Last month Nordic Model Now! was asked to participate in a University of Exeter student debate on the proposition that “This house believes that sex work is real work.” As a group, we are ambivalent about taking part in such debates. On the one hand, they are seldom a conducive forum for understanding nuanced and complex issues – but on the other hand, if we don’t participate there is a risk that the audience won’t hear the feminist analysis of prostitution. No one else in the group was able to take part that night, so reluctantly I agreed.
From the comments on social media during the debate, it appears that most of the students were won over by the arguments of the two proponents of the proposition – even though it was clear to me that they both had powerful vested interests in a booming sex industry, that much of what they said was palpably false and much of their argument relied on ad hominem attacks on myself and the other speaker against the proposition.
I was awake much of that night wondering why the students at one of the top universities in the UK appeared to be so unable to see beyond the self-satisfied veneer of the two speakers for the proposition. By the morning I’d resolved to analyse the arguments for the proposition and place them in context, with the aim of providing some help to those coming to similar debates in the future. This article is the result.
The Nazi Manual of Propaganda
Yale professor and expert in the history of fascism, Timothy Snyder, talks of the 1924 Nazi manual of propaganda that advised finding simple slogans and repeating them over and over and framing opposition as disloyalty or worse. Many people, he says, have taken up these tactics in recent years, leading not only to an erosion of the understanding that politics should be about reasoned debate leading towards constructive and informed policy, but also to politics being viewed as a battleground between ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’.
You would need to be blind to not recognise that these tactics have become increasingly common in the UK and US in recent years, and how they have been used to manipulate the public into support for policies that are not in their best interests and that might have catastrophic consequences. Depending on the arena, dissent is framed as hatred, ‘anti-science,’ or not ‘evidence-based,’ and this acts as a powerful silencing force that shuts down critical thinking and coerces acceptance of what is often little more than hot air.
These tactics obscure who are the real beneficiaries of the propaganda – usually people who gain power or who benefit in financial or other ways from whatever is being promoted. Bizarrely, we can observe these practices on both the right and left of the political spectrum.
These tactics were on display in the University of Exeter Debating Society debate. It was by no means the first or only such debate I have taken part in or observed, and nor was it the first time that I saw those promoting the idea that ‘sex work is real work’ consciously or unconsciously using tactics from the Nazi propaganda playbook.
You don’t have to take my word for it. You can read the transcript of the debate and I’ll illustrate my claims through an analysis of the key arguments used by the two speakers for the proposition.
The first speaker for the proposition was Jerry Barnett, who’s the author of the book, Porn Panic. He regularly writes on sex and the ‘economics of sex,’ and runs a YouTube channel called ‘Sex and Censorship.’ In other words, the sex industry indirectly provides his daily bread and butter.
After introducing himself, he defined work as: “A voluntary exchange of time or labour for money or some other payment.” He didn’t mention that this definition deviates significantly from the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, which is based on mental or physical activity, and he didn’t explain how you can exchange time for money.
One of the key arguments against prostitution being considered normal work is that although it involves some mental and physical activity (pretending the punter’s a great guy, cleaning up afterwards, etc.) the core feature of prostitution is that he uses her body – he gropes and penetrates her. This is not about her being actively engaged in mental or physical activity but someone doing something to her.
What other work involves someone doing something to you while you lie back and endure it? The only thing that I can think of is participating in medical trials – but that’s not considered work – even though you might be paid for taking part.
So, he sneakily expanded the definition to make it easier to argue that a man penetrating your orifices is a normal form of work – although of course he didn’t mention penetration because, like most sex trade lobbyists, he buries such fundamental realities in euphemism and obfuscation.
Interestingly, he did admit that it is invariably men who are the customers (or punters as we call them) and nine or more times out of ten it is women who are being penetrated – or earning an income from ‘sex work’ as he euphemistically described it.
His arguments hinged around two key contentions: First, that ‘sex work’ is well-paid, enjoyable work that has short hours and is particularly suitable for anyone who needs flexibility. I will leave aside the questionable ethics of promoting such a skewed reality to an audience of impressionable young women and men.
Second, that opposition to ‘sex work’ is based on false statistics, the conflation of trafficking and consensual ‘sex work,’ and moralistic values from people who are anti-sex and who attack women’s rights, and refuse to “listen to sex workers who say it’s empowering.”
Most of the time, he expounded on one or other of these claims, all presented with utter conviction, while implicitly framing anyone who disagreed with him as the enemy – the enemy of women’s rights, of rational debate, of men, of more or less everything that he considers good in life.
He dismissed my arguments as “anecdotes” even though most of his were based on wishful thinking rather than hard evidence – while at the same time claiming they were “evidence-based.”
For example, I mentioned that the murder rate of women involved in prostitution is the highest of any group, including in the UK, and that where prostitution is legalised, the murder rate of women in prostitution usually remains high.
His immediate response?
“Anna is good with anecdotes but when she tries to use statistics, they don’t seem to add up at all. I think the last time I looked, the professions with the highest [murder rate] were police and fast-food delivery people who are overwhelmingly men. But yeah, the anecdotes stack up, the statistics don’t.”
I didn’t manage to respond to this until much later in the debate, when I quoted a senior police officer who, when giving evidence at a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry in early 2016, said:
“We have had 153 murders of prostitutes since 1990, which is probably the highest group of murders in any one category, so that gives the police cause for concern.”
I didn’t have the stats for police murders at my fingertips but I looked them up later and found data that suggested there had been about 28 murders of police officers in the UK during the same period (1990-2015). So, there were more than five times as many murders of women involved in prostitution as police officers. I couldn’t find any data on fast food delivery drivers other than a few isolated press reports.
So much for his grasp on statistics. But the damage had been done.
Charlotte Rose, the other speaker for the proposition, compounded the damage by asserting more than once that there had been no murders recorded of women involved in prostitution in New Zealand, where the sex industry is fully decriminalised.
But again, this is untrue. The German women who run the Sex Industry Kills project have documented 10 murders of prostituted women in New Zealand since the sex trade was decriminalised in 2003 along with a number of attempted murders. That is a significant number given New Zealand’s small population (currently less than 5 million).
One of my key arguments was that the sex industry normalises and eroticises male dominance and one-sided sex, and feeds men’s entitlement and reduces their empathy – which are the very attitudes that underpin the current epidemic of rape, child sexual abuse, and other forms of male violence against women and children.
Jerry’s response? That there was not an epidemic of male violence against women. He based this assertion on another made-up definition centred on “a steep sustained increase” – unlike the Oxford Dictionary, which centres the definition merely on a disease being widespread.
He said that not only was there not an epidemic of male violence but that the prevalence of such violence has been on a steep decline for 50 years.
But this is not true. Research has shown that male violence against women has risen significantly in the UK since 2010 and that new forms of gender-based abuse are increasingly prevalent. Even the UN describes male violence against women as a pandemic – which is an epidemic that has spread to cover multiple countries.
I mentioned that the judge in a judicial review about Sheffield Council’s relicensing of Spearmint Rhino (a lap dancing club) had castigated the council for rejecting a large number of objections from women and community members who said that the club had made the streets less safe on the basis that these objections were nothing more than “moral values.” The judge was clear that the objections were not about morality but were issues of equality.
Jerry responded as follows:
“There was briefly the anecdote about Spearmint Rhino and that women didn’t feel safe in the area. The fact is I’ve been involved, I’ve got stripper friends who’ve been involved in these campaigns to keep the venues open and these claims are false. They come up over and over again – that the presence of a strip club in an area makes women less safe. This has been de-proved, debunked, using evidence over and over and over again. So, the idea that women don’t feel safe in the area is a different thing.
Unfortunately, if women don’t feel safe, that’s sad but then they should acquaint themselves with the facts that actually the presence of a strip club in an area does not lead to an increase in sexual violence. And yet these kinds of things are continuously claimed to make it look like this is a woman’s rights movement rather than a morality movement, which it is.”
As for his claim that the increased violence in the vicinity of lap dancing clubs and similar has been “debunked” many times, well I couldn’t find any clear evidence that supported that. Rather I found much to the contrary. The Women and Equalities Select Parliamentary Committee in its report on its inquiry into Sexual Harassment of Women and Girls in Public Places, accepted the considerable evidence that sexual entertainment venues, such as lap dancing clubs, “promote the idea that sexual objectification of women and sexual harassment commonly in those environments is lawful and acceptable.”
But that is not good enough for Jerry. He sticks to what he knows is effective, and repeats sound bites that are simply not true while dismissing solid evidence and presenting any opposition as irrational and the work of moralistic enemies.
As to a man telling women they are being irrational to fear male violence, what can I say? I am not sure anything I would like to say is publishable.
The second speaker for the proposition was Charlotte Rose, who was wearing a t-shirt advertising Fan Baits, a new commercial sex industry advertising platform. She introduced herself as, “a former multi-award-winning escort, current radio presenter and advocate for decriminalisation of sex work.”
She went on to say:
“I just want to discuss something that may affect your moral judgement. How do you all feel when I mention people who work in abortion clinics, abattoirs, factory farmers, nuclear power station workers? To name just a few. For me I do not like it. But just because we do not like what these people do, it doesn’t give us the right to state that their work is not legitimate.”
Since when have people campaigned against factory farming or nuclear power because they didn’t approve of the people who work in those industries? Eccentrics aside, the arguments are always around the impact of those industries on the environment, human and animal health and welfare, and other wider issues – and any personal disapproval is reserved for those who, knowing the damage caused, profit from those industries.
The inclusion of abortion clinics in this list is a sneaky attempt to associate our opposition to the commercial sex industry with extreme anti-woman protestors against abortion. This is a classic example of suggesting guilt by association. For an audience of students whose average age is likely to coincide with the peak age for abortions, this is particularly reprehensible.
Charlotte then said that “until you’ve worked as a sex worker, you’ve got no right whatsoever to dictate anything against [sex work].” This is an argument that we hear repeated over and over in true propaganda playbook style, making people lose their critical faculties and the ability to say, hang on a minute, I’m entitled to have an opinion on factory farming and nuclear power and other industries that have a wide impact, why on earth can’t I have an opinion on the sex industry?
And the truth is, of course you can have such an opinion, and indeed as a concerned citizen, you should – but they don’t want you to. Because once you really look at the sex industry, it’s hard to ignore the rampant abuses and negative impacts on us all, particularly young people.
Like Jerry, Charlotte expounded on how “consensual sex work” has nothing to do with sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking. But of course, it does. There is no separate market for trafficked women – they are on the same street corners and in the same brothels and so-called massage parlours as women who may have made some kind of choice to be there. From the outside you can’t tell what led a woman to that place – nor what is holding her there.
As we have written elsewhere, most pimping meets the international definition of human trafficking and most women involved in prostitution have one or more third party (i.e. pimp) feeding off their prostitution. And the evidence of the violence inherent in prostitution is overwhelming.
Charlotte may not be a male chauvinist pig as all the evidence suggests that Jerry is, but she was equally happy to misrepresent our arguments and frame us as hateful and dangerous. She claimed several times that we want to “delegitimise” her work. (What work? Didn’t she say she was a former sex worker?)
In an attempt to convince everyone that her work really is real work, she went into a long explanation of what it entails: dealing with emails (80 a day), text messages (120/day), phone calls (50), notifications, advertising, website SEO, updating her photos, social media and special offers, booking hotels, etc.
She then asked whether that sounded like work – which of course it does. But that was missing the whole point of the debate because she didn’t mention the core aspects of prostitution – sexual intimacy with a stranger who pays you to have his every whim and fetish met with a smile.
She claimed that “delegitimising sex work” damages her credibility and means men won’t see it as legitimate work and means she “can’t get a mortgage by writing down that I’m a sex worker.” But later when she was asked why she was against legalisation of the sex trade (she favours full decriminalisation), she said:
“Legalisation is what happens in Amsterdam, but women, or sex workers […] have to pay for a licence. So, first of all, they’ve got to give a large amount of money to be able to get a licence to give them the ability to work and be in a legitimate premise.
Number one, they cost a lot of money. Number two, their details are known so there’s no anonymity. If someone wants their business not to be known to the government, then unfortunately they won’t be able to work. So, these two massive factors are why we don’t want it to be legalised.”
But hang on a minute… Isn’t she arguing for ‘sex work’ to be considered ‘real work’?
And isn’t one of the things that distinguishes ‘real’ – or legitimate – work from scams, drug dealing and other illegal activity, that when you earn money from ‘real work,’ you fill out a tax return and inform the government about where your income comes from.
So actually it sounds like she doesn’t want it to be regular ‘real work’ after all.
She made other arguments that were equally dodgy. She claimed several times that by expressing our views, we are causing actual harm to sex workers:
“One of my morals is not to cause harm to other people. I would never use my morals to cause harm to anybody. Your moralistic view is causing harm to sex workers.”
She is talking about an industry in which women involved in it have an extremely high murder rate – almost invariably by male punters and pimps – and yet she suggests that the problem is naming and describing this reality.
I explained that our position is that nothing can make prostitution safe and so we need to reduce the amount that happens. Anything that normalizes it means it will increase – it will increase men’s demand for it and more women will be sucked in and be hurt. As her position is that prostitution should be legitimised and become a normal job, you could therefore argue that her position will cause harm – like she claims about us. However, we prefer to argue on the facts and actual evidence.
Judging by the comments on social media, the young audience were swept along by Charlotte’s glamorous and suave act – in the face of which our attempts to focus the debate on the depressing realities of prostitution appeared about as alluring as a school assembly address by Miss Trunchbull on a bad day.
But reality is what we must deal with. Basing public policy on wishful thinking and propaganda invented by those with powerful vested interests is a recipe for disaster. You only need to consider Brexit to understand that.
The Brexit debate was dominated by sound bites and hot air underwritten by hedge fundies and other capitalists salivating at the prospect of looser and weaker regulation of business and commerce. But large sections of the British population were swept along by the propaganda and were blind to the likely dangers. It is only now, four years later, as the actual reality of Brexit is becoming impossible to ignore that opinion polls are showing the majority turning against it and realising it is almost certainly a terrible mistake.
You can’t help wondering in this context why schools and universities are not educating students about the dangers of propaganda and how to recognise and resist it. All of us, but especially young people, need to understand how to identify vested interests, easy answers and soundbites that oversimplify complex subjects, attacks on opponents and unevidenced assertions that they are motivated by hate or worse, and to see these as red flags.
Much of life is complex and messy and inequality and abuse of power is rife. There are no easy answers. Real solutions require hard work and challenging powerful vested interests – not following them like sheep.