Last year a friend of mine suggested that prostitution was analogous to the domestic service industry, arguing that poor pay and conditions and trafficking can be an issue in both sectors and as such, feminists should be campaigning to decriminalise prostitution and improve conditions for sex workers. I had recently attended the first Women’s Conference in Nottingham and watched in confusion as the organisers were subsequently accused of being “anti sex worker” on Twitter following their decision to give a platform to Rachel Moran and the Nordic Model Advocates. I thought the Nordic model (which reverses the current situation in the UK and criminalises the punter while helping women exit prostitution if they want to) had seemed an eminently sensible approach to a problematic industry which commodifies and objectifies women and couldn’t understand the ensuing controversy. An organisation called the Sex Workers Open University had turned up at the Conference without tickets, protested about not being given a voice, and then handed out leaflets in the car park. I read the leaflet which basically seemed to imply that anyone that was anti-prostitution was basically a middle class nimby, and became aware of another big debate within modern day feminism and started to think about whether my friend was right. Is sex just work, like any other shitty job, or is there a qualitative difference between cleaning and giving blow jobs for a tenner?
I have worked in homelessness and drug services for over 15 years and have known and supported a number of sex workers in my time. The kinds of ‘work’ these women have been involved with has ranged from giving hand jobs to men in the toilets of the local pub, to working the beat on Forest Road, from administering happy endings in massage parlours to maintaining an active internet or media presence in order to continue marketing themselves as high class escorts. One of the women I knew was introduced to prostitution by her mother at the age of 15, another gratefully worked the streets at the orders of her abusive partner so that she could have a break from his violence. It would be insulting to these clever and resourceful women to see them as victims. However, two of the women I knew are no longer here to tell their stories – one disappeared without the trace and the other was burnt alive. Most of the women successfully used sex work to maintain tenancies, fund various addictions, and ward off violent men to whom they are in debt, but most of all, they used it to survive. The other two weren’t so lucky.
I felt privileged to work with these women and hear their stories. Some of the criticisms of the anti-prostitution lobby have been that if we only listened to sex workers then we would hear that it just a job like any other, that criminalising punters hurts their business, and that to be anti prostitution is to be “whorephobic”. I have no doubt that there are sex workers out there that love their job. I’m sure there are sex workers who find their work empowering and see themselves as exploiting their poor sex deprived clients in order to extract their hard-earnt cash. When I was a strapped for cash undergraduate at the height of my sexual prowess, this is exactly how I saw prostitution – what fools are men that they will pay women to have sex with them. My sexuality was a power in itself and at times I used it as a weapon. Like many young women I contemplated a life as a glamour model or a lap dancer before concluding that I didn’t have big enough tits. But my point is that I was young and empowered by my sexuality and could see the earning potential. Who would blame me if I had chosen to cash in on it?
There is a world of difference between the undergraduate me and the student sex workers that turned up at the Nottingham Conference to give out leaflets, and the women I have known and worked with. The accusations that the anti-prostitution lobby is not listening to the voices of sex workers refuses to acknowledge that the voices we hear are the voices of women who have an internet connection, a Twitter account and a presence on social media. Prostitution is like an iceberg – the privileged Belle de Jours of our time constitute the glowing and highly visible tip and we can only guess at the anonymous countless others beneath the surface who work the streets or the pubs and spend their days trying to survive. An ex-prostitute speaking at the Nottingham Conference, described her experience of prostitution as being made to feel like a “human toilet” – her explicit language shocked and offended some of the women there because her honesty was so difficult to hear. Perhaps it isn’t that we aren’t listening to sex workers after all, maybe it’s that the pro-prostitution lobby doesn’t want to hear what they are saying.
To suggest that sex work is ’empowering’ to such women is an insult. The modern day lie that a woman wielding her sexuality is empowering, is based on the view that men are victims of their own uncontrollable sexual urges and that as women we can exploit that deficiency by making them pay for it. The social construction of male sexuality which sees men as likely to explode in a mess of frustration and spunk if they are unable to satisfy their insatiable sexual appetites is perhaps what has led Amnesty to conclude that prostitution should be legalised in order for ‘people’ (men) to exercise their basic human right to have sex. This ridiculous notion that men are helpless victims of their sexual urges is the reason we have a thriving rape culture and that victims of sexual assault continue to be blamed for being drunk or wearing the wrong clothes or ‘asking for it’ by virtue of being female and in possession of a pulse.
If sex work was so empowering then where are the men queuing up for a piece of the pie? If you haven’t already noticed, men don’t generally like it when women have power and usually find a way to muscle in on the action. A quick look at the sex industry shows that they have indeed muscled in, they own the brothels and the clubs, pimp the women and direct the porn films. They are overwhelmingly in the real positions of power extracting the profit whilst women do the actual work – no surprises there.
You might respond that this is because there simply isn’t a market for male heterosexual prostitutes and this is really my point. The sex industry is predicated on the big lie that men are the subjects when it comes to sex and that women are the objects. Men ‘need’ sex, it is their god given right, and they go all funny if they don’t get it. Whereas women on the other hand would rather have a cup of tea. Women don’t need to pay for sex because women don’t experience a lack of sex in the same way as men, we part our legs because we want to keep them happy and our own desires (if existent at all) are secondary. Interestingly, back in Victorian times, it was the other way round. Women had the uncontrollable sexual urges that could render them ‘hysterical’ whereas men were seen as far more rational and in control of their sexual appetites. This only serves to highlight what historically specific bullshit this is. Men are no more incapable of controlling their sexual urges than I am, and it is about time women started challenging this idea. In other news, women get just as sexually frustrated as men, and to suggest that they don’t, is frankly insulting and helps to construct a version of female sexuality which is essentially passive.
To get back to my initial pondering about whether sex is work, then yes, I do believe it is, but until we live in a world where men are clamouring for the best jobs in prostitution because we have a more realistic and equitable view of human sexuality, then I refuse to support it. The reason that prostitution is generally not the kind of thing you’d want your daughter to go into isn’t because feminists are “whorephobic”, it is because men are. They see prostitutes as objects to be bought and sold, raped, abused and sometimes murdered, because they are less than human. Until this changes, I simply cannot support such an industry, and will continue to fight for a world in which the punters are the criminals.