Prostitution – Time for a New Paradigm

Why do women fear rape?

Sex is great, right?

Rape is sex and sex is great. So why do women almost universally fear rape and go to lengths to avoid it?

Is it because they are prudes?

Is it because they just need a good fuck to loosen up?

Is it? Is it?


Rape is sex against a woman’s will[1]. And there is no easier way of showing her that she is powerless. That she is dirt. That she is a member of female – the subordinate sex caste – and she should remember it. And the rapist is a man – a member of the dominant sex caste. And she shouldn’t ever forget that either.

To force sex on someone is an assault on that person’s very humanity. Because our sexuality is intrinsic to who we are as human beings. Our sexual integrity is fundamental to our sense of self.

So when our sexual integrity is violated, our whole sense of self is violated. And recovery from that is easier said than done.

That is why women fear rape. And also of course because rapists sometimes kill.

And it doesn’t make much difference if the force is a gun to her head or a threat to tell her parents or her employer or to take photos and post them on Facebook. And in fact psychological force can be harder to recover from because then she is more likely to blame herself.

About 85,000 women and girls are raped in England and Wales every year. That’s an awful lot of women and girls. It’s more than the number of eligible voters in any constituency in the UK apart from East Ham and West Ham[2]. 85,000 every year.

So why do men do it?

Is it because they can’t control themselves? Is it?

Do we really accept that men can’t control themselves? Men who went to the moon, who build bridges and run corporations and governments and the local greasy spoon. Do we believe that when a man sees a woman, he can’t control himself and he has to rape her? Do we really accept that?

No of course we don’t believe that. That is infantilising men. It is insulting their humanity. We simply do not buy it.

No, men rape because rape is about power. When he rapes her, he shows her that she is powerless, that she is dirt. And he shows himself that he is powerful even when everything else in his life is telling him that he’s not powerful. Power. That’s what rape is all about.

It’s about men making themselves feel powerful and in control at a woman or girl’s expense. It’s about keeping women down. The individual woman. And women en masse.

It’s about power for the individual man. And men en masse.

Yes. Men en masse.

Because the scale of this sexual violence is such that all women modify their behaviour because they are afraid of it. You know, not taking that unlit shortcut on her way home, letting men have their way because there is always this threat hanging there subliminally.

And women who have been raped are dealing with the aftermath. The confusion. The shame. The violation of her sense of self, her integrity as a whole human being. And because this struggle sometimes goes on for years and years, and because so many women are raped, this reduces women’s power en masse. It keeps women down. En masse.

And of course that 85,000 every year estimate is almost certainly an underestimate. Because most rapes are never reported. Many women never tell ANYONE for days, months, even years. Because to speak of it is to admit that her integrity as a human being has been violated. As if she is dirt.

So rape is a big big big mechanism in how men en masse retain their supremacy over women en masse. It’s entrenched. It’s been going on for centuries. Millenia. Since the establishment of patriarchy.

And all that time, to a greater or lesser degree, it has been sanctioned. Because it is part of the deal – those with power in society buy off the ordinary men by giving them power over women. That is the patriarchal deal. And whenever those with power want to increase and consolidate their power, they let the few sanctions that do exist slip even further. Like currently in the UK, where men have more or less impunity to rape.

Why is this? Because while men are gaining power and ego at women’s expense, and women are frightened and silenced and traumatised, we are disempowered as a people. As a people we are paralysed. So we are unable to mount an effective resistance to the assault on society by the powerful men as they continually attempt to expand their power at all of our expense.

But you’re meant to be talking about prostitution, you say? Prostitution is nothing to do with rape, stupid. Because the man pays the woman. And the woman consents. So it’s consensual, innit?

But is it? Let’s just think about this a little more deeply.

Sexual integrity is intrinsic to our humanity. When I want to have sex with someone who wants to have sex with me, no one needs paying. Because sex in those circumstances is beautiful. It’s lovely. It’s its own reward.

So in prostitution the woman is paid because she doesn’t actually want it. Because if she did want it, you wouldn’t need to pay her, right? You buy her consent. So then it’s not rape, is it?

But is that true? Really true?

What if her options have been so constrained, so squeezed, that if she doesn’t do it, her pimp will beat her up? Or she’ll have no money to feed her children? Or to keep a roof over her head? Or to pay for the drugs that are the only way that she can endure the daily, hourly assaults? Or she simply doesn’t see a way out of this hell she is in?

What then?

Is her consent then any more valid than the 15 year old girl’s acquiescence when four grown men hold her down and rape her in the park out of the earshot of anyone who could help her?

Is it?

The research is clear. Study after study finds that the vast majority of those in prostitution entered it as children (yes, you read that right, as children) or as very young adults, or they were poor or destitute, or they had little or no family support, or they were homeless, or they had few if any formal skills, or they had a history of childhood abuse, or they were groomed or coerced into it by “boyfriends” or family members or traffickers, or many or all of the above. And the vast majority (typically about 90%) want out, but they can’t see how or have lost hope that they deserve anything better.

So is it any wonder that some women in prostitution try to convince themselves and others that it is her choice. Because the truth that it is a daily, hourly, assault on her humanity is too awful to contemplate. That she is treated as if she is dirt.

And what are the men buying? Are they really buying sex? Glorious consensual sex that is for each partner its own sweet reward?


They are buying power over her. At her expense. Just like the rapist. The punter is gaining power by showing her that she is dirt.

But not all men do this, you say?

True. But enough men do it (one in ten, two in ten, three in ten? Who can say exactly?). Enough of them anyway that it is a major factor contributing to the power of men en masse over women en masse. Looked at in crude terms, all men benefit from the prevalence of prostitution, just as all men benefit from the prevalence of rape. Both prostitution and rape keep the girls and women down and the men ahead. And all of us divided against each other. Paralysed and disempowered.

But this is the oldest profession, you say. So it can never be eradicated. Boys will be boys. And all that.

The feminist historian, Gerda Lerner, showed that prostitution has not always existed. It first arose at the beginning of patriarchy, which was relatively recently in the long history of the human race. Prostitution began when men systematically seized control over women. One of the key ways they controlled women was to divide them into two groups: respectable women and prostitutes. Respectable women had to cover their heads and the prostitutes were not allowed to cover their heads – so all could see which group each woman belonged to. The respectable women were dependent on the patronage of a named man – her husband or father. The prostitutes were fair game for all men, any man, to rape. So women accepted “respectability” to avoid being fair game. And then she had to make sure that she was always taken as a respectable wife so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a prostitute who was fair game. She had to distance herself from the prostitutes. And so women were divided, one from another. In order that they could be more easily fucked.

Since the establishment of patriarchy, prostitution has been a key mechanism (perhaps even THE key mechanism) by which women en masse are controlled and subordinated and divided from one another.

Legalising prostitution (and full decriminalisation, including of pimping) is surrender to male supremacy and female subordination; surrender to alienation from our very humanity. For all of us – men as well as women.

Prostitution divides man against woman, brother against sister, husband against wife, father against daughter, just as surely as it divides women against each other. Prostitution destroys our integrity as a human community just as surely as rape is an assault on a woman’s integrity as a human being.

Divided we can be controlled. Divided we are weakened.

That is why I urge an approach to prostitution that makes a clear statement that we are feminist; that we oppose male supremacy and female subordination; that no one, not a single person, should be blackmailed or forced to do things that are against human dignity in exchange for subsistence or survival; that no one should be allowed to build up their ego and identity on the exploitation and subordination of others; that we believe that our humanity is paramount and we will never be successful in resisting the patriarchal neoliberal capitalist juggernaut unless we are united, sister and brother, woman and man, girl and boy, shoulder to shoulder.

The Nordic Model

In 1999 Sweden did something that no other country had ever done before – it introduced a law that made the buying of sex illegal and removed the laws against selling sex. They deliberately made the penalty for buying sex low, typically a fine, although the maximum penalty was six months in prison (increased to one year in 2011).

But that’s unfair, do I hear you say, to make it illegal to buy sex but not to sell it? It’s also totally illogical, surely?

Whoa, don’t go so fast. The law came about after feminists in Sweden did large scale research on prostitution – talking extensively to both those selling and those buying sex. The women selling sex told of their paths into prostitution, about the men who bought them, about their relationships with pimps and drugs, about how prostitution affected them and about the violence and shame they experienced, and about their survival strategies.

What the Swedish feminists found was that prostitution is an “extreme, concentrated version of the general relationship between the sexes” (Ekman, 2013). It therefore made no sense to punish the women – because their choices were limited and getting out of prostitution once embedded in it is hard, sometimes impossible. It became clear to the Swedish feminists that prostitution exists because men buy sex.

So if they wanted to reduce prostitution (and the trafficking and misery associated with it), they realised they must challenge the men to change their belief that they have the right to buy sex from another human being. And that was the whole point of the new law. Just like our law against smoking in pubs is not about demonising or criminalising smokers – it is primarily about changing attitudes and behaviour. And we all know it has been a resounding success. In spite of the initial resistance, no one now really wants to go back to smoke-filled bars (excluding Nigel Farage, that is). Many people have even stopped smoking in their own homes since the law was introduced.

So back to Sweden. After years of feminist campaigning, they introduced this law along with measures to help those who want to exit from prostitution to do so. The law is totally gender neutral and applies to everyone regardless of sex or gender. There was much resistance at first from the police and those in authority but training was introduced. Now, 16 years later, the law has widespread public support especially among the police, women, and young people of both sexes. And Sweden is one of the few places in Europe where prostitution and inward trafficking have not expanded hugely during that time frame.

In 2009 Norway and Iceland introduced similar laws. For this reason the general approach is often referred to as the Nordic Model. (Canada, Ireland and Northern Ireland are now following suit.)

To sum up, the key features of the Nordic Model are:

  1. Selling sex is totally decriminalised.
  2. Buying sex is made a criminal offence.
  3. Support services are put in place to help those in prostitution exit, including housing, legal advice, emotional and psychological support, training, and childcare.

The law is not a panacea and its effectiveness depends on how it is implemented on the ground. Money needs to be invested in training the police, those at all levels of the criminal justice system, and front line workers of all kinds – for example, in health and social services, and also in educating the children in school and the public at large. Just like without that huge public information campaign that accompanied its introduction, our law against smoking in pubs would not have been such a unqualified success.

I argue for an approach to prostitution based on the Nordic Model, informed by the lessons that have been learned in Sweden and in the innovative policing model adopted in Merseyside.

Push factors

Of course adopting a Nordic Model approach is not enough. We also need to address all the factors that “push” people into prostitution. For example, by:

  • Abolishing student fees and reintroducing grants for student living expenses
  • Raising the young person’s lower rate of the minimum wage to match the adult rate
  • Addressing the housing crisis
  • Abolishing zero-hour contracts
  • Reversing benefit cuts and ending benefit sanctions
  • Providing high-quality training and apprenticeships
  • Providing high-quality affordable childcare
  • Providing high-quality support for those affected by domestic violence
  • Funding rape crisis centres
  • Funding high-quality therapeutic services for those affected by abuse in childhood
  • Closing the pay gap between men and women once and for all
  • Abolishing police targets that de-incentivise the police from tackling hard to solve crimes like rape and child abuse
  • Prioritising the detection and prosecution of sex traffickers
  • Ending the immigration policies that result in migrants having no right to work or to access benefits and health and social services
  • Properly resourcing social services and services for “looked after” children
  • Resisting “lad culture” and the devaluation of “women’s work”
  • Resisting the neoliberal push to commercialise everything including our very humanity

Vested interests

The sex industry is powerful. Big and easy money is made by the pimps and traffickers. Moreover, most mainstream industries (banking, internet, telecoms, security, etc.) are now feeding off the sex industry and are becoming ever more reliant on it for their bottom line (Dines, 2010).

Men en masse benefit from the way prostitution defines women and girls as lesser, as objects that can be bought, as second class citizens.

These vested interests are powerful. And they have no qualms about misleading us and confusing us. They have managed to rebrand prostitution as innocuous “sex work” and convinced us it is empowering and something for girls and young women to emulate. When nothing is further from the truth. They misuse statistics and tell us authoritatively that women are less safe under the Nordic Model.

Many left-wing men are no exception and try to convince us that women should not expect protection from the “oppressive apparatus of the state” (i.e. the police) while they welcome the hate crime laws that give gay men protection from the same “oppressive apparatus of the state”. They try to convince everyone that those who are campaigning for the Nordic Model are bossy, interfering prudes who want to criminalise all men and deny the prostituted their “choice” and “agency”. Instead they say, all that is required is some good old-fashioned collective organising. As if the mostly extremely young and marginalised people in prostitution can really be expected to succeed in asserting their rights against the ruthless violent pimps and traffickers. When more than 40 years of trade union organising since the Equal Pay Act has still not brought equal pay to dinner ladies and female school and hospital cleaners.

These are the desperate cries of those who feel their vested interests being threatened. They echo the cries of the apologists and vested interests during the long campaign to end the Atlantic Slave Trade and New World slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. In those battles the abolitionists prevailed and we now all accept that the system of slavery that had existed for thousands of years is monstrous and abhorrent and no arguments can change our minds on that. Because the abolitionists succeeded in making us understand that buying another human being is repugnant and an assault on everyone’s humanity. So even, though, shockingly, slavery still exists today and is in fact growing, few argue that all it needs is regulation or unionisation.

Gerda Lerner showed that slavery also first arose at the beginning of patriarchy and in fact slavery and prostitution were originally one and the same. She showed that slavery was also a key mechanism in the older men gaining power and control over women. And perhaps it was because the abolitionists did not see how slavery and prostitution and the subordination of women are so deeply entwined and interdependent that they all live on today in many cases in increasingly awful forms. Because they are all part of the same phenomenon.

If we want to rid the world of slavery, we must also give up our right to prostitution, and we must end the subordination of women.

It is time to say no to slavery. To say no to prostitution. To say no to the subordination of women. It is time to assert the pre-eminence of our humanity, women and men, girls and boys, of all races, ethnicities, cultures, genders and geographies. We are a human family and we allow ourselves to be divided at our peril.

Let’s adopt the only legal model towards prostitution that makes it clear that buying another human being for a sex toy is as wrong as buying a human being for forced labour. It is against our conception of humanity and our hope that we can build a world based on equality, justice and dignity for all.

I urge you to consider the Nordic Model.


One of the arguments for the legalisation of prostitution (or for full decriminalisation including of pimping) is that it reduces the stigma of prostitution. But how can sanctioning a system that classifies some women as undeserving of their human right to sexual integrity reduce the stigma associated with that classification? It simply cannot, because stigma is inherent to that system. Just as all the arguments in the world that apartheid meant separate but equal did not change the status of Africans, because their second-class status was in fact inherent to that racist system.

The solution to the stigma of prostitution is the same as the solution to the stigma of apartheid: abolition.

Cognitive dissonance

Some people allege that some women enjoy their own prostitution. As if that makes it OK. Never mind that Rachel Moran says that she never met a “happy hooker”, not one, in all her seven years in prostitution. Maybe somewhere they exist: women who are happy with their life in prostitution. But so what? I am sure we can find people who are happy with their jobs in fracking or in the arms trade. Does that mean we must allow the fracking and arms industries to go full steam ahead? Please.

Why is it that this argument is only rolled out when women are being screwed. You know, like women enjoy children, so childcare workers can be paid like shit. Because the women are enjoying themselves working with all those lovely children. Really. Please do not insult our intelligence. Please. What next? If by some miracle of the human spirit you find a young African American who has found something positive while being banged up in one of Amerika’s huge jails, would that justify locking up 10% or more of Amerika’s young Black men?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term for the way human beings sometimes deal with contradictory information. So if you are stuck in prostitution and you can envisage no way out and no other life for yourself, you may convince yourself and others that you enjoy it. This is understandable. This is human nature. But if there were services to help you get a decent place to live, to process your hurts, to help you with re-training and childcare and that would support you in your transition, all of the way, perhaps you could face that having men ram their dicks up your rectum several times a day is not what you had really hoped your life would be.

And if you are a leftwing man who enjoys going to prostitutes and you are confronted by all this information about why prostitution is so harmful, you may become very uncomfortable. You may snap shut your browser on this essay or walk out of the room where feminists are discussing it. Or you may convince yourself that they are prudish old hags who need to shut the fuck up, who only want to torment poor men like you who enjoy your innocent pastime. You never go to underage girls, so what’s the problem? You always pay the going rate and never hit her. What the fuck is your problem? What consenting adults do in private is none of your stupid nannying business. And you convince yourself that the feminists are mad or more than mad even, they are evil, evil, evil, when they say that prostitution is another face of slavery; that it is a key mechanism in the subordination of women.

But I ask you to stay with your discomfort. Listen to what we are saying. We are not judging you. We are only asking for your solidarity; for your courage and wisdom to look this awful system in the face and see it for what it is. A travesty of humanity. And once you have let yourself see it, listen again to the women. And think, what kind of world do you want to build? How do you want to spend your brief time here on earth?

Light not heat

Finally I leave you with the words of Robert Jensen, from his essay “Blow bangs and cluster bombs: The cruelty of men and Americans” which is included in the book Not For Sale – Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. He is referring to pornography, but it applies equally to prostitution:

“The costs of pornography and the wars of empire are borne mainly by those in the subordinated position. But there is a cost to those of us in the dominant position, not on the same scale, but a cost all the same.

When men make the choice to acquire sexual pleasure through blow bangs, we forgo part of our humanity. When Americans make the choice to protect our affluence through cluster bombs, we forgo part of our humanity. […]

I do believe that sexuality can be about more than pleasure. It can be about finding pleasure and intimacy through connection. I use the metaphor of heat and light. There is a cliché that when an argument is of little value, it produces more heat than light. One of the ways this culture talks about sex is in terms of heat: She’s hot; he’s hot; we had hot sex. Sex is bump and grind; heat makes the sex good.

But what if our embodied connections could be less about heat and more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if such touch were about finding a way to create light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better? If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not heat but light to illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light? […]

So here’s my pitch to men: Even if we have no concern for anyone else, the short-term physical pleasure we gain through pornography is going to cost us something: we lose opportunities for something more. Heat is gained, but light is lost.”

Further reading

  • Paid For – My Journey Through Prostitution by Rachel Moran. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin. 2013
  • Being and Being Bought – Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self by Kajsa Ekman. Spinifex, Melbourne. 2013
  • Pornland – How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality by Gail Dines. Beacon Press, Boston. 2010
  • Not for Sale – Feminist Resisting Prostitution and Pornography edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. Spinifex, Melbourne. 2004
  • The Creation of Patriarch by Gerda Lerner. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1986


[1] In this essay I refer to those committing rape and buying others in prostitution as men because the vast majority of rapists and sex buyers are male (more than 99.9%). I refer mostly to those being raped and prostituted as women and girls, because the majority are female – although the statistics are a little less extreme – somewhere in the region of 85% of those prostituted world wide are women and girls. I have done this to emphasise the gendered nature of these systems and for linguistic simplicity. I do not mean to suggest that rape and prostitution are any less devastating for boys, men and transgendered people.

[2] 2010 figures

8 thoughts on “Prostitution – Time for a New Paradigm

  1. What a brilliant and passionate article about something many of us prefer not to think about. It seems unarguable to me that sexuality is an expression of love and, like being a parent, must never be corrupted by the profit motive or as a means to bolster oppression. To try and rationalise such corruption is to avoid the pain of recognising how damaged we all are, men and women, by the machinations of capitalism.
    Nor can we avoid the connection between child abuse, pornography, the glamour industry, plastic surgery, eating disorders and so much else as they all allow some to make money from the unmet needs of others – usually the simple need for love and affection, closeness and connection, all of which have to be given free of charge, or force, or are imposters. I am sure you will help many to shift their ‘paradigm’ with this article. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow. You are an amazing writer, you have done such a wonderful job of extolling the greater harm in prostitution and done it in such a non judgemental way. I wish everyone, but especially “sex positive” feminists would read this essay. Choice and agency are such wondrous fallacies for probably 95% or more prostitutes.

    Liked by 2 people

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