I’m a sex industry novice. I have no personal experience of working in it and know very few people who do. Not that I let that get in the way of forming opinions about it. I thought I had a progressive and feminist view: the industry, to me, was yet another example of women’s bodies being commodified and sold to men for profit, very little of which ever reached the women themselves. Stripping was objectification, prostitution was exploitation at best and rape at worst, and women in porn were treated as nothing more than three orifices and breasts horribly distended by implants. It wasn’t a moral judgement – I didn’t regard sex workers as some sort of lower species, but I did see them as victims of patriarchy, pimps, and an industry that violated their human rights and their bodies. It embarrasses me now that I had so simplistic and, frankly, patronising a view, but in some small defence, this is the way the sex industry is depicted in much of the mainstream media and abolitionist campaigns can be very persuasive. It fits with a certain stream of feminism that regards all forms of sex work as violence against women. Sex is supposed to be pleasurable, not a form of abuse. The life of a sex worker, we are told, is one of violence, rape, and terror. Sex workers are forced into prostitution by a drug habit, pimp or trafficker. This is a disturbing image. If you’re told that getting rid of the sex industry would end this, why wouldn’t you agree with it? And what better way to do it than to punish the abusers – the men who go to prostitutes? The Swedish Model, as it’s known, might have failed abysmally (see Petra Östergren’s excellent critique at www.petraostergren.com/ for more details), but the ethos at its root – that, by making the purchase of sex illegal, the customers will disappear, leaving the sex workers to live happy, peaceful, unexploited lives – sounds like progress. Get the women out of prostitution and into fulfilling occupations. MSP Rhoda Grant, with her attempts to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland, is banging the same drum – all about exploitation and the assumption that no one in their right mind or with any alternative, would want to be a sex worker.
But ideology and reality are not the same thing. An obvious point, perhaps, but one that’s easy to forget. I sometimes do, anyway. Abuse and exploitation are bad, agreed, but so is the imposition of one’s own assumptions onto the lives of others. It’s far easier to just pass judgement, knowing little or nothing about the reality and to sign up to the organisations that sound like they’re doing something to better the lives of those working in the sex industry. I did that for a while. It made me feel like I was doing something to help my fellow woman.
Then I read Kate Holden’s In My Skin, a memoir of her time spent as a prostitute and heroin addict, and realised the issue was just a little more complicated than I’d assumed. Prostitution, as became apparent to Holden, as she moved from working on the streets to brothels, was a multi-faceted occupation, providing services that, often, had nothing to do with sex. Yes, there was sex, but there was company, intimacy, and conversation, too. Holden wasn’t in thrall to some bastard who’d beat her up if she didn’t have sex with enough clients; prostitution was her profession of choice. I’m embarrassed to say how old I was before I realised this was even possible, but it was more than old enough to know better. So, I read more, suddenly fascinated by the people who worked in this industry. I bought a stack of memoirs and autobiographies by sex workers, read interviews and found dozens of websites. What I found fascinated me, but it also pissed me off. The further I got from my one-dimensional view (“all forms of sex work are BAD and all sex workers are VICTIMS”), I realised that, though it may be defensible, it’s incomplete. There is much to condemn in the sex industry and I’m not about to argue that all those who say so are lying, because they’re not. But what they’re doing is showing only part of the picture. Sex work is a job done by people and, though a basic fact, this is what abolitionists and those who want to criminalise the purchase and/or sale of sex seem to forget. It isn’t done by drones to be pitied, rescued, and denied the right to freedom of thought and choice because they’re either deluded or incapable of forming, let alone voicing, an opinion, yet that is how those working in the industry are, frequently, assumed to be. Criminalising the purchase of sex doesn’t magically give sex workers a super life; it takes away their livelihood, forcing them out of their profession, and providing them with no alternative employment. Though this may be welcomed by some in the profession – nothing is ever completely bad for everyone – overall, it negatively impacts on their lives. (Again, see http://www.petraostergren.com/ for analysis of the effects.)
I decided I could either sit at my desk feeling pissed off about the fact that, in a sea of rhetoric, there seemed to be far more people arguing against sex workers than speaking for them, or I could try and do something to help. I looked for organisations that worked with sex workers and campaigned for their rights. So I arrived at SCOT-PEP (an organisation that does just that), enthusiastic but essentially clueless, and the realisation that the lofty voices in the ivory tower do very little to help those in the streets below.