Book review: Pimp State by Kat Banyard – a feminist on horrors of the sex industry
This powerful book argues the sex trade is incompatible with feminism, and calls for pornography and prostitution to be outlawed
by Kat Banyard
Faber & Faber
If we’re living through a resurgence of feminism, Kat Banyard is one of the principal reasons. Since 2010, when she founded the activist group UK Feminista and published her agenda-setting first book, The Equality Illusion, she has worked assiduously to further women’s rights. In 2014, she launched the End Demand campaign to bring the “Nordic model” to the UK – a legal framework that treats the act of purchasing sex as violence against women, criminalising buyers, decriminalising the prostituted, and establishing services to support those exiting the trade. Pimp State is a detailed account of the case against the sex industry, and for the Nordic model: tightly argued, closely evidenced, and persuasive in its call to action.
It’s timely stuff, because as hard as Banyard and her fellow campaigners work, the sex industry (an international, multimillion pound concern) has the resources and media reach to match them. Until recently, it was axiomatic that feminism stood opposed to both pornography and prostitution. When Janet Radcliffe Richards argued in The Sceptical Feminist (1980) that “feminists should not be opposed to … making a living by means of the use and enhancement of sexual attributes”, she explicitly positioned herself as unlike other feminists. Since then, the ground has shifted: there is now, Banyard writes, an “underlying presumption that the sex trade is compatible with feminism; that we needn’t work to end it; that it can be reformed”.
Methodically and thoroughly, Banyard dismantles the “myths” that support this presumption. Pimp State doesn’t limit itself to activities conventionally regarded as prostitution. Instead, Banyard is concerned with the entire field of commercial sexual services, including lap dancing and pornography. The “pimp state” that she entreats us to resist is “a culture and a set of laws that encourage and facilitate men’s paid sexual access to women’s bodies”. This is a broader argument than that of Gail Dines’2010 treatise Pornland, which focused closely on pornography; but a narrower one than Sheila Jeffreys advanced in her 2008 book The Industrial Vagina, which embraced a critique of mail-order brides and the institution of marriage.
But it works for Banyard, because it allows her to argue insistently for a change in the laws governing prostitution, while demonstrating the extensive harms that bleed from the sex industry into society as a whole. It’s often claimed that legalising and regulating the industry is the only economically logical approach (a position held, for example, by the Economist), but Banyard warns that such capitulation to the market relies on false accounting, ignoring “externalities – costs imposed by market exchanges on parties not directly involved”.
What are those costs? From women, the sex industry extracts any possibility of a self-directed sexuality. By legitimising male sexual entitlement, it teaches men that women’s pleasure is irrelevant to sex, and then encourages men to believe that women should give the appearance of enjoying everything a man wants to do to them. It’s the ultimate coercion: to be denied not only your own will, but even the capacity to show that you have a will. Meanwhile, hard-won sexual harassment legislation becomes nonsensical as the sex industry is normalised: “How about when a male boss asks his female secretary to give a blowjob? … if this is ordinary work then at worst the requested task is merely outside her job description.”
Men must also pay their dues to the sex trade, though as clients they suffer none of the harms inflicted on women. “A minority of men currently demand prostitution, but prostitution demands something of them, too. They have to be proficient in viewing women as dehumanised sex objects.” However, in exchange for this sacrifice, men are assured of their supremacy over women. And it is in describing the consequences of this supremacy for the women in the sex industry that Pimp State is most powerful, itemising both their physical suffering and their psychological distress. As one survivor says: “We want to feel again, and you are afraid of feeling again because of what you will feel.”
In all this, there is little room for the kind of self-directed, hard-headed individual who is the public face of “sex work as work” – women like those who informed Kirstin Innes’s 2015 novel Fishnet, or Melissa Gira Grant, author of 2014’s Playing the Whore. Some may deem that a weakness, but it speaks to Banyard’s refusal to argue on any terms other than her own immaculately evidenced ones. Her analysis shows that permissive regimes in the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand have all failed to ameliorate violence, exploitation and trafficking. These are not inadvertent consequences of stigma and suppression, but are instead fundamental to the industry: “The fact that the sex trade is founded on the absence of mutual sexual desire means that the principal predicament becomes how to endure repeated sexual abuse,” she writes. No wonder rounding up a sufficiently large “workforce” can only be done through force and coercion.
Banyard is concerned above all with effecting structural change, particularly when it comes to pornography. This is habitually addressed as a “free speech” issue, but she persuasively maintains that it should be treated in law like any instance of paying for sex: “the fact that there was a camera present filming the prostitution does not alter the basic fact that they” – that is, the makers and distributors of pornography – “arranged and/or profited from someone else’s prostitution”. The international nature of the porn industry means implementing this approach could be challenging: nevertheless, this is the most promising legal attack on pornography since the Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon civil rights ordinances of the 1980s.
It’s a testament to the sex industry’s success in promoting its own interests that it is even considered to have a case. Wherever it finds acceptance, horror follows – whether in the form of Germany’s megabrothels (where women use anaesthetic to numb their vaginas to the multiple penetrations needed to make their residency fees); or the “managed zone” established in Leeds, where enforcement of laws around prostitution was suspended (and where, in December last year, Daria Pionko was killed while selling sex – a 21-year-old man has pleaded guilty to manslaughter but is being tried for murder). There are many who would like to establish a pimp state in the UK, but Banyard shows why they must be stopped, and how to stop them.