Pimp State – Kat Banyard

The second week of my coverage of books by women appearing at Jersey Festival of Words focuses on non-fiction. It’s not often I choose to read non-fiction books but I always enjoy them when I do. Note to self: read non-fiction more often.

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The first book I’m reviewing is Pimp State by Kat Banyard, founder of the campaign group UK Feminista and, according to The Guardian in 2010, ‘the most influential young feminist in the country’. She appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 3pm in the Opera House, where she will be joined by former sex worker, Diane Martins, for a discussion about Pimp State. Tickets are available here.

‘While we have the demand for prostitution not being addressed we cannot achieve gender equality,’ insists Madlala-Routledge. ‘Men who buy sex don’t regard the woman as a whole human being. Basically they regard her as an object – something that’s available to them for their satisfaction for the money…So basically that says to us this can’t be somebody you treat as an equal, this can’t be somebody you treat as having dignity, as being a whole human being, for you to actually treat them like that or think of them like that.’

Banyard makes the focus of her book clear from the outset:

A pimp state – a society where commercial sexual exploitation is promoted, not prevented – is not one where women and men can live as equals.

It is a state that we can – and must – change.

She draws links within the first few pages between the sex trade and ‘society’s notions of sexual consent, violence and equality’ which she explores further in the six chapters of the book, chapters which she titles ‘Myth 1’ to ‘Myth 6’.

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The six myths Banyard unpicks are: demand for the sex trade is inevitable; being paid for sex is regular service work; porn is fantasy; objecting to the sex trade makes you a pearl-clutching, sexually conservative prude; decriminalise the entire prostitution trade and you make women safe, and resistance is futile.

In Myth 1, Banyard looks at the different areas of the sex trade – prostitution, lap-dancing clubs, pornography – and speaks to women who have worked in these areas as well as the men who’ve used them. Interspersed throughout the chapter are reviews culled from a website called ‘Punternet’ where men leave comments about the sex workers they’ve visited. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that they’re grim at best.

Throughout the book, Banyard talks to people who’ve worked in the sex trade, who’ve run elements of the sex trade, who’ve policed the sex trade, who’ve studied the sex trade in an academic context. Parts of it are horrifying. Some of it is very interesting, particularly when she writes about countries where ‘The Sex Buyer Law’ has been introduced.

For me, the section that had me asking the most questions was Myth 2, where Banyard considers the term ‘sex work’, which has become the preferred lexis in recent years. She questions the adoption of the term by a number of international organisations and then gives us the following paragraph:

So if ‘sex work is work’, then presumably if an airline company requires all its female flight attendants to offer male passengers blow-jobs, as well as drinks and snacks, that’s all right? What about City firms stipulating that female employees must have sex with male clients as part of their corporate entertaining duties? OK? How about when a male boss asks his female secretary to give him a blow-job? It’s the kind of scenario feminists have spent decades working to get recognised as sexual harassment. But, I guess, if this is ordinary work then at worst the requested task is merely outside her job description?

It’s an interesting – and a provocative – link supporting the line of argument Banyard takes throughout: How we respond to the core message of the sex trade speaks volumes about how seriously society takes violence against all women. She then invokes legal experts to explain the connotations of sex work becoming a recognised, legal profession. Here she focuses on the rights of the buyer to a ‘good service’ and how, as a worker required to pay tax, a sex worker’s body would be owned by both the buyer and the state.

Banyard’s foci gave me an insight into elements of the sex trade of which I was previously unaware. Her links between domestic/sexual violence and the sex trade are compelling and supported by detailed research, as is her support of The Sex Buyer Law. In general terms, I agree with the points she puts forward but one thing has bothered me since finishing the book: there are no dissenting views considered from a single woman at the front of the sex trade (I’m not including those in ‘management’ roles in this definition i.e. brothel owners). If every sex worker agrees with Banyard’s arguments – even if they would rather not declare it publicly – then fine, but it would have been interesting to hear the views of those sex workers who have embraced the term sex work and want their job to be legalised.

Pimp State is a well-argued, detailed look at the sex trade and its consequences. The fact that some of those consequences are far more wide-reaching than it might seem at first glance make this book a must read and discuss. I’m very much looking forward to Kat Banyard’s event and hearing more about her work.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “Pimp State – Kat Banyard

  1. This looks like a depressing but necessary read. I’d have to agree with you though, that the absence of voices from the women on the very front line is an unfortunate oversight.

    • It is the most depressing book I’ve read for a long time. I should make it clear though that there are voices from women on the front line but they all agree with Banyard. I wanted something from a sex worker who’s embraced the term and wants it to be a legal profession. I’m interested in their reasoning and what they see as the benefits.

      • Ok, that sounds fair enough, although I can see your point about the value of including dissenting voices to represent a broader cross section of women involved in the industry.

  2. My problem with Myth 2 is that her examples create a false equivalence. It would be deeply not ok for airlines to require crew members to give blow jobs as well as ready meals, because blow jobs aren’t relevant to crewing an airplane. I think viewing sex work as legitimate work in its own right is essential, because it acknowledges the fact that it is a) skilled labour, and b) a job that many women, especially in developed countries, do actually choose. Both of those are key steps in the fight to give the women who have sex for a living legal protections.

    The other thing, I guess, is that sex workers offer a wide variety of services, and they can pretty much decide for themselves what they want to offer. So, going back to Banyard’s similes about appropriate requests at work: if a sex worker specifically offers something like anal or role-play or sub/dom play, then asking her for it when you arrange a meeting isn’t inappropriate, BUT if she doesn’t offer it, then asking her for it IS asking her to do something outside of her job description. (In a way, there’s a level of clarity here that office jobs actually lack. I’ve certainly been asked to do things that I do not consider to be within the remit of my job, whether that’s making tea or taking on someone else’s project, and I haven’t had the confidence to refuse. If I were a sex worker, I could simply point to my profile and say “sorry, I don’t do choking”, or whatever.)

    • I quoted that paragraph because I’m not convinced it stands up to scrutiny. However, I’m also not convinced that making sex work legal will prevent customers from taking, or attempting to take, services they want regardless of whether or not the sex worker has said they provide them. The benefit I can see there is that prosecution should then be more straight-forward although would still come down to her word against his in a society programmed to accept the male viewpoint.

      As for things within the remit of a job, I think every job I’ve worked has had a ‘and other relevant duties as and when required’ clause. Who decides on the relevant duties? The person with whom power resides.

      • Sure, fair points both. (It’s interesting how sex work is currently categorized – buying it is legal, advertising your willingness to sell it isn’t, which definitely seems not quite right.)

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