Stop treating sex workers like children

Feminists who want to criminalise prostitution are attacking women’s autonomy.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan

Topics Politics

Sex work is now listed as a skilled occupation by immigration services in New Zealand, meaning that, technically, sex workers can apply for visas. The New Zealand Association for Migration and Investment has stated that it isn’t as simple as it sounds. Sex workers would need proof of three years of work experience, and have a formal offer of employment in New Zealand, in order to apply for a visa as a sex worker. What’s more, they would not be allowed to work on a temporary visa. But the news has nevertheless reopened a tense debate within feminism.

Prostitution was decriminalised in New Zealand by the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act. Brothels, street solicitation, pimping and even advertising prostitution in newspapers is legal. So it is logical that immigration policy would reflect this, even if the current application process sounds complicated. Many sex workers in New Zealand have welcomed the law change, and many campaigned for it. Groups like the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective argue that the decriminalisation of prostitution has meant that sex workers are now safer and freer.

Not everyone agrees. Veteran feminist and long-time critic of prostitution decriminalisation Julie Bindel wrote an article in the Guardian this week arguing that ‘the inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace’. Bindel says that the decriminalisation of prostitution in New Zealand has emboldened illegal traffickers. ‘For every licensed brothel there are, on average, four times the number that operate illegally’, she writes.

Feminists like Bindel argue that the commercialisation of women’s bodies via prostitution gives weight to the notion that men own women’s bodies. ‘If prostitution is “sex work”, then by its own logic, rape is merely theft’, she writes. For her 2017 book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, she interviewed pimps, prostitutes and others involved in sex work, and claimed that decriminalising prostitution would be a barrier to women’s freedom.

Many of us might share Bindel’s aversion to prostitution. It has got an ugly history, and many of the women who are involved in it aren’t living the life of a glamorous call girl or a highly paid escort. Drug addiction and poverty are often factors in a woman’s decision to go into prostitution. But Bindel and fellow pro-criminalisation feminists are simply removing the issue of choice from the conversation. Coerced prostitution, or sex slavery, remains illegal even in states that have legalised prostitution. We’re not talking here about forcing women to have sex with men – that is rape.

Decriminalisation isn’t about what moral stance we take on prostitution itself. It is about women being free to make choices about their own bodies. It is the same as the argument for abortion rights. Abortion is still technically illegal in this country, and the campaign to decriminalise it is about a woman’s right to choose her future, and have control over her own body. If what a woman chooses to do is sell her body for sex, that is her choice.

Some argue that it is a myth that women choose to go into prostitution, that women are unable to make an independent decision to become a prostitute because they are oppressed by men. Sex workers are portrayed as victims of oppression, childlike in their need for protection. This is incredibly damaging to women’s freedom. The criminalisation of sex work suggests women can’t be allowed to have control over their own bodies, that we can’t be trusted with that freedom – because all we’ll do is allow men to abuse us. Feminists like Bindel see the state as the protector of women, there to make sure we don’t get ourselves into trouble.

This is a crucial failing of this brand of feminism – its dependence on the state. Bindel is concerned with men treating women’s bodies like a workplace, when it is the state that treats us like property. Illiberal abortion laws prevent us from making our own choices about when to have children. Consent classes and sex education seek to train us how and when to have sex. Public-health policy demands that we live a certain way while pregnant. In every aspect of women’s lives, the state tries to act as our protector, withholding our freedom.

The decriminalisation of sex work is about insisting that a woman’s body should not be controlled by the state or the courts. It should be nobody’s business what a woman does with her body but her own. It’s time for pro-criminalisation feminists to realise that, in their squeamishness about prostitution, they’re siding with the state, treating women like children, and standing in the way of women’s liberation.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist. Her new book, What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism, is published by Connor Court. Buy it on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Politics


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