CN: some of the articles this piece links to contain extremely offensive ideas about sex workers.
I have been asked a number of times how my work around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in higher education corresponds to my support of sex industry decriminalisation. The implication, which elicits arguments commonly made by abolitionist feminists, is often that the two are contradictory, that in supporting workers in the sex industry I am tacitly condoning the objectification of women and male sexual entitlement which feeds misogyny and violence. This may sound like good feminist common sense. However, I see it as a facile interpretation of both the causes of violence against women and what it means to support sex workers’ labour rights. This is problematic on a number of levels, not least because it betrays an exclusion from feminist anti-violence campaigning of some of the most vulnerable women in our society, whose primary demand is to be able to work in safety.
The conversations I have had about this echo the ways in which concerns around ‘lad culture’ have been linked to prevailing moral panics about pornography and commercial sex (as well as drugs and alcohol, and the opening up of higher education to the working classes). The argument from pornography, also made about violence in schools, draws on the historical association between feminist anti-violence work and sex industry abolitionist agendas, a connection which persists in initiatives such as No More Page 3 and Object. Such groups have been prominent in opposing misogynist and laddish representations of women, and position the sex industry as both a cause of sexism and violence against women, and a form of violence in itself. Object campaigns have sometimes involved protesting outside sex working venues, which has been experienced as intimidating and judgmental by the sex workers employed by them.
Of course, there are valid conversations to be had about gendered structures of sexual labour, discrimination and violence in the sex industry, and misogynistic representations in pornography and how these relate to young people’s sexual expectations and experiences – many of these are being had by sex workers themselves. However, contemporary mainstream feminist politics in this area is often simplistic and determinist, substituting symptom with cause (in the absence of any convincing evidence) and failing to appreciate the diversity and complexity of commercial sex markets. It also downplays the broader social structures and power relations of gender (which are reflected in, not created by, the sex industry), as well as other structural conditions such as neoliberalism, HE marketisation and austerity (which, I have argued, shape contemporary ‘lad culture’ in its various forms). This produces a monocausal, and frequently censorious and punitive, politics. Campaigns resulting from these frameworks often focus on futile attempts to ban particular representations and sexual practices (or indeed, the sex industry itself), instead of focusing on the multiple intersecting social conditions which give rise to sexism and men’s violence against women, and trying to develop or enact alternatives.
Such discourses also often position sex workers as the problem, as dupes of or collaborators with the patriarchy who incite the objectification of non-sex working women by selling sex as a service (and more often than not, who deserve the violence they get). In these interpretations, the humanity of sex workers completely disappears. They become rhetorical objects in agendas around ending ‘male violence’, while the motivations, attitudes and actions of clients, the symbolic meanings of commercial sex, and the safety of other, more privileged women in relation to these, take precedence. The only sex workers who warrant support are those who want to be rescued (the ‘good’ sex workers – which reinforces the idea that the ‘bad’ ones should be punished). This leads to a complete lack of validation, protection and care for people of all genders working in the sex industry who experience violence. Indeed, feminist campaigns for criminalisation, supported by many anti-violence groups, often appear content to sacrifice sex workers’ wellbeing in the service of their ideological priorities, and the interpretation of sexual labour as violence in itself (in tandem with the idea that sex workers sell themselves rather than selling a service) can produce the horrendous myth that sex workers cannot be raped.
In our work on ‘lad culture’ and violence against women students we need to ensure that we are not playing in to such exclusionary agendas. Especially because it is possible that student sex workers may be particularly vulnerable to problematic masculine behaviours – we already know that ‘lad culture’ incorporates hostility to women who express sexual agency, and a strong element of slut-shaming. While not subscribing to unhelpful characterisations of sex work as a form of personal sexual empowerment, there are clear relationships between this and anti-sex worker prejudice (or whorephobia) due to the connotations attached to commercial sex and the idea of the sex worker as somehow ‘fair game’ when other women are not. There have also been suggestions that in some laddish communities, the act of paying for sex is seen as ‘a bit of a laugh’ – if true, this may reflect or produce a lack of respect for women who provide sexual services. Finally, it is possible that strippers and erotic dancers in towns and cities with significant student populations may regularly be required to negotiate aggressive masculinities performed by large groups of ‘lads’.
Many sex workers are at high risk of violence, from clients, members of communities which stigmatise them, and the police. An increasing number of students work in the sex industry, and they are not being adequately supported by their universities. In fact, in a process which mirrors dynamics within feminism, these student sex workers are seen as bringing their institutions into disrepute. It would indeed be sad and shameful if campaigns around ‘lad culture’ failed to pay attention to their needs (or worse, constructed them as adversaries as well). Furthermore, if such campaigns conceptualise the sex industry as in itself a form of ‘male violence’, they will obscure violence against sex workers and could end up sidelining and oppressing some of our most vulnerable students.
Of course, tackling ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence means challenging men’s sexual entitlement – but we must do this without suggesting that sex workers are responsible for it. This argument is a particularly pernicious form of victim-blaming which lacks any analytical utility, merely demonising women who are trying to get by, like the rest of us, in a patriarchal society. We need to collaborate more closely with sex worker-led organisations on issues around ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence, to conduct focused research into sex workers’ experiences of sexism and violence, and to improve their access to support. Above all, we need to make sure our work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence does not position sex workers as the enemy and throw them under the bus. This is not the kind of anti-violence feminism I want to articulate – and it is not fit for purpose.