This week the US Congress passed a set of censorship laws, commonly called FOSTA/SESTA, that aimed to prevent online sex trafficking but in practice work to shut down all forms of online sex work advertising. The laws were developed in the wake of claims that the website backpage was being used to buy and sell trafficked women, and basically make the website’s provider criminally liable for any sex trafficking that happens on the site. They do so by creating a trafficking exception to a section of a US law that exempts internet providers from being treated as media organizations. Currently under US law websites are treated as carriers, which means they aren’t responsible for the content of material that their users post online. This exemption is the reason that websites like reddit, craigslist and facebook can host a wide range of user-generated content with impunity.

In jurisdictions where sex work is illegal, sex workers use online resources like craigslist and backpage to advertise their services and screen clients. Many sex workers and porn stars who have a good community following also use Twitter and Instagram and other social networking services to manage their community and their client relationships, including organizing events and dates and discussing their work. But since the new law was passed all these websites have had to shutdown their services or warn users that any solicitation or discussion of business is now illegal. Craigslist has shutdown its personals page, which was often used by sex workers, and websites like Fetlife have had to put strict warnings on user content. Because they can be held liable under the new law for any sex work related content, they have had to tell users that no such content can be tolerated at all. At Fetlife this extends to consensual financial domination activities, and at Craigslist the only way they have been able to stop sex work related activity has been to stop all consensual dating of any kind. Because apps like Tinder are also sometimes used for sex work purposes, it’s also possible that these sites are going to have to toughen up their moderation and rules, though it’s unclear yet how they will do this or how serious the impact of the law will be.

The Cut has an overview of why sex workers disapprove of this law, and Vox has a summary of the history of its development and arguments about its impact. For the past few weeks sex worker rights organizations like SWOP have been providing advice to women about how to back up their online presence and what actions they may need to take to protect their online presence, potentially including self censorship. It is unclear at this stage what impact the law will have on online sexual activities outside of sex work, but it’s clear from Craigslist’s reaction that the effect will be chilling. For countries like the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan and Singapore where sex work is legal to varying degrees and women can safely and legally work in brothels or advertise publicly on locally hosted websites the effect may be minimal, but for women in countries like the USA and parts of Europe the impact will likely be huge. It will force women away from the internet and back onto the streets and into unsafe situations where they are unable to screen potential clients, cannot share information about dangerous clients, and cannot support each other or record client information for self protection. Sex worker rights organizations in the USA have been deeply concerned about the impact of these laws for months and worked hard to prevent them, but in the end the money and the politics was against them.

It is worth considering exactly why these laws were passed and who supported them. Although they were developed and pushed by conservatives and republicans, they were passed with bipartisan support and pushed by a coalition of christian conservatives and feminists. The advertising campaign was supported by liberal comedians like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers, and after some reform it was also supported by major internet content providers and entertainment organizations like Disney. This should serve as a reminder that Disney is not a liberal organization (despite the complaints of some Star Wars fans that its liberalism wrecked the latest awful episode), and that in the American political landscape “liberals” are actually deeply conservative about sex and sexuality. In particular any feminist organization that supported this law should be ashamed of itself. This includes organizations like Feminist Current and other radical feminist groups that think prostitution is a crime against women, rather than a choice that women make. I have said before that this strain of radical feminism is deeply misogynist and illiberal, and is always willing to use state power to override the personal choices of women it sees as enemies to its cause.

These feminist movements need to recognize though that while tactically they may have scored a win, this strategy is very bad for women everywhere. Nothing angers a christian conservative man more than a woman who is financially and sexually independent, and sex workers are the model of a financially and sexually independent woman. Sex workers are uniquely vulnerable to legislative action and uniquely annoying to these legislators, but they’re just the canary in the coal mine. These christian conservative legislators want to destroy all forms of sexual freedom and they won’t stop at sex work. It’s unlikely that they’re shedding any tears over the fact that their pet law led Craigslist to shut down all its non-sex work dating functions – especially since they were especially well used by LGBT people. You can bet that they are already looking for ways to use some kind of indecency based argument to target a section 230 exception for LGBT people, probably arguing on obscenity or public health grounds; and I don’t doubt that ALEC and the Heritage Foundation are already wondering if there is a racketeering-based argument by which they can make a similar exception that can be used to target unions and other forms of left wing activism. It might trouble Feminist Current a little, but I doubt christian conservatives will be feeling particularly worried if Tinder has to shut down, and if this law makes it harder for consenting adults to fuck freely then conservative christians everywhere will be chuffed. Just as the 1980s alliance of feminists and christians distorted the porn industry and made it more misogynist and male dominated, laws like SESTA will distort the world of casual sex to make it more favourable to predatory men and less safe for ordinary women. Sex workers may always be first in the sights of christian conservatives but they are never last. Whatever your personal beliefs about paying for sex, supporting sex worker rights is always and everywhere better for women, better for LGBT people, and better for liberalism.

As a final aside, I would like to sing the praises of sex worker rights organizations. Their activism is strongly inclusive, and while their focus is obviously on protecting the rights of their sex worker membership, their viewpoint is always strongly liberal and aimed at broadening everyone’s rights. They’re strong supporters of free speech and free association, and they include everyone in their movement. As organizations they are strongly inclusive of all sexualities and genders, they are always aware of disability rights and the needs of people with disabilities, and they are opposed to any forms of restrictions on what consenting adults do. They are a consistent powerful voice for liberal rights, worker’s rights, and sexual freedom. These laws will likely restrict their ability to raise their voice in support of these issues, and that ultimately weakens all our rights. Sex worker organizations are a powerful voice for good, and sex workers are not victims, but an important part of our society doing a difficult job. Wherever you are in the world, you should support these organizations and the women, men and transgender people who do this job. Hopefully with our support they can overturn these laws, and through their work and activism broaden the scope for sexual expression for all humans no matter our gender or our sexual preference.

The news reports that this month Amnesty International is going to be discussing a proposal to support the decriminalization of sex work. This proposal isn’t necessarily particularly radical, given that decriminalization is not the same as legalization and several countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Turkey and Greece have already instituted decriminalization or legalization. It is important, however, because Amnesty International has a lot of weight in human rights debate, and a decision by Amnesty to support decriminalization would be a serious propaganda set back for the proponents of criminalization of sex work or the purchase of sex.

The weight Amnesty carries can be easily seen in the dismayed reactions of various feminist anti-sex work organizations to its decision to even consider this policy. The alternative to decriminalization preferred by some feminist organizations is to make buying sex illegal but to somehow not criminalize the seller, an impossible proposal that is nonetheless making some progress in northern Europe (it started in Sweden). Amnesty has always been a strong and forthright campaigner for the rights of women and girls, and a decision to support decriminalization of sex work would be a big blow against the so-called “Swedish model” of driving sex work underground by punishing the men who pay for it. The concern of campaigners for the Swedish model is on display in one of the bastions of support for this model, the Guardian, which has published a couple of opinion pieces decrying the move, and an editorial opposing it[1]. To be fair the Guardian has also published supportive articles, so it is actually hosting a debate, but I think it’s clear where its sympathies lie, and furthermore this newspaper offers an excellent overview of both the forces opposing decriminalization from the left, and the paucity of their ideas. The Guardian editorial is a symphony of wrongness, wrong in almost every sentence, and astounding in its disingenuousness, and all the opposing articles are noteworthy for their refusal to listen to the voices of sex workers who have been campaigning for decriminalization for years. Opponents of decriminalization have to ignore these women, denigrate them, or pretend that they represent only a tiny segment of first world sex workers, ignoring all the strong voices from sex workers in low- and middle-income countries, in order to come up with a policy that is essentially supportive of human trafficking, sexual and physical violence against sex workers – all in the interests of stamping out any form of sexual congress that doesn’t match their narrow view of how sex should be conceived and enjoyed. Some of the most vocal opponents of decriminalization, feminists like Julie Bindel, clearly see this as part of a strategy to achieve a very narrow feminist vision of how sexual interaction works, and are on record as opposing all forms of heterosexual activity until complete equality is achieved. For these feminists, as I have written before, sex workers are just convenient sacrifices on the road to a better future.

To be clear, feminism hasn’t always opposed sex work and the decriminalization or legalization of sex work, along with improved rights for sex workers in countries where it is illegal, are major achievements of the feminist movement over the past 100 years. This strange and obssessive desire to criminalize sex work and police the sexual choices of young, primarily poor women (often living in ex-colonies) is a very modern part of feminism, disconnected from the lives of the women it purports to be helping. My guess is that Amnesty International has been listening to the poorest women in the world, hearing their stories and paying attention to their movements, and is going to make a decision in favour of sexual freedom and the human rights of all women, not just those who choose to follow strict interpretations of sexual morality. This is important, because it isn’t just legal protection that sex workers need: it is the symbolic recognition of their right to control their bodies for their own profit as well as fun, and not just for strict reasons of love and childbirth. By recognizing the value of decriminalizing sex work, Amnesty won’t just be striking a blow in favour of policies that have consistently been shown to reduce sexual violence, protect against sexually transmitted infections and make all women safer: it will also be making a strong statement in favour of the complete sexual autonomy of even the world’s poorest women, recognizing that sexual autonomy should be available to more than just a few rich Swedish women. And sexual autonomy includes the right to rent out your body to strangers if you so choose – a concept that some feminists in the rich west seem to have a great deal of discomfort with. Let’s not make women in poor countries the victim of those feminists’ insecurities: support the decriminalization or legalization of sex work around the globe, because women and men everywhere should have the right to free choice about how to use their sexuality, and legal protection when they do so.

fn1: Note how many of the articles in the Guardian are illustrated with headless shots of “sex workers” in skimpy clothing. How come, even though the Guardian supports the criminalization of buying sex and not selling it, we only see pictures of the women it supports and not the dubious men it criminalizes?[2]

fn2: That was a rhetorical question.

I have previously written about the difficulty of accurately understanding the issue of sex trafficking, and attempted to point out the conflicted political goals and deceptive tactics of some of the key activists and organizations in the movement against sex trafficking. I wrote these posts in connection with my argument that radical feminist critiques of sex work are fundamentally anti-woman, and observed that they often employ the power of a fundamentally patriarchal state apparatus to enforce their “radical” goals. Recently, a scandal has exploded around one of the US poster-boys for the anti-trafficking movement, Nic Kristoff, author of the anti-sex work screed Half the Sky and pro-sweatshop campaigner.

It turns out that one of the main anti-trafficking activists upon whom Kristoff’s campaign depended, Somaly Mam, turns out to be a fraud: Newsweek has a long and detailed expose of her false claims to have been abused, along with tales about how she trained the children in her care to lie about their experiences for western media, in order to secure funds and political support. Salon has an article suggesting Kristoff knew about these lies, and played a key role in boosting the tall stories being told in order to support the fund-raising efforts of various NGOs (and of course, to boost his own credentials as a rescuer of poor women from developing nations). This article points out that many women “rescued” by NGOs like Mam’s end up working in the garment industry, and are not allowed to talk about their pay and conditions with visiting journalists. Sounds like trafficking, no? The Newsweek article quotes researching pointing out that the number of children trafficked into sex work in Cambodia is likely tiny, and that most adult women working in the industry also are there voluntarily. Of course, these women are “choosing” sex work in the context of a poor nation with few employment alternatives for uneducated women – and one of the main alternatives is the hard, exhausting and sometimes dangerous option of working in the garment industry – an industry, we should remember, that Kristoff writes articles in support of, and that “rescue” NGOs supply “rescued” sex workers to.

Kristoff is, of course, famous for this sick and disturbing tale of having “bought” two sex workers from their “owner” in Cambodia. Consider the final paragraph of this tale, which shows both a callous disregard for the actual economic and social prospects of women from developing nations, and a cynical contempt for their personal choices:

So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We’ll see.

 Do you think that many slaves would “slink back to slavery” after they were freed by the underground railway in pre-civil war America? No, probably not. What kind of language is being deployed here, that a commentator would honestly think people liberated from slavery would “slink” back to it? This is disgusting language, and it shows the way in which Kristoff instrumentalizes women and girls in his quest to prove himself morally superior – even as he defends an industry that is renowned for its labour abuses.
Following up on these revelations, the New York Times (Kristoff’s employer) has an excellent article about the difficulties of activism in this field. This article quotes one activist from Cambodia criticizing journalistic endeavours in these nations:
You show the face of the mother, who is so poor that she has to sell her daughter for money? How does this help the daughter or mother? It doesn’t. It helps the NGO to make money.
This is what people like Somaly Mam were doing. It’s worth also reading the comments of the Salon and NY Times articles, which contain detailed and thoughtful comments by activists working in the field who have been waiting for Kristoff’s bubble to burst. They are highly critical of efforts to outlaw sex work, and of the role of the US State Department in encouraging violent crackdowns on “traffickers” that inevitably end up harming sex workers, and these activists instead encourage the development of labour unions and sex worker organizations similar to those operating in Thailand. Of course, a campaigner for sweatshops has zero interest in supporting unionization, which history shows us is the only way workers in the garment industry have ever been able to protect themselves from terrible abuse. A person who supports sweatshops and campaigns against sex work must have seen enough of both industries to know that one pays considerably more than the other – is it any wonder that his response to the industry that pays more is to try and break it up on moral grounds, and to oppose any political response based on labour organization, which is the historical enemy of the industry he supports? No, it is not.
This is what lies behind the anti-trafficking movement, and all too often those who work to criminalize the broader sex industry use the “sex trafficking problem” as their entry-level argument against the entire industry. As these articles show, the effects of this activism on ordinary women voluntarily involved in sex work can be ferocious, not to mention the damage done to women “rescued” from trafficking by these unscrupulous organizations. When contemplating what “should be done” about sex work, the best option is first and foremost to ask the women who work in the industry – not rich white journalists or NGOs who claim to have a simple solution to a moral problem. Because where sex work is concerned, those people will turn out to be liars, and they do not have the interests of poor women and girls at heart.
Looking for the one who got away

Looking for the one who got away

I cannot recommend Ripper Street highly enough. The actors are excellent, the dialogue fine, and the English a joy to listen to. The setting is grim and nasty, the lead characters compromised and gritty, but it has none of the bitterness and cynicism that so often accompanies those traits in a TV show. It’s also, I think, the first TV show I have ever seen that might be described as sex-worker positive. It’s what Deadwood could have been, if it weren’t so deeply and overwhelmingly misogynist.

Ripper Street is a crime/mystery TV series set in the East End of London in the era of Jack the Ripper. The Ripper himself has been and gone, but the show focuses on the detective who failed to catch him, Detective Inspector Reid, his sergeant Bennett Drake (played by Bron from A Game of Thrones) and an American, Homer Jackson, who is their forensic doctor. Reid has lost a daughter, possibly to Jack the Ripper, and his personal life is on the rocks because of it; Jackson is an ex-Pinkerton on the run with his ex-girlfriend Susan, who runs a brothel (where Jackson lives); and Drake is tormented by his memories of soldiering in Egypt, where he may also have joined some satanic sect. The fifth person in the picture above (far right) is Miss Rose, one of Susan’s employees, who is in a relationship with Jackson but being wooed by Drake.

Reid is played by Matthew McFadyen, most famous for his stirring portrayal of D’Arcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and as one might expect from such impeccable credentials, he does an excellent job of portraying a detective trying to use modern, scientific methods to solve crime in a world still steeped in cruelty, superstition and bigotry. Bennett Drake is like a soft version of Bron, capable of being just as vicious but also much more vulnerable. He is Reid’s hard man: in 19th century London no one has to adhere to the human rights act, and when confessions need to be extracted it is Drake who extracts them. Jackson is probably more dangerous than either of them, and has a very dubious past, but provides the medical skills (and to a large extent the real brains of the operation). He is also a selfish, lazy and arrogant man.

So basically this TV series is like a grittier and slightly less fanciful version of From Hell if it somehow crashed into Pride and Prejudice, with Reid as a more down-to-earth version of Abberline, and a team of three putting together a modern approach to policing. In many ways the show seems to have really made a big effort to capture the reality of the times, portraying the East End of London as a far more diverse, contested, and hopeful place than perhaps we are used to seeing in Ripper-era television. I also think it deals particularly well with two classes of person: Americans and sex workers.

The Americans in Ripper Street dress differently, they talk differently, they really do seem to come from a different world. They’re usually either on the run or looking for something, and they aren’t native in London – they don’t know the town, they often hate it, and they’re usually there with a purpose, not usually a good one. They’re gaudier, more dangerous or more sinister, and they’re also more modern – they have ideas and skills and ways of looking at things that the Londoners aren’t used to. This is how I imagine they would have seemed at the time the show is set, and it might be part of the explanation for why British society has such a strange love/hate relationship with American culture. I really like this depiction of the gulf between two apparently closely-related societies, a gulf that I think a lot of people feel in their day-to-day dealings in the real world, and it’s nice to see Americans in Britain being depicted as more than just a different accent.

But where Ripper Street really excels for me is in its treatment of sex work. It’s the first TV show I think I’ve seen other than Deadwood where sex workers are major characters, but unlike Deadwood it doesn’t reduce them to weak and pathetic characters dependent upon men for approval and safety. Though they are constrained by the stupid mores of their time, the sex workers in Ripper Street aren’t weak, and they don’t wait for men to protect them or help them, nor do they seek men’s approval. They are proud, strong women trying to make their own way in a world where women have no formal power. They aren’t sluts or idiots, but ordinary women doing what needs to be done. The show also takes a narrative stance on sex work, not particularly openly, so that we can see the morality of the world in which the women work and trace its hypocrisies and cruelties; this isn’t done in a hamfisted way, generally, and it’s portrayed primarily through the efforts of Reid’s religious wife, Emily, who wishes to establish a shelter to protect homeless women without dictating morals or lifestyle. It’s really refreshing to see a TV show set in an oppressive era that doesn’t fetishize sexual violence and reduce its female characters to victims and objects. If only Deadwood had done the same …

Ripper Street only has eight episodes so far, and a new season won’t be along any time soon, but I strongly recommend viewing what there is. It’s an excellent and enjoyable show, and a welcome addition to that small genre of TV shows about the genesis of modern policing. Don’t hesitate to try it out if you get the chance.

Continuing (belatedly) my series of posts on sex work, public health and feminism, in this post I will discuss how I think anti-sex work feminists have coopted the movement against human trafficking in their political campaign against the sex industry. I have shown before that I don’t think moralist campaigners against sex workers have the best interests of the women in the industry at heart, and that anti-sex work feminists show a similar instrumentalization of the women in the industry: both groups aim to use sex workers as pawns in their broader social reform agendas. In pursuing this agenda, I think these campaigners have also worked to try and redirect the focus of national and supra-national movements against trafficking, and have stirred up alarm about the level of criminality and security risk associated with the problem. I also think their academic contributions to the issue have been weak and biased.

Human trafficking and people smuggling

Human trafficking is defined in the framework convention against trafficking as the

recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs

Sex trafficking is a part of this, and is a serious crime against humanity. Human trafficking doesn’t necessarily involve just sex trafficking, however: it can happen on European fishing boats or even to hair-dressers on US army bases. It’s also different to people smuggling, which is the movement for profit of humans across borders, without the intention of exploiting them upon arrival. Many women use people smugglers of varying degrees of nastiness and depravity to cross borders illegally to do sex work, but this doesn’t mean they’re being trafficked. For example, when I started working in public health in the 1990s Asian sex workers would come to Australia under very tough contracts to work as sex workers. These contracts would require them to work for 6 months or a year without receiving payment, in order to repay the “cost” of being smuggled into the country. Most of the women in these situations knew what they were getting into, and weren’t particularly interested in cooperating with customs and immigration agents. Their working conditions were harsh and very bad things could and did happen to them, but they weren’t generally deceived or coerced into the work, and were willing to take the risks because of the potential lucrative benefits that would accrue to them after they discharged their contract. Conflating these women with trafficked women is a dangerous error.

But conflating people smuggling and sex trafficking, and exaggerating the security and public health risks of the latter, is an important tool in the rhetorical arsenal of modern anti-sex work campaigners. As the developed world began to bend its considerable state power to the abolition of human trafficking, anti-sex work campaigners saw an opportunity to use the apparatus of border control and the rhetoric of slavery to ratchet up the pressure on the sex industry generally. Domestic campaigns against the legalization of prostitution have tried to have all prostitution redefined as coerced, and a similar approach has been used in attempts to get human trafficking laws in the USA changed to remove the requirement for evidence of fraud, deception or coercion (such as happened in New York). Simultaneously, campaigners have exaggerated both the numbers of people involved and the seriousness of the organized crime involved and its security ramifications for countries “at risk.” Shifting the goalposts so that all prostitution is redefined as trafficking serves the anti-prostitution movement well, but it has bad effects in both diverting attention from more serious forms of human trafficking, and in stigmatizing and criminalizing sex workers. It also tends to lead to more punitive immigration law, which affects poor women coming from poor countries without visas in increasingly harsh ways. Sex worker organizations are clear that these laws don’t work to protect women in the industry, but make their lives harder and more dangerous.

False statistics and shoddy research

Although successful in bringing state power to bear on poor women, and redefining prostitution as slavery, anti-trafficking campaigners have had remarkably little luck in proving that the problem is significant. Although they claim that Sweden’s anti-prostitution laws led to a large reduction in trafficking, they have very little evidence of the presence of trafficked women in the developed world. For example, a 6 month intensive project in the UK failed to find evidence of a single trafficked worker, and the major report into trafficking in the UK, Big Brothel, was greeted with harsh criticism by public health researchers for both its methods and its ethics. This report in the Guardian shows how 71 arrests for trafficking in 1998 became a Daily Mirror headline of “25,000 sex slaves in the UK” by 2008, through a series of misrepresentations by organizations that obviously have increasing amounts to gain from misrepresenting the issue. Academic critics of the Big Brothel report wrote that

The report builds a damning picture of indoor sex work on the basis of data whose reliability and representativeness is extremely doubtful and a methodological approach that would be considered unethical by most professional social researchers. It makes claims about trafficking, exploitation and the current working conditions of women and men employed in the indoor sex industry on the basis of that data.

Unfortunately, these activists had the ear of governments in Sweden and the UK, and laws were changed redefining any form of sex work as exploitation. The result of this in Britain was that women were forced to work alone, without managers, receptionists, colleagues or security staff, in dangerous privatized settings – the worst possible scenario for sex workers. This doesn’t stop women doing sex work, which is lucrative and flexible work; it doesn’t stop poor women risking their life savings in the hands of people smugglers to come to the UK to work; but it certainly makes this process less reliable and more dangerous. Meanwhile, other forms of slavery – on construction sites and fishing boats and farms all around the developed and developing world – receive much less attention than the headline issues of sex slavery. Furthermore, anti-sex work campaigners have exerted considerable pressure on developing nations, such as Cambodia, through organizations such as the US State Department, to try and get them to redefine the internal, voluntary movement of poor rural women to sex work in the city as “trafficking.” Given the large demographic and labour market shifts occurring in some of these countries, it is inevitable that women will move to the city to do sex work, and such redefinitions will simply see them cast out of the industry they chose and forced into more dangerous and less rewarding industrial jobs. Why should they lose this choice, just because some western feminists want to change the nature of social relations in their own backyard through rhetorical gains against prostitution overseas?

Globalization, sex work and reaction

The free movement of global labour has thrown up a lot of challenges to both the old right and the old left, and some of their responses to those challenges haven’t been particularly pretty. Both sides of politics have responded to this aspect of globalization with knee-jerk isolationism and racism. When sex and prostitution enter the mix, especially the sleazy low-rent end of the sex industry that migrant labourers often fill, the responses can become hyperbolic. But although it may be particularly seedy and unsavoury, it is ultimately an industry like any other – where a need exists and people are willing to fill it, they will; and where the profit is to be made, people will act as brokers for the movement of labourers in and out of the industry. Just as in the construction, cleaning and other service industries, this will often mean that unscrupulous dealers attempt to cut immigration corners, and in this case the high profits that they may obtain mean that both the brokers and the labourers are willing to risk a lot of money on the enterprise. This may make the brokers seedy and unpleasant, but it doesn’t necessarily make them slavers. It also puts many poor women from poor nations at odds with the law, places them in vulnerable and dangerous positions, and seriously increases the risk that bad things will happen to them. But the answer to this is not to redefine the behaviour of these people as slaver/victim, to create false statistics and attempt to bring the full might of the US state to bear on both the originating countries and the women in question. Rather, it is to liberalize immigration laws, to make immigration enforcement as humane and reasonable as possible, and to always insist on a clear line of understanding between the types of crimes involved – prostitution and people smuggling are not the same as trafficking, and redefining trafficking will not protect the women who willingly risk immigration prosecution to make money in this or any other industry.

Of course, none of this is inconsistent with the real goals of anti-sex work campaigners, which are to alter the nature of gender relations to a reactionary, illiberal model that has little in common with the aims and aspirations of most people, and certainly does not serve to liberate women. In my last post in this series, I will use the evidence I’ve gathered so far, and the public utterances of key figures in the movement, to describe why I think the ultimate goals of the radical feminist anti-sex work movement are reactionary and dangerous for women everywhere, and why I think this movement is both misogynist and backward-looking.

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.

Continuing my series of posts on sex work, public health and radical feminism, this post will attempt to describe the public health issues surrounding modern sex work, and some common public health responses to it. For the most part I will be talking about developed nations; for a variety of reasons, different conditions pertain in the developing world, and the public health response there is more complex. But as we shall see, sex work in the modern era presents some unique problems, and the majority of modern responses to them have been based around pragmatism and public health, rather than moral hygiene concerns, and in this sense modern responses – even in poor and conservative countries like Bangladesh or Indonesia – can be very different to those we previously presented from 100 years ago.

Sex Work in the Modern Era: The Problem of HIV

Until the early 1980s it was looking like sex work as a public health problem had become largely irrelevant. With the discovery of effective tests and treatments for syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia the major public health problems “caused” by sex work seemed to be under control.  Of course, all of this changed when HIV entered the scene – in the early 1980s for the developed world, but much earlier in Africa – and suddenly sex workers were cast back in time, to the bad disease vectors of old, transmitting an incurable and deadly disease.

HIV is a classic example of how an infectious disease can survive in a community even though the majority of people are not engaged in the risk behavior that underlies its spread. Because it is asymptomatic for years, a small group of people can spread the disease through high risk behavior without even knowing they have it, and if this group of people is stigmatized and their reasons for getting or transmitting the disease make them subject to discrimination or public coercion, they are much, much less likely to get the voluntary screening that is needed to prevent the spread of the disease. In the absence of open coercion – which, in the case of sex workers, has been shown to be an ineffective public health measure for over a hundred years – some other tactic was needed to ensure that the disease did not become entrenched in this population.

In the early 1980s, HIV was a genuine emergency, and it’s instructive to look at what happened in Africa in order to see what happens if the disease goes unchecked in the general community for too long. In the absence of a treatment, and knowing that the disease is asymptomatic for years, the public health community in the developed world recognized that a new approach to sex work was going to be needed: there was no time for moral panics and placing our hopes in the ability of our moral leaders to force women out of the industry, and men out of purchasing sex. Instead, in the UK, Australia, Canada and much of Europe, a new approach was tested that was based on, essentially, bringing sex workers in from the cold.

The Modern Public Health Model for Sex Work

The modern public health response for sex work is built around multiple strategies, working at multiple levels of society and the health system, to ensure that traditional cultural, structural and economic barriers to seeking health care – and specifically, sexual health care – were removed rapidly. The main components of this model were:

  • Sex worker empowerment: Unlike the rest of the population, sex workers have absolutely no reason to want to have sex without a condom. There’s nothing in it for them, in general, and most of the reasons for condom-free sex in such an environment are structural. Where women are underpaid, under threat of violence, or unable to successfully negotiate with clients, condom-free sex happens. Where they are well paid, supported by management in protecting their health, and free from the threat of violence, they inevitably use condoms. This effect is even stronger if they are connected to a community of sex workers, so that everyone in the industry knows that in relenting on condom-only sex rules, they make everyone’s job harder. These gains are partly (and only partly) achieved through self-empowerment, the establishment of unions and representative organizations like the Scarlet Alliance, who can advocate for sex workers’ workplace safety inside and outside their workplace, and help sex workers to work together to ensure workplace safety. These were set up early in Australia, and have been very effective campaigners for the rights of workers
  • Legal changes: ultimately the best way to ensure the safety of women working in the industry is to legalize it, so that the industry shifts from the control of gangsters and thugs to a more standard business model. Legalizing (or decriminalizing) the industry enables government and health authorities to monitor conditions in brothels, to gain access rights, to vet the criminal histories of those who open brothels, and to ensure certain hygiene standards. It also removes the workers themselves from the oversight of the police, so that they go from criminals to civilians, and thus gain greater police protection. It also enables governments to set certain basic standards of criminal culpability on managers and workers alike. But most importantly, it enables sex workers to report crimes against them to the police, to openly employ security guards and receptionists, and to change the balance of power between worker and client – a key component in enabling the worker to enforce safe sex in the ultimately private portion of the business transaction.
  • Specialist services: it’s still common for doctors and nurses to be quite judgmental about promiscuity and sex work, so it’s important that if a worker is getting regular tests – monthly or quarterly, for example – or sex work-specific health care, she can do it in an environment that doesn’t discriminate against her on the basis of her work, and that understands the specific conditions of her work. While sex work is illegal (as it is in, e.g. Indonesia) it’s also important to have specialist services that have a “special” arrangement with the local police (these arrangements are actually quite realistic goals in a functioning civil society). Workers know that they can visit these services and have no fear of being harassed by or turned over to police. If a worker won’t visit a health service for fear of discrimination, mistreatment or legal trouble, she won’t get an HIV test. For much of the history of the HIV epidemic (until recently, in fact) there has been no personal benefit to the person with HIV of getting an early HIV test, since there was no treatment and it’s asymptomatic. Why go to the trouble of a test just to protect the broader community, if the broader community is telling you you are a worthless whore?
  • Practical law enforcement changes: Even where sex work is illegal, police can be convinced to look the other way, to treat sex workers leniently and with discretion, or to allow sex work under certain conditions. For example, in Sydney, Australia, there was a long-standing agreement between health and law enforcement officials that two streets in Kings Cross were acceptable locations for street-based sex work, even though it was illegal. There were also certain “safe houses” where women could take their clients, that the police only entered with good reason. Women working in these locations could be (reasonably) guaranteed safety from police harassment, and were working in highly visible and regularly-frequented zones – offering some protection against trouble. The police would also come to know these women, and would cooperate with local health services in finding them if they were needed, or getting them suitable emergency support. The first lesson of the era of HIV is that police do not need to be the enemies of people from whom they are supposedly protecting society.
  • Outreach and education: Having established these arrangements with police, health agencies can successfully run outreach programs to offer education, safer sex support, medical and drug treatment referrals, and basic social welfare advice. In the case of stable brothel-based workers this outreach can be minimal – a sex worker representative visiting a brothel once a month to check that all is going well, for example – but there is a sinister under-belly to the sex industry, of drug-addicted women and illegal migrant workers, who need a great deal more help.
  • Drug treatment services: This sinister underbelly involves women doing sex work to make money for drugs, and it’s well accepted that these women are at much greater risk of both violence and unsafe sexual activity than their non-addicted colleagues. They often work in the street, in extremely dangerous settings, under the influence of drugs, or in states of desperation. The best way to change these women’s lives is to get them into drug treatment, and this is also probably the best way to reduce the risk of the spread of HIV by these women – who are also at higher risk of getting HIV through injecting drug use. Again, for these women drug treatment services have to offer appropriate care that doesn’t drive them away due to their “vice.” It’s possible to imagine, for example, a “moral hygiene” focused drug treatment service that will not offer treatment to sex workers or “loose women.” The vicious cycle of drug abuse and sex work will ensure that these women will never get into treatment under such conditions. Fortunately, such drug treatment services largely don’t exist in any significant numbers anymore.
  • Practical public health interventions: Dispensing condoms, a weekly “ugly mug” bulletin that alerts street-based workers about potentially dangerous clients, sexual health clinics being open at times that suit women who work, outreach workers who understand the industry, courses on basic negotiation skills for women at work, are all practical public health interventions that may make a difference to how women work. But these interventions won’t work in isolation, and there’s limited evidence that they work in many settings: this is because the primary drivers of risk amongst sex workers are structural, and largely out of the control of the individual women in the industry.

The other, largely unresearched benefit of all of these services, in my opinion, is that they offer exit rights to women in the industry. It’s much, much harder to force women into sex work – either economically or through the vicious tools of the illegal immigrant contract – if the law enforcement, health system, and industry structure is designed to offer women essentially the same rights at work as they would have if they were working in a restaurant or an office. This ensures that only women who are capable of making a choice to work in the industry will stay in it long term, and these women will no doubt be much more capable of protecting their sexual health than women who don’t want to work in the industry and can’t get out. I’ll return to this aspect of the debate later, when I contrast this decriminalization model with the abolition model favoured by radical feminists. But first, let’s look at a success story under this model.

Australia: A Decriminalization Success Story

In 1984, when HIV reached Australia, sex work was still illegal and the industry was very much unregulated; but coincidentally with the arrival of HIV, in New South Wales (the most populous state) the Parliamentary Select Committee Enquiring into Prostitution had been commissioned, and recommended changes to the laws, including a movement towards decriminalization and the establishment of specialist services; the first (and only) such service was opened in 1986 at the Kirketon Road Centre. Sex worker representative bodies were established in 1987, and further legal changes happened slowly over the following 10 years. By the time I entered the public health field in 1995, it was well-established that sex workers were at lower risk of STIs than non-sex workers, that there had never been a case of HIV transmitted by a sex worker in Australia, and that sex workers were at higher risk of STIs from their non-commercial partners than their commercial partners. This was despite the fact that a large number of street-based workers were also injecting drug users, and at elevated risk of HIV. Subsequently, the law further improved as did the law enforcement agencies after the Woods Royal Commission into Police Corruption (approx. 1996); by the time I left Australia in 2006 it was virtually impossible to have commercial sex with a minor (something that was quite easy in 1986), and rape and violence against sex workers was taken very seriously by police, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It was also extremely unlikely that police would be able to get away with corrupt dealings with drug dealers or sex workers, due to legal changes to the treatment of these crimes and also due to a significant cultural change in the police force. Now, brothels in NSW are licensed by their relevant local council, brothel owners are vetted for criminal records, and brothels are subject to regular inspection. This gives councils sweeping powers to investigate and force the closure of suspected illegal brothels.

As a result, the public health and legal environment in New South Wales is vastly improved: for sex workers, their clients, the unsuspecting partners of those clients, migrant women who might have been tricked into appalling situations, and drug-using women working the streets. HIV remained confined to the drug using and homosexual populations, and the main drivers of diseases like chlamydia remained (much more intractable) young, high-risk non-sex working heterosexual people[1].

The Feminist Antecedents of Legal Reform

Much of the impetus for decriminalization of sex work came from the “second wave” of feminists: that is, women like Germaine Greer, Marilyn French, Simone de Beauvoir, and female parliamentarians of the 1970s. With the Second Wave of feminism came recognition that promiscuity could be acceptable, and a move to reduce the risks that women faced in taking control of their own sexuality: date rape, violence, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) began to be seen as unreasonable risks for women to run in exploring a sexuality that, by the 80s, was generally recognized as their own to control. Part of the recognition of women’s right to control their own sexuality was their right to use it as they saw fit, and a body of political theory developed that saw prostitution as a type of work like any other, rather than a vice or evidence of a moral failing. Most of this feminist understanding of prostitution also drew on the keen understanding women like Marilyn French had of the very real economic and personal challenges facing women in the 1970s[2]: with work opportunities still very restricted, and many women having limited access to education, prostitution came to be understood not just in terms of its moral dimension, but as a form of empowerment within the restricted economic choices women faced in this time. Now, of course, the situation for young women is very different, but for a young woman aiming for independence in the 1970s, financial and employment opportunities were limited; sex work was seen by feminists as a legitimate response to these pressures, and moral judgment of it seen as representing more the failings of the system and the patriarchy than the moral failings of the individual women.

Of course, theory about decriminalization didn’t develop in isolation: at the same time the drug decriminalization movement had flirted with legalization and harm reduction had begun to be understood as a public health theory, and there was also a strong gay rights movement building in many countries. Second wave feminism was often focused on very pragmatic things, and it was only natural that from this brew they would develop a theory of the decriminalization of sex work, and it was a distinctly feminist campaign that culminated in the Prostitution Act in NSW (1979, I think) that led to the initial (4 year long) experiment in decriminalization. This was partially reversed in 1983, but remains a significant feminist victory and marks a clear break from the moral panic of previous eras when faced with sex workers and public health. Of course other countries were trying the same things, and the growth of sex worker representative movements in the 1980s also guaranteed that the combined feminist/public health goals of decriminalization would spread around the world. Perhaps this stuff wouldn’t have happened so fast if not for the pressures of the early HIV era; but regardless of the public health pressures, the role of feminists in establishing the groundwork and theory of decriminalization needs to be recognized.

In the next post, I’ll try to show how radical feminists view sex work and promiscuity, in contrast to the second wave. You’ve made it this far – stick around!

fn1: Some readers may be confused as to why I care about chlamydia, which many people think is harmless, like a kind of common cold of the genitals. In fact, chlamydia is a scourge: it is often asymptomatic, and causes most men no significant harm; but if undetected in women it can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, which is very nasty and can cause infertility or increased risk of ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancy is a devastating condition for an expecting mother (it invariably leads to miscarriage) and can be fatal if undetected. Amongst all the public health problems facing the world, chlamydia is no doubt far from the worst (or even very bad) but it’s still a nasty, unnecessary little blighter and the sooner we can get rid of it the better.

fn2: It can be bitter stuff, but I strongly recommend reading Marilyn French if you want to get a clear, powerful description of the very different circumstances facing women in love in the 60s and 70s compared to now. It’s well written, tough and uncompromising, and helps to give a sense of the passions that drove this wave of feminism – and how far we have come.

Continuing my series of posts on sex work and public health, I thought I might take a brief look at some of the historical debate over sex work and public health. Sex work can be a major risk factor for the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and the sex industry can play the role of a classic “high risk” group in epidemiology, maintaining a pool of individuals with some disease and spreading it to low risk groups through sexual contact. This is a well-recognized aspect of the epidemiology of infectious disease, and isn’t in and of itself a stigmatized or morally compromised position for a part of society to occupy. Travelers are a high-risk group for the spread of influenza, prisoners for TB, and children for a range of infectious diseases. But the particular form of the risk that sex workers engage in – sexual – and some of its historical “victims” (that is, the types of men who purchase sex from sex workers) have been of sufficient concern to the authorities that sex workers have attracted a great deal of moral opprobrium for their behavior. Public health interventions of various kinds have been advocated in modern societies since at least the 1870s, and historically have tended to instrumentalize sex workers as a risk group: that is, they only see the health of sex workers through the prism of the harm they may “do” to others, and don’t consider the health, welfare or rights of these women in and of themselves to be of much (or any) value. Examination of the approach to public health in previous eras can be instructive: it helps us to understand the types of political and moral forces that are brought to bear on those who might put the rest of the community at risk through their “immoral” behavior.

Sex Work and the Future of the Nation

Sex work entered the national consciousness in the UK in the 1860s, after the Crimean war. Returning soldiers, and soldiers in camp during and after the war, were targeted for business by, and very frequently visited, sex workers. Gonorrhea and syphilis became serious public health issues, and in this era neither were treatable, so attention naturally turned to prevention efforts. With soldiers who contracted these diseases being rendered unfit to serve, there was a genuine fear that the soldiers’ actions might lead to such a high rate of disease as to compromise the fitness of the army. The UK Government established a commission to investigate the problem in 1864, and debate on the issue became quite public. In 1870, the Daily Telegraph wrote in an editorial:

the question can be suppressed no longer – that it concerns the very life and future history of the nation, and must be carried, as is our wont, before the tribunal of national opinion.

With this, the Telegraph decided to confront the issue of prostitution as it was then imagined: not just as a public health issue, but as an issue that affected the future of the nation. Somewhat hyperbolic, one might think, but the British Medical Journal (BMJ)  in the same year showed were the leadership of the medical profession stood on the importance of the issue of sex work and the national good:

Shall we find that, by the control of prostitution, we shall have irretrievably lost in morality and gained not at all in health?[1]

This letter was written in response to proposals to introduce controls on prostitution. These controls would largely have consisted of mandatory health checks for soldiers, proposals to educate them in hygiene and safer sex, and possibly also some extremely punitive measures targeted at sex workers (including, possibly, the right for police to “inspect” any woman considered to be a possible worker). The concern of the correspondent was not just that these measures might prove useless, but that by even so much as considering education of soldiers about the risks of sex with sex workers, Britain would have given up something of its moral core. Merely admitting that ordinary men visit sex workers, and that this could not be stopped, was seen as a potential moral scourge. One imagines that these “prostitutes” must have been a truly terrifying force for evil, that even to speak their name in the presence of soldiers would so corrupt them as to lead to the “irretrievable” loss of some moral value – and with it, we shall see, physical decay.

Nationalism and Sexual Health

There was a strong nationalist aspect to debates about sexuality and sexual health during the period of empire, and a fear that the failure of proper moral controls on certain segments of society would lead to a failure to check

that dire disease, syphilis, which is, more than any other disease, undermining the human constitution in this and other countries[2]

He linked the physical decay associated with this disease directly to the moral decay of prostitution and “immorality.” But the effect of the disease on the national constitution was not believed to be due to its debilitating physical effects alone; the weakening of the nation as a whole that comes about through “moral decay” was also of great concern. In amongst multiple letters to the BMJ describing genuinely terrifying levels of STI infection (up to 20% in one cohort during world war 1), we find doctors such as John Armstrong, who asked in 1921,

Shall we preach indulgences and recommend appliances and disinfecting agents, and so call evil good? By these means we might possibly, but not probably, stamp out syphilis, but the remedy would be a hundredfold worse than the disease, inasmuch as it would lead to a universal physical weakness and degeneracy unparalleled in history[3].

Here we are now 50 years from the original debate over the Contagious Diseases Act, and yet still correspondents to the BMJ are presenting the epidemiology of syphilis as inseparable from the epidemiology of moral decay. In the intervening 50 years they had won world war 1 despite all these supposedly weakening measures, and 50 years of (at least) considering preventive measures and education in the army had hardly led to the debilitation of the nation. And yet … moral degeneracy was still seen around every corner, and even were the medical consequences of it to be stamped out, the moral decay that might result from a policy of permissiveness towards promiscuity and sex work would surely destroy the nation.

The Importance of Moral Enforcement

If this were not enough evidence that the public health benefits of pragmatism were in this time considered very much secondary to the moral interests of the body politic, consider this further editorial piece from the BMJ in 1884, after the passage of various Contagious Diseases Acts in the UK, which included punitive measures against sex workers and a variety of public health measures targeting sex workers:

The reformatory side of the question has not been fully and fairly recognized by those even who have pleaded the sanitary side. Without compulsion in some form or other, there can be no repression of this disease, and, without moral reforms, compulsion would not be tolerated[2].

The “compulsion” here referred to includes the right of police to stop and enforce medical investigation of any woman suspected of sex work, and the continuing abolition of sex work itself (with punishment for the women involved). This editorial makes it clear that morality cannot be separated from public health when talking about STIs, and that prevention of disease in this era was considered impossible without the right of “compulsion” over those who might be affected. The “moral reforms” referred to here are attempts to reinforce existing moral strictures on sex out of marriage and promiscuity – a return to traditional values was considered essential to support willingness to prosecute ordinary women over sex work, and to introduce nationwide measures against sex workers and those who visited them.

Moral debate on prostitution at this time was not entirely one-sided, though even medical men who took a more humane or enlightened approach to the benefits of public health intervention could sound quite judgmental by modern standards, not to mention hyperbolic. Again, from the BMJ of 1869:

My private opinion is, and I hope to have it supported by you, that the discussion of these matters by medical men has now satisfactorily shown that the Contagious Diseases Act is but a division of a still larger question-Prostitution, which, again, cannot be discussed, much less settled, without our possessing considerable knowledge of the kindred questions of Illegitimacy and Infanticide

Whether the nation will ultimately accept these Acts, and the benefits obtainable from their operation, or not, one thing is certain, the condition of our streets after nightfall will no longer be allowed to be a national disgrace: moreover, “The Ladies’ Anti-Contagious Diseases Association” now admits that the condition of their fallen sisterhood requires investigation, and they take blame to themselves for having so long neglected it. To conclude, I think you will agree with me that, as public feeling is now fully aroused to the necessity of investigating these questions, professional men must be prepared to take their part in the discussion; and Government must look to surgeons to carry out the preventive and sanitary measures which our special knowledge may recommend for the alleviation of the sufferings of women who are often more sinned against than sinning[4].

[Emphasis in the original].

This more enlightened view of the public health benefits of intervention still supports extending the punitive measures of the Contagious Diseases Act to the civil population, and refers to sex workers as “fallen” women. While it might be progressive for its time, it still admits of a need to control and change sex workers, and denies them agency or the right to control their workplace or their own future. At the time, with most STIs untreatable and the “situation” on the streets of London seen as urgent, this coercive approach to public health may have been appropriate, but it set the tone for much of the following 100 years of debate on STIs, sexuality and public health in the medical profession. This tone is perhaps best summed up in the policy statement of the National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases, which, writing fully 50 years after the initial Contagious Disease Acts were passed, stated the following in its policy:

As by far the most important cause [of STIs] is promiscuous sexual intercourse, the question cannot be dealt with apart from social and moral factors … The action of public-health authorities in dwelling in their publications on the medical prevention of these diseases, to the exclusion of moral considerations, is deprecated.[5]

Thus it was still well-accepted medical orthodoxy in 1921 that public health interventions based on education, information and the practice of safer sex were to be ignored in favour of punitive and moral measures. While debate on this was far from settled, we can see the debate has followed this tone and failed to settle on a compromise between morality and hygiene for more than 50 years. Is it any wonder then, that even after syphilis had become just another treatable disease – in the modern era – doctors continued to insist on the importance of fighting immorality in medical practice?

Beyond Sex Work: Illness and Pregnancy as Moral Enforcers

There is an underlying tenor to much of the early correspondence on STIs that suggests they should be seen as the natural consequence of moral decay or that the prevention, through encouraging “immorality,” is worse than the disease. But although implicit in the published statements of these early physicians, they never manage to come out and say that the terror of syphilis could act as a deterrent to immorality[6]. Once the second wave of feminism had reared its ugly head, however, things got a little more heated in the medical literature. Consider this (not uncontroversial) piece from 1971:

Venereal disease being no longer a penalty it is not a Deterrent… if this new understanding and tolerance of an immense human problem is not to land us in one huge jumbo-jet hop from barbarism to decadence then new attitudes to the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of personal intimacy must be born.[7]

In this article the role of STI as moral enforcer is clearly stated. This link between promiscuity and disease was being researched in the 1970s, out of fear that the pill would lead to an explosion in STI prevalence, and the role of the pill in removing restraints to “barbarism” was seriously considered, but this opinion piece is one of the clearest statements of an underlying moral panic: that without fear of the negative consequences of sex, people would just get on with enjoying themselves. We’ll come back to this theme in later episodes of this series, because while the second wave feminists were very much in favour of liberalization of sex work laws and the breaking of boundaries on sexual behavior, their radical feminist successors have in common with Dr. Wigfield and their christian fundamentalist fairweather friends a desire to create “new attitudes to the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of personal intimacy.” Until the advent of HIV, when gay men entered the spotlight, sex workers and promiscuous women – often casually intermingled in the traditional view of “immorality” – were the ones who were most likely to be the victims of these experiments in returning to old social values[8]. We will see this casual elision of categories (of women, and of behavior) and the return to moral themes of 30, 50 or 100 years ago frequently in even the most modern debates over sex work, and we will see that those worried about “immorality” are very quick to place public health and the physical welfare of women behind their deeper moral concerns, and that it is always sex workers and poor women who suffer first and most from attempts to reverse the flow of sexual liberation. We will also see these nationalist and moralist themes return to the debate, though they may take on new and more modern forms, being confused with issues about European integration, globalization, trafficking in people, the objectification of modern sexual relations through capitalism, and the “pornification” of society. But fundamentally they derive from this same animating principle: that the welfare of people engaging in consensual acts, and the public health risks arising from same, are of secondary concern compared to the pressing need to prevent some form of moral slippage. It is, in essence, the conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism, in the most personal of spheres.

1: Drysdale C. Correspondence, British Medical Journal; July 23, 1870

2: Nason, J. An address on sanitation in some of its aspects, moral as well as general. British Medical Journal; July 5, 1884.

3. Armstrong, J. Correspondence, British Medical Journal; November 11, 1922

4: Acton, W. Correspondence, British Medical Journal; April 2, 1870

5: National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases. The prevention of venereal disease: statement of the national council. British Medical Journal; March 26, 1921.

6: I have a memory from long ago of an editorial in the BMJ where a doctor openly advocates leaving syphilis untreated as a deterrent to others, but much searching has failed to turn it up, so I can only conclude that it was a figment of my imagination. But there is a nasty letter in the 1895 BMJ from a woman advocating leaving syphilis untreated in pregnant women, for vaguely eugenicist reasons.

7: Wigfield, AS. Attitudes to Venereal Disease in a Permissive Society. British Medical Journal, 1971, 4, 342-5.

8: And it’s no surprise that once HIV entered the scene – even in 1987 – we had letters to medical journals from surgeons arguing their right not to treat those who engaged in “voluntary sexual perversion or mainline drug abuse”

This is the first of a series of posts I hope to write over the next few weeks. For the last few months I’ve been working with a PhD student on a cost-effectiveness evaluation of behavioral interventions to reduce HIV transmission among sex workers, and in many ways this has drawn on a lot of my research and public health experience over the past 15 years, so after her successful Thesis Defense today I’m inspired. I hope to lead these posts through an overview of public health and sex work, a discussion of the issue of human trafficking, and finally presentation of the problems in the political debate over sex work. I ultimately hope to present the thesis that radical feminism is a reactionary and conservative ideology which is no friend to women.

Fun, I’m sure we all agree, for the whole family.

As background, I will mention that I’ve done research on sex worker health on and off for the last 15 years, starting with some research on types of genital wart among sex workers, covering some behavioral research, branching into drug treatment issues, and finishing with a recent spate of modeling work that covers sex work in two countries. My first job after I left university was in a sexual health centre, and on my first afternoon at work – after I’d filled in the HR forms and been shown my desk – I was introduced to two representatives from the local sex worker union and given an afternoon tour of the clinic by them, while they explained to me how sex work in Sydney runs. Both were retired sex workers, one a Thai woman and one Australian born. This was back in 1995 before sex work was properly decriminalized in New South Wales, and these women’s job was to visit illegal brothels and check on the health and safety of the women working there. They also had to work with police, other health agencies, and the government to find ways to ensure the safety of the women in the industry, all against the backdrop of the illegal status of the industry. Once they’d given me an overview of the status of sex work in NSW, and the particular problems facing (and, potentially, caused by) migrant sex workers, I was packed off back to my desk with a copy of Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia, which you can now read most of online, and gives a nice (though dated) insight into the industry as it was back then.

Since then I’ve also had friends (and one girlfriend) who worked in the industry, either when or before I met them, and through my work I’ve had a chance to find out a lot about the industry, to the extent, I hope, that I don’t view it as either a salacious mystery or a grotesque stain on society. I’m hoping, in these posts, to try and summarize what I learnt over the past 15 years but – rather than simply presenting a dry public health view – I want to tackle some of the moral and political issues that have arisen from the feminist and christian backlash against the decriminalization-based models of sex worker self-empowerment that have been gaining popularity in the era of AIDS. It’s my personal opinion that the movement to recriminalize or abolish sex work in countries like the USA, Sweden and the UK is a classic example of a backlash against modern sexual freedom, that it is not in the interests of women – whether sex workers or not – and that sex workers are being used as pawns in a bigger political battle that they want no part of.

These issues are tied in not only with public health and sexual morality, but with immigration, globalization and drug use, and they’re too complex to cover in one or two posts. So, for my next post I’ll give an overview of public health responses to sex work, and from that dry base we’ll see if we can spin off into some turgid moral debate…