Mythology rules

Julie Bindel on the reality of what prostitution does to women:

It seems that everyone has an opinion on prostitution, but few know very much about it. That is certainly what I found in researching my book on the global sex trade. Mythology, rather than informed opinion, rules.

I am told on a regular basis that criminalising any aspect of the sex trade will “force it underground” – something that does not happen for the simple reason that the punters need to find it. I hide my despair at hearing, for the millionth time, that if men cannot access paid sex they will be forced to find a woman to rape, which is tantamount to arguing that men have no control over their sexual behaviour. And I am informed that decriminalisation will result in almost zero violence towards ‘sex workers’ because it is the police who carry out the vast majority of rapes. Sometimes, those who come out with this rubbish describe themselves as current or former sex workers. The unpalatable truth is that not everyone that earns a living selling sex is expert in what might be the best way to legislate or manage the sex industry. Self-interest and, all too often, self-delusion trumps sense and logic.

The discussion these days is over the Nordic model versus full decriminalization. Several European countries are considering adopting the Nordic model.

“But you are denying sex workers their agency! Sex workers want rights not rescue. It is a choice. The only harm to sex workers is perpetrated by abolitionists and the police. The New Zealand model is the way forward. If you criminalise the client, the sex worker is criminalised by default.”

Those are the standard retorts.

In recent years, despite the increasing numbers of women coming out as ‘survivors’ of the sex trade, the dominant discourse is one of prostitution being about ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ for the women involved. The only human rights abuse in the sex trade, according to the liberals, libertarians and many of those who profit from selling sex, is when men are denied the right to  purchase sex.  The renting of women’s orifices for sexual release is not, on the other hand, considered a violation. The women selling sex, according to this logic, are the victims of pearl-clutching moralists who wish to take away their right to earn a living, rather than of sexual servitude.

The war that rages between feminists such as myself, who seek to abolish the sex trade, and those who see prostitution as a valid choice, is fuelled by the widely held belief that feminist abolitionists wish to ‘rescue fallen women’ and demonise the men who pay for sex.

Which is not unrelated to the widely held belief that feminists in general are prudish humorless boring killjoys.

The battle is currently being fought in the home affairs select committee inquiry on prostitution. Yesterday, Paris Lees and Brooke Magnanti gave evidence to the committee. Both women have sold sex in the past. Both are rabidly opposed to the Nordic model, and, during their evidence, refused to acknowledge the harms of the sex trade. When asked if she had ever witnessed or experienced violence during her time in prostitution, Lees replied: “No, I’ve never been raped – I’m a sex worker, not trafficked”. It’s as though only trafficked women are ever abused by pimps or punters.  I have interviewed 40 sex trade survivors for my book and over 100 previously for other research.  Every single one had suffered multiple rapes. Rape endemic in prostitution is universally documented.

It would be very surprising if it were otherwise. Once it’s for sale, it’s also for taking.

It is a commonly-held assumption that decriminalisation reduces stigma towards the women involved. However, as the same report states: “This appears to have changed little post-decriminalisation. Stigmatisation plays a key role in non-reporting of incidents”.

The women in the sex trade I met on a recent research visit to New Zealand told me the law has not helped them at all. The street-based women said the police are still abusive arseholes, and those in brothels said that as a result of decriminalisation the pimps now have more power and legal rights than the women.

The Nordic model is not perfect. But at least it is visionary and progressive in that it sends out a clear message that women are not commodities to be bought and sold, and that men will not simultaneously combust if they can’t get their rocks off with women they have to pay in order to get their consent. The commonly held and deeply depressing view that demand for prostitution can never be eliminated is as absurd as arguing that the working classes belong in the gutter.

Or that women belong in the kitchen.

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