One of the most pernicious myths about the sex trade, propagated by the pro-prostitution lobby, is that it cannot be abolished. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard “prostitution has always been with us and always will”, feminist organisations would never go short of funding again.
This politics of pessimism defines the liberal consensus that prostitution should be regulated rather than abolished. This attitude is the antithesis of feminism. “We do not say, poverty will always exist, let’s build more poor houses,” one survivor activist told me during the research for my book on the global sex trade. “Or ‘there will always be rape, so let’s focus on patching up victims’, but we do say that about prostitution.”
The politics and beliefs of the pro-prostitution lobby are the most pessimistic and fatalistic of any movement I have encountered. ‘It’s the oldest profession’ goes the mantra, ‘prostitution has always been here and always will’. Or, as the academic Catherine Hakim has argued, men want more sex than women and therefore it is inevitable that men will pay for sex.
Some sex worker’s rights activists even claim that men “need” to have sex on demand or they will be “forced” to rape. “Prostitution is a last resort to unfulfilled sexual desires. Rape would be less safe, or if you’re forced to hurt someone or if you’re so frustrated you jack off all day,” as one punter said during an interview on why he paid for sex. Is there any view more pessimistic about men and male sexuality than this?
The abolitionist movement is the most optimistic of all. It dares to be utopian. As the brilliant Gary Younge argues, idealism is crucial for those who wish to change the world for the better. Without idealism and a utopian vision, says Younge, it is not possible to envisage the sort of world we wish to inhabit in the future. I agree – a world without prostitution is not only possible, it is inevitable. If feminism succeeds, and patriarchy is overthrown to make way for a truly equal society, prostitution, a system reliant on the oppression and abuse of women and girls by men, could not exist.
Governments that have legalised its sex trade have long suppressed any critical view, but the abolitionist movement is finding its voice in a number of such countries. Renate van der Zee, a journalist living in Holland, is one of the new wave of abolitionists that refuse to accept widespread commercial rape of desperate women. Van der Zee used to believe that legalisation was the only option for controlling the sex market, but changed her mind having researched the industry.
In 2013, van der Zee’s book, De Waarheid Achter de Wallen (The Truth Behind the Red Light District), was published, and van der Zee is now involved in the small but growing abolitionist movement in Holland. “Five years ago it would have been unthinkable to have an abolitionist movement in this country, but today it is growing and on the way to thriving”, van der Zee told me.
Germany, which also has a legal sex trade, has recently been exposed as a cesspit of abuse, thanks to the feminists who are daring to publicly criticise state-sanctioned pimping.
Last year I attended the very first abolitionist conference in Melbourne, Australia, titled: “The World’s Oldest Oppression.” Melbourne is a city where many restaurants ban doggy bags because of food safety but whose government defends legal brothels. I interviewed a group of sex trade survivors who are campaigning to repeal the law, and spent time with the abolitionists who are campaigning against the legally sanctioned sale of women and girls.
While sex worker’s rights activists wish to rebrand the pimp as a businessman, abolitionists wish to see him consigned to history.
An increasing numbers of countries around the world are looking to the abolitionist model (formerly the Nordic model, but now adopted by other nations including France and Ireland) as a way to deal with the sex trade, rather than the discredited legalisation model. The New Zealand model of decriminalisation has been exposed by abolitionists as beneficial only to pimps and punters. Feminist organisations led by sex trade survivors, such as Space International, ensure that truth tellers, not exploiters and propagandists, expose prostitution as the human rights violation it really is.
As the great feminist writer Andrea Dworkin once asked: “Surely the freedom of women must mean more to us than the freedom of pimps.” The rise of the abolitionist movement will ensure that those who speak out about the sex trade are heard and believed. In the same proud tradition of women refusing to be silenced about domestic violence, rape and child sexual abuse, sex trade survivors will eventually be acknowledged as the experts, rather than those profiting or otherwise benefiting from the sale of female flesh.
Julie Bindel’s book ‘The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth’ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on 27 September. Details of the book launch and debate surrounding the topic can be found here
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