“The Pimping of Prostitution” – Exploring the ‘Sex Worker’ Narrative
In her latest book, ‘The Pimping of Prostitution’, Julie Bindel examines and critiques arguments around the decriminalisation of sex work and prostitution.
Bindel, J. (2017), The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, Palgrave MacMillan
Julie Bindel’s book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth is written in journalistic style. It describes her cross-continent investigation into the decriminalisation/legalisation of prostitution in Australia, the USA, Holland, Austria, Germany and New Zealand. Bindel visited brothels and so-called street-based ‘tolerance zones’. She interviewed prostituted women, pro-prostitution campaigners, pimps, punters and police officers. She argues the overwhelming evidence is that decriminalisation results in both psychological and physical harm to women, is anything but sexually empowering, and fundamentally infringes their human rights (Chapter 4).
Bindel uses the rich, empirical data she gathered to reflect upon two opposing models currently under consideration by UK legislators about how to reform prostitution law. The first is the total decriminalisation of all activities related to prostitution. The second is the model first adopted in Sweden in 1999, followed quickly by other Nordic countries and now also by France, Canada, and Northern Ireland. The Nordic model decriminalises the seller, the vast majority of whom are women, but it criminalises the buyer, the overwhelming majority of whom are men. In this view, prostitution is both an effect and cause of embedded structural economic and sexual inequality between men and women. Women’s ‘consent’ to sell sex takes place within this social context. The purpose of criminalising the buyer (a first offence is punishable by a small fine) is to help transform the normative acceptance of prostitution as inevitable, and eventually to abolish prostitution. Bindel favours the Nordic model of legal reform.
Let me be clear. Bindel, consistent with the model she advocates, calls for the decriminalisation of all women (and men) who earn their living through prostitution. She articulates this view throughout the book and never deviates from it. If you can detect a note of exasperation in my tone, you are right. Bindel accurately informs us that academia is dominated by scholars who teach their students that decriminalisation of all activities associated with prostitution (including the activities of pimps and brothel owners) is the only way that women who sell sex can be supported. In doing so, they make erroneous claims about the Nordic model. To date, it is these academics who have been influential over proposed changes to prostitution law in the UK in favour of decriminalisation (Chapter 9).
As a Humanities academic, I have witnessed on numerous occasions the approach pro-decriminalisation scholars take to any student who shows doubt about the decriminalisation model. It is the following: any evidence that points to problems with decriminalisation is reductively presented or even withheld; scholars present the Nordic model as draconian. Academics allege the Nordic model increases state power and tighter legal surveillance and control of prostituted women. It dangerously drives prostitution underground, increasing women’s physical risk from violent men. It is anti-feminist, disregarding women’s ability to consent, and it furthers their vilification by society in the countries that adopt it. How have we arrived at the situation where it is possible in universities for academics not to set before their students two sides of an argument and encourage spirited debate?
Bindel points out that the discursive control of the ‘sex-work’ narrative is shared between the prostitution industry and academia. The prostitution industry, including its well-resourced ‘”sex-worker” rights lobby’ (p3), mobilises obfuscation of its nefarious practices through business-speak. It has re-shaped language so that ‘pimps become “managers”, while prostituted women become “sex workers”‘ (p xxxiii). Anyone who does not adhere to the new sanitised terminology must ergo be against women’s human rights and be part of a right-wing brigade that invites the State to legislate for women’s private conduct. Moreover, abolitionists are ‘accused… of being moralistic, anti-sex man-haters’ (p. 3). In a reversal of truth, Bindel becomes the extreme, sexless anti-feminist. Bindel as the ‘anti-feminist’ is contrasted by ‘feminist’ pimps, brothel owners, and men who prostitute women, who stand shoulder to shoulder with libertarian academics and who insist ‘sex work’ is equivalent to other forms of work and that being a ‘sex-worker’ is an internal, sexual identity.
Any slurring of Bindel is, of course, understandable, at least from the perspective of the industry itself, as well as the punters invested in the supply side of this demand and supply economy. Turkeys, one presumes, wouldn’t vote for Christmas. However, the Liberal Democrat Party, the Green Party, and Amnesty International also claim decriminalisation honours the human rights of the ‘sex-worker’ (Chapter 6). What mechanisms are in place that makes those who identify as sexually progressive, ‘deaf’ to the Nordic model and thus to Bindel’s central, fundamental assertion that women who sell sex should be decriminalised and exonerated from all social stigma? Perhaps this question can best be answered by attending to the second core tenet of the Nordic model, namely the criminalisation of the buyer.
Bindel asserts that the shiny, clean face of ‘sex-work’ enables the men to become invisible. Prostitution is designated an all-female affair, and the pimp and the punter shield themselves from scrutiny (Chapter 5). When academics become authoritarian and effectively shut down critical thought and free speech about the Nordic model in their classrooms it is not on the principle that men’s sexual activities are curtailed, an argument which would at least be intellectually coherent, but on the alleged behalf of women. Students are told that women are abused neither by men nor by the economic, gendered and sexualised conditions that lead women to sell sex. No, women are autonomous individuals who exercise their agency and choice across a whole spectrum of possible decisions in a free market economy (Chapter 3). If they are abused by anyone, so the story goes, it is by abolitionist feminists who matronise them by denying they can freely consent to sell sex and use their bodies as they see fit (Chapter 9).
How is that that, in the 21st century, we are still vexed by the prostitution issue? The answer, Bindel tells us, is the deeply embedded patriarchal belief, held by many men and women, that men have a sexual entitlement to the bodies of women (and the bodies of men, if the purchaser is homosexual). In the late 19th century, Josephine Butler, political activist and social reformer exposed Victorian society’s hypocrisy which tolerated bourgeois men’s exploitation of poor women because of the former’s alleged inevitable ‘natural’ sexual needs and his ‘rights’ to have them sated while reserving its righteous ire for the women. In contrast, Butler placed the blame ‘Firmly on the shoulders of men: something many feminists today are reluctant to do’ (p 2).
Over the last 140 years activists, writers, philosophers and lawmakers have continued to declare prostitution an abuse of women’s human rights and antithetical to achieving women’s equality with men. Bindel thus stands in a long line of honourable and brave women (and men) who have refuted the idea that prostitution is inevitable and therefore acceptable.
I hope students will read this book even though it is highly unlikely that the majority of academics teaching the politics of sexuality and gender will add it to their reading lists. On reading it, young students may begin to wonder how a legal model, implemented by Nordic countries characterised by their progressive social policies on all matters of sexual and gender equality, could be as anti-feminist as their lecturers imply. They may begin to comprehend that infringements of women’s global human rights to bodily integrity, sexual autonomy, dignity and lack of sexual exploitation are far more complicated than any ‘sex-work is empowerment’ slogan could ever begin to tackle. They may notice that when men’s sex-privilege is exposed as political rather than ‘natural’, and as occurring under our noses in the present rather than confined to the past, some men shift from the language of liberal individualism and ‘choice’ feminism to declare themselves a sex ‘class’ of men (alas without any self-reflection about the irony) under siege by nasty, nasty abolitionist bigots.
Students may even begin to notice that in the erection of alleged safe-spaces in universities where usually discussion of prostitution is only as ‘sex-work’, the unintended consequence is their silent tolerance of extremely unsafe spaces for women outside of the university walls. They may even expose themselves to the knowledge of the degree to which academic advocacy of the ‘sex-work’ narrative, as well as advocacy by some political parties, has been funded by the sex industry. If students ever find their way to this book they may experience the thrill of daring to think critically rather than conforming to current, received ‘wisdom’ about what is or isn’t sexually progressive! I live in hope. What is the alternative?