Prostitution in the UK Today: Radical Feminism and the Marginalisation of Sex Workers’ Voices

Prostitution in the UK Today: Radical Feminism and the Marginalisation of Sex Workers’ Voices

Tim Davies

Consider this scenario. You are involved, by choice or through force of circumstance – or, more likely, because of one or more of a multitude of reasons that fall somewhere between these two extremes – in an activity which is risky and could even be lethal. You have some clear ideas about how the risks could be reduced. Someone tells you that they are desperate to help you reduce these risks, but they are completely uninterested in listening to your suggestions. How would you feel? And would it be reasonable of you to harbour some doubts about the sincerity of your putative defender?

This is the paradoxical situation that sex workers in the UK and many other countries find themselves in and is highlighted by the latest in a series of investigations in recent years into prostitution by the UK Parliament, under the auspices of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Sex worker organisations here and abroad have consistently argued for the decriminalisation of sex work since the mid-seventies. Yet the terms of reference of the HASC inquiry into the law surrounding prostitution in England and Wales make no mention of this possibility. Instead they ask, inter alia, ”whether criminal sanction in relation to prostitution should continue to fall more heavily on those who sell sex, rather than those who buy it” and “what impact the Modern Slavery Act 2015 has had to date on trafficking for purposes of prostitution…” They also ask “what the implications are for prostitution-related offences of the Crown Prosecution Service’s recognition of prostitution as violence against women”

Prostitution, it hardly needs saying, is a highly charged topic and it is not the job of social science to tell people what they should think. However, social science can play a useful role in drawing attention to how particular ways of talking about the world – discourses – can close down alternative constructions of reality. My purpose in this short article is to examine how a particular discourse around prostitution has, arguably, become dominant in UK society today – a discourse embodied in the terms of reference of the HASC enquiry – and to question whether this discourse is more likely to promote or to undermine the safety of sex workers.

The implicit story told about prostitution by the HASC terms of reference is one of violence, trafficking and the need for legislative intervention. This, as sex worker organisations point out, is far from the only story that could be told about prostitution, but it is currently so pervasive that anyone who questions it runs the risk of being seen as misogynistic at best and indifferent to the harms associated with prostitution at worst. How can this be explained?

The proximate causes of the HASC terms of reference are clearly a range of recent developments in European jurisdictions, starting with the decriminalisation of the sale of sexual services and the criminalisation of buyers by Sweden in 1999. Since then, Norway, Iceland and, most recently, Northern Ireland have followed suit. Moreover, a vote supporting what has come to be known as the ‘Nordic Model’ was passed in February 2014 by the European Parliament and was followed in October 2014 by the launching in Parliament of a high-profile pressure group called ‘End Demand’.

However, underlying these immediate causes is a powerful set of ideas associated with a particular school of feminist thought – radical feminism – which, as the American sociologist Ronald Weitzer has argued, has had a formative impact on debates around prostitution in this country and more widely.

For radical feminists such as Angela Dworkin, Catherine Mackinnon, Sheila Jeffreys and Julie Bindel, prostitution is inherently abusive and, in Jeffreys’ words, “a form of male sexual violence against women”. They reject any distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution, seeing all prostitution as coerced, either physically or ideologically. Women who think they have freely chosen to ‘sell their bodies’ (not, note, sell a service) are suffering from false consciousness. The predominant attitude is one of disgust. As Hoigard and Finstad delicately put it: “no one wants to rent out her vagina as a garbage can for hordes of anonymous men’s ejaculations”.

Not all feminists share these views. Camille Paglia, for example, has argued that: “The prostitute is not, as (radical) feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw who controls the sexual channel between nature and culture”. A view which, whilst characteristically provocative, nevertheless effectively challenges the radical feminist presumption of prostitutes’ inevitable victimhood.

Paglia makes no claims to any personal acquaintanceship with prostitution. This is not the case in relation to a remarkable contribution to feminist debate dating from 2002 provided by a Norwegian feminist, Liv Jessen, the recipient of Amnesty International’s first ever Human Rights Award for prostitutes’ rights work. She was until recently the head of the Pro Centre, a national centre for prostitutes in Norway and for most of her working life embraced a radical feminist view of prostitution. But over the years her day to day experience forced her to question this view: “As time goes on we meet more and more people who describe their life in prostitution in a rather different way from the picture drawn by radical feminist research…The picture becomes more varied and therefore more complicated. It is no longer so black and white.” Additionally, Jessen came to recognise that by objectifying prostitutes, radical feminism denied them both their humanity and their volition.

Social scientists such as Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Teela Sanders, Julia O’Connell Davidson and Hilary Kinnel have pointed to a number of problems with the radical feminist discourse.

Firstly, the view that prostitution by its very nature involves violence against women – a view ‘recognised’ in the terms of reference – involves a value judgement masquerading as a statement of fact and serves to muddy the waters about the real and present dangers of violence as an extrinsic feature of prostitution.

Secondly, radical feminists’ conviction that prostitution can be abolished by criminalising clients flies in the face of historical and cross cultural evidence. Whilst it is true that the extent of prostitution varies from time to time and from place to place according to a range of social factors – for example, according to how liberal or restrictive a society’s sexual mores are – the idea that it can be eradicated represents an extraordinary triumph of wishful thinking over empirical evidence.

Thirdly, in order to present their crusade as a battle for gender equality, radical feminists present part of the story of prostitution as if it were the whole story. There is rarely more than a passing mention in radical feminist writing of the existence of male or trans prostitution or of the fact that women too buy sexual services and their accounts of prostitution focus almost exclusively on street sex workers selling sex to feed a drug habit, on the violence associated with this and on sex trafficking. These are all undeniably part of the reality of prostitution, but prostitution is far from being monolithic and by denying the far more complex and variegated reality they invite simple solutions that are doomed to fail precisely because they deny this complexity.

Fourthly, the radical feminist discourse distorts reality in order to bolster its plausibility. Men who buy sex are portrayed as typically violent and abusive when the research that has been done on punters suggests an entirely different picture. According to Hilary Kinnel “clients, far from being a tiny minority of men with abnormal desires and predilections for violence, are a substantial subsection of the male population, broadly representative of most demographic variables with fairly mundane reasons for engaging in commercial sex and rarely violent”.

Fifthly, the evidence that the criminalisation of the purchase of sex has either reduced the demand or made the lives of sex workers safer is, to say the least, questionable. As Frankie Mullin has pointed out in her written evidence to the HASC enquiry, the number of Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and its vicinity increased from around 50 in 2009 to 250 in 2012. Moreover, in those countries which have adopted the Nordic Model, sex workers feel less safe. Outdoor workers have less time to size-up potential clients because the latter are nervous about being caught and the clients of indoor workers are unwilling to identify themselves for the same reason, meaning that sex workers are unable to check them out using ‘ugly mugs’ data sources. The evidence would seem to support Liv Jessen’s conclusion that “We do not think we can regulate ourselves out of prostitution by passing new more stringent laws. The burdens imposed by restrictive changes in legislation will always be borne by the people who sell sex.”

Finally, the power of the radical feminist discourse means that relevant evidence relating to alternatives to criminalisation is largely ignored. The evidence from New Zealand (and New South Wales) which decriminalised sex work in 2003, is that this policy has improved the safety of sex workers without increasing either the level of prostitution or of trafficking. Indeed, the Prostitution Law Review Committee reported in 2008 that there appeared to have been a reduction in the level of street prostitution in Auckland and that “Information received from Immigration Service NZ indicates that no situations involving trafficking in the sex industry have been identified”.

It could therefore be argued that the debate around prostitution in the UK today has been hi-jacked by a set of ideas which are at best unhelpful and at worst counter-productive if one wants to improve the safety, well-being and equality of sex workers. Do radical feminists really have the best interests of women involved in sex work at heart or does their desire to punish men for their sexual incontinence take precedence?

UPDATE [6/7/16]
The HASC Inquiry published an ‘interim report’ on 30th June, 2016. The report, despite its initial terms of reference – and unlike the 2006 white paper: A Coordinated Prostitution Strategy – displays an admirable willingness to consider the issues objectively and to listen to a wide range of opinion, including the views of sex worker organisations and (ex-) sex workers themselves. 
The report identifies three broad legislative approaches in other countries: a sex buyer law (the Nordic model), decriminalisation (e.g. New Zealand and Denmark) and legalisation with regulation (e.g. Germany and the Netherlands). Their (interim) conclusion on the Nordic model  is that “We are not yet convinced that the sex buyer law would be effective in reducing demand or in improving the lives of sex workers…”. They see strengths and weaknesses in all three models, but have decided not to recommend the adoption of any of them at the present time because “the evidence base for any of these changes is not yet established”. It therefore intends to continue its inquiry and seek further evidence of the impact of the different legislative models, including the recent adoption of the Nordic model in Northern Ireland and France and the experience of decriminalisation in New Zealand, before publishing a final report.
However, reflecting its welcome focus on the risks attached to sex work, it does recommend that ‘at the earliest opportunity’ the Home Office changes existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises (‘without losing the ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers’). It also recommends that the HO should legislate for the deletion of previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers by amending the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

Tim Davies was, until recently, a lecturer in sociology and criminology at a college in the North-West of England and has been an Associate Lecturer with the Open University since 1981. [To read more about the views of sex workers themselves, see openDemocracy 29th February to 14th March, 2016 Sex workers speak: who listens?

Image: Eliya Sex Workers Rights Protest, San Francisco City Hall, March 3rd 2008. CC BY 2.0