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. 

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“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.