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Sex workers' rights are about more than just “happy hookers”

Julie Bindel's book The Pimping of Prostitution argues for the Nordic model of criminalising sex buyers. 

“Even amoebas know when they've been penetrated,” a sex-working friend of mine was once told at a conference. “Of course prostitution is damaging you.”

The comment was made by a supporter of the Nordic model, a form of legislating the sex industry in which buyers are criminalised. It is a model to which many sex workers are deeply opposed. 

I was reminded of the story when I read The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, a new book by journalist and pro-criminalisation lobbyist Julie Bindel which claims to expose of “the lies, mythology and criminal activity that shroud this global trade”.

A key target for Bindel are sex work activists. “Sex worker rights” (her quotes) represent, she believes, no more than a smokescreen for the interests of pimps and punters. Bindel casts herself as a clear-sighted figurehead, tearing away the mask from sex worker activists, who she calls "the 1 per cent".

When you refer to the citation for this claim – bearing in mind the book is for an academic audience – it is simply: “A phrase commonly used by abolitionists to describe the ‘happy hookers’ who make up a tiny minority of prostituted women.” But a quick glance at the international signatories supporting Amnesty International’s support of sex work decriminalisation will lay waste to this argument.

Bindel presents, then refutes, a string of arguments for which she credits the “sex worker rights” movement. The trouble is, no one particularly credible is making these arguments. Bindel has cherry-picked the worst pro-decriminalisation rhetoric. Which leaves this reader wondering: is she afraid of best?

“Those engaging in ‘sex work’ often use choice feminism to defend prostitution," writes Bindel. Choice feminism is "the notion that a woman choosing to do whatever she wants is inherently feminist”.

She claims most sex work activism is “shouting about the rights of women, and men, to do what they wish with their bodies.” In fact, not one of the UK’s main sex worker-led organisations subscribes to this view. It is, by contrast, a lack of choices which drives people into prostitution – this is central to the politics of sex worker rights.

“Sex worker rights activists suggest that prostitution is helpful and liberating for women who’ve been sexually abused,” Bindel writes. She backs up her claim with a single interview in a book by Alison Bass, a US journalist. Survivors are free to define their own experiences, but suggesting this argument is a key tenet of calls for decriminalisation is ridiculous.

Bindel dredges up a number of dodgy claims made by academics in the name of sex workers’ rights. She quotes Catherine Hakim, a sociologist whose Daily Mail-fodder “men just need more sex” arguments generate a collective feminist eye-roll. Likewise, she references a 2015 study by academics at Birmingham University which analysed the ads on a large escort platform. The researchers found that lots of men offer to sell sexual services. Instead of concluding that the site was full of chancers, the authors decided that sex work is not, after all, a highly gendered product of the patriarchy (spoiler: it is). The study's conclusions have not been used by any of the UK’s sex worker-led organisations.

So as not to fall into the same straw man trap as Bindel, it should be acknowledged that her book has merits. Her description of the prostitution-filled village of Wadia in India (which she wrote about for the New Statesman) is eye-opening and harrowing. Her horror at the “shelter for trafficked women” in Dubai, UAE, which is , in fact, a “holding pen run by the government until the victims can be deported back to their home countries” is palpable; though how the Nordic model would help here, it’s hard to say.

Some of the criticisms Bindel levels are fair. Most sex worker activists join her in condemning incidents where survivors are disbelieved, or the suggestion that sex work is an identity. These can all be filed under Bad Arguments, along with the amoebas. Bindel also criticises the tactic of lumping together pro-Nordic model lobbyists and religious moralists. Again, this is fair. Though these groups sometimes go hand-in-hand, it isn’t legitimate to claim their goals are identical.

Perhaps Bindel should do us the same service. Her camp must contend with unwanted allies in the form of amoeba proponents and Christian fundamentalists; we have the evolutionary psychologists and libertarians. Bad luck all round.

It is deeply disingenuous, though, to attribute these Bad Arguments to the UK’s sex-worker led groups – the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) or Scot-Pep – none of which are “pro-prostitution”. These groups don’t gloss over the harms of prostitution, they simply don’t believe that increased policing and criminalisation will solve these harms.

Bindel’s book left me wanting better terms to define the current clash of ideas. Not all who wish to abolish prostitution are "swerfs" (sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists) as has become shorthand for anyone supporting the Nordic model. Many sex workers and activists calling for decriminalisation would, in fact, like to see prostitution eradicated. And not all survivors are pro-Nordic model, as Bindel suggests. Many call for decriminalisation.

Bindel fails to acknowledge sex work activists’ longstanding focus on austerity, their repeated insistence that poverty drives people into sex work, and that sex workers’ choices are severely constrained. She ignores the movement’s focus on racism, its involvement in migrants’ rights and its savage critique of the sex industry itself.

The fight isn’t between survivors and “happy hookers”. Nor is it between abolitionists and “pro-prostitution lobbyists” (as Bindel charmingly labels me). It is between those who call for the Nordic model and those who call for labour rights and an end to the criminal charges which trap people in prostitution (charges which, yes, the Nordic model retains). Misrepresenting an entire movement takes the conversation nowhere.

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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?