Can a feminist ever support the sex industry?

Everyone who sells sex should be safe, says Sarah Ditum, but what kind of society is it that makes that a rational choice for women?

I know a man who’s had sex with a prostitute, or hired a sex worker, or used a prostituted woman. (Which of these formulations you use matters, because they determine where you have flung your chips in the exploitation-or-self-determination argument.) Actually, I probably know more than one, but once you’ve introduced yourself as a feminist journalist, it’s quite rare that the next thing someone says to you is: “Let me tell you about all the brothels I’ve been to. . .”

So let’s say I know one man who’s told me about his experience as a john. This man went on a lads’ holiday, and part of the plan was for them to hire a “girl” each. One member of the party, though, had something specific in mind: he was going to do “the chocolate finger”. The chocolate finger is a sort of practical joke. You might have already guessed how it works. The punter has sex with the prostitute from behind, fingering her anus: the aim is to get the unwitting woman to suck on the bummy digit.

Now, it seems unlikely that women working in the red light district are that easily tricked, but that’s not quite the point. The point is that enjoyment from the punter’s point of view here comes from believing that he’s getting a woman to do something that she hasn’t consented to, something that wasn’t included in the fee, something that he assumes she would find disgusting. His orgasm is only a false climax on the way to the big finish, the punchline. And the punchline is delivered by him, in the pub to his mates: “I had sex with a whore, ha-ha-ha, and what’s more I got her to lick her own shit.” His pleasure comes from her humiliation.

It feels increasingly natural to talk about sex work as though it’s a simple capitalist transaction. Men (it’s assumed) generally want more sex than women, so individual women can exploit this scarcity to put a price on intercourse. This model explains why sex workers are overwhelmingly female, and the purchasers of sex even more overwhelmingly male. It’s so simple and persuasive that it can seem perverse to challenge it at all.

Catherine Hakim, whose “erotic capital” theory invites women to apply this logic to pretty much every aspect of their lives, writes airily that “the evidence from all national sex surveys points unequivocally to higher sexual motivation and lust among men generally”. Actually, those surveys could well be misleading: we live in a culture that makes female sexuality a dangerous property, and behaviour that seems negligible in a man becomes a ruinous stain on a woman. In this environment, there’s plentiful incentive for women to keep their lusts undisclosed.

That doesn’t mean women don’t have desires, though. Daniel Bergner’s book What Do Women Want? points to a body of experimental evidence that suggests women want a lot more than they ever openly confess to. Meanwhile, Julie Bindel’s report on female sex tourists for the New Statesman shows that women are more than capable of paying for it in the right circumstances – they just prefer to do it in a way that keeps the commercial exchange tastefully covert.

When men pay for sex, I think many of them are buying more than a share in a restricted resource. I think that, like the man with the chocolate finger, they’re often buying power, and the chance to exert it over women. Laura Agustin is an anthropologist who has extensively studied migration and sex work. She takes a radical harm-reduction approach and is dismissive of structural analyses, chiding feminist condemnation of the sex industry for failing to recognise “that women who sell sex can be rational, ordinary, pragmatic and autonomous.”

Well, I recognise it. I’m fully aware that selling sex can be rational, ordinary, pragmatic. In the main, prostitution strikes me as less like a marginal activity and more the clearest distillation of a chauvinist logic that says female desire is only allowed to exist under male licence: the sex worker consents when the client pays her to. It’s not that I think, in Agustin’s words, that “women who sell sex are actually (and deplorably) different from women who don’t.” It’s that I know we’re all subject to the same controlling order.

Those in prostitution are often exposed to the very worst of that order, and I believe strongly that everyone who sells sex should be safe. I’m willing to weigh up in nerdy detail the effects of different forms of ban, decriminalisation and regulation when it comes to securing that safety. But in at the same time, I want to be able to ask what it is that makes selling sex a rational choice for women when men appear to have other options. A world where it makes sense for women to offer themselves as consumables rather than equals is probably a fundamentally shitty world; and why should we accept shittiness as inevitable?

We’re all subject to the same controlling order. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle