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.