The changing politics of sex work in feminist activism of the past twenty years can be traced across the transformations in Channel 4’s approach to documentaries about the sex industry. Although it is Channel 5 that is famous for it, the majority of ‘docuporn’ on British terrestrial television is shown on Channel 4, as a consequence, it can be argued, of its having shifted to selling its own advertising and the more commercial priorities that ensued. This highlights the enormous changes that have occurred on British terrestrial television, as well as in feminist cultural politics, since the launch of Channel 4. Its minority interest, public service remit led it to become the first channel to use documentary to explore the sex industry as a political issue for women. Pictures of Women (Channel 4 1982), an experimental series made by a women’s collective, arose out of the women’s movement and feminist film-making cultures of the 1970s. It included programmes on prostitution and on pornography in which the dominant perspective was a feminist critique of these industries as forms of patriarchal exploitation. The book accompanying the series gives access to the ideological approach taken, although the programme was also formally innovative in an attempt to disrupt conventional forms of looking at women (Root 1984). Sub­sequent magazine series, which, among other items, occasionally addressed the sex industry as a political issue, continued through the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s (Watch the Woman, First Sex, Out on Tuesday). These series were premised on an address to a politicized constituency of feminist women, or in the case of Out on Tuesday, gays and lesbians, an address that narrowed their appeal (Richardson 1995).

These overtly political series disappeared and were replaced in the latter half of the 1990s by commercially successful, voyeuristic documentaries that fit seamlessly into an established culture of soft-core porn reading practices. By this I mean that sexual arousal is stimulated by the display of female bodies in a structure of looking heavily coded as heterosexual. What we have now is a combination of traditional soft-core pornography given new legitimacy by its association with a feminist discourse of empowerment (see further discussion in Chapter 3). The turning point was Channel 4’s late night season of documentaries in 1995, the Red Light Zone, which offered an exploration of lesbian, gay male, transsexual, as well as straight women’s, involvement in the sex industry. It was a diverse range of films, varying in quality, scheduled very late over several Saturday nights. The series attracted wide press coverage. The import­ance of this television ‘event’ was in announcing the channel’s changing brand identity, distancing itself from the identity politics of the 1970s and 1980s and aligning itself with the more entrepreneurial, individualistic and hedonistic values of consumer culture. It also marked a recognition of the changing politics of sexuality in which the transgressive politics of ‘queer’ had challenged the feminist antipathy to the sex indus­try and, alongside the sex workers’ own campaigns, questioned the construction of women sex workers as ‘victims’. The majority of the films were commissioned from women keen to counteract the male dominance of pornography production and the perceived puritanism of second-wave feminism.

The influence of ‘sex-positive’ strands of feminist and ‘queer’ politics and the rise of enterprise culture in the 1980s and 1990s enabled not only the emergence of these women film-makers but also the rise of women as sex industry entrepreneurs. Documentaries about the sex industry often celebrate their economic success and their ability to explore their sexuality free from ignorance and shame (as we also saw in the Sex and Shopping report on Beatte Uhse discussed in Chapter 3). The interviews with female sex workers in these types of programmes often tell a story of independence born of economic rewards, and a sense of power in their own sexuality as they per­form for their customers. This one-sided perspective, designed not to disrupt the programmes’ erotic appeal, cannot accommodate the more ambivalent feelings that are evident in other autobiographical accounts and ethnographic research with sex workers. This appropriation of the sex-positive agenda by television docuporn has been seen as a cynical strategy to bring the sex industry into the mainstream. Television is now heavily involved through its marketing of the services available and in its provision of erotic programming. Women speaking out about their experiences to avoid being positioned as stereotypically helpless victims have merely served to produce (cheap) camera fodder. This is the view of the Guardian’s (male) television critic:

Is there a stripper in the entire country who hasn’t been followed around by a camera crew intent on ‘uncovering the real women’ behind the lip gloss and titty tassles? What with high-class erotic performers, private dancers – any old music will do – and lesbian strippers peek-a-booing out from television lately, it’s a miracle that these working women actually manage to fling their G-string any­where without it landing on a big furry mike. Strippers have replaced animals and airline employees as the docusoap-makers’ subject of choice. The number of willing subjects comes as no surprise. After all, in what is quite literally showbusiness, it pays to advertise.

(McLean 2001)

Gareth McLean’s review of Strippers (E4 2001) pinpoints the problem women face in trying to produce ‘feminist’ documentaries about the sex industry, and he makes a convincing case:

Strippers, implies the narrator, isn’t your average exploitative tits’n’ass TV, designed to titillate its male post-pub audience. Strippers, she goes on, has been made by ‘an all-female team’. Well dip me in honey and throw me to the lesbians. How feminist is that?. . . . What the ‘all-female team’ fails to realise is that the audience doesn’t care what these women think or say. Just as the customers in the pubs where the strippers dance treat them like a fruit machine or a juke box – they pop 50p into a pint glass for a brief distraction – so the camera does the same.

(McLean 2001)

The power of speech is illusory when sandwiched between the erotic appeal of lingering shots of gyrating bodies on late night television, turning the women’s assertion of empowerment and pride into the familiar power relations of voyeurism. Support for this assessment is found in the BSC’s audience research. Reacting to a clip showing a stripper dancing and sitting on a man’s lap, taken from Friday Night Fever, a late night programme about stripping shown on ITV, a third of the sample of viewers thought it ‘degrading’. Whatever the intent, viewers’ responses are regulated by the embedded cultural codes of pornography (Kuhn 1982). To disrupt these codes and to transform people’s existing attitudes to sex workers takes more than changing the sex of the person behind the camera. Generic assumptions about what and who these programmes are for tie them into a long history of institutionalized reading practices for pornography in which sexualized images of women are coded for men’s masturba – tory pleasure. The devaluing of the women involved is also linked to a history of stigmatization of sex workers that is tied to the power relations of patriarchy. It is to this history that I now turn.

The discursive construction of sex workers in the contemporary media has its roots in nineteenth-century conceptions of gender and sexuality, in which women were defined as ‘other’ to men. Women’s ‘purity’ provided the necessary restraint to control men’s sexual desires. The incitement to loss of control, symbolized in the figure of the prostitute, brought fears of chaos and disorder. Women who transgressed the feminine ideal of sexual restraint were branded as deviant and immoral. Female virtue was defined against the figure of the ‘fallen woman’, whose class or race identity often served to accentuate her ‘otherness’. The binary division between respectable and

disreputable women was also a division based on a spatial boundary between women’s place in the privacy of the home and the dangers of the public street. As well as being defined as a threat to the moral order, prostitutes were perceived as carriers of venereal disease. Soldiers were regarded as the most at risk from infection, thus potentially weakening their ability to defend the interests of the British Empire. This exacerbated the sense of threat that prostitutes posed to the health and safety of the nation and justified state intervention to regulate their activities (Walkowitz 1992). Feminist inter­ventions calling for the abolition of sexual ‘slavery’ originated in campaigns against this policy of imprisoning infected prostitutes. This was reinforced during the suffrage movement in the early 1900s when campaigners were concerned that the existence of prostitutes would undermine the status of all women at a time when they were campaigning for full rights to citizenship.

In the 1970s a split emerged between feminists who opposed prostitution as a form of male exploitation and those who wanted it revalued as a form of work from which women can benefit. Where some emphasized the danger and coercion, for others it was a pleasure and a choice (McLaughlin 1991: 251-2). Although there is agreement between these opposing camps on the overall aims – that is to reduce the harm caused by the industry – there are deep divisions on how this might best be achieved. These disagreements are also reflected in government responses, which vary considerably. Even within the European Union there are diverse policies in place that range from abolition to regulation and even legalization (Kilvington et al. 2001). But since the 1980s, the weight of opinion among feminist activists has shifted from condemnation and campaigns that favoured increased regulation and abolition, to an acceptance of commercial sex as a legitimate industry from which women can benefit if they are given more control over how it is run. Key to this transition has been the redefinition of the people involved as ‘sex workers’.

The term ‘sex worker’ was coined by sex workers themselves to redefine com­mercial sex, not as a social or psychological characteristic of a class of women, but as an income generating activity or form of employment for women and men. . . Similarly, the use of the term ‘sex industry’ was aimed at inclusion of exotic dancers, masseurs, telephone sex operators, receptionists (maids) and a whole host of people (including men) who sell sex.

(Rickard 2001: 112)

One important effect of this redefinition is that sex workers now have a voice to fight for their own rights rather than being subject to philanthropy. They have become involved in existing feminist organizations and set up their own International Union for Sex Workers (IUSW). Among their demands in setting the agenda for reform are calls for an end to stereotypical portrayals in the media through recognition of the diversity among sex workers and their clients. These calls for positive representation are part of a more general campaign for legitimization. In particular, they question that women should always be perceived as passive victims rather than women who make choices to maximize their opportunities for economic security. They also want recognition that sex workers can actively enjoy their work. Negative portrayals are seen as the result of media producers projecting their own feelings about sex being dirty and seedy on to the situation. The resulting stigma provokes and permits violence against sex workers (Mistress L 2001: 148-50). It also affects all women by contributing to the psychology of ‘shame’ that constrains their sexual freedom and prevents women having control over their own sexuality. In seeking to promote pride where once there was shame, the IUSW is using tactics developed by gay rights activists: calling for decriminalization, campaigning against negative media portrayals and organizing celebratory carnivals to turn the secrecy of shame into the public display of pride.

The problems posed by calls for positive representation are in many respects identi­cal to those faced more generally by campaigners seeking to influence the represen­tation of stigmatized social groups. One is the need to recognize diversity within the represented group so that a uniform negative stereotype isn’t simply replaced by a uniform positive stereotype that is just as ‘unreal’. This implies an acceptance of difficult and potentially damaging portrayals among the mix. Concern has been expressed over the incentive sex workers have to portray a falsely positive image of their work in order to encourage more custom. In portraying sex work as an attractive career option, ignorance of the more negative aspects of the job made it easier for women to make their debut selling sex. In effect, it lowers the entry barrier (Skibre 2001). It should instead be recognized that some aspects of the job are positive while others are negative, and these will vary over time, just as with most jobs (Rickard 2001: 128; Liepe-Levinson 2002). Ambivalence towards the job they do is a recurring feature of sex workers’ own writing about their experiences (Johnson 2002). This ambivalence needs to be recognized as existing within individuals rather then being distributed across a class hierarchy in which high-class escorts are glamorized while street workers are portrayed as helpless victims.

In the past few years attention has turned to the global dimension of the sex industry and the flows of people and commodities that thrive on variations in national regulations and economic inequalities. The desire in Britain to seal national borders against foreign ‘contagion’ from hard-core pornography and foreign prostitutes can be understood as a question of both national identity and the protection of markets. It suits established interests in the sex industry who want to protect their business from potential competition from outsiders. European hard core threatens to undermine the dominance of the market by British soft core producers (Thompson 1994; O’Toole 1998). In prostitution an influx of low-paid workers from abroad threatens to undercut the going rates for everyone. But there are strong countervailing forces that arise from the creation of an expanding European Union, the post-communist economic liberalization of Eastern Europe, and the effects of the globalization of capital on the growing inequalities in the world economy. These developments encourage the move­ment of economic migrants into Western Europe with high hopes of improving their life chances. The illegality of prostitution combined with the illegality of working

without a permit undermines attempts to regulate this trade for the benefit of the women involved. This leaves them prey to exploitation by organized crime on the one hand and criminalization by the authorities on the other.

Feminist organizations are campaigning on behalf of these women. Jo Doezema (2001) warns, however, against the danger of ‘Orientalism’ in the interventions made by ‘First World’ feminists to ‘save’ ‘Third World’ women from exploitation. She argues that interventions made by Western feminists on behalf of ‘Third World’ prostitutes deny these women self-representation. It produces ‘Third World’ women as helpless; their only hope is to be rescued by others in true colonial fashion, bringing the feminist values of a more civilized Western culture to bear on their situation (ibid.: 28). This works, she argues, to maintain the superiority of the ‘saving Western body’, while the most likely outcome of legislation to protect women against trafficking will be to restrict the freedom of movement of the prostitutes themselves (ibid.: 24-9).

The debate over sex work is part of a much wider debate about sexuality that has caused deep divisions within feminism. The ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, in which approaches to the censorship of pornography were at the centre of the dispute, remain unresolved (Vance 1992). Sex-positive radicals accuse anti-pornography campaigners of allowing feminism to be appropriated by the conservative puritan agenda. They in their turn have been criticized for colluding with the commercial sex industry in a capitulation to the values of entrepreneurial capitalism, and its structurally embedded racism, homophobia and class exploitation (McLaughlin 1991: 267). Thus there is no one feminist approach that can be mobilized as an intervention in the public sphere. Instead the diversity of views and practices that make up the full range of feminist political arguments should be recognized, if the media are to represent fully those constituencies whose interests are most closely affected by this issue.