Sex Work and the Feminist Frenzy
I began a post on sex work recently. I thought it was rather good. Then a man was charged with murdering three women who sold sex on the streets of Bradford. Suddenly, everyone was talking about prostitutes. The Prime Minister was saying that we should reconsider legalising prostitution in response to the murders. On Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ the members of the panel spoke about the right of consenting adults to do as they will. All of the fallacies I find in my reading about sex work became relevant to an horrific situation. Yes, they were selling sex. More relevantly, they were walking through dangerous parts of Bradford, alone, to undertake work which carries high risks of violence, and they were doing it for £20-£30 a time. I have no doubt that prostitution can be a free choice. These particular sex workers, though, can only have acted from desperation.
From what I can tell, there are two camps of people throwing stones at each other, one claiming that sex work is empowering and fun, calling the other side prudes, and another claiming that sex workers are exploited, and calling the other side naive. It all feels like a fabricated argument to me.
Let’s clear one thing up. No one ever has a ‘free’ choice. We don’t live in a cultural vacuum. When I get dressed today my choice is constrained by cultural expectations of my gender, by what I can afford, by the weather and what is in the laundry basket. Most of us can agree that the cultural expectations which forced women into corsets restricted our freedom. The norms which mean we can’t walk around naked have gained general acceptance, however. Somewhere in the middle, mixed in with high heels and push up bras, is the line between freedom and coercion. Let me know if you can pin down exactly where it is.
In sex work we can see examples of more, and less free choices. Pandora Blake sounds like she has a great time making her spanking porn. Every now and again I come across blogs by escorts living in central London, screening their clients carefully and charging £200 an hour. I read books like ‘Whores and Other Feminists’ full of essays by workers in collectively run San Franscio strip clubs. They, like accountants, lecturers, salesmen and shop assistants may or may not be happy, but their career choices are hardly likely to keep me awake at night. The women who are walking dangerous streets because they need money to feed drug addictions aren’t in the same category. The women sold into sexual slavery aren’t in the same category. They aren’t free.
I support the law which makes it illegal to have sex with a pimped or trafficked woman. I don’t understand how men can participate in the torture of women, through repeated rape, and reward its organisers. However, I know that men do, and that while clients are often aware that they are paying for sex with a coerced woman, very few will even go so far as to report it to the police. Is the law going to be difficult to enforce? Yes. That’s no reason not to legislate, though. Murders still happen, and we’re all agreed on that law. In fact, if no one was going to try to break it, there wouldn’t be much point in criminalising it, would there?
There are sex workers who need help, the addicts, the prisoners, the children. The rest of them, I’m sure, have good days and bad, they make their choices and take their cash. So I should just leave them to it, right? And yet, I am a little uncomfortable about it. When I hear the stories of women selling their bodies—bodies like mine—for £20, I’m insulted by the low price. I have this fantastic body, people tell me they desire it all the time, and you’re selling one just like it for £20?! On the other hand, the stories of women making £200 an hour distress me because people told me that getting straight As, a degree from a good university and an MA from another one would mean that I could get a great job. Well, I’m currently waiting to see if I will be taken on as a temp, but I could make more money than I ever have by selling what every woman has. I object to the fact that so much value is placed in my body, what I am, rather than what I do and who I have become.
Yes, I’m fickle.
I can understand the power and the freedom in choosing to take money for what so many inadequate boyfriends thought they should get for free. Just because I’m a woman, I’m expected to invest a huge amount of time, effort and cash in my appearance. Through sex work I can turn it to profit. I can refuse to conform to society’s model for a good woman, a model which I’ve found constrictive, insulting and puritanical. I can play the system, and a woman will come out on top for once. I read ‘King Kong Theory’ and cheered.
On the other hand, given how much effort I put into altering society’s perception of women, it is annoying to see someone else undoing all my good work, and profiting from it. I try to convince men that I’m more than a sexual object. I spent last Thursday night patiently explaining to an ignorant man that women like sex, too. I’m constantly trying to convince people, through my selfless example, that a woman can be non-monogamous and bisexual without being some sort of hyper-sexualised slut born of their fantasies. Then sex workers come along and play into all the stereotypes because they can profit personally. You think the way you do it can change minds? Look at the perception of prostitutes in this paper.
Sex workers aren’t the only ones doing it. Hell, we all do it, one way or another. Even my butch ex-girlfriend used to flirt with women to get me discounts in dress shops. I put on my red dress and make up when I go dancing, because I think that looking nice will induce more men to dance with me, making for a better night out. Am I pulling together with the sisterhood for the common good? The frumpy middle aged women probably don’t think so, but I don’t care.
Recognising that few feminists can honestly say we’ve never played into objectification for goods, services or self-esteem, perhaps we could stop hounding the sex workers for being the most visible practitioners of it. And perhaps those who are shouting so loudly about the lack of respect feminists show to sex workers could recognise that they are not puritans, but women trying to do what they think is right for themselves and others, including those in actual need of intervention to prevent exploitation. Best of all, we could stop throwing things at each other. Not because we ultimately agree—I’m quite sure we don’t—but because the squabbling doesn’t appear to be helping anyone. Perhaps we could all just shut up about it, and blog about important things instead.