Ex­pos­ing truth about sani­tis­ing the sex trade

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - JULIE BINDEL

THE hard­est bat­tle I have ever fought as a fem­i­nist cam­paigner against male vi­o­lence is against the ex­pan­sion and nor­mal­i­sa­tion of pros­ti­tu­tion. Dur­ing re­search for my book, in which I seek to ex­pose the truth about the sex trade, I en­coun­tered a twisted ver­sion of re­al­ity – prop­a­gated by the so-called “sex worker’s rights” move­ment – that re­brands and sani­tises the sex trade as a harm­less ser­vice in­dus­try.

Dur­ing two years, I trav­elled thou­sands of kilo­me­tres in­ter­view­ing 200 peo­ple around the world. The big­gest ob­sta­cle I faced was the well-oiled pro­pa­ganda ma­chine that takes the truth about the sex trade and rep­re­sents it to the world in the form of sani­tised sop.

By closely analysing the reams of pro-pros­ti­tu­tion aca­demic re­search; look­ing at fun­ders and sup­port­ers of the sex trade; ask­ing ques­tions about the so-called “ben­e­fits” of blan­ket de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion; and lis­ten­ing closely to sur­vivors of the sex trade, I un­cov­ered the real story of what hap­pens when the buy­ing, sell­ing and rent­ing of fe­male flesh is legally and cul­tur­ally sanc­tioned.

New Zealand is reg­u­larly held up as the gold stan­dard model of how to erad­i­cate prob­lems in­her­ent to pros­ti­tu­tion. In 2003 its gov­ern­ment voted (by a ma­jor­ity of one) to de­crim­i­nalise pimp­ing, brothel own­ing and sex buy­ing. The ar­gu­ment, led by the New Zealand Pros­ti­tutes Col­lec­tive (NZPC), was as per­sua­sive as it was mis­lead­ing: re­mov­ing all crim­i­nal laws from all as­pects of the trade would lead to “worker’s rights” and safety for the women.

Hand­ily for sex trade en­trepreneurs, this re­sulted in pimps and brothel own­ers be­ing re­branded as “busi­ness­men”. I heard a legal pimp in Ne­vada re­fer to his “busi­ness” as sim­i­lar to that of McDon­ald’s. Ex­cept in the case of pros­ti­tu­tion, hu­man be­ings, not dead flesh, are the prod­uct for sale.

Along­side other coun­tries and states that have re­moved crim­i­nal penal­ties against sex trade ex­ploiters, such as Hol­land, Ger­many, Ne­vada (US), some states in Aus­tralia, New Zealand helped to make sell­ing sex as re­spectable and devoid of red tape as sell­ing cars.

The ap­pli­ca­tion form for open­ing a brothel in New Zealand is just two pages long: three pages shorter than the form to adopt a dog or cat from Bat­tersea Dogs & Cats Home.

One of the many sur­vivors of the sex trade I met dur­ing my re­search is Sabrinna Valisce, who vol­un­teered with the NZPC over a 25-year pe­riod. Valisce cam­paigned along­side her col­leagues for blan­ket de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion, but now re­grets do­ing so.

“I thought it would give more power and rights to the women,” she told me, “but I soon re­alised the op­po­site was true”. Valisce said de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion ben­e­fited the pun­ters and brothel own­ers rather than those sell­ing sex within them.

“Brothel own­ers could choose their prices, they say all-in­clu­sive (which means the punter can have sex with the woman he has paid for as many times as he wishes),” says Valisce. “So clients would go into the room, see a girl and she would have to deal with them want­ing to do any­thing and ev­ery­thing.”

Un­der le­galised and de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion regimes, abuse suf­fered by the women is now con­sid­ered an “oc­cu­pa­tional hazard”, like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe.

In Am­s­ter­dam, which boasts “win­dow broth­els” where women are dis­played so sex buy­ers can choose a woman to pay to pen­e­trate, sex tourism is so nor­malised that even Thomas Cook used to of­fer guided tours around the red light ar­eas of the city, dur­ing which chil­dren un­der three years could go for free.

De­crim­i­nal­is­ing pros­ti­tu­tion is a twisted ver­sion of re­al­ity

Across Hol­land, women have been im­ported by traf­fick­ers from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to meet the in­creased de­mand.

There has been lit­tle or no sup­port for women to exit pros­ti­tu­tion, and the in­nate murk­i­ness of the sex trade has not been washed away by legal bene­dic­tion. As in Ger­many and Ne­vada, the close links be­tween or­gan­ised crime and pros­ti­tu­tion have not been dis­rupted, and women are still be­ing mur­dered by pimps and pun­ters at an alarm­ing rate.

A 2012 ar­ti­cle in the jour­nal World De­vel­op­ment re­ported that “coun­tries with le­galised pros­ti­tu­tion have a sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cantly larger re­ported in­ci­dence of hu­man traf­fick­ing in­flows”. De­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of the sex trade does noth­ing to pro­tect those sell­ing sex. I am one of many fem­i­nist abo­li­tion­ists cam­paign­ing for an end to the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of pros­ti­tuted peo­ple, and for the onus to be shifted on to the con­sumers.

I found that the most per­ni­cious ef­fect of re­mov­ing crim­i­nal sanc­tions is the way it re­frames pros­ti­tu­tion as a straight­for­ward com­mer­cial trans­ac­tion – The In­de­pen­dent

Julie Bindel’s book The Pimp­ing of Pros­ti­tu­tion: Abol­ish­ing the Sex Work Myth will be pub­lished by Pal­grave Macmil­lan on Septem­ber 27.

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