A critical review of ‘Revolting Prostitutes: The fight for sex workers’ rights’ by Juno Mac and Molly Smith

The key premise of this book is that prostitution is a form of labour and most of the problems associated with it are caused by criminalisation of its various aspects, and brutal border control and immigration laws. The authors claim that addressing any problems in the sex trade therefore requires the full decriminalisation of all of the actors involved within a labour rights approach, along with open borders and the free movement of people. In this review I explain why I think they are mistaken.

The book also attempts to rebut key arguments of the feminist movement against the sex trade – except Mac and Smith misrepresent those arguments, turning them into straw men. One of the most glaring examples of this is the conflation of anti-sex trade feminist activism with hatred and disapproval of prostitutes. This is like conflating anti-fox hunting activism with hatred and disapproval of foxes – which is so topsy turvy it’s enough to make your head spin.

Anti-sex trade feminist activism is based on the testimony and analysis of sex trade survivors and radical feminism – although not all anti-sex trade feminists agree with all of the latter’s tenets.

I am unclear whether Mac and Smith simply don’t understand the radical feminist analysis of prostitution or whether they deliberately misrepresent it. Radical feminist analysis sees prostitution as a key part of the system that maintains male supremacy and female subordination. Radical feminism doesn’t believe prostitution is inevitable, nor that it has always existed.

On page 14, the authors state:

“Today, the anti-prostitution agenda focuses on eradicating sex work through harsher penalties for clients. Despite the fact that their movement is almost exclusively comprised of those who previously sold sex and those who never sold sex, modern day anti-prostitution campaigning works to eliminate the means for other people to currently sell sex. Few in their number will themselves be materially affected by prostitution policy.” [My emphasis]

Once you understand that prostitution is part of the system that maintains the subordination of women as a group, it becomes clear that this assertion is a fundamental category error. Examples of how prostitution works to subordinate women en masse include:

  • It implicitly positions women and girls as objects for male sexual consumption, rather than as subjects in their own right. This implies that men are human and women are lesser, sub-human, or second class, and it affects how all men see women and how women see themselves. This is strengthened and legitimised whenever prostitution is normalised, for example, by considering it a form of regular work.
  • Research has shown that sex buying makes men less able to empathise with women and girls, and more likely to rape, sexually harass and be violent towards them. Prostitution therefore contributes to the epidemic of male violence against women and girls (VAWG) that we are currently seeing.
  • When prostitution is accepted as a legitimate form of work, it inevitably becomes institutionalised as a form of welfare for single mothers and other women in poverty, and official motivation is lost for addressing women’s poverty and inequality through positive policy measures.

These examples show how prostitution policy materially impacts all women.

Mac and Smith’s above assertion also misrepresents the focus of anti-sex trade feminist activism. The Nordic Model, for which most anti-sex trade feminists campaign, is a holistic approach and penalties for buying sex are only one aspect of it. Moreover the penalties for clients (punters) are not harsh (typically a mid-level fine for a first offence), the aim being that they serve as a deterrent. We want to change men’s attitudes and behaviour, not to incarcerate large numbers of men.

Mac and Smith rail against what they call ‘carceral feminism,’ which they define as a feminist approach that “focuses on policing and criminalisation as the key ways to deliver justice for women.” Again, this misrepresents the arguments of anti-sex trade feminists, none of whom argue for the criminalisation of those who are prostituted. Instead we argue for high-quality non-judgemental services and meaningful alternatives for women involved in prostitution, along with robust measures to address women’s poverty and inequality.

When gay men campaigned for effective legislation against homophobic hate crime and for the police to take it seriously, no one accused them of being ‘carceral gay rights activists.’ So why the difference?

Human rights frameworks require human rights abuses to be recognised in legislation – not least to send out a clear and unambiguous message to society that such behaviour is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. VAWG is recognised as a human rights abuse. What possible explanation can there be therefore other than sexism and misogyny for not recognising its various forms in legislation or for slurring those who call for that as ‘carceral feminists’?

Of course legislation alone is not sufficient, and the police need training and oversight, and legislation needs to be combined with welfare and social measures, but these are part of the holistic Nordic Model approach that anti-sex trade feminists are campaigning for.

Work

There is a terrible fatalism in this book. On page 39, Mac and Smith say:

“[S]he is forced – usually by economic necessity – to continue choosing survival over a noble exit, and she reminds us that capitalism cannot be magicked away with liberal or carceral solutions. For this person, sex work may be sex – but it is also work, in a world that allows no alternative.”

Anti-sex trade feminists understand that most prostituted women had little, if any, choice in their entry into prostitution, and that once embedded in it, it can be extremely difficult to get out. It is for this reason that we advocate for prostituted individuals to be decriminalised and for the provision of non-judgmental support and genuine alternatives, along with measures to address poverty and inequality. To suggest, as Mac and Smith seem to, that there is no possibility of an alternative for poor women except to continue in prostitution is nihilistic.

Anti-sex trade feminists have more hope. We believe that inhumanity is not inevitable and that a different world is possible, and we are prepared to put ourselves on the line to fight for it.

We know from messages we receive from women currently involved in prostitution that they are grateful for our vision of hope, and they tell us that our analysis is helping them make sense of their lives and to believe they can aspire to a different kind of life.

“Your site is the only site that I can relate to or makes sense to me. It has made me examine things and understand feelings a lot better. It really has.” – Anon

The key thesis of the Work chapter seems to be that a lot of work is crap and so it doesn’t matter that ‘sex work’ is also crap. Again we reject this cynical stance. We do not accept that being paid to be penetrated, to endure a stranger ejaculating on you, and the other core components of prostitution can legitimately be considered a form of regular labour or service work. Rather the essential feature of prostitution is being used as an object for someone else’s gratification.

I was struck by the glaring absence in this chapter of any discussion of the impact on all workers of legitimising prostitution as a form of regular labour. We have written elsewhere how it is not possible for prostitution to meet the most basic Health and Safety standards regarding bodily fluid contamination (think of a dentist), and damage to internal organs and mental health. Accepting prostitution as work would therefore require accepting that normal Health and Safety standards do not apply to it. This would set a terrible precedent for all workers.

But there are other ramifications of recognising prostitution as regular work. If a woman in the course of a normal job is obliged to give blow jobs and accept anal and vaginal penetration, what is to stop any employer requiring young women to provide their bosses and male colleagues with the same? The legal ramifications of recognising prostitution as regular work are huge and terrifying for female employees, and this chapter ignores them all.

Dentist in typical gear to protect from bodily fluid contamination.

Borders

The chapter on human trafficking, entitled Borders, is a peculiar mixture of sound analysis and exasperating obfuscation. I agree with much of what they say about how the effects of heavy-handed border control and immigration policies leave many people practically devoid of rights, thus making them easy to exploit, and leaving women in particular with little recourse but to turn to prostitution in order to raise the money necessary to sustain life.

I also agree with much of their analysis of colonialism, neo-colonialism and unfair trade rules that have systematically impoverished nations in the global south, and continue to do so.

However, there’s a glaring omission concerning prostitution’s role in the colonial process itself. Prostitution was unknown in most indigenous communities in the global south and the Americas before the arrival of the white man. The introduction of prostitution alienated the indigenous men and women from each other, reducing the possibility of collective resistance and helping to decimate their traditional culture. As indigenous cultures and traditional food production were destroyed, women’s livelihoods and customary independence were ripped from under their feet, forcing them into dependence on men, either individually or through prostitution.

The recent scandals of white male ‘aid workers’ sexually exploiting local women and children and the inability of the institutions for which they work to deal with this effectively reveal that prostitution is also deeply embedded in the neo-colonialism of the current ‘aid’ industry.

Wherever foreign ‘peacekeeping’ forces are stationed, prostitution and sex trafficking invariably follow in their wake. That illegal militias now commonly engage in sex trafficking in order to raise funds can hardly be a coincidence.

None of these things are mentioned. Instead the authors make some hyperbolic claims about US anti-trafficking organisations. For example, on page 59, the authors claim:

“In 2012, in the United States alone, the collective budget of thirty-six large anti-prostitution anti-trafficking organisations (with many smaller organisations excluded from the calculation) totalled 1.2 billion dollars, while the US federal government budgets a further $1.2 to $1.5 billion annually for anti-trafficking efforts. The vast majority of this money is spent on campaigning, as opposed to supporting survivors; in 2014, the United States had only about one thousand beds available for victims of trafficking. (By contrast, in 2013, the collective budget for the sex workers’ rights movement for the entire world was 10 million dollars.)

The references do not back up all the assertions made, and the way the information is presented is misleading. Most of the large anti-trafficking NGOs do not have a critical feminist analysis of prostitution, but instead see most prostitution as either a moral failure or a matter of personal choice that must be respected. Therefore to describe all these organisations as anti-prostitution is incorrect. There is no evidence that “the vast majority of this money” is spent on campaigning, although the journalist has undoubtedly uncovered some questionable practices.

It is intellectually dishonest to directly compare this funding (much of which goes towards law enforcement) with the funding for the ‘sex workers’ rights movement.’ There are many extremely well-funded organisations that lobby for ‘sex workers’ rights’ (aka the full decriminalisation of the entire sex trade, including pimps and brothel keepers) – for example, the World Heath Organization, UNAIDS, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundation (which financially supported the authors while they wrote this book). The funding that these organisations spend on campaigning for ‘sex workers’ rights’ is likely to more than match those campaigning for a Nordic Model approach.

But the most glaring weakness of this chapter is that the authors seem to deny that sex trafficking as internationally defined even exists, and that it does not require the victim to be moved from one country to another, or even from place to place in the same country. Nor does the chapter mention the exploitation of the prostitution of children, which is now referred to in the UK as ‘child sexual exploitation’ (CSE), and which usually fits the international definition of sex trafficking.

CSE is a serious problem in the UK and huge amounts of money can be made from it. In the well-publicised Oxford case, there were an estimated 373 child victims, most of whom were girls, many in local authority ‘care,’ some as young as 11. They were sold to men for up to £600 an hour.

To ignore the role that such easy profits have in motivating sex traffickers and how the prostitution of adults and children cannot be separated in practice, as Mac and Smith appear to, is irresponsible. To do so in a book aimed at influencing public opinion and public policy on this issue is unforgivable.

The sex traffickers’ obscene profits derive from the money that ordinary men pay to have a child or young adult for an hour or so to rape and use as a sexual plaything. This, men’s demand for prostitution, is what underpins sex trafficking and the entire sexual exploitation industry.

CSE has a terrible impact on children’s lives and for many, perhaps the majority, it leads to prostitution in their adulthood. Men must be held to account for the consequences of their actions and the havoc they cause. Mac and Smith seem to show no interest in holding men to account, even when the victim is a child.

We already have laws in England and Wales that prohibit men from buying sexual access to children or women who have been forced or coerced. But these laws are ineffective. This is one of the strongest arguments for prohibiting the buying of sex per se.

A Victorian hangover

The Victorian Hangover chapter addresses the legislative situation regarding prostitution in Great Britain, which more or less everyone agrees is a mess. It’s not surprising therefore that I found much that I agree with in this chapter. I unequivocally agree that fining women for loitering and soliciting is wrong, as is targeting them with prostitute cautions, or ASBOs and their equivalents, which often impose impossible conditions. All of these serve to trap women in prostitution and can lead to prison sentences for non-payment of fines and breaches of conditions.

This is wrong and unfair, especially in the context of men’s virtual impunity to buy and pimp women and girls in prostitution. Anti-sex trade feminists are clear that they oppose these measures, and they have led the fight for the wiping of women’s criminal records for loitering and soliciting.

I hate that police often see women in general, and prostituted women in particular, as easy targets and go after them because it’s a lot less hassle than going after violent men. But the authors seem oblivious to how this is related to the way that prostitution positions women as second class.

We know that many women involved in prostitution have alcohol and drug problems and that they typically develop these in an effort to tolerate the intolerable reality of prostitution. And I agree that there are far too few suitable women-centred services available to help them. Most drug and alcohol services are targeted at men and are often inappropriate for the particular needs of women who are or have been involved in prostitution. Supportive women-only addiction services are an intrinsic part of the Nordic Model.

And of course it is distressing to read the accounts of the violence punters inflict on prostituted women, right up to murder. However, we profoundly disagree with the assertion that decriminalising the entire sex trade would automatically solve much of such violence. Prostitution is inherently violent and decriminalising it always leads to an increase in the amount that happens, which means that inevitably more women are attacked and murdered.

I have sympathy with the argument that two or three independent women should be allowed to work together for their own safety. However, when you look more closely, you see there are complex issues to be considered. On balance, I do not support legislation to explicitly decriminalise small groups of women operating from the same premises, because it would legitimise and normalise prostitution. However, I do not want to see the police pursuing small groups of truly independent women who share premises. This is the approach that is taken in Sweden.

Prison Nation

The Prison Nation chapter looks at the fully criminalised regimes in the United States, South Africa and Kenya. The accounts of police brutality in this chapter make harrowing reading. Anti-sex trade feminists do not advocate for this approach.

I disagree with Mac and Smith’s criticism of the SESTA-FOSTA anti-trafficking legislation that was recently passed in the United States. It has been welcomed by prostitution and sex-trafficking survivors because it creates new criminal penalties against websites that facilitate sex trafficking and gives survivors recourse against such websites that facilitated their victimisation. Survivor activist, Marian Hatcher, explains why anti-sex trade feminists support these measures in an interview on Feminist Current.

The People’s Home

The People’s Home chapter looks at the Nordic Model style approach in Sweden, Norway, Ireland and Canada.

Last year, Zoë Goodall did some research in Canada on how its Nordic Model law was working out in practice. She was disappointed to find that little had changed since the law had been passed four years earlier. In some regions, it is the official police policy to not implement the law at all, and in other areas things are not much better. The $20 million the government had promised for exiting services has not materialised. The only good thing is that women are no longer being arrested as they had been before.

This shows that getting Nordic Model legislation on the books is only the first step. Implementing it requires the cooperation of many different public bodies and services. The entire approach is predicated on a profound paradigm shift that challenges men’s historic entitlement to sexual access to women and girls. Many people, particularly men, resist this shift. As men retain disproportionate power within most of the public institutions (police, public prosecutions, legal system, treasury, media, etc.) even in countries that have passed Nordic Model style legislation, there are many opportunities for the spirit and implementation of the approach to be sabotaged – on a national, regional and local level – as Zoë’s work in Canada shows, and as some of the examples in this chapter also show.

In a later chapter, on New Zealand, MAC and Smith acknowledge that the enduring legacy of the preceding centuries of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism will not be swept away in one pioneering piece of legislation:

“[A] legal change in place for under twenty years has yet to undo the damage of the millennia that came before it.’

And they acknowledge there are problems in New Zealand in terms of policing and immigration law that need to be fixed. It is hypocritical therefore that they do not extend the same understanding to the countries that have implemented the Nordic Model. Instead they claim that not dissimilar problems in the Nordic Model counties are proof of the failure of the Nordic Model itself.

The truth is that even in Scandinavia, funding for services for women have been badly hit by neoliberal austerity measures, just as they have in most other countries. As feminists we see time and time again that women’s needs are ignored, deprioritised and not understood.

This chapter has a full nine pages about the impact on ‘the demand’ – i.e. the punters – from the perspective of those who ‘sell sex.’ The impacts the authors identify revolve around a reduction in the number of punters. This shows that the Nordic Model can and does work to change men’s behaviour.

Of course a reduction in the number of punters makes it harder for those selling sex. But that is one reason why the Nordic Model includes provisions to help women exit, and why it needs to be accompanied by robust measures to address women’s poverty and inequality.

I’m not sure that some of the supposed negative consequences they describe hold up to scrutiny. For example, it’s stated that women are no longer able to take the time to assess punters before getting into their cars, for example. But CCTV footage before and after the implementation of a zero tolerance approach to kerb crawlers in Ipswich revealed no change in behaviour. The punter would pull up and the woman would hop in almost immediately, and this didn’t change.

Mac and Smith also complain that under the Nordic Model, women have to do more outcalls. But they are also a standard part of the sex industry in New Zealand.

The fact is that prostitution is dangerous and nothing can make it safe. That is why the ultimate aim of the Nordic Model is to eradicate it, while putting practical provisions in place to enable the transition.

In this chapter, Mac and Smith rely on Amnesty International’s research in Norway 17 times. We have shown that this research was of very poor quality and cannot reasonably be relied upon. In addition, Mac and Smith say on page 161:

“Amnesty spoke to dozens of women evicted in this way, and found that all but one were given a day – or less – to leave their apartments.”

This is simply untrue. According to the report of its research in Norway, Amnesty spoke to only five women who had been evicted, four of whom were described as Nigerian and the other one as of “African origin.” Many, perhaps all, of these women were on three month visas and so were evicted from short-term rentals and mostly for breach of contract. These were not evictions from permanent homes.

I can’t help wondering what else Mac and Smith have misrepresented for their own aims.

Charmed Circle

Artemis, in Berlin, is one of the largest brothels in Germany. Spread over four floors, it can accommodate up to 600 punters simultaneously.

The Charmed Circle chapter looks at the legalised approach to prostitution in Germany, the Netherlands and Nevada. We clearly oppose this approach, as do Mac and Smith. However, they exaggerate the differences between a legalised approach and New Zealand’s fully decriminalised approach, which they do advocate for.

Moreover they obfuscate the real situation in Germany. They mention the 2017 Prostitute Protection Act, but do not mention that this was introduced in response to the negative consequences of the previous regime, which in some parts of Germany was practically indistinguishable from the decriminalised approach they so admire in New Zealand.

Nor do they mention that although the new legislation came into effect on 1 July 2017, there was a transition period of one year and that this had barely expired when the book was published in November 2018. This means that when they were writing the book, the sex industry in Germany was still operating under the provisions of the Prostitution Act of 2002.

German feminist, Inge Kleine, explains how the Prostitution Act of 2002, which liberalised Germany’s already legalised system, worked:

“Germany is a federal state, so the 2002 Prostitution Act functioned as a broad legal framework, within which the different Länder or ‘states’ could draw up their own approaches. Broadly speaking, the 2002 Act made endorsing brothels more systematic. Municipalities with more than 50,000 inhabitants became obliged to designate prostitution areas, and all pimping (except for ‘exploitative pimping’) was decriminalised and so were certain forms of trafficking. In practice almost all pimping and trafficking was decriminalised, because it’s virtually impossible to prove either ‘exploitative pimping’ or trafficking in court.

The different states were able to decide whether they wanted a more decriminalised or legalised approach. Berlin chose decriminalisation, and it is there that outcomes have been the worst. ‘Hartgeldstrich’ is a Berlin term, which means ‘hard money prostitution area.’ ‘Hard money’ refers to coins as opposed to bills, because prices are so low they can be paid in coins. Used condoms and syringes litter the sidewalks, the playgrounds, the sandpits, and even school recreation areas, and residents have begun complaining. As a result, some streets have been put under some form of regulation – prostitution activities may no longer be engaged in during daylight. But as usual, the penalties are imposed on the women.

Other cities with similar approaches had to cancel it and go back to zoning and regulation.”

Mac and Smith do not mention any of this and focus on the new regulations without discussing what triggered their introduction or what happened beforehand. Similarly they mention that many brothels have been closed down in the Netherlands, but not that this was also a response to problems that could no longer be ignored.

There are geographical and social reasons why the problems associated with the decriminalised regime in Berlin and the more legalised approach in other parts of Germany, are harder to ignore than the similar problems in New Zealand. Germany has a population of approximately 82 million. It is in the centre of the European Union and has land borders with nine other countries. Of course any bad results of the legislation will be more obvious than in New Zealand, which has a population of less than 5 million and not only has no land borders, but is isolated in the vast Pacific Ocean, more than 1,000 miles from Australia and only slightly nearer to some small Pacific islands.

Both countries are ‘sex tourist’ destinations, but Germany’s mega-brothels are only a short drive or cheap flight away from Europe’s approximately 300 million male citizens over the age of 14 (compared to approximately 1.8 million in New Zealand). Moreover the European Union’s open borders make bringing young women from Europe’s poorer regions to Germany’s mega-brothels a piece of cake compared to doing something similar in New Zealand.

New Zealand is isolated in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

No Silver Bullet

The No Silver Bullet chapter focuses on the decriminalised regimes in New Zealand and New South Wales. Near the beginning of this chapter, the authors say:

“Readers of this book, too, would be forgiven for hoping that this chapter might produce a watertight solution, a panacea where the dangers of prostitution can be swept away. For that to happen, however, it would have to actually be one singular problem rather than a matrix of oppressions that act together.”

If you’ve read this far, I think it will be obvious that I am in wholehearted agreement that prostitution is predicated on the interlocking systems of structural oppression and inequality that blight our world. Where I disagree with the authors is that I see prostitution as an intrinsic part of those systems of structural oppression and inequality.

Feminist historian, Gerda Lerner, has shown that prostitution was unknown before powerful older men seized control and instigated the system of male hegemony that is known as patriarchy. The system of prostitution was one of the key tools they used to divide women against each other, and men against women, making them all easier to control and exploit.

The system of prostitution still functions in this way. If you imagine a world where women and men have real equality, would prostitution be part of it? Would the kind of mega-brothels we see in Germany and New Zealand?

Should those who want to see a fairer world really be fighting for the normalisation of such an oppressive institution? Few women leave prostitution in better shape – financial or otherwise – than they entered it. Research has found that violence is a prominent feature of prostitution in all settings and that it tends to entrench women’s disadvantage and social exclusion, and to shore up the inequality between the sexes.

The punters’ entrance to Femme Fatale, one of New Zealand’s large brothels. (There is also a ‘discreet’ back entrance for men who don’t want everyone to know what they do in their spare time.)

Mac and Smith’s enthusiasm for the New Zealand approach is both touching and naïve. We are in touch with women who have experienced the soulless New Zealand brothels, including at least one woman still stuck there. They describe a dystopian world where the chances of getting out recede with every day they spend there, so that suicide comes to seem the only escape. This is partly because in the New Zealand worldview, prostitution is just another job, so why would the women involved need special help getting out of it? If nurses and waitresses don’t need special help changing jobs, why should prostituted women?

This reveals another topsy turvy aspect of this book. Mac and Smith moan about the awful carceral feminists who campaign for the Nordic Model, incorrectly describing its holistic approach as one entirely focused on ‘law and order.’ When in fact the approach Mac and Smith advocate for is based on changing the law and lacks any significant social measures.

If Mac and Smith were sincere in understanding the implications of full decriminalisation, they would have studied the situation in Berlin. Their wilful blindness suggests they are ideologically driven.

Conclusion

This book is a clever attempt to sell the full decriminalisation of the sex trade as the only enlightened solution to prostitution. But the authors are not as clever as they seem to think they are. They even claim they have a Marxist analysis. But this is also a lie, as Zachary George Najarian-Najarian explains:

“Marxism has always recognised prostitution as one of the vilest forms of exploitation; every major Marxist revolutionary has condemned it in unequivocal terms. The Communist Manifesto openly proclaims that the socialist revolution will do away with ‘prostitution both public and private.’”

The socialist movement must be clear that prostitution is not compatible with human dignity, and is damaging both to the individuals caught up in it and the wider community. We should not expect anyone to do things that are against human dignity just to survive, and we should not allow anyone to build up their ego through the sexual exploitation of another.

We must fight for a solution that does not condone the sex trade, while treating those who are caught up in it with generosity and kindness. The Nordic Model provides such a solution.

Anna Fisher

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