‘Men buy girls, not sex’ and other myths of anti-prostitution moralists
By: Melissa Gira Grant
guardian.co.uk, Friday 23 September 2011 12.17 EDT
The messaging of anti-sex trade campaigners casts sex workers as enslaved victims. In reality, it’s a service industry job
According to the documentaries running on near-constant repeat on CNN and MSNBC, men all around America are just waiting to buy women for sex, fuelling what is referred to as a “multibillion dollar industry”. InCNN’s latest sex trade special, Selling the Girl Next Door, we’re told that girls are “routinely bought and sold for the pleasure of grown men”.Attorneys general, mayors and sheriffs across the United States are using the same tabloid statistics and rationale to set public policy. They claim that the way to end exploitation in the sex trade is to “end demand” for the sex trade – that is, end men’s desire for sex they can pay for. The notion that men’s desire to buy actual people fuels the sex trade has gone so mainstream that when aspiring celebrity philanthropist Ashton Kutcher launched a public service campaign against prostitution this year, he called it “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”.
The problem is, real people buy sex, and real people sell sex. The numbers on how many people are involved in the sex trade are notoriously hard to gather, or trust, but there is one constant: buyers are not buying people. When politicians, social service providers and celebrity philanthropists insist that sex workers are selling ourselves, they engage in the same kind of dehumanisation that they claim johns do to us. When they claim that men can buy us, they rob us of our power and our choices.
If you’re someone whose understanding of the sex trade is patched together from cable specials like these, with their endless reels of women in miniskirts and fishnets and boots leaning into cars, it’s probably impossible to imagine that sex workers have power or choices. From reading prostitution advertisements online, or from recalling the kind of carnival sideshow pitch you might hear at a strip club, it’s tempting to imagine that sex workers will do whatever men pay them to do, and that sex workers exist to cater to male desire. What sex workers are actually selling is our ability to make our customers think they are getting what they want, and we try to sell that with as little strain on our time and our bodies as possible. You wouldn’t be able to tell this from sex trade ads because it would be incredibly bad marketing, but it’s the illusion around which sex work turns.
Combined with the myth that all prostitution involves men buying women, the “end men’s demand” rhetoric in the media and anti-prostitution campaigns plays into some of the most damaging attitudes toward sex workers. There’s nothing feminist or new in the current wave of anti-prostitution reformers, who claim, as does the Demand Abolition Coalition, which is led by former US Ambassador Swanee Hunt and actress Ashley Judd among others, that all sex work is “sexual enslavement”. Sex workers know that what creates demand for the sex trade is not men “enslaving” us for sex, but the exigencies of survival. The demand for the sex trade lies in the demands of childcare, loan officers, debt collectors, landlords and dependant family members – in short, the demands most working people struggle to meet.
Given the gravity of these real, systemic demands that sex workers face, to focus only on ending men’s demand for sex is a cheap way out. In this way, sex workers’ needs are reduced only to what happens during the sex transaction; it ignores the rest of our lives outside the sex trade. By advancing this myth of male demand and sex workers being powerlessly enslaved in catering to it, the media and politicians fixate on the power of male desire more than sex workers ever do.
This is the problem with outsiders to the sex trade attempting to control it. People who have such limited experience of the sex trade are left governing with their fears. Worse, we know from the example of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer that elected officials may have another source of sex trade expertise to draw on: their own patronage. When they base their campaigning not on the reality of the sex trade, but on their fantasies, it is sex workers who most suffer.