Liberal political theory in the abstract has a profound concern for personal liberty. All good and right thinking liberals should see individual freedom and human rights as sacrosanct. Many have championed free speech and opposed censorship and they have courageously stood shoulder to shoulder with campaigners for sexual freedom and openness.
Of course liberal theory very rarely relates to practice in the real world and you would have to be very naive indeed to think they have kept to these principles in all circumstances and historical periods. Statist and legislative measures to change peoples ‘bad habits’ are part of the liberal tradition as well as denigration of the struggles of the working class and the oppressed. This is clearly emphasised if you take The Guardian newspaper as a barometer of liberal opinion. The Guardian newspaper considered by many to be the heart and soul of liberality, advertises as the paper giving equal space to differing opinions and takes pride in its opposition to intolerance and bigotry, but when it comes to the difficult issue of commercial sex we get only one side of the story.
The dominant writer in the Guardian on the ‘sex industry’, to the exclusion of all other writers with opposing views, is Julie Bindel. A self-styled radical feminist, militantly puritanical and pro-censorship, Bindel is certainly no liberal. So why is she so prominent in a liberal newspaper? And why are sex workers, proponents of decriminalisation and anti-censorship campaigners excluded from a paper that prides itself of giving equal space to differing opinions? As new legislation is announced by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to criminalise men who pay for sex with women "controlled for another person's gain", as well as other laws concerning lap-dancing and pornography, the nature of contemporary liberalism, its sanctimonious finger-wagging and prudery are glaringly highlighted by the Guardian’s one-sidedness. Many of today’s liberals are pseudo-liberal or pseudo-left; basically individuals who have abandoned the principle of liberty.
Let’s have a look at Ms Bindel’s latest diatribe in the Guardian on the global sex trade as an example of her extreme illiberality. (For those who don’t read The Guardian, it’s important to keep in mind the prominence of Julie Bindel; nearly every article on the ‘sex industry’ is written by her or one of her supporters.) The piece is focused on an Australian ‘radical’ feminist, Sheila Jeffreys book on the sex industry-The Industrial Vagina. In the opening paragraph of Bindel’s article, like any right wing hack writing in The News of the World, we are expected automatically to feel disgust at this degrading business, afterall it’s, shock, horror, SEX! we are dealing with:
In line with the government, many Australian feminists had come to view prostitution simply as a form of work, and Jeffreys found herself appalled by this "neo-liberalism" - the complete lack of moral outrage about the buying and selling of women's bodies.
To Jeffreys (and Bindel) it’s not really an issue of economic exploitation-of workers denied decent salaries, forced to work long hours to feed their families under appalling working conditions-but a revulsion with sex itself. (or heterosexual intercourse at least)
The common theme of her work is her (Jeffreys) firm belief that men maintain power over women by the act of sexual intercourse, and that heterosexuality is therefore bad for women.
If their arguments were not based on visceral disgust with sex then why do these writers obsessively concentrate on the subject. I have never seen an article by Bindel on non-sexual exploitation of women workers in domestic or care work or the general corporate slavery inflicted on mainly young women in the global clothing industry.
The global ‘sex industry’ as understood by Bindel and Jeffreys is not merely prostitution but stripping (lap dancing) and pornography. Here we enter the realm of the monomaniac conspiracy theory; the idea of all men controlling all women through sex . (prostitution, stripping, pornography) Take a complex and multilayered subject (commercial sex), reduce it down to its most simple minded component (men oppressing women), and then sell it as an overarching tyranny at the exclusion of all other tyrannies. Men are to blame! Anti-Semites do the same with their idea of a conspiracy of Jewish bankers, the UN and the Israeli lobby. Jews are to blame! And like all conspiracy theorists if you criticise them it’s because you are part of the conspiracy: You disagree because you’re a man (or a heterosexual woman) or a Jew.
Reading this intolerant and fanatical piece you would think a writer such as Julie Bindel would not have a permanent position on The Guardian. But even worse sex workers and sex positive feminists are denied a voice in this quintessentially liberal newspaper; almost as if to hold the opposing view is now considered illiberal rather then the other way round. These two short articles on prostitution, one by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, a researcher into sex work and Laurie Penny, a journalist and blogger, show what has been excluded from its pages-considered, well researched articles, devoid of sensationalist tabloid moralising, treating sex workers as active agents rather then degraded victims.*
So why the bias? Are we facing a growing puritanism (reflected in today’s liberalism and some sections of the Left as well as society at large) hand-in-hand with increasing government control over personal life? Julie Bindel not only writes for the Guardian but works for The Poppy Project, a mainstream charitable organisation that ostensibly helps trafficked women, but also lobbies to criminalize clients of prostitutes-see Laurie Penny’s article for a critique of this group. Or as New Labour are unwilling and unable to address economic exploitation they have turned to the old standby of law and order and censorship, once the prerogative of the Right. Again Julie Bindel has close ties with the Home Office and praised authoritarian Labour ministers.
The Left must take seriously this threat to our basic freedoms, liberties gained by the cultural revolution of the sixties-a freedom to engage in erotic practices between consenting adults (no matter how bizarre they are viewed by conventional society), to enjoy sexual entertainment or to consume pornographic media. All authoritarian creeds from religious fundamentalists to fascists and Stalinists are puritanical, starting out with the aim of suppressing the diffuse desires and the sexual imagination of human beings; do not allow a new form of puritanism, extreme gender politics, to get any more footholds in the movements for social change. Already the main liberal newspaper in the UK is under their control when it comes to the subject of commercial sex and feminism.
* Admittedly the article by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon is from the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, but was never printed in the main paper, where Julie Bindel has full dominance.
Organisations worth supporting:
Sexual Freedom Campaigns and Sex Positive Feminists:
Sexual Freedom Coalition
Consenting Adults Action Network
Feminists Against Censorship
Sex Workers Unions and Organisations
The International Union of Sex Workers
The English Collective of Prostitutes
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