"How about the men who go with them? It takes two to do business."
"Men have their needs."
"So do women, for money to pay for their food and lodging."
So goes the conversation between protagonist Dot and a male friend in Laurie Graham's 2015 novel, The Night In Question, which is set in 1880s London where a distinctly Jack-the-Ripper-esque murderer is preying on London's sex workers. What struck me was the similarity between Dot's defense of the much-maligned "fallen women" who are regularly blamed by a prurient, judgmental public for their own rapes, assaults and murders, and what Melissa Gira Grant wrote in her book Playing The Whore, which I first reviewed in 2014.
"The demand for victims, as anti-sex-work activists describe it, is driven by men's insatiable desire - not by sex workers' own demands for housing, health care, education, a better life, a richer life, if we dare."
The Victorian attitude dictated that men couldn't help themselves but women should somehow know better. The modern "end demand" movement, campaigned vociferously against by activists such as Molly Smith and the late Laura Lee, is more sympathetic towards the sex workers but allows them no position in the debate except that of victims. It is presumed they must want to escape the sex industry and that they would be happy to see their clients taken away from them by laws which punish only buyers, not sellers of sex. In this sense, it is not so far from the Victorian attitude that it is only men and their needs which are said to drive the sex industry, not sex workers' (some of whom aren't even women, a fact that is rarely mentioned) own desire for financial autonomy. Of course, that attitude was riven with contradictions; men had their needs, yet women were supposed to be devoid of sexual desire. Wives weren't supposed to want or enjoy sex, so men were expected to use sex workers to achieve sexual fulfilment. Sex workers were either abnormal for wanting, enjoying or simply consenting to acts that wives were supposed to be too pure to contemplate, or were mercenaries who endured acts they did not enjoy in order to stay financially afloat. Either way, this painted them as suspect and undeserving of public sympathy, hence the ease with which their murders were ignored both in real life and in Graham's novel.
Some Victorian feminists at least tried to make Dot's point that it takes two to tango, such as Josephine Butler, a Victorian suffrage campaign who opposed the Contagious Diseases Acts which gave the police free reign to forcibly examine any woman suspected of prostitution. As usual, the blame for the spread of venereal disease in port towns was being laid squarely at the feet of sex working women, rather than the men who visited them, and Butler broke with the squeamishness of the era by vocally criticising the total hypocrisy of the Act, which effectively sanctioned police sexual assault of women. This was a brave step against the background of a feminist movement whose upper class leaders felt women should see themselves as not just equal to men, but morally superior due to their lack of preoccupation with sex. You can see the point these women were trying to make--something along the lines of "Since we aren't the ones raping, molesting, philandering and then blaming the opposite gender for our own sexual incontinence, perhaps we deserve at least the same rights, if not more, than the gender who are?"--but unfortunately this simply cemented the stereotype of sexless women and voracious men, and earned some Victorian suffragists the title of Moral Purity Campaigners. Butler was less interested in this debate and more interested in the rights of the women being arrested and forcibly examined, and succeeded in getting the Act suspended in 1883.
The unifying thread here is that those defending sex workers were not asking anyone to like, condone or practice sex work themselves, but rather to see those in the business as human beings deserving of rights. The right to earn money without the threat of violence. The right to do your job without being demanded that you defend it or love it more than anyone who does any other job. The right to do your job without being dragged off the streets and subjected to medicalised sexual assault. The right to safely choose and vet your clients without being hamstrung by laws which, as Laura Lee said to me, drive away the good guys and leave sex workers with the dregs.
The quickness to explain away the existence of the sex industry via men's much-mythologised, much-generalised 'needs' doesn't just do that gender an injustice by portraying it as a monolith; it does sex workers of all genders a much greater injustice by erasing them from the picture altogether. So it was nice to see a bit of 21st century feminism sneaking its way into a book set in the 1880s; the fact that women like Butler really were standing up for sex workers during that era implies that the exchange from Graham's book might not be entirely imagined, either.