Kat Banyard’s 2016 Pimp State: Sex, Money, and the Future of Equality main thesis can be summed up as follows: propped up by free market values and structural gender inequality, the gradual reframing of prostitution as “sex work” since the late 1980’s has legitimized and normalized the increasingly violent and exploitative sex industry.
Furthermore, the increased social acceptance of prostitution as a “trade like any other” has sanctioned the exploitation of women’s social vulnerability to (and real experience of) gender-based violence on an unprecedented, industrial, scale.
Banyard argues her point across six chapters, each of which addresses a specific line of reasoning commonly held up by proponents of the “pro sex worker perspective”.
Ambitious in scope, Banyard sets out to debunk the idea that efforts across the Western world to decriminalise or legalise prostitution have somehow made women less vulnerable to sexual exploitation or that they have made sex workers’s conditions safer or healthier.
To illustrate her point, she draws on recent legislation impact in the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand and Sweden. This was where I would have liked to see more critical engagement with more sources, Banyard would have done well to either narrow her scope or otherwise produce a text that is more extensive and show more engagement with each case study.
More data, less emotion
Pimp State is a suitable gateway-book to understanding the basics of prostitution abolitionism in feminist discourse. Banyard’s language is accessible, impassioned and often rhetorical. Her tone can be more conversational than academic, which at times renders her thesis prone to dismissal over frequent use of anecdotes and emotional language.
This space may otherwise have been used to showcase additional data to build a more cohesive case (more rigour and detail on the case studies, comparative analysis). Her use of data improves somewhat towards the second half of the book.
Occasionally the reader might intercept an intersectional approach (Banyard is vaguely receptive to classism and racism), still – her analysis is *mostly* colorblind.
Can you buy sexual consent?
Crucially, Banyard argues that the concept of mutual consent has been hijacked and distorted by the sex trade and sold to the public as something it is not. The struggle over the meaning of “consensual sex” is a hegemonic battle played out on the political landscape of women’s bodies.
According to Banyard, the brand of “consent” that is given in prostitution is qualitatively and semantically different to consent given freely and out of desire – as opposed to what she calls “manufactured consent” – consent appropriated in exchange for financial renumeration.
The deliberate reframing of “prostitution” as “sex work” is part of the linguistic and cultural strategy whose function is to give the sex industry an aura of credence and at once to underplay its inherent misogyny.
Commodified sexual consent (as opposed to other things people do as work for cash) is qualitatively different due to the often underplayed contextual injustices that underpin (and correlate with) prostitution (pornography, understood as choreographed and mid-wived prostitution is included in this) as a mass industry. The agency of women is also mangled by pimps, who coerce the women they are pimping into degrading and unwanted “work” (and yes, the overwhelming majority of prostitutes are pimped by men who also abuse them).
Prostitution and abuse
Banyard’s deconstruction poses a hegemonic challenge to the dominant, rigidly patriarchal, free-market discourse of women’s sexuality (passive, receiving, available, functional, commodifiable).
Some quantifiable realities: the decision of the vast majority of women to enter the sex trade is made on the backdrop of a personal history of sexual abuse, rape, child molestation and domestic violence, often combined with a low level of education and unremarkable socio-economic status.
Decisions made with agency, but with extreme vulnerabilities as prerequisites.
In other words, the sex trade profits by exploiting existing social inequalities and then contributing to their perpetuation. Finding themselves in desperate situations, women are also a lot more likely to enter prostitution when they are able to do so legally. Many are trafficked into prostitution and are broken to believe that that’s all there is for them.
I was somewhat taken aback at the extent to which the consumption (and production) of pornography fuels violence against women, “as well as an array of attitudes that minimize, trivialize and normalize it”. This includes perceptions of women’s sexuality that contribute to their continued sexual exploitation, as evidenced by “assessments corroborated across methods, measures and samples.” It is, I checked.
Not that positive “sex positivity”
However, one tries to frame the sex industry as “sex-positive” or “empowering” for women, the patriarchal, market-driven power structures within which this trade operates remain in tact (trying to excuse the industry by citing fringe sub-sections of “feminist-porn” is a red herring detraction from the point in case) and will, until dismantled, continue to dictate its content and packaging. Feminism and prostitution, for Banyard, are incompatible.
Pimp State makes a compelling enough case to have stimulated serious reassessment of my conceptual understanding of prostitution, but I plan to read more.
TRIGGER WARNING for survivors of rape/child molestation/gender-based violence:
This book is triggering and I literally had to stop to hyperventilate and sob every 40 pages. Just putting that out there. Understanding the social and legal backdrop of rape culture is paramount to being able to cope with what and why happened to you, yes, but so is being kind to yourself.