A brief foreword: this essay is an account of Julie Bindel’s talk at an event hosted by Holyrood’s Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation on Tuesday the 4th of June, 2019. I hadn’t initially planned to write about it, but this series of essays is specifically focussed on women’s rights – and the sex industry systematically violates those rights on a scale that cannot be ignored. You can read part one here, and part two here.
Dedicated to Julie, who inspired me to be a proud lesbian feminist.
Decriminalising the sex trade means decriminalising violence against women and children. This is the title of the talk Julie Bindel is giving at an event hosted by the Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation. When my invitation arrives, I don’t hesitate before accepting. That it will take me five hours to get to the venue in Edinburgh and back again is a small concern. Julie has devoted much of her adult life to challenging and campaigning to end all forms of male violence against women and girls. She is a meticulous researcher, and has travelled across continents to document the harms on which the sex industry is built. The opportunity to learn from her is a gift.
I arrive half an hour early and whip out my knitting. Anxiety makes earliness feel like being on time, and being on time feel like lateness. The venue is part of a chain of hotels and resorts that run my grandmother’s timeshare in the highlands of Scotland. Although I have never been to this particular hotel, there is a welcome familiarity to it. And even though we haven’t met before, some of the women filtering in recognise me as the author of this blog or @ClaireShrugged from Twitter. In this context – a room full of women – I have the sensation of being seen and fitting into a community.
When Julie joins us, she envelopes me in a hug. I am delighted to see her again – this time, up north. We’ve had our share of disagreements, yet I am properly fond of her. Julie is a woman who says what she means, and means what she says. Although Julie’s irreverent way of talking about feminist politics has been the subject of more than one controversy, it’s also her greatest strength. Julie is straightforward and wickedly funny in a way that wins people over to feminist causes far more than any stilted performance of wokeness. I sometimes wonder if my generation has lost an element of feminist joy that comes so naturally to Julie. While every feminist has a responsibility to herself and her sisters, the women’s liberation movement won’t travel very far if every step is tentatively made.
We go into the conference room, and it’s encouraging to see politicians from different parties and branches of government gathered to listen to this talk on the sex industry. While we’re waiting, I strike up a conversation with an academic who has been pushed out of her staff LGBT Pride Network – which has never been a particularly welcoming place for lesbians – because she resists the idea that gender is an innate, biologically fixed quality. We have both lost friendships with straight women for differentiating between sex and gender in our feminist analysis. For all the social and legal gains made in recent years, this is an isolating time to be a lesbian.
Ruth Maguire MSP, who is Co-Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, welcomes us to the event and introduces Julie with great enthusiasm. She talks about Julie’s work as a journalist, researching and reporting on various forms of male violence against women and girls. As Ruth highlights the importance of her work as co-founder of Justice for Women, I feel frustrated that purity politics prevents more feminists from recognising the tangible good that Julie’s work has brought to countless women’s lives.
Julie is here to tell us about the research conducted for her book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. She advocates the decriminalisation of selling sex and the criminalisation of buying it – what’s known as the Nordic Model. To Julie, it is abhorrent that any prostituted person should be punished by the legal system. In this we are agreed. According to the End Violence Against Women Coalition, 85% women in prostitution report physical abuse in the family, with 45% reporting familial sexual abuse. Research by CARE describes prostitution as “one of the most dangerous occupations in the world”; it is a minority of women who do not experience violence within the sex trade.
As Julie points out, the vast majority of people selling sex are women. Sex buyers are, overwhelmingly, male – and Julie has more than a few choice words to describe them. In prostitution, we see the sexual politics of patriarchy writ large. Feminists cannot work towards ending male violence against women and girls without engaging fully with the misogyny underpinning the sex trade. The women who survive the sex trade, and the many who do not, are our sisters in feminist struggle.
In my view, those survivors spearheading the abolition movement represent the very best of the feminist movement. I have had the honour of hearing testimonies given by women who have survived prostitution and are now campaigning to end demand. The courage of women like Fiona Broadfoot, Ali-Marie Diamond, Mickey Meji, Ne’cole Daniels, and Bridget Perrier is an inspiration. For all that they have suffered, each of these women works to make the world a safer place for women and girls. I don’t have the words to capture the sheer generosity of spirit this requires. The most powerful voices in the abolition movement are those belonging to the women who have survived the sex industry – and these are the voices Julie amplifies.
To radical feminists like Julie, it is evident that prostitution hinges on inequality. Hierarchies of race and class as well as gender dictate which women are most vulnerable to the sex industry. Across Europe, “there are so many women in prostitution, many of these women having been imported – by pimps – from African countries.” Julie rejects the professional language used to cover up the reality of this situation, such as the phrase “migrant sex worker.” In her words, the sex industry would have us believe that large groups of African women are “hopping on planes to Sweden to do a bit of sex work.” Trafficking is not spontaneous or casual, but a systematic exploitation of impoverished women living in the global south.
In Julie’s eyes, people who are fine with prostitution but opposed to trafficking are following a twisted logic. Trafficking and prostitution are fundamentally connected. The two cannot be neatly separated, each made into a distinct phenomenon. The sex industry is reliant on trafficking to fulfil demand. Government research shows that only 19% of women working as prostitutes in British flats, parlours and saunas were born in the UK.
The trafficking of women is not an anomaly, but part and parcel of the global sex trade. The EVAW Coalition describes Britain as “a significant site of international and internal child trafficking”; the majority of children trafficked in Britain are aged 14-17, and have been trafficked for sexual abuse and exploitation.
Julie identifies a pattern. Arguments that the buying of sex should be legalised tend to frame it as a rights issue. Decriminalisation is positioned as progressive, likened to legalising gay sex. Words like ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ are used by lobby groups to tell us that women want to sell sex. They assert that “it’s a woman’s right to be a sex worker.” But in this process, the men buying the sex are made invisible. We should be asking why men believe they have the right to buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Julie directs a question towards the audience, and it will stay with me for hours afterwards: “What else do we call a sexual act between two people where only one of them is consenting and finding pleasure?”
If indeed these acts of physical and psychological violence occurred in another context, they would be considered as sexual attacks, cruelty, abuse and rape. Why is it that when they occur within prostitution, they are not considered as such? Is it the money that makes them different? – European Women’s Lobby
During her research, Julie has travelled everywhere from New Zealand to Nevada. There are European countries in which a man can pay €60 for a beer, a burger, and the opportunity to abuse as many women as he pleases. Perhaps naively, I am shocked that women’s bodies are served to men alongside food and drink. As Julie talks about everything that she has witnessed, I am filled with admiration at her courage. Documenting the systematic abuse of women, recording and analysing the details of this degradation, is essential feminist work. But it must be difficult to absorb so much human suffering on this scale.
There is one encounter that weighs on her particularly. At a café in Cambodia, a white British man was buying a 16 year old boy to go home and live with him. The parents had agreed, accepting a sum of money from him, and he phoned the British embassy to make the necessary arrangements. 16 is the age of consent. To classic liberals, there is no ethical issue. To those of us campaigning against the sex industry, there is everything wrong with this situation. It is the result of an unholy union between colonialism and capitalism.
In Ukraine, Julie came across a white man from Delaware, Texas who was looking to buy a bride. Bob was approximately 60 years old and recently widowed. He was looking for a young replacement for his wife and opted for a Ukranian woman in the hope that “she would be submissive and compliant”, unlike the women back home who were “too modern” for Bob’s taste. The word “modern”, according to Julie, is easily substituted with “feminist.” Bob wanted a woman easily controlled; someone pliable and impressionable enough to accept his (mis)treatment.
A minority of men currently demand prostitution, but prostitution demands something of them too. They have to be proficient in viewing women as dehumanised sexual objects. It is a prerequisite for a man actually being able to stand having sex with a woman who doesn’t freely want to have it with him, let alone desiring this and forking out for the privilege. In paying for sex, not only do punters deem consideration of the genuine feelings and wants of women they are paying a trifling irrelevance to the act, many require the performance of the brutal charade that [prostituted women] don’t even possess these basic human faculties. – Kat Banyard, Pimp State
Policy makers are told by the sex trade lobby that New Zealand Model is ideal. This means that prostitution, brothel-keeping, living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation are all legal. Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue that legalising commercial brothels is preferable, because it means that women in prostitution don’t have to work on the street – where they are more vulnerable to men’s violence. But since New Zealand fully decriminalised the buying and selling of sex fifteen years ago, street prostitution has quadrupled.
The intensity of men’s violence against women in prostitution is horrifying. I find most of Julie’s anecdotes deeply upsetting. In particular, the story she tells about meeting a young woman whose bones had been so badly broken by johns that she needed a zimmer frame to walk – something that plenty of sex-buyers liked. Her health had been ruined by men’s violence, along with drug and alcohol addiction. Research shows that 87% of women involved with street-based prostitution in Britain use heroin. When men’s violence is an everyday reality, any form of escape would be welcome.
The Nordic Model isn’t perfect, in Julie’s view, but “there is a normative shift when the buying of sex is criminalised.” Cultural values are more important than the letter of the law. In the future, Julie wants to see generations of girls and boys raised to see buying sex in the same light as smoking in a public building: unthinkable, harmful, a departure from acceptable behaviour. She doesn’t believe the law alone should be a deterrent. Rather than seeing men in jail for abusing women, Julie wants the pandemic of male violence to cease altogether – and with it, the demand for prostitution.
While a lot of what Julie describes makes for difficult listening, the alternative is looking away – which means being complicit in the violence men enact against women and children around the world. Julie’s vision of a world free from the sex industry makes me feel optimistic. As she points out, no other manifestation of inequality is treated like it’s inevitable. Child poverty has existed for as long as prostitution, and – rightly – many people work to abolish it. In the same spirit, we must band together and collectively work to dismantle the sex industry.
I leave the hotel with a copy of Julie’s book tucked under my arm. Walking back to Edinburgh Waverley, I try to envision a world in which the choices available to women aren’t defined by poverty, racism, or gender. Even my choice of route to the station – where and when I will walk through which streets – is influenced by a fear of male violence. We have a long way to go. But with women like Julie at the vanguard, a feminist revolution feels possible.