Prostitution: Work? … Or exploitation? The discussion

This is an edited transcript of the discussion part of the ‘Prostitution: Work? … Or exploitation?’ webinar on Sunday 22 November 2020.


Siobhan: I just want to introduce our panel members. First we have Rebecca Mott. Rebecca used to do indoor prostitution of various types, all of which allow punters to be violent. She is now an Abolitionist, and has been blogging about her experiences for more than 12 years, explaining the conditions of prostitution and the impact of having trauma as an exited woman.

Next, Luba Fein. Luba is a feminist abolitionist activist from Israel. She has actively promoted the Nordic Model in her country, where the Sex Purchase Ban came into force earlier this year.

Finally, Jade, who started in street and brothel prostitution as a teenager, then moved into stripping and ‘glamour modelling’ as an adult. She now works to create support services for women who have exited or want to exit the sex trade.

We are so excited and honoured to have the three of you take the time to speak with us today.

So, the first question I’m going to put to you is: “Prostitution: Work? … Or Exploitation? What are your views on this and the much-repeated idea that “sex work is normal work”?

Luba, would you like to start with the research presentation you’ve put together for us?

Luba: In this presentation, I will show that prostitution is definitely violence. I will prove that it doesn’t meet the basic criteria for work. And I will also show that the generally accepted conventions of both society and the labour market prove that everyone knows this – even those people with red umbrellas who chant, “sex work is work.”

Some sex trade apologists say that prostitution is just consensual sex between two adults. But for a sexual relationship to be consensual, three preconditions should be met.

One, the freedom to choose a sexual partner.

Two, the freedom to choose the timing. This means that if my husband forces me into sex at a particular time of the day when I don’t want it, it will be rape. We don’t accept that as consensual, even if I want to have sex with him at other times.

Three, the freedom to choose the nature of the sexual activity. We talk a lot about this nowadays – that if you say ‘Yes’ to one thing, it doesn’t mean ‘Yes’ to everything.

There is quite a consensus now about these preconditions.

So, what happens in prostitution?

In prostitution, you cannot choose your so-called ‘partner.’ Only the sex buyer chooses the ‘partner.’

Sometimes we hear from women involved in prostitution who say that actually I can choose my clients. But if you ask a little bit more, you find that what they really mean is not actually choosing but rather sometimes being able to reject a client, which is not the same thing.

In prostitution, you have to accept 100 to 1,000 clients per month, depending on how attractive you are and the conditions you are under. It is simply not possible to ensure that the preconditions for consent can be met with this number of clients.

The second precondition is the timing. The timing completely depends on the sex buyer. You are expected to supply the service at the time the buyer wants. It’s not your timing.

And the last one, the nature of the sexual activity also depends on what the sex buyer wishes and what he paid for. Again, if you are extremely young, attractive and independent, sometimes you can decline extreme proposals, but the general nature of the sexual activity is defined by the sex buyer. You agree to get the money and he defines the course of the activities.

So, we have in prostitution 100% non-consensual sex. It cannot be framed in any other way. And non-consensual sex is rape. It is violence.

I will now explain why prostitution cannot be defined as a job.

In the labour market there are various conventions. One is that you perform some form of labour to get paid. For example, you must cook, teach, drive, or, like a life guard, concentrate on what is happening. The details vary, but in all jobs, you must supply some sort of labour.

In prostitution, performing actual labour is unnecessary. I don’t mean that prostitution is easy money, like some people say. I only mean that performing actual labour is not a necessary precondition.

In human trafficking, sex trafficking, we find cases where people were sold while being completely unconscious. Passed out. Refusing. Children are sold.

The only necessary precondition for being sold in prostitution is that other people can perform acts on your body. This is not how we perceive work in this society.

The other criteria for work is expertise. In all kinds of work, expertise is valued. The more experienced you are, the higher your pay. This is true for both professional occupations and non-professional ones. When you look for a cleaner or a waiter, you look for someone experienced.

Some people say that models are not paid for experience. But this is not true. The model should indeed be young. Generally, at the beginning, models work for free. Until she is experienced, she won’t even be paid.

In prostitution, it is the opposite. The less expertise you have, the more you are paid. For example, we sometimes see women selling their virginity online for tens of thousands of pounds or more. By comparison, a highly experienced 40-year-old prostitute earns a very small amount of money.

Any woman who has worked in a brothel or escort agency knows that punters often call and ask for the youngest woman or the newest woman. When you are new, you are in high demand and it’s downhill from then on – so you have to lie about your age, until that’s not possible anymore. This is not a normal situation in the workplace. You may sometimes lie that you have experience, but in a job, you don’t lie that you don’t have experience.

Being paid more for being new and inexperienced is more like car rental than a professional service.

What I want to prove now is that everyone knows that prostitution is not work. Even the worst sex trade apologist knows this. Even those people with red umbrellas who chant “sex work is work” know that what they say is complete nonsense.

Our social and labour market conventions prove that everyone understands what prostitution actually is.

For example, the labour market is very dynamic these days. Job descriptions change, organisations change, there is restructuring and outsourcing to Asia. There are many changes all the time and often bosses will change your job description. They’ll say, we’re downsizing and now you must do some additional work that is new for you. We need you to do this to keep the organisation going.

Once when I was working in a bank, we were all asked to clean our workstations because there was no money for a cleaner anymore. Or maybe the secretary is asked to make coffee for guests. Or someone on the front desk might be asked to work in the archives.

But no legitimate company or industry will ask employees to sleep with their clients. But actually, why not? It never happens because everyone understands what prostitution is – which is not work.

Another example: unemployment services don’t refer the unemployed to ‘sex work.’ This is a screenshot from a Facebook page in New Zealand, which is the poster child for the full decriminalisation of prostitution. They call it ‘sex work.’ They pretend that prostitution is just another service industry, but their unemployment services are instructed to not remove unemployment benefits from people who refuse to work in brothels.

When someone complained about being referred to a brothel, she was taken care of and she didn’t lose her benefits. But why not?

I am happy that it doesn’t happen, but it does prove that they understand as clearly as I do that prostitution is not work and it is wrong to force a person who is unemployed or destitute into it.

Another example: leaving a job doesn’t require long and expensive rehabilitation. Here in Israel, when we were trying to promote the sex purchase ban, we were asked to prove that there was a wide range of trauma-focused rehabilitation services. The question is why?

If prostitution is just a job, maybe you could establish vocational training or better unemployment services. But we need rehabilitation centres. And we need to ask why.

These rehabilitation centres are similar to centres for victims of domestic violence or rape. Everyone understands that prostitution is similar to other sorts of abuse and not to other sorts of employment.

One more example: In the last two decades more and more people, including researchers and policy makers, are insisting that prostitution is work. Some of them have published articles, books and research papers. We all know a couple of names in our own countries.

These people insist that prostitution is work but for some reason, which we all understand, they never turn themselves into subjects of this experiment. Not even one of them is going to do ‘sex work.’

They go to rallies with ‘sex workers, they insist that ‘sex workers’ have agency but they never ever try to do it themselves, even for a day, a week, or a month. Anthropologists always try to live in the field that they research, they live with criminals, they do so much to be a part of their research field. But never in prostitution. We must ask ourselves, why not?

Probably because they understand that prostitution is not really “work”.

Now for the last example. There are many more, but this is the last one I’ll give. No functioning parents want to see their kids in prostitution. Not even one.

Those people who defend prostitution and call it work, don’t want it to be work for their kids. Sometimes people argue and say, OK, but we don’t want our kids to flip burgers in McDonald’s or to be cleaners either. Some over-sophisticated people might even say they don’t want their kids to be lawyers.

But if we think about it, no one will oppose their kids doing any job temporarily. Maybe I don’t want my kid to flip burgers for their entire life, but if this girl in the picture were my daughter on summer vacation, I would be happy. I would be proud of my hard-working child. Any parent would be.

And if the girl in this picture were your child, how would you feel?

Whether it was on summer vacation or till the end of her life, if you are a normal parent, you will never ever allow your child to do this. You will do anything to save your kid from this situation.

So, the conclusion is that if we’re not moral hypocrites, we should understand that if prostitution is not for us, if it is not for our kids, then it should not be for anybody else.

Let’s stop it now. Thank you for listening.

Siobhan: Thank you so much for that Luba. That was a really fantastic presentation. There was so much in it, there’s not time to unpack everything, certainly by me. But what came across for me is that prostitution can’t be fully consensual if only the buyer has the full freedom of choice of partner, timing and the nature of the activities. It can’t be fully consensual when one person has that freedom and that choice and the other doesn’t.

And it was brilliant how you asked whether in any other scenario you would accept providing sexual favours as part of your professional development. Who would accept a woman in their life doing that? And I noticed that someone asked just that in the Q&A window: whether people who advocate for the sex trade want the women in their life doing it?

Again, thank you so much for that, Luba.

Now Rebecca, can I ask you what are your thoughts and opinions about the idea that “sex work is normal work.”

Rebecca: Hello everyone. I feel that when we talk about “sex work being work,” we need to look clearly at what prostitution is for the vast majority of women who do it – and not sugar-coat it with what we want to believe.

To me, most prostitution is the conditions of trafficking and often the conditions of torture and a violation of human rights. I say this because I have never known a prostitute who freely chose it – or even a prostitute who can know that every single man that comes to see her is going to be non-violent.

Every time you go into a prostitution encounter there’s a real chance of violence. There is even a chance of being murdered and of being tortured. This is not normal in a job.

I get quite annoyed with the comparisons with other jobs. Yes, some other jobs are dangerous. They always seem to use the example of logging, even though it doesn’t happen very much here anymore but they bring it up anyway.

If a tree falls on you as a logger in the forest, you’d probably get the union or the employer giving you compensation. It’s the same with other jobs where violence is a normal risk. It’s normal to have a union, to have compensation, to have the media write about it and to say that this is terrible. And often when there are work injuries and death, there may even be a Government inquiry.

None of this happens for prostituted women. They are expected to put up with it and not complain, and if they do complain, they may be put into a more violent aspect of the sex trade.

I also feel like you can’t call it a job when there is such a high rate of murder. What other jobs are people murdered in? Police are killed, but not on a regular basis. Soldiers are killed, but that is in a war and not as a normal job.

Siobhan: I do know what you mean, Rebecca. Those comparisons bring home that any other paid job simply isn’t the same and in prostitution there is violence that you wouldn’t expect in other forms of work – and if it did happen, you would expect consequences for the perpetrators – but you really don’t see that in the sex trade.

And Jade, what about you? What would your response be to the idea that ‘sex work is normal work’?

Jade: I think it’s important to set out that there are very broad routes into the sex trade that I would categorise as trafficking, survival, and choice.

And when we look at so-called ‘choice sex workers’ (I hate that term), we’re looking at women who have other choices that are reasonable and accessible. They’re not facing immediate homelessness; they’re not looking to feed children or struggling with addictions. They could do something else.

But this is such a small, such a tiny, percentage of the women in the industry and they get pushed right to the front because out of all of it, their conditions are the most preferable, while still not fantastic. They’re still in an environment steeped in misogyny.

That’s just the tip, and there’s a huge iceberg under the water of women whose conditions are horrendous. They are not there by choice. They are vulnerable.

If we were to challenge and address and erase all the vulnerabilities of those women and we somehow managed to stamp out human trafficking, you’d find that 96% of the ‘workers’ in the sex industry disappeared. That’s not a job, is it? That’s exploitation.

People go to work willingly because they enjoy their job, they like their job, they want to go. That might not be every day, it might not be their ideal place of work. But it’s not a matter of going to go to a job that I absolutely hate, where I lose my bodily autonomy, which is violent, it’s terrifying and I have no choice over what I do when I’m there. If I say no to my pimp, he could beat me to death.

No one in a normal job is experiencing that kind of environment in their workplace. They are protected by the law to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The sex trade is the exploitation of the most vulnerable and it thrives on an environment of inequality and isolation.

Siobhan: And the sex trade thrives on those women being in that situation as well.

Jade: Absolutely. If we were able to reach out and help those women and we could address those underlying issues in society, those women would not be replaced.

Siobhan: Exactly. I think between the three of you, you have completely deconstructed the notion that ‘sex work is normal work.’ So, thank you for your contributions.

We’ll now move onto the next question. It’s another one we received in a previous webinar:

“If you want to eliminate violence against women, and we know the police are often sexist against women, why will more laws help women when it gives police more power?”

Luba: First of all, it’s essential to note that almost any new law gives the police additional powers. The Sex Purchase Act certainly has a feature that must be planned carefully: further exposure of highly vulnerable women, women in prostitution, to the police – who, as we know, may be sexist, insensitive and even violent towards marginalized populations.

But what happens when the police do not approach women in prostitution? Are they protected? No! They’re abandoned to the mercy of pimps and johns, a much more violent and sexist population. Therefore, merely keeping the police away is not the solution.

It’s essential to make clear that the aim of the Nordic Model is, eventually, to make sure that as few women as possible stay in prostitution. No one deserves to live in constant exposure to pimps, johns or even cops.

Meanwhile, we should think about how to reduce the possible harm to women. One possible solution is the Swedish method, in which social workers accompany the police officers during raids on brothels. Another option could be comprehensive training for police officers, which could be delivered by sex trade survivors.

But the bottom line is that exposing women in prostitution to the police is an issue that must be planned wisely, but cancelling a law is not an answer. No one would think of repealing a law against domestic violence, which also exposes vulnerable women to police officers.

Jade: I think my position on it is that I totally agree with Luba that obviously there are issues within police forces about how they approach marginalised communities, including women. But my personal belief is that there are some laws where actually the sexism involved manifests as a failure to enforce the law fully.

An example I’ve used before is the law criminalising marital rape. The sexism within that is the tendency of the police to fail to prosecute it fully. I fail to see how the law against marital rape could be enforced against the woman in a sexist manner – the definition of rape doesn’t include women in that sense. So, for me the more common problem is the police failing to enforce the law because of their inherent sexism.

Rebecca: I feel that this argument is often used by people to distract rather than being a really proper question. It seems to be a way of saying, let’s not talk about the violence done by punters and johns and sex trade profiteers. Let’s say it’s the police that’s the main problem.

Actually, most prostitutes are more afraid of what happens inside prostitution than they would be of the police – even the most sexist and racist police.

The police need to be trained completely differently from how they are now in this country. It’s also really important that we don’t just train the police, but we also educate society into questioning why women are arrested, why women are threatened with being made homeless if they do prostitution.

We need to not just train the police, though. The whole of society needs to understand the violence that is done in their name. It’s not just the individual punter and john that’s the problem, it’s the fact that we condone their violence and make it invisible.

Siobhan: Absolutely. And I think that in the countries where the Nordic Model has been implemented successfully, part of that has been because there has been a whole cultural shift in services and in society generally. Whereas in some other places it has not been implemented so successfully, because there hasn’t been that same cultural shift and that training for police officers and services.

One other thing before we move on is that another Nordic Model Now! member said when we were looking at the questions beforehand, that there’s an urgent need for more and higher ranking female officers – because that is something that has been shown can help the sexism within the police – particularly when women are there in numbers and not just alone and isolated.

Thanks to the participants who are asking questions in the Q&A panel. They’re great. We won’t get to all of them – but we will keep them all and will use them to inform our future webinars. So please keep them coming.

Now let’s go on to the next question:

“How do you think the rise in online sex work (such as cam work and OnlyFans) feeds into this? Do you feel that this could be a rise in ‘safer’ sex work or a gateway into the experiences and environments that were talked about today?”

Luba: Some people call webcam prostitution “safe” and even “a privilege.” I agree that when you meet your clients online it is physically safe.  They cannot murder or beat you, which is significant. Still, I reject the framing of online prostitution as outright safe for three reasons.

The first reason is that webcamming is not harmless. Women are required to perform degrading and humiliating acts on themselves as per the requirements of the client. It is safe to say that this is traumatising for many women.

The second reason is exposure. Every field of prostitution has unique risks. The individual risk of webcamming is exposure that a woman has no control over.

Almost every woman in the sex trade wants to exit. Exiting prostitution is never easy; it is an arduous journey. You need to start a new life without skills, with trauma and addictions and low self-esteem. Added to this is the fear of being exposed. You can never know who took your screenshots and who will see them. It haunts women for years.

The third reason is that webcamming and OnlyFans etc. are gateways to offline prostitution. Switching from online to offline and within different fields of prostitution is ubiquitous among women in the sex trade. In webcam prostitution, a woman says to herself: I already provide sexual services, why not earn more and do it offline? It happens all the time.

For this reason, and many others, I believe that we should educate men not to consume women’s bodies, rather than expecting women to fake “safe” alternatives that are not really safe.

Jade: The OnlyFans and webcamming prostitution phenomenon picks up very successfully from the fact that many of the young women who get into doing it have grown up with a virtual environment where they feel that technology is a normal part of their world.

They have grown up with the reality that if they put something on the Internet, it will be there forever. Because it’s normal for young people now, it’s almost decreased the fear that should come along with something like that – where anyone in the world can have possession of something of yours for the rest of time.

So, when young women decide to move into OnlyFans and webcamming prostitution, there’s already been a desensitisation to the idea that you cannot control what you put out on the Internet. It gives it a façade of being not dangerous purely because they are so used to not having that level of control.

Although the physical risks that you see in indoor and outdoor prostitution may not be there, it does not mean that it’s not risky, not dangerous, that things have not happened to women through OnlyFans and webcamming.

You cannot control who uses it and there are people who are seriously unhinged out there who will track women and will find them. That risk doesn’t go away.

And then there are real world risks. You don’t develop skills. You have a gap in your CV. If you decide to stop at 25, you find out that actually you can’t get a job. You can’t explain away seven years with no employment and no skills. You can’t explain where your money’s come from.

You eventually have to start telling people what you did and it loses you employment opportunities.

This is all stuff that young women are not taking into account when they make these choices – because these choices seem so normal now and not risky – and I think that is very insidious.

And then you get the proportion who do move into more physical forms of the sex trade, whether that be stripping or prostitution, and they’re unprepared for the physical risk and the physical reality. And really, they’ve lost complete control over their own autonomy, both virtually and in real life.

And that is sad. But unfortunately, it’s very hard to go backwards. How can you challenge something that starts with the Internet? How do you challenge that?

Siobhan: I’ve seen webcamming sold as this kind of ideal – work from home, work when you want, earn enough money to do x, y and z – and that’s really troubling. And insidious is the perfect word for that.

Jade: Another point to make as well is that in the late teens, early 20s, the idea of self-branding is very appealing to young women – that they can create a whole brand out of themselves. I think a lot of them convince themselves initially that they are being paid to be a sexualised version of who they are.

We see this in celebrities – Paris Hilton is one, Kim Kardashian is another – who have made millions out of selling themselves – not sexually – but they are selling their image. And unfortunately, women who aren’t rich have to offer something a bit more – and that something is their bodies, their sexuality.

Rebecca Mott

Rebecca: Once you put anything out on the net, you lose control of the imagery and you lose control of ownership. For example, a lot of women who have done underage prostitution or underage porn, or have survived incest, have their photos taken and often they are put on the net. They have no control over how that is used. It can go into PornHub, it can go around the world. I had photos taken of me as a child by my stepfather which he has put on the net.

I think OnlyFans or webcamming etc. can seem like a good idea at the time, but you don’t realise how your control is completely stolen as soon as you put an image onto the net. They can sell it to any company they like in the world. If they want to sell it to PornHub, they will. If they want to blackmail you, they will.

It’s not your property anymore and when you leave, that can be the hardest thing to get over – to know that your images are still out there and there are still men wanking over them.

Siobhan: Absolutely right. Thank you for sharing that experience with us and being able to talk about it, Rebecca.

If everyone is OK with that, we’ll move onto our next question. We’ve touched on elements of it already, but here we go:

“I am a trafficking survivor and agree that the sex trade is violent and abusive. However, since the Nordic Model was introduced to Ireland all available studies show that violence and trafficking have increased. There is no evidence to show the Nordic Model is a viable solution. Is it not time to look beyond this failed framework? There is nothing feminist about promoting a model that causes more harm to women.”

Luba, I know you’ve done a considerable amount of work looking at the evaluations of the Nordic Model in the various countries it’s been introduced, so perhaps you would like to go first?

Luba: I am aware of only one study on the implementation of the Nordic Model in Northern Ireland. I have also published a review of the evaluations from all of the different Nordic Model countries.

The study of the Nordic Model in Northern Ireland was a huge evaluative report, 200 pages long. I read all of them and Anna Fisher and myself published a review of it.  This report has several interesting conclusions. For example, it claims that the Nordic Model harmed the people in the sex trade. But when you read all of it, you can see that it’s full of bias and mental shenanigans. I will not be able to address them all but will give an example or two.

The two main sources of the data they used were from the NGOs, SWAI and Ugly Mugs.ie. Both of these are “sex worker” NGOs and a less knowledgeable audience might assume that they are a highly knowledgeable and reliable source. But this is not true. Usually if you see an NGO that uses the “sex worker” term, you can be sure that they are an anti-Nordic Model organisation. We don’t use the term “sex worker” or “ex-sex worker,” we use the term “survivor.”

Both of these NGOs are actively involved in promoting the blanket decriminalization of the sex trade, which involves the removal of all legal sanctions against paying for sex, pimping, and running mega-brothels. So, they are anti-Nordic Model and are biased.

But the Ugly Mugs.ie bias is more than just ideologically biased. It was co-founded by owners of the prostitution advertising website Escort Ireland – i.e. online pimps.

When I read the report, I discovered more surprises. Among other things, the report claims that there’s been an increase in reports of violence against women in the sex trade to Ugly Mugs.ie since the sex purchase ban’s enforcement. Let’s ignore the fact that Ugly Mugs.ie is not a reliable source. When you look into the data more closely, you can see that there was no statistically significant rise in physical violence.

There was a rise in phone harassment and punters not showing up to appointments. While the latter would clearly affect someone’s ability to make a living, calling it a “rise in violence” could be construed as deception. When the readers see “rise in violence,” they don’t think it means a rise in nuisance phone calls.

So, you should read our review of the report. I really hope there will be more studies and more data so we can learn what actually happened. But right now, we cannot say for sure that the Nordic Model has caused a negative effect in Northern Ireland.

Rebecca: I completely disagree that the Nordic Model causes more violence and trafficking, but I also think you need to look at what the alternatives are. The alternatives are either making prostitution completely legal, like they do in Germany, which most people would say is a failed experiment and has killed a lot of women.

Or full decriminalisation, which helps men buy prostitution, helps men sell prostitution, but doesn’t help the women and anybody else who’s inside prostitution.

Of course, the Nordic Model is not perfect. Personally, I don’t believe in utopia. And no law is perfect anyway. But it is the first time in history that survivors of prostitution have been able to feel that they have been listened to – and that actually it is about putting the safety of women in prostitution before everything else.

Although it was done mainly for the equality of women in Sweden, it’s become a much bigger thing than it was when it started. I think each country should do the Nordic Model, but frame it to how it would work inside their country. We cannot just do it the Swedish way because we don’t live in the same kind of society.

I went to Sweden and when I was there, the thing that really struck me as an exited woman is how normal it was for men to think that prostitution as a concept is disgusting. They’d ask why any man would want to do that. And that was within 14 or 15 years of this being the law. That’s amazing.

To actually hear young men – and not so young men – men under 40 really – saying, why did we ever think prostitution was a good idea?

As an exited woman, I could hardly believe it. I had to remind myself it wasn’t a dream that men are actually saying this. And I think we need to believe that we can do better for prostituted women and not constantly think how we can put a band aid on their situation. You don’t save people with band aids. You save people by changing their lives. And the Nordic Model approach is part of that. It’s not the whole of it. But it’s part of it.

Siobhan

Siobhan: That’s really interesting that that was your experience when you were actually in Sweden. And it does have to come from that cultural shift that we talked about in response to an earlier question. Jade, what are your thoughts on that?

Jade: I’ve actually got nothing further to add, but thank you.

Siobhan: OK. So, we’ll move on to the next question if everyone is happy to continue. This is another one from the last webinar:

“What is more violent and degrading to you, poverty or sex work?”

Who would like to go first?

Luba: Yes! This is my favourite question, actually.

When comparing poverty to prostitution, it’s essential to remember that not every kind of poverty is traumatizing. A simple lifestyle is not inherently detrimental to people. People in the most impoverished villages on earth are often happy, physically and mentally healthy, and lead good lives. I cannot say this about women in prostitution.

Poverty can have a traumatic effect when it comes with inequality. If essential services are too expensive for the poor, we have a problem. If impoverished people cannot pay for health and education services, it’s dangerous.

That said, any poverty, not just the dangerous kind, makes women vulnerable to soliciting. We often see poor women in prostitution, but not because they had to choose between starvation and prostitution. More often they got into debt, or the family sacrificed them to improve the family’s quality of life, or because traffickers persuaded them to take normal work abroad and when they got there, they were trapped in brothels.

These situations can also happen to middle-class girls but to a lesser extent. A woman of low economic status is vulnerable to exploitation, even if she is not in a state of dangerous poverty.

You could ask whether prostitution is worse than dangerous poverty that doesn’t allow you to fulfil your basic needs. I would struggle with this question, but let me elucidate something.

I’ve met a lot of women who exited prostitution, hundreds if not thousands. Right now, I am working on a book about the sex trade in Israel and this involves interviewing many women who’ve experienced prostitution. And I often ask them whether they had any savings when they exited the sex trade.

I learn over and over again that while the sex trade generates a huge amount of money, it does not stay in women’s pockets. Women enter prostitution poor and exit destitute. The money goes to the traffickers, the pimps, to exploitative families – best case scenario, it goes to her family – and to drug dealers and the various industries that surround the sex trade. It doesn’t stay with the women themselves.

Therefore, the question should not be “What is worse, poverty or prostitution?” but “What is worse, being poor or being poor and prostituted with all the related trauma, addictions, and illness?” This is the question we should be asking.

Siobhan: Thank you, Luba. You are absolutely right, that would be a better way to frame that question. Jade or Rebecca, do you want to come in and stop me talking? What are your thoughts on this question?

Jade: I think that the circumstances that poverty can end you up in can be very traumatising. But I think that about all the realities that end women up in the sex trade.

Often women get to the sex trade and they are already traumatised by what has happened to them and they fall straight into the lap of an industry that just confounds that – for the sake of a façade of fulfilling whatever it is that they were lacking when they came in. Often that’s money, it’s homelessness, it’s the need to fund an addiction.

I wouldn’t argue that poverty in and of itself is always traumatising but the industry will suck you in, no matter what your circumstances, in exchange for cash, and I think that is traumatising. So, prostitution is worse.

Rebecca: I find this yet another question that is often used as a red herring – because if you unpick the question, what it is saying is that poverty is the only reason women become prostituted – and so all we need to deal with is poverty and everything will be fine. But that’s not true.

Poverty is not the only reason women become prostituted. I grew up upper middleclass, but I came from a family where I was mentally and sexually abused. And like most women who were abused as children, I had no self-esteem and I had also got used to violent sex. I was used to it before I entered prostitution.

So, by the time I entered prostitution I would say that I was already dead. Before I even entered. I don’t think that is to do with what economic background you come from. That can be any woman, anywhere.

I think usually when people enter prostitution, it’s for multiple reasons. It’s not just because they’re poor, or just because they were abused as a child, or because their peers are saying that this seems like a good idea to make money. It’s usually multiple reasons.

I don’t think you can enter prostitution if you have high self-esteem. I think it’s almost impossible to be prostituted when you love yourself – because there will be a voice inside of you saying, What the f*ck? What am I doing?

And I think everybody in prostitution has been ground down so much that the reason they joined in the first place can almost become irrelevant – especially when you factor in that anybody who chooses to buy a prostitute has freedom to be as violent as he likes. And even if you enter prostitution thinking that you chose it, thinking that I have enough money to live on, I’m perfectly fine, it doesn’t stop. Punters don’t care.

Punters will beat you up. Punters may torture you. They won’t ask, why did you become a prostitute? They don’t care.

We should not be talking constantly about why women enter. We should be saying why are punters allowed to buy another human being just so they can have an orgasm.

Siobhan: I really agree with that, Rebecca. That’s a fantastically clear way of putting it. So, thank you everyone. We do have time for another couple of questions if the panel are up for that. Here’s one that someone has asked today:

“Have you encountered women in prostitution who have held the opposite stance to you – i.e. desiring to continue working in prostitution and favouring the decriminalization route?”

Jade: So as anyone who works for abolitionism, especially on Twitter, will have experienced, there is quite a strong community on there of women in prostitution who hold the opposite stance and favour full decriminalisation. It can be very difficult for abolitionists when pro-decrim women talk, because we are coming at it from a very different angle.

Abolitionists are coming at this from the angle that the punters, the sex buyers, are inherently misogynistic and dangerous. Because of these attitudes, they are a risk, not only for prostituted women, but really to all women. And that is misconstrued by women who are still in the industry as an attack on them personally – as if they are facilitating these men and we are attempting to punish them for it.

This can make the conversation very hard and a lot of the time it can unfortunately end up in deadlock.

But anybody on the full decrim side that is going along with the hashtag for this event or who is listening today, please understand that abolitionists are never attacking the women in prostitution.

We are women who have experienced prostitution for ourselves and actually know how horrendous it can be. We are coming from a place where we want to make sure that that can never happen to any other woman and that no one else ends up in prostitution.

I think a conversation that bears fruit will only happen when we stop attacking each other. It’s not really about us as individuals per se, but really the social changes that we hope to enact.

And I hope for a society one day where men don’t buy women’s bodies for sex.

Siobhan: Thank you for making that clear, Jade.

Rebecca: I feel that it’s very important to know that most of us, when we were inside prostitution, were very loud about saying that it was a really good thing that we were involved in. I don’t remember ever not saying that it was good.

When you are inside prostitution, you are cut off from the real world. And I think it’s very important to recognise that part of the reason that the sex trade is so good at what it does, is that it controls not only the women’s physical environment, it also controls how they view what is happening to them.

I tend to not respond to the people who are inside the sex trade because I feel like they are in a place where they can’t hear. I look back at how I was and think that if someone had said to me, what are you doing and why are you doing it, I would have thought, well it’s none of your business.

And if someone had said, what do you think about an alternative, I would have thought that I was fine, why not go and save the people in Ethiopia. Leave me alone.

Basically, it’s really hard to get through to someone when they’re inside prostitution – because for their own mental safety, they have to blank out what’s happening to them and only remember the good bits – even if it’s only two seconds of good bits. You block out so much.

That’s why being exited can be so awful because that’s when the trauma hits and you remember the bad bits. The bad bits come back inside your body as well as your mind.

So, I think it’s really important to be careful how you respond.

Luba: I can relate to what Rebecca said. Almost all of us at some time supported the sex trade. I have been trying to understand it for a long time and I always ask other survivors about it.

I have made a series of podcasts listening to survivors for the feminist organisation, FiLiA, and you can listen to them. Nearly every survivor made this very long journey from supporting the sex trade to becoming an abolitionist.

Some people call it ‘false consciousness’ or ‘Stockholm Syndrome.’ I don’t see it like that. I think it is a coping strategy. You cannot stay sane while understanding that you are being raped every day for money.

Just to stay sane, you say, I’m OK, this is just a normal living situation.

Only when you make this journey and you are able to heal yourself and to distance yourself from this experience, can you start framing it in a different way.

So, if a woman in the sex trade denies the harm, just leave her alone. Don’t argue with her. But also, don’t use her as proof that the sex trade should exist.

Using women in that situation is mean and we should not do it. We have enough evidence and enough proof that the sex industry is violent.

Siobhan: Thank you, all three of you for this discussion. It has been great to hear you all and I hope that all the attendees will have got something they can take away from it. We are starting to run out of time so first of all I would like to thank all three of the panellists, Jade, Rebecca and Luba – and Megan for the presentation we heard at the beginning. You have all been so easy to listen to and so succinct and passionate and it’s been fantastic to hear you.

Thank you for sharing your stories and about the work that you’ve done and for really breaking down this idea that prostitution is not normal work as we understand it and that there’s only consent from one side of the arrangement. The comparisons you made to other industries, such as the police, the army and service trades and other dangerous outdoor professions. Rebecca you referred to logging. And you all made it clear that the comparisons just don’t stand up to scrutiny because in none of those jobs do you expect deliberate targeting by clients and if that does happen, you would expect legal action, compensation, support.

You talked about how for the Nordic Model, which we advocate for, to succeed, it needs to be a full implementation, with training and work to change the culture rather than just changing the law. And as you all made clear, we are advocating for women in the sex trade. We are not looking to criminalise them and we are not suggesting that their experiences aren’t valid.

Our focus is about making sure that nobody has to be in the sex trade and that anybody who is, that they get the support they need when they are ready to exit.

Now we’ll show the final of the three short films by Ygerne Price-Davies.

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