Happy hookers declare war on feminist writers

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The Independent Online
Prostitutes are furious with feminist academics who they accuse of making money from portraying them as victims. Working women tell Ian Burrell that they are happy in their jobs, while feminists argue that the idea of a "happy hooker" is a myth.

Cherie, by her own admission, makes "a lot of money" from her work. She has not, she says, been coerced into having sex with strangers and is a prostitute by choice. "I cannot say the men that I have contact with are the type of people I would like to go out to dinner with. But they are inoffensive, generous people who are willing to pay for a service which I am happy to provide when they are paying me," she said.

Some feminist writers would not believe her. A bitter row has broken out between women academics who believe prostitution is a form of abuse and working prostitutes who object to being portrayed as victims.

Things came to a head this weekend as some prostitutes and outreach groups pledged to have nothing further to do with academics who specialise in writing about them. Much of the rancour stems from arecent conference called "Prostitution: Violence Against Women and Children". Organised by the Leeds Metropolitan University, it was described as the first conference which "will not be a debating platform for those who believe that prostitution is a `job like any other' ". Some prostitutes who attended as delegates left in disgust.

Cherie (her working name), who works from a house in Leicester, was livid at the conference message. "It is very annoying to have academics tell me I am being abused by doing something that they are making an awful lot of money writing about," she said.

Another prostitute left in tears after an argument with a delegate who accused her husband of being her pimp.

Also among those who left early was Sue Johnson, a prostitute for 19 years who now works as director of the Prostitute Outreach Workers group in Nottingham. "I take great offence if anyone says I am so thick or so much of a victim that I cannot think for myself," she said.

While accepting some women were forced into prostitution, she added: "The academics are radical feminists who cannot see the real issues around prostitution. They were portraying all the women as victims and all the men as perverts. They will never stop the demand for prostitution - how are they going to rehabilitate punters?"

The conference was used to launch plans for Britain's first "Johns School", designed to re-educate kerb-crawlers. The idea, pioneered in America, involves first offenders being instructed by the courts to attend a school where former prostitutes would tell them of the damage their activities are causing both to the women and the community. West Yorkshire police was represented at the first working group meeting this week.

The conference chair, Jalna Hanmer, a professor in women's studies at Leeds Metropolitan University, said there was no intention to offend prostitutes. "No one who is doing work in this area really wants to blame women or say they are ... passive. Quite, the contrary, we want to work with women to make their lives better and help women who are in [prostitution] get out if they want it," she said.

But she argued that research showed many prostitutes who had believed they were happy in their work later changed their minds. "It's a way of trying to handle a really difficult situation. You present an `I'm alright' face to the world," she said. "Finally you have to drop that and acknowlege `I'm not alright really' and you need to leave prostitution."

Among the conference speakers was author Sheila Jeffreys, who launched her book The Idea of Prostitution, in which she challenges the idea "that men are entitled to abuse women and profit from their exploitation". She said the feminist argument against prostitution was being undermined by the growing clamour for "sexual liberalism, economic individualism and free choice ideas".

The conference was opened by Emma Humph- reys, who as a 17-year-old prostitute killed a man in defence against rape and served seven years in prison. She worked as a prostitute from the age of 11 and is now planning a book to dispel the myths about child prostitution.

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