Excerpts from Being and Being Bought, by Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Spinifex Press, 2013.
Ekman, a Swedish journalist and critic, brings together a Marxist and feminist analysis of prostitution and surrogacy in this groundbreaking book. This is the second part of a synopsis and brief commentary of the book by Daphna Whitmore. Part 1 was published here.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century ‘trade unions’ became a magic word in the debate about prostitution. The term ‘trade union’ lent respect to advocates of prostitution who then appeared to be engaged in the fight for the rights of prostituted women. It opened doors to both the political Left and feminists who promoted legalisation of all aspects of the sex industry. Even the political Right applauded this move. Ekman notes that the Right now argues for the abolition of collective bargaining for everyone except prostitutes.
As we pointed out in the previous article on Being and Being Bought, proponents never enumerate the demands of these unions. Should a prostitute “have to have sex with 10 men per day, or should the line be drawn at 5? What is one act of intercourse ‘worth’ – $15 or $1500? How do you enforce legally binding contracts with the heavily armed mafia? Is ‘sex work’ where women and girls are hit and urinated on in compliance with legislation for safe work environments? And what about the law against sexual harassment? How does that fit in?”
Ekman spent two years meeting representatives from ‘trade unions for sex workers’ or ‘support groups for sex workers’ around Europe. They all promoted legalised prostitution. The British International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) has just a few hundred members out of an estimated 100,000 prostituted people in Britain. Its website has articles about the pleasures of being a ‘sex worker’ and the horrors of feminism. The majority are written by Douglas Fox who calls himself an independent homosexual male escort. But Fox isn’t an escort. He is the founder and co-owner of one of England’s largest escort agencies. Douglas Fox is, in other words, a pimp. IUSW encourages buyers, sympathisers and escorts to become members and donate money.
Is it not strange that an alleged trade union makes no demands on the sex industry? The IUSW, in fact, defends the industry. A trade union that not only is led by a known pimp but also fights measures intended to prevent exploitation should cause most people to raise an eyebrow but seems to have gone unnoticed.
In France Les Putes is comprised of three active members. Another French ‘trade union’ Le Syndicate de Travail Sexuel (STRASS) have approximately 100 members. It is closely connected with Les Putes and doesn’t engage in union-related activities.
The International Committee of the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) is an umbrella organisation established in Holland, claiming to be comprised of ‘sex workers’ and their allies. When Ekman met the organisation’s leader she was told ICRSE doesn’t even attempt to fight the industry: “[W}e have our hands full fighting the abolitionists, feminists who want to abolish prostitution.” The ICRSE fails to act as a union at all, even where the sex industry is legal. Instead, they work to convince politicians across the globe to legalise the sex industry.
The story in New Zealand is similar. The Prostitutes Collective here focuses on ending ‘stigma and discrimination’ and bears little resemblance to a trade union. It doesn’t disclose its membership numbers and in fact, has no requirements to join. Nor does it negotiate collective agreements. It states if you are a prostitute you are automatically ‘a member’. The business-friendly approach is very evident. On their webpage they advise brothel owners on how to run their businesses smoothly: “People who have run businesses in other industries may not appreciate the particular issues that arise relating to sex work. There can be unforeseen hurdles in hiring people to work with you, and in meeting legal obligations.”
Eckman was not able to find any group that functioned as a trade union in the true meaning of the term: an organisation run and financed by its members, negotiating with employers to promote the best interests of workers. If the goal is to improve conditions for prostituted women, these groups are a complete fiasco she says. If, on the other hand, the goal is to encourage the view that prostitution equals work, it seems to be advantageous for them to call themselves trade unions.
As a consequence of this facade, prostitution becomes romanticised and feminism is demonised.
Prostitution is the deadliest situation a woman can be in. The death rate is 40 times higher than average. In Amsterdam’s display window Red Light District still one woman is murdered each year, usually in the adjoining room. In what other work would this be accepted? Would we accept nurses or teachers getting murdered in the workplace?
While in New Zealand the sex industry has been decriminalised and regulated since 2003 that has not made it safe. In the The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth Julie Bindel interviewed many New Zealand prostitutes who told her they feared for their safety. Five prostitutes have been murdered since decriminalisation.
Ekman notes that police officers and military personnel, who also risk being subjected to violence at work, are generally equipped with firearms, batons and bulletproof vests. Postal workers and bank tellers have bulletproof glass windows to protect against armed robbery. But prostitutes stand in their underwear, if that, and have direct contact with their potential assailants.
Even where prostitution is legal the prostitutes seldom have secure employment. They are commonly regarded as ‘self-employed’ with the brothel owners acting as landlords without responsibility for what happens and with no obligation to take care of the women.
In 2003 research involving 800 prostitutes in 9 countries (Canada, Columbia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, the US and Zambia) showed that while in prostitution: 71% had been physically assaulted, 63% had been raped, 89% wanted to leave prostitution, and 68% met criteria for a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder.
The rebranding of prostitution as sex work is a contemporary saga of progress and a revolt of sexuality against morality. In the 19th century prostituted women were seen as defective and impaired, according to logic similar to that used to justify slavery, colonialism and class society.
The revolts of 1968 deprived the powerful of their moral legitimacy. People around the world rebelled against power – against capitalism, against patriarchy, against authority. These popular movements were not able to crush capitalism, but they gave rise to the idea that ‘power’ is bad and ‘rebellion’ is good.
Since 1968, a very interesting process has been taking place in which those in power have redefined themselves according to the principles of rebellion. So everybody is the underdog, and any new product is ‘revolutionary’. Ekman cites the right-wing Swedish Conservative Party which rebranded itself the ‘New Workers’ Party’ just like former French President Sarkozy’s party, sought to be known as the ‘New Revolutionaries’. Companies, media conglomerates, best-selling authors – name one who doesn’t pretend to be a norm-challenging, marginalised dissident.
The story of the sex worker fits right in, unifying an old sex-role-preserving practice with rebellious discourse. It becomes a symbiosis of the neoliberal Right and the postmodern Left. The neoliberal Right uses language that explains prostitution as a free choice on the free market. The postmodern Left, which loves language games and shuns political action, has an excuse not to fight the sex industry by claiming to listen to the voices of marginalised people.