Not an Odalisque

Sex Work and the Feminist Frenzy

with 11 comments

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.

Written by Not an Odalisque

June 22, 2010 at 10:44 am

11 Responses

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  1. Hi
    Very good post again. Thanks. I agree there is a polarised debate between feminists about sex work. I also agree sometimes it descends into parody and slanging matches. But I still think it is an important debate, and I wish more, not less people would have the conversation, men and women, and genderqueer people.

    I wasn’t sure what you meant with your final paragraph?

    ‘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’.

    I think sex work including the exploitation and murder of sex workers is important; I am sure you do too. Maybe you were being ironic and I missed it! I am sure I had something more lucid to say but it has evaded me.

    Quiet Riot Girl

    June 22, 2010 at 1:22 pm

  2. I was being slightly ironic, given that my whole post had been about sex work. Exploitation and murder are important, and feminists, along with most other people, are generally against them. I don’t think we need to put much effort into convincing people to oppose murder. I suppose I mean that feminists tend to tie themselves in knots over issues that are less important than others. Pornography is a good example. Half the community say “boo” and half the community say “yay” and while we’re falling out over it, everyone else looks at it or doesn’t, according to their choice. We have pointless debates, because those saying “boo” aren’t the sort to watch much porn, so rely on (in my opinion) often flawed studies, those saying “yay” ignore the troubling porn in favour of the rarer good stuff. While we’re worrying about whether or not porn-consuming teenage boys will be bad lovers, we’re not doing other things. We’re not stopping the government deporting trafficked women into the hands of their abusers. We’re not providing shelters for female victims of domestic violence in my city. We’re not providing a rape centre, either. We’re not doing all sorts of things which would be useful, because we’re too busy arguing. I’m hesitant to say that we should give up and go away on the problematic aspects of things like sex work, not least because with that attitude nothing would ever get done. So I am blogging about it, reading, writing stories with sex workers in leading roles, etc, but also trying to recognise that I don’t have to convert every other feminist to my point of view before we start tackling problems.


    June 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

  3. I see what you are saying. I am not sure of my position. I feel I have been kind of thrown into the ring so to speak, simply because I write/talk/live my sexuality openly. Some BDSM porn is illegal, my blog gets some very nasty comments from ‘feminists’. I could ignore these ‘personal’ issues. But I think part of being open about our sexuality involves standing up to those who label us as freaks, perverts, rape apologists. today I got accused of supporting genital mutilation pretty much, because of a piece of erotica Id written. This sounds terribly self-involved but I do believe that ‘coming out’ is important for minority groups and helps support others who are discriminated against. When I say ‘coming out’ I mean in whatever way we do: online, in blogs, in certain circles. Not necessarily holding a party for family and friends!

    Also with regards to the murder of sex workers: I think a lot of people actually don’t give a shit about it and Richard Littlejohn’s hate-filled articles after Ipswich and Bradford reflected public opinion in some quarters of the country/world.

    Its nice to talk to someone who won’t lay into me and use my personal writings and words to form a personal attack.

    Quiet Riot Girl

    June 22, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    • I reread the Littlejohn articles and got angry all over again. With things like the Mail I just try to remember that more people buy it, for example, than cast right-wing votes, so we know that at least a proportion of their readership can think for themselves. You’re right, though, that there aren’t enough people who care.

      I think you’re right about the value of being open about sexuality, but we can ask too much of ourselves and each other. It is also worth remembering that people bring your own issues to your declarations. I was upset after someone on my writing website called me a rape apologist, saying that my story made rape seem sexy, and my character didn’t fight back hard enough so I make it seem as if woman want it really. I like a good rape fantasy as much as the next sub, but since that wasn’t what I was aiming at I looked closely for what she thought she’d seen. I’m sure it wasn’t there. Presumably I hadn’t put in enough melodrama and wailing to signal my disapproval. My point is, people will always find a way to tell you you’re wrong. I’m not going to write worse rape scenes to please them, though, and I imagine the same goes for your erotica.

      Thank you for all your comments.

      Not an Odalisque


      June 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm

  4. The law criminalising clients of coerced sex workers is bad law for a number of reasons. Firstly, actual sex between a client and a person he knew to have been coerced was already illegal under rape and sexual assault laws. The new Section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act makes it illegal to ARRANGE sex with such a person, specifically stating that whether the sex takes place is irrelevant, as is knowledge that the person is coerced.

    Contrary to what you may be led to believe by Eaves/Poppy, clients of sex workers had, in fact, been an important source of information and help to coerced and trafficked persons, as I pointed out in evidence to the committee:

    Since which (but not since the new law took effect) there have been other cases, eg

    One would expect that, in the majority of cases, the revelation that a sex worker was coerced would occur (if it does at all) only after an arrangement for sex has been made, at which point the law has already been broken, and the client would already have every incentive to keep quiet about it.

    As for the Eaves/Poppy paper, Eaves/Poppy have been campaigning for client criminalisation for years, and their paper is at odds with much other research on clients. For one criticism of it, try:

    I don’t quite understand your use of the words “sell their bodies.” Do they cease to own their bodies afterwards?


    June 22, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    • Thank you for this contribution and the links to more information, it’s very interesting. I’m going to stand by the Eaves/Poppy paper (although I, too, had problems with some of their interpretation), because no one begins their research with an empty head, we rely on the research itself, rigorously conducted, to produce conclusions. The harlot’s parlour piece was interesting, but, I fear, falls into the great bun-fight model of debate, in having an agenda even stronger than the report’s.

      I’m as pernickety about language as almost anyone I know, and I think you’re being deliberately obtuse about the phrase “sell their bodies.” You may wish to argue that it is loaded. I found it appropriate to the passage describing my feelings, tempered, I hope, by juxtaposition with quite different thoughts on the nature of exchanging sex for money.

      Thank you again for your input.

      Not an Odalisque


      June 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm

  5. Hi Stephen I have recently set up OBJECT Watch which directly challenges the logic of that legislation and the orgs which lobbied for it. I will repost your comment on that blog if that is ok with you? I am in complete agreement with you. I hope you will visit the blog and join in my attempts to make it clear to OBJECT and co that what they are doing is not necessarily going to help anyone, let alone the most vulnerable sex workers. Thanks, QRG, Elly

    Quiet Riot Girl

    June 25, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    • Hi Quiet Riot Girl,

      Yep, post my comment by all means. I think you’ll find that “Go forth” article from Ireland you posted is wrong, though. As I understood it, the OLD criteria for rejecting lap dance clubs could only be crime, nuisance or public safety, but the new ones are much wider.

      notanodalisque – you’re likely to find a lot more reliable information on clients of sex workers on page 22 here than from Poppycock:

      Click to access horr27c.pdf


      June 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm

  6. […] Here and here are links worth following. I love both bits of writing and they both have to do with the sex industry so if nothing else, you might get to experience a thrill of titillation. I liked them for their wide (but very different) perspectives and the general understanding of both writers that the world is mad. But good. Hopefully. […]

  7. Thanks Stephen I will check. But i know the feminist orgs who oppose lap dancing clubs go to great pains to emphasise they are not objecting to licenses on ‘moral grounds’ which suggests to me they still can’t.

    Do you have an email address I could have? I wouldn’t mind asking you a couple of qs!

    Mine is


    Quiet Riot Girl

    June 26, 2010 at 10:10 pm

  8. […] This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Not Under My Nose […]

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