I was glad to be able to participate in the Strike4Decrim events on the evening of 8 March – International Women’s Day. In general I’m no fan of official ‘days’ to celebrate supposedly coherent groups: mothers, fathers, women. Inevitably the differences get smoothed out and mainstreamed, many feel excluded and some feel seriously annoyed. General ‘women’s gatherings had taken place earlier in the day in a straighter part of town, but although Soho is getting blander all the time, a little kinkiness remains.
Here’s me talking for five minutes at the start, before we marched. The photos are by Alexander Schulenburg, who approached me to say he liked my talk and later tweeted on the event. I also ran into sex workers met in other countries and other years and some I worked with as far back as 2005. I appreciate being reminded of the continuity and feeling surrounded (notes of my talk at the bottom).
Why call it a strike? The word is meant to recentre women’s work, specially invisible things like ‘caring’ and reproductive labour. The intention was to expand the concept of strike and ‘use tactics and perspectives that think about how we struggle at the point of production and reproduction’. By including a sex workers’ rights event on the day, what gets counted as a feminist issue was expanded. I was glad to be there, given lamentable histories of leaving sex workers out.
My notes for the five minutes
Rights movement stronger now – multiple groups but we work together better than we used to
Regular folks seem to understand the idea of labour rights better
But the hostility of the Establishment hasn’t improved – folks who work in government, whether politicians or Home Office
They pay too much attention to anti-prostitution activists, radical feminists
The other day a few former sex workers won a case in the High Court to remove the requirement to tell employers about past soliciting convictions. Good, right?
Problem is they won on the basis that they were coerced victims.
The judge said it was ‘greatly to their credit they had succeeded in removing themselves from prostitution’
Casual dispensing of morality by a male judge
If you want to know what patriarchy is – it’s this!
If you want to know what infantilisation is – it’s this: talking about women as wayward children to be patted on the head if they do as they’re told
It appears that to benefit from this small bit of decriminalisation you must repent of your sin of being a prostitute, otherwise you keep those convictions on your record
even though it is legal to sell sex in this country
The selling of sex is still firmly framed as a social evil in laws and regulations
Great distance between that and ideas about human rights, workers’ rights
Migrants, even if their presence is legal, are most likely to be called victims of trafficking if they come to police attention and are lucky if not deported
The kinds of freedoms and treatment most women take for granted are not granted to sex workers
Gatherings like this one are important – so we can see each other outside in the street caring about the same things
To me this fits the idea of ‘strike’
By Laura Agustín, was published in Jacobin Magazine 6 December 2017. I wrote this after reading Julie Bindel’s new book but my thoughts are about the whole anti-prostitution movement as it stands today, whether formulated by so-called radical feminists, Christian missionaries, lawmakers or Rescue Industry social workers. Many others have commented on specific falsehoods and distortions in this book: especially see social media. Links were added by Jacobin. I begin with
__________________________________________________________ Entry for an encyclopedia of feminism: The Sex Work Wars: Decades of acrimonious debate about the meaning of exchanging sex for money. Near-total disagreement about terms, definitions, causes, and effects, and how to measure the involved phenomena. Mutual incomprehension on cultural meanings of sex, sexual identity, and gender relations. Laws backed by politicians based on the supposed truth of one or the other view. Little improvement for those being discussed. Outgrowth of the Lesbian/Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s.
A new shot has been fired in the Sex Work Wars. Julie Bindel’s The Pimping of Prostitution calls for a return to more authentic beginnings, when, as she tells it, everyone involved in the 1960s women’s liberation movement was in thrall to a few shining leaders.
This version rings no bells for me. We were revolting against 1950s domestic ideology that told women to be quiet, feminine, and satisfied with making homes for men. The meaning of liberation was to figure out how to live on our own terms, and if we did read mimeographed newsletters from activists, we didn’t think we had to agree with them. We didn’t feel anyone was our leader. We talked together on the streets, in classrooms, in cafés. Everyone’s experiences counted.
In those conversations, prostitution was considered neither a central issue nor a terrible thing — or not more terrible than everything else we were coming to recognize as oppressive. We wanted to know why housework wasn’t paid and women were supposed to do all the childrearing. We wanted to define our own ways to enjoy sex. We used a new word, ”sexist.” I don’t recall attending a single formal meeting, but I have identified since that time as a feminist.
In this book, Bindel offers two things: cheers and brickbats. Those who agree with her get cheers, everyone else gets brickbats. Less subtle than boxing commentary that recognizes all good punches, this is a bitterness born of thwarting: Prostitution still exists. Millett and Dworkin have been betrayed. Someone must pay.
Nowadays in conversations about women’s rights, there’s widespread agreement about the need for more education, equal salaries, and better job opportunities. But bring up women’s physical bodies, and ideologies of femininity and patriarchy flash like wildfire. Intransigent conflict pursues contraception, abortion, surrogacy and, perhaps above all, how women can and may consent to have sex. For radical feminists like Bindel, the insertion of money into a sexual relationship signifies no women can ever consent, even when they say they do.
News about women who sell sex has changed tone since publication in 2000 of the UN Protocol on Trafficking, although legal definitions are even now not fully agreed on. Media reports routinely confuse or use all available terms. Human trafficking is not distinguished from people-smuggling, borrowing money to migrate is called debt bondage, awful working conditions and child labor become modern slavery, and selling sex is renamed either sex trafficking or sex slavery. All sociocultural contexts are eliminated in favor of universalizing definitions. No interest is shown in considering how to improve working conditions. The result is to define women as victims in need of rescue, especially when they are selling sex.
In this context it’s not surprising that abolitionism should reemerge into the mainstream. Bindel calls hers the new abolition movement, misleadingly linking to Josephine Butler’s nineteenth-century campaigns to abolish government regulation of prostitution (not prostitution itself). Bindel rejects the aforementioned proliferation of terms: “Trafficking is merely a process in which some women and children are prostituted. Prostitution itself is the problem.” Which at least confirms a long-standing activist complaint regarding anti-trafficking campaigns: that the real object is prohibition of any woman from selling sex, anywhere, anytime.
Fear of trafficking is now used to justify a variety of repressive prostitution-policy regimes, including a law that bans the purchase of sex. First called the Swedish model, then the Nordic, this law, according to Bindel, can now be called the abolitionist model. The idea of this ban is to “End Demand,” on the theory that, if men were stopped from buying sex, women could not be exploited and would never sell sex. It is a ludicrously simplified market theory of supply and demand. Abolitionists claim the law decriminalizes the sale of sex by women (appropriating the central demand of the sex workers’ rights movement), failing to address what would happen to women’s income if there were no clients.
The book’s subtitle, Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, suggests it will prove there are no sex workers. Bindel names many countries she visited. She details the personal sufferings of women who hated selling sex: these are her heroes, and they come across as individuals. Representatives of the “pro-prostitution lobby,” on the contrary, are treated as a series of puppets, quoted to demonstrate their cynicism. Those who recognize the concept of agency as one reason to accept the existence of voluntary sex work are ridiculed as “choice” or “fun” feminists. We hear nothing from women who may not like sex work but continue doing it for their own good reasons.
Mud is slung at escort-agency managers, queer academics, gay libertarians, HIV/health NGOs, migration scholars, Amnesty International, and sex worker-led groups. The greatest wrath is reserved for funders like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations for daring to try to strengthen sex workers’ rights. Because she wants to obliterate all differences and discredit every conceivable source of opposition to radical feminist ideology, variety in types of sex work, degrees of management control, perceptions of autonomy, and amounts of money are dismissed out of hand. Canned summaries of a few moments in sex-worker-rights history are thrown in, but the entire international social movement is dismissed as a pimping “lobby.”
I am capable of reading works whose worldview I don’t like for research purposes, but this book defeated me. The table of contents looks rational, but each chapter consists of many short subsections that appear almost randomly placed. The style is bumpy and awkward, suggesting multiple writers and no editor. There’s no depth, nuance, or engagement with ideas.
And I found very little that might be called new, neither facts nor ideas. If the international abolitionist movement hoped this would be a new heavy weapon against enemies or a way to convince non-experts that sex work is an illusion, they will be shaking their heads in disappointment.
The worst of the contemporary abolitionist project is its failure to confront the question of options for women. Bindel feels Josephine Butler would be on her side? I feel she’d be on mine. At mid-nineteenth century Butler saw how few alternatives women had to achieve economic independence and did not advocate they should be deprived of the possibility of selling sex to survive.
As a scholar in the field, my question has never been whether selling sex is acceptable in moral or feminist terms. Instead I’ve focused on the fact that women everywhere have limited job options, and, when they are not well-educated or connected socially, those options generally reduce to low-paying, low-prestige work: street vending, home sewing, caring, cleaning, retail jobs, sweatshop labor, and selling sex. When the women are undocumented migrants the feasible options reduce to two: living in others’ families as maids or selling sex.
Given the low earnings of these occupations, it is hardly surprising that women who feel they can tolerate it do sex work instead. Less time spent working for more money means being able to support oneself, help others and still have time to take a walk or read a book. Sometimes sex workers get into relationships that don’t look good to outsiders. But what do abolitionists imagine women with few options will do if they are forced to stop sex work?
The old Magdalene Laundries and lock hospitals envisioned nothing better than domestic servitude for ”fallen women.” Is the proposition still that being a servant for pennies and a scant private life is better because it is more dignified? Or is it superior simply because it is notsex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.
Bindel’s need to manifest indignation at the slightest deviance from a simplified ideology means readers get no distinctions between dastardly procurers, human rights groups, independent escorts, academic researchers, workers in massage parlors, and Hugh Hefner. We’re all the same thing. It’s the textbook definition of fundamentalism.
The other day I lightly said It’s a blokey thing to a young person who replied That’s a sexist thing to say! The next day another young person heard me use the word masculine and cried You’re a feminist! I take it ideas about sexism and feminism have extended their contradictory ways into small corners of ordinary life and think it funny I got accused of opposing sins on back-to-back days. Some of us don’t fit neatly into identity-categories, eh?
Most of the discourse about buying and selling sex focuses on the abstract question Is it Bad or Good? in one way or another. More interesting is anything that shows how diverse transactions are, how wide the field, how contradictory the possibilities, how unlikely the goal of an ethical bottom line. In the following vignette from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951) a commercial transaction is deeply embedded in context: World War II London, Clapham, the narrator’s love for a married woman, his obsessive jealousy. They have an argument and he walks out. It is May 1940.
That evening I was still full of my hatred and distrust when I reached Piccadilly. More than anything in the world I wanted to hurt Sarah. I wanted to take a woman back with me and lie with her upon the same bed in which I made love to Sarah; it was as though I knew that the only way to hurt her was to hurt myself. It was dark and quiet by this time in the streets, though up in the moonless sky moved the blobs and beams of the searchlights. You couldn’t see faces where the women stood in doorways and at the entrances of the unused shelters. They had to signal with their torches like glow-worms. All the way up Sackville Street the little lights went on and off. I found myself wondering what Sarah was doing now. Had she gone home or was she waiting on the chance of my return?
A woman flashed on her light and said, ‘Like to come home with me, dear?’ I shook my head and walked on. Further up the street a girl was talking to a man: as she lit up her face for him, I got a glimpse of something young, dark and happy and not yet spoiled: an animal that didn’t yet recognise her captivity. I passed and then came back up the road towards them; as I approached the man left her and I spoke. ‘Like a drink?’ I said.
‘Coming home with me afterwards?’
‘I’ll be glad of a quick one.’
We went into the pub at the top of the street and I ordered two whiskies, but as she drank I couldn’t see her face for Sarah’s. She was younger than Sarah, she couldn’t have been more than nineteen, more beautiful, one might even have said less spoiled, but only because there was so much less to spoil: I found I no more wanted her than I wanted the company of a dog or a cat. She was telling me that she had a nice flat on the top floor only a few houses down; she told me what rent she had to pay and what her age was and where she was born and how she had worked for a year in a café. She told me she didn’t go home with anybody who spoke to her, but she could see at once I was a gentleman. She said she had a canary called Jones named after the gentleman who had given it her. She began to talk of the difficulty of getting groundsel in London. I thought: if Sarah is still in my room I can ring up. . .
Looking at her over my whisky I thought how odd it was that I felt no desire for her at all. It was as if quite suddenly after all the promiscuous years I had grown up. My passion for Sarah had killed simple lust for ever. Never again would I be able to enjoy a woman without love.
And yet surely it was not love that had brought me into this pub; I had told myself all the way from the Common that it was hate, as I tell myself still, writing this account of her, trying to get her out of my system for ever, for I have always told myself that if she died, I could forget her.
I went out of the pub, leaving the girl with her whisky to finish and a pound-note as a salve to her pride, and walked up New Burlington Street as far as a telephone-box. I had no torch with me and was forced to strike match after match before I could complete the dialling of my number. Then I heard the ringing tone and I could imagine the telephone where it stood on my desk and I knew exactly how many steps Sarah would have to take to reach it if she were sitting in a chair or lying on the bed. And yet I let it go on ringing in the empty room for half a minute. — The End of the Affair, pp 57-59
Now try to reduce the narrator’s interaction with a woman he picks up on the street to the question Is it Good or Bad?
This post is part of a series on sex work in fiction. Scroll backwards to May 2017 and see the Related Items appearing below this post. I’ve contributed to this production with The Three-Headed Dog, a noir novel about Latin American migrants in Spain.
I was interviewed in an old pub in Stoke Newington next to a photo-plaque memorialising Writers and Reformers.* I suppose it was by chance, but maybe not.
Campaigners for equal rights and other freedoms don’t talk about reform anymore, but if it’s not revolution they want then technically it is reform. According to this western worldview, we are moving in a stream of time called Progress towards – something if not Utopia then always fairer, healtheir and wealthier all the time.
In the 19th century in northern Europe and North America, there was a movement of writers to expose social injustices through novels, with the goal of reform. They thought that if more people knew about injustices wrought upon the poor, women and children, then readers might add to pressure on government elites to reform laws. It was consciousness-raising about the suffering of others: The books were aimed at middle-class readers.
Protest novel, social novel thesis novel, propaganda novel, industrial novel, working-class/proletarian novel, condition-of-England novel: all describe the works of writers including Mary Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens and, in the 20th century, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Nadine Gordimer and many more.
Critics argue about whether their social visions portrayed the truth and whether the authors really blamed structural problems or were more interested in individual character. On the literary front, too much protest can work against story-telling and other aesthetic qualities, leading to criticism about the novels being insufficiently literary. Other distinctions include
The value of Condition-of-England novels lies primarily not in their fictional plots, social analyses, and recommended solutions but primarily in first-hand detailed observations of industrialism, urbanism, class, and gender conflicts. – The Victorian Web
I’m not a fan of drawing lines to distinguish between Real Art and everything else; I think you can have activist purpose and write beautifully at the same time, just as you can write nicely and have nothing much to say. The observations you make may feel significant to readers or not. Trends of the moment play a part: at the particular time in which I’m writing this, critics may introduce the idea of Cultural Appropriation, which suggests that outsiders should not write about social injustices they have not themselves lived.
To protest it may be enough to produce a portrait of how bad things are. To believe that reform is possible you need to be clear about what would constitute improvement. A novel about children forced to work in satanic mills might call for better working conditions for them or, alternatively, claim their right not to work at all but rather be allowed to enjoy ‘childhood’. To qualify as a reform-novel you may need to propose concrete solutions that can be formed into laws.
The Three-Headed Dog portrays life in underground economies amongst undocumented migrants, smugglers and sex workers, in a particular time and place: Spain in the early 21st century. After observing events surrounding undocumented migration and prostitution law for so many years, I got tired of being annoyed by the pontificating on policy and morals from people who seemed not to know many realities. To participate in mainstream debates one is pretty well forced to accept the framework of whoever’s funding the event or publication. The frameworks are never what I would choose myself.
Writing stories is a way to show how things are without being caught up in these alien frames. It is also a way to portray some of my own life, what I look at and care about. But not with avid activist purpose: in my case it’s about allowing ideas to float up from the depths and shape themselves into readable stories. Without calculating if they will be saleable, not taking advice about how to spin the ideas so they’re more palatable to policymakers or listening to the many well-meaning intermediaries who have counseled me to change things.
In the early years after Sex at the Margins came out I tried to talk about how labour policy might be linked to migration policy here and now (in the European Union and everywhere else). Seldom did interviewers follow this up, asking instead for me to rate competing prostitution laws (oversimplified into decriminalisation, ‘legalisation’ and penalisation of buying sex). Since then, policies on undocumented migration and what’s called trafficking have worsened.
But I resist. Resistance is still an option, the refusal to accept alien framings, perhaps the concept of debate itself. I wouldn’t call The Three-Headed Dog a Social-Problems Novel, but not because it’s written inside a crime or noir genre. I’d say rather because I don’t propose policies that might improve the wretched mess. At this moment I want more of the realities to come out – in a fuller form, with space for anthropological observation and literary emotion. So that a few readers somewhere may see into lives they otherwise never get to hear about. [This leads to ideas about what Education is, but enough for now.]
* In the pub plaque: Samuel Rogers, Anne Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Howard, Edgar Allen Poe and Dr Isaac Watts (none a known social-problem novelist)
I gave a talk called Thinking about sex work as work on 6 April 2013 at the Dublin Anarchist Book Fair. Local abolitionists and anti-prostitution folks were attacking my being there, which is reflected in my introductory remarks. I wrote about wanting the opportunity to talk about sex work without -isms (theory, ideology, rules of thought).
Later I found out the sound deteriorated in the recording I uploaded to my little Youtube channel, and I don’t have a handyperson to fix things like that. Then the other day, while searching for something quite different, I found a clear recording and the person who made it: Aubrey Robinson (@andyazi on twitter). He kindly sent it to me and I’ve uploaded it to the channel.
I haven’t listened to it again and make no claim to be definitive. This is maybe a good case of the personal being political. More rigorously I wrote Sex as Work and Sex Work for The Commoner.
Photo Ahmad Nimer
When I sent this recently to a facebook-man who seemed curious his reply was No, wrong, you can’t talk about sex work without addressing the stigma. I said he should consider before launching into mansplaining in a place where sex workers themselves exchange ideas. He said Fuck that (subject-status doesn’t give knowledge priority, and so on). I said I understand. I don’t think he grasped the nuance – that he had confirmed the mansplaining. Point is, in 30 minutes the plate is full just trying to talk about sex work as work, without the reams of Other Prostitution Issues including stigma, moralising, poverty, agency and everything else on the planet.
I uploaded this video only a while ago and boom, the first comment asks Where are their parents? What do they think? See last line, previous paragraph. Jeez.