Prostitution or sex work? Your choice of words gives the game away, marks out where you stand on the issue. Violence against women or just a job? It is a serious battleground for the soul of feminism.
Into this contested territory lands Julie Bindel’s well-researched book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. At a time when “sex work” appears to be gaining ground in official circles, Bindel is a passionate abolitionist, meaning she does not believe that decriminalization or legalization can protect prostituted women from the inherent violence of prostitution. As such, she advocates for what’s commonly known as the Nordic Model, in which johns, pimps, and profiteers are criminalized and prostituted women are supported to exit the industry. To date, versions of this model have been adopted by Sweden, Norway, Northern Ireland, Canada, Iceland and France.
Unsurprisingly, the Nordic model is vociferously opposed by those who profit from the sex industry, because it will decrease demand, though they choose to cite concern for the women’s safety instead, saying criminalizing pimps and johns will drive the trade underground. However, as a Swedish police officer quoted in Bindel’s book says:
“How can women in Sweden be in more danger than they were before the law? When all she has to do is pick up the phone, even if [the punter] is rude to her, and we will arrest him because he is already committing a crime.”
The panel at Bindel’s book launch in London, attended by more than 400 people, featured three women who have exited the sex trade: Sabrinna Valisce from New Zealand; Bridget Perrier, an Indigenous woman from Canada; and Vednita Carter, a black woman from the US. Their testimonies about the reality of the sex industry were moving, but the stuff of nightmares. It was absolutely clear that prostitution is not another job in need of regulation or unionization. It is a distillation of patriarchy in its purest form.
During the panel, Valisce explained that she rejects the term, “sex worker,” because it glosses over the “sucking and fucking” she had to do. She described her daily routine of standing around for 12-17 hour shifts, wearing only lingerie and six-inch heels, waiting to be chosen by men who would come in bellowing, “Which one of you cunts wants to suck my dick?” This was in New Zealand, where prostitution has been decriminalized since 2003, and is held up as a model of good practice by the pro-prostitution lobby, even though women continue to be killed by johns and pimps.
Perrier was lured into prostitution at the age of 12 and stayed for 10 years. The havoc wreaked by men has left her cervix permanently damaged. As a grown woman, she sleeps with her lights on to keep the nightmares at bay. Perrier talked about the racism she experienced in the industry as an Indigenous woman, and how even funeral homes won’t “touch our dead bodies.” “It’s not the laws that kill our women. It’s not the streets that kill our women. It’s the men,” she said.
Perrier founded Sex Trade 101 to support women who want to leave the industry. She said that 98 per cent of the 400 women she has helped wanted to get out of prostitution at some point. The same point was made by Carter, who has worked with 300-500 women each year, for the last 30 years, through her organization Breaking Free. Carter reports that even women who said they “liked” working in the sex trade complained that they were depressed all the time. “It eats at your soul,” she said.
It seems psychologically and politically consistent that so many of those in the abolitionist movement are female survivors who exited the sex trade. Those who continue to work in the industry not only have a vested interest in its growth, but also in bigging it up — especially to its critics. Fiona Broadfoot (who exited at the age of 26 after 11 years of working in the trade) once told me that she used to challenge anyone who dared question her choice of work, but nonetheless would wash herself, inside and out, with Dettol every night. When I asked Bindel if her research confirmed these experiences in the industry, she said she only came across one survivor among the 250 people she interviewed who continued to promote “sex work” as empowering.
While the gap between the pro-prostitution lobby and abolitionists has grown into a chasm, it was not always so. Bindel’s book reminds us that the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), founded in 1975, were abolitionists in the early days. Their slogan, “For prostitutes, against prostitution” could easily be the tagline for Bindel’s book. They did not argue that sex work is empowering or enjoyable — they saw it as exploitation, as they saw all labour under capitalism.
In recent years, supporters of prostitution have increasingly framed it as a question of choice and women’s agency. Brooke Magnanti — the self-defined “happy hooker” behind the Belle De Jour blog — popularized that narrative; but by all accounts only a tiny percentage of women freely choose and personally profit from it. And it is their voices we hear the most, echoed by their academic supporters and the pimps, whose vested interests it serves, as Bindel has demonstrated. This narrative of “choice” is the poisoned chalice handed down by neoliberalism to feminism. To continue to believe that women freely choose the lives of violent victimization that were laid before us by the panelists at Bindel’s book launch would be grotesque.
This is why I believe that Bindel made an error of judgment in choosing not to devote any space to trafficking. Although she recognizes its importance, in almost the same breath she dismisses trafficking. In a typically memorable Bindel phrase, she says that “sex trafficking is an embarrassment to the pro-prostitution lobby in the same way that lung cancer is to the tobacco industry.” Quite. Trafficking, based as it is on coercion and deception, undercuts the central argument of the sex work lobby, which claims women are exercising their free choice when they enter the industry. Much energy has been expended by these lobbyists in attempting to separate “sex work” from trafficking — the first is presented as harmless and potentially empowering, only the second is accepted as exploitative and harmful. All the while the obvious fact that a thriving sex industry acts as a green light to traffickers is ignored.
Although the statistics are unreliable and heavily contested, trends show that more and more migrant women are being prostituted in the West. A 2009 study found that in a majority of European countries up to 70 per cent of women in the industry were migrant women. While not all of them will be trafficked, this is a telling statistic — it demonstrates the unequal economic desperation of migrant versus local women.
Bindel describes trafficking as “international pimping” and believes “that the only difference between international and local pimping is that some women are pimped across borders, and others are not.” But from the phrase “across borders,” a whole series of vulnerabilities flow, as I argued in my book Enslaved. Most notably, not being able to access the protection of the state, such as it is, and living in the shadow of imminent deportation.
Both lobbies acknowledge it is important to tackle the factors which drive women into prostitution, like poverty. It is no surprise that, as Valisce explained, even when women choose to leave, they can spend years exiting and re-entering the industry because of the difficulties of finding work elsewhere.
As long as women are trapped in these situations, we must focus on exit strategies, while also supporting policies that will ensure that women’s health and safety needs are met and that they can live as free from abuse as possible.
Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist, writer, activist and longstanding member of Southall Black Sisters. She is author and editor of several books, and is currently collaborating with Beatrix Campbell on a book titled, “Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?” which will investigate how patriarchy fits with diverse political systems.