This leaflet was written for the “Sex Work from an Anarchist Perspective” discussion at the Anarchist Bookfair last weekend.

As radical feminists we feel that there are fundamental flaws and dishonesties to today’s workshop on prostitution*. The organisers of this meeting will tell us that this is not a gendered issue, because in theory women have the right to be sexually serviced too. We will be told that the sex industry doesn’t exist because of male demand, and that there is equivalent demand for/industrial scale of, adult men servicing women. We will be told that, unlike other industries, in the sex industry, demand is rarely met through the coercion of extreme poverty, deception, or more direct violent control.

We will be told that we should not look at women as a class, that instead we have to concentrate on ‘individual women’ in their ‘unique situation’, but the ‘free’ prostitute we will be asked to consider does not exist. She really really wants to be a prostitute (in spite of how dangerous it currently is) and she came to this choice free of poverty, addiction, a history of abuse, violent coercion, manipulation or social pressure. Who is she? Where is she? What remote island was she raised on free from patriarchal pressure (because we would dearly love to move there)? Also, how is she, and the handful of her elite sisters and brothers engaging in ‘free’ prostitution, going to be able to meet demand when men feel entitled to order up a prostitute the same way they order up a takeaway pizza?

It will be denied that the normalisation and expansion of the sex industry affects the social status of all women and girls, and reinforces male dominance and male entitlement; apparently this is an “empty generalisation” compared to our putative ‘free’ prostitute. Saying this is not a gendered issue because women have the right to be sexually serviced too is like claiming anti-vagrancy laws don’t discriminate against the poor because millionaires aren’t allowed to sleep under bridges either.

We maintain that there is a physical and psychological reality to sex, that women’s bodies are not insensate lumps of meat and the vagina/anus is not a passive open hole. There is a physical and psychological reality to being penetrated multiple times a day when you are not aroused; without poverty, without more direct coercion, what would motivate any woman or man to do this?

Some sex industry apologists feel that ‘sex work’ will be necessary in an anarchist society, that if “some men can’t get laid” they have the right to be sexually serviced – so much for women’s ‘sexual freedom’, this is in essence about ensuring men get sexually serviced. Sexual pleasure is an inalienable human right, unless you are the person doing the sexual servicing, at which point it becomes just ‘work’, and having to service all the men who ‘can’t get laid’ is no big deal, physically or psychologically.

If all men have a right to be sexually serviced, and serviced the way they want, when they want, by who they want, someone somewhere will then have to lose the right to say no. What will happen, in our future anarchist society, when not enough women freely choose to be ‘free’ prostitutes? Will some new way be found to manipulate women into it? Will it become an obligation all women have to fulfil, like taking your turn cleaning the toilets? How will this ‘obligation’ be enforced?

The tired old argument about ‘needing’ prostitution to protect (other) women from rape is a gross insult to all the men who manage not to be rapists, even when they ‘can’t get laid’, and is a fundamental misunderstanding of what rape is. Men do not commit rape because they can’t control themselves, it is not a crime of sexual excess, it is a crime of power, of domination and control. Even if rape did occur because men just couldn’t hold it in any longer, how is it going to work in a system of ‘free’ prostitution, with its inevitable long waiting lists given the inevitable scarcity of those wishing to be ‘free’ prostitutes?

Arguments about prostitution being driven underground are just more tacit acknowledgement that this is about men’s right to be sexually serviced, if the men using prostitutes really cared about their welfare, there wouldn’t be any coerced prostitution in the first place. This is also tacit acknowledgement that ‘free’ prostitution will never meet demand as it currently stands.

Saying that the best we can offer poor women is a ‘safe’ way to be sexually assaulted for money is saying that female poverty and male sexual violence is inevitable, and that the world will never change in any significant way. It is also a veiled threat against all women: give us (men) what we want, or we’ll take it anyway and worse.

The ‘anarchism’ on display here is nothing more than a desire to give male supremacism free reign, from men who are not prepared to give up any power.

* We are using the term prostitution rather than ‘sex work’, because the term ‘sex work’ is a deliberate obfuscation which covers up the exploitation inherent in the sex industry (consider the term ‘juvenile sex worker’ used to describe child victims of commercial sexual exploitation). It obscures the lived experience of those directly engaged in transactional sex, it obscures power relations between workers and bosses. Pimps, pornographers, brothel keepers, escort agency managers, telephone sex line operators, those working behind the till in sex shops and sperm donors all call them selves ‘sex workers’.