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Feminists need to get smart over the sale of sex

As feminism begins a much needed comeback divisions over the sale of sex damage the larger cause but shouldn't, a survey from the blogger Penny Red.

The launch of UKFeminista last week and the popularity of Mumsnet suggest a welcome interest in issues of gender equality and how we achieve it. But the issue of the sale of sex remains a point of political friction and we will never establish the equality of men and woman until we learn how to talk and argue about the darker side of gender issues such as prostitution.

For feminists, arguments about sex work have become an ugly, obstructive shibboleth. The debate about whether feminism can ever tolerate the sale of sex has raged for over five decades, and in recent years the question has opened old wounds in the fabric of feminist unity, leading to such embarrassing flashpoints as the verbal abuse and police intimidation of sex workers and their allies at the Reclaim the Night march in 2009.  Many feminists, like Finn MacKay of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution, feel that the purchase of sex from women is always and only misogyny: “Equality for women is a farce in a society where it is considered normal for men to buy our bodies.   
“We can't be free while so many of us are literally for sale. As long as I believe prostitution is a form of violence against women, then how can I work alongside anyone who promotes it as a job like any other?”
 
A Moral Quarrel
Furious debate about sex work and pornography dominated the discussion at the recent Women’s Question Time event in London, organised by the charity Eaves, where feminists were invited to put questions to prospective Women's ministers in the run-up to the General Election.
 
Pandora Blake, a feminist sex worker, attended the event. “I hadn't realised quite how aggressively hostile most of my sisters are to my ideals,” she said. “It’s worrying that so many of the best female politicians seem unable to see nuance when it comes to the sex industry".
 
At this event, like so many others, issues such as abortion rights and the pay gap were elbowed out in favour of monolithic tub-thumping about sex work that played out a worrying tendency on the part of contemporary feminists to moralise rather than strategise.
 
On the other side of the debate, many pro-sex work feminists believe that the protection of sex workers should be the only consideration.
 
“Criminalisation of kerb-crawling, to take one example, is harmful to sex workers because ultimately they are the ones who suffer,” said Nine, a former support worker for Edinburgh prostitutes. “Sex workers who still need to make their money are faced with doing business with clients they would ordinarily have rejected. It concerns me greatly that the mainstream feminist movement refuses to look at the harmful effect of laws like these, which they support simply in the name of sending a message to  men.”
 
Giving space to abusers
 Unfortunately, tolerant attitudes such as Nine’s are too often manipulated by patriarchal apologists concerned with maintaining a status quo that constrains and commodifies female sexuality. Easy examples of such apologism can be found on the popular networking site for johns, Punternet, which rates and reviews prostitutes as ‘pieces of meat’. Worryingly, the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) recently recruited on the site, encouraging punters to write to their MPs to safeguard their favourite hobby.
 
If the exclusionary tactics of abolitionist feminists are unsound, the unscrupulous attitudes of organisations like the IUSW are hardly more laudable. The attitude that abusive punters are an inevitability, and the related reasoning that one cannot fight the misogynist meat market, hardly offers an answer to people like Rebecca Mott, a former prostitute:
 
“The torment of being prostituted has never left me. On the first night, when I was fourteen, I was gang-raped for many hours. That was the test to see if I was suitable material for prostitution. You learn that your body is there to be damaged. That you have no right to say no. That your purpose is to service men in any and every way they can think of. It is so much easier to speak only of women who appear in charge of their own working environment, rather than the reality.”
 
Too often, the pro-prostitution lobby is guilty of silencing the voices of women like Mott – just as the abolitionist lobby refuses to acknowledge sex workers whose experiences differ. The sex work debate is a sea of unheard voices, private tragedy and misinformation in which moral squabbling obscures the real-life concerns of many vulnerable women.
 
A legal no man’s land
The net result of all this wrangling is that the legal status of sex work remains an unworkable, precarious Jenga tower of muddled laws and moral equivocation. Recent changes to the law in Britain have altered that situation very little. Welcome efforts to focus police attention on those who buy the sexual services of abused women, such as Clause 14, which makes it a criminal offence to buy sex from ‘a woman controlled for gain’, has been balanced by more regressive and punitive sanctions against soliciting.
 
In Britain, as in many other developed countries, women who work as prostitutes are stranded in a socio-economic no man’s land, their work just about legal enough to offer a seedy but acceptable outlet for restrained bourgeois sexual mores and an economic option for women in desperate financial circumstances, and just about illegal enough that the market for commercial sex remains illicit and underground, depriving sex workers of public dignity and of the full protection of the justice system, and satisfying the prudish public drive to punish those who sell sex.
 
Amongst all of this moralising, misogynist apologism and equivocation, it is stupendously difficult to have a productive conversation about sex work. “There are very few spaces in which feminists with different perspectives on this issue get together and talk about it and find points to agree on,” said Nine. “There frequently isn't even room for debate at all, just point-scoring and shouting over people.”
 
The stagnation of the sex work debate around a brutal moral binary can be seen as the greatest extant danger to the future of feminism, particularly if one believes, as I do, that if we all stopped shouting at each other for a while we could hold the revolution tomorrow.
 
Belle De Jour: a misleading cipher
 The keenest example of this unimaginative binary thinking is the Belle de Jour problem. Dr Brooke Magnanti of Bristol was recently forced to out herself as the former PhD student and prostitute behind the British blog which turned into the book which turned into the lucrative, trashily unchallenging ITV adaptation, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, in which Billie Piper wears a variety of rump-revealing latex dresses and does a lot of heavy breathing.
 
The show, now in its third series, has become the dominant vehicle for the Belle De Jour meme, stripping out everything that was realistic and challenging about Dr Magnanti's blog and leaving a deodorised husk of middle-class male fantasy in which a massively undercast Piper perkily advises the audience to “'work out what the client wants, and give it to him as quickly as possible”.'
 
Feminists have justly denounced the show as duplicitous, portraying sex work as entirely safe, glamorous and lucrative for all those prepared to devote themselves entirely to the sexual service of rich men. However, commentators from Kira Cochrane to India Knight have failed to notice that Secret Diary of a Call Girl is ITV's convenient fiction, and not Dr Magnanti's reality.
 
Dr Magnanti herself was working in the elite eschelons of the sex trade, with no pimp or drug habit to worry about, but even so, critics have failed to notice that the show bears about as much resemblance to the blog as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves might bear to the life of a medieval peasant.
 
Poor Dr Magnanti. All she wanted was to develop her writing and discuss her experiences. Instead, she has been distorted, idolised, victimised and vilified by anyone and everyone with a barrel to beat about prostitution. From glamorous courtesan to tragic victim, it’s not just Belle's body that can be bent into any position you fancy.
 
The one thing that almost no-one has asked is why a PhD student might find herself selling sexual intercourse to fund her studies in the first place. Commentators are slow to connect Belle with a bankrupt higher education system in which indebted students routinely live well below the poverty line to afford the degrees their future employers increasingly demand. Just last week, a report by Kingston University suggested that since the abolition of the student grant, the number of students funding their degrees by working as prostitutes and strippers has increased fivefold. Basic socio-economic analysis of this kind is what is missing from both sides of the contemporary conversation about prostitution.

There is a trench of faff and fighting at the core of the sex work debate where a rigorous analysis of work and capital should be. Sex work is an economic question, not a moral one: in a world where shame and sexual violence are still hard currency, the normalisation of the sex industry is a symptom not of social degeneration, but of the economic exploitation of women on an unprecedented scale, in a feminised labour market where all working women are expected to commodify their sexuality to some extent.
 
Nothing obscures this crucial approach so much as the dogmatic insistence, on both sides of the debate, on the primacy of a faux-feminist notion of ‘choice’.
 
With sex work, as with many other feminist flashpoints, the notion of ‘a woman’s free choice’ is fetishised and taken out of context in order to obscure useful analysis. The word ‘choice’ has been manipulated by the neoliberal consensus in order to erase the influence of brutal capitalist paradigms on the deeds and decisions of poor people, and of poor women in particular.
 
Liberated sex workers insist that their work is ‘a free choice’, whilst abolitionists and many exited sex workers claim that prostitutes suffer such abuses that the very notion of ‘choice’ is anathema. The term has already been devalued by wider society to the extent that any sexual choice made by a woman is assumed to be an empowering act of autonomous agency – especially when the net result of that choice is financial exchange.
 
Abolitionist feminists unwittingly play into this misleading rhetoric of ‘choice’ with their insistence that women in the sex industry have none, that, as Finn Mackay puts it, ‘prostitution is non-consensual sex’ - as if choice and consent are ever enough to justify industrial abuse. As if choice were something made in a vacuum, unconstrained by socio-economic conditions.
 
The underlying assumption of this analytical cul-de-sac - that any woman’s sexual choice, however restricted, is positive and empowering - could only have currency in a world where female sexual agency is still seen as abnormal.
 
Decriminalisation: a way forward?
 
The supreme irony of this sociological stalemate is that, on many counts, the ultimate goals of pro-protection and abolitionist feminists are one and the same. Both camps, for example, believe that women and men who sell sex should not face legal sanctions, and both factions understand that the persecution of prostitutes by law enforcement officers is a form of state violence against women that needs to be eradicated as a matter of urgency.
 
But achievable aims like these are sidelined by partisan squabbling. So intense was the debate around Clause 14 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that practically no opposition was brooked against other, more directly damaging clauses of the Bill, such as those that gave police greater powers to raid brothels and confiscate any earnings found on the premises. “Women are being turfed out onto the street in their scanties,” observed feminist academic Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon. “Does anyone have an answer to this?”
 
Even in this bitter debate, however, occasions for hope do occur. A recent collaboration on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog between Thierry Schaffauser of the IUSW and Cath Elliott concluded that feminists should work together on decriminalisation:
 
“While we've all been busy arguing over other things, those most in need of our help continue to suffer violence. We believe the criminalisation of sex workers/prostitutes helps to legitimise those who attack them. Criminalisation of soliciting is a sexist law.”
 
Ultimately, all feminists believe that vulnerable women need to be protected from abuse, violence and stigma, and all true liberals oppose cultures that brutally shame and commodify female sexuality. If our goals are to be realised, the sex work shibboleth must be broken.  Feminists need to put aside ideological differences and work towards a radical restructuring of neoliberal attitudes to sex, to work and to sex work.
 
It is not enough to seek to criminalise prostitution at the expense of vulnerable women, and neither is it enough to cede responsibility to misogynist market forces and offer protection within an imperfect, abusive sex industry as the only realistic alternative.
 
If we want a world where women’s bodies are more than just commodities, feminists need to get radical, we need to get smart, and we need to be prepared to lay down our weapons and take the fight to the real enemies. If we stop fighting each other and turn our energies on the pimps, the abusers and the superstructure of misogynist free-market capitalism, there are exhilarating victories to be won.

Earlier version published on Penny Red and Samosa

About the author

Laurie Penny is a journalist and activist.


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