I’ve just finished reading a book by the Swedish socialist, anarchist and feminist Kajsa Ekis Ekman which she primarily devotes to debunking the arguments used to justify prostitution and the surrogate-mothering industry. Her book was written as a response to the media’s misrepresentation of prostitution as some sort of smart and glamorous career choice for young women to make and at the increasing number of post-modernist academics and ‘queer-theorists’ who have been questioning Sweden’s prostitution laws by, among other things, ludicrously trying to frame prostitution as something ‘transgressive’ and which ‘challenges gender norms’.
The abolition of the victim
Ekis Ekman highlights at length the tactics which the supporters of prostitution have adopted in recent years and exposes how false, absurd and damaging their arguments really are. Particularly interesting I think is when she writes about the attempts that have been made to abolish the term ‘victim’ from the debate around prostitution. To be a victim has come to be seen as something shameful and to refer to someone as a victim is, according to the post-modernists, to deny them their ‘agency’. Ekman exposes why this lie has come about and what wider political consequences it has. Her point here is summed up in a review of the book in Dagens Nyheter:
“To be able to defend that women sell their bodies (and that men buy them) one must first abolish the victim and instead redefine the prostitute as a sex worker, a strong woman who knows what she wants, a businesswoman. The sex worker becomes a sort of new version of the ‘happy hooker’.
“Ekis Ekman shows in a convincing way how this happens through a rhetoric which portrays the victim position as a trait of character instead of using the correct definition of a victim: someone who is affected by something. In such a way the terrible reality in which women in prostitution find themselves is concealed. The fear of the ‘victim’ in the prostitution debate … is something which mirrors neo-liberalism’s general victim hate – since all talk of the vulnerable person immediately reveals an unjust society. Through making the victim taboo can one legitimise class inequalities and gender discrimination, for if there is no victim there is no perpetrator.”
Those who defend prostitution, as Ekis Ekman points out in an interview in the socialist newspaper Flamman, “have a contempt for weakness, a cold and cynical view of humanity, which has the consequence that you only have yourself to blame”.
To see evidence of this we need look no further than the works of ‘academics’ such as Laura Agustin, someone who has gone as far as to deny the existence of human trafficking. Victims of pimps and human traffickers are referred to, in her language, as “migrant sex workers” who actively choose their situation. Discussing women brought into western countries by criminal gangs and locked into flats and prostituted for months at a time, Agustin writes:
“These circumstances where women live in sex establishments and seldom leave them before, without being asked, moved elsewhere receive great attention in the media and it’s taken as a given that this involves a complete denial of freedom. But in many cases migrant workers prefer this arrangement for a number of reasons. If they don’t leave the area they don’t waste any money and, if they have no work permit, they feel safer in a controlled environment. If someone else finds the meeting places for them and books their appointments it means they don’t have to do it themselves. If they have come on a 3 month tourist visa they want to devote as much time as possible to making money”.
Another sickening example from Ekman’s book is that in Australia, a country which has long championed legalised prostitution, victims of child abuse have came to be referred to as “child sex workers”. An official report there talks about a 9 year old abuse victim having been “offered a warm bed and a nice meal” by his abusers and of “thinking it was fantastic” when the men who raped him gave him $50. Any details of the crime he was subjected to are on the other hand almost completely absent, apart from the words: “sex took place”.
What these examples all have in common is that they remove the focus from the perpetrator. They make it sound like the abused, prostitutes, children, the victims of poverty, drug abuse and economic exploitation, have themselves chosen the situation in which they find themselves. By changing the definition of the victim so as to turn it into a personal trait, by turning ‘victim’ and ‘subject’ into the opposite of each other, the post-modernists lift away all talk of the deeper structures and power differences which affect people’s lives, something which of course suits perfectly the interests of the rich and powerful by masking the oppressive and unjust nature of the society in which we live.
Transgression of divisions as opposed to their abolition
In another section of the book she talks about what she describes as ‘the cult of the whore’, about the district of Raval in Barcelona, the people there who wear T-shirts with the slogan ‘Yo també soc puta’ (‘I am also a whore’). The cultural admiration of the prostitute is, in Ekman’s view, just contempt from another perspective: “It is still not a recognition of women’s humanity, rather a love of all that is nasty and low which the prostitute is associated with.” Those who wear the T-shirts in Barcelona think they’re being radical, that they’re transgressing norms. But “what they don’t understand is that the whore is not a whore, she is a person”. As Ekman writes:
“White ‘wiggers’ absorb hip-hop, backpackers and travellers absorb third-world cultures, male transvestites and drag-queens absorb the female and the femme absorbs the prostitute. The ‘transgressing’ of divisions anticipates that the divisions remain. When the white play black or when academics declare themselves whores and drug addicts, they are mocking those people who are black, who are prostitutes and who are drug addicts”.
They are, she points out, acting from a position of power and have a complete lack of understanding for what life is actually like for those whom they imitate and shower with false admiration. The difference couldn’t be starker between, on the one hand, the post-modernist’s ‘transgression’ of norms and divisions between people and, on the other, the revolutionary’s desire to abolish them. As Ekman concludes:
“In the absolute meaning there are no whores. There are people in prostitution for a longer or shorter period of time. There are no ‘types’ of people, no characters. They are people who have ended up in a certain situation. The fetishised ‘transgressing’ of divisions separates itself from the the revolutionary ‘abolition’ of them. The abolition of divisions arises from seeing the human being, the humanity in everyone, everyone’s equal needs … It is an objective solidarity which is built on a subjective understanding. One puts themselves in another’s place and imagines themselves under different circumstances. It is to look into someone else’s eyes and see yourself. And with this insight comes also an insight into the cruelty of the system which has made her into a ‘type’.”
Fiction of unions for ‘sex workers’
I also liked the section where Ekis Ekman highlighted the fiction of so-called ‘sex worker’ unions. The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), for example, which is affiliated to the GMB and has spoken at conferences of the Labour Party and the Green Party, is run by a man called Douglas Fox. Fox claims to be a ‘sex worker’ and accuses radical feminists of being big meanies out to silence him. Yet on closer inspection it becomes clear that Mr Fox is a liar. Sex worker he most certainly is not, rather he is a pimp who runs one of the UK’s largest escort firms. The IUSW’s membership, you see, is open to anyone, to pimps, to men who buy sex, to sympathetic academics. Of its minute membership of 150 (which compares to the 100,000 plus women and men who work in the UK’s sex industry) only a tiny minority are actual prostitutes. It’s the same all over Europe where similar organisations exist (such as ‘de Rode Draad’ in the Netherlands) – their membership is tiny, most aren’t even prostitutes, and they have never succeeded in pushing any independent union demands.
Those who support prostitution though have of course never been ones for the facts. We see this idea of ‘unions’ coming from both the left and the right because it’s convenient, it gives prostitution a certain false legitimacy. It doesn’t work and it never will work, but it successfully diverts attention away from the deeper questions around prostitution and why it exists in our society.
Related to this is the growth of the so-called ‘harm reduction’ lobby who have gained influence in recent years within a number of governments and international institutions. Ekman shows how this influence grew particularly around the time of the HIV/Aids epidemic of the 80s and 90s when the lobby was asked in by a number of organisations to determine policy on the issue. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) have, for example, both come out in favour of legalising prostitution on the grounds that it will increase state revenues and make it easier to fight the spread of Aids. Both organisations, Ekman writes, have started using phrases such as “she is not a victim, but a subject” and have called prostitution “a women’s job which should be recognised”.
The effect of this lobby gaining strength has of course been to further legitimise prostitution and make it harder to fight. When Ekman visited the offices of the organisation TAMPEP in Amsterdam, a group for HIV prevention among ‘migrant sex workers’, and asked if they couldn’t do anything to help women leave prostitution the reply she got was “But why would we do that? Our goal is to teach women to be better prostitutes” (ie. using condoms so as to protect the men who abuse them from infection). This aim (of teaching women to be better prostitutes) is supported with millions of euros of EU Commission money each year. Similarly an official pamphlet produced with the backing of the Australian government instructs prostituted women to “look like you’re enjoying it all the time” and tells the women how to turn down a violent man’s demands without “making him lose his lust”. In addition the pamphlet points out that it might be a good idea to try to avoid bruises because it “can force you to take time off work and as a result lose more money”.
Reality of prostitution
As Ekis Ekman makes clear the whole point of the so-called ‘harm reduction’ approach is to protect and uphold the system of prostitution. Those who champion it never ask any deeper questions about the nature of prostitution, its causes and effects. To waste millions on “teaching women to be better prostitutes” is a cruel joke in a world where tens of millions of women and girls are enslaved and systematically raped in the service of men’s sexual desires.
Why, she asks, despite the enormous harm caused by prostitution, does it continue to be allowed in so many countries? The statistics are hardly difficult to find and apply both where prostitution is legal and illegal:
* 71% of women in prostitution have been subjected to physical violence
* 63% have been raped while in prostitution
* 89% want to leave and would do so if they could
* 68% show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
* Women in prostitution have a death rate 40 times higher than the average
* Women in prostitution are 16 times more likely to be murdered
Something which Ekman argues strongly characterises prostitution is the splitting of body and mind/soul (I’m not sure how best to translate the Swedish ‘jag’), often a survival strategy for those involved in the industry. Almost all the accounts of prostitution clearly show the existence of this splitting: often those in prostitution create two completely different personalities, many stop feeling certain body parts, they disassociate themselves from their bodies.
The supporters of prostitution want us to believe that the body is something separate, that selling it has no wider consequences for those involved. They promote the idea of the body as something which people own and exercise rational control over, a product which, if they’re smart, they can make a bit of money out of. Being able to close off parts of yourself, separate mind and body and, all the time, keep a distance from what’s happening to you is something which has been hailed as an ideal by the friends of prostitution, a sign of strength. The consequence is that those who aren’t strong enough, the majority who for example develop PTSD, are shown little sympathy for it’s seen as their own fault for being weak and having gone into the wrong job.
Post-modernism’s defence of the status-quo
Perhaps particularly important for the left and for those who want to change society is when Ekman talks about how our language has been stolen and used in a way which does nothing other than to support the status-quo. She writes that since 1968 the powerful have had to reformulate themselves and the arguments they use in order to justify their existence:
“Institutions which hold power – capital, the media, academia, the political classes, men’s sexual power and ruling class privilege – have had to reformulate themselves to justify their existence. They can no longer assert that they have power because it is given by nature, rather all power relations have to be justified morally. This is done by hiding them … The nobility, corporations, the media, intellectuals – all suddenly claim themselves to be defiant, marginalised or deviant.
“The story of the sex worker fits into this. It unites an old, gender-role preserving practice with a new rebellious language. It becomes a symbiosis between the neo-liberal right and the post-modernist left. The neo-liberal right get a language which declares prostitution a form of free entrepreneurship and as something which relates to individual freedom. The post-modernist left get an excuse to not fight the prevailing power structure by referring to the voice of the marginalised.
“The post-modernist left is, as Terry Eagleton writes, a reaction to the neo-liberal hegemony. After communism’s collapse parts of the left reacted by masking their defeat as a victory … Instead of pointing out injustices some sections of the left have gone over to defining the status-quo as subversive.
“When it feels difficult to question injustices it becomes tempting instead to redefine them – perhaps injustices are not injustices if we look at them more closely but, on the contrary, rebellious actions? All at once pornography, prostitution, veils, maids and drug use begin to be explained as marginalised phenomena, as a woman’s right, or as an individual choice with subversive potential.”
I think Ekman is absolutely right here and the worst thing the left can do is give up its desire to fundamentally change society, to analyse and expose the power structures and norms which exist and to fight for their abolition. All around us we can see previously radical movements selling out and instead seeking an accommodation with the status-quo. The choice agenda being pushed by some feminists is just one of many examples of this.
Swedish prostitution debate
Finally another thing I found interesting in the book was her discussion of the development of the prostitution debate in Sweden in recent decades. Her opponents such as Petra Östergren and Laura Agustin have long accused Sweden’s sexköpslagen (law against buying sex) as being a result of a complete absence of Sweden listening to the views and interests of those in prostitution. Yet as Ekman shows the government’s prostitutionsutredningen (prostitution investigation) of 1977, which shaped the Swedish prostitution debate for decades to come, was revolutionary in its focus on the views and experiences of prostituted women themselves and the questions it asked about the men who used them.
The centre-right politician Inger Nilsson who had been put in charge of the investigation had initially tried to suppress the women’s accounts after having met with several sex club owners, publishing instead a vastly trimmed-down version of the report with the personal testimonies excluded. When this emerged though there was a storm of outrage from feminists and the government was forced to release the 800 page investigation in full, which came out in book form. According to Ekman:
“It went down like a bomb. It was a landmark which changed society’s view of prostitution. It came to alter the direction of prostitution research in the whole of Scandinavia. Prostitution, just like rape, had become political … For prostitution research it meant going back to the beginning. Of the 19th century research – where the causes of prostitution were looked for in a woman’s personality and in disease – much was repudiated. Instead there began the building of new knowledge where the reasons were looked for in the relations between the genders and in society. And where would the researchers find the basis for this new knowledge? Yes, in the prostituted people’s own accounts.”
While I obviously can’t go into all of her book here I found Ekman’s Varat och varan highly interesting and informative and I think it provides extremely useful ammunition in the fight against the post-modernist turn which appears to characterise much of today’s academia as well as sections of the left. Let us reject the post-modernist victim hate. Being a victim is not shameful or an insult, neither is it a trait of character. For in an unjust world there will always be victims, there will always be people who have less power and wealth than others, who have less control over the direction in which their lives take. That you are a victim doesn’t mean you won’t find ways of adjusting to the situation you find yourself in, it doesn’t mean that you lack the capacity to think and act rationally. What it does mean is that we live in a world sorely in need of change. By abolishing the victim and by framing all of our actions as an individual choice the post-modernists are mounting nothing other than a reactionary defence of the status-quo.