Being and Being Bought: An interview with Kajsa Ekis Ekman

Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist and the author of “Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self,” which was recently translated into French and English. I spoke with her over the phone from Stockholm.

Meghan Murphy: What led you to write a book about prostitution?

Kajsa Ekis Ekman: Two things: practice and theory. Coming at the subject from two angles is very fruitful and, actually, necessary if you’re going to write about something like prostitution. You have to look at the reality but you also have to have the theory.

When I started writing this book in 2006, the debate about sex work was just kicking off here in Sweden. The law on sexual services was implemented in 1999 and back then the debate was pretty quiet. When the debate began, seemingly out of nowhere, it was immediately huge and heated — suddenly people were saying things like: “This is just a job, this law is moralist, anybody has the right to do whatever they want,” and so on. I saw that feminists and people in leftist movements were catching on to this and changing their opinion, which I found puzzling.

At the same time, I was living in Barcelona and was sharing a flat with a woman who was selling herself on the highway outside the city. So I was seeing everything that was going on first hand. She was staying with a boyfriend who was something like a pimp and who, in the beginning, claimed he was living off bank robberies, though I figured out this wasn’t the case because was never out — he was always at home on the computer or taking her to the highway and back. I soon realized he was living off of her.

I was seeing the reality of this life as well as how others around her were getting into the business of selling sex. Most of them weren’t from Europe — she was Russian and there were some South American women as well. Early on they would claim they were making lots of money but that clearly wasn’t the case. You know, they’d make 10-20 Euros a night, come home, get piss drunk, pass out and then the whole thing would start again the next day.

The reality of the situation didn’t mesh with what was being said in the debate around “sex work” — it was two different worlds. So I started writing about it.

I wrote a couple of articles about prostitution and the response shocked me. I’ve written a number of articles saying, you know: “Smash capitalism now!” and nobody criticized me, but then when I said, like, “You know the laws we have around prostitution? They’re pretty good,” everybody went crazy. I was getting so much hate mail and I thought, “This is weird. You say ‘smash capitalism’ and no one cares – I mean, you’d think that would be radical.” The issue of prostitution seemed to provoke a lot of people. So I decided to focus more on prostitution and began my research, which I did for about four years after that.

M: What was the reaction like?

K: At first I was a bit scared like, “Why me? What do they have against me? I’m a nice person!” And then I realized that the only way to deal with it is to write whatever you believe is the truth. A lot of people reacted by saying I’m a radical feminist. But I’m not — I’m just a feminist. That’s it. I do draw on radical feminist theory, but I’m also using a lot of Marxist literature in my analysis as well — I come at this from a lot of angles.

M: Some people believe that if prostitution is legalized it will come out from the underground and somehow be safer for women. What is your perspective on arguments that advocate for legalization as a way to lessen violence against women and to make women in prostitution safer?

K: Well you would have to actually support that assertion with facts and if you look at the reality, at least here in Europe, it hasn’t been the case.

They did a study which evaluated the legalization of prostitution and brothels there, and the study showed that none of these goals had been met. Legalization hadn’t made prostitution safer; it hadn’t provided women with a safe working environment or a steady job and the majority of the women still weren’t paying taxes. What it showed was that, first of all, women stayed in prostitution much longer than they had expected to, and secondly, it had become more difficult for them to leave the industry. If you look at the German experience as well as the Dutch experience you see that it simply wasn’t the case that it had become safer through legalization – in fact it was the opposite.

M: There’s also that idea that prostitution is taboo — which is attached to the idea that sexuality is taboo. Based on that argument, some say that if prostitution was normalized as opposed to “taboo,” it could be sexually liberating. This extends into arguments that say feminists who oppose prostitution are “anti-sex” or prudish or that they are repressing people’s sexualities. What do you think about those arguments?

K: You need to ask: “What is prostitution?” There are two people in this exchange — one of those people wants to have sex and the other doesn’t. That’s the basic criteria. Without this condition you don’t have prostitution. If you have two people that want to have sex with each other – if they’re horny, they’re excited, they’re dying for each other, they’re obviously not going to pay. If you have free sexuality you don’t pay each other.

In prostitution, we’re talking about a kind of “sexuality” where one person doesn’t want to be in a sexual situation and so the other has to bribe her. That’s the basis of prostitution. Now why is it so important we hang on to that? Why is that the height of free sexuality? A situation where one person doesn’t want to be there? And why doesn’t that bother people? Why doesn’t it bother them that one person actually has to be bribed to be in a sexual situation?

M: Especially when it’s coming from feminists who talk about the issue of consent… Some will argue that “it’s consensual – it’s happening between two consenting adults.”

Kajsa Ekis Ekman

K: But what is she consenting to? She’s consenting to the money, not the actual sex. If you say to any prostitute:  “You have two options: either you can take the money and just leave or you can take the money and also stay for the sex,” how many do you think are going to stay for the sex? Not even a die-hard defender of prostitution will claim that most will to stay for the sex. Most of them are going to take the money and leave — which goes to show they don’t actually want the sex — they want the money.

So if you’re so sexually radical or sexually liberal, why don’t you see this situation for what it is? Sex wherein one person doesn’t want sex? How can that not bother you? This is what makes prostitution different from all other types of sexual situations. If you have two people that want it, no one pays and if nobody wants it then obviously there’s no sex at all.

M: I wonder what you think about the idea that prostitution is just a job? For example, the position that says prostitutes simply provide a service like a massage therapist or a hairdresser or a waitress does?

K: Right. So if that’s what we’re talking about then you can just forget the idea that prostitution is about free sexuality — take it away. But if you look at how prostitution is being done, it doesn’t conform to the idea that it’s “just a job.”

I call prostitution a lie. I was interviewing a woman who was in prostitution and she said: “Ok. You can say it’s a job but in that case you know what it would be like? It would be like you jerking off a guy while he’s watching porn. You wouldn’t have to fake it, you wouldn’t have to moan, you wouldn’t have to say anything to him. You would just do it mechanically.” Prostitution is nothing like that. In prostitution, the person who is selling has to pretend that she’s there because she likes it.

The tricky part of prostitution is this: it’s institutionalized as a job but at the same time, when she’s paid, she’s going to do her best to pretend that she’s there because she loves it. She’s going to tell him “Oh I’m coming, you’re the best, you’re so sexy, you’re turning me on” and things like that. She’s doing her best to make him forget that he’s paying her.

So sure, make it a job like any other but then we get to just lie there. Let all the women lie there and do nothing and just look at their watches and see how much the men like it. Prostitution is a lie. It’s overly simplistic to say it’s just a job.

In any case, why should we legalize a “job” that has such high rates of abuse, murder, rape, and sexual harassment? Look at the levels of violence and the high mortality rates of people in prostitution – I mean if this were any other job, it would be made illegal from day one. Even in Holland, you see that in the red light district, which is supposedly so safe and so controlled, women are murdered in the actual shop windows all the time. Even legalized prostitution doesn’t confirm to any labour laws or any labour regulations anywhere.

M: In Canada, where I live, feminists and progressives agree that prostituted women should be decriminalized. That is to say that prostituted women don’t deserve to be punished for working in the sex industry and shouldn’t be thrown in jail for doing what they have to do in order to survive. This means that the debate lies in whether or not to decriminalize the pimps and the johns and a lot of people will argue that criminalizing johns further endangers prostituted women or that laws criminalizing pimps will somehow punish family members — for example if a woman is working in prostitution and she lives with her partner or kids, some say that those people will somehow be charged as “pimps.”

K:  Are there any statistics? Is that actually a common thing where family members are put in jail for being pimps? They have to show how many actual cases exist wherein family members are jailed on that basis. The problem with this debate is that there are a lot of assumptions and a lot of arguments but no facts. If you want to claim that this law puts family members in jail for being pimps you have to show that. You can’t just state it.

Regarding the idea that criminalizing johns will endanger prostitutes, you have to ask: “Who is committing the violence against prostituted women?” Is it the law? Or is it the clients? And the pimps? Here in Sweden some people make this claim as well. Somehow the law has been made into a physical abuser — the law doesn’t abuse anyone, ok? If there’s anyone who abuses prostituted women it’s the men. And that is the problem. That’s what we need to do something about. There has been no substantial evidence here to show that the situation has become more dangerous after the law. There’s a lot of talk but no substantial evidence to prove that. It’s an assumption. The experience that we have had of the law has been very positive. It’s reduced the number of buyers – one in eight men used to pay for sex and it’s been reduced to one in 13. We now have a very small number of prostitutes in Sweden. Approximately 1500 – 2000 max.

There’s another aspect of the law that nobody talks about and that’s the fact that this law gives some advantage to the prostitutes. Now, women can report a john to the police, but he can’t report her. Say, for example, he treats her badly or there’s something that he won’t agree to or he refuses to pay — she can threaten to report him because what he’s doing is already illegal. He, on the other hand, can’t threaten her with anything because what she’s doing is not illegal. In countries where the prostitute is doing something illegal and he’s not, he has even more power than he already does in what is a very unequal situation to begin with because he can threaten to report her.

M: I’ve noticed that in the U.S. in particular, some of those who might identify as “sex worker rights advocates” will criticize abolitionists for conflating trafficking and prostitution. I wonder if you can talk a bit about that – are prostitution and trafficking connected? Is there a difference between the two?

K: Basically trafficking is the answer to the question of demand and supply and the problem of supply. Trafficking comes in when there isn’t a large enough supply of prostitutes for the demand that exists — if you’re talking in market terms. In the Western world there are never enough women who enter the sex industry voluntarily — there’s always a shortage, to put it that way. The people who do enter the trade are worn out pretty fast and the clients always want “fresh meat” to put it crudely. They want younger women and women who’ve just started. They don’t want the old prostitutes who’ve been in prostitution for fifty years.

On top of that, the high mortality rate and the way it wears on your body makes life in prostitution pretty short. So there’s always demand for more and more people in prostitution. If there were women coming by the millions to the sex industry you wouldn’t need to drag them out of Eastern Europe. I mean, why would you do that? It’s not logical. If there were thousands of women lining up outside brothels saying “Please, let me in to work!” why would the mafia need to drag them across Europe or across the world — there’d be no point. Trafficking exists because there simply aren’t enough women who will go into prostitution willingly. If you want a prostitution industry without trafficking it would have to be a very small industry.

You can’t separate prostitution from trafficking. You would have to decrease demand to such an extent that very few men were actually buying sex. Then you could perhaps be certain that women were there “voluntarily.”

M: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the Swedish model or the “Nordic model,” as it’s sometimes called, and what that entails.

K: What a lot of people don’t know is that this model is the result of thirty years of work and research. People think it’s just a bunch of feminists and social workers who decided to wage a war against men or something. No — they started doing research back in the 1970s and looking into the reality of prostitution. This was the first time anyone interviewed people in prostitution on a large scale. The focus was shifting from prostitution being a case of deviance and instead were starting to understand this as a huge social tragedy involving gendered social relationships, poverty, the way women are raised, incest, etc.

After this research was done, the question of what to do came. The answer they came up with was to criminalize the client and legislation went into effect in 1999. It’s been 14 years since then and you can no longer even attempt to pay for sexual services. The law has been very successful not only in that demand has decreased but in that the majority of the population now understands prostitution as a product of gender inequality. Eighty percent of the Swedish population supports the law, which you don’t hear about very much.

What happened then was that traffickers started finding it difficult to establish in Sweden and moved to Norway. Oslo, the capital of Norway, became flooded with Nigerian mafia and all these Norwegian men started paying for sex, which led Norway to adopt the same law. The traffickers proceeded to move to Denmark, which is why Denmark is currently considering adopting the same law.

M: Do exiting services and other supports for people who want to leave the industry exist? What happens to women who lose their income when they leave prostitution?

K: That’s something I want to stress — if you want to adopt a law like this you can’t just implement it and then do nothing. You have to ensure the law is accompanied by appropriate support services. In Sweden we have something called the prostitution units and they aren’t just exiting programs — they are much more. If you have been in the industry you have access to free therapy, help finding housing and employment, and dealing with things like debt, for example.

What’s different in Sweden is that we have a pretty strong welfare state so unlike in Canada or the U.S. prostitution doesn’t exist as the result of extreme poverty. Prostitution in Sweden tends to exist as a result of early sexual abuse and things like that. Women there tend to need help with self-destructive behaviour rather than escaping poverty.

M: Some argue that criminalization is not a good response or not a viable route towards liberation because the law will never work in favor of marginalized people. This means that some folks who identify as anarchist or socialist might say: “I don’t want to give the police more power than they already have even if it’s over men who buy sex or who are violent.” Do you identify as anarchist? Socialist? What do you think about that argument?

K: I used to be an anarchist – maybe I still am a little bit… But I do believe in the state as an important tool. I mean, the state can be anything – it can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing — and it isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. The state can serve the interests of capital, of the military, or of the people. It depends on the historical circumstances. The state is not in itself limited to one function.”I can understand that anarchist argument as well, but think it’s kind of internalizing pessimism. It’s like saying “things will never change.” And in that case, you know, if nothing will ever change, what do you suggest? How do we abolish prostitution then? Are you and your anarchist crowd going to go demonstrate every day outside of the brothel?

The experience with the Swedish police has been really interesting because in the beginning they didn’t understand the point of the law – they didn’t see buying sex as a crime so the police used to treat the johns like people who were caught for speeding. The majority of men who were buying sex were married, so they would ask that the police send the ticket to their office instead of to their home because if it was sent to their home their wives and kids would see it. The police would say: “Of course we’ll send it to your office, don’t worry buddy.”

An education campaign within the police changed that and made the officers understand that this was about protecting women, not men. If you hear the trafficking unit lectures, you would think they were radical feminists — they’re amazing. The police now troll the streets for sex buyers saying things like: “Did something happen where men can’t control their own dicks? Man, that’s really bad – they need to stop doing this,” and I think that’s really amazing. You have to work with the police force – if you don’t work with them they will have the same attitudes as before, which is that the women are the criminals and the men are just being men.

M: How is prostitution tied to gender equality and how do laws like the one in Sweden impact the status of women as whole?

K: Sex work lobbyists will try to paint prostitution as though it’s not a gender issue but rather just a “buyer” and a “seller.” They’re talking in market terms and I think that’s very interesting. In my book I also study pro-prostitution discourse from 100 years ago and the difference between then and now is that, back then people didn’t talk about selling and buying — it wasn’t a market thing — it was only seen as being about men and women. They thought prostitutes were fallen women and that they weren’t good for anything else, like, if they weren’t in prostitution they’d be criminals. Regarding the men, the idea was that men needed access to prostitutes because otherwise they would be unruly, would rape the “decent women,” and wouldn’t be able to stay in their marriages. In that way, men having this “outlet” was presented as a good thing for the “decent women.” The discourse was very gendered.

A century later, the feminist movement has happened and while people are still defending this institution, the discourse has changed. People don’t want talk about men and women, they want to talk about it in market terms. But it’s still very much a gendered issue — I mean, the buyers are almost 100% men and the sellers, at least here in Sweden, are at least 90% women. It’s just another way of arranging relations between men and women and if we’re talking about sexuality I don’t think we’ll ever have positive or egalitarian sexual relationships between men and women as long as prostitution exists and is prevalent in this society. What prostitution does to men who pay for sex to keep them in a lie. I mean, these men they don’t even know what to do in bed — they don’t know how to satisfy a women and they don’t understand women’s bodies because the women they are having sex with are paid to tell them that they’re the best, that they’re this super lover. So he’s paying her then coming home and doing the same thing to his wife and she’s like, “umm, no…”  and he just thinks she’s boring and prudish or that there’s something wrong with her. So he will never learn the truth about how to do things in bed — it just perpetuates a kind of lie.

It also makes women in prostitution conform to a specific idea of what a woman “supposed” to be like in bed. It isn’t about both people in the prostitution contract, it’s about establishing a relationship where sex is about what men want — the man is the buyer so he will get what he wants. It’s not about satisfying her. If you’re a real feminist and if you actually want women to enjoy sex, I don’t understand how you can defend an institution that is all about renouncing any kind of desire that women have and only satisfying his desires.


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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  • First rate, thank you.

  • Elizabeth

    Best on the issues I’ve seen in a long time. Kudos to both the interviewer and the interviewee.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Kajsa is wonderful. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview!

      • Meghan, will you do an interview on the second half of her book where she addresses surrogacy? I sure hope so – that would be wonderful~

        • Meghan Murphy

          I will try to get to that at some point, yes! Very important/interesting topic that I’ve never covered before..

  • Merrick

    …. simply amazing.

  • Donkey Skin

    Great interview. Ekis Ekman’s book is essential reading for all radical feminists (even if she says she isn’t one!) It’s particularly valuable for the way it details the horrifying intersection of patriarchal control of women’s sexuality and reproductive biology and global capital. This has resulted in two industries – the international sex trade and commercial surrogacy – that facilitate the violation of poor women’s bodily integrity and human rights on a vast scale. Patriarchal ideas about sex and childbearing being the natural and proper ‘use’ of women combine with market ideologies to declare both ‘work’ – and thus a woman’s body is split off from herself, declared not to be part of her own being.

    Liberal feminism too has contributed to this, by allowing its ‘my body, my choice’ rhetoric to be co-opted by market ideology, so that instead of being a declaration of bodily integrity, that phrase is now used to justify the fact that some women are forced by capitalist patriarchy to put their bodies on the market – with the inevitable mind/body split that follows. Ekman points out that when the selling of female bodies is naturalized to the degree that it is in late capitalism, this means that women can neither perceive themselves nor be perceived by others as whole beings:

    ‘A self that “owns” a body has come to characterize all of femaleness today.’

    • Meghan Murphy

      Yeah the ‘free choice’ argument is baffling. Like, where is this supposed ‘free choice’ happening when we can see with our very eyes how most people in this world do not have anything that could be called ‘free choice.’ I mean, just today I was told women have the ‘right to choose freely when it comes to employment‘ (re: prostitution) and in the same thread am told I ‘don’t understand systemic oppression.’ Crazy-making, I tell ya.

    • lizor

      “Liberal feminism too has contributed to this, by allowing its ‘my body, my choice’ rhetoric to be co-opted by market ideology”.

      Yes – under the same cloak of neoliberal capitalism that tells us we are all individual entrepreneurs and therefore in control of our lives and our destiny. I sometimes wonder if the viscousness of the “my body, my choice” defence and violence of attacks on the position so beautifully articulated in this interview is connected to the fact that looking beyond the pretence of individual agency to the reality: that there really are no viable economic choices and/or past abuse is being compulsively re-enacted are too painful to bear.

  • Meghan, the French translation is an edition from here in Québec, from M Éditeur, a leftwing publisher (that does a lot of feminist, ecologist and other social movement books). Hence it is very affordable for a book in French, about $15. It is also available at the Montréal library system and la Bibliothèque nationale du Québec.

    I’m looking forward to reading this book, as it seems both cogent and affecting. While I certainly respect and appreciate the work my “radical feminist” sisters have done on this subject, like Kajsa Ekis Ekman, I come from another tradition, of socialist or Marxist feminism, enriched with the contributions of political ecology and anarchist thinkers, and now define myself as an ecosocialist. This might be a silly ideological quibble, but “sex work like any other job” advocates have pretty much taken on the discourse that those who oppose that viewpoint are “radical feminists” who “hate men”.

    And of course, as ecosocialists, there are whole sectors of the economy which we see as socially and ecologically harmful, without any intent whatsoever to denigrate, say, autoworkers or arms industry workers, but to call for socially useful employment.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I actually don’t identify as a radical feminist either. Just a feminist and a socialist. My feminism is rooted in some radical feminist theory as well as socialist feminism as well as just plain old feminism 🙂

      • morag

        This is such a refreshing and excellent interview. Out of curiosity Meghan, I was wondering if you could explain why you don’t identify as a radical feminist? Have you done so in the past and then changed your mind? Radical feminism is so demonized in the press and liberal feminist blogs, and since you do borrow from radical feminist theory as you mentioned, I’m curious to know your opinion.

        • Meghan Murphy

          I never have identified as a radical feminist… I have just never felt that it fits exactly right, and feel it has the potential to erase the Marxist/socialist perspective that is so much a part of my work…

          I love and ally with radical feminists and am not at all upset or insulted if others identify me as a radical feminist, of course. I just don’t self-identify as one.

          The other thing is that I feel like it separates “feminism” from “radical feminism.” And, to me, feminism means ending patriarchy/ending male violence against women. If that isn’t a person’s definition of feminism, then I’m not sure they are a feminist. To me, that isn’t “radical,” that’s just feminism…

          In a way, I feel like it’s a way to take back feminism and make the point that if we aren’t challenging patriarchy, then we aren’t doing feminism.

          I’m open to opposing views on this issue, of course, but that’s a short explanation for why I identify just as “feminist” and not “radical feminist.” The class thing is big for me, as is the gender (and race) thing…

          • Donkey Skin

            I identify as a radical feminist partly because I feel it’s the only branch of feminism that still has clear goals and principles.

            Feminism today is used to defend and/or describe virtually anything, including positions that are manifestly antithetical to women’s liberation. So a pro-lifer like Sarah Palin is a feminist, a pornographer like Tristan Taomino is a feminist, the woman who invented Spanx and made millions off other women’s shame-filled relation to their bodies is a feminist, etc, etc, until no one really knows what this ‘feminism’ thing stands for anymore. As The Onion put it: ‘Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does’.

            So I take Meghan’s point about wanting to reclaim plain ‘feminism’, but right now I feel it’s more important to identify oneself against the anti-feminist third wave which defines feminism in the eyes of popular opinion today.

            And I also understand her reluctance to sideline a class analysis, although, I think radical feminism has done better here than it is often given credit for. Dworkin, for instance, wrote with acute sensitivity about women’s poverty, and thinkers like Maria Mies and Lierre Keith apply Marxist and radical feminist thought to global capitalism.

            The most serious charge against radical feminism is that many women of colour feel alienated by its focus on patriarchy at the expense of white supremacy. More intersectionality (regardless of how libfems have misused the concept) is urgently needed in radical feminism, because women’s lives everywhere are also blighted by capitalism and racism, and white women can and do replicate patterns of oppression against WOC.

            That said, patriarchy is the oldest and most pervasive system of power in the world, and it deserves, no, demands, a focused, unsparing analysis – one that will pursue it all the way to its hideous roots. And that is the other reason I identify as a radical feminist. Only radfems (particularly radfems of the second wave – Dworkin, Rich, Lorde, Jeffries) thus far have attempted this.

            One day I hope all feminism will be radical; not that all feminists will think and act as radfems generally do now, but that we will all be committed to destroying the roots of women’s oppression.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I’m with you. Part of my rejection of identifying as a ‘radical feminist’ is a rejection of the notion that Palin or Taormino is participating in anything resembling a feminist movement.

          • Missfit

            I identify as a radical feminist in order to emphasize my anti-porn, anti-prostitution, gender critical stance. Originally, this could have been viewed as simply feminism, but feminism has been so co-opted by post-modernism and liberalism and post-feminism third-wave. I do understand the want to reclaim the word ‘feminism’ though.
            I also prefer radical feminism because by going to the roots, it is by definition anti-capitalism and pro-ecology. It is more than for women to have equal rights with men, which is how simple feminism is often defined. As Maria Mies said (yes, I have a tendency to quote from the book I read at the moment): ‘If the emancipation of men is based on the subordination of women, then women cannot achieve ‘equal rights’ with men, which would necessarily include the right to exploit others’. In other words: ‘the privileges of the exploiters can never become the privileges of all’. That is why radfems do not believe in equality in terms of ‘equal rights’. I don’t think Mies identifies as a radical feminist (even though her theory is certainly part of it), at one point in the book she mentions radical feminists as advocating absolute separation from men (it is not clear for me if it is how she perceives radical feminism herself or if it was in reference to how it is usually perceived by the mainstream). Maybe that is why some do not want to identify as radfems, because they think that it mandates such actions they find drastic. I personally think even men can be radical feminists; seriously, nothing prevents them from reading and understanding and adhering to its values (besides not wanting to question and let go of their privileges). I also prefer radical feminism to Marxist feminism because it goes further than class analysis, addressing the feminine psyche such as societal Stockholm syndrome theory.
            I have been introduced to radical feminism through anti-porn initially, and it has ultimately changed the way I shop, the way I eat, the way I love. All for the better.

          • lizor

            Beautifully articulated, Missfit. Thanks for that.
            What you write really parallels my experience and my position, but I don’t think I could have put it so succinctly.

          • Merrick

            The broad, simple, textbook definition of feminism (theory of equality of the sexes) makes it difficult for many to see the role of radfems, or any side-group, within it.

            Yet as a wrote that; while this definition casts such a wide net, at the same time I think it allows for the intersectionality needed for the evolutionary process within broader feminism. It’s messy and slow, but perhaps one day radical-fem wont seem so radical anymore.

          • morag

            I think it gets tricky because you’re defining feminism as a whole by using the definition of radical feminism, while many define feminism as a whole based off of liberal feminism. I have no idea even if that makes sense since postmodernism puts everything backwards. You mention radical feminism in your about me section and in many of your articles…so isn’t not self identifying as one a copout? Could it have anything to do with you withdrawing support from Radfem Rise up? I get it, it’s very dangerous for any woman to call herself a radical feminist today. I honestly don’t intend this to be like a personal attack on you since you do such amazing work, I just think it’s important as feminists to always question.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I don’t see it as a copout, no. I honestly just feel it isn’t necessary and that it doesn’t fit. I mean, I don’t feel it necessary to describe the particular kind of socialist I am either. I’m a socialist, I’m a feminist. I draw on radical feminist theory ans Marxist theory, and count radical feminists and socialists and Marxists among my allies. Maybe I’ll change my mind one day, but this has been my position for some time now. I certainly don’t think identifying as a radical feminist is a bad thing or that women shouldn’t do it — I just find it doesn’t quite work for me.

            And again, I feel very strongly that we need to stick with a definition of feminism that addresses systemic oppression and the system of patriarchy — any ‘feminist’ movement that doesn’t do that isn’t really doing feminism, imo. That isn’t ‘radical’ — that’s just feminism — why separate it?

          • Kamilla

            I have also had this difficulty! On the one hand it is clear to me that a socialist consciousness is of paramount necessity. At the same time I have found that there is a lack of recognition of the unique and overwhelming form of oppression that women, as a sex, have faced throughout history and today.

  • Missfit

    I can’t wait to read this book.

    Prostitution is the only job, with surrogacy, where you can’t replace the worker with someone from the opposite sex. It is femaleness, reduced to sexual/reproductive bodies, that is turned into a commodity. For this reason only, it mandates a feminist analysis. You can’t look at the issue on market terms only. I’m done with accusations of moralism. Why are critiques of capitalism not getting the same accusations of moralism? Isn’t capitalism just work? I guess being anti-exploitation and pro-equality is a moral stance.

    And for the hundredth time, being anti-prostitution is not being anti-sex. That makes as much sense as saying that being vegetarian makes you anti-food. The sex in prostitution is same old female subordination to male-centered and misogynist sexuality, exponentially experienced. Prostitution will never be liberating for women, it is anti-feminist in its very nature.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “And for the hundredth time, being anti-prostitution is not being anti-sex. That makes as much sense as saying that being vegetarian makes you anti-food.”
      Yep. Prostitution is anti-sex. It’s anti-female sexuality. This is only one of many example that shows how absolutely ridiculous and nonsensical arguments for prostitution are.

  • sporenda

    Another absurd pros-prostitution argument: abolitionnists are always called “puritans”.
    The fact is: puritanism and prostitution go hand in hand, all puritan societies protect johns and legalize prostitution while scapegoating prostitutes.
    The were never more prostitutes in England (and brothels, and child prostitution) than during the victorian era.

    • Meghan Murphy

      And, tied to this puritanism, the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy invented and pushed by patriarchy creates this devalued class of women to service men, reinforces sexism, hurts women, is anti-sex, etc. That dichotomy is very attached to prostitution and the way johns see and treat prostituted women.

  • sporenda

    Exactly, it’s because virginity and purity are required of “good women” but absolutely not of men that a class of whores is deemed necessary: to preserve women’s chastity while satisfying male lust;.

    It’s the sexual double standard for men and women that creates virgins and whores.

  • super great article, THANK YOU,

  • rory

    i’m aware i’m a lone voice of dissent here but that was *not* a good interview. ekman was never challenged once on any of her assertions and she ducked the question entirely on the issue of conflating trafficking with sex work.

    the thing about this trafficking argument is that we don’t even have a common definition of the term. you would think it would be something along the lines of “transporting someone against their will and compelling them to participate in forced labour”, but that’s a much broader issue than sex work and yet campaigners like ekman consistently portray it solely in terms of sexual exploitation.

    the IMDG figures for the UK where i live show sexual exploitation made up 40% of referral cases in 2012, and ILO stats suggest sexual exploitation accounts for less than a third of forced labour worldwide (not including forced labour for the state). obviously i’m not defending these practices, but this issue has somehow been distorted primarily into a stick with which to beat sex work when in reality forced labour/trafficking happens predominantly outside that industry. so in that sense ekman’s campaign is moralistic.

    then there’s the flipside of this which is that the especially hazy definitions of ‘trafficking’ for sex work that get drafted into law can extend to anyone up to and including someone who has leased a flat or room to a migrant sex worker, a driver, a brothel owner who employs them or even a fellow sex worker who shares the premises. this leads to discrimination in housing and employment and often dangerous situations, like taxi firms which habitually refuse to pick up people they suspect are sex workers.

    meanwhile it erases the agency of any given migrant worker in a new country – look how ekman labels all migrant sex workers as “dragged” to western countries by cartels, rather than the economic migration we readily acknowledge for other industries – and arguably the outcome is one of simply stoking anti-immigration sentiment (“they’re criminal, they don’t belong here, they don’t share our values” etc etc).

    • Meghan Murphy

      “ekman was never challenged once on any of her assertions and she ducked the question entirely on the issue of conflating trafficking with sex work.”

      She did respond to the question of conflating trafficking with sex work — with one of the best explanations I’ve heard as of yet. Which assertion would you have liked her to be challenged on?

      “the thing about this trafficking argument is that we don’t even have a common definition of the term.”

      Of course we do. All (human) trafficking means (this is a basic definition) is to transport humans, against their will (or via threat or coercion, etc), for the purposes of exploitation. Trafficking can happen within a country (ex: Aboriginal women and girls are trafficked within Canada — I believe it was Bridget Perrier who explained this to me) or between countries (which is usually what people think of when they think of trafficking — i.e. they think it only happens to women in third world countries, not here in the West).

      “you would think it would be something along the lines of “transporting someone against their will and compelling them to participate in forced labour”, but that’s a much broader issue than sex work and yet campaigners like ekman consistently portray it solely in terms of sexual exploitation.”

      We all (and I’m sure Ekman does as well) understand that trafficking happens for purposes other than sexual exploitation, but in this case it’s clear we’re talking about sexual exploitation. That is the issue at hand — i.e. prostitution — why on earth would it make any sense to derail that conversation into a discussion of various forms of trafficking? It’s really quite frustrating when a person writes about a particular issue and someone (inevitably) responds asking why they didn’t discuss _______ instead.

      “so in that sense ekman’s campaign is moralistic.”
      IN WHAT SENSE? You’ve made no argument that logically leads to this conclusion. Try again.

      “meanwhile it erases the agency of any given migrant worker in a new country – look how ekman labels all migrant sex workers as “dragged” to western countries by cartels, rather than the economic migration we readily acknowledge for other industries – and arguably the outcome is one of simply stoking anti-immigration sentiment (“they’re criminal, they don’t belong here, they don’t share our values” etc etc).”

      Are you actually arguing we discuss the ‘agency’ of people who are trafficked? Christ. This ‘agency’ discourse has gone so far off the rails, it’s scary. No one here — certainly not Ekman — has argued that immigrants are ‘criminal’ ffs. I can’t imagine any progressive/radical/lefty/feminist would say/think such a thing.

      • rory

        Meghan, you (to your credit) asked Ekman, “Is there a difference between the two? – only to let her ignore that element of the discussion entirely. that was the crux of my reply: that there *is* a difference. most trafficking and forced labour does not involve sex work, and most sex workers who migrate do so on their own terms – just as with any other industry.

        when you assume i’m talking about the “‘agency’ of people who are trafficked”, you’re committing the exact fallacy i’m talking about: it fails to draw any meaningful distinction between forced labour in sex work and a chosen vocation (insofar as we can choose to work in a capitalist society etc etc)

        it’s that conflation which does your and Ekman’s argument a disservice, because as i said earlier i feel it betrays a tendency to wield the horrors of exploitation as a blunt instrument with which to beat the sex industry specifically rather than engaging with the complexities of a multi-faceted social institution with a diverse range of people involved.

        thankyou for your reply in any case. i appreciate you taking the time to respond.

        • Meghan Murphy

          “Meghan, you (to your credit) asked Ekman, “Is there a difference between the two? – only to let her ignore that element of the discussion entirely.”

          No, she did not ignore it at all. She specifically addressed the ways in which trafficking and prostitution are inextricably connected and that the binary presented of ‘sex work’ being completely separate from trafficking is an imaginary one.

        • Laur

          Yes, many of the well-funded NGOs talk about trafficking and prostitution in a way that confuses people and conflates the terms. Personally, I wish they would stop. Everyone is against “trafficking.” Not everyone wants the paid rape industry to end. And groups that work on trafficking do tend to work on all types of trafficking, when, for some of us anyway, it’s the hell of the paid rape industries we want to stop. And making two separate groups of women (and men and trans folks) implies that there’s one group who are NOT victimized by the sex trade because of how they ended up there.

          I can believe that the women you’ve talked to in the sex trade want decrim. Is it good for society to have certain women who are free to be sexually abused?

      • Lo

        ““meanwhile it erases the agency of any given migrant worker in a new country – look how ekman labels all migrant sex workers as “dragged” to western countries by cartels, rather than the economic migration we readily acknowledge for other industries – and arguably the outcome is one of simply stoking anti-immigration sentiment (“they’re criminal, they don’t belong here, they don’t share our values” etc etc).”

        Are you actually arguing we discuss the ‘agency’ of people who are trafficked?”

        I think that rory was talking about migrants who are not trafficked: if a migrant comes in the UK and has no other choices than to be a prostitute, she can still “choose” to earn her life this way, in other words economical inequalities are not considered (and this what is called “agency”, instead of “choice”, by liberals. Which also means: if this is this way, no one should think about those migrants and just let them be with the punters ).
        But again rory doesn’t explain why prostitution is an important economical industry all around the world, the structural inequalities between gender, nor does she/he care about the lack of alternative.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Yes, the notion that this would be a ‘free choice’ under that context is also illusory. So, as you say, economic/structural inequality is not considered.

    • Lo

      rory or the example of liberal feminism

      I see you don’t talk about the punters… what they’re looking for in prostitutes doesn’t interest you? Especially in a racist/sexist society where women are reduced to their bodies?

      Even without trafficked victims, what about the destroyed women who want justice because they feel raped/abused? you know the ones who do not belong to any lobbies?
      Anyway why should a man a buy a trafficked victim be punished and the other one who buys a “non” victim be respected? In both case, all they want is doll, not a human with desire or feelings. And I don’t consider this to be the same as any “other” job”.

      agency of what exactly? don’t you have anything else to propose to migrants besides prostitution? #justasking
      If migrants sell their bodies it’s because prostitution is an institution which had a huge impact on our cuture and globalization + colonialism promoted this patriarchal institution all over the world. Now the medias do the same.
      This is why it has become a huge industry today. If some punters were to read your comment they’ll probably think they’re the savior of poor women…
      Moreover with your logic, we should promote prostitution, this way most men will be punters and this way everything will be alright (just like the Roman Empire) and of course I don’t expect people to talk about the role of our sexist and violent culture to explain this industry.
      Liberals are no good at understanding why women are not treated the same as men.

      and last point: “sex work” is a liberal term, and for your information not everyone in the world consider prostitution as “work”, because not everyone justify their opinions/ideology through a liberal point of view which doesn’t “care” about the culture or the impact on equality (here the avalaibility of women bodies for men).

      • rory

        hi Lo,

        you’ve made a lot of points there but i’ll stick to the less philosophical ones if that’s okay. i’m far from a liberal – in fact it’s because i’m a marxist that i see these issues predominantly through the lens of labour relations. for what it’s worth i think the nature of most work today is alienating and exploitative and i certainly care about the way patriarchy continues to perpetuate misogynistic attitudes among punters. i hope that clears up any confusion.

        i’m certainly not going to deny the experiences of “destroyed women” who’ve suffered at the hands of abusive pimps and johns, or who’ve faced police harassment or jail time or shaming in their communities. as a hypothetical i can see the argument for aggressively targeting punters.

        but in my own experience every single current or former sex worker i’ve ever raised the matter with – from close friends to folks i’ve interviewed in my work as a journalist – has told me they want decriminalisation on all counts, effective labour laws and workplace regulation more than anything else. ultimately i think i have to listen to them.

        • Meghan Murphy

          “but in my own experience every single current or former sex worker i’ve ever raised the matter with – from close friends to folks i’ve interviewed in my work as a journalist – has told me they want decriminalisation on all counts, effective labour laws and workplace regulation more than anything else. ultimately i think i have to listen to them.”

          Care to share some of that work?

          I don’t think it’s reasonable to talk about prostitution simply in terms of labour laws when we know how common exploitation, abuse, and violence are in prostitution and when we know that a huge percentage of women in prostitution were prostituted when they were girls, have a history of sexual abuse, and suffer from addiction issues and PTSD.

          How is it possible that, in your journalism work (which, again, we’d like to see, otherwise it’s difficult to know whether or not you’ve actually done this work), you managed to avoid speaking to any of the many survivors who advocate for the Nordic model? Did you ask these women about their experiences in prostitution, how and why they got into the sex industry, and their backgrounds? Or is this simply a question of looking at the surface, and ignoring a context of inequality and systemic oppression?

        • Lo

          Thanks for the reply,

          I’m kind of confused because what is sociological/cultural you call it “philosophical”, but anyway if you don’t want answer properly I won’t insist.

          But my points are still pertinent (especially the ones for migrants and globalization, and the promotion of prostitution, which are economical points).

          There are no agressive or gentle punters, a punter is a punter. I won’t develop here because I’ve understood that you don’t really care about the objectification of women.

          Your main point is that you focus on prostitutes who want regulation. I still think that abolitionism is more “global” because in any cases the law will be by the side of the prostitutes. And with means the ones who WANT to change their job will be able to.

          I think that because you’re liberal you just follow the liberal logical: if some live well with this kind of financial transaction, let’s forget about the other humans, and the cultural institutions and the inequalties (because I don’t think that anarchists or marxists who live in a binary economical world about: “everything can be buy or nothing should be” are relevant when it comes to be critical towards culture or economy or sexism).

          • Meghan Murphy

            Regulation still doesn’t address the ‘choice’ factor. The most marginalized will still not be working legally (not that legal prostitution is safe either) — but the lie is that somehow regulation will magically stop the violence/underground prostitution — but it doesn’t.

          • Lo

            I agree. Since what happened in the Netherlands with the regulation of drugs, liberals use this argument everytime an “economical” problem shows up.
            But they clearly don’t think of the marginalized of prostitution as human beings…
            And if I’m not wrong, on the other hand, we have the example of the grey market of guns, which, even with the regulation of guns on parallel, is still is a huge economical industry. I think some people don’t get that “regulation” isn’t a magical solution for any problems, they don’t want to think about how complicated each problem is, especially if it concerns humans and not objects…

            Moreover giving punters rights, through regulation, will clearly never solve this problem either. It will only let them act as they want.

        • marv

          “i’m far from a liberal – in fact it’s because i’m a marxist that i see these issues predominantly through the lens of labour relations. for what it’s worth i think the nature of most work today is alienating and exploitative and i certainly care about the way patriarchy continues to perpetuate misogynistic attitudes among punters. i hope that clears up any confusion.”

          Not really. I am doubtful you discern Marxism any more than prostitution. Marx believed in abolishing capitalism not reforming it. He was not opposed to workers’ rights within capitalism but saw them as a dead end in themselves. Many labourers (most?) today don’t want to end the private ownership of the means of production. They prefer a larger slice of the profits of the inherently enslaving capitalist pie – a liberal perspective. Even though workers clamour for this, does that make them right? If any worker or workers put forward a particular view should we never question or disagree with it. I think you are clever enough to draw the comparison to “sex work” and abolitionism.

          Michael Parenti once said “the most insidious oppressions are those that insinuate themselves into the fabric of our lives and into the recesses of our minds that we don’t even realize they are acting upon us”.

    • Rieger O’hara

      Rory: According to the US Department of State, trafficking for sexual purposes comprises 80% of the total trafficking in persons, see

      There are various numbers mentioned in different reports. For example, according to Harvard University, 70% of trafficked people are women and girls trafficked for sexual purposes


      And according to the UN report for 2012, trafficking for sexual purposes makes up 58% of the total trafficking in persons.

      The study you show seems to be well below most statistics in the field, could you state the source please and what study it is based on and what methods were used?

      • HenryFord
        • rieger

          Interesting example to choose! This is not a study but a power point presentation or an info sheet, and it does not contain information on how the “estimates” as they call it, have been reached.

          It is an info sheet of forced “labour” – a term which most trafficking experts do not use to define trafficking.
          Trafficking and forced labour is not the same thing. Child labour happens in many parts of the world without it classifying as trafficking. When we are speaking of trafficking we use a more narrow term, and the question here is trafficking and prostitution, not forced labour and prostitution.

          The number 40% certainly does not apply to any of the studies of trafficking.

          And needless to say just because children and adults are forced to work without pay in many parts of the world it does not make prostitution and trafficking any better or any less serious…

  • stephen m

    @rory: Ekman covers trafficking in her book and I suggest you read the book to get the answers you seek. Although I have only read the section on prostitution thus far, I have found that Ekman’s book is excellent. Her book has footnotes, a bibliography and reads easily. I am sure it will maintain your interest.

    By the way, your assumption that prostitution is just sex-work is a major flaw in your reasoning upon which everything in your comment hinges. Prostitution cannot be reduced to sex-work and am pleased that Ekman also shows this clearly in her book.

  • sporenda

    ““meanwhile it erases the agency of any given migrant worker in a new country ”

    Agency, consent, the mantra of people shilling for pimps.

    Agency is not the point, everybody has agency, kIds sold to pedophiles in Thailand have some agency, battered women have agency, people who sell their kidneys have agency, slaves had agency, according to historians.
    That doesn’t not make pedophilia, male violence, traficking organs or slavery acceptable.
    The only question to ask is: are these practices exploitative and do they damage and destroy the people targeted.

  • Jess

    Thank you so much. This was an amazing interview.

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  • I’m curious what she thinks about sex scenes in movies then. The actors don’t necessarily “want” to have sex with each other. Is that wrong, then?

    • What ? How is that at all comparable.

  • Marvellous article

  • Femenist

    This is a good article with a brilliant woman, it has changed the way I look at prostitution.
    Thank you.

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  • Ruth Greenberg

    Kajsa is launching her book in London on Thursday the 20th of November at 7pm at Housmans Bookshop, and speaking at Nottingham Women’s Centre on Friday the 21st of November at 7pm. Get more information at:

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  • Chris B Critter

    I would love to see transgender conversations include those sex changes that wound up as female prostitutes and see how that bears with their former lives as men.