I’ve campaigned against the sex trade for many years and lost count of the number of prostitution survivors I’ve listened to as they tell their harrowing stories. So sometimes it feels like I’ve heard it all; that there’s nothing more to learn; that there’s nothing more that could shock me.
And then I read ‘Last Girl First! Prostitution at the intersection of sex, race & class-based oppressions’, based on research by Héma Sibi and published by CAP International. It’s not a book for the fainthearted. Chapter after chapter lists cast iron evidence that everywhere in the world, it is overwhelmingly the most marginalised women and girls who end up trapped in the prostitution system.
To illustrate this, I’ve picked out the data from just a few of the studies mentioned in the book in the following infographics. The relevant page numbers are shown in the lower right corner. The infographics are also available as a PDF you can download.
This data gives the lie to the propaganda that “sex work” is a positive economic option for women. Rather it shows that for the vast majority, prostitution is not a route out of poverty and disadvantage. As Rosen Hicher, a French survivor of prostitution and activist against the sex trade puts it:
“I was supposed to stay in prostitution for three weeks, a month. After 22 years, I was still there. And always with the same financial problems. One thing is for sure, we end up ruined. I don’t know what made me take the plunge: a depression, the fear of an empty wallet… you get into it, you don’t realise.”[Page 60]
The data also gives the lie to that other trope beloved by the sex trade expansionists, that “sex work” is empowering and an expression of women’s natural sexuality. There’s a quote from the Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native women in Minnesota, 2011, which shows what we know from multiple studies and women’s testimony: That most women involved in prostitution need to distance themselves in some way from the awful reality:
“A majority of the women (61%) who used drugs or alcohol described the need to chemically dissociate or numb themselves from the physical and emotional pain during prostitution.”[Page 81]
Colonialism and militarism
The book draws links with historical colonialist and militarist forces. For example, it shows how the British colonialists in India dispossessed the Adivasi peoples from their ancestral lands and outlawed many tribes’ nomadic ways of life. Deprived of their traditional ways of making a living, large numbers of their women and girls were pimped and trafficked into the prostitution system. This continues to this day.
Similar forces now operate in Tibet where China’s policies have led to the mass settlement of ethnic Han Chinese people in Tibetan territories, where they now outnumber the Tibetan population and have priority in accessing jobs and resources. This has led to the destitution of large numbers of Tibetan women and girls. With a growing tolerance of the sex trade, many have no choice but to enter the prostitution system.
In Canada, from the earliest phase of European colonial expansion, brothels were built around every military fort and trading post with local indigenous women and girls kidnapped and forced into them. Indigenous Canadian women remain disproportionately represented in the sex trade.
Wherever colonialism and militarism took hold, the results are similar.
These forces are not confined to history or distant lands. Everywhere, women and girls are among the most marginalised. When economic or other crises hit, women are usually the first to be fired and the last to be hired – and they are more likely to be in jobs that are precarious and are lower paid and have fewer benefits. And, everywhere, single mothers are among the most exposed.
Last Girl First! shows how quickly even middle-class women’s fortunes can change. Devastating data from Portugal and Greece shows the impact on women of the economic crisis that began in 2010 and was exacerbated by years of extreme “austerity” measures. Large numbers of middle and working-class women who had not previously been involved in prostitution have had no option but to turn to the sex trade for survival.
This is demonstrated starkly by data that shows that prior to the crisis, the majority of women in prostitution in Greece were migrant women, mostly victims of the Eastern European sex trafficking networks. Six years later, of the estimated 18,500 women in prostitution in Greece, 80% were Greek.
We have been documenting for some time, how women and children in the UK have borne the brunt of most of the austerity policies implemented here since 2010. The UK government has been forced to concede that women, single mothers in particular, have been turning in significant numbers to prostitution simply to pay their rent and feed their children because of low pay and the inadequacies of the Universal Credit and wider social security system.
This is only likely to get worse considering the euphemistically named “cost of living” crisis and the worsening economic situation in the UK. The Guardian reported recently that the economic outlook in the UK is bleak and that only Greece and Cyprus performed below us in terms of household income growth in Europe.
“UK household income growth between 2007 and 2018 fell behind the rest of Europe, with only Greece and Cyprus below us. Ireland grew by 6%, France by 10%, Germany 19%, while the UK fell back – yes, backwards – by 2%. All countries struggle in this energy shock, but after 15 years of income stagnation, “global Britain” is the hardest hit and least resilient.”
The future for women and girls in the UK is looking grim. This is a social emergency. We are already hearing reports from organisations that provide services to women involved in prostitution that they are seeing an uptick in the numbers of women turning to prostitution, often for the first time, in order to pay their rent or feed their children,.
Wherever women are systematically deprived of paid work, they are vulnerable to being drawn into the sex industry and trapped there. But:
“Sex buyers would not have access to women’s bodies in the first place if the women were not in situations of immense financial insecurity and fighting for survival.”[Page 60]
Last Girl First! frames prostitution as a systemic, structural issue that is a cornerstone of the patriarchal system that reinforces and sustains that ancient structural oppressive system:
“Prostitution is rooted in a long patriarchal tradition of male sexual entitlement to women, of their desire to control and access the bodies of women through just primae noctis, rape, marital rape, sexual harassment and other abuses. This gendered system thus enshrines an inalienable male right of access to women’s bodies.”[Page 85]
This is a great book. It’s not an easy read and there were times when I was exasperated by both the listicle nature of many of the chapters and the idiosyncrasies of the layout and the English translation. However, don’t let that put you off.
It brilliantly exposes the total hypocrisy and misogyny of the campaign for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade – which dominates so much of the UK political and media landscape.
Normalising and legitimising the buying and selling of marginalised women and girls as a solution to their entrenched systemic marginalisation and inequality is as inappropriate as legalising child chimney sweeps as a solution to Victorian child poverty or suttee as a solution to the financial support of widows.
I leave the last word to Héma Sibi:
“The same observation is made wherever prostitution is observed and studied: although it is not always the sole cause, belonging to a disadvantaged social class and the resulting experience of precariousness constitute a cross-cutting, constant and determining factor in entering and remaining in prostitution. The sexual act purchased in prostitution is thus obtained either through physical coercion by a pimp or through economic coercion, which transfers people into prostitution. In practice, this is often achieved by combining the two constraints.
Thus, the ultra-liberal vision of women’s ‘freedom’ to sell their bodies in exchange for payment ignores the fact that freedom in the capitalist system is primarily exercised by the dominant classes at the expense of the dominated classes.”[Page 151]
Last Girl First! Prostitution at the intersection of sex, race & class-based oppressions based on research by Héma Sibi and published by CAP International.