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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?

Women in a Berlin nightclub
We’re all subject to the same controlling order. Photo: Getty

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?