So here I am, dipping my toe into that whirlpool of opinion for the first time in a long time, and breaking my own rule about blogging about the sex industry. Why do I have this rule? Because blogging about the sex industry is fraught, with strong and impassioned feelings on all sides, misrepresentation and bad faith, straw men arguments on all sides, and, at the heart of it all, women’s voices being silenced because - as one woman heartbreakingly put it in Kat Banyard’s book The Equality Illusion - it’s ‘hard to have a voice when there’s a cock down your throat.’
However, I’m breaking my rule. Why? Well because of all those reasons. And because I’m a writer who gives a damn about this issue and I’m sick of all the self-censorship. So, here I am. Writing about my views on an industry that affects all women. And I’m writing about it precisely because it affects all women, and so this is a lane that all women are in.
I want to start this post with a story about something that happened in Bristol, the first time a woman in prostitution was awarded criminal compensation for the abuse committed against her. This woman was picked up by a john, gang raped and then thrown from a four storey window, where she was left for dead on the street. She survived, and a charity working with street-based sex workers supported her with her decision to go to the police and go through the courts.
It was not easy. Despite everything she had been through, the judge and jury still equivocated over whether she should be compensated. After all, he had paid. It was her job.
That's the reality of violent male entitlement today. This is how our society still views violence against women in the sex industry.
In the wake of the Amnesty policy proposal, there has been a lot of debate in the media about the sex industry and the arguments for and against legalisation, decriminalisation, the Nordic model of decriminalisation, and keeping the status quo which to all intents and purposes criminalises women. For a break down of all these issues, take a look at the response to the Young London Labour Summer Conference Motion 8.
There is and continues to be a deliberate blurring of the lines between legalisation, decriminalisation, and criminalisation. I don’t know a feminist worth her salt who doesn't support decriminalisation. Anyone who cares about the safety and well-being of women can not and does not support the criminalisation of women in the sex industry. It’s common sense and it’s care. The existing system of criminalisation prevents a woman from seeking health support, in case she’s arrested. It prevents a woman from seeking police help in the event of rape or violence, in case she’s arrested. It forces street-based sex workers to work in more and more dangerous conditions, in case she’s arrested. And it leads to raids on brothels where women who might need police help are instead, once again, arrested.
Criminalising women in the sex industry is not working - full stop. The status quo is not working. It is dangerous for women and it serves the men who exploit women. That’s not okay and that is why a change to the existing laws is so desperately needed.
However, just because criminalisation isn't working doesn’t make legalisation an answer either. And that is why we have to look at the important differences between decriminalisation and legalisation. The main difference being, as one woman who works with street based sex workers told me:
‘Decriminalisation means women can access support. Legalisation turns the state into one big pimp.’
Women’s safety is paramount. It has to be. Decriminalisation supports women’s safety. It says to women in the industry that if you are hurt, or sick, or need support then you can access it without fear of police reprisal. And it says to women that if you want to leave the industry, you can access support to exit. It gives women who all too often have very few choices, some choices back. And, of course, it means that women who have been trafficked and abused come forward, they can be given support rather than criminalised.
Because trafficking can’t be ignored in this equation. They are not separate issues - they are massively intertwined. Sex trafficking depends on the continued existence of the sex industry. And as we all know, report after report has shown over and over again that legalisation does not reduce the level of sex trafficking. If nothing else, it just increases demand, and trafficked women are forced to make up the supply.
This, clearly, is one of the main issues with legalisation. It legitimises the demand, and if there aren’t enough women to make up that demand, then more women need to be found. All too often they’re found by traffickers making promises that lead to women being repeatedly raped by up to ten men a day. If a woman or girl escapes this life of slavery, then she is at the mercy of ever harsher immigration laws that could see her deported and then re-trafficked into the industry to to be raped and exploited all over again. Meanwhile, in a legalised setting it becomes harder to prosecute the traffickers who are able to present themselves as businessmen running brothels, and even lobby government to protect their rights as legal pimps.
Legalisation does something else too. And what it does affects every woman. Because it sends a message that women’s bodies are objects that can be bought and sold, and that women’s consent stops being an absolute right and instead becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold as well. It sends a message to johns that they have a legal right to buy women’s consent. And it sends a message to women that our right to consent to sex is dependent on all sorts of contexts.
As a feminist campaigner and writer, I have spent the last decade calling for a better understanding of consent - starting with better sex and relationships education at school. I have written post after post explaining how women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, that consent is mandatory, and that women - contrary to popular culture - have a sexuality, experience sexual desire, have the right to sexual pleasure, and have a right to say yes and no to the sex we do and don’t want.
The debate to legalise the sex industry undermine all of these arguments. Because the sex industry relies on a basic untruth - that sex is a leisure activity for men, and a work activity for women. It asks us to see sex as something that men have a right to demand, and that women have a duty to give. It ignores the core belief that women have a right to their own sexuality, and instead treats sex as something that women give up in order to get something else.
I’ve seen this argument shouted down by people claiming that historically this is what marriage was like.
That didn’t make it okay either.
And this is where the command to 'stay in your lane' falls down. Because if we live in a world where women’s right to consent is dependent on other factors, then this is my lane. This is something that impacts on all women - and on all women’s expectation of our right to bodily autonomy. If our culture sends out a message that women’s right to consent is negotiable instead of absolute, that women’s consent can be bought and sold, then that impacts on the way all men view all women. That sends out a powerful message about for whom sex is a leisure activity (men), and for whom sex is work (women). And that in turn sends out a powerful message about who gets to have an autonomous sexuality (men) and whose sexuality is only concerned with the needs and demands of others (women).
The existence of the sex industry impacts on all women. It is a visible sign of our inequality in a patriarchal and capitalist society.
First and foremost we need to listen to the voices of women who have experience of the sex industry - just as in any issue on women’s rights we need to hear the voices of women affected. However, more and more over the last week I have seen the ‘stay in your lane’ argument brandished as a weapon designed to shut up those very women whose voices we need to be hearing - as the survivors of prostitution who signed a recent letter to Amnesty are ignored and silenced by a pro sex industry media agenda. Instead, the letter is portrayed as somehow being chiefly authored by Anne Hathaway, who is then mocked because clearly an actress can’t have an opinion. The signatories of that letter who have survived male violence in the sex industry, and the organisations that support these women, have been completely ignored.
Which is, quite frankly, disgusting. ‘Stay in your lane’ should not be about ignoring the voices you disagree with. It needs to be about raising up all women’s voices. It needs to be about giving women who have been historically silenced a platform, a voice. It should never - must never - be a tool used to shut women up. And yet that is how it is being used by the pro legalisation lobby - to shut up the women whose life experiences of the sex industry do not support their argument.
Before I finish breaking my self-imposed blogging rule, I want to devote a little bit of time to men. Yes, men - because they always seem to be forgotten about in this debate which always ends up focused on a split within the feminist movement.
Apart from a very small percentage, it’s men that make up the demand for the sex industry. It’s male entitlement that says to women that our consent and right to bodily autonomy is negotiable, purchasable, permeable, whilst there’s is respected as absolute.
I sometimes quip in response to arguments about legalisation vs decriminalisation that: ‘rad fems don’t kill women, violent men do’.
Because it’s true. I disagree with the existing legislation on prostitution. But it’s not the laws that kill women. It is men who choose to go out and rape and murder women. It’s not rad fems criticising the structure of the sex industry who cause violence to individual women within the industry, it’s the rapists and murderers - and those rapists and murderers are men. It’s male entitlement and male violence that causes harm to women. The laws need to be changed to protect women from this violence, but we can’t ever prevent that violence if we refuse to name the problem. And that problem is violent male entitlement to women’s bodies. This entitlement to women’s bodies is allowed by an unequal, patriarchal society that positions women as lesser than men and that sends a message to men that women don’t have an absolute right to our bodily autonomy, that we are less than human.
How will legalisation prevent violent men from buying women to rape and abuse? It won’t. It will, instead, send a message to men that they have a legal right to purchase women’s bodies, and legitimise the idea that once paid for, a woman’s body is there’s to do what they like with.
Legalisation won’t change the attitudes of johns who write on punternet (this is not a direct link to puntenet but to the invisible men tumblr) that the women they pay for are ‘dirty cows’ who don’t show ‘enough enthusiasm’; the men who complain that the ‘girls’ make them ‘feel like crap’ because they’re clearly ‘not into it’ (if a woman doesn’t want to have sex with you…and you fuck her anyway…then there’s a word for that and the presence of money shouldn’t change it). Again, it will just send the message to these men that they have entitlement over women’s bodies. That it’s okay for them to fuck a woman who doesn’t want to have sex with them. Which, in turn, impacts on all women.
Think about the rapeyness of those reviews. Remember the women at the start of this post. I honestly don’t understand how legalisation is going to change those attitudes, rather than re-enforce it.
And that’s why I support decriminalisation, which will mean women are no longer treated as criminals, whilst not endorsing the message that women's bodies and rights are up for sale. In particular, I think the Merseyside Model makes a lot of sense. But legalisation, which tells men that women’s right to consent is negotiable? Which tells men that sex is leisure for them and work for us? That’s not equality. That’s not liberation. And that is not women’s safety - it’s male entitlement.
Find out more about one25 and how you can support this amazing organisation supporting street-based sex workers in a non-judgemental way.