Feminsim and Sex Work: questions of choice, labour rights, and legislative models.

‘Red light districts’ are dotted across every major city of the Netherlands, only the most famous being Amsterdam’s De Wallen, the city’s oldest and most central area.  About this time last year, I wandered through it for the first time. The candescent 16th century architecture remains intact – Golden Age structures of red brick, tall windows and pointed roofs line a shallow, murky canal.  Beautiful people behind windows, erotic museums and sex show clubs, vintage clothing shops and independent art exhibitions, bicycles, bustling crowds. Groups of men, some seedy and elated, others seemingly innocent, curious, bewildered; tourists, locals –

“How much, darling?”

How interesting it was to be in a space that felt so different to anywhere else in the world – so different from the prudish Irish lands I came from. Seeing these people sitting inside windows, making up 30% of the sex worker population in the Netherlands, I wondered how they ended up where they were; was it a choice? My friends and I sang our praises to that Dutch brand of openness when it came to sexuality; something, as feminists and liberals, we all openly celebrated.

Sex workers and their labour rights are something to be foregrounded when it comes to the liberation and celebration of sexuality. So many sex workers exist on the basis of choice and that choice is, again, something that should be celebrated; their voices heard in a wider discussion on how society perceives sex, commercial sex, and the labour rights of sex workers.

Commercial sex. Paid for. Access to another person’s body – capitalised. Taxed. Monetised.

Recently, I watched an interview with Irish activist Rachel Moran, author of the 2015 book Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution. She argues that decriminalization of sex work has not been the best policy. How can the decriminalization of purchasing sex protect people who are being trafficked every day? Well, the situation just isn’t that simple. In the Red Light District, I struggled to see the punters as anything other than a reductive force who dehumanize and fetishize the human body. Or was that a sign of my own internalised stigmatisation surrounding sex work? Time to dig a little deeper.

Rachel Moran was made homeless at the age of fourteen and became prostituted through arising circumstances which forced her to work on the streets of Dublin. The foundational aim of her book is to dispel the very idea that sex workers operate on a basis of choice. There is no choice, she argues, because before a prostituted person is ever coerced into a sexual act, their personal circumstances, be they economic or otherwise, their lack of choice, force them into the sex work industry. She argues that those who are pro-legalization are merely blind to the “ugly” reality of sex work, and that paying for access to another person’s body is inherently exploitative, and therefore the most basic dismissal of human rights.

However, these views summarise what is known as “rescue feminism” – the confluence of radical feminists, conservative Christians and members of law enforcement who seek to ‘save’ people from sex work. Many sex workers, such as Anna of the Behind the Red Light District blog, feel that this “rescue industry” is a “cancer for prostitutes”, as it fails to recognise the validity of sex work as a source of employment for many people.

Walking passed the scarlet window sills of Amsterdam, it’s easy to think how anyone that didn’t want to be on the other side of those curtains couldn’t just get up and run out. They could, hypothetically, but as Moran herself insists, when asked why she didn’t get off the streets sooner, choice just doesn’t work like that – she couldn’t wake up one day, at the age of 17, and decide to go to Trinity College. Referring to those stories of sex workers who fund their own way through their medical degree, build a stable lifestyle around their sex work, Moran points out that it’s just simply not the accessible reality. She dispels the trope of the upper-class call-girl escort, saying that there simply is no ‘upper-class’ in sex work, as all people who are prostituted meet the same exploitation and abuse, no matter how much they earn.  

It is impossible to quantify the individual experiences of all global sex workers. Moran hypotheses relate to the Irish situation, but it ranges from country to country, continent to continent. Many Irish sex workers would entirely disagree with her, but I also wondered about the best way to protect sex workers in all aspects.

Ireland, in March 2017, altered its legislation surrounding sex work, adopting what’s commonly referred to as the Nordic Model – the model advocated by the “rescue industry”. The legal framework allows for the selling of sex, but criminalises the purchasing of sex, and is thus based on the essential theory that purchasing access to another’s body is fundamentally exploitative. Moran argues that no matter what legislative model sex workers live under, prostituted peoples are still reduced to “utensils”, “services”, “fantasies”. The law has been in place in Ireland for 18 months, and Moran herself asserts that it hasn’t shown signs of working yet – only two arrests were made since, and a first-time penalty is a mere fine of 500 euro.

In 2016, France adopted new legislation based on the Nordic Model and aims to end demand for sex work. The French NGO Medicins du Monde have released a report which analyses the ways in which the Nordic Model inhibits the lives of sex workers, forcing them into often extreme circumstances of poverty. While demand has reduced, the number of sex works in the French industry has not. The result has been increased cases of violence, health-risks, and impoverishment for sex workers who are have far less control over their clientele and working conditions. It seems that those who oppose the decriminalization of sex work should be ardent reformers of the welfare state, ever seeking to diminish the poverty which simultaneously buttresses the sex industry, and prevents it from stabilising as a viable, safe employment option. But that’s not always the case either.

The central issue of the Nordic Model is that it is often structured based on discrepancies between a national policy aiming to protect sex workers, and other local spheres that continue to focus on the repression of sex workers and their rights. At a local level, the Medicins du Monde report asserts, the new law means that sex workers are often more criminalized than their clients. Police are still not seen by many as a source of protection; many sex workers risk threats, pressure to report clients, and deportation, if they are undocumented and refuse to comply. These results bear representational value to the mediatisation of the sex industry – the retention of social stigma surrounding sex work, perpetrating further financial hardship for sex workers who deserve adequate representation and labour rights.

The Dutch documentary Meet the Fokkens (2011) seemingly celebrates the sex industry in Amsterdam. It follows the perspective of two twin sisters in their seventies who had been working behind the windows for over 50 years. Two veterans who know all the tricks of the trade, remained financially stable, and built their lives around their jobs. But even they said that if they had their lives over, they would never have gotten involved. Even though they were proud to be sex workers, it still came about as the result of economic pressure to earn quick wages, and emotional pressure from abusive husbands.

This lack of choice was an assertion I wasn’t expecting – and it drove me straight back to the drawing board. In reality, the legislative models surrounding sex work well never be a one-size-fits-all agenda. It’s an incredibly difficult conversation that demands of us all the continuous duty to educate, listen, learn, read, and re-educate again, and continually challenge certain stigma surrounding sexuality, gender, and sex work.

Correction: In the print version of issue 3, this article was incorrectly attributed to Eoghan O’Neill. It is in fact written by Features and Opinion Editor Liz Hession.