When the film Pretty Woman came out in 1990, the image of the happy prostitute—who, thanks to her work, meets and marries a handsome billionaire—swept half the world.
This was the first powerful pop culture argument in favor of the sex trade. In her book Il mito Pretty Woman. Come la lobby dell’industria del sesso ci spaccia la prostituzione (published by ed. VandA ePublishing, 283 pages, €15; translated from The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), Julie Bindel debunks the assumption that sex for pay is a job like any other.
Bindel conducted 250 interviews in 40 countries, in which women told her what it really means to be a prostitute.
They spoke of the tremendous odor of the clients, of the pain of a raw and ulcerated vagina after being penetrated by many men, of the horror of having sperm and other fluids come close to one’s face, of beards rubbing against their cheeks until they bleed, of not being able to eat, drink or kiss their children because of what they had had to do with their mouths, of cramps in their arm or elbow after desperately trying to get the client to finish so they wouldn’t have to be penetrated again.
Then, Bindel reconstructs the origins of the movements for legalization, reveals who is financing those acting as part of the pro-prostitution lobby (which also includes the likes of Amnesty International) and their methods of persuasion, chronicles the disastrous and damaging effects of laws decriminalizing and regulating prostitution, and showcases the results of the “Nordic model,” adopted in several countries, including Sweden, Ireland, France and Iceland, which is the only approach that truly manages to fight the phenomenon of prostitution, as it addresses the core of the problem: the existing demand and the clients.
Together with Rachel Moran’s Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, Bindel’s The Pimping of Prostitution is an essential read in order to understand that prostitution—in the words of the American sex trade survivor Evelina Giobbe, the founder of WHISPER (Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt)—is an industry “driven by men’s demand for unconditional sexual access to women based on their social, economic and gender power—in other words, patriarchy.”
A radical feminist and activist, and a journalist renowned for her investigations into religious fundamentalism, violence against women, surrogacy and human trafficking, Bindel is in Italy until March 9 on a tour to present the Italian edition of her latest book.
Ms. Bindel, you, together with the many survivors you interviewed, believe and try to show that sex for payment is not a job. Why isn’t it?
First of all, it’s not possible to turn the inside of the body of a woman into a workplace. My second point would be that, if sex is just work, then rape is nothing more than theft. My third point is that it is unacceptable to call it “work” or “a job” when it comes with such occupational hazards as death from AIDS, suicide and femicide.
Who makes up the pro-sex-work lobby?
It depends on the country we’re talking about. There are some ideological groups of the extreme left, like the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) founded in the UK in 1975. In their view, everything is work, from household chores to sexual intercourse, so it should all be paid. We feminists believe instead that caregiving work and household work should be shared equally by everyone, men and women. At the same time, they say that the only reason anyone goes into prostitution is poverty—but they draw the conclusion that this is why women should be allowed to continue to practice it. Then, there are the pimps, the owners of escort agencies, those who are renting apartments for prostitution, pornographers and brothel owners. This part of the lobby sees decriminalization as very profitable, just like the tobacco industry finds it profitable to sell their products in countries without any laws restricting them. Finally, the third part of this lobby is where we find academics and intellectuals who think being against sex work is regressive, moralizing, anti-progress, anti-freedom and conservative, because it would limit women’s personal choices.
Can offering sex for payment be a free choice for a woman?
It can be a choice only if there are very few other options available. Women also choose to stay in abusive relationships for many reasons, but a choice doesn’t necessarily mean a good choice. We aren’t saying that women can’t decide to prostitute themselves, but we are saying that they do so in circumstances and situations that are so narrow that it is irrelevant to talk about free choice. What we should be talking about instead are men’s choices.
The anti-prohibition crowd are using sanitized language: they don’t talk about prostitutes, but about sex workers, temporary partners on a payment basis, or transactional sex.
The language we choose to use is very important. People who use the term “sex work” think that in this way they are restoring dignity to persons who are prostituting themselves. I agree that “prostitute” is an unacceptable term, because prostitution is a condition imposed on a woman by the whole of patriarchal society, and that is why she is prostituting herself. If such women are just “sex workers,” however, then we should also call pimps mere “managers” and brothel owners mere “businessmen”—so it’s important to choose our words correctly. None of the women I talked to who were prostituting themselves thought of themselves as “sex workers,” which is a term invented by the academic part of the lobby.
What would you say to fellow feminists who think abolitionists are puritanical, moralistic and against the freedom of choice?
I’d say to these women that there are hundreds of ways you can be feminists, but most of them are wrong. Neoliberal feminism is not feminism, it is simply neoliberalism supported by women. Real feminism means trying to liberate all women from the worst of conditions. We focus more on those who are at the bottom of the social ladder, because they are the most defenseless.
You analyze and document the effects of the laws that regulate or remove the penalties for prostitution. Wherever you look, you find that they have devastating effects for women. What do you think is the right approach?
Putting an end to the sex trade requires a twofold change. On the one hand, it’s necessary to create fully developed and well-thought-out exit paths for women who are prostituting themselves; in order to succeed in that, we would need political will and funding, which are both very rare today. At the same time, we must put up deterrents in front of those who are paying: establish punishments for clients, subject them to public shaming. We must make it clear to men and youngsters that this is a form of violence against women, and that it is unacceptable to pay for sex. We must stop using euphemisms like “girlfriends for hire,” “escorts to order,” “sexual assistants” or “sex workers.” We should call it what it is, namely prostitution. And we should listen to the survivors.
In the introduction of your book, you quote Luisa Muraro: “The wound inflicted on humanity by the practice of prostitution is no longer acceptable. The time will come, and it is already here, when the shame of prostitution, which cannot be expunged and is always rejected by women, will be cast back on its true cause, which is a degraded male conception of desire and physicality.” Are men those who need to question themselves and change?
This is something men are responsible for. Men are driving the sex trade. We can find some examples of women pimps, but they usually prostituted themselves before and are clearly to be seen as exploiters—but it is men who are supporting this industry. The idea of subjecting women by paying for access inside their bodies is an idea that men developed under patriarchy. We must hold men fully responsible for sexual servitude, because it is they who have created and normalized the sex trade.