This is an edited transcript of Esther’s talk at the ‘Power Play: Is the sex industry REALLY empowering for women?’ event in Coventry, England, on Saturday 3 June 2023.
What is prostitution?
A sex buyer doesn’t pay for sex, he pays for “control of sexual activity”. The commodity traded is control of sex with another person.
Where and when the sexual activity takes place is controlled by the buyer and so are both the nature of the sexual activity and the physical characteristics, such as the race, national origins and age, of the person who is paid to take part in it.
If prostitution were about the exchange of sexual pleasure for money, as is often alleged, a buyer could claim unfairness or imbalance in the values exchanged and refuse to pay, or demand a refund, because while he had an orgasm, the woman he paid also appeared to have one. Meaning she could lose money because she performed arousal well.
That this would be absurd, shows that it is control of sexual activity that buyers pay for.
In the sex trade, supply must always exceed demand because otherwise buyers will not have choice over the person they can pay not to say “No”.
This is why the economic interests and safety concerns of people involved in prostitution are not the same as those of pimps, brothel-keepers and all the others who facilitate the industry and make the largest profits, including traffickers and companies which own commercial sex websites.
Recent pay offers to members of trade unions, that is, workers organising against their employers in their industries, have included:
- An offer of 9% over two years for rail workers following industrial action by the RMT
- A 5% pay rise and a lump sum bonus for nurses and other healthcare staff in the NHS.
Oil and gas workers are also considering industrial action because of the huge profits made by private sector oil and gas industries.
Groups which call themselves sex worker unions or collectives but include pimps and brothel-keepers are in reality trade associations. They organise to expand the industry and expand demand, which results in lower pay for individual women and men in prostitution due to the increased supply of labour recruited, often by coercion, misrepresentation of likely net earnings or about what prostitution involves.
These trade associations have never taken equivalent action to improve conditions or get a bigger share for people involved in prostitution of the profits made at the top of the industry.
Litigation can be very expensive and most women in the sex industry are there due to poverty and inequality relative to those who exploit them.
The enormous power imbalance between women in prostitution and the men who control the industry in terms of access to financial and other resources, including contacts with powerful men who owe favours to those they rely on to maintain their anonymity and who have the potential to subvert a state’s interests, is just one reason why abandoning prostitution to market forces alone undermines the purpose of a state itself.
Harms of prostitution
Dissociation, which is very common in women involved in prostitution and often endures after you exit, is recognised as a mental health difficulty in the DSM-5 psychiatric manual.
The rate of PTSD is double and more complex than that found in combat veterans.
High rates of psychological harm like those experienced by victims of rape and domestic abuse correlate with high levels of violence and threats of violence from buyers and pimps.
There is a high risk of brain injury through acts of physical violence, traumatic brain damage at levels comparable to victims of torture and rates of head injury like or higher than the rate found in boxers.
Women involved in prostitution have the highest risk of murder of any social group and a mortality rate 12 times higher than women in the general population.
If you discuss harms and risks, you are often told that you are contributing to the stigma associated with prostitution by suggesting that women involved in it are weak or have character flaws.
Pointing out the exceptional danger and misogyny in the sex trade says none of these things.
It addresses the trauma-informed question, “What happened to you?” rather than the question “What’s wrong with you?” which is used by those who prefer the medical model of disability and the victim-blaming inherent in it.
This silencing is not directed at participants in other activities, such as those who have experienced combat situations in wars, for example. Veterans are encouraged to be open about the effects of these experiences on their mental and physical health. Not doing so is attributed to the impact of “toxic masculinity”.
Studies of sex buyers show that they are significantly more likely than other men to rape and engage in all forms of violence against women. A US study found that buyers were almost eight times more likely to rape than other men.
A UN study of violent men in six countries found that buying sex was the second most significant common factor in the backgrounds and lifestyles of men found guilty of rape.
Groups supporting the sex industry support customers and those profiting from the facilitation of prostitution by trying to silence or shame women and men who talk about its harms.
Prostitution and the Equality Act 2010
If prostitution had to comply with the Equality Act 2010’s provisions prohibiting discrimination, its current market-driven business model would fail.
Consumer protection legislation permits you to choose to buy or sell goods or commodities of a particular description, such as Italian wine, or a Dutch cheese, and agree a price based on this description.
Where employment and provision of services are concerned, recruitment practices, terms and conditions or rates of pay which discriminate in relation to any of the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, such as race, age, sex, gender reassignment, religion and disability, are unlawful.
The definition of “race” in the 2010 Act includes nationality and ethnic or national origins.
Discriminating against a buyer based on any of these characteristics would also be unlawful.
Employers can discriminate if they can prove an applicant needs a protected characteristic, such as age, race, or religion, to do a particular job.
For it to be an “occupational requirement” the characteristic must be essential for the job and related to the main tasks. The employer must also prove a good business reason (“objective justification”).
In NHS healthcare settings a patient can request that only clinicians of the same sex will be suitable for performing a particular intimate healthcare procedure. As this is an issue involving consent to care, the sex of the practitioner will be an “occupational requirement” and what the 2010 Act refers to as a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
If a sex buyer were permitted to request, as they frequently do, that sexual services be provided by someone with a protected characteristic such as age, nationality, or ethnicity, and this was accepted as a “genuine occupational requirement”, there could be equivalent demands made by users of other services, particularly health and social care.
This would seriously affect the operation of the anti-discrimination provisions of the 2010 Act itself, particularly as buyers also decide how much they are willing to pay for sexual services based on these characteristics.
The decriminalised sex industry in Germany likes to market itself as a form of “healthcare”. Some mega-brothels in Germany segregate prostituted women by ethnicity and other physical characteristics on different floors of the building.
Would you expect to be able to choose which floor of a hospital or other healthcare facility you went to based on the ethnicity, age or other protected characteristics of the staff assigned to provide services there?
If words are violence, what is prostitution?
It’s sex buyers who are most invested in maintaining the stigmatisation of prostituted women.
Interviews with sex buyers show that what would deter them most is being exposed, whether through criminal convictions, registration as sex offenders, or any form of publicity.
Sex buyers want to maintain their reputations in society, their access to unpaid emotional and domestic labour from the women in their lives, and their status as men who don’t need to pay for sex.
The sex industry fetishises ethnicity and sex buyers who seek to maintain public reputations as anti-racists wouldn’t want the reality of their private choices and behaviour exposed.
It is claimed by some that there is a “sex worker identity”, but no equivalent claim is made for the existence of a “sex buyer identity”. In societies which have made gains in reducing gender inequality, sex buyers would have too much to lose by claiming such an identity.
Along with those who facilitate and profit most from prostitution, they will, however, promote the idea that a “sex worker identity” exists. It is a means of keeping prostituted women inside the sex industry and excluding them from future roles outside it where they might be competing with a buyers’ relatives.
Prostituted women are regarded as an “othered” and inferior subclass of human not worthy of protection and the opportunities buyers expect for themselves, their families and those with whom they associate in public.
They are also othered by people who use the umbrella term “sex work” to blur distinctions between different parts of the sex industry while demonstrating that, although they talk about stigma, they themselves hold views in which prostituted women are at the bottom of a hierarchy they have no intention of dismantling.
For example, in February 2020 the owner of Sophisticats, a strip club near Euston station in London, which was challenging the loss of its licence, told the Camden New Journal:
“Our dancers aren’t hustlers. This isn’t a film. They are ordinary kids that want to make a living and they want to do it in such a way that they can go home and look in the mirror afterwards.”
In November 2022, The Times interviewed a couple who perform as a pop band whose singer has an Onlyfans account she started at college. She is quoted as saying,
“Sex work is real work – why would you try to cast out the people who make it?”
Later in the interview, however, her male partner says,
“But it’s not like she’s having sex with other people”.
In countries where prostitution has been fully decriminalised or legalised and women working in brothels are required to be registered, many women are not registered and illegal prostitution persists. Under Germany’s regulated system, for example, the sex industry is the only industry for which there are no reliable statistics about the number of people involved.
Would it surprise you that not all women involved in prostitution would want this officially recorded against their name, with all the potential future consequences, the leverage this would give pimps and blackmailers if they sought to exit the sex industry, and the limits it would place on future employment?
Regardless of the arrangements for regulation in a particular state, or the lack of them, sex buyers are not registered or required to provide identification as this would deter them.
Most employers, whether they were sex buyers or not, wouldn’t recruit a woman who was open from the outset about having been involved in prostitution. They wouldn’t trust someone they knew feigned excitement and pleasure during sex for payment. They would assume she was chaotic, “damaged”, “unstable” with “issues”. That wouldn’t stop them paying to have sex with her, but they wouldn’t give her opportunities outside the isolated exploitative bubble that is the sex industry.
They wouldn’t consider her to have relevant “work experience” because, whatever they say in public, they don’t regard prostitution as “work”.