The sex trade is rape culture, said Julie Bindel on Wednesday night in Waterstones. It involves people (mostly men) having sex with other people (mostly women) who do not want to have sex with them. To legalise it is to sanction and normalise men desiring sex with women who do not desire them.
Normalising, or indeed eroticising sex with people who don’t want sex: that’s rape culture.
I had never heard it put like that before. There are passionate and persuasive arguments being made on both sides of the abolish/legalise debate, all claiming to be more progressive and humane than the rest; one casts about in the dark trying to get at the truth. But when I heard Bindel’s simple and devastating argument it was as though she had hit the switch of a particularly stark and unforgiving light.
This critical flipping of the script is one of Bindel’s great strengths as a thinker. While most people are getting bogged down scrapping over whether women can be said to make a free and empowered choice to sell sex, Bindel neatly side-steps and looks at the thing from another, more radical angle: should men be allowed to buy and sell women? Isn’t there something wrong with men getting off on sex with women who don’t desire them?
That tendency to focus on women’s rather than men’s choices asserts itself whenever there is a conversation about male violence against women. Domestic violence: Why did she stay? Rape: What was she wearing? The so-called ‘grey areas’ of consensual/non-consensual sex: But did she actually say ‘no’? Prostitution: But what if she wants to?
These are patriarchal modes of thought. Which is to say that it serves the patriarchal ideology that we should think like this, because it steers our focus away from the men involved and discourages us from asking, Why did he beat her? and How could he force himself on her? and Why did he even want to have sex with an unconscious/reluctant/passive woman? and What does it mean that he wants to rent the orifices of a woman who doesn’t actually want him? Naturally the ideology in which we are all steeped doesn’t want us to consider the answers to these questions, because then we might start calling for changes to it.
These are precisely the kinds of questions and calls for change that Julie Bindel has been voicing since she began campaigning to end violence against women and children in 1979. The answers pretty much all come down to male attitudes towards women; to sexism, to misogyny, or to the male desire to assert power and control over women, in other words. In conversation with Sarah Ditum, another incisively critical writer, these ideas were brought into sharp relief for the audience (of majority women rather unsurprisingly, but regrettably, perhaps).
The sex trade, says Bindel, is founded on the objectification and commodification of human bodies: female bodies in particular. Women’s choices aside, what she objects to are these attitudes, and especially the normalisation or legalisation of their enactment. Those who accuse her of being ‘whorephobic’ are grotesquely wide of the mark: Bindel and other radical feminists like her seek not to stigmatise the women whose bodies are bought and sold; rather they resist the destigmatising of a massive structure of sexist, racist exploitation. Because legalisation or decriminalisation applies to the whole venture: to the activities of punters, pimps and brothel-owners too.
This kind of blanket legalisation does not serve the prostituted, the people having sex for money: it serves those who are making money out of them. The countries that have legalised have not delivered dignity and freedom for women: Bindel’s research makes that quite clear. In legal brothels, for instance, ‘the women are the ones who are meant to keep clean so the men can have unprotected sex with them and then go back and have sex with their partners.’ And legalisation leads to normalisation: in Amsterdam it is legal for driving instructors to offer lessons in exchange for sex. Boys as young as twelve are taken to prostitutes by their fathers. ‘That’s child abuse,’ says Bindel. ‘Boys are groomed by the sex trade.’
Bindel favours instead what is often known as the Nordic model: the decriminalisation of the prostituted, the criminalisation of brothel-owners, pimps, punters and anyone involved in the moving and marketing of other humans for sex. She recommends the fining rather than the imprisonment of such offenders: ‘if they’ve got the money to buy women, they’ve got the money to pay the fine.’
She is also against the language of ‘sex work’ that has been adopted by the left and which, she argues, normalises and condones ‘commercialising the inside of women’s bodies’ while purporting to be ‘sex workers rights activism’. Hence the title of her book: the idea of ‘pimping’ something – making it better, sexier, more extravagant – entered popular use from the language of prostitution. It is a reference to the extravagant dress- and life-style of pimps – made rich by selling women, mark you; it’s no coincidence that ‘prostitute’ does not carry the same connotations of wealth and glamour as ‘pimp’ does. And now ‘this has come full circle’, says Bindel, so that the sex trade itself is being ‘pimped up’ or glamorised and sanitised by the pro-prostitution lobby.
The language matters; it shapes the way we think. ‘The person who controls the language controls the argument,’ says Bindel, and it has become something of a faux-pas on the left to use the term ‘prostitution’ instead of ‘sex work.’ But Bindel draws a parallel between the term ‘sex workers’ and the recommendation by a member of the pro-slavery lobby to call slaves ‘assistant planters’ in an effort to appease abolitionists. In the same vein ‘pimps’ have become ‘managers’ and rape is ‘a breach of contract.’ So evil is cloaked in the banality of professionalism.
Meanwhile ‘sex worker’ gets used rather indiscriminately: for women and girls coerced into prostitution but also applied to or claimed by strippers, webcam girls and ‘high class’ escorts or call girls. It is such women, mostly white and relatively privileged, who ‘control the narrative’. They are the ones who are pro-blanket legalisation, who perpetuate the idea of ‘the happy hooker’ making empowered choices.
But Bindel’s book, built on two years’ dedicated research, suggests that ‘the vast majority of women and men who are being prostituted want to get out.’ And it’s worth noting that the term ‘sex worker’ also gets adopted by pimps and brothel-owners; thus some women and men calling themselves ‘sex workers’ and lobbying for legalisation and ‘sex workers’ rights’ are in fact lobbying for the right to prostitute others. So evil is cloaked in the language of human rights.
In any case, ‘sex is not work – the inside of the body is not a place of labour,’ Bindel tells us. And ‘we know that it’s not work’ – for if we really believed it was, we’d think nothing of including it in careers guidance in schools. When prostitution is one of the careers recommended to ‘fee-paying kids at Westminster School … then we can call it work.’
Which is unlikely to happen, because as Bindel puts it, the global sex trade is ‘built on’ racism, colonialism and classism as well as sexism. Not only does it boast a large gender pay-gap (the male pimps tend to earn much more than the prostituted women) but it effectively outsources to less privileged women – poorer women, women of colour, women in the global south – the ‘male semen and violence’ that ‘nice white middle class women don’t want to take.’ In Canada, just for instance, ‘it’s reliant on indigenous women.’ She offers up this thought to ‘“progressives” who support the sex trade’ and its decriminalisation. ‘How you can support an industry that is the exact interface between patriarchy and capitalism – I don’t know.’
Defences of the need for, or inevitability of a sex trade, says Bindel, are ‘always regressive’. Why – because men need sex and without being able to buy it will go out raping, or perhaps just ‘blow up?’ she wonders.
No. ‘We can do without a sex trade – and we need to do without it. We need to visualise an end to prostitution,’ she says. Fatalism is justification. We must demand and expect that human adults engage in sex only with other adults who really want to have sex.