Guest post: "The sex trade can never be made 'safe'"
Defence of the sex trade relies on myths, says Kat Banyard - once these are dismantled, its sexist core becomes clear
Read Laura Lee's view on why she thinks decriminalising sex work is the only way to ensure safety in the industry here
Author, Pimp State
Posted on: Thu 07-Jul-16 15:44:32
(144 comments )
Recent decades have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of the sex trade. During the 1990s the number of UK men who pay for sex almost doubled, between 1997 and 2011 the number of lap dancing clubs increased tenfold, and a recent BBC survey revealed almost a quarter of young people have watched pornography by the time they reach their teens. So what should we do?
Nothing - is the answer implied by common descriptions of the sex trade. If prostitution is "the world's oldest profession" and "will always exist", as the Economist assures us, why bother trying to curb it? If porn is "fantasy", and not "real sex", like the online advice guide for young people The Site bills it, where's the need? And if groups such as Open Society Foundations (OSF) are right and selling sex is simply work - "sex work" - then aren't men who pay for sex just regular consumers, their growth in number no cause for concern?
These relaxed takes on the burgeoning business of prostitution do allow room for a bit of tinkering around the edges, mind you. For instance, governments ought to "[promote] safe working conditions" for women in prostitution, according to OSF. Their policy prescription? So-called 'full decriminalisation'. That involves making brothel-keeping and pimping legal, and removing any specific laws restricting the sex trade's operations. One of their exemplar states - New Zealand - has produced a health and safety guide for brothels.
Demand for the sex trade is not inevitable. The sexist attitudes of entitlement that underpin it can be tackled. But that won't be achieved by state sanctioning this exploitative practice in a hopeless bid to contain the dangers associated with it.
But responses like these rely on a fatalistic acceptance of continuing demand for the sex trade. They presuppose it can be made safe. And they require us to buy in to the belief that a society that sanctions the sex trade can also be a society committed to securing equality between women and men.
It can't. The sex trade can never be made 'safe'.
At the core of this enterprise is a very simple product concept: a person (usually a man) can pay to sexually access the body of someone (usually a woman) who does not freely want to have sex with him; otherwise he wouldn't have to pay her to be there. This is not a regular consumer transaction, this is sexual abuse. The buyer's disregard for mutuality, and ability to treat another person as a sexual object, are fundamental to the act. It is, as activist and prostitution survivor Diane Martin CBE calls it, "violence against women". Responses to the sex trade which have attempted to skirt over this inherent harm, to sanction it as legitimate business in a bid to quash attendant harms, haven't just failed - they've made it worse.
Germany, which took the decision to legalise prostitution in 2001, is now home to a chain of 'mega-brothels' and a sex trade worth 16 billion euros annually. The result has led Helmut Sporer, Detective Chief Superintendent of the Crimes Squad in Augsburg, to dub his country "the El Dorado for pimps". The Netherlands legalised prostitution in 2000 in a bid to "purge it of criminal peripheral phenomena". Yet in 2008 the national police force reported that between 50%-90% of women in the trade "work involuntarily". Researchers at VU University Amsterdam concluded, "the regulation has hidden the legalised sector from the view of the criminal justice system, while human trafficking still thrives behind the legal façade of a legalised prostitution sector. Brothels can even function as legalised outlets for victims of sex trafficking". Indeed, research shows that countries in which prostitution is completely legal experience significantly higher rates of trafficking.
Demand for the sex trade is not inevitable. The sexist attitudes of entitlement that underpin it can be tackled. But that won't be achieved by state sanctioning this exploitative practice in a hopeless bid to contain the dangers associated with it. Sexual consent is not a commodity; sexual abuse can never be made 'safe'.
If we are serious about wanting equality between women and men, then we have to work to end commercial sexual exploitation. As Diane Martin CBE says, "We should be creating the most hostile environment on both a social and legal level for those who sell, control, exploit, pay for and benefit financially from the sale of the bodies of women". That means adopting 'end demand' measures like the Sex Buyer Law - which criminalises paying for sex but decriminalises selling sex, providing support services for people exploited through prostitution.
Crucially, it also means dispelling myths that provide cover for the industry - and justification for its users. Myths like 'demand is inevitable', 'selling sex is regular work', and 'fully decriminalising the industry makes women safe'. Because without these myths to hide behind, the sexist core of this trade becomes clear - and so does our ability to bring about change.
Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality by Kat Banyard is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99).
Read Laura Lee's post here.
By Kat Banyard
Yes I agree with Flora great post.
Thanks Kat, and thanks for the work you do to highlight the truth of this.
Fantastic piece. I find it really worrying how there appears to be a current agenda to push 'sex work' as a job like any other.
Totally agree and second what Xenophile said.
I saw the article about you in the i newspaper the other day and have ordered your book.
The Equality Illusion was totally eye opening to me at the beginning of my feminist awakening.
Excellent post Kat, and some great resources. Thank you.
Hear hear. Great article, thank you.
That German article is really depressing. Women being ordered like commodities, all you can fuck prices etc. Just grim.
Great article, thanks
I will be reading the book
Well said, Kat.
The Equality Illusion is regularly recommended on here and I will get your new book too.
Finally! I think the section reads is abhorrent. I also think there's something very wrong with having the opportunity to sexually abuse another human being for a fee and this being socially acceptable. Remove the fee and it's a criminal offence it's as simple as that.
If we are serious about wanting equality between women and men, then we have to work to end commercial sexual exploitation
Exactly. I despair of Laura Lee and such as her promoting the ridiculous proposition that prostitution is a job like any other.
Brilliant post and so important that dangerous pro-sex work propaganda is challenged.
It's awful that there is this ridiculous construction of "whorephobia" made about people who oppose the sex trade on the grounds that it is exploitative and harmful for all women. And that is used to "no platform" activists.
It's particularly worrying that this agenda, of sex work being perfectly acceptable, is being pushed when selling sex is on the increase because of poor economic conditions in the lower echelons of society. Those poor economic conditions at the bottom have not just happened, it's the direct result of political choices which increase inequality. It all just seems part of a whole designed to push women back into being male slaves with no real choices.
So true, BungoWomble.
If economic liberation were the actual goal we would be hearing more about paying mothers for their reproductive work, seeing as mothers are the most impoverished women.
We get "sex worker rights" shoved down our faces instead of even the theoretical possibility of "people maker rights" becoming a real thing.
Maybe the sex industry "can never be made safe" who knows?
The one thing that is certain is that it can be made more dangerous and that is all the Nordic Model, or any other form of criminalisation has ever been proven to achieve, more danger for sex workers.
Except of course Gaye, that none of the independent research that has been done bears that out. In fact it says the complete opposite, that decrim increases violence toward prostituted women, that it increases trafficking and even condones it, that women are prostituted at ever younger ages and make less money from the increased dangers.
I wonder sometimes why women like you and your friend Laura want those conditions for women. And then I stop wondering, because it's bloody obvious to anyone with half a brain why you do.