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What sex workers want

If you ask sex workers what they actually want, the answer is not prohibition, and not the “Nordic model”, but safer working conditions and…

What sex workers want


If you ask sex workers what they actually want, the answer is not prohibition, and not the “Nordic model”, but safer working conditions and respect. And their wishes are no longer as easy to ignore as they used to be.

On International Women’s Day this year, March 8, Norwegian feminists marched under banners with slogans like “Prostitution is violence” and “Enforce the sex purchase law”. They believe that the sex trade is a form of buying and selling of women’s bodies, and that it is a patriarchal legacy that should be abolished.

Strikingly absent beneath these banners were the supposed victims, the prostitutes themselves. When one listens to sex trade prohibitionists, one gets the impression that sex workers dream only of being rescued from the hell their lives have become, and that abolishing the sex trade will liberate these women from the pimps and johns who abuse them.

Instead, many sex workers feel betrayed by mainstream feminism. It is difficult enough, they feel, to learn to deal with dangerous clients, STDs, social stigma, and the criminal underworld. Now, on top of that, comes an army of activists who have little knowledge but a lot of power, offering “help” that makes their working conditions more dangerous, not less.

The closer someone is to the sex market, the less likely they are to favor prohibition. In Norway, Pro-Sentret, the City of Oslo’s support service for prostitutes, and PION, an interest group for Norwegian sex workers, have been warning for years that the war on prostitution harms the people it is meant to aid.

This is also true internationally. Demands for strict laws against sex work tends to come from groups who, either from ideological or religions reasons, dream of a world entirely free of prostitution. Sex workers themselves have more modest dreams: They want safer working conditions, and to be treated with respect. They have little interest in ideological utopias. Their own safety and well-being comes first.

New voices

Sex workers have been saying these things for years, ever since the first well-meaning social activist tried to shut down the first brothel. We’ve usually found it easy to ignore them. But this may be changing. A growing number of current and former sex workers now emerge into the public sphere, clear their throats, and ask that we listen to what they have to say. They’re smart, they argue like a well-aimed stiletto heel – and they’re not at all impressed with the debate the rest of us have been having about their profession all these years.

Brooke Magnanti first became known under the alias Belle de Jour in 2003, when she began blogging about her life as a London call-girl. She wrote about good clients, difficult clients and everyday challenges, with dry humor and charm. Her blog was not reality porn, but the story of an ordinary woman who happens to have a strange, frustrating, but on the whole fairly enjoyable job. The blog made her famous. She turned it into two best-selling books, and a TV series, Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

Eventually, Magnanti revealed her real name. It turned out that the money she had earned as a call-girl had paid for a university education for a career as a research scientist. And in 2012 she used her science qualifications to throw herself into the prostitution debate with the book The Sex Myth, where she debunks the myths that dominate our debates about sex, porn and prostitution.

According to one of these myths, tens of thousands of prostitutes in Britain are victims of trafficking. But there is no factual basis to this claim, she writes. The police can’t find them. There are real victims of trafficking in Britain, both in the sex trade and other professions, but nowhere near that many. Such numbers grow as in the H. C. Andersen tale of the feather that turned into five hens. One person reads a speculative number in a newspaper. Then they double it to be on the safe side, and spread it onwards, where the same thing happens again. And again. And again. Nobody bothers to check where the number came from. It takes on a life on its own, separate from all connections to reality.

Prohibitionists often cite figures about how awful life is for prostitutes. They are victims of drugs abuse and sexual abuse, and they hate what prostitution has done to their lives. But the basis for such figures is often sketchy. The sample population may include only particularly vulnerable and self-selected groups such as female streetwalkers who have actively reached out for help – and not, for instance, those who haven’t, or brothel employees, escorts, men, or transsexuals. And the data may or may not have been gathered and analyzed in a scientifically sound way.

And the prohibitionists are silent about the side effects of their war on prostitution. Magnanti writes about the red light district in Sheffield, a street where good lighting and a high level of activity created a relatively safe working environment for prostitutes, who were able to cooperate to avoid dangerous clients. But then the city government decided to chase them away, embarrassed by their visibility. A few years later, Magnanti is a student in Sheffield, and takes part in the autopsy of a young woman. She had been a prostitute, and was stabbed to death in one of the dark, lonely side streets the streetwalkers were now forced to operate in.

Our culture has a disturbing fascination with “dead hooker” jokes. We find them funny and edgy. Brooke Magnanti does not.

Safe working conditions

Another woman who has taken the journey from sex work to writing about it is the American journalist Melissa Gira Grant, who has written several scathing articles about how the war on prostitution increases the danger of being a sex worker. Trafficking is a genuine problem, but activists stomp onto the field like panicked elephants, doing more damage than good. They target advertising services like Backpage, forgetting that the indoor market such services makes possible is much safer than the outdoor market.

Some activists even target support services for prostitutes, aiming to shut them down – just as the International Women’s Day parade in Oslo in 2012 called for the closing of Pro-Sentret, the primary support service for Norwegian sex workers.

The idea seems to be to save prostitutes by making their lives intolerable, and that this is okay because their lives are already so awful that they won’t notice the difference. When prostitution itself is seen as a form of violence, a bit of extra violence is nothing to be concerned about.

Grant skewers Christian and feminist activists who believe that all sex workers are sex slaves, because many of them say they would rather be doing something else. But many of us would rather do something else if we could. Many would like the option of a better job, or the option not to work at all. But we must choose from the alternatives we have. For some people, that means selling sexual services. This line of work is not always glamorous, and for some it can be tragic, but it’s only when somebody actively takes away your ability to do it in a safe manner that it becomes intolerable.

Which is why the message from people who have experience from the sex trade is often such a simple one: That all they really want is safe working conditions, and to be treated with respect.

Most of them speak up online, under pseudonyms, but they’re not hard to find. They write in personal blogs, or in group blogs such as Tits and Sass. They’re on Twitter.

In Norway, “Frøken X” recently teamed up with the think tank Progressiv to propose that prostitution should be legalized. In interviews she explain that she sees herself as an entrepreneur, and wants to start a union for sex worker. Her inspiration is Brooke Magnanti. In the March 8 parade in Oslo this year, she marched under the unofficial banner “My body, my business”.

The importance of respect

These activists prefer the term “sex worker” over “prostitute”. They do this do emphasize that selling sexual services is a job, not a state of victimization, and to join forces with other professions feminists also often want to abolish, such as stripping and pornography. In the public imagination, a “prostitute” is a tired junkie hanging out on a street corner, waiting to be rescued by some middle class angel. A “sex worker” is an adult human being with a difficult job, a person you treat with respect.

Respect is really the key to this debate. If you lack respect for sex workers as human beings you can, as a representative for the Salvation Army in the US recently did, refer to them as “cum receptacles” in the same sentence as you defend their human dignity. You’ll prefer to talk about sex workers, never with them, and you’ll chase them away (or even harass them) when they contradict you, calling them liars and privileged exceptions.

I wonder who refers more frequently to sex workers as “whores”, men talking dirty, or feminists?

Having respect for sex workers as human beings means listening to what they have to say. If you offer an idea about how you can help them, and their response is to laugh, shake their heads, and say that you haven’t understood this at all, the respectful thing to do is to rethink your views. Perhaps there really is something important you haven’t understood?

The sex purchase ban

It’s awfully mean of the sex workers to insist that we listen to their views about their own profession. We were getting along so well without them.

We thought we knew who they were. Some thought they were the nymphomaniacs of their customers’ fantasies. Others believed they were helpless victims waiting to be freed from slavery. But now here they are themselves, claiming to be just ordinary people, who have a job that is difficult and sometimes dangerous, but as diverse as any other professions. That neither the sex fantasies nor the nightmares are correct. That they’re a service profession with good sides and bad sides and that they themselves know best what to do about the bad sides.

When Norway introduced a ban on the purchase of sex in 2009, it was with all the best intentions. The law would spare the sex workers by punishing the clients, making it legal to sell sex but not to buy it. Thus sex workers themselves would not be victimized. But the inspiration for this law was an odd one: The Swedish sex purchase ban from 1999. In Sweden, the government takes the position that all prostitution is a form of violence, no matter what. The purpose of the Swedish model is not to clean up the industry, but to abolish it.

A main aim of the Norwegian sex purchase ban was to combat trafficking by reducing demand for sexual services. This is a good goal in theory. Traffickers use lies and intimidation to exploit human labor, for instance by tricking them into being smuggled into a foreign country, where they end up working under slave-like conditions.

But it is unclear how much trafficking there really is in the Norwegian sex market. The proposal for the 2009 law offered no estimates of the size of the problem it was intended to solve. Neither did the Government action plan against human trafficking (2006-2009), nor the Stridbeck report from 2004. (To be fair, they did talk with “two women who work as prostitutes”).

Trafficking was already illegal before 2009. Based on which facts exactly did we arrive at the conclusion that we needed more? How will we measure the success of the law if we don’t even know what it is intended to accomplish?

One problem we definitely haven’t been able to solve is violence against sex workers. In the Pro-Sentret report Farlige forbindelser from 2012, sex workers explain that they experience a high level of violence in their work, and more so in the outdoor market than the indoor market. The sex purchase ban has made sex workers feel more isolated and vulnerable than before. The law “worked”: Demand has been reduced. But the result is that sex workers now work in a buyer’s market, where the clients set the terms. And it is the “good” clients who have disappeared, the ones who behave well. Sex workers now have to compete over the remaining “bad” clients, who argue and push limits. Prostitution has become more dangerous.

But then, creating safer working conditions for sex workers was never a goal for the sex purchase ban in the first place.

The road to Karl Johan street

Sex workers are experts on their own lives. When they’re allowed to speak for themselves, instead of having others speak on their behalf, even Nigerian prostitutes, who made themselves notorious in Norway with their aggressive sales tactics in the mid-2000s, emerge as human beings, not faceless victims. In the FAFO report Afrikanske drømmer på europeiske gater from 2006, these women talk about the road from Nigeria to Karl Johan street in Oslo. It’s a road that owes more to poverty and hope than to threats. The road is long, with long detours in Africa, then Italy and Spain, before they choose to move on to what they hope is a more lucrative sex market in Norway. Some of them didn’t know what they were going to when they left Nigeria. Many are disappointed with the life they’ve found in Norway, and most of all with having to work on the street. Being a streetwalker is the most difficult and dangerous form of prostitution. But return to poverty in Nigeria? Never.

Eastern European sex workers tell similar stories in the report My life is too short; I want to live now from 2006. In the early years, many Eastern European girls were lied to about their future in the West, but these days everyone know what they’re entering into. Some have been trafficked, but found it an easy fate to escape. “Lina” used an agency to help her get out of her home country. They sent her to Southern Europe, where she was exploited by pimps. She ran away, and returned home, but then used the services of the same agency once more. This time they sent her to Norway. She preferred taking the chance of being exploited over taking a low-paid secretarial job at home.

In other words, it’s not just privileged sex workers like Brooke Magnanti who protest against the nightmare stories we’re told about prostitution. Many live a hard life, and they tell us this themselves. They want, and need, help – but help to solve the problems they actually have, not the problems ideologues say they ought to have. They want to build a good enough life in the real world, not sacrifice themselves for a feminist utopia.

They want what we all want: To be listened to and treated as adults.

This does not mean that sex workers should get whatever they ask for. We still need to regulate labor immigration, as well as street sales. But when we listen to their stories, and take them seriously, we learn that what makes their work uniquely dangerous is the laws we use to combat it.

Where are the good feminists?

In this article I’ve talked as if all feminists want to abolish prostitution. If you’re a feminist yourself, I hope this annoys you a bit. That was the intention. In reality, of course, many of those who support the rights of sex workers do so in the name of feminism.

But in a way, a political movement belongs to those who are most skilled at using it. And it’s the abolitionists who are in control of the feminist brand.

One sex worker activist explains that she is tired of listening to women who claim that they are “good feminists” who support sex worker rights, but never do anything to take the movement back from the “bad feminists”. She accuses the “good” feminists of just sitting at home with their sex toys and feeling satisfied with how liberated they are. Meanwhile, it’s the “bad” feminists who organize and do lobby work. They’re the ones who create new laws and set the agenda.

Therefore, feminism belongs to the bad feminists, and should be abandoned.

This is a bleak picture, but there’s a truth to it. If you’re one of those who believe that feminism can be more than the dusty slogans of this year’s International Women’s Day parades, where were you when these slogans were voted on? Where will you be next year?

And what do you intend to do with the fact that a dangerous women’s profession has been made even more dangerous – in the name of feminism?

This is not about whether you like prostitution, or whether you think it is right to sell or buy sex. Places where money and sex mix are places where we often see men and women at their darkest.

But human nature is what it is. We should try to make the best of it.

The very least you can do is ask the people you want to help about what sort of help it is they actually need. And then listen to their answer.

[Translated from Aftenposten.no, and originally published at my blog.]