The sex industry’s attack on feminists

This article was originally published at Truthdig.

Pornographers have long defended the products and practices of their extremely profitable industry as “free speech,” even as they sexualize male power and violence against women. Similarly, defenders of prostitution, which they strategically call “sex work,” frame the movement for its legalization and normalization as liberatory.

But these groups only support free speech and liberty insofar as it applies to their interests. Those who speak out against the sex industry are excluded from their version of “freedom.”

We saw evidence of this in March, when a number of prostitution lobby groups threatened to boycott a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, that had secured the renowned journalist and Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges as a keynote speaker. Because Hedges had written an article calling prostitution “the quintessential expression of global capitalism,” these groups attempted to no-platform Hedges and would have succeeded in their efforts if not for an impassioned response from local women’s groups.

Smear campaigns against feminists and allies who dare to tell the truth about male power and violence are nothing new. In the 1990s, pornographers launched a campaign against professor Catharine MacKinnon and feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, comparing them to Nazis and accusing them of suppressing free speech when, in fact, the 1983 Minneapolis anti-pornography ordinance that they had written—defining pornography as a civil rights violation against women—was not an attempt to censor speech but instead to address the harm done to women by the pornography industry.

In order to appeal to well-meaning progressives, a “sex-worker rights” movement was invented to oppose those feminists who believed prostitution to be an extension and perpetuation of male power and violence. The prostitution lobby adopted the language of the labor movement in order to advocate for men’s rights to open brothels and buy sex from women, and it also adopted the language of the feminist movement to frame prostitution as a woman’s choice.

They have the media on their side, as well as the pimps and johns. The capitalist interests of mainstream media mean that pornography and prostitution are presented simply as business ventures, and their patriarchal foundations mean that the idea of women’s bodies as consumable objects is accepted as the norm.

In recent years, the sex industry has worked alongside the media to completely decontextualize the system of prostitution. This neoliberal approach is part of an ongoing effort to defang movements that challenge systems of power: If we are all simply individuals, working toward our own personal empowerment and therefore solely responsible for our own “successes” and “failures,” then there is no need for collective organizing. When Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, only individuals who must look after themselves first and foremost, this is what she meant.

By framing a system that funnels women—particularly marginalized women—into prostitution as not only a choice that women make but as a potentially liberatory one, these groups are able to disguise the way in which pornography props up male power, placing the onus for women’s subordination on women themselves. By framing the societal pressure to self-objectify as empowerment, society is permitted to ignore the reasons women learn to seek power through sexualization and the male gaze. By focusing on women’s agency, we ignore men’s behavior.

What is truly being defended by groups that claim to lobby for “sex-worker rights” is not, in fact, women’s human rights but the financial and sexual interests of men. This is why the discourse deliberately avoids addressing the harms caused by these men.

The campaign to frame the pro-prostitution lobby as a grass-roots effort to help marginalized women has been very successful. By ignoring the inherent power dynamic at hand when a man pays a woman for sexual acts, and instead forcing the conversation to be one about women’s choice, those who might consider themselves feminist are pushed into a corner: “Do I support women’s right to choose?” The obvious answer is yes. But that question is a misleading one. The real question is: “Do I support poor and marginalized women’s right to a better life than that offered to them by exploitative men?”

While manipulative language designed to appeal to the liberal masses is a huge part of advocacy to decriminalize pimps and johns, another key component is the smearing of feminists who challenge this discourse.

Industry advocates will stop at nothing to silence the voices of those who speak out against their interests. Labeled as prudes, religious conservatives, oppressors and bigots, the war against these feminists has recently culminated in widespread efforts to no-platform dissenters.

When the Swedish journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman was scheduled to speak in London last year about her book “Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self,” the bookstore hosting the event was threatened with boycotts.

The current climate in “Anglo-Saxon feminism” is one that supports witch hunts, Ekman told me. Such a witch hunt begins with “smear campaigns, appears to be coming ‘from below,’ and calls famous feminists power-crazed, elitist, ‘cis-sexist,’ racist and ‘whorephobic,’ ” she said. “It then proceeds to full-blown silencing campaigns, boycott threats, petitions, isolation of anyone who sides with the feminist and guilt by association.”

In 2003, Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and the founder of the nonprofit group Prostitution Research and Education, conducted a study in New Zealand about violence and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by prostituted people, and she later testified in Parliament there about the interviews conducted. A New Zealand prostitution advocate took issue with her research and filed a complaint against her with the American Psychological Association (APA). The complaint was ignored by the APA and not taken seriously by her colleagues but is continually framed by the prostitution lobby as legitimate and used as an excuse to pressure others to dismiss her extensive and illuminating research.

Julie Bindel, a feminist journalist who has reported on the global sex trade for years, has revealed that the International Union of Sex Workers in Britain was little more than a mouthpiece for pimps and brothel owners. She has also reported on the extensive failures of legalized prostitution in Amsterdam. But in March, after complaints from prostitution lobby groups, she was removed from a panel discussing an American film about prostitution.

Prostitution survivors face silencing tactics as well. Bridget Perrier, a First Nations educator and co-founder of the Toronto-based sex-trade survivors and abolition group Sextrade101, said the efforts of the pro-prostitution lobby are focused on invalidating the experiences of women who have left the industry. Their stories are often called into question.

Rachel Moran survived seven years in the sex trade in Ireland and has published a book about her experiences, addressing many of the myths and lies perpetuated by the sex-work lobby. For her crime—speaking the truth—she has been subjected to endless harassment, accused more than once of inventing her story.

“I have been defamed, slandered, threatened, physically confronted and screamed at,” Moran told me. “I’ve had my home address, bank details and personal email circulated amongst some of the most seemingly unhinged people, who have tweeted me portions of my home address in a clear we-know-where-to-find-you style threat.”

She added: “It is consistently contended that I was never in prostitution, although the records proving I was are held by the Irish social services and the Dublin District Children Court.”

The denial of truths that would hurt efforts to present a sanitized version of the sex industry aimed at selling prostitution as “simply a job like any other” is key to the campaign for its legalization.

Moran told me she was shocked at the lack of compassion exhibited toward her by sex-industry advocates who claim to have a vested interest in women’s safety. “They simply do not give a damn that they are constructing a deliberate and organized bullying campaign against a woman who was ritualistically sexually abused by adult males since she was 15 years old,” she said. “My truths do not suit them, so my truths must be silenced.”

In desperation, unable and unwilling to respond to basic feminist, socialist arguments against the sex industry—namely, that it exists on a foundation of male power and capitalism, perpetuating misogynist notions about male “needs” and women’s bodies as the things that exist to satisfy these socialized desires—these lobby groups resort to lies and slander.

These groups try to pass smear campaigns off as “critique,” but they are anything but, Ekman, the Swedish journalist, said. “What is going on now is not critique. Rather, it resembles a full-scale Maoist cultural revolution.”

“If you are a prominent feminist, you won’t escape this,” she continued. “If you haven’t been targeted yet, you either will be or you’re not dangerous enough.”

I have been writing about the sex industry and prostitution legislation in Canada for years now. The attacks on my character and work have been relentless. In recent weeks, a number of Canadian sex-industry lobby groups mounted a major smear campaign online, framing arguments against the objectification, exploitation and abuse of women as “bigotry” and willfully distorting my work and views beyond all recognition.

The nonsensical and baseless accusations hurled at me—“transphobic,” “whorephobic,” racist and so on—replicate those used against all women who challenge the status quo in this way. The intention is not justice, but to slander feminists so that their arguments can be ignored and dismissed and in order to bully others into doing the same. The one thing they always fail to mention is the truth.

Women in prostitution are 18 times more likely to be killed than the general population, and the men responsible are much less likely to be convicted when the victim is a prostituted woman. In Canada, indigenous women are overrepresented in prostitution and experience higher levels of violence than non-aboriginal women, in general. Legalization has proved not to be a solution to exploitation, violence and abuse.

These individuals and groups co-opt the struggles of marginalized people in order to defend a multibillion-dollar industry that takes the lives and humanity of thousands of women and girls across the globe every year. Rather than allow dissenters to threaten their interests with words and arguments, they engage in underhanded tactics to silence independent feminist writers and journalists. They frame our words as “violence” but do nothing to fight the perpetrators of actual violence. These groups have never engaged in a public campaign against an abusive man, never petitioned to end the employment of a violent john, never called those who force girls into brothels or onto the streets “bigots.” Their targets are not corporate capitalism or sex traffickers, nor are they porn kings or abusive brothel owners. No. Their targets are feminists.

In her essay “Liberalism and the Death of Feminism,” MacKinnon wrote that “once there was a feminist movement”—a movement that understood that criticizing practices like rape, incest, prostitution and abuse was not the same as criticizing the victims of these practices. “It was a movement that knew [that] when material conditions preclude 99 percent of your options, it is not meaningful to call the remaining one per cent—what you are doing—your choice.” She wrote these words 25 years ago, and we are still fighting the same battles. Now, to speak out against patriarchal systems means your livelihood will be threatened, as well as your credibility and your freedom to speak.

You cannot claim to be progressive but advocate against democracy. You cannot claim to be feminist but support the silencing of women. This new McCarthyism will not liberate us. It offers us up to those who work toward our demise.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Meghan’s courageous essay has been transated in French by the TRADFEM collective and is posted on https://ressourcesprostitution.wordpress.com/ along with other kick-patriarchal-ass writings!

  • Nadine Guilbert

    Meghan, your courage is so inspiring.You and a lot of other woman are talking, writing, filming, manifesting, more and more. We have to continue. Stand and say our truth strongly, personally,in public, it’s politic.Thank you so much for all that you do.
    Brave Meghan

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks Nadine!

  • Michael Lebednik

    Meghan, a very well-written commentary, as always. {Please contact me directly; I wish to make a contribution but am a U S resident and your website doesn’t allow transactions without a Canadian provincial address.}

  • M

    Thank you Meghan, such powerful and intelligent writing as always.

  • EEU

    Thank you for writing this! Great as always. You should really consider writing a book.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks EEU!

  • Rachel

    Yes! Thank you for this article. Once again I had a male friend who stated that women got into the porn industry because they were ’empowered’ and did it ‘for the sex’. And again, I was shut down for ‘talking on behalf of all women’ and not having an ‘open mind’ when I spoke of the coercion for women to act like sex toys, and the abuse and danger these women are put in. He was adamant that females who ‘want’ to sell their bodies for sex, whether that be through stripping, prostitution, or porn, are doing it because they like it, and refused to see the socialisation aspect, and the issue of poverty and lack of alternate choices. He refused to see the abuse that these women go through, and excused it as ‘unfortunate that some women have to go through that’. It’s so disheartening because I can fully understand how those women who have been silenced, and threatened for speaking out could feel. My friend just did exactly what those ladies have experienced from other men. Someone that I thought was progressive bought into and refused to look critically at that notion. I admire their courage to speak out, and strength to stick to their truths and not buckle under the pressure. I stripped for a short time when I was younger, and although it’s nowhere near what other women would deal with, I can understand the issue with initially thinking you are empowered, but simultaneously realising you’re just being exploited. I remember the first time stripping, I was enjoying being admired by so many men…but I remember being so worried about how I looked …for men. I literally was thinking about my thighs and how I would go on a diet to look better for the next time. I remember even though there was a no touching rule, having them grab me and try to take my underwear off. I remember vividly one guy ordering me to do something for him in a way that was clear he was entitled and I was a stupid play thing. Though his words weren’t particularly bad, I remember the tone and that regardless of how educated, smart, loving, caring or vivacious I was, I was there to be a play thing for men. Probably while their wives and children sat at home. I remember walking out of that club wondering what I had done, and why, if I was so empowered, was I feeling so dirty, used and worthless. It’s so tiring having these discussions all the time with people who refuse to see anything but their point of view to protect their own ego and make them feel better about their own behaviours. They don’t want anyone to hurt their fantasy. I’m so sick of it.

    I also just read a website where a woman wrote a tirade against radical feminists. And many men wrote in response stating how they have been threatened and told to die by feminists. I seriously doubt that would happen, but it seems that everytime a woman speaks out against misogyny she’s labelled as violent! The arguements make no sense, but people rally behind them anyway. I remember one guy said he was disillusioned and disheartened by horrible treatment from rad fems, and I’m willing to hedge a bet that someone mentioned the porn industry to him and threatened his entitlement with the truth. So in response of course, the big mean feminists are just being ‘misandrists’ again. The site owner then claimed that ‘misandry’ is the reason why men are forced to be violent, why men are unsafe walking the streets in women’s clothes for fear of death and rape, and why men are seen as not being victims of rape as much as females – no. All of that is misogyny through and through.

    • Dana

      If some feminists do go off on men and tell them to die it’s probably after a long campaign of the men insulting, berating, belittling, and gaslighting said feminists and hell, we’re human, and some of us get really fed up.

      I am not above cussing someone out when they step over that bright line and I am no longer moved by arguments of “you just make the movement look bad”–our movement ALREADY looks bad to these idiots and sociopaths and I could be as sweet as pie to every last stinking one of them and they’d just think I was a pushover. We can’t win by their lights, so we might as well be true to ourselves.

    • Non-PC RadFem

      “[..] They don’t want anyone to hurt their fantasy. I’m so sick of it.”

      That’s the heart of it all, isn’t it? Their fantasies [and this includes the idiotic lib-fem apologists] are far more important than the mental health of women trapped in the sex industry.

      But then again, that’s capitalism for you. I just read an article saying that large numbers of Chinese [in the millions] are suffering serious health problems due to massive industrial pollution, working/living conditions, insufficient health care (etc). Same can be said about the alarmingly high number of babies being born with deformities in India, most suspect it’s due to their dirty industries (particularly coal mining and coal power plants) polluting the water, air and soil. I’m, by no means, trying to minimize the suffering of women who work in the sex industry, I’m just saying it’s all part of the same sickening beast.

      For a car manufacturer, steal is their raw material, for the sex industry, women [and children] are their ‘raw material,’ they’re not even workers, just raw material. So even there, the argument that women ‘working’ in the sex industry are doing just that: “working” like in any other job is a huge lie.

      In a job, you sell your skilled or unskilled manual labor. You’re not selling yourself, i.e. you’re not offering your own body as the main product for someone else to satisfy themselves with.

      Arguing that “sex-workers” are providing a ‘service’ won’t fly either. All workers in the service industry provide something useful to society – think of hotel chamber maids, waiters, nurses (etc) – what is this elusive ‘service’ “sex workers” are providing society with? And my question is not intended to put the onus on the sex “workers” themselves, but on the pro sex-industry lobbyists.

      PS: Thank you for sharing your story, Rachel.

      • Rachel

        You are so right! There is a huge difference between selling a service and selling your body. And the fact that women can even be compared to material should be a huge signal to people that it’s completely wrong. I don’t mean that your comparison is wrong, because it’s spot on, I mean that the world should see how wrong it is to treat women and children like products. Thank YOU for reading Non-PC RadFem. I’ve only just found this site, and feel lucky to read other women’s stories and share parts of my own. I tend to get carried away with comments at the moment, I think because we so often don’t get a platform to safely tell our stories, and examine them closely that when that opportunity comes up its just a massive relief and it all tumbles out. I feel so sad for the women that don’t get to tell their stories, and therefore don’t get to examine them and in turn internalise the pain.

        • Non-PC RadFem

          “I tend to get carried away with comments at the moment, I think because we so often don’t get a platform to safely tell our stories, and examine them closely that when that opportunity comes up its just a massive relief and it all tumbles out.”

          I won’t claim to be speaking for everyone here, but I do suspect women welcome other women sharing their personal experiences while navigating through this patriarchal labyrinth. That’s how we learn (from each other), that’s how we grow, that’s how we get to communicate with each other in a positive and almost therapeutic kind of way, while at the same time giving each others moral support, the: ‘you can do it‘ kind of pep talk. We all need that from time to time.

          So: share, rant away, get “carried away”… I’m sure there are plenty of sympathetic ears on this comment board who are ready to give you the thumbs up, or a sisterly hug when you need it 🙂

          • Meghan Murphy

            Exactly. I think there are few places where (actual) feminist women can speak freely… Share away!

  • Thank you for such an in depth and well articulated run down on what is happening within the pro-prostitution/porn lobby.

  • I’m annoyed that liberals never direct this kind of censorship at conservatives. In fact, in my country they attack radical leftists for being too critical of conservatives. They insist on being the “nice leftists” but they are not nice. They just choose to hate other leftists and feminists instead of targetting the people who they claim to be opposed to (including conservative politicians, violent men, opponents of the welfare state, etc.)

    Their treatment of their supposed allies is brutal, particularly if these people leave the movement in some form (including if they leave institutions associated with the movement, such as the sex industry.) By contrast, Socialist Alternative has been accused of being a cult, yet people leave it and are not punished. It is very easy to get involved in liberal feminism (they usually assume you are one of them the first time they meet you) or its institutions, but difficult and dangerous to leave. This makes liberal feminism pretty cult-like in my view, though our society avoids attributing the label “cult” to powerful movements that express mainstream viewpoints, for obvious reasons.

    I daresay the so-called liberal left, should be thought of as the moderate right, because they certainly seem to like the far right more than they like the far left. I don’t see right-wingers telling other right-wingers that they have “gone too far”. The fact that this compromising approach is considered a “left-wing” things, shows just how capitulating the “left” has gotten in recent years. Are they this capitulating and eager to compromise when interacting with radical leftists and sex-negative feminists? No, they want us to fall in line completely and are happy to use censorship to ensure that their aims are achieved, while defending the “free speech” rights of misogynistic, racist pornographers.

    I don’t think there is a real moderate leftist or moderate feminist (see my “feminism quiz” blog posts for information on what I consider moderate feminism) movement in Australian universities nowadays. I think this polarisation may be related to the censorship that is occurring. All opponents of sexualisation, femininity and relativist nonsense are treated with contempt, so there is not much of an advantage to being moderate.

    Though I am a political radical, I would like to see an alliance among left-wing groups that are being censored by liberals, including revolutionary socialists, radical feminists and those whom I have termed moderate feminists. Opposition to the sex industry and the broader sexualisation of society is a moderate feminist position. I am disappointed to see that liberal feminists are tightening their ranks against such people. We need to show that it is possible for different groups to work together towards common aims, while maintaining seperate ideological identities. We also need to encourage productive dialogue between the three anti-liberal groups in place of the liberal approach of labelling all disagreement as hatred, even when it isn’t.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “I’m annoyed that liberals never direct this kind of censorship at conservatives.”

      YES. It is completely baffling.

    • Pablo

      It is indeed a sad affair in Australia. I think once the prostitution is legalized. Is near impossible to go back.. to many sectors depend on the growing of the industry feom council coffers to trades ..sad indeed …thanks meghan you are a true warrior. .

  • Thanks for highlighting these issues. It takes a lot of courage these days to speak against pornography and prostitution and the red herring of free speech is one of the reasons. Betty McLellan in her book Unspeakable (2010) invented the term ‘fair speech’ precisely so we could broaden our understanding. In my book Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishers (2014). I argue that the publishing industry needs to get behind this distinction. In brief free speech is like free trade: it benefits the powerful, creates increasing levels of inequality and allows the rich a powerful to freely trample the impoverished and oppressed. Prostitution and pornography flourish under free trade. By contrast fair trade and fair speech encourage justice, and do not give the powerful a free hand to do whatever they want. Both books are available from Spinifex Press which stands for fair speech and stands against the pimps and pornographers.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “Fair speech!” Excellent! Thank you for highlighting this term/Betty McLennan’s work here, Susan.

      • In case you are googling her it’s Betty McLellan not Mclennan 🙂

        • Meghan Murphy

          Ha! Typo — sorry about that 🙂

    • I support free speech within certain limits. Pornography violates every conceivable limit that one may wish to place on speech. It clearly fits within the liberal concept of hate speech (though I don’t particularly like that notion, because it’s used to censor anything liberals disagree with, including criticisms of conservatism that they perceive as going “too far”) and were it not about sex, it would definitely been seen as such.

      Furthermore it is not just speech. It is real life acts of violence and degradation caught on film. Just because you have a free speech right to feature violence in a film does not mean you have a right to commit real life acts of violence in order to capture such videos. I would totally support the anti-pornography ordinance. All it does is hold the pornography industry accountable to the same standards that all over industries are held accountable too.

  • J

    Thank you for continuing to speak for those of us who wish we could or would. The more women like you speak, the more I feel that I can start speaking too. I’m getting closer because of you and people like you. Thank you for letting me know that there are women out there like me, who feel things as I do, and who see structures as I see them. Thank you for taking the spotlight off of the choices of individuals and on to the reasons behind those choices and on to the power dynamic that those choices flow around. Please continue to be your genuine self, critical and nuanced as you are. There are probably other women like me reading who haven’t commented. I don’t often comment, but when I see women being bashed or threatened, I feel it is more necessary to tell those women that I support them and that they make a difference in my life and probably to the lives of other women who are afraid to speak too. So once again, thank you.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thank you so much, J.

  • Julianna

    Thanks for writing this, Meghan. I first read it at Truthdig and was thrilled to see your name there. A lot of the comments were frustrating as usual, just like on Hayes’ pieces on the sex industry, but thank you so much for keeping on with what you are doing. Your courage is inspiring.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks Julianna

      • Non-PC RadFem

        Thanks for the heads up, Julianna, I’ll be heading off there just to read the comments [yeah, I can be a masochist at times, I know…]

        For those interested I’ll drop the link to Meghan’s twin article here:

        http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_sex_industrys_attack_on_feminists_20150529

        .

        @Meghan: Congratz on getting your article picked up by Truthdig. It’s a win for you, your message and women everywhere 🙂

        • Meghan Murphy

          Thanks! (The article was written for Truthdig and first published there, I just republished it here so it could be seen more widely.)

  • Jessica

    Thank you thank you thank you

  • Pleasure Unplugged

    A remarkable article, thank you!

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thank you!