P006 Book review: Revolting Prostitutes

Saskia, 30 April 2019

In E028 we talked about Revolting Prostitutes: The fight for sex workers’ rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Here is my take on the book, and as I said in the podcast, I can’t recommend it enough!

This review originally appeared in Networkthe British Sociological Association magazine.

Sex work is one of those tortured debates in feminism in which there only seem to be two sides: sex-positive feminists posit sex work as a liberating act that allows women to exercise their bodily autonomy, whilst anti-prostitution feminists organise on the basis that sex work is the ultimate objectification of women’s bodies under patriarchy. In Revolting Prostitutes, Mac and Smith sweep away this binary to argue instead that sex work is work.

Themselves sex workers, the authors are emphatic that people do paid work in order to get the resources that they need, regardless of whether or not it’s a ‘good’ job; sex work is no different. Pulling apart the myths around sex work, trafficking, pimps and brothels, Mac and Smith demonstrate that the global fight for sex workers’ rights is inextricably bound up in the struggle against capitalism, racism, misogyny and borders. Whilst it may not offer the solution to violence against women or end all deportations, treating sex work as work improves the lives of sex workers by allowing them to access labour rights, such as the right to work in groups for safety, the right to distinguish between consensual sex and rape, the right to refuse to work in unacceptable conditions. Treating sex work as work makes resistance and collective action possible.

After setting out their case in a series of chapters on the relationship between sex work and sex, work and borders, Mac and Smith examine the different legislative frameworks in which sex work takes place. Drawing on the knowledge and experiences of sex workers from around the world, the authors evaluate the mishmash of UK law where sex work is partially criminalised, as well as states in which sex work is fully criminalised, legalised, or fully decriminalised.

Perhaps the most troubling chapter is their explication of the Nordic model, in which the purchase of sex is criminalised and the selling of sex is supposedly decriminalised. Feted by anti-prostitution feminists as a way of stigmatising buyers of sex and thus reducing the demand for sex work, it is less well known that the Nordic model was developed in Sweden and Norway in the 1990s in response to racist panics centred on migrant Black sex workers. Deportations are an integral part of the Nordic model; chillingly, ‘Police in Nordic countries routinely use sex workers’ reports of violence to deport them’ (p162). Sex workers in these countries are subject to criminalisation, fines, eviction, and, in order to continue working, are forced into more dangerous practices so that their clients can avoid police detection. Mac and Smith’s assessment of the Nordic model makes it clear that any system which threatens the ability of sex workers to make a living, increases the power of clients and the police, and intensifies the stigmatisation of sex work puts sex workers at risk. Though it may not be a silver bullet, fully decriminalising sex work makes the lives of sex workers less dangerous in a world where sex work is a survival strategy for marginalised people.

The reach and popularity of Revolting Prostitutes is a testament to the skill and timeliness of Mac and Smith’s work. The book is a masterclass in clear, compelling writing that privileges the knowledge and experiences of marginalised groups in order to make an intervention in a debate that so often excludes the people it concerns. This may not have been the authors’ intention, but it is an example of sociology activism at its very best.

Mac, J and Smith, M (2018). Revolting Prostitutes: The fight for sex workers’ rightsLondon: Verso. 278 pages. £14.99. ISBN: 9781786633606