It's desperation, not inclination, that drives most women to become prostitutes. Credit: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

December 17, 2020   7 mins

When I was a student, for a while I lived in one of those places where students aren’t supposed to live. A rough bit of the city. Run down. When I walked into town in the evening, through the derelict council houses slated for demolition, cars would sometimes slow as they passed me — the drivers, always male, checking whether I was willing to be picked up. I found it unnerving in a way that was difficult to explain, or difficult to explain without contradicting myself.

My politics then, formed mostly by reading blogs in the noughties, said that sex-work-is-work, and that critiquing prostitution was a prude’s position. But in my neighbourhood, I was treated like a whore, and it scared me. I would internally chastise myself: who was I to dwell upon my fears, when there were women for whom these men were a living? The obvious answer here — that I was a woman who just wanted to be able to walk near my home without intimidation — did not occur to me.

The kerb crawlers didn’t disturb me only because of what they wanted. I think they troubled me also because men who buy sex are the most difficult element to reconcile with a pro-sex work position. It’s possible to argue in the abstract against the policing of female sexuality (if, of course, you never ask yourself why “female sexuality” would subsist in the things men pay women to do) or to denounce the state involving itself in consensual arrangements between adults (again, if you can pretend that purchased consent is valid consent).

But the grim actuality of the man who wants to have sex with a woman who can’t say no to hopping in his car — where does he fit into this conception? Where does her inability to refuse fit? Because I thought a lot about this. About what made me unlike the women those men were looking for. I think about it now, when I teach at a university, because I know it’s possible some of the young women in my classes are selling sex. When I teach again next semester, the possibility will be even greater. That’s why the University of Leicester has just introduced what it calls a “Student Sex Worker Policy and Toolkit”.

Students who enter the sex industry now, of course, are unlikely to be pacing their cities’ red light districts. Instead, they’ll be putting themselves on OnlyFans, or signing up for Sugar Daddy websites, or maybe escorting — non-contact work selling pictures, or mediated work brokered by a third party. Either way, the alarming figure of the man in the car can be kept at a certain distance. Some young women will enter in with a feeling that they’re embarking on a sexual adventure, maybe with Megan Thee Stallion’s boast from “WAP” repeating in their brains (“Pay my tuition just to kiss me / On this wet-ass pussy”). But all of them will be doing it for the money.

The reason I would never have jumped in a car with a stranger and accepted a fiver for a handjob is that nothing in my life had conspired to force me to. I didn’t have any of the chaotic pressures like substance dependency that would make me desperate for money and stop me holding down a job, and there were always retail and service roles around that I could do. My parents were able to top me up when needed. I didn’t have one of those boyfriends who insinuates that if you really loved him, you would pick up men to make cash — or who beats you if you refuse.

Between dead high streets and a devastated hospitality sector, the sorts of jobs students usually do are harder to come by now. In fact, Covid means that the sorts of jobs everyone does are going to be harder to come by, which means that already more women are reportedly selling sex. It’s important to keep this in mind, because there’s a tendency — hardened by the sex workers’ rights movement, which has borrowed the forms of gay liberation — to treat prostituted women as a kind of sexual minority who should be freed from persecution.

But it’s desperation, not inclination, that pulls most women in. Policy creates prostitutes: remove the welfare safety net, stop funding the refuges that help women get away from abusive men, and more women will either resort to selling sex or be unable to escape it. Prostitutes are also created by acts of classification. If dirt is “matter out of place”, whore is often just a word for a woman where she shouldn’t be. The men who kerb crawled me didn’t do it because of who I was, but because of where I was.

A new Netflix documentary about the Yorkshire Ripper underlines the many mistakes made by police in their investigation, but one of the worst was their decision to treat their unknown serial murderer as a “prostitute killer”. For one thing, it was inaccurate. Many of Peter Sutcliffe’s victims, including ones tagged as prostitutes by police and media, never sold sex: they were simply given the label because their lives were unstable and they died horribly.

The police investigating the murders assumed their perpetrator was motivated by a “hatred for prostitutes” — they even appealed to his “better nature” after he killed a victim who they classed as an “innocent girl”, imploring him to stop his attacks before he made another such mistake. They didn’t consider the possibility that he was motivated by a hatred for women, who he attacked opportunistically; prostitution was relevant to his crimes inasmuch as it made women more vulnerable. When Sutcliffe paid for sex, it’s entirely possible he was doing that out of hatred as well.

There’s an awkward silence in pro-sex work arguments about who’s buying. Sometimes they’re cast as gracious libertines. Sometimes, they’re portrayed as the undeserving poor of the intimacy economy — disabled men who crave pleasure but struggle to attract a partner are often invoked here, even though it is plainly insulting to say that disability makes you a sexual non-person. But the internet made it difficult for the idealised fictional punter to survive the suddenly visible real ones: the ones who leave reviews complaining about a woman’s unenthusiastic blowjobs or wonky teeth or the fact that her tits did not match up in all regards to the picture, and all in the most insulting terms.

So the pro-sex work argument moved. If the punter is indefensible, better not to talk about him at all. In the book Revolting Prostitutes — which advocates a “Marxist-feminist, labour-centred analysis” — authors Molly Smith and Juno Mac (both of whom identify themselves as sex workers) conspicuously avoid talking about the reasons men pay for sex. Instead, they invert the economic model of supply and demand, writing: “In an important sense, clients are not the demand but the supply; for sex workers, clients represent the supply of resources into our lives.”

This is a strange claim, because it ultimately implies that the more men there are who buy sex, the better it would be for women who sell sex. In this argument, a bigger market means more money for women in precarity; and more choice to refuse men they perceive as dangerous. But (as Smith and Mac repeatedly underline in the book) “women who sell sex” are not a constant population. Deprivation drags more women in. “Men who buy” are a porous group too, encouraged or deterred by policing and social attitudes. And the more punters there are, the greater the incentive for third parties (the word “pimps” works here) to find desperate women to service them.

A 2012 study found that, globally, legalising prostitution increased human trafficking: a bigger market demanded more women, and they had to come from somewhere. Critics of the Leeds “managed zone” — an area where prostitution is effectively legal (devised under the guidance of Teela Sanders, who also spearheaded the Leicester student toolkit), in the city where Sutcliffe committed many of his crimes — say that men come from hundreds of miles away to take advantage, and traffickers respond by bussing in more women to offer.

It’s distasteful to remember that women are the merchandise in prostitution, but any decent Marxist analysis should be able to predict the way trade reacts to opportunity. And the greater the opportunity for prostitution, the greater the opportunity for abuse. Women working in the managed zone are assaulted, raped and — in the terrible case of Daria Pionko in 2015 — murdered. Women who live nearby are pestered, threatened and sometimes attacked by men who consider any female around to be fair game.

As for the claim that a larger pool of punters lets women dodge the violent ones, I am haunted by the Steve Wright case. Wright murdered five women in prostitution over a few weeks in late 2006, targeting the Ipswich red light zone. After he was convicted, other women who worked the area recalled him as “just another punter”. If a serial killer doesn’t stand out, profiling doesn’t work.

When the punter is remote, the case seems even more tenuous. How does a camgirl know which anonymous watcher is fine, and which one will repost her images to humiliate her for years to come? How do you know which one will be a stalker? And even if dangerous men did give themselves away, there will ultimately always be a woman destitute enough — Smith and Mac class women who trade sex for food and shelter as “sex workers” — that she can’t say no to someone she fears. Destitute enough, or coerced enough. At the bottom of the market, women are killed.

In my feminist writing, I’ve resisted the reframing of prostitution as “sex work”, but perhaps embracing it might force a confrontation with what this “work” entails. What kind of workplace pays extra for ditching your PPE (punters put a premium on un-condommed sex)? In what other industry would the sexual assault of members of the public be an acceptable negative externality? How, exactly, does one apply an employment rights model to an exchange that takes place between two people in a locked room — or a locked car — where one demands sex and is big enough to force the other? In the announcement of the Leicester “Student Sex Worker Policy”, though, all this is hidden under the vague heading “wellbeing and inclusivity”.

There is no perfect response to prostitution. Smith and Mac deride feminists who back the Nordic model (my preferred option, in which sale of sex is decriminalised but the purchase is illegal) for lacking a faultless real-world example they can point to. When it comes to Smith and Mac’s favoured model of New Zealand-style decriminalisation, though, they concede that there are “problems” but put these down to the fact that it “does not go far enough”. We are all apparently just waiting for the kingdom to arrive.

But while we wait, there can be no pretence that prostitution is anything other than a practice where male entitlement takes advantage of female vulnerability — and no disagreement that any response begins by ameliorating that vulnerability. That means, among other things, benefits to lift women out of poverty, drug treatment to give them control of their lives, and a coordinated approach between the women’s sector and the criminal justice system to address male violence against women and protect women from the men who exploit them.

You might — perhaps fairly — accuse me of sentimental tourism for identifying myself with women in prostitution. For cringing when I think about the mechanics of an unwanted body pushing its way into a body that has no means of refusal. After all, it’s not me who has to take that trauma. But when those men on my old route to town kerb crawled me, it was because they saw I had the kind of body they wanted to do those things to. The difference between me and the women who would have taken their chances in those cars isn’t in our natures — it’s in our luck.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.