What’s the Real Reason for Julie Bindel’s Obsession with Abolishing Sex Work?

In the United Kingdom, radical feminist Julie Bindel is perhaps the most prominent prohibitionist crusader. In her latest book, she claims to expose the “myths” behind the commercial sex industry, painting it as irredeemably horrid, dismissing anything that does not fit her worldview.

To me, a person’s view of the world, and their vision of an ideal future, answers the question of that person’s motivation more than any scripted response. And from what I’ve seen of Bindel, it’s darker than any portrait she paints of those she opposes.

First and foremost, Bindel hates men. She’s not been shy about it, and even said in this interview how she would “have their power taken from them”:

I mean, I would actually put them all in some kind of camp where they can all drive around in quad bikes, or bicycles, or white vans. I would give them a choice of vehicles to drive around with, give them no porn, they wouldn’t be able to fight – we would have wardens, of course! Women who want to see their sons or male loved ones would be able to go and visit, or take them out like a library book, and then bring them back.

She later complained in this article speculating on the “end of men” that: “Within hours of the interview going online, men’s rights groups were accusing me of wanting to put men in ‘Nazi concentration camps’. And they say feminists are the ones with no sense of humour.” Well, I have no sympathy myself for the so-called men’s rights movement, but if she thinks that talk about confining any group of people based on some characteristic is some sort of joke, she’s out of her mind. Granted, I am especially sensitive to her choice of words, given my Jewish relatives in Europe who were confined in camps and reduced to ashes. Bindel’s blatant lack of sensitivity, on the other hand, should give any decent person pause to support her.

If misandry wasn’t enough, Bindel hates transgender people. She would prefer the term “transcritical”, but she’s not content with raising questions. She has openly opposed gender-nonconforming folks from medical treatment, refuses to acknowledge transwomen as women, and doesn’t even talk about transmen or genderqueer people. Her whole beliefs and knowledge on the subject seem stuck in the 1950s, and in contradiction to the opposition of most feminists to biological determinism and gender essentialism.

The list goes on. She’s dissed bisexuality as a fad. She wrote an article titled “Why I Hate Vegetarians”, accusing them of being “humourless, judgmental souls using spurious arguments” (apparently, she doesn’t read her own work that carefully). She expects heterosexual feminists to convert to lesbianism.

Yes, Bindel has done admirable work to fight violence against women, and that is often the basis of her support. But given her propensity for dismissing others, even to have them punished for who they are, one has to wonder if her work is based on genuine concern for victims, or a desire to control and even bully others to conform to her wishes. The only thing more tragic and dangerous is how many such individuals rise to prominence within the prohibitionist movement.

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The Need for a Skeptical Feminism

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from college recognized me via social media, and we began some online chats about the issues surrounding sex work, the anti-trafficking movement, and feminism. Having embraced the more radical form of feminism in her youth, my former classmate had gone on to obtain a law degree, then to focus her legal practice on civil cases that advanced women’s rights, most notably in the area of sexual harassment.

What eventually disillusioned her from the ideas of Dworkin, Mackinnon and other radical feminists was when she was invited to talk about her work at a feminist conference. By this time, she had handled a total of seventy-seven cases involving sexual harassment. Reviewing the files, she broke them down as follows:

  • 68 of the 77 involved a man harassing a woman; four involved a woman harassing a man, three involved a man harassing another man, and two involved a woman harassing another woman.
  • Fourteen cases involved a man making a single inappropriate comment, then apologizing and not engaging in any harassing behavior, and no long-term negative impact on the woman’s career; in all of these cases, the attorney advised the plaintiff that the case had insufficient merit to pursue.
  • One case involved a woman making a false accusation which the attorney found was motivated by malice against the defendant; another case involved a woman who was found to have serious mental health issues resulting in confabulation.

Based on this, my acquaintance presented a conclusion that should have been uncontroversial for this conference: that sexual harassment was still predominantly an issue of men using their power over women. After all, two-thirds of cases were bona-fide incidents fitting that narrative. But as soon as she presented her figures showing that individual men could be victims, individual women could be perpetrators, and that a minority of claims were either overblown (18%) or false (2.6%), she saw herself being attacked and denounced by the more strident participants at the conference, and she was never invited back. Fortunately, she found support among the oft-despised liberal and libertarian feminists, whom she said “had no problem seeing the facts as they were, and discussing them thoughtfully”.

In her mind, the “radical feminists” have become authoritarian ideologues, for whom even the slightest disagreement was considered unforgiveable heresy and treason. She has since embraced the label of a “skeptical feminist” – based on the book by British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards – and, in her own words, “always takes a step back before taking sides”. This is certainly the case with her view of the anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking movements, having seen “outrageous” and “absolutist” claims with scant evidence, and leading her to consider full decriminalization as “a more workable approach” (again, her words).

Our discussions brought us back to a basic concept in the philosophy of ideas – the distinction between open and closed systems of thought. Open systems, while embracing certain core values or principles, are receptive of new evidence and ideas, and thus relatively flexible to change. Closed systems, by contrast, present a comprehensive set of doctrines to explain how the world works, and either explains away any conflicting evidence or rejects it outright.

It is no surprise that the prohibitionist camp sees sex work in overly simplistic and absolutist terms. This is, after all, the methodology of its parent ideologies – religious fundamentalism, and radical feminism. Some of the unchallenged presumptions of this system include:

  1. Sexual perfectionism – Sex must be confined to vanilla activities within either marriage or “committed relationships”; any expression outside of this is presumed to be “harmful” and/or “exploitative”.
  2. Gender essentialism – Men view sex a certain way, women view sex another way; this leads to the reduction of prostitution as “men buying women”, thus neglecting or ignoring the reality of male and genderqueer sex workers, and female and genderqueer sex work clients, as well as the complex reasons why people either enter sex work or seek the services of a sex worker.
  3. Punitive/corrective approaches – The way to address commercial sex is to “end demand” by either punishment (fines, jail, public shaming) or so-called therapeutic approaches (e.g., “johns schools”).
  4. Intolerance to opposition – This is exhibited by such methods as:
    • Ignoring questions and/or criticisms, often refusing to answer them.
    • Dismissive labels applied to other side (“not representative”, “pimp lobby”, etc.).
    • Controlling discourse to minimize or eliminate dissent and/or opposition.

This is not to say that the sex worker rights movement does not have its own faults, or that certain elements within it are more closed than others. But there is a greater tendency to base their beliefs upon evidence than ideology, and a greater diversity of viewpoints and approaches than seen within the contemporary prohibitionist movement. This raises the question of which approach is more compatible with the core values of human rights and democratic polity generally, and the feminist principles of achieving greater gender equality and personal autonomy. Is it any wonder that my former classmate and I, and many other “skeptical feminists”, have decided to support this movement?

The Social Contexts of Sweden’s Sex-Purchase Ban

Ever since Sweden passed its “sex-purchase ban” in 1999, those seeking to eliminate commercial sex have been trying to duplicate its supposed success in other countries. What these prohibitionists fail to understand is the cultural, political and historical contexts in which this legal scheme emerged.

Scandinavian societies – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – are known for their peaceful and egalitarian cultures, and their comprehensive social programs. What most outsiders may not recognize is that they are relatively more conformist than other Western societies. Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandermose coined the term “Jante Law” (Janteloven in Danish and Norwegian, Jantelögen in Swedish) to refer to the traditional communitarian attitudes against excessive individual pride, if not individualism in general. The name derived from the fictional town of Jante, where its elder citizens enforced through various means the admonition: “You are not to think you’re anyone special, or that you’re better than us.”

In Sweden, this principle was combined with the Social Democratic Party’s concept of folkhemmet – “people’s home” – where the society is to be modelled on the family unit, with every member contributing to the prosperity of the whole. This vision emerged at a time when Social Democratic ideology was being revised to a more corporatist model of class collaboration, with the state serving as arbiters between labor and capital, thus encouraging a more stable and cohesive society. In their zeal to create such a society, they not only strove to level the playing field between the classes, but to improve society through a number of “social engineering” programs, including some eugenics policies starting in the 1930s. [See Introduction in “Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden” by Jay Levy (Routledge Press)]

Many critics of the sex-purchase ban have referred to it as “a failed experiment in social engineering”, but its roots precede the advent of the Social Democrats’ folkhemmet ideology. In 1724, Swedish law required that unmarried women officially certify that they had a “legitimate” source of income, or face arrest and imprisonment in a workhouse to prevent them “indecently” earning a living. Even women who did have a legal profession were not exempt from state scrutiny and control; police often raided pubs and coffee houses owned and operated by women, on the pretext that they might be fronts for prostitution, and compel waitresses to undergo medical examinations for sexually transmitted diseases. The early 20th century saw prostitutes pathologized, arrested for “vagrancy”, and even subjected to forced sterilization under Sweden’s eugenics policies. While the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s saw traditional mores questioned, the old “vagrancy” law was replaced by a law against “antisocial behavior”, until it was challenged in court. Throughout this period, Swedish feminists attempted to stress a focus on demand, but failed to overcome the prevailing stigma against commercial sex. Indeed, the negative attitude towards “social deviance” in Sweden is not confined to sex workers; people who use drugs face persecution under “zero-tolerance” policies, and HIV-positive people risk summary confinement if they fail to report their status to sexual partners.

By the 1990s, Swedish law did not outlaw either the purchase or sale of sex, but did prohibit various related activities (pimping, pandering, brothel-keeping) as well as allowing immediate deportation of any immigrant found to be engaging in prostitution. It was during that time that various political groups, including the Social Democrats, became increasingly concerned with the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and East Asia, many of them women engaging in commercial sex. While some politicians considered total criminalization as the answer, radical feminists proposed through the Social Democrats and other left-wing parties that only the purchase be banned, constructing the argument that prostitution was “violence against women” and that those who engaged in selling sex were to be considered victims. Unfortunately, this model did not take into account the longstanding stigmatization of prostitutes as social deviants, thus resulting in further victimization of sex workers by police, social workers, and other government agencies.

While Sweden tries to present its sex-purchase ban as a progressive innovation, it is in fact the latest in a long line of efforts to suppress sex workers based on rigid social attitudes against nonconformity, a political tradition of paternalistic social engineering, and radical feminist ideological constructs being appropriated during a period of heightened anxiety around increased immigration and Swedish identity in a changing Europe. While terminology and demographic factors may change, one constant remains in all of these futile attempts to deal with prostitution: Sex workers themselves have never been allowed a voice in the political process in which these decisions are made about them. This is in stark contrast to the situation in New South Wales and New Zealand, where sex worker organizations were important stakeholders in developing laws and policies that improved the lives of their constituents. Whether and when Sweden will learn from these examples – and their own repeated failures – remains to be seen.


I’m indebted to Dr. Jay Levy, who conducted extensive fieldwork and research on the impact of Sweden’s sex-purchase law and related policies; click here for his webpage, with links to his books and articles for more information.

Swanee Hunt’s Archaic Essentialism

Perhaps the most well-known and influential prohibitionist today is Swanee Hunt, the founder of Demand Abolition. Her large inheritance, extensive social connections, and saccharine Southern charm make her a formidable advocate for this or any cause. But unlike so-called “radical feminist” academics and theoreticians with their belief that sex is a construct for male domination, or evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who conflate sex outside of heterosexual marriage with sin, Hunt seems to draw on yet another ideological source.

I base this on how she has invested the resources of the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Along with Demand Abolition, she has established two other projects:

  • Political Parity – The front page declares: “Elevating the number of women in the highest levels of government is more than a matter of representation. It’s essential to shaping a more just society.”
  • Inclusive Security – “We’re changing who makes decisions about war and peace,” because, according to Hunt, “a greater role for women is essential to global stability.”

Essential. It’s not just a matter of equity to include women in government and peacemaking. Hunt believes that there’s something about being a woman which makes it necessary. The language she uses echoes that of centuries before, that women are somehow the guardians of morality, hence equally if not better qualified than men to govern society.

This belief stemmed from the “separate spheres” ideology, promoted by opponents of women’s suffrage. They argued that the biological sexes were meant to function in different areas of life – men in the public sphere of politics and commerce, women in the private sphere of motherhood and domestic care. Anti-suffrage advocates opined that women did not need the vote, because they were able to influence society profoundly by instilling moral virtues in their sons.

Suffragists such as Christabel Pankhurst responded to this, and the increasingly sexualized attacks on women during the suffrage campaign, with a synthesis. Since women were given the responsibility for moral education, and since men clearly had failed to show moral character in the public sphere, it was therefore necessary for women to gain the vote so as to make the political and public spheres more moral. Pankhurst and other suffragettes hence expanded the original slogan of “Votes for Women” to include “Chastity for Men”.

This blend of feminist indignation and Victorian moralism also led to the anti-prostitution stance of many leading activists. Just as male employers forced their attentions on female staff, and male police and prison guards molested and tortured female inmates, so it must be that prostitution consisted of men commercially coercing women to satisfy men’s libidos. The answer was tougher laws, homes for friendless women, and taming men’s sexual appetites.

Given Hunt’s background, it should be no surprise that her own rhetoric shows traces of such ideas. In her own biography, she describes being raised in a conservative and privileged environment where women were not expected to engage in public affairs, but to be hostesses, wives and mothers. From a culture of feminine domesticity to a belief in women’s “essential” role as moral caregivers – and moral guardians – is no great leap.

I have no doubt that Swanee Hunt would argue that she is no essentialist. I’m sure she would contend that she bases her beliefs on the experiences of women. Granted, women around the world share many common experiences, but (a) there are still significant differences based on other factors such as race and class, and (b) that doesn’t mean that every individual women is automatically qualified for political leadership, or that one woman may dictate the sexual and occupational choices of others. If anything, her overgeneralizing about women’s experience seems just another variation on the essentialist theme.

At best, Hunt’s vision is simplistic and limited. At worst, her ignorance of complex intersectional realities, and her brazenly privileged assertion that she somehow knows what’s best for others, is harmful.

SWERFs and Other True Believers

[Originally posted July 14, 2016]

Benjamin L. Corey commented in a recent post how the growing movement against human trafficking had morphed into an “anti-sex-industry” movement. My own observation is that it has become hijacked by a longstanding “sexual purity” movement, with roots going to Anthony Comstock and the more conservative elements of first-wave feminism. And like any mass movement, as Eric Hoffer observed, its members are willing to sacrifice critical thought in the name of a holy cause.

This movement’s basic approach follows that of the religious revivalists from which it originally emerged. First, there is the diagnosis of some great world-disease preventing all of us from achieving some beatific or utopian state. From this, we deduce its presence in each person in the form of an individual infection, requiring radical treatment and cure. But it doesn’t stop there, for now the convalescing individual must be recruited into expansion of the cure, continuing the cycle until the world itself is rid of the disease. This was also the logic behind the temperance movement, which diagnosed alcohol as the world-disease and prohibition as its ultimate cure.

The contemporary “purity” movement is sustained by conservative evangelical Christians and sex-worker-excluding radical feminists (SWERFs), both of whom exhibit their own variations on this foundational template. The evangelical will see Satan, sin, salvation and evangelism as the pillars of their mission; the SWERF will point to patriarchy, false consciousness, politicization and action; but both essentially crave the same goals, use similar techniques, and see symptoms of sickness in various forms of sexual nonconformity.

This purity movement also exhibits three paradoxical approaches to achieve its goals. Its leaders present moral absolutes, yet are willing to resort to intellectual dishonesty by twisting the facts to suit their purposes. Both religionist and SWERFs often denigrate science and reason as antithetical to their views, while also attempting to present elements of their message in the guise of science and reason. Lastly, their desire to impose a radical cure, such as eradicating prostitution, leads to methods that cause even greater harm than the supposed sickness, in this case robbing women of both agency and self-sufficiency.

As Hoffer observed, it is no surprise that such “true believers” come mainly from privileged backgrounds. While the poor and marginalized struggle to survive, the privileged struggle with boredom and lack of purpose. The current anti-prostitution movement has given many well-to-do white women the promise of helping others by eradicating what they perceive as a great evil. But that promise is an overly simplistic emotional appeal that ignores evidence and complex realities, and rejects practical means for reducing harm and respecting women’s choices. It is indeed not only paternalistic, but anti-feminist, precisely because it leads privileged women to “other” marginalized ones. It is a faulty diagnosis, and a reckless course of treatment.

I would contend that the real disease to which we should devote our energies is the pervasive inequity made manifest in our economic, political, social, cultural and erotic realities. Instead of depriving sex workers of both income and safety, let’s give them the space to unleash their power and help transform the world. Liberation is not to be imposed, nor is it achieved by ignoring the voices and experiences of those who seek it. Often the best way for the privileged to aid in the liberation of others is to get out of their way and let them take the lead. That, I believe, is the case here.