Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
You may think there is a man lurking behind this article but you have to take my word for it: I’m a woman and I have paid for sex. My decision, my choice.
I’m not a middle-aged power executive paying for a male escort, nor a girlfriend pressured into acting out her boyfriend’s fantasy. Actually, I’m a 20-something professional who suggested to my then boyfriend that he might like to try a ‘threesome’. You could say I’m bisexual (though it’s not so simple – no boxes, labels or easy definitions define my sexuality). And this wasn’t my first time – though it was my first time paying for it.
Against the usual stereotype my boyfriend was the insecure one, afraid I might leave him for the female party. So we finally agreed on hiring a sex worker. It was not an easy decision but I think it should have been.
Irrational panic, moralising, believing all sex workers are ‘victims’ and conflating trafficking and abuse with prostitution per se does nothing to address or help people forced into sex work. Exploitation and trafficking are about exploitation and trafficking not the act of paying for sex.
These strands need to be untangled before we can honestly debate and challenge our preconceptions and understand what is really behind our unease about paying for sex – or even just sex in general – as well as working with sex workers as equals to protect their rights and honour their choices.
We need to legalise prostitution, recognise sex workers’ rights and acknowledge that exploitation and abuse are part of this particular occupation’s hazards. And as with every occupation there is even more exploitation unless there is legal protection. We don’t criminalise the entire building industry to stop the rogue builder who exploits and endangers illegal workers. What’s the difference?
So, armed with a list of requirements and preferences just like any careful consumer looking to hire someone for a particular service, I began looking for the ‘right for me’ (and yes, I know, rather selfishly less so for him) sex worker. I wasn’t buying her soul, her mind, body or her life – just her participation. I wanted a sexy, assertive woman who was working for herself and who had made a positive, informed decision to be a sex worker.
My concerns were also the same as when you buy any service to ensure it lives up to expectations. It’s a lot of money for a one-time, one-night purchase and you don’t want to feel short-changed. I wanted to avoid even the remotest possibility of exploitation, so I was looking at the upper end of the market.
There are a lot worse ways to earn £500 (plus expenses) for three hours work, which is what I ended up paying. And if you follow the (il)logic of why all sex work is demeaning, then so too is any work – we all prostitute ourselves for a living. What about a soldier’s body? Or a miner’s? And what, for that matter, is the difference between a surrogate sex therapist and a prostitute? No, there isn’t a punch line.
A person’s worth is much more than the sum of what they do for a living. So why stereotype all sex workers as abused and exploited? Is it not the case that for many women sex work offers a rational ‘career choice’, that they do it because they can earn good money from it, because they are good at it, because it’s a better option than the alternatives that are open to them – even, goddamit, that some of them enjoy it?
It was important for me for all of us to have fun – and to like the person as well as find her attractive. Sex is infinitely better when mutually pleasurable and has at least respect and affection involved, and it was much harder to reconcile this fact with what I was doing than the simple act of paying for it. What the client may want is not what they will get if it means intimacy or reciprocity of feeling because, rightly so, this is controlled by the sex worker. I remember once reading an interview with a sex worker who said something along the lines of the punter might briefly ‘have my cunt but he doesn’t have me’.
Nonetheless, sex with or without love should be fun and guilt free. Why should simply putting money on the table turn a good thing into a bad thing? We don’t believe that only food provided freely and with love is enjoyable: why make such distinctions over sex? I’ve had great sex without love and lousy sex with love. It doesn’t devalue the other person in acknowledging this – sex is only one part of any relationship, not its be all and end all. Similarly, why should paying for sex devalue the person you are paying?
Sex can be just sex, with or without payment. We can attach any meaning we want but it’s hypocritical to deny that these ‘values’ are relative and subjective. There are plenty of reasons for paying for sex – in my case to ameliorate a boyfriend’s anxieties that I preferred women (unfounded as I actually left him not long afterwards for another man).
An interesting twist in this experience for me was that a couple of the sex workers I contacted were concerned that perhaps I was the exploited one. Was I ‘as up for it as my partner’? Yes, I could assure them: this was an equal decision, indeed more to do with me and my desires than him.
Would I pay for sex again? Probably not. But not because I think it’s wrong – it was a unique set of circumstances – and of course the best things in life are free.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun