Violence and Sex Work in Britain
Article first published online: 22 OCT 2009
© 2009 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2009 Foundation for the Sociology of Health & Illness/Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Sociology of Health & Illness
Volume 31, Issue 7, pages 1113–1114, November 2009
How to Cite
Barnard, M. (2009), Violence and Sex Work in Britain. Sociology of Health & Illness, 31: 1113–1114. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2009.01201_5.x
- Issue published online: 22 OCT 2009
- Article first published online: 22 OCT 2009
Few subjects can offer a cast iron guarantee to generate strong and often vociferous opinion in quite the same way as prostitution does. There is no real middle ground between the poles of those who want to see prostitution abolished (and believe it is possible) and those who, for want of a better phrase, are pragmatic about its existence and whilst not exactly celebrating it, are concerned largely, if not on occasion solely, with the safety and wellbeing of those who sell sex.
Currently the abolitionists have the floor, often calling for the wider application of the Swedish model of zero tolerance of prostitution. Hilary Kinnell has positioned herself about as far as it is possible to go from the Swedish model having worked for decades promoting the rights of working women, and drawing attention to the violence that so often goes hand in glove with the business of selling sex. It is no surprise then that her book is titled Violence and Sex Work in Britain and no surprise either that she so keenly takes to task the position that ‘prostitution is in and of itself violence’ in order to concentrate our attention on the violence visited all too frequently on those who sell sex. A lynchpin to her argument is that current law, policy and practice as intolerant of prostitution, actively increase the risks of violence confronted by the men and women who work in the industry. Indeed the sentence ‘The continued exposure of sex workers to preventable violence is government policy’ (p.261) makes crystal clear her position that such violence is institutionally condoned as collateral damage in ousting prostitution.
The book begins with a discussion of the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, a serial killer active in England in the late seventies. Peter Sutcliffe is popularly conceived of as a prostitute killer but in fact he was not so particular, he killed women who were alone outside at night, about half of whom were indeed selling sex. This chapter introduces the themes that run throughout the book; that violence to sex workers is an intrinsic vulnerability where women are forced to work alone and in ever more marginal spaces, most especially from the streets; that a man does not have to be a client buying sex to punch, slap, kick, rape or murder a woman; and that society is deeply ambivalent about violence meted out on those who sell sex, made manifest in the lack of any real engagement with practical means to reduce or eliminate the risks in prostitution. These themes find their greatest expression in chapters 11-16 which analyse a series of court cases of prostitute attackers, but are enlarged upon in the other chapters delineating the who, what, why and where of attacks on prostitutes.
The lack of middle ground in this sphere of human activity means that you come to this book either to confirm what you already think or absolutely disagree with it. It is therefore less a sociological than a campaigning book, this time from the less well-represented side of the fence. It is not a book that relies overly heavily on academic kinds of data, the court cases are assessed indirectly through media and internet searches, there is a good deal of reliance on the ‘Ugly Mugs’ schemes set up and run by support agencies for prostitutes. Kinnell makes no authoritative claims for these data, indeed she describes their limitations. However given the reliance on intrinsically weak data there is no getting away from the flimsiness of some of the analyses, even whilst one might wish to agree with their conclusions. From an academic point of view this is a problem and presumably it is academics that are most likely to read this book. From a sociological perspective the book does not concern itself with a more foundational exploration as to what it is exactly about prostitution that excites such moral disquiet, except to dismiss it as not having a legitimate bearing on encounters between prostitutes and those who mete out violence on them whilst at their work. It does not therefore help us to understand why prostitutes might be particularly vulnerable to the physical expression of such disquiet. Neither too does it really want to consider the specific context of the prostitute-client encounter on the basis that many of the men who attack women appear to have motives other than the sexual - and so can be defined as ‘not clients’. This ‘posing as a client and therefore not a real client’ argument is something of a sleight of hand since bogus client or not, these predatory males are specifically targeting prostitutes and assuming a role recognised by the prostitute in order to make their move. It is an interpretation however that fits with the overall argument of a vulnerability to violence that is not really about sex per se but about prostitutes being doomed always to be in the wrong place at the wrong time because of increasingly repressive Government and local policies to eradicate the trade. Having some sympathy with this position would have drawn me to this book and I guess if you do too it might draw you also, but perhaps after reading you might find that it more confirmed a position you already held than illuminated it.