Artillery Row

Prostitution is never safe, let alone now

Women need to be able to escape, not be fobbed off with hand sanitisers

Julie Bindel responds to a recent article by Nichi Hodgson that characterised ‘sex workers’ as merely self-employed women.

As soon as lockdown hit, I wondered how long it would take for the prostitution apologists, including the pimps that get rich off the backs of vulnerable women to try and justify ‘business as usual’ in the sex trade. After all, what would men do if they could not have access to the inside of a woman’s body for one-sided sexual pleasure? How could the sex trade, like restaurants, pubs, clubs and sports facilities be shut down? Men have their needs you know?

Or so we would be led to believe if we were to read the many articles on the topic in recent days.

One harm reduction project – projects usually funded by the NHS with an aim to minimise the health risks to prostituted women – has published advice based on using bleach and disinfectant whilst seeing a punter, not to allow kissing, and to strip and change bed linen ‘if possible’.

Elsewhere, such as on escort agency sites women have been told to bathe or shower with bleach, gargle with it, and, on the advice of one punter, use ‘bleach douches’.

Sex trade survivors I have spoken to are furious at the way in which prostitution is being protected at all costs. “We can’t stay safe,” says Fran. “The punters call the shots, and they, not us, are in control. They need to get those women out.”

The idea that prostitution can be safe under any circumstances, let alone during a global health crisis is risible. Why would anyone with the interests of the women at heart show more concern that prostitution be formally rebranded as ‘labour’ in order to claim worker status rather than demanding that the government throw money at exiting strategies?

In 2009, along with colleagues at South Bank University, I conducted a comprehensive study on barriers and opportunities to exiting prostitution. The vast majority of the 114 women interviewed told us that they would rather be doing anything than selling sex. They wanted out. Even those women that self-identify as ‘high-class escorts’ would talk about the prostitution experience itself as demeaning, abusive and traumatising. One woman who was explaining how much she ‘loved her job’ during the interview had tears rolling down her haunted eyes as she spoke. 

I have also interviewed dozens of men who pay for sex, in the UK and elsewhere. The punters that stick in my mind are those I encountered in legal brothels, such as in Nevada, US. Their sense of entitlement and sheer arrogance shone through as they chose their ‘date’ from a cattle-market line-up on entering the brothel. As they checked in at reception they could see a list of names of the women and their blood-test results for that week pinned to the wall. The pimps knew fine well that despite the written rules that the johns were required to wear condoms, many would refuse, and the onus was therefore on the women to show they were ‘clean’. 

The idea that prostitution can be safe under any circumstances, let alone during a global health crisis is risible

The Chicken Ranch brothel, which I visited whilst researching my book on the global sex trade, has recently suggested that it is safe to keep business booming so long as the women and visiting johns frequently wash their hands and use sanitiser. It’s all about the profits for the pimps.

The attempts of some lobby groups to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to advocate for normalising pimping, brothel-keeping and sex-buying through rebranding it as ‘work’ is appalling.

Countries that have legalised or decriminalised the commercial abuse of women reaping the consequences, and recognising that trafficking, drug use, rates of HIV and other STIs and child sexual exploitation all get worse when men are given carte blanche to pay for sex with desperate women.

In Brisbane, Australia, where prostitution is legal, police have been arresting and fining women working in unlicensed brothels, when what they should be doing is arresting the pimps and punters involved.

Vulnerable women need to be given the opportunity to escape the sex trade, and not be fobbed off with pointless health advice and hand sanitisers. These women are already exposed to horrific violence, as well as a number of serious and long-term mental and physical health conditions. The last thing any government should be doing is finding ways to keep the sex trade thriving.

This crisis is an opportunity for our government to come down hard on the pimps and punters that are determined to exploit the most vulnerable of women despite the massive health risks, to them and to wider society. The only women left ‘working’ in this climate are the most desperate. Current legislation in the UK relating to paying for sex is that those that access prostitution services from women that are trafficked or otherwise coerced are committing a crime.

Prostituted women should be financially supported and classed as long-term unemployed. We need to acknowledge the hell they have been living under and make available everything from counselling and health services, childcare, and re-education packages.

The government should clamp down on the men that are putting their own selfish desires before the lives of others. Prostitution can never be made safe. Covid 19 is but one threat to women in prostitution, and pimps and punters need to be the ones that pay the price.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover