The Idea of Prostitution: Q&A with Sheila Jeffreys and Rose Hunter

This is an edited transcript of the Radical Feminist Perspectives webinar about Sheila Jeffreys’ influential book, The Idea of Prostitution (Spinifex Press, 1997), discussed by Sheila Jeffreys and Rose Hunter.

Rose: Firstly I’d like to say what an enormous honour it is to be here today discussing Sheila’s book, The Idea of Prostitution, which was first published by Spinifex Press in 1997. I read this book after I started writing my own book about some of my experiences, and it was truly a life-changing read for me.

I am a sex industry survivor—I was in different parts of the industry in Canada for ten years, from late 1997 to 2008.

So I actually started in the industry the same year as Sheila’s book was first published. Unfortunately though, it took me over twenty years to find the book, or any radical feminist perspectives.

Sheila, I was wondering if you could talk about what made you decide to write a book about this topic, and at that point in time? I know the book was first published in 1997, but I’m curious to know when you started working on it? And can you also talk about the reception of the book also—I understand there was a dramatic situation at the launch?

Sheila: Thanks, Rose. It is a pleasure for me to be able to discuss the book with you. And it is a great delight for me to know that you, and other prostitution survivors who have approached me, have found this book true to their experience and helpful in getting out and beyond this industry.

I wrote my first paper about the problem of the prostitution of women back in 1979, but I did not start to work politically on the issue or write at any length on it until the early 1990s.

When I arrived to teach at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 1991, I was horrified to discover how accepted the industry was there. In the state of Victoria brothel prostitution was legalised and there were three brothels on the street where I lived. Moreover, prostituted women were advertised with photographs in the telephone directory.

Australian feminists seemed to accept that prostitution was ordinary work and supported the legalisation of the industry. I think prostitution was particularly celebrated in Australia because it is a frontier society in which supplying women to men for use had a long history. In addition, Australian masculinity was and is particularly aggressive in attitudes and demands made upon women. The Australian feminists I got to know generally saw prostitution as ‘sex work’, and supported legalisation of the industry. I realised there was a huge amount of work to be done.

I did two things: I set up an Australian branch of CATW in 1994, which I ran until I left for the UK in 2015; and I started to write The Idea of Prostitution.

I was so shocked at the way the prostitution of women was accepted in Australia that I decided I had to write a book which examined the ‘idea’ of prostitution, that is, how it became acceptable for men to use women’s bodies in prostitution as if they had no personhood (as if they were, in the title of my later book on this topic, ‘industrial vaginas’)—and how so many feminists accepted that there was something inevitable about it.

The assumption underlying all policy, literature, science and much of feminism on prostitution, was that it was in some way natural. Men naturally had sexual urges which made them need to stick their penises in women and girls who desperately did not want to be there, and women and girls really wanted it too, or at least were not bothered by being so used. I did not think this was natural and was determined from the outset to work to abolish this abuse of women.

There was some pushback to the publication of the book. A prostitution survivor called Angel Cassidy came over to Australia from the US to help me promote the book and we did a launch in a feminist bookstore in Sydney. There were a number of prostituted women there with their pimps who were very angry. One of them asked me, quite aggressively, whether I had stopped beating up my girlfriend with a baseball bat, which was odd because I barely knew what a baseball bat was at that time. During the question and answer session, Angel told me we needed to get out. She sensed the atmosphere was getting dangerous and we left fast.

Angel, it turned out, had been sexually used by men called deadheads, fans of the Grateful Dead who followed the group around America, and was put into prostitution in her early teens.

Rose: It’s so interesting what you say about Australia. That strikes me as really true, and so sad.

The Idea of Prostitution starts with a historical consideration of feminist attitudes towards prostitution. I’m interested to know how you approached the research for the first chapter, including finding those fascinating primary sources?

Sheila: So the book starts with the history of feminist campaigns to end this form of men’s violence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the history of how the men’s sexual revolution of the 1960s defeated all this work and normalised and promoted the practice.

In the 1990s there was a wonderful library called the Fawcett Library in London, which had been set up from the papers and books of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett. It was the most wonderful collection, and I had used it for my first book The Spinster and Her Enemies. I went back and followed all the campaigning tactics and arguments that led up to the 1949 UN Convention Against the Trafficking in Persons, which was a major success for feminists, mostly spinsters and lesbians who fought to get rid of brothels. The Convention was very successful and many countries banned brothels at that time.

There is a great history to be written about all the women, usually ex-suffragettes, who worked on this issue and other issues involving violence against women and children, between the two world wars.

During the 1960s men’s sexual revolution there was strong promotion of the sex industry, porn and prostitution, by sexual liberals of all types. These included therapists, historians, sexologists, and gay liberationists. One historian of prostitution, Lujo Basserman, said in his 1967 book The Oldest Profession, that anyone who found prostitution offensive was mentally ill.

Rose: Very curious! I’m interested in what you said about the ‘men’s sexual revolution of the 1960s’ and how it ‘normalised and promoted’ prostitution. I’m going to take a detour into a few details about my time in the industry, then I’ll loop back to a question about that topic.

So I was 25 when I started in the industry. Desperately wanting to escape my unhappy life and life history in Australia, I took a working visa to go and live in Canada. My immigration document said I had one year, but I was determined to find a way never to come back to Australia. I started in my first massage parlour in Toronto because I lost the first legit job I got there, and I was broke and needed money for rent. It was supposed to be a temporary situation. Instead that temporary situation turned into just over ten years, with most of that time in massage parlours and massage outcall.

Prior to the sex industry I had completed a BA degree in Australia, in English. During that time (in the early to mid 90s) as part of that degree I did a lot of Cultural Studies subjects, and I remember being exposed to the idea that supposed ‘sex work’ was ‘a job like any other’. All sorts of people who’d never done it themselves said this, as well as others who’d done it in a very non-typical, unnecessary, and cushy way, for example as art practice rather than survival.

In your book you comment that the advent of postmodernism ‘introduced a concern to discover women’s agency even in the most apparently unlikely situations’. (I do love that wording!) This was exactly my experience of Cultural Studies in the 90s. So-called ‘sex workers’ could be seen as ‘resistant’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘empowered’.

Unfortunately at the time I didn’t question this. Although I’d made it to university, I had grown up with abuse, including being repetitively told I was stupid, and I believed this was true. As an awkward people-pleaser with no self-esteem, my primary concern back then was to at least appear to fit in by agreeing. Now a lot of what I remember from Cultural Studies seems absurd.

In your book you write about the feminist point of view in the League of Nations in 1928. You say:

“The women’s associations which [Madame Avril de Sainte-Croix] represented held that it was useless to instruct youths to respect women whilst, in the neighbourhood of the schools where they received such instruction, there were licensed houses where all such respect was flouted and destroyed (the League of Nations 1928, p. 28).”

The Idea of Prostitution p. 21

I think that is so completely relevant to the situation today.

In your book you show how a lot of the older feminist critiques contained so much more sense than the ones that developed out of the supposed ‘sexual liberation’ of the 1960s (or the ‘men’s sexual revolution’ as you call it), as well as Cultural Studies, which was male-dominated in terms of its underlying theoretical positions, as set out by such theorists as Foucault. I was wondering if you could speak to this change in mainstream and academic feminist attitudes towards prostitution in the twentieth century and the reasons behind it?

Sheila: Yes, and I might just comment on that quote first because I do think it’s an interesting one considering it’s from 1928. Of course, in the 90s and 2000s we were constantly saying you cannot have a prostitution industry in which you separate off one class of women and it makes no difference to the rest of the world. That is simply not possible—what happens instead is that a prostitution culture is created.

For instance, in Melbourne in the area I lived there was a brothel next to the outdoor eating area of a McDonald’s, and children would be sitting there watching men go in and out. Thus the normality of prostitution was constructed in these little boys and all those children. It’s so fascinating to me that back in 1928 our fore-sisters were able to clearly understand this.

Now I’ll get back to the issue of postmodernism and what happened to academia.

The effect of postmodernism, queer theory and sexual liberalism on the academy was that by the 1990s there were almost no supposedly feminist academics in universities who were critical of prostitution. Almost all took a ‘sex work’ position—that prostitution was ordinary work and should be legalised or decriminalised and supported to become a huge industry. The academics who purported to be on the left adopted the position that the ‘agency’ of women must be respected. They abandoned the structuralist position that women were oppressed. It came to be seen as womanhating and insulting to suggest that prostitution was violence against women rather than an opportunity for women to get ahead.

This was often taken to extremes. One academic at my university, a lesbian and supposedly a feminist, wrote about the sexual use of girls in refugee camps by aid workers in Africa. Many young teenage girls allowed these men to sexually use them in exchange for food. She talked about a thirteen-year-old who was used in exchange for bread for her baby and said [the child] was exercising agency and this should be celebrated.

These academics took their lead from pro-prostitution organisations in the US and the Netherlands who praised the virtues of the prostitution of women. And there was a great deal of financial support from governments and charities for this position. Once I went to speak at an academic conference in Delhi on prostitution and trafficking. I had been invited by an older feminist who still had a critical perspective, but unfortunately I was met with considerable hostility. The young supposed feminists were all trained, with PhDs at universities in the West such as the University of Sussex, and they emerged with extremely positive perspectives on prostitution. They asked the organiser why on earth I had been invited. It was quite unpleasant, but more and more in the 1990s I found I was being greeted with hostility or entirely ignored and cold-shouldered at women’s studies conferences in the UK and Australia.

Rose: Thank you for that. I’m always amazed when I hear about people who’ve never done it and would never have to do it, yet somehow know how positive it is. That strikes me as very odd, but unfortunately quite common these days. It’s so interesting to hear all that about universities in the 90s too. Even though I experienced that exact climate, I still question my own perceptions from time to time and wonder if I missed something on offer! So that’s like, wow. It really was how I thought it was.

I’m going to say a bit more about my own story here, to ground my personal interest in my next question to you.

As mentioned, my background included abuse and a lack of self-worth, as well as a vicious eating disorder that had been with me since I was a very young child. When I arrived in Toronto with my (not very practically useful) degree, I was so chronically emotionally unstable that I was basically unemployable.

In moving to Canada I’d done what many people in alcoholism and addiction recovery (as I am) call ‘doing a geographical’—that is, I’d moved to a different place (in this case across the other side of the world) in the hopes this would fix me. Of course it didn’t work. I was just the same chronically emotionally unstable, addicted, and unemployable person in Canada as I had been in Australia. (Go figure.) But now I had an added problem, in that I was all alone and without rent money.

So that was my context when I took myself to that first massage parlour in Toronto.

For many years I bought this line that it had been my ‘choice’ to get into the industry. And it was in one way: I saw the ad in the paper, I went to the interview. I wasn’t trafficked, there was no boyfriend who put me up to it, and I was not underage.

But in those other ways I have just described it was a heavily conditioned and pressured choice. If I had been a young woman with some emotional stability, even passable self-esteem, and employment options, I would not have made this ‘choice’. I did not see this for many years.

I assumed it had been my uncomplicated, ‘free’ choice, and therefore anything that happened to me as a result of this choice was my fault and my fault only. I carried this belief and the guilt that came with it for many years after I exited the industry.

Your discussion of the issue of choice in this book was a life changer for me. Your book questions the distinction between forcible and so-called ‘chosen’ prostitution, and it showed me the concept of choice was much more complicated than I had previously understood.

I saw myself in this quote from your book:

“When prostituted women themselves use the language of ‘choice’, they can be seen to be engaging in what deviancy sociologists call ‘neutralising techniques’. Sociologists use this term to describe the way in which socially despised and marginalised groups create rationalisations which enable them to survive their marginal condition (Sykes and Matza, 1957).”

The Idea of Prostitution p. 137

Can you talk about the terminology of ‘choice’ in the prostitution debate as described in your book? I know here you argue for using the term ‘decision’ instead. Also your book points out that all this talk about choice focuses on the women and entirely removes men from the equation. What about men’s choice to pay to abuse women and girls of lower socio-economic status? Why is that still rarely if ever discussed?

Sheila: The language of choice is the language of neoliberalism. Radical feminism is structuralist in its analysis, i.e. it understands male domination to be a complete system in which all aspects of society are organised in the interests of men and against the interests of women. Male domination is not the result of women’s individual choices.

Universities favour liberal approaches to the oppression of women which concentrate on women’s choices. This does, as you say, avoid recognising that men oppress women. Men are not mentioned. Men’s violence against women becomes something vague called ‘gender violence’ for instance. Liberals see all aspects of women’s oppression as being the result of women’s choices. For example, women choose to stay with men who batter them, women choose to be used in pornography and prostitution, women choose to be surrogate mothers. Women choose not to enter certain jobs or to try to get ahead in them because they lack ambition and just do not choose to.

The language of choice exempts men from responsibility for the oppression of women. But it leaves some considerable mysteries which cannot be explained by women’s choice, such as why there are not millions of men worldwide being prostituted by women. Why, for instance, are there not men almost entirely naked by the side of the road waiting for businesswomen to crawl past them in their cars to use their bodies for sexual satisfaction? Prostitution is not an equal opportunities profession. It is very discriminatory.

There are only two answers to this puzzle. You can see it as natural for women to want to be prostituted and for men to want to prostitute them. Or you can acknowledge that it is the forces of male domination that create a world in which prostitution can exist. These include the impoverishment of women. Working class men can earn good money in the manual trades, but only three percent of those in these trades are women. It is almost impossible for working class women to earn such money and have such respected occupations. It is also very hard for women to find work they can fit around childcare. A poverty that is specific to women drives women into prostitution and porn.

Women and girls are seasoned to be prostituted. There are high rates of women and girls in prostitution and porn who have been sexually abused in childhood and/or raped in their teenage years. Girls are trained to see themselves as sex objects and to see men’s sexual attention as positive. This is clear in popular culture. Women are almost required to be half-naked in fashionable clothing in such industries as the music industry. Women are not allowed to have dignity or boundaries.

Men, on the other hand, are trained to see girls as objects for use. There is a massive industry of sexual violence in the form of porn that has trained them to see women as such objects. Men have a sexuality that has been formed by their powerful position over women, which enables them to require other human beings (usually women and girls), to be used as masturbation aids, either in marriage and relationships or in prostitution. Women and girls are not so trained. We have no class of appropriate objects in the form of a class of human beings to use as holes. And why would we wish to do that?

Most women go into prostitution very young. They never have experience or training for any other job and are inured to being abused.

In the book I make a distinction between decision and choice. Choice suggests a range of alternatives. Decision means that a woman may recognise she has no real choice. For instance, she can make a decision to be prostituted or be unable to pay her bills and end up homeless with her children. That is not a choice but it may be a decision.

Rose: Everything you said resonates with me. Especially that ‘women and girls are seasoned to be prostituted’, and that ‘women are not allowed to have dignity or boundaries’. Just before the webinar today we were talking about the overly sexualised ways women and girls are supposed to dress. It’s so clear to me that a lot of the clothing young women in particular are supposed to wear does not grant much dignity.

Your book showed me that the sex industry is violence against women. It showed me that paid abuse is still abuse. I didn’t see that for many years—at least not when it came to me. Firstly, as I mentioned, I was used to being on the receiving end of abuse, so it didn’t seem strange or wrong to me. I was also already an expert in dissociation, so that part came ‘naturally’ too. I already knew how to fly my mind out of a bad situation; to pretend that I wasn’t there. And I quickly learned never to go to the massage parlour or brothel without alcohol in my system—and top-ups in my purse. That helped me to not be there in my mind too. In a discussion of Liz Kelly’s Surviving Sexual Violence, you write:

“When they are unable to name their experience as violence, women may feel unease or distress but are unable to place what has happened to them in a context in which it could be understood as abuse. […]

Naming the abuse in prostitution as work or entertainment makes it particularly hard for women to identify what is happening to them as abuse. […]

One common finding in Kelly’s interviews was that women ‘minimised’ the abuse that they had suffered. […]

They cannot afford to acknowledge the psychological impact of the abuse until after some time … For prostituted women, this is likely to be after they leave prostitution.”

The Idea of Prostitution p. 251–53

I so completely identify with all of those points. Regarding the last item, it took me years after I left the industry to even begin to acknowledge there was a psychological impact. When I left the industry I fell apart completely, partly because I left with nothing, and partly because I could not face what had been my life for the previous ten years. Instead I thought—or perhaps I hoped—I could just forget all about it, with enough alcohol and pills, and with a violent enough boyfriend. That didn’t work, to put it mildly.

I’ve been out since 2008, and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. I doubt I will ever be able to fully acknowledge to myself the extent of the abuse I experienced in this industry.

Can you talk about how you developed the viewpoint that the sex industry is violence against women? In your book you mention many examples of feminist analyses of violence against women that left prostitution out of the equation, or left out all except the most clearly ‘forced’ examples. How did you come to your viewpoint? And I’m also interested in your idea that johns have to learn how to treat women in this way—related to the thesis of your book, that men have to have ‘an idea about prostitution’ to enable them to ‘conceive of buying women for sex’.

Sheila: When I wrote the book the vast majority even of feminists made a distinction between what was seen as forced and free prostitution. There was some concern about trafficking into prostitution because this was seen as about deception or force, and about child prostitution because children were not seen as having real choice.

But there was understood to be an OK form of prostitution in which adult women exercising free choice entered the industry. This was seen as their business and it was seen as hostile and womanhating to suggest this was not reasonable. There was an acceptance that prostitution would always be there, that it was somehow natural and the proper feminist position was to just provide condoms and cups of coffee and try to ensure not too many women got murdered and raped.

I was concerned that feminist descriptions of the scope and variety of forms of violence against women did not include prostitution. Liz Kelly’s excellent book Surviving Sexual Violence from 1989 sets out what she sees as a continuum of violence from sexual harassment to sexual murder with much in between. However, it did not include prostitution or porn.

I argue in the book that prostitution consists of two forms of violence, ‘paid for’ violence, and unpaid violence. The paid for violence is the ordinary everyday acts in prostitution from which a woman has to dissociate in order to survive the assault. It involves allowing strange men to use her as an object or a masturbation aid; to put their penises in her mouth, vagina and/or anus. The main indication that this is violence is the way in which women and girls have to learn to dissociate. Many are already adept at this because they were sexually abused as children, and abused children do dissociate. They use a variety of methods, for example separating themselves off emotionally by using false names and refusing to allow men to kiss them, to try to keep a part of themselves that is not public sexual property. Research shows that women who cannot manage to dissociate cannot remain in the industry.

On the other hand, the unpaid violence is the violence the male buyers carry out without paying. This includes rape of course, and also sexual harassment. It can include murder. The murder rate of women in prostitution is  high. One study in Colorado showed that women in prostitution were murdered at twenty times the rate of what is a very dangerous occupation for men—that of taxi driver.

Women in prostitution struggle to prevent the buyers from doing whatever they want, including touching all parts of the body, putting their hands into all orifices, biting and torturing in a variety of ways. This is often a losing battle. In my next book I describe the absurdity of the health and safety codes in the industry in Australia which are supposed to make prostitution safe. Prostitution cannot be made ‘safe’ because enabling men to satisfy themselves sexually by using the body and inside of the body of women is a terrible form of assault upon the personhood of women that should never even be able to be imagined, let alone organised by the state for a profit.

Making an industry out of this violence is an obstacle to any chance of ending men’s violence against women in general, as I explain in the book. I used to say to students that the sexual harassment of them that they found so awful on the campus was not just legal but a profitmaking activity in the brothel opposite the university, a couple of hundred yards from the classroom. Women students were likely to be in there being used by male students and male university staff.

But the men were supposed to respect the fact that they should not touch the young women on university premises. In fact prostitution teaches all forms of sexual violence to men, including sexual harassment, the sexual use of women and girls as objects, and all the forms of sexual perversion that men learn in porn and train themselves on in brothels (anal sex, strangulation and so on). There can never be a sexuality of equality in which women only do what they really want whilst prostitution and porn exist.

Rose: Wow, some of what you just said brought back memories. Particularly what you said about the ‘losing battle’ to prevent buyers from doing whatever they want. That is exactly what it was like.

So interesting that you say ‘research shows that women who cannot manage to dissociate cannot remain in the industry’. I’m sure my ‘talent’ for dissociation was one of the factors that kept me in so long. That and alcoholism, which also gave me the feeling of not really being there. It was definitely the case for me as well as other women I knew that we were traumatised when we arrived in the industry, and got further traumatised during our time in the industry. It’s a vicious cycle that for me was very difficult to become aware of, let alone get out of.

I remember when I was in the industry being aware of the prostitutes’ rights group COYOTE. It came as news to me that, as you write, only 3% of the people involved in this group were prostituted women. You also write:

“Spokeswomen of the prostitutes’ rights movement … castigate feminists for their refusal to listen to prostitutes. The problem, though, is in deciding which prostituted and ex-prostituted women to listen to. The positive and celebratory stance taken by a smallnumber of prostitutes’ rights activists seems to gain considerable publicity because it is popular with the media and with all the powerful economic and political forces which represent the interests of johns. The careful research on prostitution which involves qualitative interviewing does not support this relentlessly positive position (Hoigard and Finstad, 1992; McKeganey and Barnard, 1996).”

The Idea of Prostitution p. 77

I see this attitude—of publicising only those sex industry women with positive experiences—everywhere today, over twenty years after you wrote this. (And opposing them to the clear examples of trafficking, which everyone can get behind hating.)

Can you talk about this pushing by the popular media of a small number of atypical and sex industry celebratory ‘happy hookers’?

Sheila: Male domination chooses who should be the champions of women to suit its purposes. From the 1980s onwards so-called sex workers’ rights groups have been held up as those who must be listened to, those who tell the truth about prostitution. They do, of course, say that prostitution is a job like any other and should be regulated like any other job.

What we abolitionists call pimp states seek to service and keep their male citizens happy by supplying them with women for use in prostitution and pornography. The pimp state is in a contract with its male citizens. So they organise access to women in decriminalised or regulated systems. They say they are helping women who really want to be in the industry by reducing the number of deaths caused by sexually transmitted disease or male violence. To this end they fund and work with so called prostitutes’ rights groups to advise and promote safety measures.

In countries like the Netherlands where women are used in parking bays in an outdoor brothel, there are booths providing condoms and coffee.

There have been feminist groups from the 1980s onwards which seek to help women out of the industry and punish the buyers, but they are attacked as being against prostituted women and are now called SWERFs.

The prostitutes’ rights groups are often associated with the industry and sometimes run by pimps. They stage protests against, and seek to censor, feminists. I had sex work activist groups protesting against me on campus. I had to have guards on my lectures. The basis was antifeminism. In Australia and elsewhere they are called ‘prostitutes collectives’.

The sex work activists would both protest and stake out any events that I or others such as Jan Raymond or Julie Bindel spoke at, and sometimes get them cancelled. I remember a sex work spokeswoman at a conference I spoke at in Birmingham at the time the book came out. I said prostitution was violence against women. A woman stood up in the audience and said that she had had 5000 clients and they had all been perfect gentlemen. I just said, mildly, that was quite surprising since many women who’d had just a few boyfriends were likely to have had one who was not a ‘gentlemen’ but quite a problem.

Rose: Thank you, that’s so powerful and clear. ‘Male domination chooses who should be the champions of women to suit its purposes’. I see a lot of examples of that in the media today.

When I was in the industry, I was attached to it (you could say I was ‘trauma bonded’ to it). I didn’t think the industry was a wonderful thing, but, the way I saw it, a person like me couldn’t be picky. As the years went on, I believed it was the only way I’d ever be able to support myself. And so at the time I too defended the industry. In my case I didn’t say it was empowering—it was obvious it was not. But I would have at times (depending on the day) said it was ‘fine’, and even that it was ‘a job like any other’. It was difficult or impossible for me to reject the only thing that had ever paid my rent.

In my experience after the publication of my book I have been told by some supposedly feminist women (sadly) that my experiences are not valid, and I should be quiet because criticising the sex industry is hurting sex industry workers. As you write:

“Feminists who challenge the objectification of women are seen as the ones who make women objects, not men. Feminists who fight the victimisation of women are seen as making women victims (Roiphe, 1993; Wolf, 1993). […]

The possibility of being accused of endangering other women is a potent weapon against those who might wish to be critical of the institution of prostitution.”

The Idea of Prostitution p. 80–81

The argument seems to be that the industry could and would be non-harming—or less harming—if only people such as us would keep quiet about how harming it actually is. This is a strange as well as laughable argument coming from people who have never been in this industry and would never have to be.

But the more difficult thing for me is when I hear a woman who is in the industry defend the industry in the same kind of cautious, non-celebratory terms I used to. It’s possible for me now, many years later, to see the context I was in then, and why I thought paid abuse was fine for me, or the best situation I’d be able to get in life. But how can I comment on what is going on with others?

What do you think about current sex industry women who say what they’re doing is not great or empowering, but it’s OK or tolerable, with some kind of parallel to other undesirable jobs? How can we respond to that with empathy?

Sheila: To women who say that prostitution is a job like any other, I say that there is one profound difference. In no other job is the inside of a woman’s body the workplace so that she has to struggle to survive as a human being around the use that is being made of her. This difference is illustrated by the fact that the body of any girl or woman can be used in this trade. The body of a child may be preferred because her holes are tighter. In no other job is the body of a child, particularly one who has not yet been used, so valuable. Usually some degree of experience or skill would be seen as useful. Also the woman may be almost unconscious but still will be used.

We cannot keep the industry going just because some women say or think that it is OK. There are many timber workers who defend cutting down old growth trees but we retrain them in order to end the industry. Carrying on with the industry of prostitution or old growth forestry is just too harmful whatever the workers say.

Rose: I like that analogy.

As a final question, can you give us your thoughts on the Nordic Model? I’d also be interested to know how you think the situation has changed between when The Idea of Prostitution was first published in 1997, and now? Has it gotten worse or better? What do you see as the positive and negative trends, and do you have a prediction as to where it’s all heading?

Sheila: After I wrote the book the sex industry expanded hugely—internationally, as well as in its organisation and brutality. So I had to write another book to explain and describe this process (The Industrial Vagina). That book will be discussed here [on the Radical Feminist Perspectives webinar] in September.

I am of course very much in favour of the Nordic Model. The whole book argues that the men must be stopped, and that is what the Nordic model does. It punishes the male buyers, decriminalises the women and supports them back into the world. The feminists in the early twentieth century also argued that men were the cause and must be stopped. CATW and other abolitionists made considerable progress until recently. Many countries passed versions of the Nordic model legislation.

But recently things have been going backwards, in Australia in particular. In Victoria we campaigned to punish the buyers but instead there is now complete decriminalisation of the industry, which is much more conducive to expanding the industry.

Queensland is about to do the same. This is definitely going backwards. In the US there is movement both forwards and back. So I think there is no clear picture of where this is going.

We need a powerful feminist movement to push the struggle forward and this is happening. Women are becoming radical feminists in many countries in great numbers. These new feminists are not arguing that prostitution is sex work. They are very much aligned with abolitionists on prostitution. So there is considerable hope there.

Further reading

Front cover of The Idea of Prostitution by Sheila Jeffreys
The front cover of BODY SHELL GIRL by Rose Hunter

Sheila Jeffreys’ The Idea of Prostitution is available from Spinifex Press.

Rose Hunter’s Body Shell Girl is also available from  Spinifex Press.

2 thoughts on “The Idea of Prostitution: Q&A with Sheila Jeffreys and Rose Hunter

  1. Thank you so much for publishing the transcript of this powerfully moving conversation. The thing I can never understand is why men like to hurt women and watch them being hurt? Because that seems to be the basis for all the male violence against women.

  2. The oppression of women is maintained by violence and the threat of violence against women. This includes state violence (taking our children from us, imprisoning us, putting us in mental institutions etc) plus institutional biases such as paying women less for the same work, not paying us at all when we work in the home bringing up and supporting children and doing domestic work for our male partners, etc. and making us dependent on men, particularly when we become mothers. Men know that without this threat many women may well not stay with them, have their children or work for them for free. Every time they are violent to a woman or watch violence against us they are reasserting that the system works for them and they feel their current position is assured.

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