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The New Abolitionist Model

Julie Bindel’s The Pimping of Prostitution puts sex workers in its crosshairs.

At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1890. Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikimedia

Entry for an encyclopedia of feminism: The Sex Work Wars: Decades of acrimonious debate about the meaning of exchanging sex for money. Near-total disagreement about terms, definitions, causes, and effects, and how to measure the involved phenomena. Mutual incomprehension on cultural meanings of sex, sexual identity, and gender relations. Laws backed by politicians based on the supposed truth of one or the other view. Little improvement for those being discussed. Outgrowth of the Lesbian/Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s.

A new shot has been fired in the Sex Work Wars. Julie Bindel’s The Pimping of Prostitution calls for a return to more authentic beginnings, when, as she tells it, everyone involved in the 1960s women’s liberation movement was in thrall to a few shining leaders.

This version rings no bells for me. We were revolting against 1950s domestic ideology that told women to be quiet, feminine, and satisfied with making homes for men. The meaning of liberation was to figure out how to live on our own terms, and if we did read mimeographed newsletters from activists, we didn’t think we had to agree with them. We didn’t feel anyone was our leader. We talked together on the streets, in classrooms, in cafés. Everyone’s experiences counted.

In those conversations, prostitution was considered neither a central issue nor a terrible thing — or not more terrible than everything else we were coming to recognize as oppressive. We wanted to know why housework wasn’t paid and women were supposed to do all the childrearing. We wanted to define our own ways to enjoy sex. We used a new word, ”sexist.” I don’t recall attending a single formal meeting, but I have identified since that time as a feminist.

In this book, Bindel offers two things: cheers and brickbats. Those who agree with her get cheers, everyone else gets brickbats. Less subtle than boxing commentary that recognizes all good punches, this is a bitterness born of thwarting: Prostitution still exists. Millett and Dworkin have been betrayed. Someone must pay.

Nowadays in conversations about women’s rights, there’s widespread agreement about the need for more education, equal salaries, and better job opportunities. But bring up women’s physical bodies, and ideologies of femininity and patriarchy flash like wildfire. Intransigent conflict pursues contraception, abortion, surrogacy and, perhaps above all, how women can and may consent to have sex. For radical feminists like Bindel, the insertion of money into a sexual relationship signifies no women can ever consent, even when they say they do.

News about women who sell sex has changed tone since publication in 2000 of the UN Protocol on Trafficking, although legal definitions are even now not fully agreed on. Media reports routinely confuse or use all available terms. Human trafficking is not distinguished from people-smuggling, borrowing money to migrate is called debt bondage, awful working conditions and child labor become modern slavery, and selling sex is renamed either sex trafficking or sex slavery. All sociocultural contexts are eliminated in favor of universalizing definitions. No interest is shown in considering how to improve working conditions. The result is to define women as victims in need of rescue, especially when they are selling sex.

In this context it’s not surprising that abolitionism should reemerge into the mainstream. Bindel calls hers the new abolition movement, misleadingly linking to Josephine Butler’s nineteenth-century campaigns to abolish government regulation of prostitution (not prostitution itself). Bindel rejects the aforementioned proliferation of terms: “Trafficking is merely a process in which some women and children are prostituted. Prostitution itself is the problem.” Which at least confirms a long-standing activist complaint regarding anti-trafficking campaigns: that the real object is prohibition of any woman from selling sex, anywhere, anytime.

Fear of trafficking is now used to justify a variety of repressive prostitution-policy regimes, including a law that bans the purchase of sex. First called the Swedish model, then the Nordic, this law, according to Bindel, can now be called the abolitionist model. The idea of this ban is to “End Demand,” on the theory that, if men were stopped from buying sex, women could not be exploited and would never sell sex. It is a ludicrously simplified market theory of supply and demand. Abolitionists claim the law decriminalizes the sale of sex by women (appropriating the central demand of the sex workers’ rights movement), failing to address what would happen to women’s income if there were no clients.

The book’s subtitle, Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, suggests it will prove there are no sex workers. Bindel names many countries she visited. She details the personal sufferings of women who hated selling sex: these are her heroes, and they come across as individuals. Representatives of the “pro-prostitution lobby,” on the contrary, are treated as a series of puppets, quoted to demonstrate their cynicism. Those who recognize the concept of agency as one reason to accept the existence of voluntary sex work are ridiculed as “choice” or “fun” feminists. We hear nothing from women who may not like sex work but continue doing it for their own good reasons.

Mud is slung at escort-agency managers, queer academics, gay libertarians, HIV/health NGOs, migration scholars, Amnesty International, and sex worker-led groups. The greatest wrath is reserved for funders like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations for daring to try to strengthen sex workers’ rights. Because she wants to obliterate all differences and discredit every conceivable source of opposition to radical feminist ideology, variety in types of sex work, degrees of management control, perceptions of autonomy, and amounts of money are dismissed out of hand. Canned summaries of a few moments in sex-worker-rights history are thrown in, but the entire international social movement is dismissed as a pimping “lobby.”

I am capable of reading works whose worldview I don’t like for research purposes, but this book defeated me. The table of contents looks rational, but each chapter consists of many short subsections that appear almost randomly placed. The style is bumpy and awkward, suggesting multiple writers and no editor. There’s no depth, nuance, or engagement with ideas.

And I found very little that might be called new, neither facts nor ideas. If the international abolitionist movement hoped this would be a new heavy weapon against enemies or a way to convince non-experts that sex work is an illusion, they will be shaking their heads in disappointment.

The worst of the contemporary abolitionist project is its failure to confront the question of options for women. Bindel feels Josephine Butler would be on her side? I feel she’d be on mine. At mid-nineteenth century Butler saw how few alternatives women had to achieve economic independence and did not advocate they should be deprived of the possibility of selling sex to survive.

As a scholar in the field, my question has never been whether selling sex is acceptable in moral or feminist terms. Instead I’ve focused on the fact that women everywhere have limited job options, and, when they are not well-educated or connected socially, those options generally reduce to low-paying, low-prestige work: street vending, home sewing, caring, cleaning, retail jobs, sweatshop labor, and selling sex. When the women are undocumented migrants the feasible options reduce to two: living in others’ families as maids or selling sex.

Given the low earnings of these occupations, it is hardly surprising that women who feel they can tolerate it do sex work instead. Less time spent working for more money means being able to support oneself, help others and still have time to take a walk or read a book. Sometimes sex workers get into relationships that don’t look good to outsiders. But what do abolitionists imagine women with few options will do if they are forced to stop sex work?

The old Magdalene Laundries and lock hospitals envisioned nothing better than domestic servitude for ”fallen women.” Is the proposition still that being a servant for pennies and a scant private life is better because it is more dignified? Or is it superior simply because it is not sex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.

Bindel’s need to manifest indignation at the slightest deviance from a simplified ideology means readers get no distinctions between dastardly procurers, human rights groups, independent escorts, academic researchers, workers in massage parlors, and Hugh Hefner. We’re all the same thing. It’s the textbook definition of fundamentalism.