It’s a trend for women’s magazines and online sites to promote porn and herald “sex work” as “empowering” to young women. But that isn’t stopping one feminist journalist from speaking out against prostitution and the sex trade.
Last month, Julie Bindel spoke at the National Center for Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) following the recent publication of her book The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. While she is a self-described “left-wing secularist” and “proud out lesbian,” Bindel agrees with conservatives in the fight against the normalization of prostitution.
Bindel writes regularly for The Guardian and others news outlets like Newsweek. For her book, the UK journalist traveled to nearly 40 countries, cities and states to investigate the global sex trade in 250 interviews.The front cover boasts the endorsement of feminist activist Gloria Steinem for a “well documented book.”
During the event, among other things, Bindel offered a behind-the-scenes take on her book, called out liberal billionaire George Soros, told heartbreaking stories of prostitution around the world and in the United States, and gave advice for media to follow.
For her book, Bindel set out to examine “what the sex trade is” and, in particular, “how the apologists gain such ground.”
She wanted to unearth “how the lobbyists have become so notorious and so persuadable that the default position” for many on prostitution is to just “legalize it” in order to “make it safer.” In other words, Bindel meant to expose not only the “mythology in the sex trade,” but also the “tactics of the other side.”
Even so, she stressed that the “other side” isn’t winning. Instead, the global abolitionist movement against the sex trade is “growing” and has the “upper hand.” She pointed to sex-trade survivors who are speaking out about the industry as “one of the key reasons.”
But Bindel also acknowledged that those in the movement can feel “like we’re losing” because of the “size and scale of the sex trade.” She also warned that the “money is clearly with the other side” with liberal billionaire George Soros of funding “much of the pro-prostitution lobby.” Not that it needs his help, because, she added, the sex trade exists “for profit.”
“It operates in the way it does because of the racist, misogynistic ideology that it, that it sucks up and spits out,” she argued.
Another reason the abolitionist movement is “gaining ground” is because even countries with legalized prostitution “are pulling back” from it, like the Netherlands. While the Netherlands lifted its ban on brothels in 2000, three years later, the mayor of Amsterdam at the time, Job Cohen, changed his mind.
“It was mainly because a number of women have been murdered who were in prostitution, a number of pimping gangs operated,” Bindel revealed. Instead of dealing with problems, the legalization had “increased the market.”
She had her own story from visiting the Netherlands. Around 2003, Bindel visited a “Tippelzone” or tolerance zone for prostitution in Utrecht.
“What was going on there was nothing short of a scandal,” she said of an operation that sounded like a drive-thru for sex. “They were deciding that they would actually build performance boxes for cars to drive into off the Tippelzone. So that when the men were having sex with the women, or abusing the women rather, the other car couldn’t see in.”
A police officer showed her around in the daytime while it was closed. She remembered seeing “all kinds of semen-soaked debris all over the floor” as well as “human excrement and items of clothing.” Even the officer knew what went on, she said: abuse and rape.
“He said to me, ‘We’re thinking of painting all the performance boxes a different color so that if a woman gets raped in one of them, she can say it was the green one,’” she continued.
She even recalled a performance box for customers who “arrived by bicycle,” because cycling is a popular activity in the country. “We’re talking about eco-prostitution,” she said.
While Germany’s government isn’t “admitting these failures,” police and those studying the sex trade “have declared it to have not delivered any of the promises it made” decades ago when it decriminalized (and later legalized) the sex trade, Bindel said.
The United States: Nevada
The United States wasn’t exempt either.
“Nevada is, you know, so corrupt,” she said, pointing to Dennis Hof, a mega brothel-owner there “running for political office whilst writing a book at the same time.” She described him as “one massive cesspit of organized crime and abuse of women.”
When Bindel visited Hof’s brothels, she said the women there “had all been primed what to say” beforehand. Regardless, Bindel said, “it was clear those women were suffering from PTSD there and then and were in hell.”
She was especially curious about how the women’s bedrooms lacked personal belongings.
“Every single bedroom that I walked into, it was clear that this was actually just a prostitution room,” she said. “This is where women live for months on end because they’re pretty much in a lockdown situation in Nevada.”
What she did see, she found “so upsetting.”
“The only thing on the wall was a big pornagraphic picture, photograph of her,” Bindel said of the bedroom of one the prostitutes. The woman “even posed on the bed” for Bindel -- which Bindel called “heartbreaking.”
She asked the woman about the impersonal bedrooms.
“I said, ‘Oh, your room is much tidier than mine. You haven’t really got any personal effects around,” Bindel remembered, though she spied objects like hooker shoes, lube, prostitution accoutrements and a vibrator.
The woman responded that “we have to keep it tidy” because it’s “our workspace.” But then she showed Bindel where she hid one personal belonging, in a draw beside her bed.
“There was a framed photograph of her young daughter, and it was a gorgeous photograph,” Bindel said. The woman revealed to Bindel, “I never leave it out because I don’t want them looking at it and I don’t want their spermy hands touching my daughter.’”
Bindel concluded: “It told me everything I needed to know.”
Prostitution vs. Human Trafficking
Bindel also spoke out against the separation of prostitution from human trafficking. The two were interconnected, she said.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing these basically these well-funded anti-trafficking organizations that refuse to accept prostitution as the reason that trafficking, which is only a process, exists,” she said. “It would be like concerning yourself with domestic homicide and saying we don’t care about the women being beaten up at home because they’re not dead yet.”
She slammed organizations like ECPAT (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) for taking funding from the adult sex industry in order to focus on child pornography.
“Don’t they see it’s one market? Don’t they see it’s one consumer?” she asked.
In other words, the customers don’t care. Bindel criticized groups that argue “johns,” or prostitution customers, shouldn’t be criminalized because some of them report trafficked women.
While she served as a consultant at Poppy Project, which aided women trafficked in the UK, johns would call Bindel about potential trafficking cases. But, she added, “he’d had sex with her before he made the call and he, without exception, wanted to take her home to look after her.”
She also stressed that the language used in regards to the sex trade “is really important too.”
“We all know what trafficking is,” she said. “It’s pimping. And because it’s global, it’s pimping across borders.” She also described pimping as “gross violence against women and it means selling somebody for sex.”
In order to conduct research for her book, Bindel attended a 2015 conference in Vienna, Austria by Prostitution Policy in Europe or ProsPol. The group receives several million euros from the European Commission, she said, to regularly “get all the experts together and develop prostitution policy.”
Only three attendees found prostitution “problematic in any way at all,” she said, and she was the only self-described active abolitionist out of roughly 160 present. In other words, she was treated like a “butcher at a vegan convention.”
She called the euphemisms used at the conference “absolutely shocking” and an “incredible exercise in sanitation.”
“There was one description of what was clearly rape of a woman in a brothel,” she said. “A john, I think a john who had insisted on sex without a condom, and she had said no. They called it ‘breach of contract.”’
Other euphemisms included “selling love” and the “girlfriend experience.” (Bindel called it instead a “form of torture” because it can last “up to two weeks.”) She slammed the terms as “hellishly insulting” to these women “who are experiencing the inside of their bodies being invaded by men who they don’t want near them.”
The academics and PhD students attending “want to be in an nuanced niche,” she said of their reasoning. Some of those students came from the University of Nevada, which, she said, receives “sex industry money” for its PhD programs.
“They don’t want to be seen as sex negative,” she added. “They want to be down with the hit cool sex workers. They see it as progressive.”
One self-described sex worker there said she performed 12 shifts in a Nevada brothel in the name of research. “She was prostituting and interviewing” the women there, Bindel said, for “research” on the “ability of women to orgasm during sex work.”
Bindel also explained the reasoning behind the title of her book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth.
“It occurred to me that prostitution itself is being pimped, because it’s being re-sold, re-branded, re-packaged and re-presented to us as something that is empowering for women,” she said. “The subtitle was so I could get abolition in there somewhere. So Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. The biggest myth is that it is sex work.”
As an example, one of the women present at the NCOSE meeting with Bindel brought up that she heard a church sermon where the phrase “God wants to pimp out your life” was used.
“It would be nice if this could be reported, as a left-wing secularist,” Bindel commented. But even so, while “secularism is the start of my view,” Bindel admitted that she admired faith-based organizations that help those in prostitution with “no condition attached.”
Arguments Against Trafficking/Prostitution for Poor Women
Bindel shared her analogy to combat the argument that the sex trade aids poor women.
“What about a man who feels compelled, has no other choice but to sell his kidney to get from the Congo to Europe to escape war and dire poverty and execution?” she compared the scenario to those in the sex trade. “Do we not condemn the person who’s brokering that deal, condemn the surgeon who removes his kidney, condemn the person who’s buying it?”
She accused Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN aid of “double-think” because they “would never support a policy that says we should be allowing poor women, poor people to sell a kidney.”
She cited Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, as saying, “‘why remove the option of voluntary sex work for poor women?” In other words, she said, they argue it’s “empowering” for women “because it will enable them to actually better their lives.”
“This is nothing short of a disgrace,” Bindel slammed. And for those in prostitution, it’s even worse because it happens “every day,” she said.
She also pointed to hospitals in India, or “blood farms,” where impoverished people line up to sell their blood for food out of desperation. Sometimes, she said, men are kidnapped and “held for months on end and have blood sucked out of them everyday.”
“So there’s your forced trafficking analogy,” she said. “Any human rights organization would say that that is a dire state of affairs. But not prostitution.”
Bindel also confirmed that porn and the violence of pornagraphy are driving violence in the sex trade. She pointed to Cambodia, where prostituted women said that punters or sex customers would come, point to pornography on their phones, and say, “‘Do this.”
“It’s without question driving more abusive acts within prostitution because it is just a record of prostitution which is then used by men to say ‘I want this,’” Bindel said. “And they’re walking into brothels saying that.”
Bindel also addressed how the mentality driving pornography and prostitution is the same.“The basis is the same because it’s built on misogyny, racism and colonialism,” Bindel said, calling porn “prostitution with a camera.”
“The women are from the same demographic,” she said. “Many sex buyers, as I say, use pornography to further abuse a prostituted women.”
For the last question, MRC Culture asked Bindel about how the media should cover porn and prostitution. Women’s magazines from Cosmo to the Huffington Post promote porn positively and other outlets report on prostitution as empowering.
“They’re doing that because of this new wave of fun feminists that say this is all about personal empowerment,” Bindel responded, before providing recommendations for the media.
“I just think we need to nurture as many individual journalists that we know that are open to listening to us and not just give the horror stories of the women for their case studies,” she said. “Because there’s no analysis of that stuff. They need to dig deep as to who’s funding this stuff and who the pimps are and doing a little bit of proper journalism instead of just churning out rape stories.”