The Trouble with Feminists…

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Last Thursday, I attended a panel debate at the ICA, entitled, ‘The Trouble with Feminism’. Wrangling with each other and the audience, the quintet struggled to decide whether or not the sisterhood had been sidetracked by a post-feminist mirage in herstory’s desert, where flexible working, pole dancing classes, and the glamour of Belle de Jour-style escorting were duplicitous signifiers of sexual and social equality.

Recent books by Natasha Walker and Kat Banyard certainly suggest so. Alongside academics Sarah Churchwell, Nina Power and Ruth Holliday, and sex shop entrepreneur Sam Roddick, Banyard cited the pay gap and the omnipresent threat to the abortion laws as proof that we have still not achieved the aims of our feminist foremothers. So far, so reasoned. But when Kat turned to address the matter of the ‘pornification’ of society, applauding the recent Policing and Crime Act 1999 as an apposite strike-out against prostitution, not only did she reveal her minor ignorance about the realities for those at the coal face, but the potential danger in ensconsing yourself in a corner of the moral maze.

Let me explain. When the debate was opened up to the floor, I interrogated the panel on the P & C Act issue. While former sex workers’ rights campaigner, now Coco de Mer Directrice Sam Roddick, offered a reply, her burning bra flames from a different flagpole these days, namely one challenging a ‘masculine’ system of industry, and so it was left to Banyard to cite the high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst sex workers as proof that the law must work to end prostitution, emphasising that the P & C Act was a step on the way to assuring the mental and physical health of countless exploited women.

The problem is, feminism’s sanitising zeal frequently actually endangers, rather than protects the people it professes to help.

Firstly, in a bid to crack down on trafficking, the law now renders two or more sex workers a brothel; a brothel needs a licence, and failure to procure this results in prosecution (how brothels are licensed is an arcane and arbitrary process). Similarly, the police can raid brothels where they suspect a pimp is controlling the operations. (Note the use of suspect; first ‘potential jihadis’, now prostitutes.) The police have a vested interest in raiding brothels because, under the Proceeds of Crime Act, they can recoup a sizeable percentage of any money or valuables they find on the premises. What this means in reality for sex workers, is that the only way to avoid unnecessary police attention and protect themselves against prosecution, is by working alone, whether indoors or on the streets. This, in turn, increases the vulnerability and isolation of an already marginalised, maligned group of women.

Secondly, as Sweden has shown, there is a direct correlation between criminalising clients and increased incidences of violence against sex workers. The minute the clients, who usually already have complicated and contradictory attitudes to their behavior, feel they are being morally condemned, they merely project this onto their ‘service providers’. When Scotland toughened up its laws on kerb-crawling, reported incidences of violence against sex workers nearly doubled.

Thirdly, prior to passing the act, the government did not consult sex workers themselves when drafting it. While a European parliamentary resolution as far back as 1579 recommends that prostitutes should be afforded a right ‘to have a say in our polices (…) concerning them’, organisations such as Eaves Women’s Housing, rather than the English Collective of Prostitutes functioned as the ‘mouthpiece’ for those in the sex industry. If Eaves are so keen to represent sex workers’ views, why not simply allow those actively working in the industry a say? Finally, when civil servant Alistair Noble finally did consult sex workers on the practical application of the bill, it was after it had reached its third hearing, and far too late in the legislative process to fairly represent the interests of those it claims to protect.

In her book, The Equality Illusion, Kat cites evidence from Southbank University Professor of Criminology Roger Matthews that harm reduction strategies merely keep people in prostitution, and as such, criticises organisations that hand out condoms to street walkers. She would be mortified by the comparison, no doubt, but push Kat’s argument a little further, and there is an alarming similarity between her no condoms, no crime policy and that of the Catholic Church in Africa (ie its refusal to advocate contraception as a means of combating the mass suffering of victims of the AIDS pandemic).

At the end of the event, Kat and I continued our debate in the bar, reframing it as a question about sex work as legitimate employment. It became clear that this was an ideological gap we were not going to bridge over a late night glass of wine. Kat believes sex work can only ever be an enfettering enterprise; I believe that, theoretically, sex work can be extrapolated from the prevailing misogyny and patriarchy that generally commandeer it, and as such, the strike shouldn’t be against the sex industry, but against the sexism inherent in it. But as the dialogue eased from argument to amiable conversation, Kat confessed two things I felt somewhat undermined her position:

1) That she had never read Belle de Jour’s blog or books (despite referencing it in her own), and
2) That her understanding of sex workers was not exactly thorough (she had no idea what a dominatrix did, for example)

Fair enough – she can’t read, research and know all in her quest to inherit the third-wave throne (I certainly haven’t), and these may seem like petty and insignificant examples to throw back at her. After all, the experiences of Brooke Magnanti or a metropolitan pro-Domme are rare exceptions to an industry that is frequently physically and mentally exploitative, degrading and traumatising. But can any argument about contemporary sex work really be complete without scrutinising the counter-examples, the inferences that, in certain circumstances, sex work might work?

During the debate, panel chair Sarah Churchwell was keen to stress the potential fallacy of the post-feminist ‘it’s my choice’ argument, which applies to everything from burqa-wearing to gang bangs for cash, encouraging the audience to interrogate where their own perceived notions of choice come from. And while I entirely agree with this, there are clearly ideal choices, and pragmatic ones, of which sex work often tends to be the latter. Regarding the sizeable number of women working in the sex industry, and by that I mean not just as prostitutes, but in porn, and in lap-dancing clubs, Ruth Holliday and Nina Power were keen to frame the issue in socio-economic terms, stressing the fact that the feminist cause is dominated by right-thinking, left-leaning, middle class women, who underestimate their own good fortune of opportunity in being able to reject sex work as an economic and ideological choice. As Nina put it, ‘real work is shit’; so if you can work for a tenth of the time, in something that pays ten-fold , the allure is obvious, especially in a world where men hold at least twice as much of the global capital.

Of course, it isn’t exactly fair to level the charge of middle class myopia at campaigners like Kat Banyard – the social position of the suffragettes does not dilute the significance of what they managed to achieve for women’s rights. But if social parity is still very much lacking, it’s important not to condemn what is essentially a pragmatic choice for many women – of making £150 an hour performing sex acts with a stranger, rather than five pounds something scrubbing the parquet of someone else’s floor (because, despite the crash, the capitalist system shows no signs of shrivelling up just yet). Legislate against this and you contravene Article 23 of the European Convention of Human Rights – freedom of employment. And what document is more fundamental to liberal feminism if it isn’t the Human Rights Act?

Let me reiterate: it’s sexism, not sex work that is the real issue. Feminists like Kat would argue that the two are inextricable. But if the sex industry is so ubiquitous, has been for eons, and threatens to be for several more (certainly as long as capitalism exists), surely the answer isn’t to try to shut it down, but to take on the sexism that currently governs it?

And while Kat’s committed, humane campaign for gender equality must be praised, when it comes to sex work, rejecting harm reductionist approaches in favour of idealism won’t help the hundreds who now have to work in isolation and increased danger as a result of the new Policing and Crime Act 1999. The trouble with feminism, then, is that in all this indignity about the ubiquity of the sex industry, it loses sight of the fact it must fight for the human rights and equality of all women first and foremost, whether or not it agrees with their circumstances.

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