The prostitution industry

This is an article from the Nordic Model Now! campaign website

MARCH 10, 2017

The Prostitution Industry and the Labour Movement

Frankie Green argues that by not taking a stand against prostitution, the Labour party leadership, leftwing parties and organisations have alienated and angered people. By condoning prostitution, they send out the message that it is acceptable to purchase women’s bodies, licensing a sexist, predatory masculinity. She argues that the Labour Movement must recognise prostitution as abuse and support the Nordic Model approach.

Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that ‘we will never be a successful society in which everybody is able to achieve their potential until we have full equality for women’ rang hollow for those disappointed by his previous comments on prostitution, and their alienation was reinforced by his reaction to last year’s revelation of Keith Vaz’s use of prostituted people.

Policy proposals which are welcome for their commitment to end violence against women and gender stereotyping, to address the disproportionate impact and dire effects of austerity and privatisation on women contending with poverty, homelessness, benefit and service cuts are seriously contradicted by the omission of any mention of prostitution.

By not taking a stand against the commodification of human beings, the Labour party has alienated and angered people. Pledges in Corbyn’s ten-point plan have the potential to better the lives of prostituted people and people at risk of being prostituted, but count for little if buying human bodies for sexual use is deemed legitimate.

Prostitution is at the heart of women’s oppression. The commercial sex trade – although it is obviously ludicrous to refer to ‘sex’ when desire and control are not mutual and only money makes it happen – is both cause and consequence of gender inequality in a world where men have greater economic, political and legal status than women.

At the junction of patriarchy and capitalism, sexism and poverty, the forces that sustain the global multi-million prostitution industry interlock, allowing it to prey, as Maori activist Dr Pala Molisa describes it, ‘on women already marginalised by class and race … [and feeding] off the despair, poverty and hopelessness that global capitalism is producing and that afflicts the lives of young people, especially indigenous women and people of colour.’

Molisa sees the ‘only distinction between what happens in prostitution, and any other form of non-consensual sex/rape is that the women in prostitution have made a choice to endure the rape in exchange for money.’

Labour could take the opportunity to be truly progressive on this issue. However, if the Party leader or other representatives condone prostitution, they are in effect saying to male colleagues that it is unproblematic to buy another person’s body to use, further licensing a sexist, predatory masculinity. Underlying this is the patriarchal concept of the assumed right of male entitlement to sexual access. Is there an unquestionable right for men to have their demands met?

As Jeremy Seabrook writes‘the very term “demand” takes precedence in the seemingly neutral equation of supply and demand; demand is imperious and dominant; supply, submissively responsive.’ [1]

Politicians who fail to join the call for the recognition of prostitution as abuse give the impression of having no problem with prostituted people being consigned to what Naomi Klein terms ‘sacrifice zones’: subsections of humanity or areas accorded no value other than the profit which can be taken from them by the extractivist mentality. This should be anathema to socialists. And yet the specious notion that prostitution should be categorized as a form of work has gained traction.

There are basic socialist tenets which bear on this, which anti-capitalists purport to uphold. One is that people are not things, and should not be used instrumentally. This aligns with the feminist principle that women are not objects, not for sale, do not exist for the use of men. We also believe that collective action against dehumanization is organised on the basis of human solidarity. Another shibboleth is that human nature is not immutable and fixed – the opposite of essentialist, a-historical notions which posit greed, selfishness and competition as natural and unchangeable. Coupled with the feminist analysis of gender roles as socially constructed, this belief in the possibility of change, that exploitation and oppression are not inevitable, means that prostitution need not be viewed as a given that cannot be eradicated, any more than other indefensible entrenched practices against which we campaign. Nor is the longevity of an injustice, frequently invoked by opponents of change – ‘oldest profession’, ‘intractable conflict,’ etc. – a valid defence.

Campaigners and groups, some within the Labour party, are advocating for the implementation of the Nordic Model, aka the Sex Buyer Law, (as adopted by France, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Northern Ireland, and most recently the Republic of Ireland) with its three-fold approach: decriminalising prostituted people, providing all necessary forms of support to facilitate those who want to exit the industry and criminalising the demand for paid sexual access to people.

Seeking to promote awareness of the harm of prostitution, and viewing it within a spectrum of misogynist abuses of women, we stand against attempts to entrench the pernicious idea of prostitution as a job rather than paid abuse. Swedish governmental spokeswoman Gunilla Ekberg described the model as focusing ‘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 to flourish and expand.’

The use of euphemistic misnomers like ‘sex work’ and ‘client,’ are part of attempts to legitimise and sanitise prostitution by those lobbying for total decriminalisation.

Perhaps because the Nordic Model has been successful in other countries, the prostitution industry seeks to expand the market in places such as the UK, in an attempt to normalise what should be unthinkable. As gender equality gains more credence, the industry’s attempts to counteract its progress runs on a parallel course, despite the obvious fact that, as the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women says, ‘cultural acceptance and normalization of commercial sexual exploitation fuels the cycle of violence against women.’

Attempts by industry proponents to persuade audiences that prostitution is acceptable constitute a kind of grooming process, encouraging us to shut down the voice of conscience and empathy. Lobbying for decriminalisation provides a superficially plausible idea of safety. But there is no safe place in which to be abused.

The Left needs to ask who benefits from the promotion of prostitution as a form of work and why has it gained credibility? It should also recognize that prostitution is inextricably intertwined with trafficking. The organisation SPACE International (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling For Enlightenment) likens talking about sex trafficking without recognising how demand for prostitution drives it to ‘talking about slavery without mentioning the plantations.’ It should be axiomatic for a party or movement for which the belief in people treating one another ethically is a cornerstone to see this as crucial.

Jeremy Corbyn has mooted the possibility of alternative, constructive employment for those whose jobs would be affected if Britain took the rational path of not renewing that weapon of mass destruction, Trident; why not extend that principle to prostituted people?

Can a society, or a political party, that regards as legitimate the commodification of human beings for men’s sexual gratification truly call itself civilised?

The Labour movement, it seems, has distance to travel in taking on board the challenges to male supremacy wrought by feminism. Our movements have envisaged a transformed world where oppressive hierarchies of gender, racism and class are history.

This is inconceivable if the abolition of prostitution, and the provision of resources for those wishing to leave it, is not factored in. Jeremy Corbyn’s much-vaunted slogan that ‘no-one and no community will be left behind’ means little within such a context. Well-intentioned pro-equality programmes are rendered meaningless.

Take the urgent need for education to promote respectful, non-exploitative relationships and counter the endemic abuse of girls and women. How could making ‘Sex and Relationship Education compulsory in all schools, with a focus on sexual health, healthy relationships and consent,’ be effective if kids know that men have state-sanctioned entitlement to buy (predominantly) women’s bodies for their own sexual gratification? The contradiction is obvious.

In the better, future society Labour strives for would men continue to have this right? Will it still be the norm that as punters they are able to purchase and use people in this way, making a mockery of women and girls’ right to equality and safety? The sexist ideology underlying prostitution permeates society, affecting all women.

The notion that buying ‘sex’ is a private matter is used misleadingly, as if feminism hadn’t problematised this decades ago. Transactions involving third-party profiteering can hardly be described as private. And only from a male punter’s point of view can such an encounter be seen as private, as denoted by the indefinite article ‘an.’

For him it is a single event, whether daily, weekly, etc, enacted on the body of another person; for the prostituted person he is but one of a continual stream of men. He has an individual, private encounter; hers are plural, multiple, endless. And each repetitive transaction not only reduces the prostituted person to a monetised body, it performs the crucial heteropatriarchal work of the reproduction of masculine power and reiteration of the subjugation of women.

The concept of privacy serves the vested interests of social power relations well, but does not withstand the awareness that the personal is political, that our individual lives are shaped by wider socio-economic forces and the public sphere cannot be separated from the private. Legal developments regarding domestic violence and spousal rape have recognised this. Male politicians who appear not to have caught up with this change of consciousness, who reveal their bias by speaking from punters’ point of view, need to recognise that many people feel let down by such antediluvian attitudes.

‘The pitcher cries for water to carry/ and a person for work that is real.’ [2]

These lines by feminist poet Marge Piercy come to my mind when prostitution is described as ‘work.’ However, what if we were to take this idea at face value, and agree that prostitution is a form of work: perhaps the ultimate work under venal, unregulated neo-liberalism, taken to its logical ruthless extreme, callous and brutal in its unfettered greed for profit? Just another job in an economy in which lack of properly-paid employment, destruction of the welfare state, zero-hour contracts, weakened unions, debt and global human trafficking ensure a steady supply-stream of bodies for sale. Training for the job starts with childhood abuse. Perhaps it is the logical extension of the purchase of labour, albeit not only the time and energy of a person but their flesh, vagina, breasts, anus, mouth, wherein your whole body is bought to be mauled and penetrated by endless strangers. Suppose this is a form of ‘work’? Would that make it OK?

What then constitutes ‘work that is real’ – in which there is the satisfaction of doing socially useful, properly remunerated work, in which each person may fulfill their potential and use their gifts? Work in which pride can be taken is a far cry from that offered in today’s world, but is surely still an ideal that should be asserted. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), endorsed by the International Labour Organisation, call for decent work for women and safe and secure working environments for all, with particular attention to women migrants. The UN Secretary General’s Leave No-One Behind report defines decent work as:

‘productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Decent work involves opportunities for productive work, delivers a fair income, guarantees equal opportunities and equal treatment for all, provides security in the workplace and protection for workers and their families, offers better prospects for personal development and social inclusion …’

Given that most of UK prostitution is controlled by organised crime – criminal gangs not being known for providing ideal working environments – it would be farcical to suggest that prostitution could meet such criteria.

Evidence shows that when prostitution is decriminalised, gangs’ control increases under a veneer of legality. In buying another person’s depersonalised body for sexual use, power, control and contempt are expressed. The personhood of the woman being bought, her subjectivity, is dismissed. To understand the consequences of legalising this objectification, we need look no further than the horror of Germany’s brothels.

Is it not the duty of Labour to clearly demarcate different types of employment – to draw a line between what is legitimate and what is unacceptable? The work ethic – the idea that work has intrinsic value in and of itself, regardless of how socially useful or destructive it might be – is taken to extremes in current ideology: you must take any work; any job is better than none. Classifying prostitution as work attempts to bestow legitimacy, but not all work is automatically valid. The Labour movement, Trade Unions and other organisations have a responsibility to protect people from the untrammelled ravages of the labour market, to challenge it – not to simply mitigate or regulate the system but to say ‘no, enough, you cannot use people this way.’

Female university students are reportedly responding to offers from ‘an older men’s dating website’.[3] Could there be a more appalling indictment of the economic climate and enforced debt than young students opting for transactions in which they are valued not as intelligent human beings but as bodies to be purchased? The uncritical account of these abhorrent financial dealings provided free advertising for the Kent ‘businessman’ – pimp – behind the scheme, who remarked gleefully that ‘tuition fees have been great for business.’

The transformation of education from a public resource into a privatised commodity has resulted in students themselves becoming commodities. Normalisation of this means some are themselves unaware of the exploitation involved in their own objectification. This is but one of many groups of women whose lack of funding, support, employment, decent pay, housing and safety turns them into convenient prey for profiteering opportunists. Here is an intersection of factors where Labour could take a stand and promise to try to make a real difference. This would hardly be meaningful, however, if policies accept prostitution as an inevitability that can be ameliorated.

Wasted human potential is one reason for opposition to the proposed reintroduction of grammar schools; we reject the selection of children, with its underlying notion that people were destined for pre-ordained places in the social hierarchy.[4] An ideology writing off people from the earliest age is clearly unjust and immoral. Yet the same logic is not applied to the tolerance of prostitution, which writes off swathes of people – primarily, huge numbers of women. Why are they seen as fit for nothing more than use as bodies for men’s gratification and exercise of power? Is this not also an inhuman, rightwing and reprehensible waste of potential and lives?

Leftwing politicians should be as outraged by the subjugation of women as they are about the inhuman treatment of workers by corporate capitalism, yet often seem as laissez-faire and indifferent as bosses are to employees’ exploitation, as the coloniser is to the dispossessed, the racist to the refugee, the oil industry to our planet. They will continue to lose credibility amongst campaigners demystifying prostitution and working for the implementation of the Nordic Model if they are not seen to be able – or willing – to join the dots. They also have a responsibility to educate themselves about the horrors caused by legitimising prostitution, as in Germany which has become ‘hell on earth’ for prostituted women.

John McDonnell’s 2016 conference speech promised that the next Labour government will be ‘an interventionist’ one. Not for the prostitution industry it seems, where, if he and other decriminalisation advocates get their way, market forces can rampage unhindered by ethics, allowing brothel owners, pimps and punters to increase their profiteering.

Jeremy Corbyn has said ‘with achieving equality at the heart of all our policies, we can put Britain on the path to becoming an equal society for all.’ Supporting the abolitionist movement would be the most progressive policy in striving for this goal. Truly progressive politicians could hasten this, working towards the time when prostitution joins other oppressions in the capacious dustbin of history.

© 2017 Frankie Green

Frankie Green is a member of Nordic Model Now! and Administrator of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive

A shorter version of this article was one of three by NMN! supporters published in the International Women’s Day edition of the Morning Star March 8, 2017

[1] Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries, Navayana, 2014

[2] To Be Of Use, Doubleday, 1973

[3] Fees hike forces students to seek ‘sugar daddies’, Whitstable Times, May, 2012

[4] Department of Education official’s 1984 statement, cited by Gawain Little, ‘Grammar schools divide children and ruin hopes’, Morning Star, 1 October 2016

Various letters: 

Subject: ‘survival sex’ Date: 21 October 2016 at 13:31:46 BST


Dear Jenni Murray,

The term ‘survival sex’ is, as you said on this morning’s programme, a terrible term. But may I suggest so also is ‘sex worker’, a euphemistic misnomer masking the reality of prostituted people’s experience. And after all, isn’t all prostitution a ‘survival’ mechanism? How many women would take up being mauled and penetrated by endless strangers if given a better choice?

Will Women’s Hour consider using the term ‘prostituted people,’ instead of aiding the attempts by the prostitution industry to sanitise itself by presenting this exploitation as a legitimate form of work?

Sincerely, Frankie Green

Subject:Woman’s Hour 16 November on prostitution Date: 16 November 2018


Dear Jane Garvey,

How can ‘Woman’s Hour’ present a discussion about the ‘managed zones’ in Leeds (16 November), not only using the euphemism ‘sex work’ but with no hint of awareness that by doing so you are legitimising the commodification of women’s bodies and colluding with the idea that this is a valid occupation? Why did you not include any representation of the point of view that the best way to keep women safe – which we should all want – is to not support the prostitution industry, but promote the alternative of the Nordic Model? No prostituted person should ever be criminalised, persecuted, prosecuted, shamed or stigmatised. But there is a long tradition of exposing the myth that prostitution is just another job. Yet you presented this item as if prostitution – with its assumption of men’s right to buy women – was somehow simply natural, inevitable and must therefore be accommodated. 

Minutes earlier you referenced the MeToo movement and other campaigns challenging the patriarchal notion that men have an automatic entitlement to sexual access to women’s bodies. I invite Woman’s Hour to think more deeply about this question. What on earth is the point of endorsing important feminist initiatives only to undermine them in the next breath by condoning the view that – on the one hand – we are saying to men that women are not objects to use for their sexual gratification and ego boosting, but – on the other hand – that sub-group of women over there, in that zone, you can go ahead and buy them and use them as you wish? This is ludicrous. Which women deserve to be categorised thus and placed in that sacrifice zone? Why would Woman’s Hour tacitly present that as OK? 

The prostitution industry is not a provider of a form of ‘work’ – in many jobs, there are constrictions placed upon sexual harassment. In prostitution, sexual harassment is the job. Payment does not make it valid. And who would choose it if not forced by factors such as poverty – the low wages, benefit cuts and cruel austerity policies one of your speakers mentioned? 

Additionally, please consider the fact that most industries providing a service have a valid purpose, albeit that the delivery of that is twisted by capitalism into distortion, exploitation, and waste – e.g., the fast food industry: low wages, precarious zero-hours contacts, unhealthy food, exploitation of humans and animals, and so on. However, the end point is the provision of food – people do need to eat. What is the end purpose of the prostitution industry? Simply the reinforcement of male power and supremacy and female subjugation, and profiteering for pimps and criminal gangs. There is no justification whatsoever for legitimising this abuse, and as it contradicts anything you have done to further gender equality it’s appalling that you didn’t even mention such issues. 

Sincerely, Frankie Green

Subject: For letters page: “Labour must stand with sex workers” Date: 11 December 2018 at 17:43:36 GMT


Dear Red Pepper Letters Ed.,

‘Selling sex is a working class job.’ (RP, Winter 2018) Really? So just because it’s the most downtrodden poorer people in society who are most likely to be prostituted, that’s OK? Can socialists not see the bigger picture and challenge the entitlement of men to sexual access to commodified (mostly) women’s bodies? Feminists worldwide are doing so and rejecting the entire patriarchal ideology that validates that assumption. You assert that it’s ‘time for Labour to stand with sex workers.’ But if we get the hoped-for Labour government and it throws out the cruel Tory austerity programme it would act to reduce poverty and precarious employment and could put generous funding into policies such as the Nordic model, by which people who wish to can exit the prostitution industry and live lives free from exploitation, enjoying the material support and opportunities all citizens should have. Unless you think a subsection of women should always remain available to be used by punters and pimps? A moment’s thought shows prostitution is not a job like any other, and progressive people should be challenging attempts to legitimise it. Come on Red Pepper, keep up! You are letting down readers who want a truly, radically transformed world.

Sincerely, Frankie Green

Subject: A response to letter Saturday 15 April on prostitution and the Morning Star Date: 15 April 2017 at 15:39:36 BST


Dear Morning Star Letters Page,

If, as Kevin W wonders, the Morning Star is developing an editorial policy on prostitution in favour of the Nordic model (M Star April 15), the paper is to be congratulated on taking a progressive stance on this issue. Far too many leftwing publications and organisations are still aligned with the position that human bodies can continue to be purchased for use by punters until ‘the social and economic conditions‘ of class society disappear. Women campaigners are all too familiar with the retrogressive concept that our liberation can wait till socialist conditions prevail; until then our commodification and objectification is presumably to be perpetuated. Mr Ws argument omits analysis of a crucial structural oppression, that of patriarchy and its validation of men’s assumed entitlement to buy and use other people’s (mostly women’s) bodies. 

He is right, however, that the cruelty of the poverty-generating schemes of capitalism like neoliberal austerity which drive women into prostitution, as happens to the character of Katie in ‘I, Daniel Blake’, must be opposed. There should be no good reason why that fight cannot go on in tandem with that against the prostitution industry, however. Advocates of the Nordic model most definitely do not endorse punitive or judgemental attitudes toward prostituted people; rather, they insist on the need for the provision of justice, living incomes, proper support and alternatives to an exploitative industry fuelled by men’s demand for sexual gratification and power. This entails an unashamedly moral, but not moralistic, insistence on human dignity and worth, which any socialist should have no problem supporting. 

Sincerely, Frankie Green

Morning Star August 2016

Date: 27 September 2017 at 11:02:20 BST


Dear Women’s Hour,

Following Julie Bindel’s excellent explanation on Woman’s Hour (27 September) of why the prostitution industry belongs in history’s dustbin, we hear that a spokesperson from the pro-industry lobby will appear on the next day’s programme.

This is another example of the kind of false equivalence the media promulgates and which Helena Kennedy in the same episode clearly showed to be morally and logically wrong (managing to do so despite being disrespectfully interrupted by Jane Garvey.)  

We’d not expect to have to listen to apologists for other atrocious unacceptable institutions being given equal time to present their arguments. (“And now, a speaker from the Klan on justifications for slavery/ a man on why domestic violence is acceptable”) This notion of there being ’two sides’ in the name of impartiality does not serve the cause of women or other oppressed peoples, in fact it sets it back by demonstrating and perpetuating appalling ignorance of the reality it distorts. 

Frankie Green

Dear Guardian,

Is the Guardian Travel section now pimping for the international sex trade (‘Boring Frankfurt gets the party going’, Globespotting, 3 September)? ‘Sex shops rub shoulders with restaurants and galleries …’ says the photo caption accompanying Benjamin Cunningham’s article, in which he extolls the ‘blend of rough edges and cultural hotspots’ of a vibrant environment in the Red Light district the city council is ‘committed to keeping’, where ‘brothels and strip clubs will operate an open door policy’ during the forthcoming street party in Bahnhorsviertelnacht.  

The Guardian appears to be promoting the normalisation and sanitisation of the prostitution industry and men’s assumed right of entitlement to buy other human beings to use for sexual gratification. In June, you reviewed Kat Banyard’s ‘Pimp State’, which exposes ‘a culture and set of laws that encourage and facilitate men’s paid sexual access to women’s bodies’, and how legalisation has failed to ameliorate violence, exploitation and trafficking of women. I suggest Mr Cunningham would learn a lot about the realities of prostituted women in Germany’s brothels (where women use anaesthetic to numb their vaginas to the multiple penetrations needed to make their residency fees) from this book, and that the Guardian rethink their editorial standards. What next, a punters’ guide to the world’s brothels? Wake up please, Guardian! 

Sincerely, Frankie Green

16 January 2018

To Rosie Duffield MP, House of Commons, London SW1A 0A

Re: Judicial Review of Government’s Disclosure and Barring Service Regulations

I am writing to you regarding the groundbreaking legal challenge which is being brought by several women on 17 and 18 January at the Royal Courts of Justice, against the criminalisation and continued punishment of prostituted women.  If successful, it will bring to an end a shameful practice in modern day Britain, where those who are victims of abuse and exploitation continue to be labelled and punished for something that was in a large part done to them.

The claim, brought by three women and supported in evidence by several others, will argue for the first time that the Government legislative scheme in respect of the recording, retention and disclosure of criminal convictions arising from street prostitution is unlawful.  It will be argued, amongst other things, that scheme discriminates against women and is contrary to the UK’s legal obligations in respect of the trafficking of women.

I am enclosing some useful information on the case, which I hope you will find of interest and pertinent to your role in the  Womens’ & Equalities Sub Committee.

I feel it is crucial to demonstrate support for these courageous women. I would be very grateful if you could share this information with any relevant colleagues, staff and constituency members, some of whom may be able to attend the hearing. 

I would like to make the following points:

  • Many women involved in prostitution have not “chosen” to be involved. It has been a survival strategy for some or a result of abuse and exploitation for many. As such it is inappropriate that they should be criminalised rather than supported.
  • While criminal records may be problematic for any person and any “offence”, there is a lack of understanding of the excessively disproportionate and damaging effect of prostitution-specific records on women not only as regards jobs but also social, personal and family life and areas such as housing and personal safety for life.
  • Women often have many records as it’s a survival or repeat, offence. This means they are never spent, so inescapable, even when a woman exited years ago.
  • They are often assumed to constitute “sexual offences” so any jobs, education, training, volunteering or interning with vulnerable people, young people, elderly, caring work required enhanced DBS check – all of which areas are disproportionately dominated by women especially women with lower traditional educational and employment opportunities and achievements.
  • Similarly if a woman has exited prostitution and managed to remain discreet about her prostitution history with children, family, friends, employers, landlords etc, she is at constant risk of this being disclosed to damaging effect. Women have been evicted or sacked on disclosure despite having long exited and presenting no risk.
  • Some women are prevented from engaging in activities with their children’s school or youth activities or with local public office such as school governor, councillor etc making it very hard for her to rebuild a meaningful social role and network.
  • Whilst the women and girls bought, sold, coerced, controlled and exploited are subjected to years of stigma, blame, exclusion, marginalisation by these records, the men who bought, sold and used the women and girls rarely face any consequences and certainly not such far-reaching consequences.
  • Criminal records are intended to be used to protect the public yet women involved in prostitution present no risk, they are often themselves the victim.
  • Government policy claims to wish to see reintegration of “offenders” yet these records trap women in prostitution even when they are working towards exit.

Because of these factors, I wished to bring this case to your attention and seek your support. I believe women’s prostitution-specific criminal records should be wiped and not subject to disclosure. 

I also believe strongly that women should not be criminalised for being prostituted, and that we should work towards a society in which human bodies are not commodified, in which prostitution will eventually be abolished and men’s assumed right of entitlement to sexual access to women or other men will not be regarded as legitimate. 

I hope you will feel able to support these principles and the women taking a brave stand against discrimination and stigmatization in their quest for justice. Thank you.

2018 – continuing notes: ‘capitalism provides the poverty, patriarchy provides the punters’

Women have resisted being owned, objectified, controlled, abused, assaulted and raped by men for centuries, all over the world, since long before I got involved in the WLM in the 1960s. In the era of ‘time’s up’ and ‘me too’ we continue to reject the idea that men have the right of entitlement to sexual access to women’s bodies.

Prostitution is a major expression of that assumption. Why is it still tolerated, normalised or even legitimised? If we are serious about challenging and ending this assumption of men’s entitlement, if we say to men, you cannot and should not behave in that way to ‘your’ partners, wives, daughters, neighbours, workmates – you cannot grab the body of a waitress, health worker, or office colleague – women are not here for you to use and abuse – it then makes no sense whatsoever to say: oh, but those women over there, that subsection of women, they’re available, you can buy and use them whenever you want, that’s legitimate, go ahead …

It also makes a mockery of all policies and declarations of gender equality, and contradicts all speechifying about equal rights. It renders them absolutely meaningless, doesn’t it? if those women are exceptions – if it’s legitimate for punters and pimps to buy and sell them, treat them as commodities.

Feminism is a movement to end all forms of oppression and exploitation of women – it can’t leave some women out. Why would we say it’s OK for them to be used in ways we reject for ourselves, our daughters and granddaughters, students, and friends? Are some women’s lives of less value? That is not the feminism I believe in.

Feminism has to be radical if it is worth anything, not a liberal, wishy-washy idea of equality within the existing rotten system. Slogans proclaim: ‘human rights are indivisible’; ‘women’s rights are human rights’ … If so, who decides who gets left out? Who is the woman deemed worthy of being consigned to the ‘sacrifice zone,’ so patriarchal power can roll on? 

And why do leftwing men – and some women – who advocate gender equality as a principle, present the prostitution industry as legitimate business? If they claim to want women to be safe, they should understand the only way to do that is to abolish prostitution. You can’t sanitise this with euphemisms. It’s not ‘sex’ and it’s not ‘work’. 

Socialists want a just economic system, with a fair distribution of wealth: will some women always be left out of that, so that men can go on buying their prostituted bodies?

Not only do we have to end the demand for prostitution and the assumed entitlement that underlies it, the bigger context has to change, for without poverty who would really ‘choose’ prostitution if good sources of income were available? Who would really choose to be mauled and penetrated continually by endless strangers? How can we say it’s a ‘choice’ if it’s the only way to pay rent, feed children, feed a habit, get through college … This ludicrous idea of choice contradicts what activists know: there is no individual solution to a structural problem. 

At the intersection of economic deprivation and misogyny, the global prostitution industry is a perfect storm of oppression: capitalism provides the poverty, patriarchy provides the punters. I don’t believe any society, group or political party that considers it legitimate for human beings to be sold as commodities for men’s sexual gratification and exercise of power can call itself civilised, really.

It’s not buying ‘sex’  – sex is not a thing – punters are buying sexual access to a human body for their own exercise of male power and sexual gratification. The prostituted, purchased body is an object, devoid of subjectivity – she is ‘woman’ – an individual woman representing all women over whom an individual man can assert male supremacy by means of sexual acts done to her body.

Work: If prostitution is talked of as a form of work, and no worse than much exploitative types of labour, there is a need to rethink the concept of work. As well as the UN definition that that it should be meaningful, dignified, etc, what of the end result – the point of any labour? 

Most shit jobs – and I’ve done quite a lot – that become foci of campaigns and unionisation for better pay, less exploitative terms and conditions, against zero-hours contracts etc – may at least be said to have a purpose. We do not need fifty brands of crap fast food outlets but we do need to eat; there is no need for the ‘choice’ capitalism creates provided by 103 different types of toothpaste, but toothpaste in itself can be considered useful. Care workers are paid badly and treated badly, but caring for other human beings is a necessity and a moral obligation upon society. These industries should be radically reformed. But what possible acceptable outcome can be attributed to the prostitution industry? What does it create, as its end product?

The answer is that it reproduces male supremacy – that is its social usefulness. Day in, day out, punt by punt, trick by trick, everyday both cause and effect of this insidious ideology, men affirm their own power, potency and ability to ‘have’ a woman. To reinforce male dominance and privilege – that is the function of prostitution. And of course to provide profit for pimps, mostly criminal gangs, by using the bodies of women as raw material.

How could this been seen as valid, acceptable, legitimate, be normalised? 

Some resources:

‘Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution’ by Rachel Moran

‘Pimp State’ by Kat Banyard