The current Women’s Library exhibition on prostitution is not their usual safe and apolitical fare. Instead Prostitution: What’s going on? is an extremely partisan contribution to the controversial debate around sex work — an issue which is currently engaging the attention of the government as well as feminists. I welcome this new decision on the part of the Women’s Library to take a more politicized approach to feminism and women’s history, despite that fact that the stance of the exhibition is a clearly ‘abolitionist’ one with which I disagree.
The exhibition is curated by Sheila Jeffreys, a feminist historian and campaigner. Jeffreys is an outspoken ‘abolitionist’, someone who believes that all prostitution amounts to violence against women and that the only way to deal with this problem is to ban it outright. The professed aim of the exhibition is to encourage debate on this issue. Yet by presenting abolitionism as the only legitimate ‘feminist’ take on sex work, it actually inhibits open discussion between feminists.
The only non-abolitionist arguments represented in the exhibition are made by pimps and pornographers. Sex workers themselves figure only as disembodied voices, their testimonies of abuse at the hands of male clients are bizarrely recorded in childish looking diaries, or scrawled in illegible handwriting on scraps of paper. Women’s experiences of violence, drug addiction, poverty, emotional abuse and desperation should form a central part of any exhibition or debate on sex work. The exhibition sees one of its aims to be ‘giving a voice’ to this marginalized group of women and enabling them to tell their own story. And yet the women telling these stories have no identity and no history. We are not told who ‘the teenage girl’, or ‘the heroin addict’ or the ‘trafficked woman’ are. We are not told where they came from, how they ended up in prostitution, or what happened to them. Instead, the experiences of these women are exploited in order to prove that prostitution can only equal death and destruction for women.
Any sex worker who could not so easily be portrayed as a victim was deliberately excluded from this exhibition and from the series of talks which accompany it. The idea that sex workers themselves might organize in order to fight their exploitation, rather than relying on the benevolence of middle-class feminists and academics, was notably absent. The International Union of Sex Workers was not invited to contribute to the exhibition or to participate in the public forums which accompany it. The only mention they receive is in an extract from their website, deliberately taken out of context, which appears to support sex-work as means of providing men with a sexual outlet. None of the sex workers I visited this exhibition with felt that this reflected their views or explained the role of their organization. As a result of their exclusion, the IUSW will be holding a protest outside the Women’s Library on 23 November, calling for more balanced debate on the issue and for the voice of sex workers themselves to be represented.
The exhibition marks the anniversary of the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1886 and the triumph of a sixteen-year-long feminist campaign, led by Josephine Butler. The ambiguous relationship between feminists and sex workers that this exhibition exemplifies, can be traced back to this very campaign, when nineteenth-century feminists wrestled with the same concerns and prejudices revealed in the current exhibition. The Contagious Diseases Acts were passed in Britain in the 1860s with the aim of battling venereal disease. They were both ineffective and brutal. First established in areas near military bases, they allowed for the regular and compulsory internal examination of all prostitutes. If disease was discovered the woman would be imprisoned in a “lock hospital” (asylum) for up to nine months in order to ensure that she did not infect her male clients. The laws applied to any woman merely suspected of prostitution (suspicious behaviour could include having sex outside of marriage, dressing provocatively, and even visiting public places unaccompanied), but did not interfere in the least with the men who paid for sex.
The National Association to Repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts was formed in 1869 but it was soon superseded in both prominence and influence by its women’s organization the National Ladies’ Association (LNA). The campaign was explicitly feminist, speaking up for the right of prostitutes to have the same freedoms of association as their male clients, and against the hypocrisy of the all-male legal, governmental and medical establishments which punished women for providing a service which they simultaneously argued was essential in order to cater for the sexual appetites of men. Campaigners opposed the acts on the grounds that they infringed basic civil liberties but also because they implied the state regulation of ‘vice’ or the legitimization of prostitution. As a result, they combined support for exploited women and opposition to the double sexual standard with an implicit denial of female sexuality and inability to conceive of prostitutes as anything but victims.
The construction of all prostitutes as helpless victims of male lust, and the inability to deal with ‘unrepentant’ prostitutes who refused to be rescued, was in part a reflection of the class prejudices of the campaign. The movement against the CD Acts incorporated many working-class men and women, the latter being the people most likely to be affected by the legislation. Yet the leadership remained middle-class and was heavily influenced by the evangelical Christianity of Josephine Butler. Although Butler recognized that poverty, rather than immorality, forced women into prostitution, she was unable to conceive of it as a rational economic choice for many working-class women whose only alternative was super-exploitation in the factory or in domestic service. Nor was Butler willing to separate her support for prostitutes from her belief in the virtues of chastity and marriage.
The more conservative elements of the campaign went onto form ‘social purity’ groups such as the National Vigilance Association. Social Purity feminists emphasized the moral arguments over the question of civil liberties. They campaigned for the institution and enforcement of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which outlawed brothel keeping and procurement of women for prostitution. Many brothels were closed down in the wake of it and landlords began to refuse to rent rooms to single women for fear that they would be prosecuted as brothel keepers. Ironically, legislation which had been motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of women, resulted in large numbers of prostitutes being made homeless, which in turn made them more vulnerable to violent clients and more reliant upon pimps for somewhere to live.
The campaign against the CD Acts and the social purity movement have had a far reaching legacy within British feminism. Though abolitionists today tend to argue for the Swedish model which prosecutes male clients rather than the sex workers themselves, this won’t solve the problems faced by women whose economic situation has led them into sex work in the first place. The right wing continues to manipulate feminist opposition to prostitution to support an anti-immigration and repressive moral agenda. Many government-funded anti-trafficking organizations put pressure on the women they ‘rescue’ to inform on other workers or face deportation themselves. Red light districts only tend to be ‘cleaned up’ when property developers want to get their hands on an area ripe for gentrification.
The inability to relate to or accept as valid those women who actively choose to do sex work, even when offered alternatives, is as strong within 21st century feminism as it was in the 19th century. Sadly, this can sometimes lead to feminists and sex workers lining up in enemy camps. The first Reclaim the Night marches in the 1970s faced opposition, not from the violent men they were protesting against, but from women working in the sex industry who felt that feminists had not stopped to consider how the marches would impact on their working environment.
So how can feminists today free ourselves from a framework imposed upon us in the nineteenth century? As the history of the social purity movement should show us, genuine concern for the welfare of women does not automatically lead to an improvement in the lives of working-class women. The politics of a movement matter. For socialist-feminists attempting to think through a feminist response to sex work, the attitude of the workers themselves is very important. This means not just assuming all of them are victims, while taking seriously the abuse and exploitation which takes place within the industry. It means recognizing that there are variety of complex reasons why women enter sex work, some allowing for more free choice than others. It means accepting that women might have many different experiences of sex work, some good, some bad. And it also means taking what their union has to say seriously, even when we disagree with it.
Agreement on these basic principles surely leaves room for many different viewpoints on the question of whether paying for sex is a good or bad thing in itself. For after all, what do they amount to but an expression of the central belief of all feminists — that we should support women organising for their rights. If we are ever going to move on from 19th century attitudes to prostitution, we need to think less about charity and rescue work and more about solidarity.