‘Whorephobia’ isn’t a threat to feminism – but ignoring the abuse of women is

If 'consent' has to be bought, it is not consent

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The Independent Online

The first time I heard the slur “whorephobia” – which is meant to mean hatred towards or stigmatising of prostituted women – was at a conference in 2005 where I was taking about the harms to women in the sex trade. During the Q&A session a young feminist told me my “whorephobia” was a big problem. “Second wave feminists hate sex workers,” she told me. “Your politics are redundant”. 

Accusations of “whorephobia” are increasingly used to silence and deter any criticism of the sex trade whatsoever. This viewpoint is enshrined in university safe space policies, where students often attempt to pigeonhole prostitution into a sexual identity, rather than something which is done to the poorest, most disenfranchised females on the planet, bar a few high-profile exceptions of the ‘happy hooker’ variety. 

Prostitution is not a sexuality. There is a clear difference between a sexual preference or identity and prostitution (a form of men’s abuse). Radical feminists recognise this, but to fourth-wavers, it is all part of one big, often “queer”, melting pot.

The notion that I or any other feminist who critiques the sex trade is suffering from an ‘irrational fear’ of prostituted women is staggering. The use of the term “whore” as some twisted badge of honour to describe a prostituted woman is nothing short of grotesque. Men get to define who is a “whore”, and women cannot reclaim a word that has never been ours in the first place. 

Prostitution has been described to me time and time again by the women who survive it as paid rape. The men who pay for sex are buying sexual subordination. If “consent” has to be bought, it is not consent. Not one of the hundreds of survivors I have met escaped serious violence, abuse and degradation during her time in prostitution. The dozens of punters I have interviewed all displayed attitudes of contempt towards women – why would they not? To treat a woman as a commodity, it is necessary to first dehumanise her.

When did feminists begin to support the very structures and practices that are both a cause and a consequence of women’s oppression? Younger, fourth-wave feminists are today more likely to be offended by abolitionists campaigning to end the sex trade than by pimping and sex buying. Countless academics, all of whom would describe themselves as progressive, insist that ‘sex work’ is ‘empowering’ and nothing other than a choice. 

While radical feminists understand women as a sex class and seek to dismantle the structural oppression of male supremacy, fourth wave, or “liberal” feminists view women as unconnected individuals with individual choices. Liberals tend also to focus on the choices available to women, rather than the choices denied them. It is a sophisticated political argument bereft of sophistication and politics. Although interestingly, whether they accept this or not, men are enabled to band together: few things bring men closer than the violence they commit against women.

It is no wonder that feminists who learn their politics in university have become steeped in a culture of neoliberal “choice” politics. There is open hostility from pro-prostitution academics to those scholars who deviate from the pro-prostitution line. Those academics advocating on behalf of the sex trade are hardly harmless ineffectual individuals in ivory towers publishing papers nobody reads; rather they are powerful activists using their academic positions and credentials to exert influence on prostitution policy as members of national and international research bodies. It is concerning that research deferring to sex trade ideology and not academically sound evidence often ends up informing this discussion with detrimental consequences for women and girls, albeit positive consequences for those profiting from this regime of violence. 

For the past two years I have been knee-deep in researching the global sex trade for my forthcoming book, and have travelled around the world, interviewing almost 250 people. These people include survivors of the sex trade, “sex workers’ rights” activists, pimps, sex buyers, and women and men who sell sex. The survivor-led abolitionist movement is on the rise, and a number of countries are responding to calls to criminalise those who create the demand for prostitution, rather than those caught up in it.

In a world where the bodies of women and girls are being viewed as products to be bought and sold, it is more important than ever to resist this market trade in misery, and to challenge those who fight for the “right” of women to be abused. 

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