leave the sex trade, but a bit of haranguing on Twitter soon had her changing her mind.
If someone had told me 10 years ago that so-called feminists would be demonstrating outside a lap-dancing club, waving placards in support of stripping for a living, I would have laughed. But this is what happened in Sheffield recently when Sophie Wilson, a 23-year-old councillor and the Labour candidate for Rother Valley in South Yorkshire, decided that the feminists campaigning to have the licence of the city’s branch of Spearmint Rhino revoked on the grounds that stripping is exploitation were, as she eloquently put it, “trashy Swerfs”.
The pro-prostitution lobby almost always holds up the “rights” of “sex workers” to “choose” to sell sex. It is interesting how the terms “agency” and “empowerment” are only ever applied to degrading things imposed upon women, such as stripping, pole-dancing and prostitution. While jumping on to the #MeToo campaign about sexual harassment and consent, the anti-Swerf brigade seem to forget that prostitution is paid sexual harassment.
De Wallen, a well known red-light district in AmsterdamANDREA PUCCI
One picket line I had to walk through was on my way to speak at Leeds city council about the disgrace of its “managed zone”, where men can shop for sex with a vulnerable, drug-addled woman without fear of arrest. The protesters were shouting “Swerfs off our turf!” and “Hands off our clients!”
When a woman was murdered in the zone by a punter, the subsequent evaluation of the pilot scheme, conducted by academics so woke they need never set an alarm clock, concluded that the initiative had been a success and that it should become permanent.
The anti-Swerf crew were given another shot in the arm in 2016, when Amnesty International adopted a policy supporting the removal of all laws relating to prostitution — or, as Amnesty calls it, “adult consensual sex work”. An internal policy document, leaked to me in late 2013, made it clear that senior personnel had already reached the conclusion that men have the right to pay for sex and that women often “choose” prostitution as a career. There was even a suggestion that criminalising the punters, or even sending them on a “re-education” programme, could be a serious human-rights violation.
When feminists support the sex trade, they are giving men permission to buy and sell the most disenfranchised women on the planet. To invent and use an insult against the women campaigning for an end to commercial sexual exploitation is grotesque and unforgivable.
To suggest that supporting prostitution is somehow woke and progressive is ridiculous. I recall the words of the late feminist author Andrea Dworkin: “Only when women’s bodies are being sold for profit do leftists claim to cherish the free market.”
A woman has recalled the moment she was offered money by a man to ‘have her baby for an hour’ in the Holbeck sex zone – known as the country’s first legalised ‘red light district’.
The 47-year-old was carrying her four-month old grandchild in a pram in the area before the man reportedly said ‘Give me an hour with it and I will bring it back’, as reported in the Daily Mail.
The zone, known officially as the Managed Approach, allows prostitutes to operate in the area between 8pm and 6am, but has been heavily criticised by local residents who insist the scheme is neither effective nor managed properly.
And now the Save Our Eyes campaign group has shed light on a number of incidents where children have been approached by men looking for sex.
In one account, a 13-year-old girl explains how she was asked ‘Are you working?’ when she was stood at a bus stop with her mum. The mum asked what he meant and he replied ‘Not you! I mean her. Is she working?’
She realised what he meant and replied ‘She’s only 13, she’s a child’.
The girl goes on to explain how she has seen men receiving sex on her way to school and taking drugs on the streets.
Other teenagers have also reported being approached and parents have had to explain to their small children about prostitutes.
Residents have protested a number of times in the area, and recently rallied their local MP to do something to put a stop to the zone.
On Wednesday (November 14) senior councillors will discuss the scheme after the local opposition submitted a white paper motion calling for proof that it works, or for it to be scrapped altogether.
A man carried out a “sustained and forceful” attack on a [prostituted woman] in Leeds before spending the money he stole from her on takeaways, drugs and cigarettes, a court has heard.
A jury at Leeds crown court heard how, wearing steel-capped boots, 24-year-old Lewis Pierre battered 21-year-old Daria Pionko to death shortly after 10.40pm on 22 December in the UK’s first managed red light district in the Holbeck area of Leeds.
The scheme introduced by Leeds city council in October 2015 allows [prostituted women] to operate in a designated area on the edge of the city centre between 7pm and 7am without fear of being arrested.
CCTV captured Pierre walking towards an area of wasteland with Pionko at around 10.40, before being spotted leaving the scene alone less than five minutes later. He has admitted robbery and manslaughter, but denies murder.
Pierre, who was working as an assistant to a heavy goods driver, then allegedly bought a meal of kebab meat and chips, four cans of drink, and cigarettes with money he robbed from Pionko. Colleagues say Pierre turned up to work the next day in possession of cannabis.
Pionko, who had moved to the UK from Łódź in Poland 10 months previously, was found lying face down and lifeless by her housemate Karolina Szajnda, who was also [a prostituted woman].
Pionko had suffered serious injuries to her face, head, neck and body. Szajnda described her friend’s face as having been “massacred”. The postmortem concluded that Pionko had died within 30 minutes of the attack.
Opening the case, Kama Melly QC, prosecuting, said: “On 22 December 2015, just three days before Christmas, Daria Pionko and her close friend Karolina went out to earn money in Leeds as [prostituted women]. They went off to have sex with [johns] before meeting to carry on working. Karolina went off with a [john] and when she returned Daria was nowhere to be seen. She eventually found her lying in a secluded spot. Daria had been subjected to a sustained attack.”
Melly said Pierre had set off from “a hard day’s shift” with no money. “It is the prosecution’s case he was determined to find some money that night,” she said.
Melly added: “[Pierre] denies he intended to cause [Pionko] death or cause her serious injury … The prosecution is confident that his intention to cause really serious harm to Daria will be proved against Lewis Pierre by the evidence you will hear in this trial.”
The court heard that Pionko’s family had not known she was a [prostituted woman] and thought she was working at a bar in Leeds. The trial continues.
Any young British woman considering a career in prostitution should give careful thought to location. The same applies, our prostitution law being the mess it is, to any pimp or trafficker aiming to maximise profits without fines, arrests and other loss-making interruptions.
In Leeds, for instance, the Holbeck area is now a pimp’s paradise, the police and council having decided not to apply the laws on soliciting and kerb crawling between the hours of 7pm and 7am. Councillor Mark Dobson has explained that, since prostitution will never stop being an “industry as old as time”, “it’s incumbent on us to make it as safe as possible”. In December, one of the women benefiting from this scheme, a 21-year-old Pole, Daria Pionko, was murdered, her body discovered on an industrial estate.
In Suffolk, however, police prefer to believe, like the Swedish government, that prostitution is not part of the natural order. After five young women were murdered by a regular sex buyer in 2006, Suffolk Constabulary’s then Det Supt Alan Caton responded with a Nordic-style plan. Although the legality of off-street prostitution ruled out a full “end demand” strategy, as pioneered in Sweden, Suffolk’s zero tolerance of kerb crawling, with multi-agency support for women, rather than criminalisation, virtually eliminated street prostitution.
Nottingham, too, differs from Leeds, with its own project to end street prostitution by targeting sex buyers and by helping, instead of persecuting, women who want to exit. Since 2004, almost 900 sex buyers have attended a deterrent one-day course, of whom only 27 are known to have reoffended. Sgt Neil Radford, of Nottinghamshire police, says the number of women in street prostitution has fallen over 10 years, from 300 to around 50. If Britain followed Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada – and potentially, France – in adopting a sex-buyer law, the trade could also be reduced off-street, where prostitution remains dangerous and exploitative or, as an all-party parliamentary group on prostitution put it in 2014, a “form of violence against women and girls”.
The group deplored a “near pandemic” of violence that goes unreported because women are criminalised. Under current law, women and girls who are already damaged by prostitution, whether by actual physical violence or psychological trauma, are further punished with fines for having put themselves in harm’s way. In 2013-14, there were more charges for loitering and soliciting than for the crimes of pimping, brothel keeping, kerb crawling and advertising prostitution combined. Buyers, as Sgt Radford has often observed, just walk away.
In its report, Shifting the Burden , the all-party group recommended the introduction, instead, of a sex-buyer offence, of following the Nordic model. It then asked End Demand , a campaign to end commercial sexual exploitation, to find out how this could be implemented. The resulting report, produced by a commission on the sex buyer law, is to be launched in parliament this week. This concludes – on the basis of evidence from Nottingham and Suffolk, as well as countries such as Sweden, which criminalise buyers – that a similar law is overdue here, to reduce both the human and economic cost of prostitution.
Having participated in that commission, along with, among others, Alan Caton and Diane Martin, a survivor of the sex trade who has helped others to exit, I find it harder than ever to understand how any politician, local or otherwise, would want to perpetuate, by legalising it, a trade so staggeringly unequal and so dependent on the trafficked and marginalised. In Germany, which did precisely that in 2002, the resulting brothels are warehouses of migrant women, pimped for bargain basement prices. Legalisation has failed, it turns out, both to inspire more gallantry in clients and to convince many German women that supplying oral and anal sex on demand could make a nice change from waitressing.
“I find it awful, this is not work, you don’t set out to be in prostitution”, says a Swedish psychologist Lisen Lindström, whom the commission met in Stockholm. She treats women in and exiting prostitution for the city’s social services. Post-traumatic stress is common. What of the women who protest they’re happy in prostitution? “So let them,” she says. “We don’t bother them. We let them be. The majority have had very bad experiences, so let the focus be on them.” And if it’s the career prostitutes’ right to work, unhindered by a sex buyer law? “What kind of union would fight for the right to be raped? If being a psychologist meant that I should be beaten up or raped sometimes, what would my union say about that?”
To legalise prostitution, as Sweden’s chancellor of justice, Anna Skarhed, also pointed out, is to normalise sexual discrimination and violence against women. The reaction to a young woman’s murder in England’s legalised “managed zone” in Leeds was certainly muted, for a country that gets exercised about domestic violence, forced marriages, child rape. Many women in prostitution were underage, visibly so, when they were first exploited. For them, the rules are different. One UK campaigner argued recently for the legalisation of co-working for women in prostitution, “as this is the main way in which they believe their safety will be enhanced”. That the inessential business of prostitution should be as synonymous with serious physical danger as it is with organised crime barely registers as anomalous. If there were consistency in health and safety alone, Leeds police would be insisting on hi-vis jackets and lanyards in their night-time “managed zone”.
The converse, says Skarhed, has been a steady normalising, in Sweden, of the principles underlying the sex buyer law. As enforcement, with exit services, has depleted the number of prostitutes in Sweden, so attitudes have shifted : 70% want to keep the law.
But as in Britain, a forceful lobby maintains that the sex buyer law represents a “whorephobic” attack on women’s self-determination, moreover one infinitely more threatening to their wellbeing, you gather, than the kindly traffickers – who make an annual £130m in the UK. On the contrary, says Patrik Cederlöf, Sweden’s national co-ordinator against prostitution and human trafficking; when they are not criminalised, women are more willing to report attacks. Incidentally, with decreased supply, prices for sex have risen: witness a neat ledger shown to the commission by a Swedish state prosecutor, Lars Ågren, documenting the massive profits enjoyed, prior to discovery, by a Polish outfit running 23 prostitutes. “They could charge double in Sweden than in Poland.” He adds: “The girls aren’t making money.”
It’s quite true, though, that sex buyer laws are lousy for pimps. That’s another reason why one should, I think, be introduced in Britain, in the way now backed by the all-party group and proposed to the new home affairs select committee prostitution inquiry. As with any big, ethically blighted industry, PRs for prostitution will respond with renewed attacks on its opponents, to add to despairing assurances, as in Leeds, of futility: the trade is “as old as time”. So, of course, was slavery.
On an ordinary winter day in 2014, Mary Honeyball led her colleagues in the European Parliament to pass a groundbreaking resolution urging member states to examine their policies on sexual exploitation, prostitution and its impact on gender equality. The purpose, the report describes in detail, is to tackle sex trafficking and its end goal, the sex trade, by targeting those who purchase sexual acts while solely decriminalizing those who sell their bodies.
Some elected officials in the United Kingdom were either asleep or disregarded their compatriot’s call. Case in point, the Leeds City Council recently made permanent a twelve-month pilot that established a “managed area” for street prostitution making it the UK’s first “red light” district. The City Council’s decision is particularly troubling since it was finalized after a so-called “client” beat Daria Pianko, age 21, to death. The brutal murder occurred precisely in the new sex trade zone, meticulously delineated in the low-income neighborhood of Holbeck.
Mark Dobson, the City Council’s executive member for Safer Leeds acknowledges that prostitution (or “sex work” as he calls it) remains an “extremely dangerous and fraught occupation.” Despite this declaration, he and his colleagues found no better tool to shield prostituted women from violence than to legalize the sex trade. The City Council is instead handing over the keys to pimps, brothel owners, and buyers of sexual acts – a cruel solution that, alas, human rights organizations like Amnesty International have proposed as a distorted way to protect the exploited.
Mr. Dobson rattled off the usual myths to bolster his decision: the inevitability of prostitution, the characterization of opposing voices as moralistic, and the promise of police security for women who stay put in the quartered area. None of it is based in reality.
“Leeds made the ‘managed area’ permanent three weeks after a murder in Holbeck and following reports of rape and assault,” says Janie Davies, press officer for Feminism in London. “Also, a recent press investigation reported that no police cars were seen in the neighborhood for several hours on two consecutive nights in January, raising fears that this policy has created a zone where pimps and punters are free to violate women, or even kill them.”
What the Leeds City Council should know is that the sex trade was intentionally designed to commercialize sexual violence and legitimize control over vulnerable human beings for profit. Even if prostitution were as old as time immemorial, as our Western culture believes, so are murder, rape, and domestic violence, crimes political representatives would presumably never assign to designated districts. So why would we allow our governments to deliver disenfranchised or trafficked women to buyers of “sexual access” – as author and survivor Rachel Moran describes it – with special appetites for sexual harassment, dehumanization, or worse?
After legalizing the sex trade, Germany witnessed an increase of unspeakable violence against prostituted women at the hands of buyers of sexual acts an exponential increase in sex trafficking, and the birth of country-wide chain brothels seemingly overnight. The Netherlands is also struggling with the disastrous effects of legalization and the same scenario is unfolding under New Zealand’s decriminalized regime. In the sixteen years since the Swedish government passed legislation known as the “Nordic Model” not one prostituted woman has been murdered by a “client;” in Germany, the body count since legalization is growing, with crushing silence and indifference.
Yes, the vast majority of women and transgender people bought and sold in the sex trade are in “the life” because they lack choice. They have children to feed, seek shelter, or suffer from trauma-induced ills that make escape seem impossible. Rather than condemning them to the sex trade, the Leeds City Council should invest in creating educational and economic opportunities, providing job training, and funding frontline service organizations that offer meaningful exit strategies for prostituted individuals, regardless of immigration status.
“There are far better and safer ways to deal with prostitution than by the creation of an unsafe hazardous area disguised as a ‘safe’ place to carry out ‘sex work,'” wrote MEP Honeyball on her blog, The Honeyball Buzz.
Evidence shows that it will be impossible for Mr. Hobson or the Leeds police to protect women like Daria, so the City Council has an unmitigated obligation to document and report the effects of Holbeck’s “managed area.” Leeds’ constituents must compel their representatives to create a baseline count of current brothels, both legal and illegal; escort ads in newspapers and online; complaints of prostitution-related incidents, including rape, intimate partner abuse and trafficking; and to require hospital emergency rooms and groups fighting domestic violence to document the impact of Holbeck’s legalization regime.
In creating Holbeck’s “red-light” district, the Leeds City Council has unequivocally placed the UK with other countries that violate the Palermo Protocol and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), that respectively mandate governments to legislate against abuse of power over vulnerable persons, including through the exploitation of prostitution. As far as morality goes, the struggle to end commercial sexual exploitation is as moral as upholding the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and as moral as our communal quests to end disease, hunger, and corruption.
And should the Leeds City Council approve legislation to mandate the compilation of impartial and verifiable statistics that will trace the foreseeable increase of organized crime, pimping, and the transformation of Holbeck into a sex tourism destination, they should name it the “Daria Law.”
Daria Pionko was supposed to be safe. Or safer, anyway. That, at least, was part of the thinking behind the “managed prostitution area” established in the Holbeck area of Leeds in June 2014 and officially announced the following October. It was also a tidying-up exercise, in response to locals’ concerns about living alongside street prostitution. By suspending the laws on kerb-crawling and soliciting between seven at night and seven in the morning in one non-residential part of town, Leeds City Council hoped to draw all the city’s outdoor prostitution to one unobtrusive place.
Alongside this effective decriminalisation, a Sex Work Liaison officer was appointed to work with women in prostitution, who are often (and reasonably) too fearful of the law to appeal to it. On top of this, outreach workers reported that the area made it easier for them to bring them health and social care to women in prostitution. If you have any concern at all about the wellbeing of women in prostitution, those are both excellent developments – as is the release of women from the threat of prosecution, breaking the grim cycle of punishment and crime that catches so many.
None of this was enough to keep Daria Pionko safe as she sold sex, though. Early on 23 December 2015, the Polish national was found unconscious within the managed area, and pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. Police described the head and face injuries that killed her as “brutal”. On 3 January 2016, 24-year-old Lewis Pierre was charged with her murder. He was not the first man to be charged with a violent crime against a woman working in the managed area. In September 2014, Abdul Fulat picked up a woman from the managed area and subjected her to a prolonged, violent sexual attack. Two months later, Anthony Riley raped and robbed a 27-year-old woman who had been selling sex there. Ten months after that, the council declared the managed area “a success”.
And then there’s the violence that doesn’t necessarily make it to court or reach the headlines. An evaluation conducted for the council in September 2015 claims that introducing the managed area led to an increase in reports to Ugly Mugs (a scheme that collects details of crimes against women in prostitution). From any perspective, more women reporting acts of violence against them is a good thing, especially if it means fewer men getting away with it (it’s possible that Fulat and Riley’s victims would never have reported their attacks before the managed area). But there’s a horror underlying that success. Every single mark on that tally is a woman abused, a woman brutalised, a woman put in fear.
Violence is never far away from prostitution, and one thing that the managed area couldn’t do was make women feel protected: “Amongst sex workers,” says the evaluation, “there was not a sense that the Managed Area had improved safety for the street sex workers as fear of crime persisted.” (For its part, the council says: “the area is regularly patrolled and officers take a robust approach to any offences against sex workers”.) Despite no longer being at risk of arrest for selling sex, the women felt that there had been a reduction in policing that left them vulnerable – and although the evaluation ascribes that threat to an abstract entity called “crime”, there is of course an agent behind every act of violence, and that agent is generally a man.
Yet in official documents about the managed area, the punters are astonishingly absent, gently muffled in circumlocution. “Consider the place where the sexual transaction happens as the place where there is most risk for sex workers,” runs one recommendation from the evaluation, as though danger were a matter of geography: it’s not being away from the managed area that creates the risk, it’s being isolated with a man who has paid for sex and feels entitled to take his satisfactions from a female body. There’s a suggestion of “[i]mproving the physical spaces to design out violence”, but no conception that you could “design out violence” from the men who actually commit it.
Because the problem with prostitution always comes from one thing without which it could not exist at all: the men. A man who pays for sex knows that the woman he’s paying anticipates no satisfaction from the encounter beyond a financial reward that she may direly need (after all, there’s be no need to pay if she was having sex for her own genuine pleasure), and yet he doesn’t find anything obnoxious about purchasing her consent. Maybe it’s even a turn-on for him. How much do you have to dehumanise a woman to think it acceptable to use her like that? How much easier to be violent to someone you already see as inferior?
Less than a month after Daria Pionko’s murder, the council decided to make the managed area permanent. Councillor Mark Dobson told the Telegraph: “Sex work remains – as last month proved – an extremely dangerous and fraught occupation. But it’s incumbent on us to make it as safe as possible.” Two rapes, a murder, multiple other attacks. As safe as possible. Leeds’s managed area policy is flawed, but its focus on the women’s needs suggests a genuine potential to do good. It cannot succeed, however, if it cannot admit that the dangers of prostitution are fundamental to its economy: there can be no prostitution without punters, and there can be no safety for women with punters. You can exile prostitution to an industrial estate. You can install extra bins for the used condoms and other detritus. But when you’re picking up the bodies of murdered women and calling it an occupational hazard, the obscenity of prostitution should be impossible to ignore.