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Laurie Penny: the most harfmul 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.

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

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