Finn Mackay, the founder of the London Feminist Network, is a prominent activist for women’s rights, who was also responsible for the revival of Reclaim the Night in London. We speak with Finn about prostitution and the commodification of sex.
Do you think that prostitution is something we should unilaterally condemn?
I think the global, multi-billion dollar sex industry is something that we should condemn, and we can do that without being against the individuals who find themselves struggling to earn a living within that industry. I support the Nordic approach – which many other countries are looking into, including Scotland and France – which is to decriminalise everyone involved in the industry, and instead criminalise demand. In 1999, Sweden made it a criminal offence to buy and sell sexual access to the bodies of other people.
What is it that makes sex different from any other activity that we commodify through work?
Well the boundaries of the body and of bodily integrity are written into our laws, and we seem to understand them and find them commonplace everywhere, it seems, except for within this debate about prostitution and the prostitution industry.
So, for example, our law recognises a difference between being punched in the face, which would be common assault, and being raped. Those are two different things. If a man, for example, was to be anally raped, he would probably consider that quite a different crime to him being punched in the face, and indeed our law would recognise them as different. The rapist would receive a harsher sentence than the man who punched him in the face, because it’s breached bodily integrity and the boundaries of one’s own body and control over one’s own body. So we do understand the two things as separate.
Do you think that the majority of women in the sex trade are in some sense coerced into it either by society as a whole or by their circumstances, or do you think that it’s a personal choice they’re making that they still shouldn’t be allowed to take?
I think most people working in the prostitution industry, men and women, are there because they have found themselves within a limited set of options. They find themselves, not in circumstances of their own choosing, with limited options, and out of those limited options, survival sex for money becomes a viable option.
Obviously not every single person in the prostitution industry is being coerced in the sense we would understand. I’m sure not all of them have drug problems, not all of them have violent pimps, not all of them suffer from homelessness. But around the world people in the sex industry do tend to be marginalised in lots of ways.
That doesn’t mean every individual finds themselves in those circumstances, but it does mean we shouldn’t sell down the river the vast majority for whom that is the case, and pretend that people are making a glamorous, valid career choice to enter the sex industry when I just do not believe that is the reality. The research does not bear that out to be the reality for the majority of the people in the world.
Is breach of bodily integrity the criterion for prostitution being socially unacceptable? If someone engages in sex acts that don’t involve this breach, is that the same as doing any other vaguely sexualised job, such as modelling?
Well I think the whole sex industry is founded on inequalities of sex, race and class. It could not function if we did not live in an unequal society, so I don’t think we can live in an equal society while it still functions. It’s profoundly gendered: the majority of those people selling are women, the majority of those people buying are men. It is a gendered institution that depends on men’s superiority over women, and I think we have to look at that gendered dimension. We have to look at what it says about society, which is that it makes a mockery of any claims to equality as long as we live in a world where a man can pick up the phone and order a woman like a pizza.
I’m against the global, multi-billion dollar industry for political reasons, not for moral reasons. As a feminist, I don’t have a problem with sex and sexuality; I want women to be able to explore, express and enjoy their sexuality without stigma and without shame. And if anything, it is the prostitution industry which tries to aggrandise women for sexual behaviour, whilst shaming and policing and hurting women for the same.
Do you foresee any particular strategies that might help us deal with the problem of prostitution globally, rather than just within Britain?
Yes. I would definitely support the approach adopted by Sweden in 1999, and I would say that such approach needs to be rolled out more widely. The statistics are contested, statistics are difficult, but there are official groups and third-sector charitable groups in Sweden who say that that law, which criminalises demand – so it criminalises the punters and decriminalises the people involved in the industry – has reduced people being trafficked into the country, has reduced on-street prostitution, and has certainly reduced the numbers of children involved in prostitution. It hasn’t eradicated it, but it has reduced it. Because if you reduce demand, you reduce the numbers of people involved in prostitution, which is why I think it’s so important that we focus on the demand side.
How do you think that this plays into the debate around pornography? Do you think the two issues are linked?
I think prostitution and pornography are linked, because often they are part of the same sex industry. Often women in pornography do find themselves coerced in certain ways, if we look at histories of poverty, of marginalisation. Also, women in the pornography industry do report being violently forced and coerced: they report bad treatment, they report sexual violence, they report things happening to them that they never agreed to, against contracts that may have been signed.
In some cases pornography is just a visual account of a woman’s sexual abuse and sexual assault. So, in that way, the two are definitely linked, but of course they’re also part of the same sex industry, which is founded on the inequality of women vis a vis men, which is the product of a patriarchal, sexist society, which is why it also has to be ended.