“Men — emboldened by their newfound market power — are becoming more demanding… pushing for unprotected oral and anal sex.” This quote is from the long, voyeuristic read in the Financial Times headlined, “The women turning to sex work to make ends meet”. It’s about prostitution and the cost of living crisis; an uncomfortable read, it ascribes violence and abuse from punters to a failing economy. It paints a grim picture of the sex trade, notwithstanding the sanitised language throughout, such as “sex worker” to describe exploited women, and “customer” for punters.
Julie Swede, a sex trade survivor who was interviewed for the article, is angry that despite making it clear that she wholly rejects the term “sex work”, “because it is abuse, and neither ‘sex’ nor work”, she was described by the two female journalists (Alexandra Heal and Anna Gross) as being “groomed into sex work aged 15 and trafficked by a pimp”. How can a child be a “sex worker”, she asks me. “This is rape and abuse of a minor.” When I made a complaint to the paper, I was thanked for “pointing it out” and told that the wording would be changed.
I despair that I had to point out that referring to a child pimped and trafficked into prostitution was grossly offensive and inappropriate in the first place. But what is becoming clear — and what the female-authored FT article would seem to corroborate — is the way in which so many women are currently bending over backwards to adopt the cool stance that “sex work” is a job like any other.
Nadia Whittome, MP for Nottingham East and the youngest serving MP, elected aged 23, is the epitome of what currently passes for progressive and last week tweeted her support for Hookers against Hardship. This new group describes itself as a “coalition of the major UK sex worker-led orgs, campaigning for more support for sex workers during the cost-of-living crisis”.
This approach may look attractive to those concerned about the human rights of the prostituted person — but selling sex in the UK is not a criminal offence. What Hookers against Hardship and their ilk are calling for is the decriminalisation of all aspects of prostitution, as well as maintaining the legal activity of sex buying. But I know that the claim that prostitution is a job “like any other” does nothing to destigmatise the women involved; what it does is normalise paying for sex and increase the illegal aspects of the sex trade. Blanket decriminalisation means legitimising pimps, punters, and brothel owners.
We know how loudly men will speak up for their own interests; so shouldn’t women (especially those claiming to be feminists) protect women’s? After all, poverty is one of the driving forces that leads to women being exploited into the sex trade, and Whittome’s constituency is ranked as the 42nd most deprived area in the country (of 533 such areas). Surely she realises that the best way to support these women is to “put food in her mouth, and not [a] cock”, as sex trade survivor Rachel Moran said.
Young, female socialists like Whittome seem oblivious to this approach. As she told Channel 4: “I’ll be honest, I don’t really care about the men who are purchasing sex. That’s not what I’m interested in. I care about keeping women who are involved in sex work safe in the here and now. The solution is to fully decriminalise it and tackle the root causes.”
But the root cause is the demand: the men who pay for sex. What the hell does Whittome think makes the women unsafe? I have interviewed pimps, punters, and the prostituted women, and their harm is discussed as though it were an occupational hazard: a stone dropped on the builder’s toe. Rape is the daily occurrence, perpetrated by sex buyers and brothel owners, and the psychological damage as a result of prostitution is well documented.
Unfortunately, Whittome is not the only female MP supporting commercialised sex. Dawn Butler, Charlotte Nichols and Zarah Sultana form the new wave of pro-prostitution Labour MPs, shouting the “sex work is work” mantra from the comfort of their Westminster offices. All are against criminalising the men who create the demand, claiming that it would put the women in more danger. Even though this flies in the face of evidence from those countries where they have focused on the sex buyer as the problem as opposed to the women.
It’s interesting that on the Left, several constituency Labour Parties have passed motions to “decriminalise sex work” and there have even been attempts to unionise the sex industry, and to frame the harm, such as HIV and rape, as “industrial injury” as has happened in New Zealand under decriminalisation. The claim is that treating prostitution as work helps women access resources that can protect them — such as legislation, grievance processes, and officially recognised unions. But unionising prostitution has proved impossible, both in the UK and in countries where it is legal, such as Germany, Holland and Switzerland. This is primarily because women don’t want to register and prostitutes and pimps don’t want to pay taxes.
In 2002, the GMB announced the founding of its Adult Entertainment branch, which began life as the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) and was founded by two academics, neither of whom were involved in prostitution. But it was never effective as a union, and operated primarily as a lobbying group for decriminalisation. Academics, sex buyers and pimps were welcomed as IUSW members, and the main spokesperson in the early days was Douglas Fox, co-owner of Christony Companions — a large escort agency based in northeast England which carried IUSW as a “kitemark” on its advertising.
Whittome has taken her fight for “sex worker rights” outside of her own constituency. She was delighted when feminists lost their fight to put a cap on lap dance clubs in Bristol, despite evidence that men outside the clubs sexually harass women on their way home. Great for working-class female office cleaners coming off night shifts.
There is a way forward for these women. What is effective in terms of reducing the harms done to them in the sex trade is what is known as the Nordic Model. This approach has been tried and tested since 1999 in several countries, including Sweden, Norway, France, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and, more recently, Israel. Under these laws, the demand is criminalised, and the prostituted person assisted out of the sex trade if she or he so wishes. It is a human rights approach and effective in reducing trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of children. Research from the London School of Economics found that legalisation of the sex trade increases both. The commercial sexual exploitation of children is rife, for example, the buying and selling of Albanian refugee children in Kent.
Why is it, then, that so many prominent female politicians believe that further normalising sex markets is a better alternative to clamping down on the men who drive the demand?
Caroline Lucas, a former Green Party leader used to steadfastly support the Nordic model. She told me, back in 2008, that she wanted to see an end to the sex trade because she understood it as sexual exploitation, and a barrier to equality between women and men. But in 2016, Lucas met with trans activist Paris Lees (who is of the view that feminists campaigning to end prostitution are all white pearl-clutchers), having been admonished by her on Twitter. Following that meeting, Lucas performed an about turn and has since supported the campaign to decriminalise pimps, brothel owners and punters.
Natalie Bennett (another party leader) is also a vocal supporter of blanket decriminalisation. She has spoken of “sex work” as part of the model known as “green economics” — which “works for the benefit of all people everywhere, for the planet, the biosphere, non-human species, nature, and other life forms”. How wonderful to hear that men paying to access the inside of a woman’s body are helping the environment. In a paper entitled, “Sex work: a survey of social, philosophical and human rights issues” (2009), Bennett takes issue with the idea that sex buyers should be criminalised, calling this approach a “response to hysteria and the half-disguised exercising of religious-based moral views now rejected by the majority of this democratic society”.
Moral views? Unlike the pro-prostitution lobby, whose members speak of “safe sex”, the many women who have escaped could tell you about the morality of their industry in great detail: the hideous smell of the punters, the pain of a dry, bruised vagina being penetrated multiple times, the anaesthetic cream applied to genitals to endure “shifts”, the imprisonment — Tina sold sex from high-end London hotels for years and was forced to sleep in handcuffs every night.
Whittome and others who claim to be motivated by socialist and feminist principles should take a hard look at the reality of the global sex trade, a trade that is built on the extreme exploitation of the most disenfranchised women. Perhaps, then, they might understand the hypocrisy of their position.
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