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1 December 2014

Why we shouldn’t rebrand prostitution as “sex work“

When we talk about “sex work”, we endorse the idea that sex is labour for women and leisure for men – men who have the social and economic power to act as a boss class in the matter of intercourse. And most damningly of all, we accept that women's bodies exist as a resource to be used by other people.

By Sarah Ditum

Daisy was 15 when she received her first caution related to prostitution. She tells few people about this part of her history, because she doesn’t want it to be a part of her present (all identifying details have been changed in this article). That makes her one of the women you won’t hear from in debates around the sex industry.

Policy-makers and feminists are routinely told to “listen to sex workers”, but it’s worth remembering that you can only listen to those who volunteer their voices, and the more harm a woman suffered, the less likely she is to want to revisit it publicly. Figures such as Brooke “Belle de Jour” Magnanti and Melissa Gira Grant (author of Playing the Whore) are able to become representatives of prostitution probably in part because their largely benign experiences are unusual. Ranged opposite them are the women who style themselves “survivors”, including Rachel Moran and Rebecca Mott. For these women, the sale of sex was nothing but trauma, and revisiting that trauma is part of their public lives as campaigners. That is a heavy tax for anyone to pay, and it’s one that Daisy, who I met through a violence against women charity, resists: “I refuse to build my career on being an ‘ex’ anything. It’s not a label I want or accept.”

Labels matter intensely when we talk about prostitution. There’s currently a campaign for the Associated Press to remove the word “prostitute” from its 2015 Stylebook. Certainly, its use as a destructive, degrading synonym for “woman” belongs on the banned list. In 1979, detectives hunting the Yorkshire Ripper pointedly described some of the women he killed as “innocent” victims, in contrast to those they labeled “prostitutes”. In an extraordinary personal plea to the Ripper, West Yorkshire Police promised to “continue arresting prostitutes”, implying that they were as one with the serial killer on the righteousness of punishing certain women, even if they did prefer lock and key to hammer and sharpened screwdriver. (Unsurprisingly, this endorsement of his motives did not inspire Sutcliffe to turn himself in, and he killed two more women before he was finally caught.) In 2006, the police in Ipswich pursued another serial killer who targeted women who sold sex, but this time the language used was different: now the victims were not called “prostitutes”, but simply “women”. It was a small shift but an important one. The circumstances of the women’s lives were relevant to the investigation, but they were no longer presented as a justification for their deaths.

Self-described lobbyists for sex workers’ rights want the term “sex worker” installed in the Stylebook; I’m a signatory to an open letter asking for the AP to reject this request. So what’s wrong with saying “sex worker”? For one thing, it’s a deliberately broad term. It covers street walkers and escorts, strippers and phone sex operators, dominatrixes and dildo retailers, as well as their respective managers. Clearly, all these things are not the same, and any theory or legislation that attempts to treat them as identical is liable to founder on the object that not all sex work is like that. “Sex work” is also a studiously gender agnostic phrase: “prostitute” is so ingrained as feminine that it’s necessary to specify “male prostitute” when referring to a man, while “sex worker” suggests a figure who could be male or female. This may be well intended, but it’s misleading: the majority of those in prostitution are women, and those who purchase sex are almost exclusively men. When it comes to prostitution, gender neutrality is a lie.

But as well as being excessively broad, the term “sex work” is over-narrow: it includes much more than selling sex, but it also excludes those who sell or have sold sex and yet don’t recognise themselves as “sex workers”. Daisy is one of them. When I ask her whether she would call herself a sex worker, her response is vehement: “I would not use that phrase. No woman is a ‘sex worker’. It’s not work, it’s abuse.” And the story Daisy tells is impossible to reconcile with the hopeful liberalism that says women can make a rational choice to enter prostitution, or exchange sexual consent for money. As a teenage runaway from her violent parents, she lived a precarious life of petty crime and sofa-surfing. One day, the man she was staying with asked her to have sex with his friend. “He was a ponce,” she says. I ask what the difference is between a pimp and a ponce. The answer comes down to the men’s methods of controlling women: a pimp will use threats, but a ponce exploits emotional vulnerability. “A pimp tells you straight – you’re there to solely make money,” says Daisy. “A ponce tells you they care and love you, but ultimately doing the same thing.”

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Of course, there’s no guarantee that a woman’s account of her own life will be respected by those claiming to listen. When Maya Angelou died in May this year, sex work advocates immediately claimed her as one of their own, despite the fact that she never described herself as a “sex worker”. A piece on Vice conscripted her to the cause of International Whores’ Day, while in an article on Mic, Angelou became the vehicle for a reproach to feminism at large: “When feminism fixates on what other women should and should not be doing – from sex work to marriage, career paths and lifestyle choices – it loses its core mission of equality, diversity and acceptance. It fails its women, and it fails its leaders, such as Maya Angelou.” It’s true that Angelou never indulges in self-condemnation when she recounts her involvement in prostitution in Gather Together in my Name. But equally, no one could read Angelou’s autobiography and not draw some very reasonable conclusions about whether she thinks other women should do as she did. Later, she referred to her time as a pimp and later being pimped herself as “[being] in the very gutter”.

However, there are some women who are deemed to be beyond reclaiming. Andrea Dworkin’s reputation as a SWERF (the dismissive acronym that stands for “sex worker exclusionary feminist”) has overwhelmed the fact that she was herself in prostitution, and the experience was central to her work. “[T]he premises of the prostituted woman are my premises,” she said in a 1992 speech. “They are the ones that I act from. . . . Prostitution is not an idea. It is the mouth, the vagina, the rectum, penetrated usually by a penis, sometimes hands, sometimes objects, by one man and then another and then another and then another and then another.” These specifics are hard to address without sliding into salaciousness, and Daisy expertly diverts our conversation every time we come close to discussing the actual sex. Eventually, I ask if these conversational swerves are deliberate.

“I don’t want to talk about the act itself,” she says. “I don’t want it to be seedy. I want to look at the damage that act caused emotionally.” For Daisy, this emotional damage was profound: while in prostitution, she says she was incapable of forming intimate relationships. “How can you be with someone who has sex with other people?” she asks. “How can you share someone if you love them?” These are insights that she has acquired with distance. “When I was involved, I was the biggest defender. I had to to justify my being. How else could I survive?” That imperative for survival didn’t take Daisy to drink and drugs, but she did develop another compulsion to soften her existence: “I shopped. It was my way of self-medicating.” Towards the end of her time in prostitution, Daisy says she could make £200 on a weeknight, and £500 on a Friday or Saturday. She spent all of it, because she couldn’t bear to keep it. There was physical harm too. Asked if she was ever attacked by a punter, Daisy raises a hand to indicate a sprinkling of scar marks on her face: violence came unavoidably with the prostitution.

So if sex work is work, what kind of work is it? The element of physical danger leads some to compare it to high-risk jobs dominated by men, such as crewing oil rigs; but these usually extract some kind of valuable resource and offer workers a premium over comparable labour to compensate for the peril. In prostitution, the only thing produced is a man’s orgasm, and the more endangered a woman is, the less empowered she is to set her own terms. Maybe then “sex work” belongs to the genre of menial female labour, like cleaning and childcare (a connection made in the association between the English Collective of Prostitutes and the Wages for Housework campaign); but we recognise that housework is work even when unpaid, whereas sex is generally supposed to be a pleasure rather than a tedious obligation. So that analogy fails too. Could it instead be something like acting or dancing – a craft that makes full use of the body? (There is a historical connection here, as women on the stage often either moonlighted in prostitution or were assumed to do so.) But actors and dancers are celebrated public figures: prostitution takes place in private, and like most things that are done privately, it confers no prestige on those who do it, however accomplished they might be.

Dancers and actors do not provide access to their inner organs, and they undertake extensive training that is not required for prostitution. In fact, the only criteria for entering prostitution is that you have a penetrable body, and a man is willing to pay to penetrate it. Advocates for “sex work as work” like to remind us that no woman literally sells her body, since she retains ownership of her own person. But clearly, what is being paid for by punters is integrally of the body – the good that is purchased is the right to access the woman’s body for a certain amount of time and/or the performance of specific sexual acts. What the man buys from the woman is not her work, but a single-use licence to penetrate her body. Critics of prostitution are often accused of wanting to control female sexuality, but it’s worth remembering that if prostitution were directed by women’s desires, they wouldn’t have to be paid to get involved: no one has more power over a woman’s sexuality than the man paying her to facilitate his orgasm.

“Sex work” is not a neutral term: it trails its political assumptions tacitly behind it, as certainly as any alternative. When we talk about “sex work”, we endorse the idea that sex is labour for women and leisure for men – men who have the social and economic power to act as a boss class in the matter of intercourse. And most damningly of all, we accept that women’s bodies exist as a resource to be used by other people – male people with the wherewithal to pay by the fuck. Prostitution is an economic institution made up not only of the women who sell sex, but critically, of the men who create the demand, commit the violence and extract the emotional toll on the women they have sex with. Some of the men who pay for sex even recognise that what they do is potentially harmful: one man interviewed for a New Statesman feature on punters conceded that he feels it’s “bad emotionally for women”, before exonerating himself as “just one more person”. Daisy left prostitution at 30, and says she’s now “thankfully together, mentally and physically”. We can only listen to her and the women like her if we start with language that speaks honestly about what the sale of sex entails.


Editor’s Note, 7 January 2015: Melissa Gira Grant has told the New Statesman that she has not described her personal experiences of sex work in her book, or other interviews, that nowhere has she described her experience as largely benign and that she does not purport to be “representative” of sex workers or prostitution. We accept that, in these respects, the article may have misled readers and we are happy to clarify it.

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