Visitor looks at one of seven transport containers to illustrate the brutal and harrowing experiences of women sold into the sex trade at Vienna's Heldenplatz (Photo credit: SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP via Getty Images)

Women should not be for sale

We must challenge the Left’s view of prostitution as “progressive” and “sex work” as liberating

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One of the most insidious aspects of capitalism is the commodification of absolutely everything. Where capitalism is unregulated, there is nothing that can’t be sold and demand drives supply. This has long been understood on the Left.

But what about the human body? In particular, female bodies? Is there a coherent defence to be made on the Left for the exploitative trade that ensnares the most vulnerable women and girls, and treats them as objects to be bought and sold? 

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, who I debated with in front of an audience in New York recently, seems to think so. She is a senior editor at, and one of those who thinks that prostitution is a job like any other; in fact, the oldest “profession”. 

For me, it is the gross exploitation of the bodies of women and girls, leading to a culture of misogyny, in which men believe women’s body parts can be rented for one-sided sexual pleasure. Nolan Brown writes prolifically in defence of the sex trade and of men’s right to pay for sex. She is sceptical, to say the least, about whether sex trafficking is a significant problem or merely a “moral panic” created by pearl-clutching feminists and the religious Right. 

My experience of the global sex trade is vast. Whereas Nolan Brown appears to have little knowledge of laws and policies outside of the United States, I travel extensively, researching the topic. I support the “Nordic” model (also known as the Abolitionist Model), in which demand is criminalised, the women (or men) selling sex are decriminalised, and there is state provision to exit the sex trade. I, alongside survivors of the sex trade, have campaigned for its abolition.

Leftist activists are more likely to be offended by abolitionists than by pimping and sex buying

Nolan Brown has long campaigned for blanket decriminalisation of prostitution. We do have some areas of agreement. For example, we agree that no person selling sex should be criminalised. But I find it absolutely incredible that anyone considering themselves “progressive” would campaign for laws on pimping, brothel-keeping and sex-buying to be removed. What this means is that control of the sex market is taken away from the criminal justice agencies and given to local authorities. Under this model, pimps become managers, and brothel owners are entrepreneurs.

Much has been made of the difference between “decriminalisation” (the decision to no longer prosecute individuals under existing laws), and “legalisation”, (throwing out of old laws and possibly putting new ones in place). In practice, the only difference between the two is that under legalisation the state becomes the official pimp by making certain aspects of the trade legal. This way it can collect taxes and impose compulsory health checks on prostituted women — something the great feminist abolitionist Josephine Butler campaigned against in the nineteenth century.

Many on the Left believe any criminalisation of the industry stigmatises those who sell sex, and that the selling of sex should be regarded merely as “labour”. But there is a growing body of research showing that in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Nevada and the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legalised or decriminalised, there follows a significant increase in demand, and an increase in both the legal as well as illegal sex trade.

Accusations of “whorephobia” are increasingly used to silence and deter any criticism of the sex trade. Black, brown and indigenous women and girls are first in line to be bought and sold into prostitution. None of this appears to disturb those apologists on the Left. 

On any other issue so bound up with oppression and inequality — a huge, malign free market enterprise that operates for the satisfaction of the exploiter — they would be screaming from the roof tops. You could be forgiven for concluding that the leftist defence of prostitution is indicative of how women at the bottom of the pile matter less than their bourgeois counterparts. 

The decision to sell sex, we are told, is about personal freedom. “Even if banning sex accrued positive benefits, this wouldn’t justify infringing on basic liberties,” maintains Nolan Brown. Her ideological commitment to liberty clearly supersedes considerations of women’s safety, but to refer to criminalising the purchase of sex as “banning sex” tells its own story. In this liberal conception of the sex trade, prostitution is largely consensual, and undertaken by adults, not minors, not under duress, and as such is not the business of the state. 

This approach by so-called human rights campaigners flies in the face of women’s human rights. Neo-liberalism has elevated the free market above the rights of the female human; the punter’s right to buy sex supersedes the rights of women and girls not to be sold and exploited. 

Nolan Brown, like many of those advocating for decriminalisation, appears to identify as a feminist, claiming that “limiting women’s options is not the feminist thing to do.” Women like me, she argues, view “all women doing sex work as victims”. Those of us that consider prostitution to be exploitative apparently “fail to recognise that sexual labour is more valuable to your average woman than your average man, so it’s harder for men to find women”. 

In her worldview, it is sexist to say that “this area where women have a marketplace advantage should be banned, and that women who want to use their sexuality in these ways should not be ‘subjugated’ or ‘protected from their own actions’”. Of course, any vision of the world where women are of greater “value” in the “sexual marketplace” is sexism, circa 1950s.

The liberal Left believes if prostitution laws were scrapped, “sex workers” could band together and protect themselves from violence, because they would be able to “screen clients” and men would give their real names. This is ridiculous. In fact, decriminalisation protects punters, whilst putting women in even greater danger, as compelling evidence has shown.

Criminalising demand puts power back in the hands of the woman because she can have a punter arrested, simply for intending to pay for sex, if she fears for her safety. 

New Zealand is held up as a model of best practice for legalisation. In its Health and Safety Guide 2004, it says that “unfortunately, incidents occur where women are forced to have sex with clients without a condom without their consent”. Outside of prostitution, we call that rape. The promised brothel inspections were not forthcoming; there have been 11 since 2015, all in response to public complaints about violence. And at least one of the MPs who voted in the measures now says she regrets it.

These activists claim to be on the left, and yet cheer for the capitalist commodification of female bodies

Murder and attempted murder rates can’t lie about the reality for women in the sex trade. Research has found that serious violence, including homicide, committed by pimps and punters in those countries that have legalised or decriminalised pimping and brothel-owning are higher than in other regimes. In countries that have introduced the Abolitionist Model it is a very different picture. Aside from one woman killed by a punter in Norway — obviously one woman too many — there have been no such murders of prostituted women in the half dozen or so countries that have implemented the law against demand.

Bearing in mind how much evidence there is to show the disasters of decriminalisation where it has been tried, it is shocking that a number of public health agencies and human rights organisations support blanket decriminalisation, including WHO, UN AIDS, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These organisations buy the line that paying for sex is a “right” and a “need” of the sex buyer, and increasingly of the women involved. In other words, women can choose to sell whatever they wish, including themselves.

There is a dominant trend currently within the Left that suggests slut-walking, lap dancing, sex working and Burka-wearing is liberation for women. Men, as a rule, love this approach and tend to support the “sex workers’ rights” position on the sex trade. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that men who support blanket decriminalisation also tend to support pornography.

In her idolisation of the free market, Nolan Brown seems to believe that removing all restrictions on the functioning of capitalism, when it comes to the buying and selling of women’s bodies, will usher in a brave new world of rights and freedoms for the women in prostitution, a veritable utopia of free choice. 

Across the left, younger activists are today more likely to be offended by abolitionists campaigning to end the sex trade than by pimping and sex buying. These activists claim to be on the left, and yet cheer for the capitalist commodification, exploitation and sale of female bodies. 

The sex trade is dangerous, harmful to those exploited by it, and it relies on the abuse of the poorest and most vulnerable. And yet there are those on the Left who have completely failed to grasp this, and as a result, cheer wholeheartedly for one of the most disastrously exploitative capitalist ventures of all time.

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