“‘Where are you rushing off to?’ he asks, and Freya hesitates for a moment. There’s a freedom in being honest. But she can’t though, can’t risk it. Not with someone she likes. The lies, she finds, come easily.” [Page 44]
Written by Frankie Miren, member of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and long-time lobbyist for full decriminalization of the sex trade, The Service is about prostitution. There are moments of surprising candour when its ghastly reality is stripped bare.
Freya, one of the three protagonists, is in Amsterdam on a double booking with Brian, when Jade, her booking partner loses it in a restaurant:
“Jade is on her feet. She grabs the back of the chair to steady herself. ‘You pay us to overcome our physical, bodily disgust for you,’ she says. She’s loud and the people at the nearest tables are gaping at them. Freya is gripping her knife and fork. She wants to put them down, but can’t seem to move her hands. Her heartbeat is in her throat and temples. She should say something, calm Jade down, diffuse the situation, but her limbs are no longer under her control.
‘You’re delusional,’ Jade yells. Her face is gleaming, surrounded by flares of red-hot energy. ‘You entitled piece of shit.’” [Page 160]
The disgusting Brian freezes and comes out in pink blotches. Jade storms out of the restaurant wobbling on her red stilettos and shouting, “Every orgasm was fake.”
Freya is left trying to keep the peace. She wants to be paid. When she finally gets home, she ruminates on whether they actually do have a responsibility to explain the reality to punters like Brian – to tell them that she’s often on the point of tears when she has sex with them. She doesn’t think Brian is evil, but she’s sure he wouldn’t want to fuck her if he knew what she was really thinking and feeling. She quickly resorts to a pill, probably Xanax, Valium, or Pregabalin, which she orders on the Internet – and further internal struggle is abandoned.
Shortly after that, Jack, her boyfriend comes round to end it with her:
“‘The thing is, I thought I was cool with your work,’ he says. ‘I thought I was. But I’m not. The last two days, while you’ve been gone, all I could think about is that you’re off fucking some old dude who you don’t even like.’” [Page 163]
Freya replies that they both fuck other people. But, he says, that’s different – which of course it is. Having sex for money with someone you don’t fancy is different from having sex with someone because you simply want to. To deny that is to deny a fundamental human reality.
Later Jade and Freya are at a sex workers’ picnic, when Jade asks whether they’re creating monsters by propping up the egos of these entitled men: “Biting our tongues and faking orgasms and never, ever calling them the fuck out.” She says that maybe they should be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.
Freya disagrees. She thinks they’re just putting a price tag on what women do anyway and that the real problem is fucking men for free. Jade rolls her eyes and the conversation and the attempt to wrestle with these issues ends there.
Jade was referring to Julie Burchill’s 1987 essay, ‘Born Again Cows’, in which she said: “When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women.” Julie Burchill is a maverick, who like Germaine Greer, another hero of mine, excels at thinking outside the box – but not everything she says is meant to be taken at face value, but rather as food for thought.
What does it mean to be in prostitution when you have other options – as Freya admits she has? And as I suspect Frankie Miren might have too. And what does it mean when those voices – the women who do have other options – are the loudest voices calling for a complete free-for-all for the sex industry? Full decriminalisation, which Miren argues for, means no restrictions at all on buying and selling sex or even on profiteering from other people’s prostitution – except in the most extremely exploitative conditions (which can practically never be proven anyway). Which sounds like a free-for-all to me.
What does that mean when most women involved in prostitution are there because of a lack of options? Would a free-for-all not result in the industry expanding and more women being sucked in – with all the physical and psychological consequences of enduring sex with multitudes of men you don’t fancy, most of whom invoke involuntary disgust – as Jade so eloquently explained?
What about how prostitution affects everyone else? What does it do to other people? Marie Edmonds, who was in prostitution for many years to fund a drug addiction, says:
“Selling sex doesn’t just affect the person selling themselves. Married men get found out, destroying marriages. Neighbours must contend with these men driving round their streets at night and having women walking up and down, making a noise and leaving paraphernalia lying around for people to have to pick up in the morning. It affects everybody in the area.”
Unfortunately, the book never engages with such questions. Rather it felt like propaganda for a nihilistic world in which prostitution is considered a normal job.
Opposition to this view is presented through Paula, a journalist who campaigns against the sex trade, and Professor Miriam Harrington, founder of the Anti Sex Robot Foundation and various nameless protestors. All are over-entitled, middle-class and unlikeable and their opposition to the sex trade is presented as ignorant, interfering and lacking any depth of analysis.
I couldn’t help thinking that Miriam Harrington is a thinly disguised version of Professor Kathleen Richardson, founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots (recently renamed as the Campaign Against Porn Robots) – except that Harrington is a ghastly and distorted caricature. Far from having been raised middle class and educated at public schools as Harrington is portrayed, Richardson grew up in a large working-class Catholic family and was the first in her family to go to university. I know her quite well and she is not only a profound feminist thinker but an unusually empathetic and kind woman. Miren made no attempt to engage with her analysis but instead made her doppelganger into a ridiculous cardboard cut-out.
Every movement has its crazies, and the movement against the sex industry in the UK is no exception. But in The Service, they are all bat shit and full of hate. Miren presents the fiction that every single so-called sex worker is united in wanting full decriminalisation and all opponents of this view are deluded over-entitled busy-bodies. But in the real world, this is simply not true.
Many women who are in the sex trade or who have managed to leave it are vehemently opposed to full decriminalisation and are the most committed members of the sex trade abolitionist movement. Many others came to the movement because they saw what happened to their friends in prostitution or the women they work with. And others come through the feminist analysis.
When the truth is manipulated like this, we must ask why? If your arguments are sound, why would you need to do this – to present your opponents as crackpots?
But perhaps the thing I found most disturbing of all is on page 10. It describes a prostitution encounter that Lori has with Dan:
“Dan grips her around the waist, tells her no thanks he’s already had a shower at home, puts the money on the side and steers her towards the bed. She slips from his embrace long enough to count the cash. They have a routine. Naked, Dan stands at the side of the bed and Lori lies on her back, her head tipped over the edge of the mattress. Once you get over what must be an innate human fear of being upside down, this is a good position for deep-throat and it’s over fast.
Perching on the side of the bed, Lori makes a show of wiping her streaming eyes. She knows Dan enjoys this, imagining perhaps that he is unique in his ability to ruin her makeup by repeatedly triggering her gag reflex. ‘Naughty boy,’ she says. ‘You always do this to my face.’” [Page 10]
I asked Esther, who was in prostitution relatively recently and had previously talked to me about this practice, what she thought of this description. Her response was uncompromising. She said:
“This is a description which seeks to glamourise and downplay a dangerous activity, both in terms of the physical risk and the psychological consequences.
You don’t get over an innate fear of being upside down, with gravity, the weight of your own head and the force of an 84 kg testosterone-fueled man’s entire power acting against your ability to alter your position to avoid danger to yourself.
A man with the self-control of an elephant in musth is engaged in an act for his own enjoyment which intentionally restricts your breathing.
I used to try bracing myself to take some of the man’s weight through my upper arms, but this was only possible because I’m tall and used a gym.
It used to amaze me to see men of presumed intelligence trying to push my arms away so that their whole weight was against my face with my head lolling and my neck at risk of serious or fatal injury if they stumbled or lost their balance in any way.
That innate response, like your gagging reflex, evolved for a reason. You will internalise your fear of it. It will add to your expectation of death or serious injury.
You won’t ‘get over it.’”
So there you have it. Someone who has been there explains the reality of this perilous practice – which begs the question how long it will be before Miren and Influx Press, the publisher, have blood on their hands.
Prostitution is just an ordinary job, right? There’s no difference between waitressing and lying with your head over the side of a bed while a man vigorously thrusts his penis down your throat, right? All good feminists should work to ensure that as many women as possible have this ‘eye-watering’ experience and no option but to endure it multiple times a day to make their rent. Right? That some men might ‘accidentally’ fracture some women’s necks is irrelevant and only prudes and people who hate women would argue otherwise, surely?
Well no. Obviously that’s not what I or the many other sex trade abolitionists think. We are unequivocal that no one should be criminalised for their own prostitution. And yet Miren has her abolitionist characters welcoming brothel raids that saw vulnerable women being hauled off in their underwear by male police and Border Force personnel in riot gear and subsequently deported. This is not what we want. We do not hate ‘sex workers’. Many of us are or were them.
But we believe that women deserve better; that if women were not systematically excluded from economic equality with men – because of systemic undervaluing of women’s work and lack of recognition of the practical implications of our role in the reproduction of the human race – then few, if any, women would ever ‘choose’ this so-called work. Given the harms that the industry causes, we argue that closing it down is necessary – just as we’d like to close down the fracking industry – but that women must have viable alternatives and that is what we campaign for in the Nordic Model approach.
And we believe the sex industry short-changes men too. Being an entitled dick is not good for men’s physical or mental health. And it’s not good for society either – as is evidenced by the current epidemic of male violence against women and girls.
The Service is a clumsy and ultimately dishonest book. It places a grating and belaboured emphasis on Lori’s salt-of-the-earth qualities and how Ruby, her little girl is bright and articulate. As if this makes the dark side of prostitution that we glimpse hunky dory.
Miren abjectly fails to follow through the logic of her own evidence. And she fails to engage honestly with the arguments of her opponents and instead presents them as risible. The Service is deliberately polarising. We mustn’t forget who benefits when women are at each other’s throats. The service is to the upholding of the neoliberal patriarchal behemoth. Miren is no feminist.
Many thanks to Esther and Professor Kathleen Richardson who generously assisted in the preparation of this article.