This year’s freshers fair at the University of Brighton offered up a new fun way to meet people and get involved in campus life: prostitution. Last week, while students perused various societies and sports clubs they could join to upgrade their college experience, they would also have come across the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) stall, which offered condoms, as well as tips for young women (let’s call a spade a spade – young men were not the assumed future ‘sex workers’ SWOP was targeting) who might choose to sell sex as a means to support their studies.
“Come and see SWOP today at @SussexUni Brighton Life and Wellbeing Fair. If you’re topping up your fees with sex work, or struggling to balance work and studies, or want to talk and don’t know where to go… we’re here for you. We respect your autonomy, privacy and confidentiality,” SWOP Sussex at Brighton Oasis Project tweeted last Tuesday.
SWOP is primarily a lobby group, advocating for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade. While all feminists fight to decriminalise those who sell sex, as they believe women and girls should not be punished for having been exploited or abused, organisations like SWOP want to decriminalise the exploiters — pimps, johns, and brothel owners. They argue that the only danger of prostitution lies in stigma, and that, therefore, the solution is to normalise prostitution as just a job like any other — no more harmful or exploitative than serving a cup of coffee.
Because of this party line, the often abusive — and violent — behaviour of pimps, johns, and brothel owners goes uncriticised. These men are simply ‘clients’ and respectable business owners. The truth is, of course, that countries that have taken this route, and fully legalised prostitution, have seen an increase in trafficking and exploitation. Reporting on the impact of legalisation in Germany, Spiegel Online cites a Family Ministry report that found working conditions for women in prostitution had worsened as a result. In Holland, Julie Bindel has reported that legalisation made it safer for the traffickers and organised crime to operate, but that the women are no better off. “Abuse suffered by the women is now called an ‘occupational hazard’, like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe”, she writes.
The stigma that was meant to magically disappear under legalisation also failed to manifest. Well, to be fair, the stigma for men who pay for sex or who profit through exploiting women in the sex industry has been drastically reduced. Prostituted women, on the other hand, remain as traumatised, ashamed, and as desperate to leave the trade as ever. This is because, of course, the vast majority of women and girls who enter into prostitution don’t do so out of eagerness to have sex with countless strangers, day in and day out, but out of desperation — a lack of options. The people who benefit from legalisation and normalisation are men, not women.
SWOP’s stall at the freshers fair did not highlight the level of violence and misogyny women are subjected to in the sex trade – they kept things light.
Yet this is anything but light. If women have to perform sex acts for strange men in exchange for an education, society is broken. A supportive response to this reality — if indeed it is a reality (SWOP claims “one in six students does sex work or thinks about turning to sex work”) — should not be to facilitate it, but to work to ensure women are able to access degrees without having to resort to selling sex.
In the past, such a revelation would have shocked the general public. Most people would have recoiled at the idea of women trading blow jobs for BAs. But today, thanks to organisations like SWOP and legions of young, middle class social media activists – raised on a diet of third wave feminism that says women’s choices are always empowering, no matter what, and that opinions to the contrary belong only to those with cobwebs in their vaginas and bibles on their bedside – the tide has turned.
Over the past couple of decades, discussing ‘victimisation’ has fallen out of fashion. Because women should aspire to be empowered, independent beings, we are no longer supposed to acknowledge that women and girls around the world continue to have less-than-liberated existences. It’s almost as though we gave up on the notion that we could escape the clutches of porn culture, and a world in which rape and sex are conflated, so instead opted to positive-think our way out.
If we simply reframe stripping as a fun and sexy way to stay in shape and bond with other women, maybe we can forget about the message it sends to men about what women’s roles are. If we start calling prostitution “sex work”, maybe it really is just a job like any other, and the choice between becoming a lawyer or an escort becomes only a matter of personal preference.
Rather than challenge the sex trade, or view it as something that epitomises and normalises women’s objectification in society, modern liberals have taken to defending “sex workers’ rights”, chanting mantras like “sex work is work!” But while prostituted women do indeed deserve rights, like anyone else, these progressive-sounding lines distract us from the truth of the sex trade – not just that it is exceedingly violent, but that it also conveys a dark message about how too many men see women. Even in a non-violent exchange, paying another person to have sex with you should not be acceptable. Sex should be mutually desired by, and enjoyable to, both parties.
An ethical, empathetic person wouldn’t want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to be there — who felt repulsed or dehumanized by the experience. Yet, while we insist – via “consent education” campaigns and the #MeToo movement – that the only sex we should be having is the kind that everyone involved is enthusiastic about, we are simultaneously sending young people the message that one-sided, coerced sex is OK as long as money exchanges hands. That’s not a message we should be comfortable with.
Framing ‘sex work’ as simply another choice young women make, like whether to major in political science or biology, misses the point. The conversation we should be having is not about whether or not women choose or enjoy prostitution, but why we live in a world in which it is acceptable for men to pay for it.