Continuing my series of posts on sex work, public health and feminism, I turn my attention now to the modern feminist response to sex work. First I’ll outline a common strand in modern feminist responses to sex work and pornography, which I think it should be pretty obvious contrast with the public health approach I described previously. In subsequent posts I will discuss the use and abuse of the contentious issue of “sex trafficking,” and then I will close this series by discussing what I think all this says about modern feminism’s relationship with ordinary women, with reality-based policy-making, and with the ways in which society has liberalized in the past 20 years.

Prohibition and Pornography

The first great feminist incursion into the sex work debate in modern times was the great pornography debate of the 1980s, when Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon became active in attempts to both ban pornography in several states, and contributed to an inquiry established by Ronald Reagan to inquire into the “harms” caused by porn. Dworkin and McKinnon are probably the two most famous radical feminists involved in the anti-pornography campaigns of the ’80s, and had a huge influence on the debate. They are often characterized as having teamed up with christian conservatives in their contribution to the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, and the methods used by the movement they represented, Women Against Pornography, were fundamentally illiberal.

The Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography ultimately led to the publication of the Meese Report, a highly controversial document that found many negative effects of pornography, and infamously associates pornography use with rape and child sexual abuse. It also gives a hint of how the anti-sex work feminist movement was prepared to treat women in the industry. In Chapter 4, which describes the way in which women are treated in the pornography industry, we find the following introductory discussion of their methods:

we have not had the power to issue subpoenas summoning reluctant witnesses to appear; thus all information at our disposal was presented to us voluntarily or obtained through our review of materials on the public record. In addition, the severe time constraints imposed on our work were particularly damaging in this area because, as discussed earlier, this aspect of the pornography “industry” has received only the scantiest attention in the past. We, therefore, did not have the benefit of knowing from the outset what were the most likely avenues to discovery of pertinent evidence about activities that are largely underground. Finally, both the difficulty of locating witnesses and the pressure of time meant that we were not able to spend substantial time in cross-examination of their testimony or in background investigations to corroborate their statements.

In the end, this inquiry just did some convenience sampling of a sub-culture that was under attack in the US and whose female participants are generally seen in … well, in less than positive terms by most members of the community (especially in the 80s!) So is it any wonder that from amongst their extremely biased sample they find that the industry is seedy and dangerous and in need of reform? This is a constant problem in the modern feminist approach to sex work: in a society where anyone who enjoys or seeks out casual sex or selling sex is derided as a slut, a fool or an enemy of women, it’s no wonder that the accounts that surface from this industry tend to be one-sided and self-exculpatory. Who wants to be reported in a national commission of inquiry during a conservative era as a loose woman whose morals are so poor that she enjoys fucking strangers for cash? These women either don’t come forward, or lie.

Which isn’t to say that the industry wasn’t dubious in the 70s and 80s, but the natural public health response to a dangerous working environment is to set up a regulatory and occupational framework that will ameliorate the risks. However, the radical feminist approach to porn was to attempt to get the industry banned, and this proceeded with efforts at municipal level. Because the first amendment protects free speech the movement attempted to redefine pornography as a form of sexual harassment and to pass civil laws that would enable women to sue makers and distributors of pornography on civil rights (rather than censorship) grounds. Hearings were held into the laws, and the process of these hearings is described in Mckinnon and Dworkin’s book In Harm’s Way, which is reviewed here and seems to present a fundamentally dishonest depiction of what actually happened.

Not only is this a fundamentally illiberal approach to pornography and the sex industry, but it shows that the anti-pornography movement are willing to cut deals with any unsavoury characters – including Ronald Reagan’s christian conservative movement – to get their goals. We’ll see this again in later responses to sex work, when we see the way the anti-sex work movement has sided with the US State Department to use coercive methods to impress its preferred “solution” to sex work’s public health risks on developing nations. Perhaps more seriously from a feminist perspective, the 10 years of this movement’s activities in the US fundamentally divided feminists from the pornography industry, denying them a chance either to influence women-centred pornography or the depiction of women in porn aimed at men, and separating them from an industry which represents the natural consequence of second wave feminism’s greatest achievements: the liberalization of sex and the discourse about sexuality. So it was that from the 1980s onward pornography headed off down an increasingly misogynist and extreme path, at least in the West, and feminist influence over its development was lost. Now that the internet enables widespread porn delivery this is obviously a significant loss for feminism – instead of beaming pro-feminist images of sexual behavior into every teenage boys brain, Larry Flint’s degenerate cultural progeny are face-fucking them into misogynist oblivion. These activists also created a dominant discourse in feminism (and much of popular culture) about the destructive influence of porn that is almost completely groundless. This is not a great cultural legacy, and it certainly doesn’t create an atmosphere which is conducive to accepting and non-judgmental approaches towards women who work in what – in infectious diseases terms – is a very dangerous industry. While there is a sex-positive feminist movement, it is new and less influential on modern cultural attitudes towards porn due to the legacy it fights. We’ll return to the debate between these movements when we look at what this legacy of anti-sex work activism means for the relationship between modern feminism and young women.

Feminism and Sex Work in Sweden and the UK

While Dworkin and Mckinnon were active in the USA, a similar movement – influenced by similar people – was also growing in the UK. It’s most famous member, Sheila Jeffreys, staked her colours to the mast very clearly in the 1970s when she wrote a pamphlet declaring that all heterosexual feminists should eschew heterosexual sex and become “Political lesbians.” For feminists like Jeffreys, any woman who has sex with a man is a traitor. This makes sex workers quislings, the worst of traitors, and as a marginalized minority obviously easy front line targets in an ideological battle clearly aimed at changing the nature of the relations between the sexes. Her colleague and protege, Julie Bindel, is an anti-sex work campaigner in the UK with significant public influence through her journalism (she writes for the Guardian), who was deeply involved in a highly controversial and biased report for the POPPY Project, that presents an unscientific and potentially unethical review of sex work in the UK. Even though subsequent police action showed that many of the claims about trafficking and forced sex in the British sex industry were highly flawed, the campaigning of this group was instrumental in convincing the then Labour government to introduce a Swedish-style law on sex work. This law criminalizes the purchase of sex where the person selling it is working for someone else, on the flawed assumption that any sex worker who is working for someone else is (to use the radical feminist term) being “prostituted” (or “pimped,” as it’s more commonly known).

This law is similar to the Swedish law, which criminalizes the purchase of sex but not its sale. These laws are based on the soothing fiction that by banning the purchase of sex but not its sale we can drive sex work out of business without punishing sex workers, only the men who visit them. These laws also have an explicitly moral, rather than public health agenda, as described by their architect[1]:

In Sweden, prostitution is officially acknowledged as a form of male sexual violence against women and children. One of the cornerstones of Swedish policies against prostitution and trafficking in human beings is the focus on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able flourish and expand.

This article also mentions trafficking a lot, and includes some entertaining assertions about the Dutch sex industry (apparently Dutch job centres recommend brothels as work options for unemployed women!)

So, the Swedish laws were introduced to prevent men purchasing sex, on the assumption that the view that women are commodities to be consumed is at the root of discrimination against women. This is a classic case of attacking the easiest symptom rather than the problem. If the problem is an attitude towards women which enables commodification, attacking the market place is no good – you need to attack the attitude. Unless the purchase of sex is common amongst all Swedish men, all that will happen is that it will target only the most extreme representatives of this attitude. And given most men don’t purchase women, how can we be confident that this commodification of women is the root cause of the non-purchasing men’s sexist attitudes?

Both of these countries have acted to prohibit the purchase of sex but not its sale. Does this materially change the nature of sex work, help women leave the industry, protect women from trafficking and forced sex slavery, or make them safer? The opinion of most sex worker representative organizations is that it has the opposite effect: it drives sex workers back to a system of working individually, in rooms by themselves or on call-out jobs rather than in brothels, without security guards or drivers. It certainly doesn’t protect women from trafficking or sexual slavery, since these activities are illegal everywhere regardless of the status of the sex industry. The laws will only help women leave the industry if they are being forced into it in the first place (assuming the laws work in the way they are intended). But here the laws are driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of how the industry works and of what women want. Even with the best will in the world, you cannot drive women out of the sex industry, because it pays well. The only way the sex industry will disappear is if society can find a way to make men not want to purchase sex, and the surest way to do that is to attack all the other aspects of our screwed up system of gender relations that makes seeking casual sex such a complex and one-sided affair (I’ll have more to say about this when I review Big Bang Theory). Until then, men are going to want and need to pay for sex, especially if they are busy, traveling, disabled, or just plain ugly. Women, too, buy sex, and this fact alone presents a big problem for feminist approaches to the sex industry. It’s not going to go away until we restructure the nature of our non-commodified sexual relations, and this is happening very slowly (and, I hope to show later, the very feminists who oppose the sex industry also have very reactionary opinions about non-commodified sexual relations).

From a public health and public order perspective, though, the main problem with these laws is that they drive women back into sole-trader arrangements, where they are vulnerable to rape and theft, and where their decisions about safe sex are driven by their own personal circumstances, work practices, and vulnerabilities rather than by the kinds of workplace policies, union rules and sense of shared responsibility that are most likely – in every area of employment – to change attitudes towards safety. It will also encourage people who are interested in running brothels – which are highly profitable businesses – to seek weaker, more vulnerable women who they can hide and who have little recourse to the law. That is, illegal immigrants. It also encourages police corruption (since sex workers and brothel owners need to get the police off their backs, and it’s the time honoured way). This is particularly tragic for women in the UK, because the UK police are extremely corrupt and there is no political will at any level to restructure the force to make it robust against corruption. When the Police Commissioner is willing to accept a gift of a five week massage holiday here from a media organization that had been hacking murder victims phones, paying police for private information on citizens, and even hacked the Prime Minister’s phone, what chance is there that ordinary police will turn down the odd back-alley shag from a girl who needs a break at work? None, I’d say. The Labour Party was willing to leave policing a law involving young women and sex to a police force that allowed its under-cover police to form sexual relationships – and have children – with activists they were supposed to be spying on. This is a recipe for corruption, and these laws will simply mean a return to the bad old days of vulnerable women being exploited or, at best, working in high-risk settings for lower pay and/or predatory criminal organizations.

Sex Workers as Tools for a Political Goal

The architects of these laws have made clear that they think the structure of modern sexual relations is wrong, and that they see sex work as the ultimate expression of the dysfunctional nature of modern sexuality. Often, they see commodified sexual relations as the problem – including but not limited to the idea of marriage as prostitution – but unlike the union-influenced and socialist feminist politics of Australia and of the earlier second wave feminists overseas, they don’t see the commodification of sexual relations as a result of distorted economic models. It is a hallmark of radical feminism that flaws in all other economic and social relations are believed to derive from the model of gender inequality, and so radical feminists don’t believe that problems like sex work can be solved through changing labour relations (whether radically, as in the case of feminists influenced by Marxism, or through the institutions of civil society, as in feminists influenced by the politics of the labour movement[2]). Instead, they see sex work as the most vulnerable link in a chain of social structures where women are dominated by men, and through public policy they see an opportunity to attack the underlying structures of the sexual relations of our society through attempts to abolish the sex industry. Unlike the prohibitionists of previous eras, they see prohibition as an opportunity to change the moral under-pinnings of gender relations, rather than to protect the moral fabric of existing society; but in both cases, they see public health, and laws affecting sex workers, only in terms of its relevance to the moral debate that concerns them. This means that they instrumentalize sex workers as a tool of public policy in the pursuit of their own moral goals, rather than treating them as fully independent people deserving of dignity in their own right. In my final piece in this series I will attempt to show why I think this similarity is not a coincidence, and derives in both cases from an inability to accept different perspectives, especially those of poor and non-white women. But first I will digress a little, to discuss the problem of sex trafficking. Things can only get more controversial from here …

fn1: Ekberg, G. The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services: Best practices for prevention of prostitution and trafficking in human beings. Violence Against Women. 2004; 10(10): 1187-1218.

fn2: Sullivan, B. Feminist approaches to the Sex Industry. Proceedings, Conference on Sex Industry and Public Policy. Australian Institute of Crimonology, 6-8 May 1991. Available online (with many other interesting links) here.