'Imagine a World Without Prostitution'
What inspired you to become a campaigner, and then a writer?
I moved away so I could get away from my home environment and met some feminists almost straight away when I was 17 in Leeds. The ones I met were very uncompromising. They understood women’s oppression as directly coming from men’s power and privilege rather than class or disadvantage or primarily race or ethnicity, but looked specifically at the sex-class relationships between women and men. That appealed to my uneducated self because I left school early with no qualifications. There was a sense of something going on here and I needed it explained to me in simple terms. As it happened, it was also the correct explanation and didn’t require you to have digested several books on impenetrable feminist theory written by French Post-Modernists. It was partly luck and partly opportunity that led me to that.
I wrote for women’s movement newsletters on feminist theory, but not the indecipherable academic stuff. In those days you could actually live on an employment benefit and do political activism, which is exactly what I did until I was 27, when, two years after meeting my partner - who had lots more privilege than me, financial and otherwise - said go to university, get a formal education and learn how to write in a way that’s going to get you a job in research, academia, or whatever.
When I left university at 30, I went straight into a research job and started writing reports on violence against women. I hated the academic world, but survived in it. In my late 30s, I had an idea to do a feature for Guardian Weekend on female sex tourism, race and class as well as gender dynamics, and I was given my first big break by Kath Viner, who hopefully will become the next editor of the Guardian, who then was Features Editor on Weekend. Because I had been writing opinion pieces for them relating to my feminist activism - in other words how to get the message across - she trusted me in doing this big feature, doing interviews and going out there. It turned out very well. I left academia and just went into it full-time.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned that the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe (the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) had a big role in your development as an activist...
Yes, I first moved to Leeds when I was 17, so this was in 1979, the year before Sutcliffe was caught. He was only caught by accident. The police, the press and some of the wider public had a view that women in prostitution were disposable and worthless, but that when he started to kill women who weren’t in prostitution, then those were the ‘real’ victims. Sutcliffe targeted women because he wanted to kill women. He wasn’t actually trying to rid the streets of the ‘evil’ women of prostitution; he went for the most vulnerable women, those that society cared less about. There was one headline in the Yorkshire Evening Post that was “Ripper Makes First Mistake: Targets Innocent Victim.” It was so pernicious and so vile. The group of women that I met when I first arrived were in an organization called Women Against Violence Against Women, and they campaigned actively against the porn industry and misogyny in all its forms. This was so blatant that it became their big focus.
When I first moved to Leeds, I lived in Headingley with my then-girlfriend. She’s black and we were used to racist shit from men, as it was a very white place at the time. We had been drinking and we had an argument. She ran off, leaving me to walk home on my own. I was being followed by a man. I kept looking around and this man would stop when I stopped. He was following me, and I was really scared. Eventually this really elderly bloke who had come out of the pub that was near our hostel came out and just said, “Hey, listen, I’ll walk you home. You shouldn’t be out here on your own.” I mean, it’s just madness, isn’t it, because who knows how safe he was. But anyways, he walked me to my door, which was lovely of him. Two days later, Jacqueline Hill was murdered about half a mile from that spot. Jacqueline Hill was his thirteenth victim.
I saw the description of the man they wanted to interview - although they had interviewed him [Sutcliffe] several times before anyway, and missed him - and I went to the police with a feminist friend and said “A man with a beard followed me up the hill just two days before.” And he said, “Did he have a Geordie accent?” I said that I had no idea what sort of accent he had, but that I didn’t think so because he shouted “Ey love!” when he saw that I was scared [a hoax tape purporting to be from the killer had been sent into police by a man with a Geordie accent]. They dismissed me even though the photo fit was this guy with a beard, the photo fit put together by other women who had seen him or survived an attack. You just look at the police’s incompetence in dismissing a woman instead of saying, “look, you know, there might be something in this.” That was one of the drivers for me to look at the way we respond to sexual violence. The stranger versus the idiot police officer, and the vile misogyny of the general public.
Do you think it was Sutcliffe?
It could have been. There was this mass hysteria at the time. Women were absolutely terrified, because we’re sold this lie, this myth that bad men who hurt women are very weird, odd strangers, and that you’re safe in your home. Actually, the most dangerous place for girls and women is in the home. There was hysteria and there was also sensible caution that women took, but it was a horrible time. It was indicative of the misogyny in the police and the general public that women in prostitution were just dismissed, as though it were an occupational hazard. Not only did that get me into anti-violence against women feminism, but it also made me really interested in the way we view prostitution and the women in it. It’s never not been a priority for me since then.
Do you think England has improved in terms of general attitudes towards men since that time? And if so, how far have we got to go?
Let’s have a look at the 2006 Ipswich case where five women involved in prostitution were murdered. There was a similar call from the police for women to stay indoors then.
Mythology about prostitution still prevailed because the sex workers’ rights lobby, those who want legalization, were saying “See, if you legalize prostitution, these women can work indoors together safely and they won’t be in danger.” The first point is, women are in danger when they’re indoors because the customers are dangerous and there’s always a pimp there. Prostitution can’t be made safe - and, women on the street can run away. Women on the street talk about very different experiences. It’s better to have a three-minute bone-shaker from a punter than having to endure an hour in a brothel. I got that from the woman who described it to me, but you can get her drift.
The notion that women view this as labor when they are in hell living minute by minute and are being used as a spittoon for men’s semen doesn’t strike me as labor as we know it, as we would choose to define it. There was a debate going on at the Guardian about whether they refer to the women as prostitutes, sex workers or whatever. My view was that we should actually refer to them as women and that that was by far the most sensible option.
With Ipswich, we have that discourse running through the media reporting of it, some of which I did. But we also have much more of an understanding in some ways about how appalling these attitudes are about women meaning nothing. Look at Richard Littlejohn, who some of my feminist friends call “littlecock,” which I think is so apt for him, he’s a bell-end.
Can we quote you on that?
Absolutely. ‘Bell-end’ is my favorite word at the moment. I’m just using it whenever I can. He’s a columnist for the Daily Mail and he thrives on being as racist, misogynistic and full of class hatred as he can. He wrote a column about the Ipswich women saying, “Come on, they were hookers. Stop crying crocodile tears. What are we going to do, have them described as the people’s prostitutes?” There was an outcry about that, one we wouldn’t have had during the Ripper days, but so there should have been. Feminism has been around for five decades and so there bloody should have been. That was horrible. It’s better now for sure, but some things are still the same.
Hearing you talk now reminds me that you’re a very un-politically correct person and I like that. Do you sometimes rub people the wrong way with the words that you say?
What I take seriously is what actually is harmful and plain wrong, so therefore even though I’m not perfect, I strive very hard not to be racist and very conscious about not being xenophobic. I’m very conscious about never taking the piss out of somebody who faces structural oppression. Why would you joke about someone’s disability, someone’s culture? Religion is a separate thing and we can talk about that another time, but why would you be ever tempted to make a joke about somebody’s race? But making a joke about somebody’s attitude to race is different.
But the rest of this stuff, I can’t bear this mealy-mouthed toeing the line in feminism where you’re supposed to be a fucking vegetarian, which I can’t bear.
Can we talk about the controversy involving you and transgender activists? What is your actual view on transgender people, and your view on the increasingly long acronym of LGBTQI...
And P for polyamorous. Actually, it’s a tiny minority of transgender people who hate me and want to shut down any debate on gender.
I think that transgender people have been very badly served by the medical profession by not being allowed to live in a body that would serve them perfectly well were they not expected to conform, and that’s what I as a feminist try to open up as a discussion, although that’s been completely silenced now. Then there are the transgender people who are perfectly happy being transgender, who have never regretted getting surgery, or their new definition of womanhood, manhood or whatever. Good luck to them, but let’s not pretend that gender is an essential thing. It’s not. It’s a social construction, so there’s no such thing as a real man or a real woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be a real woman. I just know that I’m a person who suffers sexism from men because we live under patriarchy. I don’t feel essentially a woman. I think asking any woman, she would talk on things that have been imposed on us like high-heeled shoes, make up and all these other kinds of things that aren’t about womanhood at all. They’re things.
The friends that I have and the experiences that I have, those who very much regret going through hormone treatment or surgery are those that went to a psychiatrist and within 45 minutes they were diagnosed as transexual, or transgender as it is now, just because they were young gay men who hated their bodies for very good reasons because of history of sexual abuse, violent fathers, and who were told that they don’t conform to what’s a proper man. And therefore they should, yes, they are transsexual and they should go for the surgery. Same with these women.
The majority of transgender people who support me, agree with me or want to hear me speak are drowned out by the small, nasty crowd who just want to shut down all debate, who want everyone to believe that gender is scientifically essential; they want to conflate gender with sex and say it’s a biological truth. They find the feminist analysis of gender, which is becoming drowned out now, extremely threatening. That’s the whole controversy. I think gender is a social construct.
Why is it that you think this is a big deal in universities right now? On your Facebook page you put up a link with some article where the writer said that Julie Bindel’s views are “increasingly unacceptable”. What is it about this topic that gets these student union types going so much?
I think Gender Studies and Queer Studies have erased feminism from the curriculum, so now with Gender Studies and Queer Studies you remove any analysis at all of patriarchy and of oppression of women by men. In other words, the category of woman is pretty much gone in universities. Feminist societies are made up of these queer theorists who believe that being a woman is not a material reality anymore; it’s just a feeling.
Now, I would rid the world of gender tomorrow. I’m a gender abolitionist. I don’t fuck with gender. I want it to fuck off, and I think it’s oppressive to women. I think it’s oppressive to a great number of men also. I would argue that there’s something very distinct about being a lesbian. For one, you’re a woman. And two, you’ve actively rejected men, sexually and in other ways, and therefore you get punished. That’s why we get punished in South Africa and here, and why there are women getting married even though it’s the last thing they want to do - enforced heterosexuality. Compulsory heterosexuality.
It’s different for men and women under patriarchy, not because we’re born differently. That’s why we’ve got oppression. That’s why it’s different being black in the UK as it is being white in the UK. So universities now are breeding this group of students that feel so disempowered by this lack of political analysis. It’s all identity politics now, it’s all “She’s a Muslim woman, we’ve got to listen to her. This is a trans woman, we’ve go to listen to her.” All the politics have been taken out of it. But actually they know that when you’re a student you should be really campaigning protesting against something.
So if you say to this group of students, Julie Bindel is coming to campus, she spouts hate speech, her speech is violence, then they stop me from coming, they’ve stopped ‘violence’. They’ve stopped trauma and triggering of these poor little things. They’ve stopped hate speech. They don’t have to stop a dictator coming on campus, they do stuff to stop me. And of course it’s much easier to stop me - ‘if you have her on campus then we’ll withdraw your funding’ - than it is stopping real violence in the world. So it makes them feel empowered. And it has also given white, straight anti-feminist men the ability to scream ‘Transphobe!’ at me and be seen as progressive, to be seen on the right side.
What does the word ‘choice’ mean for you, in terms of sexuality? Does one choose their sexuality if gender is socially constructed as you mentioned?
I think the majority of women and men, definitely the vast majority of women, have no opportunity to positively choose and decide how they want to live and who they want to have sex with, because they really are constrained by compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchy.
When I use the word choice, I mean it an anti- ‘gay gene’ way. It’s a terrible word because it suggests that you just think, ‘Oh I’m just going to choose to be a lesbian’, having had no attraction to women, no interest in it - of course that doesn’t happen. But if you removed all of the constrictions and all of the disadvantages, if you remove the fear, the stigma, if you remove the anti-lesbian violence and oppression… that’s why we see so many women coming out in later life, having been perfectly happy heterosexual, then an opportunity arises and they think “Yeah, I’ve just fallen in love with this person and it’s a woman.” So when I say choose, that woman is choosing it, but she hasn’t just sat up in bed one day thinking “You know what, I’m going to choose to be a lesbian.” Of course sexual attraction, circumstances, opportunity all matter.
But if there isn’t a gay gene, then how else do you explain it? Other than a ‘choice’, although that’s a terrible word. That’s what I mean by it. If there is a gay gene, there’s a bisexual gene, there’s probably also a child abuser gene, a criminal gene, an I-like-purple-not-yellow gene. It’s essentialism. You don’t have a gay gene. If we had a number of people who are born each year, two to three percent who are born lesbian and gay, how do we explain those that shift later in life? How do we explain the vast swathes of unhappy heterosexuals? You just can’t argue the essentialist notion.
How do you feel about the word homophobia?
I don’t like it. I wrote a whole book about lesbian and gay politics, and I didn’t want to use it. It was quite difficult because I don’t believe that hatred is a phobia. I think a phobia is an illness.
I have a phobia. I had to go to a child psychiatrist because I saw a rat jump up my dad’s neck. He had a terrier dog with him and a rat, and I had a terrible phobia about them. I went to New York twenty years ago to stay with the author Andrea Dworkin. She was working one day and I thought I would go to Coney Island where they made all those bold black and white films. So I traveled there and got off the train, and the first thing I saw was a rat [motions hands] this big. I screamed and these huge big men were standing around talking to each other who were dealing [drugs]. They surrounded me and walked me back on the train. They were so lovely to me, telling me off for coming to Coney Island because it was so dangerous. I couldn’t look down at the floor because I kept tripping over. That is phobia.
Homophobia excludes women. I don’t like ‘lesbophobia’ either, but I appreciate it when that distinction is made. It’s not a phobia, there’s no irrational fear. It’s bigotry, it’s prejudice, sometimes it’s ignorance. And I don’t like the fact that everything has become medicalised. I think we’re living in very essentialist times, scientifically and socially. We medicalise everything and that, to me, is massive essentialism.
How do you feel about same-sex marriage?
Exactly the way I feel about marriage in general. Abolish it. Give everybody the right to civil partnership if you need legal protection, have a party whenever you want. Feminists used to say that marriage was really bad for women. I would argue that it has changed - I think it’s less bad now for sure. But I just think it’s a complete nonsense.
Do you think it’s possible to not have prostitution? I don’t want to use the cliché that it’s the oldest profession, but it is pretty old...
I suppose you have to ask yourself what the likelihood is that we’ll get rid of poverty in Africa, or child sexual abuse. Unless you’re really cynical or an extreme libertarian, you’ll probably say that we can, and that we have to work towards it. So the first thing to do is to imagine a world without prostitution. I think that political activists, especially on the left, have to be Utopian because we’re trying to get rid of so many things. If we say we’re going to get rid of capitalism, it sounds like “Woah!” to me, and that’s not my particular struggle... but if somebody asks me, can we get rid of violence against women, I would say absolutely, we can, because that’s the struggle that I’m in.
You just have to choose your struggle. So how do we go about it? Well, in the same way we go about handling rape. There are all these kinds of campaigns. ‘Women, don’t go in a taxi while you’re drunk’. ‘Take a rape alarm’. But the only ways to end rape is in its complete and total form is for men to stop raping. That would stop rape wouldn’t it? Nobody ever says that, ever. But with rape, it’s really easy: you just tell men not to rape. You stop them from raping. All men choose not to rape. So with prostitution, obviously if demand were to end, then there would be no prostitution. It’s a symptom.
I could see a world without prostitution, but you have to take it policymaker, politician, country and citizen at a time, in a way. If you were to look at what happened in Sweden where they introduced the 1999 legislation on the demand side, it wasn’t moralistic, it was part of a package of legislation that addressed violence against women as a human rights issue, and within that they said that there should be no prostitution within an equal society. It was very clear within that package, and then they educated the public as to why that they did it, because a lot of the country was very hostile at first. Now 80% are in favour, and of course other countries have adopted the Swedish model. It hasn’t ended the problem but it has reduced it. Laws obviously can’t end things overnight - we still have murder.
If prostitution were to be legalized, do you think that would decrease the amount of women who are being trafficked into the sex industry?
Legalization in Germany and in the Netherlands and some states in Australia, and in Nevada in the US, have seen an increase in sexual violence and an increase in sex trafficking because of course it’s a green light to traffickers and pimps. It normalizes the industry. There was a study a few years ago using police data that showed there were four times the number of trafficked women in legal brothels than there were in illegal brothels.
I’d say there are fewer women in prostitution in zones where they take a Swedish approach, but one thing that is really important is that we have to urge governments to decriminalize the selling of sex. You can’t ever advocate the women or the men, whoever is selling sex, being criminalized, being picked up and arrested, harassed by the police, and that’s why many people think of legalization or decriminalization is good for women, because what they hear is that you stop arresting the women. All they hear is that the women become legal or decriminalized. It doesn’t mean that though. What it means is that brothel owning becomes legal and demand becomes completely normalized.
Regarding your research now, you’re visiting quite a few different countries. Where are you going?
I’m going to various countries where there are feminist abolitionists who see prostitution as problematic and who want to end the sex trade. I’m also hoping to interview people who have different views - pro-legalisation, pro-decriminalisation - and that would include some pimps, brothel owners, and managers, although they’re hard to get to speak on the record. They’re also pimping, and so many of them really dislike me and the work that I do. They’re less likely to want to give me an interview than those who see me as being on their side.
I’ve already started the work. I’ve been to Nairobi, and interviewed people from both sides there. I’ve been to Sweden and looked at the history of the legislation coming in. I’m going to Amsterdam a couple of times next month, for obvious reasons because of the regime there and because it’s changing massively due to its failed social experiment. I’m going to Germany next week because they have a legal regime, so I’m going to do some interviews there. And then Turkey in May. I’m going also to the Worlds Aids Conference because so much of the legalisation theory come out of there, so there’s a lot of misinformation coming from some of the scientists, experts and doctors who say that if you legalize prostitution, AIDS and HIV infection rates will drop massively. But there are researchers looking at that data and completely tearing it apart and disputing what those experts are saying.
I’m going to South Korea, and then to Cambodia, and then Vietnam for one day. Then I’m going to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas to present a paper on all this. I’ll going to Australia and New Zealand if I make enough money to pay for airfare. Finally I’m going to India, but I might hit the monsoon. I’m very bad with heat, so that’s going to be a tricky one.
Byline has a big Korean connection, so just out of curiosity, why Korea?
Because I know feminists in Seoul who are wonderful and who are abolitionists, and very few people seem to talk about this at all. You’ve got the Swedish law against demand there. Terrible things happened in the brothel fires. The legacy of the military bases. Awful views of women as disposable. But also, really strong, powerful women’s movements which I really appreciate. Also, one of if not the best cuisines in the entire world.
You’ve been all around the world reporting. What are some of the most unusual, interesting or even frightening experiences you’ve had?
I went to Nevada to write a story for The Times and also to make a radio documentary by spending a week going around legal brothels. There was a female pimp who was talking to me about a woman who she was ‘helping out’, meaning she was being prostituted in one of her brothels because a lot of the woman are double-pimped. They’ve got a pimp that sells them temporarily to the legal brothels for the season and this Susan pimp woman said to me, “Oh I found her by the doorstep, left by her boyfriend. She’s got a mental age of 10, she’ll never be any different. I had to take her in.” I said, “What does she do?” She said, “You know, what the other women do.” I said, “She’s got a mental age of 10. Could she not work in the laundry or the kitchen?” She said, “Listen, what am I going to do? She’s an abandoned kid, of course I’m going to take her in.”
She was the coldest woman I had ever met in my life and even though in all of my interviews I make my face as passive as I can, she could see something in my eyes and she whipped up her long dress and took out a gun from her holster and pointed it in my face, and said, “I have a gun because obviously you get some dangerous folks around here.” And she just pointed it at me.
Oh and then of course I went to LA to the International Porn Awards. I was talking to a woman who was wearing a PVC dress modeled in the Marilyn Monroe style,. She was telling me how her fetish shop does really well, and there was this bloke hovering behind her and he came up and said “Do you want to talk to me? I’m her boyfriend. She’s with me.” I said that I would love to talk to you. He said, “She’s my slave, I’m her master. I put a dog collar on most of the time. It’s a very intimate thing. If she behaves bad, she sleeps in the kennel outside.” That kind of thing.
But I’ve got some lovely stories of the things I’ve done, as well. I went to the women’s village in Kenya, a refuge in the middle of the Samburu Desert. It was amazing. These women are literally saving lives and educating women about FGM, forced and early marriage, and domestic violence in their villages. They’ve got international recognition, they are fantastic. I love meeting them and they have hard lives, but they are being taken care of and they’re taking care of each other. They have run away from the most horrendous things imaginable and doing great there. They’re self-sufficient financially, they’re running a camp site. They’re charging journalists and visitors to see that they’re making craft stuff that they can sell. Loved it.
What is your main goal in life, and do you think all this controversy around you is getting in the way of that goal?
I want to be part of the very proud movement to remove violence against women and children.
Sometimes I’ve been stopped from speaking about sexual violence by the trans-lobby. I don’t ever speak or write about trans issues unless I’m invited by trans people who want to have that debate with me. So to stop me from speaking about prostitution and about rape is pretty appalling. In the main it doesn’t stop me from going to universities. I’m a Research Fellow at one, and I was a visiting journalist at Brunel before that. I’m lucky enough to get invited to conferences around the world. The [backlash against me] is a pain in the arse, but that’s just what happens. If there wasn’t a challenge or this kind of backlash, then I probably wouldn’t be doing my work properly.
What problems do you see in journalism these days? Do you think that we need something new?
We do. We need something like Byline because these papers are moving towards advertorials. They’re being led by brands, and by who’s going to sponsor them. The Guardian is a bit different, but even there, its online content is often shaped by sponsors. I think young journalists really need to be equipped with courage rather than feeling like they dare not say anything for fear of being sued or fear of being tempered and curtailed. I’m not a proponent of total unbridled free speech. It’s not practical and it’s not ethical. But we need a freer speech than what we’ve got. We need a journalism that is absolutely shaped towards truth telling and not the kind of fluff that really says nothing. We need more long reads, more investigative journalism, we need the type of journalism that will tell a story that people don’t even know yet and want to read. We definitely need something like Byline, and I’m not just saying this because it’s your product and this is your interview.
We need people to be brave, to think outside of the kind of usual market for news that we’ve got now. Twitter isn’t news. I’m sick of people saying that and talking about citizen journalists. We pass on information [on Twitter]. That’s different from journalism. We need to get our pride back, and back to the experience that is needed to actually be a journalist in the professional sense - without shutting people out who are also telling their own stories through their social media outlets. It’s great, but it’s not journalism.