The Sex Economy, by Monica O’Connor, Agenda Publishing, 136 pp, €30, ISBN: 978-1788210126
Jessica Ramos, a Democratic Party state senator, speaking recently at a rally in Foley Square in New York, called for the decriminalisation of sex work. At the meeting, Ramos promised to introduce a bill to legalise the sex trade in New York. The decriminalisation movement has significant support among the legislative and legal elites of the city, represented in individuals such as Ramos and Tiffany Caban, “a charismatic young public defender who is running for Queens District Attorney”.
At the rally, Cabon declared that she would not prosecute sex-trade-related offences, arguing “If we are going to combat harm done to the sex worker community, we have to fully decriminalize … ”. Ramos’s final words to the rally were: “I’m here to say thank you for having the bravery of being yourselves, of advocating for yourselves. I can’t wait to keep working with you.”
Ramos and Caban see sex workers as victimised working women whose lives are much tougher than they would otherwise be if their work was legalised. For these public figures, who would almost certainly describe themselves as feminists, the issue is sisterly solidarity. They do not appear to have any concern that legally sanctioned prostitution could negatively affect the status of women in society.
There are also feminist and progressive voices in the US on the other side of the argument. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both supported legislation in 2018 that made it illegal for websites to carry advertisements for sexual services. Sex workers argue that this legislation has “impoverished their community”.
US sex workers reject the so-called Nordic or Swedish model, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services. This, it must be said, is a perfectly logical position for sex workers to hold. After all, they are in the business of selling sex and are aware that the ultimate objective of the Swedish model is the elimination of prostitution and that its adoption would, at a minimum, reduce business.
The division within feminist commentary turns on whether or not sex is just another service which can be bought and sold. Those who say it is not argue that treating sexual relations as a commodity is socially harmful, that the victims will be women and girls and that it undermines the ideal of gender equality.
This is the debate which Irish feminist and scholar Monica O’Connor addresses in her book The Sex Economy. This is a clearly written and thorough examination of the evidence and arguments advanced by academics who justify and rationalise the free market view of sex work. O’Connor is scrupulously fair to these academics and allows for the full articulation of their arguments. This fairness, along with her own careful and evidence-based exposure of the ultimate inadequacies and contradictions within these positions, renders her evaluation and analysis pretty much unanswerable. The reader is left with no sense that there are arguments which the author has not addressed.
Her conclusion is clear: sex work is not just another business, which can be regulated and endorsed like any other part of the market economy. Legalised prostitution is an activity which promotes crime, is inherently harmful to the women involved and crucially reduces the status of women in society.
In 2017, the Irish legislature adopted the Nordic model. The move was supported by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and certain Independents. Elements of the radical left, represented by Claire Daly, Mick Wallace, Bríd Smith and Gino Kelly, offered the only opposition and recommended decriminalisation. (It is a little ironic that some ‑ there is also division within the radical left ‑ of those associated with the ideal of a centralised control of the economy argued in favour of effectively allowing the sex trade to operate according to the laws of the market.)
In Ireland the decision taken, with an overwhelming majority, was that the legalisation of prostitution was not a socially desirable objective. On this question you could say that Ireland has chosen Bergen over Berlin and Amsterdam. We are one of only five EU countries that follow the Nordic model.
The arguments of the sex worker academics, many of whom are based in US colleges, for what is called “a market normalization approach” are undoubtedly influenced by the prevalence of market-centred values in recent decades. Such sex work academics see the provision of “sexual services” as a natural and legitimate response to “consumer demand”. They see the selling of sex as something essentially benign and as having many similarities with domestic and care work. They argue that sex work should be acknowledged as no less valid than any other market activity and feel it should be in encompassed in labour law. These feminist academics do recognise negative phenomena such as pimping, child abuse, trafficking and coercion but maintain that proper regulation would eliminate these undesirable elements and allow for a safe working environment.
Those who take this position maintain ‑ despite strong evidence to the contrary ‑ that the majority of women who enter this world do so voluntarily and in preference to other low-status employments. In the right conditions, they argue, the provision of sexual services can be an equal and respectful exchange where the rights of the service provider and the consumer are respected.
Changes in consumer preferences have obliged market normalisation advocates to nuance their arguments somewhat, taking them beyond the simple “have a nice day”- product – provision model. Apparently, consumer demand is changing and the “present day consumer” prefers an indoor setting and increasingly seeks “a girlfriend experience” with intimacy and emotional engagement as part of the exchange. Market-centred sex work academics argue that the emotional labour required is essentially no different from that needed in other areas of the gendered economy, such as care of the elderly and child care and that the sex worker strategises in a way which is similar to the care worker in providing for the emotional and physical needs of their clients.
O’ Connor, who has studied the academic literature and who has worked with women in prostitution and with trafficked women, sets out to expose what she sees as the contradictions, weaknesses and myths at the heart of such arguments.
Her book, she says “… explores the consequences of promoting sex as a tradeable product and the commodification of sexuality, the female body, intimacy and consent”. She points out that in no other occupation does the consumer purchase the right to act on or penetrate a person’s body. Certainly, it would seem that if society sanctions the treatment of women as a commodity in the sex trade setting, it follows that the social status and value of all women must fall. This follows inevitably from legalisation. If something is legal it is legitimate. In the world of happily marketed sex, envisioned by the normalisation academics, prostitution becomes an acceptable career choice for any woman; becoming a commodity becomes an option open to all girls growing up in a state which legalises the selling of sexual services. It is impossible to argue convincingly that this does not torpedo the ideal of gender equality.
O’Connor shows convincing evidence that in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legalised with the intention of providing safe working conditions, the sex business has proved resistant to regulation and led to worsening outcomes for women, along with a large expansion in the legal and illegal sectors.
Certainly in Germany and the Netherlands the sex trade has expanded hugely. Legalisation, as the New York sex workers intuitively know, is good for business. The “City Fathers” in Amsterdam have managed to turn one of the great European cities into a magnet for misogynists, criminals and desperate migrant women. Many of the tourists visiting Amsterdam are drawn by curiosity and take tours of the red light area, not to purchase sex but simply to witness the oddity of women displayed in shop windows. But as it has turned out, these tours clutter up the narrow streets and are bad for business, since most tourists just want to gawk. The situation is becoming quite absurd. The authorities are now threatening to ban tours from the area in order to facilitate paying customers. Meanwhile residents of the city find they cannot go about their business because of the “tourist plague”. Presumably the same citizens voted in the business-orientated “City Fathers”. Voting for people who would rescind legalisation might help.
The evidence, as O’Connor repeatedly shows, is that legalisation does not work, that it is a solution which effectively promotes the continued exploitation of women in the sector. Sex work academics who do not accept that prostitution is inherently harmful must, O’Connor says, accept the overwhelming evidence that prostitution successfully resists regulation. “Legalised regimes have proven to be failed experiments,” she says.
In the course of The Sex Economy O’Connor provides convincing evidence that sex work harms the person involved and that it is not possible to separate out the woman from the work she does. O’Connor acknowledges that frequently the women involved are not passive victims but insists on the importance of the numerous studies which show that psychological, physiological and reproductive damage are common. She sees the suggestion that having agency and being victimised are somehow incompatible to be inadequate and simplistic. Why is it, she asks, that “we can justify the contradictory and paradoxical stance that once these sexual acts are paid for they do not fall within the realm of our concern”.
She welcomes the international interest and concern around the issue of consent which she clearly sees as related to the human purpose of sexual relations: “prostitution is not simply a private sexual transaction; it is a public institution which constructs, re-enforces [and] promotes a model of sexuality based on the subordination and degradation of women”. This, O’Connor argues, is because “sexuality and intimacy are areas of our lives where we seek human connection, sexual pleasure, relational sex and love which sexual violation and sexual exploitation invade and violate and harm.”
For O’Connor the Swedish model, which criminalises the buyer of sex but not the provider, is the preferred solution. The Swedish model, she says, recognises that prostitution is a form of violence against women and one which society, through criminalisation of the purchaser, is declaring itself opposed to as part of its wider social objective of gender equality. She points out that in the five EU countries where it has been adopted it has generally led to a decrease in prostitution, in stark contrast to other countries, where there has been an exponential increase. The state’s role, she argues, is not to ensure that men can buy sex but to protect its citizens from degrading treatment.
The Swedish model, as O’Connor says, sends a message that women and girls are not for sale and a further message that the state stands with women for equality between its citizens. She writes: “ … certain acts of human life are corrupted and diminished if bought or sold in the market …” It is a sign of how insidious market thinking has become that such a point has to be made, an idea which would have been taken for granted throughout the long history of human civilisations.
Marketisation advocates ‑ perhaps unknowingly in most cases ‑ point us on the way to a grim and bleak future for our species, beyond the power dynamics of traditional patriarchies to a dystopia of full dehumanisation. And not only of women but ultimately of all.