This article by Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes has been circulating on social media this week, following the failure in parliament of the proposed amendment to the modern slavery bill, which would have criminalised the clients of the sex trade:
There is so much in it that I disagree with that I thought I would jot down my objections. So here’s my response, paragraph by paragraph:
Para 1: ‘…attempts to attack sex workers by criminalising their clients.’ : The tone is set in this first sentence: I think it is acting in bad faith to use emotive and incendiary language such as ‘attack’ in an attempt to discredit those with opposing views. No one I know who supports criminalisation of clients wishes to ‘attack sex workers’, in fact the opposite is true. The debate is around removing the historical stigma attached to the women in prostitution and placing it firmly on the client (as the people with more real choices in the transaction), thereby reducing demand. At the same time there must be put in place exit strategies for those who wish to leave prostitution (estimates vary from 85-95%). Damage limitation is an important part of the argument: nobody wants to throw any other woman under the bus for the sake of ideology. For my part I take the view I do because I believe that in the long term more women will suffer if prostitution is completely decriminalised than will suffer if buying sex is criminalised. That is not an ‘attack’ on anyone. Furthermore, the link in this paragraph to an article about Swedish prostitution law is almost wholly in support of the Nordic model, with a few reservations, and points out that the liberal approach is not working. It does not support the view of the English Collective of Prostitutes regarding the safety issues. I’m not sure why it was used in this article.
Para 2: ‘…plea from sex workers that mobilised hundreds of individuals and organisations…to oppose legislation.’ In response : hundreds more support it:
Paras 3 and 4: Prostitution is already underground, but see point 1 above and read the article about Swedish prostitution law. You can be against prostitution and for the safety of the prostituted at the same time.
Para 5: ‘LBGTQ groups called for an end to this “last vestige of Victorian moralism”, asking why some feminists had allied themselves with evangelical Christians who oppose gay marriage, sex outside marriage and abortion.’ This is my least favourite paragraph in the whole article. Firstly, as a seasoned supporter of the NoMorePage3 Campaign, I am used to being name-called, and the accusation of ‘Victorian moralism’ is a favourite, as though it is simply a matter of old-fashioned prudery to want equality for women. It’s a straw man, but I can see why it’s popular: nobody wants to identify with a description that neatly combines the idea of prudishness with an out-of-touch, old-fashioned right-wing moral panic, and in using it the accusers place themselves firmly in the camp that is hip, young, cool, exciting and chilled about such things. Win-win. Except that it’s a misrepresentation. The same is true of the list of ‘allies’ we are supposed to have joined with – this is a particularly bad argument because nobody can police who does or does not support the same issues as them, and having one belief in common does not mean you agree on everything else. Again: see the NMP3 Campaign, with its fantastically diverse set of supporters who are opposed on many other issues but all come together to support the one issue they agree on. (But, if you insist on using that argument as if it is meaningful, I am quite happy to point out that the groups you have aligned yourself with include pimps, johns, traffickers, pornographers, misogynists and MRAs…)
My other problem with this paragraph is that it is the voice of LGBTQ groups that is cited. I think this group has a meaningful voice on other issues, and of course something to say on this one, but I question the prominence given to a minority group when the overwhelming majority of prostituted people are women and girls who do not identify as LGBTQ. When you demand we listen to ‘sex workers’ should they not be more representative?
Para 6: ‘…exploitation is rife…Why this double-standard with sex workers?’ Exactly for the reason that ‘sex work’ is not like other work, however often you call it that. The sex trade, apart from the damage it does to people trapped within it, reinforces the patriarchal status quo, whereby women are the ‘sex class’ so it’s only natural to exploit them. It is both a symbol of, and a contributor to, inequality. It is very highly gendered, and more demand leads to more trafficking. A society that endorses that view of women is not a safe society for women to live in. Decriminalising prostitution and earning taxes from it makes the government a pimp. It is definitely not like any other ‘work’. So there are no ‘double standards’ there, just different standards, as there should be.
Para 7: ‘…claim that 80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, their pimp or their trafficker…discredited’. This is not quite true. The 80% figure has not actually been discredited, but questioned. There is agreement that the figure is hard to calculate, but no consensus on whether or not it still might be true. As for the fact that the BBC is one of the discreditors, that’s nothing to boast about: since when were the BBC experts on the sex trade? They have something of a record themselves, on ignoring sexual exploitation in their midst…
Para 8: ‘Scores of women, trans and male sex workers wrote to MPs…’ I have to point out again here that although trans and male ‘sex workers’ have their own experiences, particular to them, within the sex trade, and need to be heard, they are still a tiny minority of the prostituted class, and cannot be representative of the majority, and especially not of trafficked women and girls who do not have a voice at all. As for the Swedish stories, this is anecdotal evidence, not born out by the statistics, and anecdotal evidence is plentiful on the other side too.
Para 9: The ‘conflation of prostitution and violence’ does not assume that ‘sex workers’ don’t know the difference: that would certainly be insulting to the women concerned. However the fact can’t be ignored that for vast numbers of (mostly) women, violence is exactly what prostitution is.
Para 10: Two MPs quoted – both men: ‘We must listen to sex workers’. In my view we should also listen to survivors. Globally it is overwhelmingly women and girls who are exploited sexually, many of whom don’t have a voice. I would be happy to listen to them, given the chance, and listening to survivors is the closest we will get to hearing the voices of all the women trapped in prostitution who don’t want to be there. The term ‘sex worker’ is self-selected: people who identify as ‘sex workers’ have to a greater or lesser extent, chosen, accepted or resigned themselves to a way of surviving that many others cannot freely choose. If we have to take into account the views of self-identified ‘sex workers’ (which we should) we need also to have represented, in every discussion, a survivor, a trafficked woman and a groomed and pimped teenager, to ensure a balance. I would like to know of the English Collective of Prostitutes: have you listened to survivors? If you have, did you believe them? Their voices are more representative of the prostituted experience than trans or male ‘sex workers’ but are often absent from the debate.
So here they are on the terminology around ‘sex work’:
I will let survivors have the last word.
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Not the News in Briefs: I started this blog to write about the No More Page 3 Campaign and media sexism. As it’s gone on, it’s expanded in subject matter to become a blog about feminist issues in general