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In a statement to Newsweek, Kris Sloan, professor of education and director of the Social Justice Living Learning Community at St. Edward’s University, confirmed that the cancellation was due to “controversy and confusion among students (especially those in our trans and gender non-conforming population)” regarding Bindel’s 2004 article which, he argued, “clouded the original intention of inviting the author to campus.”
If her views on the transgender community have stoked controversy within a substantial section of the feminist and liberal left, her new book will do little to assuage it. Her recent book launch in the U.K. had to be protected by private security guards and was picketed by pro-sex trade demonstrators. Meanwhile, Bindel’s Twitter mentions alone are a stark window into the often-fanatical hatred her ideas arouse among her critics.
Sex workers activists attend a demonstration with prostitutes against a proposition to abolish prostitution in Lyon July 6, 2012. The French Minister for women?s rights wanted to eradicate the sex trade in France and new measures to stamp out prostitution. The banner reads “no to penalization”. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot.
“They are on a mission to hound me and stop me doing what I do,” Bindel tells Newsweek. “It has failed.”
Bindel writes in her preface that there is no single issue among feminists, liberals and human rights activists as contentious as the sex trade. The conventional liberal view of prostitution is that to condemn or attempt to curtail the trade is to deny agency to the women (and men, albeit in far fewer numbers) who choose to sell sex. Even the term prostitution is considered dated—offensive, even—with ‘sex work’ preferred by the pro-legalisation lobby.
But from Gujarat to Dubai, Vancouver to New York City, Bindel sets out to destroy what one of her interviewees dubs the “happy hooker” ideal. Her argument is that in every country where legalization has been trialled—most infamously in Holland but also in New Zealand, Australia, Germany and parts of the U.K. and U.S.—it has only been a triumph for the men who buy and sell sex. For the women who provide it, it has been nothing short of a tragedy.
“For me, prostitution is a human rights violation against women and girls. The human rights abuse involved in the sex trade, according to the liberals [. ] is when men are deterred from purchasing sex, and not when they rent the orifices of a woman for sexual release. The women selling sex, according to this logic, are the victims of pearl-clutching moralists who wish to take away their right to earn a living,” she writes.
Bindel traces the history of the abolitionist movement back to 1860 and Josephine Butler, a social reformer and feminist activist who lobbied against the sex trade in the U.S. and Europe. She brings us into the present day with groups such as the Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt (WHISPER), founded in 1985 by Evelina Giobbe. Sold into prostitution at 14, Giobbe has spent the last three decades lobbying against the trade.
Bindel then outlines the various attempts over the last few decades to regulate the sex trade, illustrating their failures with accounts from survivors and activists in 35 countries. Many of their stories include horrific treatment at the hands of pimps, police officers and sex buyers and make for sobering reading—as does her section on men who pay for sex and their attitudes not just to prostitutes but women in general.
As one researcher quoted in the book describes a common attitude of the so-called “Johns,” or sex buyers: “Most men who go see it as a business transaction. [They] don’t see the girl as a woman.”
The goal of abolitionists like Bindel and her subjects is the so-called “Nordic Model:” A set of laws and policies that criminalizes the demand for commercial sex, and decriminalizes its sale. Pioneered in Sweden, Bindel outlines how the Nordic model has since been adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, South Korea, Northern Ireland and France, while Ireland, Israel, Latvia and Lithuania are considering adopting it.
A good deal of the book is given to describing the other side of the debate, the sex trade lobby, which Bindel describes as well-funded and extremely well-organised. As much of the liberal left —including many national governments and major human rights NGOs—tend to be on the side of legalization, liberal abolitionists have found themselves making strange alliances, including with conservative and Christian groups.
Throughout The Pimping Of Prostitution Bindel compares the fight against the sex trade to the battle against tobacco, when major companies used misinformation, faux-science and their vast coffers to spread the lie that smoking was not harmful long after it was proved otherwise. Just as lighting up a cigarette in an office or a restaurant in 2017 has become an alien concept in most of Europe and the U.S., abolitionists hope that someday soon, the brothels of Amsterdam’s red light district will be seen as a relic of another age.
It has always been to her credit that when Bindel believes in something that runs counter to accepted narratives, she is not reluctant to talk about it, or indeed stand up and shout it through a bullhorn. Unlike many of her critics, she has not formed her arguments from behind a screen in London or New York but in brothels and on street corners, in halfway houses and hospitals, talking to women who have experienced the sex trade firsthand. In that, her book is a work of journalism—not polemic.
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