For centuries, women’s bodies have been seen as sinful, and a woman’s respect, worth and value rested delicately on her bodily modesty: on where a woman found herself on the continuum between “good girl” and “whore”. Bodily modesty was deemed necessary both for individual women to protect themselves from harm—by keeping their “temptations” under wraps—and for wider social order. Immodest women were thought to provoke sin, leading to a breakdown of society. As such, they were singled out, punished and stigmatised. Patriarchy benefited: it was able to take what the “whores” had to offer while at the same time limiting their power, and it gave men a useful bargaining chip that could be used against all women, as we see in “Susanna and the Elders”. As Karras (1996, p. 108) notes, for a long time, “[t]he arena of sexuality was the only one in which women could compete with men in importance…and it was the one in which men most feared they would not be able to control them”. Associating women’s bodies with sin and immorality was one way to take back control, while characterising women as temptresses allowed men to behave in whatever way they liked, guilt-free. Men could abuse and mistreat women while taking the “moral high ground”, spinning the punishment as deserved and in the best interest of wider society. Women’s bodies were fair game.
When it comes to women themselves, it is difficult to see how they could ever “win” from this “cult of female modesty”. As MacKinnon (1989, p. 110) herself notes, “Virtuous girls, virginal, are “attractive,” up on those pedestals from which they must be brought down; unvirtuous girls, whores, are “provocative”, so deserve whatever they get”. The only way for women to earn popular respect was to abide by the modesty norms, which meant marking themselves out from other women; engaging in slut-shaming. This type of world is not one that has ever proved to be commensurate with gender equality. Indeed, where such modesty norms are most clearly practiced in the world today, one finds unequal opportunities and unequal rights for women. But, the “cult of female modesty” lives on in the Western World today, albeit holding women to a different “modesty” standard. Wendy Shalit’s best-selling American book calls for “A Return to Modesty” (2014) and “Purity Culture” is popular within the growing Evangelical movement, something which has been linked to rape culture and abuse within these communities (Allison, 2021; Klement & Sagarin, 2017; Moon & Reger, 2014). Gabby Aossey writes that “[h]ip Feminist campaigns like Free the Nipple only encourage a gullible behavior of disrespect for our own bodies, leading to everyone else around us disrespecting our bodies as well…Muslim woman get respect and are looked at beyond aesthetics; they are actually taken seriously in their communities” (Aossey, 2017). But this renewed emphasis on female modesty is not only a feature of religious groups, it also manifests itself in feminist circles: in the lack of respect radical feminism offers to “immodest women”, and most notably sex workers. As we will further see in what follows, this is visible, firstly, in the language employed within the abolitionist lobby, and, secondly, in the dismissal of sex workers’ voices.
According to the artist Claire Bentley-Smith, described as “working closely” with the Leeds-based UK organisation “Save Our Eyes”, an organisation which successfully challenged the street sex work managed zone, sex workers are “broken dolls” (Hyde, 2018). Bentley-Smith has therefore built sculptures made from rubbish, consisting of broken doll heads, monopoly money, drug refuse, or dirty bits of discarded underwear (Hyde, 2018). As Lister and Campbell (2018) responded: “They are not broken doll heads, monopoly money, drug refuse, or dirty bits of discarded underwear – the women working on the street in Leeds are human beings”. As Gemma Ahearne has tweeted: “When I was a dancer aged 18–23, people spoke to me like rubbish. They spoke about dancers as…polluting. I vowed I would never let another dancer feel like that. The abolitionists are pushing ‘purity culture’”. Just as Claire Bentley-Smith compares sex workers with “broken dolls” and rubbish, Natasha Walter refers to women more generally who could be thought of as immodest as “living dolls” (Walter, 2011). Carole Pateman claims that “[p]rostitution remains morally undesirable” (Pateman, 1983, p. 56); even though she characterises sex workers as victims as opposed to immoral beings, the fact that she cannot find any value in or respect for the work sex workers perform (in fact, radical feminism will not even recognise sex work as work), speaks volumes. Without realising it, one victim of sexual abuse in the workplace sums up the general disrespect which sex workers are afforded by society: “I felt like a prostitute, an utter disappointment to myself, my parents, my friends” (Berg, 2020, p. 272). As Zatz suggests, perhaps it is “not sex work per se” that is the problem but instead “the particular cultural and legal production of a marginalised, degraded prostitution that ensures its oppressive characteristics while acting to limit the subversive potential that might attend a decriminalised, culturally legitimised form of sex work” (Zatz, 1997, p. 291). Hence the call made by sex workers in the World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights “to change social attitudes which stigmatize and discriminate against prostitutes and ex-prostitutes of any race, gender or nationality” (see Weiss, 2018, p. 304).
Throughout radical feminist and abolitionist discussion of sex work one finds use of the phrase “buying women”. For example, the 2008 report published by the Women’s Support Project was titled “A Research Report Based on Interviews with 110 Men Who Bought Women in Prostitution” (Macleod et al., 2008; emphasis added). Julie Bindel (2020) writes of “punters, many of whom travel from outside of the city, are able to buy a woman with the same ease with which they might pick up a burger”. Carole Pateman writes that “when a prostitute contracts out the use of her body she is…selling herself in a very real way” (Pateman, 1988, p. 207). Alison Jaggar writes that “since, unlike a man, she [a woman] is defined largely in sexual terms, when she sells her sexuality she sells herself” (Jaggar, 1991, p. 274).
But, as Zatz responds, when a female sex worker sells sex to a male client: “Possibly she is selling his image of her sexuality—but this image is not herself…There is no more reason to think that sex workers cannot separate their work from their sex life than there is to think that therapists cannot separate their work from their emotional life” (Zatz, 1997, p. 298). And, as A Vindication of the Rights of Whores makes clear, “feminists have to realise that all work involves selling some part of your body. You might sell your brain, you might sell your back, you might sell your fingers for typewriting. Whatever it is that you do you are selling one part of your body. I choose to sell my body the way I want to and I choose to sell my vagina” (Pheterson, 1989, p. 146). While radical feminists suggest that men see women as “sex objects”, their own use of language suggests something similar when it comes to sex workers. The notion that buying sex is equivalent to buying a woman, seems to suggest that radical feminists themselves—somewhat ironically—see the women involved as just sex objects. Of course, by reducing a sex worker’s identity down to one single identifying feature—sex—radical feminism is, conveniently, able to escape the uncomfortable comparison with care work altogether (Scoular, 2004, p. 345).
In addition to its use of language, a further way in which radical feminisms’ disrespect for sex workers manifests itself is in its dismissal of sex workers’ own voices. Let us first of all take a look at a couple of these voices.
In the words of the sex work activist Laura Lee (2014):
“I don’t ask you to like what I do ... what I do ask for is to be allowed to do my job in safety and to be treated with dignity and respect…there is no greater feeling than meeting a disabled person who has never been with a woman and affording them their first orgasm. To bring such happiness and fulfilment into someone’s life is something I treasure. Sex work is work, just like any other. And those of us in the industry deserve support and respect—not to be reviled and stigmatized”
And, as Kirio Birks (2018), a defender of Grid Girls, notes:
“[S]urely a woman has a right to be the object of somebody else’s desire if she wants and surely it doesn’t matter if she is being paid for it?…Rather than sending Grid Girls off into the wilds of unemployment, or providing one less place for would-be models, a far better solution would have been to make sure that they’re unionised, properly paid, and protected. If they are, then they have empowered other women to take up work they might otherwise have avoided, in a safer way.”
Whether or not you yourself can imagine wanting to be a sex worker, these voices should be allowed to speak for themselves. Once, I could not imagine how any woman would want to pose or protest naked; now I do it myself. How can I, therefore, assume to know the mind of every other woman? How can I assume to know what is better for another woman than she herself does? How can I discount the voices of individual sex workers who demand rights and recognition, not “end demand”?
Here, however, radical feminists think they do have just cause to override sex workers’ voices. Their first defence is that of “socialisation”, or what a Marxist would call “false consciousness”. From Simone de Beauvoir (1949) to Natasha Walter (2011), feminist theorists have long argued that women are socially conditioned to behave in a way that benefits the patriarchy. For some abolitionists, this carries the implication that sex workers who speak out against the “end demand” approach can be conveniently ignored; they are presumed to be speaking on behalf of “pimps and punters” rather than for themselves. Hence, while prominent Labour Members of the UK Parliament, such as Sarah Champion and Jess Philipps, more normally emphasise the importance of listening to workers, they do not do so when it comes to sex workers, who are assumed to be victims rather than “workers”.
But, isn’t it intellectually elitist for radical feminists to assume that they know better than sex workers themselves? As Zatz notes, “attributions of false consciousness carry tremendous drawbacks. For starters, they are radically undemocratic, setting up a privileged group (usually intellectuals) to interpret the experience of others for them” (Zatz, 1997, p. 296). Isn’t the whole point of feminism to listen to the voices of women, particularly those seen as at the margins of society? As one active member of #Labour4Decrim (a group tied to the UK Labour Party, supporting sex workers and allies), tweeted in December 2020, “I’m sick of women labour members and trade unionists slapping themselves on the back and saying that women need to be heard and then ignoring and talking over sex workers who are trying to do that”. Ensuring that all women have voices and choices should be the feminist goal, and that goal can be achieved while welcoming sex workers, recognising their voice and ensuring they have the same rights as any other worker. The policy package which sex workers themselves favour—a three-pronged approach of decriminalisation, poverty-reduction and tackling borders—is one that can both reduce the number of non-consensual sex workers and also avoid hurting consensual sex workers. Once one entertains the possibility that sex work involves a whole range of experiences, and that these experiences are shaped by the law, by poverty and by stigma, it is a policy approach that, on a theoretical as well as practical level, trumps the blunter “end demand” approach.
Not only does radical feminism reduce sex workers’ voices and demands down to the “pimp lobby”, it, albeit subtly, prioritises male experiences ahead of female ones. Bindel (2017a, b) argues that many of the organisations supporting or campaigning for decriminalisation are backed by the “pimp lobby”, and so we can effectively ignore them. Despite the evidence Amnesty International received from numerous sex workers, the fact that a man who owns an escort business spoke in favour of decriminalisation at one of their annual general meetings is, according to Bindel, reason to ignore Amnesty’s extensive work showing that decriminalisation is better for sex workers. She also noted that: “[a] legal challenge to the law in Northern Ireland is being led by Laura Lee, a “sex workers’ rights” campaigner – whose backers include the pimp Peter McCormick. I hope Lee loses” (Bindel, 2017a, b). Lee was a sex worker and sex work activist who wanted to reverse Northern Ireland’s implementation of “end demand” because it made her feel less safe. But, because McCormick would benefit, this is thought to be enough to override Lee’s own safety.
In regard to the impact of decriminalisation in New Zealand, Bindel (2017a, b) writes that: “Views differ as to whether decriminalisation has made the situation better or worse. One report, published five years after decriminalisation, claimed it had little impact on the number of people working in the sex trade but had offered some safeguards to children and others. But the personal testimony of women who have been prostituted provides evidence that brothel owners and punters have benefited more than the women have”. She nevertheless does not support New Zealand’s decriminalisation. Despite the fact that it has resulted in greater “safeguards”, because brothel owners and punters have benefitted, it would have been better, apparently, if it hadn’t happened.
So, should we more generally enact policy in a way that ensures that what are seen as male “aggressors” don’t benefit, even if it comes at a cost to women? Male rapists might benefit from the fact that we live in a country where women are free to leave their homes unaccompanied, unlike in communities which practice purdah. Does that mean that women’s freedom to roam should come second? That’s what Bindel’s approach to sex work would seem to suggest, though her well known objection to police advice for women to “stay indoors” when the Yorkshire Ripper was on the loose reveals a degree of inconsistency. Surely, the interests of men—even criminal men or men we might consider “immoral”—should not override the voices and interests of women? If sex workers prefer decriminalisation, that should speak for itself.
In numerous ways, and across the world, the daily life of women is dictated by the way heterosexual men are assumed to “see”; by the “male gaze”. It is the male way of viewing and experiencing the world that overrides what a woman herself would like to do and how she herself witnesses the world. If she wants to cool down, whether by removing her headscarf or her bikini top, that comes second to concerns about how a man might view her uncovered body. If she wants to show off her personality, rejecting conformity, that is, once again, overridden by how a man might interpret her state of dress. If she wants to protest naked, that must come second to how men might “benefit” from the sight of her body. As Emily Channell writes, “[m]ainstream women’s organizations and many academic feminists see Femen's topless actions as simply giving men more of what they want—easily accessible women's bodies” (Channell, 2014, p. 613). On that basis, the tactics of not only Femen but also Pussy Riot, #freethenipple and my own activism are deemed “unfeminist” (Channell, 2014; Rivers, 2017; Matich et al., 2019). Hence why Tim Young of the Fox TV channel can tweet in response to my protests that “[t]here’s nothing more anti-feminist than having to strip naked desperate for a man’s attention”. The priority given to the male gaze means that a woman is judged on something other than her own terms, and is expected to dress and behave in a way that is dictated by how men might think and feel; if men might benefit from a particular action, then a woman should not do it—even if she wants to do it. Limiting men’s “benefit” is more important than a woman acting in her own self interest.
Living our lives in a way that is limited by the male gaze as a means to escape the male gaze would seem to be a pyrrhic victory. The solution to women being viewed as “sex objects” is to be found in changing the way we as a society judge women, rather than in changing (and restricting) women’s behaviour. When I employ someone to move my heavy academic books, it is typically a man who arrives at my door, but that does not mean that I objectify men as existing to fulfil my muscle-based needs, seeing them a “cart horses”. Where men choose to see women as sexual objects, it is they—and not women themselves—who are to blame. Just because some women do not cover their bodies is no excuse for people to think that women are “just bodies”, and just because some women sell sex is no excuse for men thinking that women are simply “sexual objects” available for the taking. After all, I’m perfectly able to respect a man whatever he is or isn’t wearing; it would, to my mind, be superficial to judge another person based on their state of dress. And I, for one, am also perfectly capable of respecting people who sell sex. Similarly, just because a woman makes you a coffee in a cafe, or makes your hotel bed, does not mean that you should assume that all women exist to serve your basic needs. If men feel sexually entitled to women’s bodies, and if women’s respect and worth hangs on something as flimsy as a piece of cloth, we really do have a problem, but that problem is not uncovered women or sex workers: should women really have to cover up—or only have sex for free—in order to earn respect? The problem is in the collective beliefs of a society that judges women based on their bodily modesty, with those deemed “whores” expected to shoulder the blame for what happens in the heads of (some) men. As Priscilla Alexander has elsewhere pointed out, abolitionist feminists internalise the notion that the “whore” is “the cause of women’s pain”, and women will never be free until they are no longer afraid of this very word (Alexander, 1997, p. 83). What we find in radical feminism is the goal of completely abolishing sex work, the ultimate form of “whore-phobia”.
Perhaps, however, this argument is best made by turning to sex workers’ own voices. Let’s begin with a letter which a sex worker sent to the American group Women Against Pornography, now housed in the Schlesinger Library archive at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard University:
“I recently heard one of your members say that porn films caused rape. I work in sex films. I don’t think that women who appear sexy, either in film or in person are to blame for rape. The blame lies with the rapist—so let’s not make excuses for his crime…To say that looking at a sexy picture makes a normal, healthy man go out and rape is crazy. Most of the men I meet would not force themselves on me, and the ones who would, would do so even if they never saw an X rated film” (Exhibited at Museum of City of New York in 2018, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University).
The same sex worker notes that she and her colleagues face violence of a sort ignored by the feminist group: violence from the authorities, which takes the form of “police violence every night". She adds that “you work hand in hand” with these authorities under the same banner of “cleaning up” the streets. The Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered numerous sex workers in the north of England in the 1970s and early 1980s, also claimed to be “cleaning up the streets” (Summers, 2008). As Roberts (1992) and Lowman (2000) have shown, “whore stigma” and the “discourse of disposal” fuels the violent treatment and murder of sex workers. Kinnell (2008) documents the way in which sex workers are portrayed as “social pollutants” and equated with rubbish. As Cunningham and Sanders (2017) conclude: “Only with a combination of anti-stigma work alongside meaningful legal and policy change that prioritizes sex worker safety can there be any hope of addressing the tragedy of sex worker homicide”. As Laverte (2017) writes:
“There is a lack of understanding that first and foremost, it is social prejudices about prostitution that render it difficult for us to protect ourselves. That is because they lower the threshold to use violence against us – among clients, among the police, among everyone”
This same stigma affects the ability of law enforcement to catch those who are engaging in exploitation within the sex sector. The fear of being “outed” is a common fear, as a result of which many cases of abuse and exploitation go unreported (Payne, 2014). As Belinda Brooks-Gordon (2016) writes:
“[E]xploiters can only be held to account with an increased chance of being caught. Currently, the likelihood of being caught is low because sex workers are so stigmatized they are reluctant to report offences. Decriminalization is an effective way to ensure that exploiters are more likely to be held to account (Barnet, 2004), as is making violence against sex workers a hate crime.”
As Julia Laite notes of the “end demand” approach, it is “an ideal way to appear to crack down on prostitution without appearing to crack down on the women involved”. In reality, “[t]he legal stigma of selling sex might be removed by a law that criminalizes clients and only clients, but the social stigma of engaging in the sex industry—even if it is claimed to be a choice made by an adult woman—still remains” and, as such, “end demand” still “maintains the age-old position that prostitution is inherently morally wrong” (Laite in McCarthy et al., 2015).
The “cult of female modesty” does not serve women well, whether sex workers or not. Not only does violence towards sex workers go unreported because of stigma and associated reputational fears, so too does abuse of nonsex workers in communities where the modesty cult is particularly strong. Zakaria et al. (2020) note that “[s]exual violence often goes unreported in Pakistan, as victims risk being cast out by their parents, are forced to marry their rapists or are killed over the perceived injury to their families’ honor”. In recent years, stories of rape and murder of women in India and Pakistan have proliferated. On 1 December 2019 a female student in Pakistan was forcibly taken from her car by a group of five men. Here were just some of the responses (Chaturvedi & Niaz, 2019):
“Jab mithayi ko khula chorro ge to makhyan zaroor ayen gi” (If you leave the sweet box open, it will inevitably attract flies).
“Ye to hona hi tha, kapre to dekho” (This was inevitable, look at what she is wearing).
“Well done kidnappers… Jo log apni bachio ko be lagaam chor dete hain. They deserve this” (Those who leave their daughters unconstrained deserve this).
This suggests that the problem is not “immodest” women but those who deem women to be unworthy based on what they judge to be “immodest” behaviour; those who, as a result, see women as ripe for attack and punishment. Closer to home, and as Allison (2021) shows in her book #ChurchToo, the “purity culture” that exists within Evangelical Christianity “upholds abuse” within American communities.
So, in sum, are sex workers, pornography and scantily clad women (including myself) really what causes harm to womankind? Is abolishing pornography and “prostitution” really the best approach for tackling gender inequality? If “immodest" women and sexualised images of women were central to gender inequality, why are countries like Iran and Pakistan not at the top of the gender equality rankings? Perhaps it is because what causes most damage to womankind is not women who wander around scantily clad or who sell sex, but, instead, what happens in people’s minds: the social belief that a woman’s value rests on her physical modesty. It is this belief that not only causes harm to sex workers—causing clients to mistreat them and limiting their options to speak out for fear of their reputation—but that leads to men’s guilt-free mistreatment of women who they more generally judge to be “trashy”. In response to one of my naked protests, Deborah Kurbjuweit, who graduated from Berkeley, tweeted that I was fat and needed to lose weight, and then followed up with: “The body is sacred until you decide to give it over to gawking, opinionated onlookers. Then you get what you deserve”. This attitude—one in which immodest women are fair game who “get what they deserve” is the ultimate problem, and it is a problem rooted in minds, not in immodesty. It is this same modesty cult that results in so many of the policies and practices that hurt women across the world. Those policies include controlling women’s travel, where they work, and their clothing, all to supposedly “protect” them from mistreatment. It also includes social practices that involve cutting off women’s genitals, compulsory virginity testing and “honour killings”. Radical feminism should be challenging the modesty cult, not contributing to it with its insistence that sex workers are not welcome in the feminist utopia.
On one level, feminism of course rejects the idea that a woman’s worth hangs on her body. But, at the same time, it nevertheless judges women based on what they do with that body, seeing gender inequality as the result of using that body in “immodest” ways. Of course, so as not to appear as if one is blaming women themselves for the resultant gender inequality, immodest women have to be cast as unwilling victims. It is simply inconceivable that any woman would choose to be a sex worker if you believe that a woman’s value rests on her bodily modesty; but, once we escape from the “cult of female modesty”, sex workers voices start to make sense, and the idea of “abolishing” them is revealed for what it is. That is, a morally-driven and intellectually elitist project in which a group of “clever” women are ganging up to deny women on the margins of society the rights and freedoms that they themselves benefit from. It is a battle in which women who monetise their brains are denying others the freedom to monetise their bodies.
For centuries, men have regulated and restricted what women can do with their bodies and with their brains. Over the last century, women have taken great strides in terms of their ability to use their brains as they wish. However, the same cannot be said of their bodies. Show too much of that body, and you’ll be accused—as I so often am accused—of objectifying and sexualising yourself, of “setting feminism back a hundred years” and of “embarrassing” womankind. And, whilst freely making money from your brain is to be celebrated, making money from your body is, apparently, not. Ultimately, isn’t it inconsistent to allow women to both uncover and make money from their brains but not to uncover or make money from their bodies? A good chunk of modern day—radical—feminism looks increasingly hypocritical, intellectually elitist and unfair. It has far too many overlaps with historic moralistic-driven campaigns to abolish sex work, and with those who persist in the modern day with blaming society’s problems on the immodest behaviour of women.