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The New Abolitionist Model

The New Abolitionist Model

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 contraceptionabortion, 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.


I’ve written previously about feminist fundamentalism in:
The Bad Vibrations of Anatomical Fundamentalism: World Gender War
Sex workers at AWID reject feminist fundamentalism
and Gunilla Ekberg, Sex War and Extremist Feminism.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The girlfriend experience in Lawrence Block: Sex work in fiction

11473117_icon-realty-picks-up-elizabeth-street-tenement_b40882c2_mLawrence Block is a successful mainstream writer whose plotlines often include sex workers, in a normalising way (call girls, mostly). Matthew Scudder, the detective protagonist in one of Block’s series, has a long-term, friendly, sex-for-favours relationship with a call girl that eventually turns into marriage. The woman invests her money in property, allowing her to retire gracefully. Block doesn’t avoid portraying the dangers and problems inherent in the lives of women who sell sex, but he gives other sides of the picture, too, particularly refreshing given the usual police view of vice and prostitutes.

In Eight Million Ways to Die (1982) one New York call girl explains her lifestyle.

This is something different, she said. The johns who come here, they don’t think they’re johns. They think they’re friends of mine. They think I’m this spacey Village chick, which I am, and that they’re my friends, which they are. I mean, they come here to get laid, let’s face it, but they could get laid quicker and easier in a massage parlor, no muss no fuss no bother – dig? But they can come up here and take off their shoes and smoke a joint, and it’s a sort of a raunchy Village pad, I mean you have to climb three flights of stairs and then you roll around in a waterbed. I mean, I’m not a hooker. I’m a girlfriend. I don’t get paid. They give me money because I’ve got rent to pay and, you know, I’m a poor little Village chick who wants to make it as an actress and she’s never going to. Which I’m not, and I don’t care much, but I still take dancing lessons a couple mornings a week and I have an acting class every Thursday night, and I was in a showcase last May for three weekends. We did Ibsen, and do you believe that three of my johns came? (p 145)

4e52506f1b4d8702331483d23e7a2bb6I was living in New York the year this was published, and my friend Mona lived the same way Block’s character does. Mona also didn’t call herself a prostitute or anything else. Using a casual feminist analysis of the time, we thought she was doing what a lot of wives do, in a careful, selective way and without ceremony. In a context in which rents were sky-high and lots of people were trying to make it in demanding professions, Mona’s choice was sensible. She got to take her lessons and audition for parts, and, in the rare case that she got one, she was free to accept it. I don’t know whether she would have advertised GFE as a service had the term or the Internet been available, but that’s what she was offering.

Mona’s lifestyle illustrates how sex-for-money occurs in casual ways that are part of normal life in informal economies. If you recall the obsessive quality of hustling culture that John Rechy conveyed so well, this Village chick sounds serene (or spacey). But her way of looking at things is also common. In order to bring out more of these situations, I proposed a field called the cultural study of commercial sex. Scholarship without moralising. In my view, in fact, if you are moralising you are not a scholar.

Part of a series on sex work in fiction: scroll back a few days, then again, then again. [First published 19 January 2009]

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

James Lee Burke with French Quarter scam: Sex work in fiction

Bayou-Burger-Sports-Bar-features-balcony-dining-Bourbon-Street-New-Orleans-LAIn today’s shrill anti-trafficking culture any differences in forms of facilitating prostitution/ sex work are practically erased. I’m not talking about whether anything is fair or gender-equal or exploitative here but about the many ways humankind has evolved for making money through commercial sex. In James Lee Burke’s Cadillac Jukebox (1996) one swindle involving sex work in New Orleans is described: the Murphy scam.

Vice had identified the hooker as Brandy Grissum, a black twenty-five-year-old heroin addict who had done a one-bit in the St John the Baptist jail for sale and possession.

She worked with three or four pimps and Murphy artists out of the Quarter. The pimps were there for the long-term regular trade. The Murphy artists took down the tourists, particularly those who were drunk, married, respectable, in town on conventions, scared of cops and their employers.

It was an easy scam. Brandy would walk into a bar, well dressed, perhaps wearing a suit, sit at the end of the counter, or by herself in a booth, glance once into the john’s face, her eyes shy, her hands folded demurely in front of her, then wait quietly while her partner cut the deal.

This is the shuck: ‘My lady over there ain’t a reg’lar, know what I’m sayin’? Kind of like a schoolgirl just out on the town.’ Here he smiles. ‘She need somebody take her ’round the world, know what I’m saying’? I need sixty dollars to cover the room, we’ll all walk down to it, I ain’t goin’ nowhere on you. Then you want to give her a present or something, that’s between y’all.’ — p 24, Cadillac Jukebox

320px-Grits_Bar_Interior_New_Orleans_2The Murphy scam is robbery by a couple who lure a client to a room to have sex (in exchange for seemingly reasonable, non-professional fees). After client and woman are in bed the other partner rushes in posing as a jealous husband (or whatever). The client leaves in a hurry and the Murphy artists collect his belongings and money.

In Burke’s description Brandy works with several pimps as well as with Murphy artists, so even though she’s an addict she is not anyone’s slave. We aren’t told what proportion of the takings she gets, so we don’t know how bad a deal she has. The scam is interesting in offering a kind of commercial sex palatable to clients who cannot see themselves as clients and thus lend themselves to being scammed. A different kind of ‘demand’ – that now over-used, less-meaningful-than-ever term. A man who can be ‘lured’ – not much of a monster. More on different kinds of pimping in Nesbø’s Blood on Snow and in my own The Three-Headed Dog.

This is part of a series of posts about sex work in fiction. The other day it was Doris Lessing’s turn.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

End Demand: the B movie

KNXV prostution billboard in Phoenix_1440736368256_23312196_ver1.0_640_480

It has all the earmarks of a tearjerker. The billboard erected in Phoenix, Arizona, by anti-prostitutionists looks like artwork for a 1940s paperback cover or poster for a low-budget movie. I wish I knew what specs were given the artist. I wonder if End-Demanders in the Cease network (Cease – get it?) consciously evoke out-of-date style in hopes that viewers will associate the message with Ye Olde Nuclear-Family Values.

liptearsExamples of the classic posture can be found in two seconds of searching, because Sad Women abound, including with hand to forehead. Like pearl-clutching, forehead-clutching is a classic. But with a man as subject? Not so easy, no siree. Men look solemn, fierce, outraged. The only readily-available male face looking this sad (minus the B-movie forehead business) is in Brokeback Mountain publicity, where the theme was Have Sex – Lose Everything, rather than buy sex. It seems that only sex can make men feel truly sad – or is it only men who have sex with men?


We do not know whether Lose-Everything man is sad because he has to lose all the sex he would have bought, if he had been permitted to, or because of all the sex he might have had with his wife and will now never have. Because obviously the wedding ring is going to go.

But besides the hilarious picture we have notworthit.org for those curious to know more. Could any domain-name be sillier? I feel someone may be attacking End Demand from within. A few years ago we saw a roving billboard in London that does not have the making of a B movie. The message was Buy Sex – Pay the Price, but the male figure portrayed looked more like a Cainesque Bad Boy than sad.

Sure, moralists who wish everyone would keep their sexual tastes under wraps are easy to mock. But the Phoenix billboard moves into the realm of self-parody, providing an object that will maybe strike ordinary people as too wacky to even think about. That’s a good thing.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Acting Up about sex work, and how middle-class norms rely on police enforcement

I have attended more than one meeting where abolitionist protesters take over from the floor, grabbing the roving microphone or shouting down speakers whose ideas they find objectionable. Before my talk at the Vancouver Public Library last year I was warned that people from the Vancouver Rape Relief and Aboriginal Women’s Action Network might come and protest.

Saying I would handle any questions they chose to ask, if they waited until the end to ask them, I proposed we have a plan for disarming any more disruptive protest. All I wanted was a couple of people willing to go to the protesters and escort them out of the room. One of the organisers was upset at my suggestion, saying If they really want to protest then there’s nothing we can do, we’ll just have to close the event down. I was startled by that, and privately asked a couple of people if they would do this for me. One of them hesitated but acquiesced and the other didn’t reply.

The protesters that came, who were known to the organisers, left quietly after listening to about 40 minutes of my talk. The reasoning afterwards was The way you talk it’s not easy for them to find a place to launch an attack. One of my ways to disarm such attacks is to mention myself early on the upsetting issues and keywords that protesters are ready to say are omitted; in this case imperialism, genocide, indigenous rights, rape, the horrendous situation in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, police negligence, racism.

France’s new Minister for Women, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, was disarmed for several minutes the other day by protesters from ACT-UP and STRASS as she began to talk about her proposal to abolish prostitution. When this proposal was first presented in the Guardian, I wondered whether she might actually be unaware of the very long tradition her ‘idea’ belongs to, but it is being linked to some sort of new leaf turning over in France since all the DSK brouhaha.

My point is about something else here – how easy it was to disrupt an event dependent on middle-class norms of politeness that expect everyone to accept hierarchy and the authority of the speaker, the person with governmental power, no matter how banal her ideas are. Those in charge act completely unable to deal with the protest, send for security officers and wait passively until they arrive. To me this seems emblematic of how members of the Rescue Industry shamefully rely on the police to enforce their values.

The same norms of politeness say that disruptive protest is destructive to democratic debate, but in a situation where no debate is possible and authority figures continually disappear and dismiss the opinions of the people actually being talked about, disruption makes a different sort of point.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist