“for those finding their way in feminism”

Image: (Flickr.com) “Nik Morris (van Leiden) – Deventer, Sint Jansstraat: The name St. Jansstraat is already mentioned in 1760, so a fair time has passed and language evolved; and indeed the name of the street may have changed since the stone was laid, thus further degrading the meaning. The lady may refer to a member of the light brigade (under garment makers) formerly practiced by her profession, because the stocking was once synonymous with female genitals and the expression “her stockings doing laps” might have indicated a lady who was a libertine. To further muddy the water, in the 17th century Dutch “stocking” is equivalent to “old wives’ tales”. I suspect this lady was merely a gossip or chatterbox. Make your own minds up.”

Review by Emma Jacobs for the Financial Times (9.6.16) of ‘Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality’, by Kat Banyard:

“Banyard, the co-founder of UK Feminista, a feminist activist group, argues that a “consensus has begun to form around the idea that the sex trade and sex equality can be comfortable bedfellows . . . that the sex trade can be made safe”. As evidence, Banyard cites the vote last year by Amnesty International to encourage countries to decriminalise pimping, brothel-keeping and sex-buying. Last month, the human rights organisation published its policy supporting the decriminalisation of consensual adult sex work.

In this punchy and breezily written book, Banyard, who is also the author of The Equality Illusion (2010), sharply criticises the description of prostitution as “sex work”. Lining up alongside her to reject the concept is an unusual alliance ranging from first- and second-wave feminists to religious traditionalists, all of whom see the trade as an abuse from which women need saving.

On the other hand, the notion that performing sex acts is a form of work has found favour on both the left and right of politics. As the economist Milton Friedman once said: “You put a willing buyer [with] a willing seller, and it’s up to them.” Others, including the English Collective of Prostitutes, argue that categorising prostitution as a job confers dignity and agency on those who exchange money for sex, and stops them from being seen as victims.

Banyard explores the implications of “sex work”. She suggests, for example, that if we see prostitution as just another form of work, a City firm could demand that female employees have sex with their male clients as part of their job description.

It is an arresting point but wilfully disingenuous. We manage to draw all sorts of boundaries between peoples’ duties at work. If I interview a banker for a story, for example, no one expects me to then arrange a multibillion pound acquisition.

The psychological impact of the sex trade on men is described well by Banyard. She meets men who come to strip clubs because they are seeking a place where they are in control, a refuge from the confused sexual politics of ordinary life. Online reviews by prostitutes’ clients are also threaded throughout the book, and they are shocking. For example: “This is a classic case of ‘the pretty ones don’t have to work hard’. Vicky is beautiful but frankly can’t be arsed . . . I was reminded of the Smiths’ song ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’. Amount paid: £100.”

From the start, though, I found myself irritated by the book’s tone. It reads like a long magazine article and is often overly simplistic. The characterisation of sex workers as victims or drug addicts, for example, seemed fairly impressionistic. In researching a feature on a male escort for this paper a few years ago, I met quite a few sex workers — both male and female — and was struck by the complicated relationships that formed between some clients and prostitutes.

What really surprised me, however, was the array of people I met after the article was published who revealed that they had worked for a time as a prostitute. These were people who preferred to keep it a secret, but whose stories reinforced to me that popular depictions of sex workers as either abused victims or happy hookers were incomplete stereotypes.

The book also relies on several straw man arguments. At one point she argues that porn is not the harmless escapist fantasy that some insist it is. The trade “relies on the fantastical notion that porn studios have somehow managed to create a kind of economic and sexual nirvana: a place where women’s desire to have sex is miraculously in sync with the director’s schedule”. Who seriously believes that?

Another question nagged at me: who is this book for? Halfway through I realised that the answer was probably not me, someone who has read a reasonable number of feminist texts. This is for young men and women who are new to the subject. For them, Pimp State is a good, clear-headed primer. There is something refreshingly old-fashioned about its focus on the sex trade and female inequality at a time when so much attention is given to complex identity politics. Its clarity is a selling point. And so for those finding their way in feminism, I urge them to buy it.”

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