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Your money, my body

Following a series of murders of sex workers in Ipswich in December 2006, Red Pepper asked whether finally it was time to decriminalise prostitution. Juliet, a sex workers' rights activist, said it was. The anti-prostitution campaigners, Assumpta Sabuco Cantó and Charo Luque Gálvez, said it wasn't

September 17, 2007
8 min read

Typically, when the sex industry is being discussed, those given a platform to pontificate almost never have direct personal experience, whether as service providers or clients. Red Pepper is making an exception to this trend – I have worked in the industry, as a prostitute and dominatrix, for over five years.

For most people, if they think about prostitution, they visualise the kind of women whose names have been recently splashed across the headlines: female, drug addicted, street-working prostitutes, who were of course so much more than can be summed up by those descriptions. This is not the case for me. I have been paid to have sexual contact with approximately 5,000 men and have never experienced violence or physical force of any kind. I am one person who can truly say I have chosen to do this work.

There is a wing of feminism, however, that describes sex work as violence against women, and campaigns for the abolition of prostitution and the criminalisation of our clients. They ignore the fact that there are men who sell sex – to other men and to women – and that women also are clients (I am lucky enough to have several longstanding female clients). Most dangerously, this argument presents sex as something men do to women, and enshrines women as victims.

Prostitution is having sex for money. Neither having sex nor getting paid is inherently degrading, abusive, exploitative or harmful. Yes, there are women working in prostitution who are coerced or drug dependent or homeless, or whose backgrounds have otherwise limited their choices – but the problem is coercion, drug dependency and lack of choices, not prostitution itself. But by confusing prostitution with a whole host of other problems, we are allowing those problems to continue to flourish.

In fact, the determination of some wings of feminism to ignore the voices of the sex workers’ rights movement increases our risk of violence. Although prostitution in this country is legal, many activities that take place around it are criminalised. Social services and other state and corporate bodies are unlikely to regard working in the sex industry positively, making sex workers fear their children may be taken away from them, creating difficulties when applying for jobs if convicted of offences related to prostitution and a host of other problems.

It is vulnerability that creates victims, not sex work itself: this legal grey area makes sex workers an easy target. Street sex workers, seen as ‘the lowest of the low’, are an ideal choice for someone who wants to commit an act of violence and get away with it – it is often only the extremes, like the five murders in Ipswich, that come to police and public attention, not the casual beating or sexual assault.

Society wrings its hands over events like the tragedies in Suffolk, but will not take the action – or spend the cash – that would make them less likely. Often, street sex workers are drug addicted, poorly educated, insecurely housed women with a past in local authority care. To move on, they need an expensive cocktail of drug treatment, counselling, education and training, supported housing and other services specifically tailored to the needs of the individual.

We need decriminalisation. This is the essential first step in letting the light of day in upon the sex industry and giving us the full protection of the law.

Discrimination due to work in the sex industry – including as a parent or job seeker – should be ended. This would assist in enabling sex workers to report crimes against us, and allow those who wish to leave the industry to move on more easily. (I know of one ex-sex worker who was only successful in her 213th job application – the first on which she did not declare her convictions for soliciting.)

And working with street sex workers as if they were part of their local communities, rather than as a problem to be rid of from those communities, would massively decrease the chances of another ‘vice girl murder spree’. Although tolerance zones are not always the solution, and can be easily set up to fail, on one criterion almost all have been successful – they have seen a dramatic drop in violence against sex workers.

Some people might listen to my account and say that I’m an exception. Given the underground status of the industry, it is impossible to know for sure how many people work in the business and in what ways. I suspect people like myself, indoor workers with no problems to bring them to the attention of the authorities, form a majority of the estimated 80,000 sex workers in the UK today.

Yet many campaigners, while using violence against sex workers as an argument for our eradication, crusade against anything that will decrease that violence. They disregard the calls from sex workers’ rights organisations for decriminalisation, lobby against tolerance zones and refuse to recognise that many of us work in this industry by choice. By ignoring our right to speak for ourselves and dismissing the complexity of our experiences, they help to create the very problems they say they wish to solve.

Some even say that it is impossible for a woman to really consent to having sex for money, that – to use phrases reminiscent of 1970s-style radical feminism – her consciousness has been colonised by the patriarchy. One of the most fervently campaigned upon feminist issues was the fundamental principle that ‘no means no’. As far as those campaigning against sex workers’ rights are concerned, they refuse to accept that yes does mean yes.

Campaigners for sex workers’ rights stand for the right of everybody in the industry to have absolute choice over their own body, to choose when, why and how they have sex, to form the working arrangements they wish and to enjoy the full protection of the law. We want both our ‘No’ and our ‘Yes’ to be respected and heard.

The case for criminalisation

By Assumpta Sabuco Cantó, professor of social anthropology at the University of Seville, and Charo Luque Gálvez, coordinator of the Andaluz Platform for the Abolition of Prostitution

Prostitution is one of the most dramatic, silent and daily manifestations of violence against women in our globalised world. The businesses that benefit from the exploitation of the female body are ever more numerous, varied and highly profitable. From brothels in the cities to the access to sex via the internet or phone lines, the forms through which the masculine sex reaffirms its power have multiplied.

The anonymity of clients continues to be the way of legitimising activities that underline and replicate the inequality between men and women. It is mostly men that ‘need’ commercialised sex because it makes them feel better, because it is the custom, because it is a traditional way of learning how to treat women and a new way of celebrating business deals and male friendships. And there are many material and economic interests that try to protect what is said to be ‘the world’s oldest profession’.

This last, commonly used phrase is in fact a historical falsehood. In most pre-commercial societies it was unthinkable to pay to ‘get sex’. The term is also questionable if we think about the type of linkage that the sexual market establishes, where the relationship is impersonal and is marked by inequality: that of client/prostitute.

Sex tourism is proof of this new form of globally reproducing the differences between genders. The number of women and girls being trafficked as prostitutes has grown substantially. At the same time, demand has been growing in the so-called first world for more exotic services, and for younger, more beautiful and poorer women.

The reason we firmly believe that it is necessary to end prostitution is that we firmly believe that another world is possible. It is necessary to end this outdated mode of thinking about and experiencing sexuality. The commercialisation of the female body converts us all into objects in the minds of men. The abolition of prostitution is the political expression of a future in which equality between sexes establishes real interpersonal relations and breaks with a model of patriarchal slavery that has gone on too long.

In Spain, from the Platform of Women’s Organisations for the Abolition of Prostitution, we have elaborated a manifesto that contains the main changes needed to achieve this end. In this context, the policies adopted in Sweden stand out as the most efficient, by accentuating the role of the prostitutors – that is, those who benefit from prostitution either economically or by gaining access to women’s bodies through money.

We need to create international feminist networks so that we can present a powerful voice against the ideological arguments that, under a supposed freedom, convert sexuality into another mechanism for the exploitation of women. We need women to be conscious of the different faces that patriarchy presents in the anti-ethical context of today’s imperialism of money. We need to unite our voices and make real an egalitarian model of sexuality and gender relations.

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Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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