This vital study exposes the myths promoted by defenders of the sex trade
The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2016
It is a paradox: it has never been so easy to get free sex, yet the evidence suggests that more men than ever are paying for it. In this country, the number of men reporting they had paid for sex almost doubled during the 1990s. In Germany, the number of women paid for sex is said to have reached 400,000 in recent years, leading some commentators to describe the country as the “bordello of Europe”.
Depressing though these statistics are, they do at least give the lie to the widely held assumption that men pay for sex because they can’t get it by any other means. Sex buyers are not the single loners they were often assumed to be in the past. As Kat Banyard demonstrates in her excoriating account of the modern trade in women’s bodies, they seek variety, sex acts they can’t get in voluntary relationships and, above all, power.
The unequal relationship between men who pay for sex and women who sell it is at the heart of this book. In the past, arguments around prostitution and pornography (which Banyard characterises as “filmed prostitution”) centred on morality, with women in the trade dismissed as vectors of disease and immorality. Men’s role was almost entirely overlooked, reserving moral condemnation and legal penalties for women.
In recent years, the terms of the debate have been reframed, moving away from the language of traditional morality. For feminists such as Banyard, who is the co-founder of UK Feminista, prostitution and the mass of degrading pornographic material available on the internet are forms of abuse. They belong in a spectrum of behaviour that includes domestic abuse, and it follows that any attempt to legalise prostitution, no matter how well meaning, amounts to the state legitimising violence against women. Hence Banyard’s title, Pimp State, which she defines as governments taking a direct cut from the commercial sex industry by licensing brothels and taxing the people who own them.
Such approaches may appear modern – and people with a stake in the industry push that line at every possible opportunity – but they run counter to the principle of gender equality endorsed by many European democracies. This proposition poses a greater risk to the commercial sex industry than taxation, health and safety laws or any requirement to provide employment contracts to women in brothels. It needs to be resisted at all costs and people with commercial interests in prostitution have opposed it by redefining prostitution as work, shamelessly appropriating the language of feminism to claim that selling sex empowers women.
They have created a series of myths to disguise the true nature of the trade, persuading some politicians and much of the media that prostitution is just another job, to a point where anyone who disagrees can expect a torrent of misogynist abuse. The debate has become poisonous and Banyard’s book provides a much-needed corrective, skewering the myths promoted by the commercial industry with forensic intelligence.
The oldest profession? Only if you believe our ancestors placed trading for sex before growing crops. Prostitution is inevitable? So is murder, but we still have laws to deter and punish killers. This latter myth serves an important function, obscuring the choices of men who decide to become consumers of the commercial sex industry. Decriminalisation does not stop verbal abuse and physical violence – if you want to see the research, it is quoted extensively in Banyard’s book – but provides legal space in which abuse can happen.
That is why Banyard supports what’s known as the Sex Buyer Law or Nordic model, which places responsibility where it belongs by targeting men who pay for sex (it also decriminalises women who sell it). Some version of the law is now in operation in Sweden, Norway and Iceland – three countries with the best records anywhere in the world on gender equality – while France and Northern Ireland have recently followed suit.
Germany has not, offering a case study of what happens when politicians listen to the rhetoric of the prostitution-is-work industry. (Jeremy Corbyn, please take note.) The federal government legalised prostitution in 2002, supposedly to create safer working conditions for women, and the result has been a huge increase in the size of the commercial sex industry. Because there will never be sufficient women to fulfil demand of their own free will, it has been accompanied by what a German police officer has described as “the emergence of a complete industry in the trafficking of women, with both small and large retailers delivering women to the brothels”.
If the idea of pimps as “retailers” jars, it is what happens when prostitution is normalised. “The reality is, highly visible, above-board prostitution systems don’t erase the harm; they hide it in plain sight,” says Banyard. By putting equality and human rights at the heart of this vital debate, she has done us a tremendous service.
Pimp State is published by Faber (£12.99)