by Tom Meagher
A rejoinder to Minister Halligan and others.
The sentence “it’s not ok to pay for sex” is controversial and often unpopular, one that invites accusations of moralisng (as if the opposite position somehow exists outside our moral universe) and prudishness (as if it is simply sex and not the systematic oppression of women and the rape and murder of women in prostitution in particular that we object to). Many of us have, in the past, been guilty of the self-congratulatory faux-progressiveness of believing the sex-trade would be somehow made safer by legitimising pimps and normalising the purchase of sexual consent, a belief that was based on rudimentary and glossed over summaries of the harms of the sex-trade or routine denials of the origins of those harms (it’s men, not stigma, that kills women). Boring slogans like ‘the sex-trade has always and will always be with us’ or ‘that’s just how men are’ are regurgitated ad nauseum and uncritically.
Using Disability to Defend Inevitability
In a recent interview with Hot Press Magazine Irish Minister of State for Innovation and Independent TD for Waterford John Halligan did just this. Minister Halligan centralised men in his interview arguing that “disabled” and “lonely” men should have the right to paid sexual access to women, oddly conflating the act of orgasming into a stranger with a medicine for loneliness, or even that problems of social stigma around the disabled can in any way be alleviated by a blow job from an unwilling woman. We, of course, cannot pretend to speak for disabled men, but it strikes us as rather insulting that every time somebody wants to prop up the sex-trade they use disability as an example of its necessity, particularly when it is not single, disabled or lonely men, but married men and men in relationships that do the bulk of the sex-buying. This assumption that somehow disabled men or harmless loners comprise the core demand for commercial sex is not only a lie, but falsely places the sex-trade into a position of an almost charitable social necessity that provides the only experience of intimacy disabled people can have. This is the kind of condescending garbage that men across the political spectrum use to convince people of the sex-trade’s inevitability.
Mr Halligan’s use of worn out phrases like “world’s oldest profession” and “you’re not going to stop prostitution” are designed to centralise men as hardwired to buy sex, thus positioning the sex-trade and current constructions of male sexuality as inevitable. Many different methods are used to casually imply that the sex trade is an irreversible reality centred around men’s “needs” rather than men’s choice. Choice (or lack thereof), is often a word associated with the sex-trade, but focus on male choice, which is essentially what makes the sex-trade exist, is often unexamined. The only part of this transaction that is inevitable, that is always present is male choice (assuming the buyer is male). The same male dissonance that allow people like Minister Halligan to exhibit deep empathy for lonely men and scant regard for the women who will have to provide their orifices for these men to deposit their ‘loneliness’ into needs not only to be present in singular/individual men, but requires wide-ranging cultural support and it finds its most acceptable actualisation in the sex-trade.
Using the Construction of Male Sexual Primacy to Defend Inevitability
Male attitudes towards women they have paid for sexual access are consistent with the necessity or inevitability argument put forth by the Minister. This most often manifests in the type of supposedly well-meaning posturing of Minister Halligan that positions the sex-trade as potentially benign and reformable rather than a system of male supremacy and sexual aggression, but there are other forms this argument takes. For example, men who like to proclaim their liberalism often repeat the exhortation that ‘men are pigs’ whenever the subject of male supremacy or male violence comes up. The phrase is a favourite of many self-proclaimed male feminist allies who support the system of prostitution as part of their agenda for the liberation of women. In other words men who support women as long their version of equality doesn’t impinge on their right or the right of their friends to orgasm into unwilling strangers. The link between the two is not a coincidence nor is it an accident. Men proclaiming that ‘men are pigs’ are making an unqualified statement of conservatism and essentialism masquerading as ‘progressive’ politics and solidarity, just as support of the sex trade can be framed in terms of sexual liberation when it is more often a way to retain a status quo that reifies gender hierarchies and power imbalances in the most obvious manifestation of patriarchy there is. To be a male pro-prostitution feminist ally is as easy, as unexamined and as empty as saying men are pigs. It positions you as ‘right on’ while questioning nothing. The power structures that sustain patriarchy and the benefits men receive from this condition remain completely unchallenged.
This type of empty posturing is not so much a critique of the constructions of maleness, or structural and material inequalities that harm women and girls, but rather an exculpation of male behaviour as a foregone conclusion, a normalisation of the very essence of how men are; on par with ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘when he hits you it means he likes you.’ It pathologises certain male actions as individual behaviour and as collective male behaviour at the same time (in effect, saying nothing) while placing oneself beyond critique. It’s a neat trick, if rather transparent, but one that is used almost exclusively used for risk-free gold star seeking while challenging nothing.
The male escape-pod for discussions around patriarchy and male violence reach their boring zenith with this statement. This is the polar opposite of male self-examination – it’s male self-congratulation. It’s a man proclaiming his disapproval of the social constructs of masculinity as if he existed outside of them. Either that, or it’s a reclamation of male behaviour as essential. Men are pigs – our behaviour requires no further explanation. It is the anti-climax of serious discussion, one that immediately dissolves the conversation into a tepid shoulder shrug, a slumped acceptance of existing power structures. The invisible (or rather inaudible) subtext of this admonition is to locate myself outside of that position, to knowingly step outside of that class of people and preach to the females in attendance that they have no right to be on guard with me because, although I’m male, I can articulate platitudinous noises of assent, so am therefore exempt from criticism within that class of people. It is a method of feigning disbelief at male behaviour to explain to women which men it is ok to be suspicious of (so long as that suspicion does not fall upon me) and then expecting women to be grateful for your solidarity.
The Silence/Complicity of the Left
There are noteworthy exceptions, but it has long been acknowledged by feminists that men on the left have a blind-spot when it comes to centralising women’s issues. Minister Halligan spoke of reproductive rights and consent while defending the liberalisation of the sex-trade in the same breath, but our love of consent is conditional. It depends upon there being women available to us whose consent is a predicated on economic and social coercion. It is so often those who proclaim their opposition to capitalism, to racism, classism and to exploitation, those who are quickest to suggest that ‘men are pigs’ who seem to oppose any restrictions on men’s right to sexually access a class of women, most of whom are in that position as a result of the conditions of capitalism, racism (90% of women in prostitution in Ireland are migrant women), classism exploitation and most crucially male demand.
There’s something disingenuous about all of this. There is something about how this sexism is couched in doublespeak about safety, equality and choice. There is something about our concern for women’s sexual autonomy in an arrangement where women’s bodily autonomy is largely directed by the sexual/power fantasies of men. There is something about us getting on board with any women’s rights issue as long as it never interferes with our sexual primacy that calls to mind Andrea Dworkin’s axiom that it is “Only when women’s bodies are being sold for profit do leftists claim to cherish the free market”. Hijacking the language of ‘my body, my choice’, we speak of women’s sexual choice and sexual liberation in sloganeering generalities as if it somehow exists outside of material and social power imbalances.
In other words, sexual liberation is for everyone, but people with penises still get to frame what constitutes choice, liberation and indeed, at whose expense ‘everyone’ gets to express this liberation. Prostitution exceptionalism places the purchase of sex in a very special place for these guys. The poverty, addiction, abuse and race issues that they speak so passionately about as being structural problems of capitalism are simply denied or minimalised as entry points for women in prostitution when it comes to the €180 million a year Irish sex-trade (for a proper socialist analysis of the sex trade read this excellent piece by Laura Fitzgerald of ROSA).
A system with asymmetrical power arrangements that privileges freedom over equality invariably benefits the oppressors. In the case of men paying for sex, freedom means freedom for whom? In any conceivable situation, the man buying sex is the only one we are sure has complete freedom of choice. There are any number of situations that imply coercion for the woman from poverty to trafficking to abuse. A man with money in his pocket chooses whether to buy sex regardless of what situation of coercion (or ‘choice’) brought that woman to that position. His is the only choice we know to be made free from coercion. When we talk about freedom we’re actually talking about his freedom, regardless of whether or not hers ever existed.
With France adopting the Nordic Model earlier this year, Ireland’s upcoming Sexual Offenses Bill, and a push to end demand in the UK, 2016 could undo much of the damage of the previous year. 2015 was a landmark year for the liberal refusal to treat women as human beings. Much to the understandable chagrin of survivors of prostitution, Amnesty International’s sex-work policy framed the purchase of sex as a human rights issue, a position Irish sex-trade survivor Mia DeFaoite described in her blog as ‘The Last Insult’ (the Amnesty vote was taken in the same hotel in Dublin where she and her friend were gang-raped while they were prostituted). Apparently the testimony of those with a vested interest in liberalising the purchase of sexual access to women and girls holds more influence than, not only survivors of prostitution, but studies by Harvard and the London School of Economics. Amnesty’s policy is a position that is unable to hold men to account for contributing to demand for a harmful and unnecessary global industry worth billions, an industry that most frequently harms and kills the most vulnerable, an industry that is built upon and is the most obvious manifestation of male sexual entitlement.
In an unforgivable misunderstanding of the word ‘voluntary,’ Human Rights Watch (HRW) CEO Ken Roth suggested prostitution was a valid way out of poverty. Framing prostitution in this manner or comparing prostitution to other types of wage-labour does nothing to question the class, race and gender imbalances that exist in that particular system, not to mention the routine violence rape and exploitation. It is willfully disingenuous to claim that there is nothing particular to prostitution that is inherently dangerous, and what is dangerous about it, Ken Roth, is the men who buy and sell women. So while it is meant to be the remit of HRW to tackle the structural inequalities that force women and children into situations of male validated sexual abuse you continue to allow this abuse go unchecked while discussing these issues at a policy level to ensure that women are free to choose to continue to be exploited – that’s what we meant by human rights when it comes to women in 2015.
When Kat Banyard wrote this piece (later included in her book Pimp State’) exposing convicted pimp Alejandra Gil having a major role in the framing of UN Aids, WHO and later influenced Amnesty International’s policy on prostitution, there was silence from men on the left. When brothel-owner Douglas Fox was alleged to have consulted on, or even written much of Amnesty’s policy, there was silence from men on the left (Amnesty denies this, despite Mr Fox himself taking credit for it).
Quite apart from international human rights groups surrendering their moral obligations, full decriminalisation is bad policy. The Nordic model which decriminalises the prostituted person, while criminalising the purchase of sex as well as providing exiting services for people in prostitution has been in effect in Sweden since 1999 and has run parallel to models of legalisation and full decriminalisation in the Netherlands which came into effect in 2000, to New Zealand (2003) and to the German model which came into effect in 2002. One look at the deaths of prostituted women in those countries reveals a disturbing trend for those that have adopted models of complete decriminalisation or legalisation:
Sweden (since 1999): 1 death of a prostituted women, murdered by her ex-partner, not a punter.
Germany (since 2002): 69 murders and 28 attempted murders of prostituted women by pimps or punters.
Netherlands (since 2000): 28 deaths of prostituted women by pimps or punters.
New Zealand (since 2003) At least 8 deaths of prostituted women by pimps or punters.
Are we to seriously believe that there a massive gulf in cultures of misogyny and violence against women between these countries?
If the policy, as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and other opponents of the Nordic Model like Minister Halligan claim, is to ‘protect sex-workers’, they have to answer to these figures first and foremost.
They also need to answer to these figures:
400,000 women are now in prostitution in Germany, the vast majority poor women from abroad, with a linked exponential spike in sex trafficking.
In 2007, the Dutch government closed approximately one third of the legal brothels in Amsterdam because of its inability to control traffickers and other organized crime.
Former Mayor of Amsterdam Job Cohen, recalled that in 2000, the Dutch legalised prostitution, intending to make the sex trade more transparent and protect women by giving them work permits. “We realize that this hasn’t worked, that trafficking in women continues,” he said. “Women are now moved around more, making police work more difficult.”
An estimated 50 to 90 percent of women in legalised brothels were “working involuntarily.” Based on these estimates, the Amsterdam legal brothel sector alone would “employ” 4,000 victims of human trafficking annually.
Police in Victoria [Australia] estimate that there are 400 illegal brothels as against 100 legal ones. Trafficking in women and children from other countries has increased significantly. The legalization of prostitution in some parts of Australia has thus resulted in a net growth of the industry. One of the results has been the trafficking in women and children to ‘supply’ legal and illegal brothels.
Meanwhile in Sweden:
Since the introduction of the ban on the purchase of sexual services, street prostitution in Sweden has been reduced by 50%. The prevalence of street prostitution was about the same in the three capital cities of Norway, Denmark and Sweden before the ban on the purchase of sexual services was introduced, but the number of women in street prostitution in both Norway and Denmark subsequently increased dramatically.
Less than 7.8% of its active adult male population buys sex compared to 13.6% before the law was enacted.
In 2008, the number of people in street prostitution in both Norway and Denmark was estimated to be three times higher than in Sweden.
Since 1999, Sweden has recorded a significant decrease in trafficking activity in the country.
It’s not difficult for men to make a strong stand for women’s choice as long as it benefits us or as long as men as a class still get to maintain their sexual aggression and primacy, to legally exploit their privileged position to purchase sexual access and then claim it as feminist. It is not difficult for Minister Halligan to express his concern for the rights of lonely and disabled men to sexually access a marginalised class of women and frame it as “two consenting adults” as if that sexual transaction existed on equal terms. It is not difficult for men to attest to the inevitability of the sex-trade by proffering hopelessly that ‘men are pigs’, as if there is nothing we can do about it, as if it isn’t men just like us who contribute to the lion’s share of the demand usually at the expense of women, as if there is simply no conceivable society where men could be discouraged from this activity – no, because men are pigs – right? It’s one thing for Minister Halligan or Human Rights groups to make an uninformed guess that liberalising the purchase of sex will make things safer for women (as I did unthinkingly for some years), it’s quite another to be aware of the numbers listed above, to be aware of the attitudes of sex-buyers, to be aware of the links to trafficking and organised crime, (figures that have increased everywhere the purchase of sex has been liberalised) and to listen to the many harrowing testimonies of survivors and still virulently oppose the Nordic Model.
Denial and Minimisation as a Defence of the Sex-Trade
The attempts by those who oppose the law to defame and outright deny the testimony of survivors with whom we have worked with over the last few years can only be compared to the minimalisations and denials made by so-called Men’s Rights Activists and other anti-feminists towards women who have survived rape and domestic abuse. Irish survivor, founder of SPACE International and author of the searingly honest book Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution Rachel Moran, who as a result of poverty and homelessness, began her seven year journey in the sex trade as a fifteen year old child is regularly accused of fabricating her story.* Proponents of the sex-trade who regularly deny or minimise her experience are the very same who will implore you to ‘Believe Women’ when talking about other forms of male violence committed outside of the sex-trade, compartmentalising women into those who should and those who should not be believed or listened to. Despite this, it is not the men who exploit and abuse women in prostitution, but proponents of the Nordic model who get lumped with the lurid label ‘whorephobic’.
If you are a man claiming to be a feminist ally who believes that your or your mates money and social position can buy consent, please reconsider what term ‘ally’ means.
Positions taken by Minister Halligan and Human Rights organisations are the institutional equivalent of saying ‘men are pigs.’ They are at best meaningless, empty word-drool; concessions to the status quo puffed up to look like concern for women, at worst dangerous. As for Minister Halligan’s comments we were shocked to hear that a man who prides himself on supporting the oppressed could be so dangerously wrong on this issue. For him and for the rest of us, we can continue to believe that our exhortation of meaningless slogans are helpful or we can engage with the material injustices that sustain the systems of power and oppression that underpin the sex-trade. We don’t need male platitudes or even guilt. We need to stop validating male demand for commodified sex. We need to stop buying sex.
* Shortly after the publication of this piece, Rachel appeared in a documentary on RTE with a member of An Garda Síochána (Irish police force) Alan Bailey who spoke about her arrest from a brothel in 1992 when she was just 16 years old, falsifying the ridiculous claim repeated by many pro sex-trade lobbyists that she lied about her past.