I want to talk a little bit about the men who buy sex, and how this highlights just what prostitution is. The Nordic model is the only proposed legal framework I’ve yet seen that recognises these realities, and so these are some of my reasons, as a prostitution survivor, for supporting it.
The conversation around prostitution has been stuck for some time around whether or not ‘sex work is work’. Well, from the point of view of someone who has both been trafficked under the guise of a high-class escort agency and has ‘chosen’ prostitution due to addiction and domestic violence, my answer is an emphatic no. Prostitution is, both as a system and for the majority of individuals caught in it, sexual exploitation and oppression.
I was initially trafficked into an area of the sex trade that is often assumed to be ‘high end’. More palatable. Less dangerous. My experiences taught me those assumptions are wrong. I worked alongside women who had been trafficked as minors. I worked alongside women who suffered horrific abuse and exploitation daily. I have never, either within the industry or without met a woman involved in prostitution who wanted to be there.
And yet had you asked me that question at the time I would have lied to you. I would have told you I was making a choice and gone to great lengths to hide the reality of my abusive partner, my drug addiction and the depth of trauma I was experiencing. Lying to others helped me to lie to myself.
Of course, I cannot claim that is true of other prostituted women (or men, though we are overwhelmingly talking about women) Nevertheless it is interesting how many survivors of the sex trade talk about the need to deny what they were really experiencing, while they were experiencing it. Again, this is another tactic that is similar to that of someone experiencing abuse. A certain amount of denial and disassociation is often necessary just to survive.
UK laws on sexual consent are clear. Consent cannot be given if the person is intoxicated, if their freedom or capacity to choose is compromised, or if violence, grooming, exploitation or coercion – including an obvious imbalance of power – has occurred.
Prostitution clearly does not conform to these definitions. The bulk of studies on prostitution around the world have shown that the vast majority of people in prostitution are groomed, exploited, coerced and often addicted to drugs or alcohol. This is aside from the invisible figures of those who are outright trafficked and exploited as minors. Our laws also do not recognise cash in any other situation as a substitute for free consent. Offering housing for sex is illegal, yet offering a poor woman money to pay her rent, for sex, is not?
The commodification of sexual consent must be the ultimate neo-liberal free market ideology. Trading in flesh is capitalism at its darkest. When we whitewash this, wrap it up in Victoria’s Secret underwear and promote it in popular culture, society itself becomes the groomer.
Dressing up prostitution as a job was and always has been used as a way to cover up abuse. I’ve done this myself. By framing what had happened as ‘part of the job’ I found a coping mechanism that allowed me not to fall apart and a way to distance myself from what had happened. The language of ‘sex work’ does have some advantages to those caught up in it, purely as a survival tactic. We cannot face what we do not name.
‘Sex work’ has also become an encompassing term that includes not just those in prostitution but strippers, webcam providers, phone sex operators and the like. Again, this erases the worst abuses of the sex trade and means that self-defined ‘sex worker collectives’ who advocate for ‘sex workers rights’ rarely represent those who desperately need, not workers’ rights, but the recognition of their basic human rights.
There was little recognition of my human rights while I was in the sex industry. It is almost as though you hang them up at the door. As one punter memorably said to me, ‘I’m paying you not to say no.’
This is where the logic of ‘sex work is work’ invariably leads. A worker in any other trade – plumbing, for example –must undercut the competition and offer less for more if they hope to get ahead. If we apply this to prostitution we quickly end up in a situation where the ‘work’ is ever more abusive. When we allow men who pay to exploit women to see themselves as ‘clients’ or ‘service users’ we also allow them to minimise what they are doing and the harm it can cause. More than that, we give them consumer rights. This will never work.
As any good businessperson knows, the customer is always right. If he is unhappy with the service, he is entitled to complain. He can ask for his money back. He can, and will, go elsewhere to someone who will provide him a cheaper and fuller ‘service’.
Let’s think about what happens when you apply that to prostitution. If the woman has a ‘manager’ or pimp and the punter complains – for example because she won’t perform anal sex – the woman is facing at least a warning and at worst a beating. She will no doubt be told to be more accommodating i.e., to provide the service she didn’t wish to. Comparisons with other industries start falling apart here. Being told to flip burgers faster is significantly less traumatic than being anally raped.
If he asks for his money back, what does that mean? If the cash stands in place of the consent, what happens when we take the cash away? How do we then pretend that this ‘work’ is not in fact abuse?
What about when he looks for a cheaper service? Or a more accommodating one? He is now in the realms of the more obviously exploitative areas of the industry. Perhaps he picks up a street worker who is clearly intoxicated or visits a brothel and turns a blind eye to any abuse he sees, because at least he’s finally getting his money’s worth.
These are not hypothetical scenarios. Visit any online punter review forum – there are dozens of them – and you will see the way they knowingly talk about having used minors, women who were clearly being pimped or struggling with addiction. Not with any ounce of empathy for the women, but rather outrage that they did not get what they paid for. I can attest to the fact that punters talk and behave like this in real life, too.
No-one has a right to purchase sexual access. Consent should never be for sale. There is no human right to sex. No man has ever died through having to masturbate rather than exploit someone for sex.
So, what sort of man buys sex? Survivor Amelia Tiganus describes three types of punters; the nice ones, the macho ones, and the sadistic ones. I recognise this from my own experiences. The ‘regular’ who wanted to talk for hours about his marital problems before having a massage and very vanilla sex. He disgusted me and I had to hide the way I cringed every time he touched me.
The macho guys were those on stag dos, or their birthdays, or a lad’s holiday. Or those who just believed in their own male supremacy.
The sadistic ones, of course, were the worst. Those were the ones that left physical as well as psychological scars.
Speaking from lived experience, of course these are not exactly the same. Yet I see the differences between them as existing on a spectrum. Much as in the same way as being coerced into sex by a partner, date raped, and raped while being physically tortured are not the same, yet are all rape. I didn’t ‘choose’ sex with any of those men.
But the one thing all of those men had in common was a sense of sexual entitlement. The idea that the exchange of money gave them the right to sex with women and people who would otherwise say no.
A 2015 study from Spain showed that sex buyers are getting younger. That young men are seeing prostitution as a kind of masculine initiation rite. The ‘macho’ punter is on the rise. When interviewed, those young men stated that it was okay to purchase sex because the women were ‘foreign whores’ who weren’t ‘like us.’ At the time of the study Spain had a model that leaned heavily towards decriminalisation. Now, largely in response to the violence in and expansion of the Spanish sex trade, Spain is moving towards adopting the Nordic Model.
When we decriminalise buying sex and pimping, we simultaneously create a subclass of women whose job it is to fulfil this male demand for sex, regardless of the cost to the women themselves. This male entitlement is the source of the stigma against women and others in the sex trade, not the criminalisation of buyers and brothels or a lack of ‘worker’s rights.’ There is no less stigma in countries that have legalised or decriminalised buying sex.
This dehumanises women in the sex trade. This says that our sexual agency and wellbeing is irrelevant. That our human right not to be sexually exploited or coerced doesn’t matter.
The relationship in prostitution is a subject-object one. The former uses cash as a tool of sexual coercion, which as I’ve described is illegal in any other situation. So why are leftists, feminists, those who claim to be anti-racist and anti ‘cishet patriarchy’ endorsing this? There are few systems more sexist than that of prostitution.
There are also few that are more racist than prostitution. I’m of Traveller heritage. Traveller women, especially European Roma, are at incredibly high risk of sex trafficking. Sex work supporters have nothing to say about this, except to rename this as ‘migrant sex work.’
Women of colour are at higher risk, as are indigenous and native women. In New Zealand, home of the decriminalisation model that ‘sex work’ supporters campaign for in the UK, some of the most outspoken voices against prostitution are indigenous Maori women who are or have been prostituted. Yet the New Zealand Sex Workers Collective, who seem to include brothel owners among their membership, ignore their voices.
As for patriarchy and heteronormativity… Is there anything more patriarchal and heteronormative than a privileged man paying for sexual access to a less privileged woman? Yet, there has been a push recently in academia to bring the rights of sex buyers in line with queer theory. A paper by Ummni Khan from Carleton University talks about the ‘Queerness of Johns.’ The paper complains about the stigmatising language used about sex buyers and aims to change the narrative around this, and interestingly, directly references the ‘sex worker’s rights movement’ as challenging this stigma against clients.
There has long been a piggybacking of the sex workers rights movement onto LGBTQ causes, and this worries me and should concern us all, because LGBTQ people are also at high risk of sexual coercion and exploitation, especially youth. Yet queer theory – which is not the same thing as queer people – pushes the sex work narrative.
Reading this paper reminded me of an article in the Feminist Current from 2016. To paraphrase, ‘Any time a punter is criticised a pro-prostitution academic will be there to defend him. She makes prostitution look queer, LGBT friendly, modern, fair trade and socialist. And when she speaks, we forget that he exists…He stays in the shadows.’
If we want to tackle the oppressive system of prostitution, we need to bring the punter out of the shadows and into the limelight. Because without him, that system couldn’t exist.