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The Idea Of Prostitution - Sheila Jeffreys, 1998

Review by Dr Jody Hanson, a former lecturer who has done extensive field research with sex workers in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Tanzania, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Fiji. Working on an international research grant she is now carrying our a comparative study of the sex-industries in Canada and New Zealand. Together with Toni Sutton, she is also busy with ad-Vice: The Sexual Services Consultancy.

Being asked to review a book which presents views which diametrically opposed my own is revealing. In her book The Idea Of Prostitution Sheila Jeffreys argues the radical lesbian viewpoint that:

...prostitution is a form of male sexual violence against women, consistent in its effects upon the abused woman with other forms of violence, particularly child abuse..." (page 6)

She refuses to call men "clients" because it sanitises their involvement with "prostitute women"; instead she uses "john," but suggests that "batterer," "rapist" or "prostitution abuser" would be more descriptive terms for men who pay to have sex with women. My interviews with male clients, some of whom visit prostitutes more for companionship than sex, do not support this generalisation about motives.

And her suggestion that:

"The act which men commonly perform on prostituted women is penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse. There is nothing "natural" about that act."

is ludicrous.

Jeffreys' own discussion of prostitution is strictly theoretical and is unsupported by her own field research. Many of the studies she cites were conducted with street sex workers who, while they are the most visible and accessible group, comprise only about ten percent of sex workers. Feminists are divided over the question of sex work. Some (including me) argue from the "It's A Job" perspective while others (like Jeffreys) insists that it is a violation of women's human rights. My research with sex workers suggests that many, if not most, women elected to work in the sex industry because it offered them more money and more independence than any other option.

Jeffreys work will appeal to people who agree with the theories of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Sex industry people with whom I discussed the book, however, dismissed it as yet another example of someone who is prostituting prostitution to serve her own interests.

First published in the Waikato Times, republished by Scarlet Alliance in 2006, with the permission from the author.