Person who does not do sex work has bad feelings about sex work

Feminist author and activist Kat Banyard’s arguments against the sex industry (in the Guardian over the weekend) are so flat they could have come from the original GIF craze era. This isn’t unique to Banyard; I’ve heard the same shabby claims from many different kinds of people who also have no expertise in the trade, be they university professors, journalists, NGO workers, or policy makers.

So for the sake of having a handy reply, here we are – a typical anti-sex work argument, using Banyard’s words as just the most recent example of a quite exhausted line of thinking, set to motion pictures and annotated for your future reference.

“Commercial sexual exploitation has been industrialised, on a global scale, and the profits for a small few at the top – pimps and pornographers – are astronomical.” [1]

“You can’t commodify consent.” [2]

“The inherent harm at the heart of this transaction we see evidenced in the astronomical rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.” [3]

“It’s often argued that it’s just like stacking shelves. That it is ordinary work, just like any other work. But if you’re stacking shelves, is it a bit different if your manager says: ‘Right, before you go at the end of your shift can you give me a blowjob?’” [4]

“People see it as an inevitable aspect of our life that commercial sex is now firmly embedded in society, and the point is there’s an alternative.” [5]

“It’s not inevitable. As a society we can choose whether or not it exists.” [6]

 

[1] Figures on sex industry profits are notoriously unreliable, as the majority of what is considered the sex industry operates within a larger informal economy. Sometimes you’ll see the estimate that [the sex industry/sex trade/sex trafficking/sex slavery – it's never clear what they mean] profits “87 million a daythrown about, which appears to be extrapolated from an ILO estimate of global profits from forced labor. That – as an economist friend pointed out – is about a dollar a day per adult male in the US. That’s not even a real sex trade figure, mind you. The exception is the mainstream porn industry, which self-reports its own profits – which are also quite easy to debunk if you dig a bit: here’s Forbes doing just that in 2011, challenging a report that porn nets $12-$14 billion annually, which is still not very much money using that “how much per US man per day” model. But you know, “astronomical” at least sounds big.

[2] This grossly exaggerates what is being sold in a commercial sexual exchange. Though it would make for a fascinating argument if extended to other forms of labor – can we commodify consent to offer child care, food preparation, psychotherapy?

Perhaps Marx has something to offer on this one?

[3] More astronomy metaphors! This seems to be pointing towards a survey of incarcerated women who had been involved in the sex trade from 1998,  which was conducted by an anti-prostitution advocate who submitted this study as testimony before courts as evidence for criminalizing prostitution. A Canadian court refused to accept this as evidence in a case in 2010.

[4] That would be sexual harassment, not sex work. Feminists fought long and hard to create a workable definition of sexual harassment. Let’s not wreck it just to claim that sex workers, unlike other workers, have no expectation of consent at work.

[5] Here is where it’s not useful to make a “world’s oldest profession” defense. Instead, you could point out that the only significant “alternative” offered by sex work opponents to date has been prison. (Or a laundry that looks like a prison. Or a sweatshop that looks like a prison.) For opponents to sex work, an “alternative” is usually understood as an alternative sexual outlet for men, not alternative employment for women.

[6] We actually can’t, as a “society,” “choose” whether or not sex work exists. (What a notion, btw, “choice,” re: those who want to eradicate sex work! So for Banyard, “choice” is just a neoliberal fantasy when it comes to sexual expression and power, but when it comes to abolishing sex work and sex workers’ livelihood along with it, that is an unproblematized choice?) What “society” (which is not a flat object) can do and has done, through the power of the state supported by business, is to marginalize sex work and in so doing marginalize sex workers as people. It can, with the law as an instrument, coerce sex workers out of sex work. That is quite different than “choosing” to end sex work. But that is, from the code of Hammurabi to the brute arm of Giuliani, how that “choice” has been expressed. We can have no meaningful proposal on the “end” of commercial sex without proposing an end to patriarchy and to capitalism. Let’s stretch our imaginations, young feminists, shall we? It’s what we’re here for.

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  • Elenath

    For years I have openly identified myself as a feminist, it was only recently that someone ‘corrected’ me to tell me that i am a ‘sex positive’ feminist . . . which I am fine with, I don’t care much about the title distinction. To me, feminism is always supposed to be about choice and to empower women (and men) to be able to make choices that they want to make, to break down gender barriers and give people the power to decide who they are going to be and on what terms.

    Would I work in porn? No, I don’t have the confidence of the talents required, nor would I personally feel very comfortable. Would I want to work as a lawyer? Goodness no, if I had to choose one I would choose porn.

    We live, like it or not, in a capitalist society where EVERYTHING is a commodity, why should sex be different?

    There is a huge gap between fantasy and reality, many studies have shown that large percentages of women have had ‘rape fantasies’ or ‘ravishment’ fantasies. The line between fiction and reality is clear to most people and I think that making men and women feel ashamed of a more sexual nature is irresponsible.

    I think that pornography (and prostitution, which I am not against either) should adhere to health and safety standards and try always to have the physical and mental health of their workers at the top rung of priorities at all times, as with other professions. We can’t achieve that if we relegate them back to the ‘seedy underbelly’ position and honestly. campaigns like this sadden me. Enacting these laws has been a difficult process and this seems like the abuse of it to fit a niche desire regardless of what is best for the whole.

    Fight the fight in porn, insist on adequate protection for all workers against STDs, sexual harassment and physical harm, I’d join in on that fight. But any fight that aims to ultimately place more limitations upon women and what they can/should do with their bodies just makes me angry.

    Kat states that the notion that feminism should be about choice is destructive . . . well then i choose destruction, because be damned if I can feel comfortable with a woman telling other women, “you should be able to do what you want with your body . . . as long as it’s not this”.