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Jenny Kitzinger, director Centre for Media and Communications Research, Brunel University, Uxbridge
Vice girl, social pariah, the victim who “asks for it”—these are some of the stereotypes about prostitutes. Rape, beatings, and abuse are often seen as inevitable, almost justified, hazards of “the lifestyle.” The murder of at least six prostitutes in Glasgow over the past nine years has been met with a resounding silence. Their deaths are not deemed worthy of major news coverage. Only when “ordinary” women are attacked does such violence become noteworthy.
This is not new. When the Yorkshire Ripper, an English serial killer, was terrorising women in northern England the media distinguished between prostitutes and “innocent” victims. The attorney general declared that “perhaps the saddest part of this case is that . . . the last six attacks were on totally respectable women.” After one of the murders, the police warned that the next victim could be “somebody’s daughter,” as if the murdered prostitutes were not part of anybody’s family.
This collection of short essays, protest leaflets, and accounts of activism from the International Prostitutes Collective presents a robust challenge to such prejudice. It highlights the extent of violence against prostitutes, documents campaigns for their rights, and analyses the negative impact of poverty, racism, and the action of the police and courts. When possession of condoms is taken as evidence of sex work it operates against safer sexual practices. Laws against brothels inhibit women from providing mutual support in shared premises. Prostitutes who report being raped find that their sexual histories are used against them in court. Immigration legislation can trap women into sexual slavery. The collective argues that most of the specialised laws around prostitution and pimping demean and even reinforce violence against prostitutes. Why, for example, should the police not simply enforce existing laws against kidnapping, blackmail, and fraud regardless of the victim’s status as a sex worker?
The section on community responses to red light areas draws critical attention to how we define “community” interests and acceptable vigilante action. The chapter based on an interview with a member of the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution examines potential strategies and draws distinctions between different policy options. For example, it discusses decriminalisation, legalisation, and zoning—supporting the first option but opposing the latter two on the grounds that they will be used to control women.
Less satisfactory are the collective’s references to divisions between feminist activists in this field. The contributors are highly critical of “anti-porn feminists” and those who run programmes designed to challenge the attitudes of men who use prostitutes. Such campaigners are accused of attacking prostitutes rather than the sex industry and of portraying clients, and indeed sex industry workers, as sexual “perverts.” This does not do justice to the current thoughtful and impassioned debates within feminism about the implications of selling or buying sexual services. It also ignores the vital work done by feminists, including prostitutes, who believe that harm reduction tactics in isolation end up colluding with a destructive culture and that it is possible, indeed necessary, to be anti-prostitution without being anti-prostitute.
Overall, however, this book is a lively and useful introduction to the multiple obstacles to prostitutes’ rights and safety. It is a concise and inspiring record of the work by some women prostitutes to “strengthen the position of all women in the industry to defend ourselves against rape and violence, against exploitation by pimps and employers and attacks from the police.” The urgency of this work cannot be denied. As I write this review, yet another woman in Glasgow has been attacked and is currently in intensive care.
Articles from BMJ : British Medical Journal are provided here courtesy of
BMJ Publishing Group
BMJ. 2001 March 3; 322(7285): 561.
Copyright © 2001, BMJ