New paper: Sex Wars Revisited

I have a new paper out in the International Journal of Women’s Studies, entitled ‘Sex Wars Revisited: A Rhetorical Economy of Sex Industry Opposition.’ This journal is completely open access so the paper is available free to anyone who is interested. The abstract is below and the paper can be downloaded here.

This paper attempts to sketch a ‘rhetorical economy’ of feminist opposition to the sex industry, via the case study of debates around Amnesty International’s 2016 policy supporting decriminalisation as the best way to ensure sex workers’ human rights and safety. Drawing on Ahmed’s concept of ‘affective economies’ in which emotions circulate as capital, I explore an emotionally loaded discursive field which is also characterised by specific and calculated rhetorical manoeuvres for political gain. My analysis is situated in what Rentschler and Thrift call the ‘discursive publics’ of contemporary Western feminism, which encompass academic, activist, and public/media discussions. I argue that contemporary feminist opposition to the sex industry is shaped by a ‘sex war’ paradigm which relies on a binary opposition between radical feminist and ‘sex positive’ perspectives. In this framework, sex workers become either helpless victims or privileged promoters of the industry, which leaves little room for discussions of their diverse experiences and their labour rights. As Amnesty’s policy was debated, this allowed opponents of the sex industry to construct sex workers’ rights as ‘men’s rights’, either to purchase sex or to benefit from its sale as third parties or ‘pimps’. These opponents mobilised sex industry ‘survivors’ to dismiss sex worker activists supporting Amnesty’s policy as privileged and unrepresentative, which concealed activists’ experiences of violence and abuse and obscured the fact that decriminalisation is supported by sex workers across the world.

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Why the ‘Nordic Model’ sucks (with references)

One aim of the recent Home Affairs Committee Prostitution Inquiry seems pretty clear. The first question contributors were asked to answer is ‘whether criminal sanction in relation to prostitution should continue to fall more heavily on those who sell sex, rather than those who buy it’. This leading formulation offers a choice between two modes of criminalisation rather than asking about all possible legal models, and situates the criminalisation of sex workers and their clients as separable when in reality they are not. There are numerous negative consequences of the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ criminalising sex workers’ clients in an effort to ‘end demand’ for sexual services. Research from countries where ‘end demand’ frameworks have been enacted (including research by government agencies) has clearly shown that criminalising sex workers’ clients is a de facto criminalisation of the sex worker and creates a number of additional risks, especially for sex workers who are already marginalised.

Here is an indicative (but not exhaustive) list: if you want to find out more about this issue, do follow up some of the references. There are also some excellent briefing papers which include research references and testimony from sex workers affected by these laws, for instance by SCOT-PEP and the Sex Worker Open University.

Under the ‘Nordic Model’:

  1. Sex workers can experience greater harassment due to the policing of clients on the street (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004).
  2. Stigma against sex workers increases, which puts them at risk of violence from clients and community retribution (this stigma has been explicitly positioned as a positive effect of the Swedish legislation, since it is thought it will deter people from entering the sex industry – see Skarhed 2010).
  3. Sex workers can be displaced to outlying areas or more secluded times, for client protection, which creates additional risk (Hester and Westmarland 2004, Crago 2008, Kinnell 2008, Krüsi et al 2014, Lyon 2014).
  4. There is increased competition between those selling sex on the street, due to a reduction in those willing to buy publicly (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, Levy and Jacobsson 2014), and this can lead to a depression in wages (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  5. Higher risk services (such as unprotected sex) are often offered due to lack of client choice, less bargaining power, and needing to negotiate more quickly with clients who may fear arrest (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Hester and Westmarland 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, Krüsi et al 2014, Levy and Jacobsson 2014, Lyon 2014, Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014).
  6. Some sex workers may engage in theft to make up for lost earnings (Levy and Jacobsson 2014), and are thereby criminalised by other means.
  7. Clients become less willing to give sex workers their contact details, which is an important safety measure (Levy and Jacobsson 2014), or insist on ‘outcalls’ rather than services being provided in venues familiar to the sex worker (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014, ScotPEP 2015).
  8. There are often prohibitions on sex workers working together, which is another key safety strategy, or on ‘benefiting from the proceeds’ of prostitution; this latter can criminalise sex workers’ partners or prevent sex workers from cohabiting with them (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  9. Sex workers can become more reliant on potentially exploitative managers and third parties due to clients being less willing to negotiate the purchase of sex directly (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare 2007, ScotPEP 2015).
  10. Criminalisation deters clients who do not wish to commit a crime, but is less likely to deter clients who intend to abuse sex workers. Criminalising clients is likely to increase the proportion who are aggressive or dangerous, especially those who are purchasing sex on the street (UNAIDS 2009, ScotPEP 2015).
  11. There are effects on the provision of services, with sex workers having to conform to the narrative of the disempowered victim in order to access support (Danna 2012, Levy and Jacobsson 2014) and an increased belief that safety and rights are contingent on exiting the industry (Scoular and Carline 2014). Swedish support services do not operate with a ‘harm reduction’ model, which means that condoms are infrequently distributed or their distribution is even opposed as it is thought to ‘encourage’ prostitution (Chu and Glass 2013-14).
  12. There are effects on relations with police, with sex workers reluctant to report dangerous or violent clients due to concerns over a loss of their livelihood (Krüsi et al 2014, Amnesty International 2015) and evidence that police are conducting surveillance and searches on sex workers and engaging in practices such as confiscating condoms for evidence, which create additional risks of HIV and other STIs (Kulick 2003, Krüsi et al 2014).
  13. In both Sweden and Norway, these laws have provided cover for practices such as the removal of sex workers’ children and deportation of migrant sex workers (Kulick 2003, Amnesty International 2015, ScotPEP 2015).
  14. Sex workers face being reported to hotels or evicted from housing, as it is illegal to provide premises where sex work will take place (Levy and Jacobsson 2014). An Oslo police operation entitled ‘Operation Homeless’ involved police posing as clients to discover sex workers’ addresses, and threatening landlords with criminal sanction if they did not evict them. Once someone is listed as an evicted sex worker, it is very difficult to find new housing (Ulla Bjørndahl Oslo 2012).
  15. Negative relations between sex workers and the authorities means that they are less likely to reach out when they witness trafficking, abuse and exploitative working (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs 2004).

A Norwegian government report on the Swedish sex purchase law found that it had created a ‘buyers’ market’ and that violence against sex workers had increased (Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security 2014). Furthermore, Levy and Jakobsson (2014) argue that there is no reliable evidence to support the claim that the Swedish sex purchase law (sexköpslagen) has created a reduction in prostitution. There is some evidence of a reduction in street prostitution but no reliable evidence to confirm that this has not been displaced into indoor markets – in fact there is evidence that this has indeed occurred (see Chu and Glass 2013-14).

The premise of ‘end demand’ approaches is that men’s demand for sex is responsible for the existence of the industry. However, this conceals the economic conditions which lead many people to sell sex in order to survive. Attempts to eradicate the sex industry via the criminal law will only create risk and harm for sex workers, without any reduction in the sale of sex, if the context of poverty and austerity economics remains unaddressed. As Sex Worker Open University have stated, the provision of state benefits, education, training and alternative employment opportunities, rather than ‘ending demand’, is the key to reducing the number of people selling sex. In a context of high unemployment, benefit cuts and sanctions, depressed wages and increased homelessness and debt, it is irresponsible to consider any model of sex industry regulation which would make it more difficult for marginalised people to survive. In other words, the ‘Nordic Model’ officially sucks.

References 

Abel et al (2007) The impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the health and safety practices of sex workers: report to the Prostitution Law Review Committee. Health Research Council and Ministry of Justice, New Zealand.

Amnesty International (2015) 2015 ICM circular: Draft policy on Sex Work

Crago, A L (2008), Our Lives Matter: Sex Workers Unite for Health and Rights. New York: Open Society Foundation

Danna, D (2012) ‘Client-Only Criminalization in the City of Stockholm: A Local Research on the Application of the “Swedish Model” of Prostitution Policy’, in Sexuality Research and Social Policy 9(1), 80-93

Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (2011) Moving Beyond ‘Supply and Demand’ catchphrases: assessing the uses and limitations of demand-based approaches in anti-trafficking

Hester, M and Westmarland, N (2004) Tackling Street Prostitution: towards an holistic approach (Home Office Research Study 279)

Jordan, J (2005) Sex Industry in New Zealand: A Literature Review. Sponsored by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice, Wellington

Chu, S K H and Glass, R (2013-14) ‘Sex Work Law Reform in Canada: considering problems with the ‘Nordic Model’, in Alberta Law Review 51, 101-124

Kinnell, H (2008) Violence and Sex Work in Britain. Devon: Willan Publishing

Krüsi, A et al (2014) ‘Criminalisation of clients: reproducing vulnerabilities for violence and poor health among street-based sex workers in Canada-a qualitative study’, in BMJ Open 2014; 4:e005191. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005191

Kulick, D (2003) ‘Sex in the New Europe: The Criminalization of Clients and Swedish Fear of Penetration’, in Anthropological Theory 3(2), 199–218

Levy, J and Jakobsson, P (2014) ‘Sweden’s abolitionist discourse and law: Effects on the dynamics of Swedish sex work and on the lives of Sweden’s sex workers’, in Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(5), 593–607

Lyon, W (2014) ‘Client criminalisation and sex workers’ right to health’, in Hibernian Law Journal 58

Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police Affairs (2004) Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands

Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security (2014) Evaluation of Norwegian legislation criminalising the buying of sexual services (English summary)

O’Connell Davidson, J (2003) ‘Sleeping with the enemy? Some problems with feminist abolitionist calls to penalise those who buy commercial sex’, in Social Policy and Society 2(1), 55-63

Schulze, E et al (2014) Sexual Exploitation and Prostitution and its Impact on Gender Equality. Briefing paper for the European Commission Directorate General for Internal Policies

ScotPEP (2015) The Swedish Model: a briefing. Available at http://www.scot-pep.org.uk/sites/default/files/reports/the_swedish_model_full.pdf

Scoular, J and Carline A (2014) ‘A critical account of a “creeping neo-abolitionism”: Regulating prostitution in England and Wales’, in Criminology and Criminal Justice 14(5), 608-626

Skarhed, A (2010) Selected extracts of the Swedish government report SOU 2010:49: The Ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services: An evaluation 1999-2008. Stockholm: Swedish Institute

Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (2007) Prostitution in Sweden 2007

Ulla Bjørndahl Oslo (2012) Dangerous Liaisons: A report on the violence women in prostitution in Oslo are exposed to. Commissioned by the Municipality of Oslo, with support from the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety

UNAIDS (2009, 2012) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work

UNDP (2012) HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights, and Health. Final report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law

UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS (2012) Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific

World Health Organisation (2012) Prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections for sex workers in low- and middle-income countries: Recommendations for a public health approach

World Health Organisation (2013) Implementing Comprehensive HIV/STI Programmes with Sex Workers: practical approaches from collaborative interventions

‘You’re not representative’: Identity politics in sex industry debates

Alongside ‘listen to survivors’, ‘you’re not representative’ is a key refrain from abolitionist quarters in feminist debates about the sex industry. Most recently, this mantra was chanted in the furore around Amnesty International’s draft policy on decriminalisation, where in addition to claims that the organisation was acting to protect the rights of ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’, it was argued that the sex workers supporting Amnesty’s proposal were an unrepresentative minority with unusually positive experiences of the industry.

This assertion is problematic on a number of levels. First, as Wendy Lyon reminds us, due to criminalisation and stigma the demographics of the sex industry largely remain a mystery. What we do know is that the majority of sex workers now work indoors – this does not necessarily mean they are not vulnerable, but it does challenge persistent myths about exploited and trafficked street workers constituting the bulk of the profession, which give fuel to the abolitionist lobby.

Within the political movement for sex workers’ rights, sex workers themselves acknowledge that most (though not all) high-profile activists hail from more privileged backgrounds. However, this refers mainly to Western activism, which is abolitionists’ main focus (erasing vibrant sex workers’ rights movements in other parts of the world). Furthermore, in this type of ‘unrepresentativeness’, sex industry politics (including the abolitionist strand) is no different from any other form – it is those who have the time and means to organise, and the cultural capitals which facilitate public engagement, who are usually able to be heard. So why do abolitionist feminists seem to be incessantly pointing this out? There is a strategy at work here.

Accusations of unrepresentativeness in sex industry debates are most often deployed to silence – acting as full stops in the conversation. They enable sex industry abolitionists to restrict the discussion to the topic of identity, miring it in issues of ‘representativeness’ instead of exploring the substance of the representations being made. This preoccupation may be partly why abolitionists seem to have such a poor grasp of the subtleties of sex industry politics, with a common conflation of ‘sex positive’ and labour rights arguments which is misguided and problematic (but politically very convenient).

Abolitionists tend to position all sex industry activism within the ‘sex positive’ framework which reformulates sexual labour as self-expression, yoking this to the body of the privileged (or ‘empowered’) sex worker as though this is her only possible form of discourse. While challenging this type of straw-man criticism of ‘happy hookers’ and ‘choice feminists’, there are certainly valid questions about whether the ‘sex positive’ framework is the best one in which to advocate for rights. Indeed, the interpretation of sex work as personal empowerment has been critiqued by sex workers, who argue that it is often a politics of privilege which erases the labour involved in their jobs and does not further their struggle.

However, these important critical voices are ignored by the abolitionist lobby, who grossly oversimply the nuances of sex industry activism and deploy accusations of unrepresentativeness against sex positive and labour rights activists alike. In the debates about Amnesty’s draft policy, it was claimed that sex workers advocating for decriminalisation were mainly BDSM practitioners and escorts who allied themselves with ‘pimps’ and managers and were throwing less privileged sex workers under the bus. These statements flew in the face of the preponderance of evidence that the majority of sex workers worldwide do not wish to exist under models which criminalise them and remove their sources of income without addressing the economic conditions which lead many people to sell sex in the first place. Sex workers supporting decriminalisation come from the most vulnerable groups in the industry, such as migrants, drug users and street workers, and those in the Global South. (Decriminalisation does not include the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients, which has been shown to be a de facto criminalisation of the sex worker).

Dismissing this sex workers’ labour rights activism as ‘unrepresentative’ is a purely rhetorical move, which substitutes medium for message. Furthermore, abolitionists’ obsession with identity is remarkably facile compared to other discussions around representation and universality which have a long history within feminism, giving rise to the concept of intersectionality when black feminists challenged their white sisters for ignoring their concerns. The family and the police were two of the institutions black feminists highlighted as experienced radically differently, due to currents of structural and political racism which put black communities at odds with state agents protecting white ones, and against which the black family has often been a haven, instead of (or as well as) a site of oppression.

To represent can quite literally mean to ‘be present’ for someone else. It is clear that white feminists have not been present for women of colour, and the agendas of the mainstream feminist movement continue to centre white concerns. However, critiques of White Feminism do not target every feminist with white skin – instead, they focus on the substance of mainstream feminist politics which prioritises the issues and needs of white women. In contrast, abolitionists concentrate on the identities of sex worker activists and in the process discredit a broad and unified movement for sex industry decriminalisation. (Ironically, this fixation on identity, as well as a persistent refusal to acknowledge their own privilege, may be why these same feminists are often resistant to, and offended by, intersectional critiques of White Feminism because they mistake these for a politics of skin colour).

To represent is to be chosen to carry a particular message, and in this case it is clear – sex workers across the world do not want to be criminalised. Abolitionist rhetoric, which comprehends the representative only as sign or symbol, silences sex worker activists with something incredibly important to convey. Against these advocates, the abolitionist wields the ‘survivor’ – ex-sex workers (mainly women) who have been exploited and abused. Their voices give abolitionist politics a veneer of authenticity, and are ventriloquized to shout down other survivors both outside and within the industry who advocate for decriminalisation. A sex worker, then, is only representative if she is making the right representations.

Or, perhaps more accurately, a current sex worker is unrepresentative if she is making any representations at all. As sex workers’ rights activist Molly Smith has pointed out, abolitionist rhetoric uses survivors as a proxy for current marginalised sex workers, implying that if they had a voice, they too would support abolitionist laws. This fetishisation of the ‘voiceless’ silences abolitionists’ opponents, as it enables them to be rejected as ‘unrepresentative’ on spec. There is a cruel sleight of hand in operation here – for current sex workers, the condition for dismissal is being able to speak at all. Sex workers active in sex industry debates, Smith says, are dismissed as ‘not representative’ because they are not voiceless enough.

Manoeuvres such as this (as well as the obvious futility of attempting to find the quintessential subject of any category, in identitarian terms) mean that the ‘representative’ sex worker is an apparition who can only manifest through abolitionist discourse. Furthermore, she (and she is always a woman) cannot manifest herself; she can only be manifested as an absence within abolitionist constructions of sex workers’ struggle for rights. She must be spoken for, whether by the abolitionist or the ‘survivor’ – she is not permitted to speak for herself. Too often within sex industry debates, this full stop is drawn on the body of any current sex worker who raises their voice – they are cut short mid-sentence, and we are not permitted to hear what they have to say. ‘She’s not representative!’ and ‘Listen to survivors!’ we are told.

As with other political movements, there are certainly valid conversations to be had around whether sex workers’ rights activists are fully representing the needs and concerns of those they are in a position to speak for. These are particularly pertinent in relation to ‘sex positive’ discourse, which has been critically appraised by many. However, the cursory identity politics deployed by sex industry abolitionists to discredit sex workers’ labour rights advocacy is a glib and callous strategy which obscures the fact that this advocacy represents the issues and concerns of sex workers all over the world.

This does not mean we should not work to amplify more marginalised voices. However, it is significant that the sex workers’ rights movement appears to be the only one dismissed in this way. While always hoping and aiming for better representation (in all senses of that word), we should expose the ideologies and agendas underpinning the statement ‘you’re not representative’. This tool of silencing aims to drive a wedge between different sex workers as if they have competing demands in relation to legal regulation of the industry. It also enables sex industry abolitionists, via the figure of the survivor, to insinuate themselves into the debate as though they in fact represent the broad mass of sex workers’ voices. They do not.

Why we should decriminalise the sex industry

The Centre for Gender Studies at Sussex, which I co-direct with Mark Walters and Tamsin Hinton-Smith, has pledged its support to the English Collective of Prostitutes’ Campaign for sex industry decriminalisation. I am very proud to be part of this group of colleagues – these are leading scholars in gender and related fields with a variety of views on the sex industry itself, who are united in their conviction that decriminalisation is the best way to mitigate violence, health and other risks to sex workers.

Ideological objections to the sex industry, especially from feminists, are far too often channeled into support for policies which make sex workers more unsafe. This includes the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients, which has been shown to be a de facto criminalisation of sex workers that puts them in danger and does not reduce trafficking and prostitution. Sex workers are frequently positioned as feminism’s ‘evil Other’, constructed as dupes of or collaborators with the patriarchy in ways which contribute to stigma against them and can too easily foster a lack of understanding of/respect for the choices people make to survive.

There is no doubt that there are many difficult gender issues in, and related to, the sex industry. However, the evidence shows that criminalisation exacerbates, rather than lessens, industry harms. Furthermore, prioritising debates about how the existence of a sex industry where most workers are women and most clients are men shapes gender and sex for more privileged women is irresponsible while sex workers are at such high risk of sexual and physical violence.

Feminist support for criminalisation policies, including the ‘Nordic Model’, is to me an attempt at social engineering via the police. Attempting to make use of a criminal justice institution which is sexist, racist, violent and corrupt in order to eradicate a whole industry in the name of gender equality, seems misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Furthermore, criminalising the sex industry (which includes criminalising buyers) has been shown to prevent the police from doing positive work, as apprehending clients involves targeting sex workers and takes priority over protecting them from violence.

On a much smaller scale, the negative reactions to our support for the ECP pledge mirror those targeted at Amnesty International over their draft policy supporting decriminalisation. Critics have ignored the important distinctions between decriminalisation and legalisation (the latter is problematic in a number of ways), and have ‘disappeared’ the body and rights of the sex worker within a moral panic discourse around ‘pimps’, ‘Johns’ and ‘mega-brothels’. Many of those opposing the sex industry may have good intentions (albeit often located within ‘rescue’ narratives which are rather patronising), but the tenor of the current discussion does not grant sex workers their humanity, which serves to reinforce the stigma that contributes to making them unsafe.

My view is that even if it was advisable, eradicating the sex industry would probably not be possible, and that attempts to do so have done more harm than good and made life more difficult for some of the most marginalised people in our society, many of them women. I believe in campaigning to eradicate poverty and austerity, not the ways in which people try to survive them. I believe in teaching our children about gender inequalities and demanding comprehensive universal sex education, not blaming the sex industry for men’s violence against women. Some of my colleagues at the Centre for Gender Studies may have different views, but I am glad we have come together to support decriminalisation for safety’s sake.

Read the University’s press release about our support for the ECP campaign here: Centre for Gender Studies backs campaign to decriminalise the sex industry.