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.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

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.