The premise of Kat Banyard’s Pimp State is a familiar one: sex work — a phrase the author rejects as pure euphemism — is formalised sexual exploitation, synonymous with sexual abuse and therefore both ‘a cause and a consequence of inequality between men and women’. It follows, then, that if you’re in favour of gender equality, or simply a decent human being who disapproves of sexual violence, you must oppose the sale of any and all variations of sex. If you’re not part of the solution — well, you know the rest.
You don’t have to be especially interested in feminism to have heard this before. For centuries, institutions, social leaders and ordinary civilians alike have decried the fundamental immorality and socially destructive capacity of pornography, prostitution and everything in between. Banyard is adept in the urgent, enraged, self-righteous rhetoric that this position inspires, and her vehemence has a certain intoxicating momentum. But as was true for so many before her, the message is mired in logical fallacies and light on evidence.
Pimp State is organised around six ‘myths’: ideas offered as justification for anything short of total war on sex for sale. These offending arguments are often supportive of free speech, labour rights and a harm-reduction approach: ‘being paid for sex is regular service work’, ‘porn is fantasy’ and so on. But it’s all weaselly sex-work apologism as far as Banyard can tell. Her stance is so uncompromising she won’t even allow that marriage often has parallels to more baldly bought intimacy, a key feminist insight since the time of the suffragettes. Nor does she recognise how regularly her complaints could be applied to other professions.
She admits that female strippers, porn stars and escorts enter these professions because they need money. So where would they be in a world in which sex work had been eliminated? Because Banyard is unable seriously to consider the implications of these women’s financial needs, we’re left to assume that she believes them better off homeless than selling sex.
Banyard’s theory is that sex is a uniquely threatening activity for women (she barely acknowledges that men also sell sexual services). When undertaken wrongly, sex is seen to damage a woman’s mental and emotional health in a way that no other act can. But what’s strikingly absent from the book are conversations with actual sex workers. Banyard speaks to a handful of former porn actors and strippers, but never explains why the voices of working women are absent. Indirectly, she justifies their exclusion by quoting a porn performer who says she wouldn’t have spoken freely under her performing name because it would have hurt her financially. This excuse doesn’t hold up. Banyard could have allowed interviewees to speak anonymously.
Instead, she chooses to concentrate on women who have never done sex work but who hold political positions that complement her own. She quotes law-enforcement officials at length, and downplays the prevalence of police rape, and the abuse of criminalised sex workers around the world. When it comes to fellow anti-prostitution activists, anyone with the right opinion is quoted as an authority. A German social worker, Sabine Constabel, speculates of one woman: ‘It’s likely that prostitution will simply destroy her’, and claims: ‘I’ve seen many, many, many women become psychotic’ after servicing ‘many thousands of johns’. There are no citations to back up these claims — Constabel’s word is enough.
Banyard also relies on sources such as the self-described ‘abolitionist’ Melissa Farley, an American academic whose conclusions have been largely discredited, perhaps most notably by a Canadian Superior Court judge. A 12-year-old UK Home Office paper on prostitution is quoted that took as its starting proposition ‘Prostitution can seriously damage the individual involved’, and was heavily criticised for its ‘unethical use’ of interviews. Also generously cited are the results of a Canadian academic’s 64 interviews with teenagers and women seeking institutional support after violence and wishing to earn a living outside the sex trade. (In an unforeseeable twist, the study determined many participants had encountered abuse and wished to find new jobs.)
Almost every country — including India,Thailand and the Philippines — now has at least one activist group run by sex workers agitating for basic human and labour rights. If Banyard had given any one of these organisations the same credence she gives Constabel, or perhaps had a real dialogue with them instead of in her own head, Pimp State would be a very different book. As is, it’s a flawed polemic with much to say about one of the world’s most demonised classes of people — and very little to say for them.
Charlotte Shane is the author of Prostitute Laundry and NB. She lives in New York.