Julie Bindel’s ‘The Pimping of Prostitution’ destroys sex trade myths with unforgiving detail

Julie Bindel’s new book offers the most comprehensive analysis of the politics of the sex trade yet.

“Listen to sex workers” has become the rallying cry of those who oppose legal restrictions on the sex trade. Well, Julie Bindel has listened.

The Pimping of Prostitution is built around 250 interviews, conducted in 40 countries, cities, and states. Bindel has spoken to sex workers’ rights organizations that oppose the Nordic model; to politicians, police, and public health experts who determine policy on the sex trade; to punters, pimps, and madams who prey on prostituted women and girls. Most of all, she has listened to survivors. Not the white, well-educated, middle-class “sex workers” with PhDs who dominate media coverage of prostitution, but to the women who know what it is truly like. This is a book filled to the brim with women’s voices.

There are moments when it is hard to keep reading. Bindel’s visit to a legal brothel in Nevada sticks in the mind. She meets Sindy, a young woman with learning disabilities who has been sold to the Mustang Ranch brothel by her boyfriend’s father. The madam “managing” her knows full well that Sindy is disabled, describing her as “a nine-year-old trapped in an adult body”, but she apparently sees no reason not to continue profiting from her abuse. The madam is keen to present the Nevada sex trade as safe and sanitized — a model for the rest of the world to emulate — and insists that she looks after her girls. She explains that when Sindy “parties” (that is, when a john pays to have sex with Sindy) “one of the girls will go and sit in the bathroom next door, to make sure the man doesn’t take advantage of her when he realizes what he has.”

Opponents of the Nordic model would have us believe that prostitution is inevitable. They argue that women like Sindy will always be drawn into the sex trade, so why not campaign to improve the conditions of this “work”? Decriminalizing pimps and johns will, they say, result in “harm reduction” — making life a little safer and a little more bearable for prostituted women and girls. This episode in the Mustang Ranch brothel shows us how feeble that approach really is. “Harm reduction” offers women like Sindy nothing more than a potential witness in an adjacent room. It does nothing to reduce the danger and trauma she is exposed to because it does not target the source — the men who pay to sexually abuse her. As survivor and campaigner Rachel Moran put it to Bindel, this approach “suggests that prostitution itself is not the problem” when in fact “prostitution is exactly the problem.” Unlike proponents of the “harm reduction” model, abolitionists do not just want to mitigate the dangers of the sex trade, they want to end it altogether.

Accounts like Sindy’s are central to Bindel’s argument, but she goes much further than simply recounting a series of horror stories. At the end of the preface she quotes Andrea Dworkin:

“I have spent 20 years writing these books. Had I wanted to say men are beasts and scream, that takes 30 seconds.”

The Pimping of Prostitution is the most comprehensive account of the politics of the sex trade I have ever read. It goes well beyond raging at the crimes perpetrated against women and girls, although there is a great deal of justified rage at the heart of this book. It is a thorough refutation of the myths peddled by the pro-prostitution lobby.

Bindel meticulously sets out the abolitionist case in a series of chapters focused on the sex worker’s rights movement, human rights NGOs, HIV/AIDS charities, “queer” campaigners, and, above all, academics. She shows how all of these groups have helped pimp prostitution  — to sanitize and conceal the reality of the sex trade. Bindel is remarkably fair in her summary of their arguments, often quoting them at length. This is not a courtesy normally extended to abolitionists, who are frequently dismissed as prudish man-haters in league with religious conservatives. Indeed, Bindel frequently encounters people within academia and the “sex worker’s rights” movement who refuse to talk to her at all. Are they afraid of what she might uncover?

There is a great deal of villainy lurking just beneath the surface, as Bindel discovers through in-depth investigations into particular individuals involved in the pro-prostitution lobby. She exposes the close relationship between pimp Douglas Fox and the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), an organization that claims to speak on behalf of women in the UK sex trade. Human trafficker and fraudster John Davies is shown to have masqueraded as a legitimate academic researcher, writing defences of the sex industry under the protective wing of Sussex University. She brings to light evidence that Peter McCormick, another pimp, funded the campaign opposing the introduction of the Nordic model in Ireland. All of these men have been given the gloss of respectability by “sex workers’ rights” campaigners and their supporters, not least in academia.

Anti-abolitionist academics are going to hate this book. Bindel’s account of attending a 2015 prostitution policy conference in Vienna is particularly revealing. Almost every single academic speaking at the event was opposed to the Nordic model, and they used a variety of odious euphemisms to describe the realities of the sex trade. Pimping was described as “business practices,” sex acts as “affective-erotic services,” and rape as a “contract breach.” “Coerce,” “victim,” and “trafficking” were all in scare quotes. This approach is now the norm in academia; these are not, as Bindel puts it, “harmless ineffectual individuals in ivory towers publishing papers nobody reads.” It’s clear that academics have had an important role in promoting the sex trade and influencing government policy. They have a lot to answer for.

Yet this is, in spite of the everything, an optimistic book. The survivors’ movement is growing, and an increasing number of countries are adopting the Nordic model. Bindel ends, just as she begins, with the testimony of survivors fighting the world’s oldest oppression: women who are “held together by the politics of feminism and the strength of hope.” Yes, we have a long way to go, but there are reasons to be hopeful.

Louise Perry is a writer and feminist based in Oxford, UK. She is currently writing a book on the history of buying and selling human body parts.

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  • Rachael

    I can’t wait to read this book. It’s so needed. I just hope people listen.

  • Kathleen Lowrey

    This is such a powerful line:

    ““Harm reduction” offers women like Sindy nothing more than a potential witness in an adjacent room. It does nothing to reduce the danger and trauma she is exposed to because it does not target the source — the men who pay to sexually abuse her.”

    I can attest to the pervasiveness of the “sex work is work” approach in academia. It is *beloved* by academic men and the academic women who want to succeed on whatever terms male academics set.

    • shy virago

      Of course it is ‘beloved’ by men. Men think that sex is something that they have a right to.

      • kfwkfw

        Pretty gross stuff to be normalizing. :/

  • oneclickboedicea

    Julie Bindel, Gail Dines, Meghan Murphy, the witches coven of all witches covens!

  • calabasa

    It’s a little meta, yes. I had to think about it for a while. I think it means “the selling of the idea of prostitution as a good thing” or “the pushing of prostitution” (pushing it on us as a society). The institution of prostitution is itself being “pimped” (sold); the metaphor fails, however, in that we (society), the “johns” who “buy” (into) prostitution, are actually the ones being psychologically manipulated by the pimps (along with some “empowered sex workers” types who actually sell sex), the pimps being liberal and liberal feminist academics and queer theorists and liberal media makers and liberal lawmakers and organizers as well as actual pimps; it’s not “prostitution” itself being manipulated (as in real life, where it’s the prostituted women who are manipulated by the pimps; the johns for the most part know exactly what they’re doing, IMO). So the metaphor is a little strained.

    Still a pretty clever title.

    • FierceMild

      I see what she means, but it doesn’t trippeth lightly.

      • calabasa

        No, it doesn’t, does it? Titles are hard.

  • Wren

    I did till I read this review, but I think it’s the most important question to ask: who is really pushing the prostitution industry? I mean, if it was truly just traffickers and pimps, why would pro-prostitution insanity ever become academically respected discourse?? If it was just profiteers and johns selling us the idea that prostitution should be decriminalized or legalized, how would it become so culturally accepted?? And if it was just them, they would only be arguing in a utilitarian fashion (the oldest profession, the inevitability, the tax revenue, yada yada). They certainly wouldn’t take up the whole libfem shit about empowerment and women’s agency. Someone had to give them this kind of language and credibility, especially since most reasonable people are fully aware that a pimp is just a fucking pimp. How did academia get hijacked? How did this lead to the infiltration of Amnesty International and other NGOs?

    We know it HAS but HOW exactly, and WHO is participating and for fuck’s sake WHY?? How the fuck has this happened? How wide and deep does this go?? Indeed, who’s been pimping prostitution?? I want to see the dots connected and annotated.

    • FierceMild

      Yes I think you’re absolutely correct. I just wish these important works would be better titled. For example, Gail Dines wanted to call ‘Pornland’ ‘Stepford Sluts,’ and I think that’s a much more incisive title.

  • Wren
  • calabasa

    From Ms. Bindel herself: “In the past few decades, prostitution and the sex trade have been given a serious makeover. The title of this book, The Pimping of Prostitution, is meant to convey how sanitised commercial sexual exploitation has become. The Urban Dictionary definition of pimping is ‘to make something “cool”, “better” or “awesome”’

  • Clarene Wong

    I grew up with pimp meaning “cool”, like “pimp my ride”, so it makes sense to me.

  • Spike Robinson

    Hmm, Kindle (UK anyway) has only negative, one star reviews. Some kind of little hate campaign maybe? Anyway thanks for the excellent review here on Feminist Currents. I have bought the book and look forward (?) to reading it.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Ugh. I bet it is a hate campaign… I don’t have Kindle, but for those who do, please leave good reviews for dear Julie!

      • Spike Robinson

        The negative reviews were left by people who had not bought the book (not via Amazon or Kindle anyway) and so probably had not even read it. I left a positive review. By the way it’s £12 on Kindle which sounds like less expensive than the paperback edition.

      • Spike Robinson

        £14 sorry on Kindle vs £20 paperback on Amazon.

  • Scott Williams

    As usual the civilized Nordic countries shine a light to show the barbarians what a civilized society looks like.

  • Meghan Murphy

    To be clear, FC wasn’t booted off the site… I quit and informed them I would no longer be publishing content at rabble.ca because a male editor pulled this piece http://www.feministcurrent.com/2016/09/07/are-we-women-or-are-we-menstruators/ without informing me, then, when questioned, did not even respond to explain *why* it was pulled, after being live on the site for seven hours: https://www.facebook.com/meghanemilymurphy/posts/10153849501632343

    Rabble is boring af, though, you are right. The editors are cowardly and ruled by a few sex work lobbyists in Toronto.

    Re: Maria’s issue with Julie, I will have to let her explain what it is she means.

  • Meghan Murphy

    No problemo! I mean, in very many ways I was pushed out of their via silent bullying, ostracization, etc on the parts of the staff. But, in the end, it was my decision to leave in protest, so I like to make that clear.

  • Maria Gatti

    That is really unfair. I’ve argued against the pro-“sex-work” posters there for many years. My experience with people in prostitution relates mostly to Indigenous people (mostly girls and women, some trans people) who have been horribly mistreated since infancy, by white society and their own dysfunctional communities, destroyed by cultural genocide.

    I agree with Julie about PETA – their publicity is grossly sexist, racist, insulting to children with disabilities or reasons they might be bullied, and that is just the start of it.

    No, Julie has said utterly reactionary things about utilitarian cyclists and cycling. Suppose it is because she hated everything about Amsterdam because of the red-light culture (which extends far beyond that zone, but is also strangely invisible when living there), but that is no excuse for an anti-environmental stance.

    I know very well about Julie Bindel, I agree with her about the sex trade, and just about everything except her odd digs at cyclists. This is an important issue for me as I’ve been an environmental activist for as long as I’ve been a feminist or social activist, and struggled for more inclusivity and against the bro culture that exists in that as in other social movements. Please look up Claire Morissette, a major cyclo-feminist activist here in Montréal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claire_Morissette

    I really don’t want to be pushed off rabble; I was a founding member. I post there much less than before, but haven’t really found a substitute.