The following is an excerpt from author Julie Bindel’s “The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth,” which was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.
The rise of transgender identity politics has brought with it a strident attempt to merge the identities of prostitution and so-called “genderqueer.” There are several arguments used to claim that the experience of being transgender and being prostituted are very similar, if not the same thing. One is that many trans women cannot find regular employment, or need fast cash in order to pay for surgery, and therefore turn to the sex trade. Another is the queer argument that we are all part of one big happy rainbow alliance and “sex workers’ rights,” trans rights, and queer rights are one thing. What this argument loses is an analysis of men’s power in relation to women. In fact, aside from trans women, women are excluded from the equation altogether.
The recently constructed acronyms even lend to my theory that the transgender and “sex workers’ rights” issues have become amalgamated to the point where you literally cannot support one without supporting the other. SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) and TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) handily rhyme. Both groups seem to realize how important merging their interests is. Pro-prostitution lobbyists regularly tap into support from the transgender lobby and vice versa. I came to realize just how handy this was for both groups during the campaign in Britain to introduce a law to criminalize those who pay for sex. It was 2009 and the proposed bill I mentioned earlier was being debated in Parliament, which would criminalize the purchase of sex from a person who was trafficked or otherwise coerced. It was still considered important to get this bill through, even though many were skeptical about it because it separated the women who could show that they had been pimped or forced in some way from those who were being otherwise abused and exploited in the sex trade, and it would be practically impossible to police.
The academic Belinda Brooks-Gordon coined the rather amusing phrase “Carry on Criminology” to describe what she considers to be poor research into the sex trade. For example, Brooks-Gordon was a signatory to the complaint published in the Guardian newspaper about the “Big Brothel” research that I co-authored.
In the build-up to the debate in Parliament and the House of Lords about the new bill, Brooks-Gordon was heavily involved in rallying the troops to argue against it. She posted messages on punter websites such as those on which sex buyers “review” the prostituted women they buy. Steve Elrond is a prolific sex buyer, lobbyist for blanket decriminalization, and owner of websites that advertise women to other sex buyers. He posted a message from Brooks-Gordon on his then personal website, which is no longer live but still accessible on archive websites.
“Dr Belinda Brooks Gordon [sic] who is brilliant at lobbying for our rights has asked that the following be circulated,” wrote Elrond. Brooks-Gordon’s message outlined the reasons why both prostituted women (or “sex workers” as she put it) and sex buyers (“clients”) should lobby MPs of all parties in order to get them to vote against introducing a law criminalizing demand for trafficked persons. She went on to explain how important it was to form alliances across different issues, before explaining her next move:
“On Thursday night I am speaking to a transgender group to explain why they should oppose the Bill (some are shakey [sic] on this) — it was one thing for them doing the anti-Bindel nomination demo at the Stonewall awards, but sex work is another issue for them so am working on this. There were good links built up over the demo so will keep you posted as to where they are on this. If anyone wants to come along they are welcome.”
The previous year, I had been nominated and shortlisted in the category of “Journalist of the Year” at the annual Stonewall Awards. As soon as my nomination was announced, the transgender community and much of the gay press went into overdrive. I am regularly accused of “transphobia” on the strength of an article I wrote in the Guardian Weekend Magazine in 2004. I had not asked to be nominated for the award, but as soon as the protest started I knew that I had to turn up to the event or it could have looked as if I had been intimidated out of doing so.
On arrival, I saw that there were well over 100 protesters arguing that my nomination should have been withdrawn and that I peddled “hate speech.” Alongside the trans activists were a number of pro-prostitution lobbyists and a smattering of academics. The demonstration was the largest in the history of transgender activism in the UK and there was much publicity relating to it.
One of the main organizers of the demonstration was Sarah Brown, who was a colleague of Brooks-Gordon during the time they were both Liberal Democrat councillors. Following the Stonewall saga, Brooks-Gordon saw an opportunity to get members of the transgender lobby on board in opposing the law to criminalize the demand, and to fight for blanket decriminalization of the sex trade.
What is interesting, at least according to Brooks-Gordon, is that at that time in 2009, some of the transgender lobbyists were “shaky” about coming out in support of the pro-prostitution line. Today they are anything but, and it is hard to find a transgender lobbyist who is anti-prostitution.
Currently in the UK, several local branches and two main political parties give responsibility on drafting and implementing policy on prostitution in the sex trade to their LGBT caucuses. The Liberal Democrats, for example, regularly have trans women speaking at conference, attempting to pass motions to support the blanket decriminalization of the sex trade. This is the same with the Green Party (except they describe themselves as LGBTIQA+) and some local branches of the Labour Party.
For example, a key member of the LGBT caucus in the Islington branch of the Labour Party is Catherine Stephens. Stephens is a founder of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), the fake union populated by pro-prostitution academics, punters, pimps, brothel owners and other lobbyists for decriminalization of the sex trade. For the past 10 years I have seen Stephens at conferences and other public meetings, and have never heard her declare herself lesbian or bisexual. However, she now identifies as bisexual, which means that she has been granted legitimacy within the LGBT group.
Trans Influence on “Sex Work”
Sarah Noble is a Liberal Democrat activist and pro-prostitution trans woman. In 2014, Noble made a speech to conference calling for decriminalization. Brown, also a trans woman, additionally made a speech at conference calling for decriminalization.
Janet Mock is a male-to-female transgender activist who catapulted into the public arena with the publication of her memoir about growing up transgender, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More in 2014. In the video accompanying the book, Mock appears to celebrate children’s involvement in the sex trade:
“I was 15 the first time I visited Merchant Street, what some would call ‘the stroll’ for trans women involved in street-based sex work. At the time, I had just begun medically transitioning and it was where younger girls, like my friends and myself, would go to hang out, flirt and fool around with guys, and socialize with older trans women, the legends of our community.”
Mock goes on to explain how she “idolized” the prostituted trans women in the area, including those who were used in pornography and in strip clubs. “These women were the first trans women I met and I quickly correlated trans womanhood and sex work,” says Mock, explaining that she came to understand the role of the sex trade as a “rite of passage” for trans girls.
Mock is disparaging about the role of the media betraying prostitution as “shameful and degrading.” Like many pro-prostitution lobbyists, Mock considers the stigma attached to prostitution as extremely harmful, placing it above the harm done to prostituted people by sex buyers, pimps, and brothel owners. In fact, Mock strongly suggests that any condemnation of the sex trade will lead to violence against those selling sex, claiming that anyone with a negative view of the sex trade “dehumanizes” prostituted people.
“Sex workers are often dismissed, causing even the most liberal folk to dehumanize, devalue and demean women who are engaged in the sex trades. This pervasive dehumanization of women in the sex trade leads many to ignore the silencing, brutality, policing, criminalization, and violence sex workers face, even blaming them for being utterly damaged, promiscuous, and unworthy.”
As Mock had earlier said, she had learned to link prostitution with being transgender and argues that, because she had learned that prostitution was viewed as shameful, she began to view being transgender as shameful: “I couldn’t separate it from my own body image issues, my sense of self, my internalized shame about being trans, brown, poor, young, woman.”
This is a bizarre and dangerous argument. Mock is effectively saying that unless we completely normalize and destigmatize the sex trade, trans women such as herself will never be able to feel proud of their “womanhood.” Think about the implications here: first of all, the total conflation of prostitution with being transgender, coupled with the somewhat manipulative argument that if we don’t accept prostitution as “empowering” then trans women will experienced self-hatred.
“These women taught me that nothing was wrong with me or my body, and that if I wanted, they would show me the way. And it was this underground railroad of resources created by low-income, marginalized women, that enabled me when I was 16 to jump in a car with my first regular and choose a pathway to my survival and liberation.”
There we have it: prostitution is about liberation and any condemnation of it means that marginalized women and girls will not be able to survive.
Julie Bindel is a journalist, a feminist campaigner against male violence, and the author of The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth.