Food that was cooked last week and reheated several times tends to be unappetising and may be bad for you. So it is with each new article written in support of the so-called Nordic Model which criminalises the clients of sex workers, who are sometimes referred to on this side of the Atlantic as ‘punters’ and never as ‘johns’. The striking number of articles originating in the UK that use the word ‘johns’ suggests that quite a few unappetising dishes have been flown over from the US for further reheating.
The main justification for criminalisation is ostensibly to deal with trafficking. Now I do not deny that some women are trafficked into sex work but have to note that the legions of sex slaves alleged to exist by abolitionists remain as elusive as Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. The matter was brilliantly analysed by Maggie McNeillhere.
On the basis of what is now considerable reading on the issue I am prepared to put forward two propositions.
- Most women engaged in sex work are not trafficked.
- Most victims of trafficking are not trafficked into sex work.
So where are they trafficked? In London many women are trafficked into domestic service (where one may surmise they may be victims of sexual violence). There have been recent cases of trafficked men working as slaves in the construction industry and in a recent post I referred to the case of some Polish men trafficked to Italian tomato plantations. As well as agriculture people have been trafficked into fishing and, notoriously, into cockle picking.
If you accept these propositions you must also accept that further legislation in the area of sex work is irrelevant, by definition, to the problem of human trafficking. I suggest too that it is irrelevant to the specific problem of trafficking into sex work. The United Kingdom already has effective and enforceable anti-trafficking laws which have been used recently to put some nasty individuals behind bars for a long time. So what point would criminalisation serve?
I’m increasingly inclined to think that the advocates of criminalisation don’t really believe what they say about trafficking but they need a pretext that will play with the public. The real reasons are that the evangelical Christian wing of the abolitionist movement think it’s a sin and that radical feminists object for reasons of ideology. They call it ‘violence against women.’ It is the radical feminist approach to violence that I want to discuss here.
At first glance the idea that ‘prostitution is violence against women’ seems unremarkable, if awkwardly formulated. It is clear that sex workers ARE at significant risk of violence, for example from clients forcing them to perform acts that were not part of the agreed service to be provided. The violence is not necessarily sexual either. A man might enter a parlour posing as a client but pull a knife and force the frightened women to hand over their takings. However this is not what the radical feminists mean. What they mean is that sex work takes place in a wider context of an oppressive patriarchal system in which women form a discrete and oppressed class with limited choices, and that engaging in sex work is a symptom of that oppression. All sexual activity between a man and a woman based on the exchange of money is rape, that with the courteous regular client who brings a little gift and always says a sincere ‘Thank you’ at the end as much as sex with the man who decides he wants bareback and overpowers and rapes the woman.
There a couple of difficulties with this. Firstly it could be argued that if women are such an oppressed class is not their consent to unpaid sex similarly impaired, in other words, is not all sex rape? What, indeed, is unpaid sex? It could be argued that a woman who is financially dependent on her partner is, in effect, ‘prostituted’. There are actually radical feminists who argue this and see lesbianism as the only valid sexual option for women. Secondly, even if you accept this simplistic and questionable classification, it surely does not follow that EVERY man is stronger or more privileged than EVERY woman. Human beings engaging in sex, paid or otherwise, do so as specific individuals relating to another individual and not as ciphers for a class or gender. And what about the commercial sexual encounter? Advocates of criminalisation propagate a scenario where a helpless woman submits to the power and financial muscle of a man and makes her body available to him without restriction.
Now as anyone who has ever dealt with a sex worker (I have and talked about it here) knows, the encounter begins with negotiation, what services will be provided and for what price. Sex workers are good negotiators because they do a lot of it. They might do it six times a day whereas the ‘powerful’ man might do it six times a year. It is the sex worker who sets the terms of the encounter and not the man. She is not selling the right for a man to do what he wants and understanding that is fundamental. The radical feminist view of sex workers is both patronising and offensive.
There is a further difficulty with the idea of all sex work as violence against women. It erases women’s actual experience of violence. If you think that a woman is being raped six times a day anyway do you care about the woman who has had a client force himself on her without a condom and now has to cope with the worry of infection as well as the trauma of rape? Do you care about the woman who was threatened with a knife and now has no money to show for her day’s work, no money to do the family shopping? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that behind the ideological caricature of the ‘prostituted woman’ real women and their problems disappear.
It seems that radical feminists are not interested in real women. Why else do they propose to use the law and order apparatus of a patriarchal capitalist state to regulate the lives of women in accordance with ideological postulates that are ungrounded in the lived reality of those women? I have some difficulty in seeing that as either radical or feminist.
They talk about violence yet ignore real violence, and not only in the case of sex workers. Where is the concern about the many victims of trafficking who are not engaged in sex work? When did radical feminists last speak up for the women, many from South Asian or Filipino backgrounds, trapped in domestic slavery in the wealthiest parts of London, with the UK Border Agency effectively acting as an accomplice in their captivity? Or women from impoverished Eastern European states trafficked into farm work? They too are victims of violence. The website of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women says nothing about trafficking other than that for sex purposes. I can only conclude that they are indifferent to the plight of the majority of trafficked women.
I will finish by referring to two issues of specific concern to women, issues that every woman, every true feminist should be campaigning on; female genital mutilation and forced marriage.
I have searched a number of radical feminist blogs and websites and cannot find a single article on either of these issues, not one. I find this astonishing. What more egregious example of patriarchally engendered violence against women could there be than FGM? It is illegal to carry it out in the United Kingdom and illegal too to arrange for it to be done to a UK citizen outside this country. However we know it goes on, we know too that many girls are in danger as soon as the schools break up for summer. In Britain there has not been one successful prosecution for FGM since criminalisation 26 years ago, unlike in other European countries. The Government was even unwilling to put up a minister to talk about the issue on television last week. This is a scandalous situation. It is a scandal about which the radical feminists with their mantras of ‘violence against women’ have nothing to say.
One could say the same about forced marriage. Again the silence is deafening. I am reminded of a letter written to The Guardian by the Southall Black Sisters Collective some years ago. They rightly commented that the white middle class liberals who were reluctant to pursue the issue for fear of offending cultural sensitivities were, in fact, the real racists as they were prepared to tolerate a situation where black women were denied rights enjoyed by white women.
Is this the reason for the radical feminist silence? That they will fight patriarchy to the death as long as it’s white patriarchy? That they are ultimately not radical, just white middle class liberals mindful of the cultural sensitivities, unprepared to fight the oppression of black women, unprepared to do anything about the violence that black women suffer? That they prefer fighting the violence of the theory book to getting their hands dirty helping real women?
Postcript: If, like me, you do care about real women and the violence they suffer, please support the nomination of Alex Bryce, National Co-ordinator of the National Ugly Mugs Scheme for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust Inspiring Individual Award. Details here.