Laurie Penny: the most harmful effects of prostitution are caused by its criminality

Sex work isn’t stigmatised because it is dangerous. Sex work is dangerous because it is stigmatised.

The stock photographs used to illustrate articles about prostitution are a standard joke in the sex industry. Almost every report, feature or comment piece on prostitution published in the mainstream press these days seems to be accompanied by a picture of a pair of legs in stockings and high heels, either attached to a lady leaning into a car-window or wobbling about on its own, apparently unaided. It’s a lazy, dehumanising little trope that sums up precisely how too many soi-disant liberal lobby groups understand prostitution and the people who do it.

Sex work is bad for women. That's the opinion of the European Women's Lobby, an organisation that claims to speak for almost half a billion people in its demand, placed before MEPs this month, for "a Europe free from prostitution". Across the Continent and in the US, a raft of new laws aiming to crack down on sex work, pornography and street prostitution is being floated down the treacherous stream of public opinion where politicians without moral life-rafts grab on to anything that might keep their chins above water.

Since this process began, many sex workers, female and male, have braved the fear of prosecution to speak about their experiences and demand that their work be decriminalised. Their stories are often very different from the simple tale of victimhood told by anti-sex-trade campaigners. Groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes in the UK and the Red Umbrella Project in the US, to name just two among many, are run by sex workers fighting for better working conditions and protection from abuse. The voices and opinions of sex workers, however, are usually silenced in "mainstream" debates about prostitution.

Good intentions?

Here’s the situation prostitutes are in right now. Laws regulating sex work are written, in most cases, by people who have never done sex work and who have no sustained contact with those who do. The most well-meaning legislation, designed to prevent the trafficking of vulnerable women and girls (vulnerable men and boys are expected to fend for themselves), often backfires, pushing the sex trade further underground and giving the police licence to punish and victimise women walking the streets or working together for safety. In the UK earlier this year, a cancer patient, Sheila Farmer, overturned a conviction for "brothel-keeping" - she was selling sex in a flat shared with a friend for their mutual protection.

In California, the controversial Proposition 35 has just passed, with the aim, again, of stamping out sex trafficking. As a result, women who are found to be selling sex may have to register as sex offenders and submit to internet monitoring for the rest of their lives, as may anyone receiving financial support from them, including their children.

“Sex worker advocates are rightly concerned that Prop 35 increases the criminalization of people in the sex trade -- the chances they'll be arrested, serve time, and be slapped with a record that follows them around for the rest of their lives,” said Melissa Gira Grant, a writer and former sex worker. “But advocates for survivors of trafficking raised concerns that Prop 35 would also fail their communities, because it so focuses on commercial sex, and because it treats forced labor like a problem you can solve by putting more people in jail, not increasing protections for workers.”

For a law that claims to be designed to protect women, Proposition 35 looks surprisingly like every other law in the history of sexual and social conservatism crafted to protect the clean-living middle classes from more "corrupt" elements of the community by sending in the police and taking away their livelihoods. The elements of class suspicion at work here shouldn't have to be spelled out. 

When "nice" women with regular incomes take a stand to deny the agency and attack the morality of people working in precarious conditions, what else are we supposed to call it? The feminist author Ellen Willis termed this handkerchief-clutching zeal to "save" prostitutes, porn actresses and other "fallen" women "neo-Victorianism". The convoluted loops of logic that enable this type of neo-Victorian thinking are interesting in themselves.

Firstly, the anti-prostitution lobby makes little or no distinction between sex work in which prostitutes retain a measure of agency and sex trafficking - modern slavery. This is because it's the "sex" part of those activities that really causes knickers to be twisted in the icy corridors of bourgeois moral opprobrium. It's a school of so-called women's liberation that remains fundamentally resistant to any analysis of work or economics: work can't possibly be the problem, so the problem must be sex.

In reality, sex work isn’t stigmatised because it is dangerous. Sex work is dangerous because it is stigmatised. The fact that an industry in which workers are criminalised and pushed to the margins of society, an industry in which workers are denied agency and control, will automatically become more dangerous for everyone who relies on it to make a living, doesn’t seem to compute for those making laws to send police after prostitutes ‘for their own good’. If sex workers are victimised by the police and the public, if sex workers face higher levels of violence and assault at work, then it can only be because of their dirty moral choice to have sex for money. 

This sort of ugly moral judgement is what feeds the myth, widespread amongst both clients and law enforcement, that it’s impossible to rape a prostitute. So-called 'radical' feminist groups point to high rates of rape and assault experienced by sex workers as if this were an inevitable, natural consequence of selling sexual services rather than an atrocious working condition made actively worse by the fact that so many sex workers are even more afraid than other women to report their rapists to the police - particularly if they are black, Asian or transsexual. It’s as if someone who sells sex should have no expectation of consent at work. This absolute denial of agency, of personhood - groups like the EWL use the passive term "prostituted women" to refer to sex workers - is deeply dehumanising, especially for a campaign that claims to stand for human rights.

When all other arguments fall flat, the last elastic piece of reasoning holding up the sensible undergarments of the sexually conservative feminist lobby is that women who disagree with their arguments must have been abused as children or traumatised on the job, and as such are not worth listening to. The UK Feminista founder, Kat Banyard, who does stalwart work training activists, claimed in the Guardian that "astronomical rates of post-traumatic stress disorder" among sex workers are evidence of "the inherent harm at the heart of this transaction". That there is little evidence that sex workers experience any more or less sickeningly unacceptable levels of rape and childhood abuse than women who don't sell sex, according to a study by the Journal of Sex Research, is beside the point. Too often, in these debates, prostitutes are judged as emotionally and mentally unfit to participate before anyone even thinks of inviting them to the table. It's as if there were a sort of "prejudging" going on. It's almost like . . . what's the word?

Oh, yes. Prejudice.

This isn't about evidence, not for "Neo-Victorians", not really.  It's about morality, just as it was two hundred years ago when well-meaning upper-class women organised charity centres to ‘save’ street prostitutes from sin by finding them alternative employment as charwomen, in workhouses or scrubbing the streets. Right now, this translates into a belief amongst do-gooders that any kind of work, however exploitative and badly paid, must be better than sex work because it doesn’t involve sex, wicked sex, sinful sex -  leading anti-prostitution evangelists like Nicholas D Kristof of the New York Times to argue (as he does in the book and documentary Half the Sky, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn) that women who currently work in brothels in developing countries should be encouraged to work in sweatshops instead. Because that's an enormous step up.

Right to choose

I understand how easy it is to slip into this type of lazy pseudo-feminist thinking. For a short period in my early twenties, I attended meetings and rallies with sexually conservative feminist groups. I was briefly seduced by their simple solution to gender opression: stamp out porn and prostitution and the rest will follow, and social relations between men and women will settle into easy equality. The reasoning was that sex work itself is a form of sexual violence at the core of contemporary society, and getting rid of it will purge the rot from our hearts and our homes. 

What changed my mind more than anything else was meeting and becoming close to women and men who sell sex for a living and truly understanding not a single one is a headless, heartless pair of disembodied legs in stilettos, much as that might disappoint a particular sub-species of wealthy fetishist. What changed my mind was beginning to listening to sex workers who they say that what they need is protection from abuse, better conditions at work and the ability to work without fear of arrest, thank you very much. I have never sold sex myself, so as a feminist and a socialist I am proud to take my position on sex work from those who have, and to honor their experiences. 

Sexually and socially conservative feminism is not the only or even the dominant kind of feminist activism out there. Right now, women across the world are organising against sexual repression and slut-shaming, resisting the backlash against our right to choose when, how and with whom we work and live and fuck. Neo-Victorians still dominate the lobbying groups and claim to represent women's interests at the heart of world governments, but beyond the corridors of power, sex workers, low-waged workers and women of colour are clamouring to be heard. 

Theirs, however, is not the school of feminism that interests the governments of Europe and America. Right now, in a time of imposed austerity and social collapse, more and more women and men are turning to sex work to make a living - and those people need protection, not further persecution.

A version of this piece appears in this week's New Statesman, on the newsstands now

German women protesting in favour of human rights for women working in prostitution. Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Stop saying identity politics caused Trump

It's a wildly unsophisticated analysis that ignores the fact that all politics is inflected by identity.

Look, I don't mean to be funny, but is there something in the water supply? When Mark Lilla wrote his jeremiad against "identity liberalism" in the New York Times, it was comprehensively picked over and rebutted. But this zombie take has risen again. In the last 24 hours, all these tweets have drifted across my timeline:

And then this (now deleted, I think, probably because I was mean about it on Twitter).

And finally, for the hat-trick . . .

Isn't it beautiful to see a Blairite, a Liberal Leaver and a Corbynite come together like this? Maybe there is a future for cross-spectrum, consensual politics in this country.

These are all versions of a criticism which has swilled around since Bernie Sanders entered the US presidential race, and ran on a platform of economic populism. They have been turbocharged by Sanders' criticisms since the result, where he blamed Clinton's loss on her attempt to carve up the electorate into narrow groups. And they are now repeated ad nauseam by anyone wanting to sound profound: what if, like, Black Lives Matter are the real racists, yeah? Because they talk about race all the time.

This glib analysis has the logical endpoint that if only people didn't point out racism or sexism or homophobia, those things would be less of a problem. Talking about them is counterproductive, because it puts people's backs up (for a given definition of "people"). She who smelt it, dealt it.

Now, I have strong criticisms of what I would call Pure Identity Politics, unmoored from economics or structural concerns. I have trouble with the idea of Caitlyn Jenner as an "LGBT icon", given her longstanding opposition to gay marriage and her support for an administration whose vice-president appears to think you can electrocute the gay out of people. I celebrate female leaders even if I don't agree with their politics, because there shouldn't be an additional Goodness Test which women have to pass to be deemed worthy of the same opportunities as men. But I don't think feminism's job is done when there are simply a few more female CEOs or political leaders, particularly if (as is now the case) those women are more likely than their male peers to be childless. Role models only get you so far. Structures are important too.

I also think there are fair criticisms to be made of the Clinton campaign, which was brave - or foolish, depending on your taste - to associate her so explicitly with progressive causes. Stephen Bush and I have talked on the podcast about how hard Barack Obama worked to reassure White America that he wasn't threatening, earning himself the ire of the likes of Cornel West. Hillary Clinton was less mindful of the feelings of both White America and Male America, running an advert explicitly addressed to African-Americans, and using (as James Morris pointed out to me on Twitter) the slogan "I'm With Her". 

Watching back old Barack Obama clips (look, everyone needs a hobby), it's notable how many times he stressed the "united" in "united states of America". It felt as though he was trying to usher in a post-racial age by the sheer force of his rhetoric. 

As Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates during his last days in office, he thought deeply about how to appeal to all races: 

"How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal. So I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community."

Clinton's mistake was perhaps that she thought this caution was no longer needed.

So there are criticisms of "identity politics" that I accept, even as I wearily feel that - like "neoliberalism" - it has become a bogeyman, a dumpster for anything that people don't like but don't care to articulate more fully.

But there are caveats, and very good reasons why anyone pretending to a sophisticated analysis of politics shouldn't say that "identity politics caused Trump".

The first is that if you have an identity that any way marks you out from the norm, you can't change that. Hillary Clinton couldn't not be the first woman candidate from a major party running for the US presidency. She either had to embrace it, or downplay it. Donald Trump faced no such decision. 

The second is that, actually, Clinton didn't run an explicitly identity-focused campaign on the ground, at least not in terms of her being a woman. Through the prism of the press, and because of the rubbernecker's dream that is misogyny on social media, her gender inevitably loomed large. But as Rebecca Solnit wrote in the LRB:

"The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy, exactly the things she was berated for neglecting. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each. But she was assumed to be talking about her gender all the time, though it was everyone else who couldn’t shut up about it."

My final problem with the "identity politics caused Trump" argument is that it assumes that explicit appeals to whiteness and masculinity are not identity politics. That calling Mexicans "rapists" and promising to build a wall to keep them out is not identity politics. That promising to "make America great again" at the expense of the Chinese or other trading partners is not identity politics. That selling a candidate as an unreconstructed alpha male is not identity politics. When you put it that way, I do accept that identity politics caused Trump. But I'm guessing that's not what people mean when they criticise identity politics. 

Let's be clear: America is a country built on identity politics. The "all men" who were created equal notably excluded a huge number of Americans. Jim Crow laws were nothing if not identity politics. The electoral college was instituted to benefit southern slave-owners. This year's voting restrictions disproportionately affected populations which lean Democrat. There is no way to fight this without prompting a backlash: that's what happens when you demand that the privileged give up some of their perks. 

I don't know what the "identity politics caused Trump" guys want gay rights campaigners, anti-racism activists or feminists to do. Those on the left, like Richard Burgon, seem to want a "no war but the class war" approach, which would be all very well if race and gender didn't intersect with economics (the majority of unpaid care falls squarely on women; in the US, black households have far fewer assets than white ones.)

Those on the right, like Daniel Hannan, seem to just want people banging on about racism and homophobia to shut up because he, personally, finds it boring. Perhaps they don't know any old English poetry with which to delight their followers instead. (Actually, I think Hannan might have hit on an important psychological factor in some of these critiques: when conversations centre on anti-racism, feminism and other identity movements, white men don't benefit from their usual unearned assumption of expertise in the subject at hand. No wonder they find discussion of them boring.)

Both of these criticisms end up in the same place. Pipe down, ladies. By complaining, you're only making it worse. Hush now, Black Lives Matter: white people find your message alienating. We'll sort out police racism... well, eventually. Probably. Just hold tight and see how it goes. Look, gay people, could you be a trifle... less gay? It's distracting.

I'm here all day for a discussion about the best tactics for progressive campaigners to use. I'm sympathetic to the argument that furious tweets, and even marches, have limited effect compared with other types of resistance.

But I can't stand by while a candidate wins on an identity-based platform, in a political system shaped by identity, and it's apparently the fault of the other side for talking too much about identity.

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.