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

“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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