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

Why sex workers should be part of sexual violence campaigns

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.

‘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.

‘Listen to survivors’ and the fetishisation of experience

The debate over Amnesty International’s draft policy supporting the decriminalisation of sex work has been heated. Although the organisation developed the policy following extensive research with sex workers and consultation with key stakeholders, it has been accused of wanting to protect the rights of ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’ to buy or profit from the sale of sex. The position of those supporting Amnesty’s draft policy is clear – the vast majority of sex workers globally oppose criminalisation (including the ‘Nordic Model’ of criminalising clients), because it jeopardises their incomes, creates health vulnerabilities and puts them at risk of violence. As the community most directly affected by sex work law and policy, it is argued, their voices should matter most.

Although this may seem uncontroversial, it has been claimed that this injunction to listen to sex workers is an identity politics which fetishises personal experience and is an insufficient basis on which to base policy decisions. It has also been suggested that in prioritising those currently working in the sex industry, we erase the experiences of ‘survivors’, ex-sex workers who have experienced trauma and exploitation and whose voices are often used in order to make the case for abolition. Indeed, it is contended that these survivors are ‘strategically sidelined’ by a movement for decriminalisation which is said to be headed by clients and ‘pimps’.

It is both fascinating and tragic that the movement for sex industry decriminalisation has been reduced to an ‘infatuation with identity’ which is based on a few personal anecdotes. In actual fact, the evidence base for Amnesty’s draft policy includes a wealth of sex worker narratives, either told from the grassroots or as part of extensive research with sex workers conducted by Amnesty, UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation and other bodies, and a developing canon of academic literature focusing on sex workers’ experiences of different legal frameworks. There is also information gathered via different methodologies, around risk factors for health problems and violence, and whether criminalisation actually reduces demand or has an impact on trafficking.

To dismiss this preponderance of evidence is both disingenuous and disrespectful, and conceals the ways in which sex industry abolitionists are themselves guilty of a fetishisation of experience through their frequent admonitions to ‘listen to survivors’. The survivor is an abiding and central fixture in feminist politics seeking to eradicate the sex industry. Famous second-wave abolitionists Andrea Dworkin (herself an ex-sex worker) and Catharine MacKinnon made the voices of women exploited within pornography central to their legislative lobbying. In the contemporary context, ‘survivor stories’ have acquired both corporate gloss and wider exposure, as a key political tool for what has been termed the ‘feminist rescue industry’ focused on using the criminal law to ‘save’ women from commercial sex.

The current debate around the Amnesty draft policy recalls similar discussions in 2013, following two UN reports which advised that in order to support efforts to reduce HIV and AIDS and promote the human rights of people in the sex industry, commercial sex should be decriminalised. In response, international organisation Equality Now mounted a campaign entitled ‘Listen to Survivors’. This used women’s experiences of trafficking and exploitation/abuse in the sex industry to urge the UN to instead promote measures criminalising the demand for commercial sex. These survivor narratives, similar to those used in sex industry abolitionist initiatives in countries such as the UK, Ireland, the US and elsewhere, deployed harrowing accounts of victimisation and suffering to justify a particular legislative agenda.

Although such a politics purports to be about women’s liberation and empowerment, it can be seen as profoundly objectifying. The experiences of survivors, while valid and undeniably distressing, are often mobilised by a third party as the ‘trump card’ in this policy debate. Such manoeuvres also rarely incorporate analyses which tie specific oppressions to distinct parts of law or working practices: instead, the fact of suffering is used to bolster a sweeping moral case against the sex industry as a whole. Survivor narratives are not respected when they become rhetorical objects within broader agendas in this way. On the contrary, they become part of a long tradition of white feminist empathy in which the elite cannibalise the pain of the marginalised for their own objectives and ends.

In terms of issues around using experience as evidence, strategically employed ‘survivor stories’ are much more problematic than the huge global movement of sex workers speaking for themselves. However, they are often lined up against this movement, as though the two are on an equivalent footing. Furthermore, claims of superior authenticity are often made on survivors’ behalf, with sex workers who support decriminalisation described as a privileged minority of ‘happy hookers’ who are not representative and whose experiences have been benign.

The ‘victimised survivor’ and ‘happy hooker’ are two poles of experience which frequently become symbolic in adversarial debates about the industry. As sex worker activists have argued, this dialectic can flatten out lived realities and have a silencing effect on those whose experiences are more ambivalent and complex. Positioning those supporting the Amnesty draft policy as ‘happy hookers’ within this dynamic is nothing more than a tactical move designed to mask the fact that they in fact represent a diversity and majority of sex workers’ voices. To characterise this consensus as the politics of a privileged few is both dishonest and cruel.

Survivor stories are essential, and have been key to the powerful feminist movement around violence against women and girls. However, that this movement often positions sex work as in itself a form of violence against women is a mistake. There are many survivors of violence against women working in the sex industry, and many exited survivors who advocate for decriminalisation. The current debate sees sex industry abolitionists using the bodies of their preferred survivors as tools to silence others.

‘Listen to survivors.’ But which ones?

‘Disappearing’ sex workers in the Amnesty debate

The international council meeting of Amnesty International which starts today in Dublin will consider a resolution urging that sex work be decriminalized. This is accompanied by a draft policy on state obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of sex workers. The document is clear – the rights of sex workers are at stake, the organization has not changed its stance in opposition to forced labour and human trafficking, and it considers children who are involved in commercial sex to be victims of a grave human rights abuse.

Amnesty

One of the first things that struck me when reading Amnesty’s draft policy was that the voices and concerns of sex workers are central. The criminalization of brothel-keeping and solicitation is opposed because they ‘often force sex workers to work in ways which compromise their safety’ (for instance alone, or with shorter negotiations with clients). Criminalising clients, Amnesty notes, ‘can lead to sex workers having to take risks to protect their clients from detection by law enforcement’ (for example, visiting locations that the client, rather than the sex worker, has chosen). The last four pages of the document summarise research Amnesty undertook with sex workers across four geographical regions, featuring harrowing stories of repression and violence, frequently at the hands of the police.

However, the outpouring of opposition to Amnesty’s draft policy has ‘disappeared’ the bodies and rights of these sex workers. Instead we have been subjected to a moral panic focused on ‘pimps’, ‘Johns’, and mega-brothels’, and accusations that the organization is enshrining men’s rights to buy sex. Celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham have given the voices of outrage a huge signal boost, signing a petition developed by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International urging Amnesty not to ‘legalise pimping’, and ignoring the fact that the draft policy is in fact focused on human rights abuses against sex workers.

Amnesty’s policy, based on listening to sex workers, consultation with key stakeholders and research by organisations such as UNAIDS and the WHO, has been turned on its head. Headlines such as ‘There can be no amnesty for those who buy sex – not even if women ‘consent” and ‘Amnesty International says prostitution is a human right – but it’s wrong’ have shifted the focus away from the rights of sex workers and on to a massive bout of shadowboxing against the fictional rights of ‘punters’ and ‘pimps’. The furore has reached such a fever pitch that Amnesty’s Senior Director for Campaigns was forced to clarify, in a letter to the New York Times, that the organisation’s motives were to protect sex workers and nobody else.

The ‘disappearing’ of sex workers here is not a new or isolated phenomenon – as Amnesty itself acknowledged in its draft policy, sex workers’ voices are often obscured or ignored in discussions about their lives. The Sex Worker Open University notes that sometimes whole events are held about the sex industry in which sex workers are explicitly excluded. Sex workers who advocate for labour rights are frequently shouted over by abolitionists deploying stories of exited and traumatised ‘prostitution survivors’. These narratives, of course, are valid – but they are invariably presented as though they represent the truth of the industry, played as the trump card so sex workers with different realities end up silenced, having lost the game.

Sometimes interventions made in support of sex workers’ rights also render them invisible in disastrous ways. Just yesterday, right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs released a paper authored by sociologist Catherine Hakim arguing that the sex industry should be legalized because 21st century men have a ‘sex deficit’ which needs to be addressed. It also suggested that the sex industry plays an important social function in lowering the rate of sex crime, in the process reducing sex workers to a pressure valve for men’s violence, on behalf of more privileged women.

Although people of all genders work in the sex industry, the symbolic ‘sex worker’ is often a woman, which is an erasure of many others. Furthermore, this symbolic ‘sex worker’ is frequently not a person but a metaphor for patriarchy and ‘male violence’, or a willing dupe of these systems who deserves to be blamed. Indeed, as sex worker Molly Smith argues, the violence criminalization inflicts on sex workers is often seen as necessary, in order to protect ‘good women’ from harm. The idea of ‘false consciousness’ is used to erase sex workers’ humanity and invalidate their consent. All these themes have been evident in the opposition to the Amnesty draft policy, as well as the notion of all sex work as abuse which implies that it is not possible to sexually assault a sex worker. Because of beliefs like this, sex workers who are raped can disappear as victims and find it difficult to access support.

The Amnesty draft policy recognizes that the disappearance and stigmatization of sex workers is at the core of human rights abuses against them. Violent men target sex workers, mainly women, because they know they barely count as people at all: often working alone and in conditions not of their own choosing, and disbelieved or re-victimised by the police if they dare to report assault. Amnesty’s opponents, focused on the implications of its draft policy for ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’, are unable to hear these sex workers’ voices and prefer policy frameworks which put them at risk. Their concern for human rights, unlike Amnesty’s, seems to apply to some women and not others.

Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonphipps.

Originally published in Open Democracy

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.

Neoliberalism and the commodification of experience

The personal is political, that revolutionary phrase which illuminated the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and after, was originally coined in response to claims that consciousness-raising was navel-gazing with no coherent programme for social change. It posed a direct challenge to the idea that ‘personal problems’ and especially so-called ‘body issues’ should not be brought into the public arena, an assumption which feminism has done an excellent job of destabilising. Politicising the personal through the production of research on gendered bodies has fed the development of epistemologies based on the validity of experiential knowledge, and this, in turn, has brought to light the impossibility of objective analysis.

However, more than 30 years on, it is time to ask questions about what has befallen the personal in a neoliberal political context. Neoliberalism individualises, interiorises and neutralises – within this framework the political uses of the personal have shrunk as difference has transformed into ‘diversity’, and experience and emotion have become part of a broader ‘tabloidisation’ and ‘testimonialism’ in which popular culture and politics have been saturated with feeling. As Ahmed (citing hooks) reminds us, this narcissistic and therapeutic moment and movement can easily co-opt and depoliticise our personal pain (although she cautions that this does not mean it should be ignored). In the current political climate, affect and emotion often serve to detract from structural critique: as Pedwell argues, inequality is frequently seen as a failure of understanding rather than a product of neoliberal and neo-colonial governmentality. Furthermore, the pain which has always been (justifiably) central to feminist politics can accumulate and stagnate in what Wendy Brown calls ‘wounded identities’ which both legitimate and depend upon state power.

We are currently doing feminism in amongst a commodification of distress. Moreover, this transforms experience into currency with which to buy into broader ideologies or ‘gazump’ potential political opponents. This is revealed by the frequency with experience is ventriloquised by politicians and privileged ‘experts’, who use empathy as a technology of access to marginalised lives, often upstaging grassroots communities who may be able to claim ownership of their stories but lack a political platform. Neo-imperialist agendas strategically centre ‘native informants’, often women, whose narratives of oppression are used to constitute Other cultures, usually those of Muslim-majority societies or communities, as uniquely and inherently misogynist and homophobic. Domestic and international politicking around the sex industry is characterised by a fight for experiential authenticity, which in the mainstream media is often transmuted into a ‘debate’ between the extremes of the ‘victimised survivor’ central to abolitionist agendas and the ’happy hooker’ who often materialises as a rebuttal to that type of feminist politics. As part of its resurgence, anti-choice politics has recently undergone a shift away from its sanctification of the foetus, towards advocating the idea of abortion as a deep personal trauma which is contrary to women’s best interests.

Within a lexicon in which experience is frequently and increasingly used (often second-hand) in the service of particular political agendas, personal stories begin to lose their humanity. Complex and varied narratives are simplified and homogenised for ideological ends and can then be dismissed by those in opposition as apocryphal or even corrupt. As debates become more heated, we tend to fixate on the first-person and discredit the experience when we ought to be questioning the surrounding politics. The relationships between particular experiences and powerful and often repressive political agendas have begun to define the narratives themselves and to rob them of legitimacy. Muslim women who speak out against gender inequality become unreliable because they must be stooges of the imperial West. Sex workers who acknowledge pain have been procured and perhaps coached by moralistic, prudish abolitionists who wish to strengthen the police state. In response, those with privilege and political power tend to defend themselves with attributions of false consciousness: Muslim women who choose to cover their bodies, hair and/or faces, and sex workers who declare choice and discuss self-expression, can both emerge as patriarchy’s dupes. In this politics of positionality, experiences are always already marked by ideology and the first question we ask (consciously or not) when someone shares their experience is, ‘whose side are you on?’

The ideologisation of experience has produced a flattening out of lived realities for fear they will be converted into foreign currency. In much the same way as the complexities of ending a pregnancy may be underplayed by pro-choice individuals and groups for fear of reinforcing pro-life agendas, sex workers may de-emphasise, hide or even deny difficult experiences within a politics of respectability which operates in opposition to the radical feminist rescue industry and in a dynamic in which ‘excited’ and ‘exited’ are the only positions available. As neoliberalism turns debates into bidding wars, experience is valuable only in the right currency, which polarises and renders invisible the possibilities in between. Those with differing experiences of the same phenomenon are unable to co-exist, as one person’s experience may outbid and ultimately annihilate another’s. This also creates little space within the individual for mixed or ambivalent feelings to endure: multiplex subjectivities must become less so in order to be intelligible within the dominant phraseology of concepts such as ‘objectification’, ‘victimisation’ and ‘empowerment’.

Such compelling but essentially meaningless universalisms hide the operation of structural and historical dynamics. These include the impact of successive waves of colonisation on religious institutions and their relationships with both state and mass forms of political action in many Muslim-majority countries and communities, the links between migration flows and identities, the ways in which repressive immigration policies and criminal justice systems encourage individuals to narrate themselves in particular ways, and the situating of commercial sexualities within a post-Fordist capitalist system with a service-based consumer culture, high unemployment and shrinking social welfare. Furthermore, attempts at structural analysis often themselves inevitably collapse into appeals to experience: for instance, the radical feminist idea of patriarchy is frequently reduced to a homogenous experience of ‘male violence’, with little attention paid to the ways in which intersecting structures of oppression might produce varied encounters with this phenomenon and/or give rise to disparate analyses and forms of activism.

The contemporary politics of the personal prevents us from co-situating and productively analysing different experiences within such intersecting analytical frameworks, instead creating an anecdotal flow which is transmuted into a competitive deployment of one-dimensional stories and serves to create and widen gulfs between us. The fetishisation of experience also serves to restrict or conceal discussions based on other evidence, such as the compelling case against the criminalisation of sex workers and/or their clients, in which the figure of the victimised prostitute who must be rescued has made way for data pertaining to police and community harassment and repression, susceptibility to infectious diseases, risk of violence and access to health and social services.

This does not mean, of course, that we should not theorise from experience – indeed, the ‘view from nowhere’ with its attendant ‘voice of reason’ can also be that of the oppressor and reeks of entitlement and privilege (I say this with an awareness that in writing this piece, I may reasonably be read that way myself). Neither does it mean that all experiences, while valid, can be regarded as in themselves equally reliable sources of knowledge – what Haraway would term knowledge as an ‘act of faith’. Rather, we need to be able to translate experiences between situated, heterogeneous and power-differentiated communities, and use these as data to create knowledge informed by many types of evidence and frameworks of intersecting structures. We must also walk the fine line between respecting varied experiences, while critically appraising the uses to which particular experiences or technologies of empathy are put. Adding to our existing questions about ‘whose personal’ is political, we must be mindful of what it means to use the personal in the contemporary political context, ask whose experience counts within both dominant and marginalised thought and activism, and understand how neoliberalism depoliticises the personal and suppresses resistance by alienating us from each other.