Across the globe, a dangerous, elusive group is gathering force. People call them the Pimp Lobby. The lobby refuses to show its true face, hiding instead behind such apparently benevolent fronts as grassroots activist groups, academics, student unions and sex worker rights campaigners. But make no mistake, the lobby's intention is the same: to protect vast gains; to turn the world into one giant brothel.
Crusaders have begun to tear the mask off this clandestine movement. Kate Smurthwaite, a comedian who's loudly vocalised her belief that paying for sex should be criminalised, recently had a show at Goldsmith's University cancelled as ticket sales were low and a small section of the college's Feminist Society had expressed concern about Smurthwaite's views. In the kerfuffle that followed, Smurthwaite labelled the night "a pro-pimp event".
Meanwhile, calls for full decriminalisation of prostitution and requests from people in the industry that they be referred to as "sex workers" have been slammed as cynical obfuscations designed to deceive the public and keep pimps in business.
Some, however, question the existence of this shady lobby, and instead wonder if the label is just a useful way to discredit loud-mouthed sex workers standing up for their beliefs.
Last week, a new guide was released for journalists (easy prey for this secretive group) advising on how to spot members of the pimp lobby. The guide was produced by journalist and researcher Julie Bindel, representing the National Alliance of Women's Organisations, and Eaves, a charity that provides support to vulnerable women. The press pack offers guidelines on reporting trafficking and prostitution. Importantly, it also advises on "how to identify the pro-prostitution lobby" (AKA the pimps).
"The term [pimp lobby/pro-prostitution lobby] refers to academics and profiteers from the industry who put forward the view that prostitution is a form of labour with no consequences, ignoring evidence of long-term effects and the overall way in which it dehumanises women," Bindel told me.
"The lobby suggests that decriminalising is only to do with protecting women and has nothing to do with protecting profits. It's a bit like the tobacco lobby: not everyone dies or even gets ill from smoking, but the lobby will deny any danger in order to protect its profits. Academics get good money to study the industry, and the viewpoint that 'prostitution is work' is seen as hip and cool."
The launch of Bindel's guide didn't go unnoticed: a protest took place in central London, organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), who are angry about the "misinformation and lies" which, they say, Bindel's work is riddled with.
On Twitter, suspected pimp lobbyists took the piss:
Key to Bindel's new guide is the idea that the distinction between sex trafficking and sex work is redundant. According to Bindel, all sex work is abuse. Women in sex work should be referred to as "prostituted women", all their agency removed.
"In reality, the experience of being prostituted – whether trafficked abroad or pimped/exploited locally, is remarkably similar," Bindel writes.
To back this up, Bindel's guide is full of heart-wrenching statistics. Many of them don't stand up to scrutiny, but how important are a few digits?
Nit-pickers were ready to quibble, and the ECP released counter-claims:
CLAIM 1: Eighty percent of women in prostitution are controlled by traffickers.
FACT 1: This is a lie. Less than 6 percent of sex workers are trafficked. [A study by Dr Nick Mai of London Metropolitan University found that the majority of migrants questioned prefer] working in the sex industry over the "unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs".
CLAIM 2: The average age of entry into prostitution internationally is 13 years old.
FACT 2: This statistic is a lie. It comes from a survey of YOUNG PEOPLE under 18 years old.
(You can see more of these here.)
"Defending sex workers' rights to safety and against criminalisation isn't being pro-prostitution," Niki Adams of the ECP tells me. "Does Bindel not know the difference between workers defending our rights and bosses defending their profits?"
The debate around sex work and trafficking is fierce and ongoing. Neither side suggests that trafficking doesn't exist, but its prevalence and the disproportionate attention given to sex trafficking (as opposed to trafficking for agriculture or domestic labour, for instance) are questioned.
In 2009, the UK's biggest ever investigation into sex trafficking – Operation Pentameter – convicted just five people on the basis that they had coerced the women who worked for them. An analysis of trafficking statistics carried out at the time revealed how "official estimates" snowballed wildly.
More recently, in a wave of panic ahead of London 2012, Olympic boroughs were put on alert for a deluge of trafficked sex workers, but, in the event, well-funded NGOs failed to find anyone to rescue. Likewise, after 2013's raids on the flats of Soho sex workers, no women were found to have been trafficked.
With stories like these fuelling the flames of the pimp lobby's quest, abolitionists must be vigilant. At every turn, the movement is there with its bold claims that "sex work is work", and that women's safety is best served through full decriminalisation, allowing women to organise and work together for safety.
At last year's Amnesty AGM, when the charity voiced support for the decriminalisation of activities related to the buying or selling of consensual sex between adults, those in the know could see what had really happened: this respected, global NGO was not acting in the interests of women's safety; it had been infiltrated and subverted by the pimp lobby.
Those who fall into the so called "pro-prostitution" camp have defended themselves, claiming that women's welfare is their top priority and that they believe the focus on trafficking obscures other dangers that sex workers experience.
Alex Bryce is director of the National Ugly Mugs Scheme, which allows sex workers to anonymously report abuse. The organisation has more than 2,300 sex workers signed up and receives 40 to 50 reports per month.
"We have had no incidents of trafficking reported to us, and that's quite revealing to me," Bryce told me. "We've had more cases of inappropriate behaviour and unacceptable treatment of sex workers by police than sex workers being exploited, controlled or trafficked. The conflation of sex work and trafficking results in harm to sex workers and also moves resources away from combating real trafficking."
Anti-trafficking projects are high in the funding league: in 2011, the EU gave nearly £10 million to projects with anti-trafficking aims, while the US government gave $50.7 million (£33 million) to international projects and another $20 million (£13 million) to domestic ones. According to the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), these projects have overwhelmingly failed to help the women they serve. The GAATW believes this could be linked to the strong anti-prostitution bias within the field.
"The US government's anti-prostitution pledge requires organisations seeking US funding to agree an organisation-wide policy opposing prostitution – something that GAATW strongly disagrees with," the organisation said in a statement.
While Bindel's 2006 "Press for Change" report (included in the latest press pack) was funded by a US Department of State grant, and her partner organisation Eaves was recently awarded European Commission funding, collectively, sex worker organisations across the globe run on an estimated €8 million (£5.9 million) a year, according to the Red Umbrella Fund.
The British sex workers rights group Sex Worker Open University describes itself as funded in "bits and bobs", from £20 private donations to small grants from sponsors like the Edge Fund.
"Our running costs aren't high, and we're all volunteers who are current sex workers or non-sex workers supportive of sex worker rights," a spokesperson told me.
Launched in 1975, until two years ago the ECP was funded from the pockets of its members – none of whom were pimps or managers. Today, funding covers only the production of a rights leaflet for sex workers. The organisation's main spokespeople are volunteers.
Despite this, Bindel warns that the pimp lobby is groaning in cash. Her guide states:
"One of the reasons why you will have pro-sex industry contacts in your book as opposed to abolitionists is because many of them are extremely well-funded, and therefore have more time to talk to journalists."
Some have suggested that this is not entirely helpful:
While others wonder when they get their pimp lobby perks:
And some have complained about the negative racial overtones of the term:
The "lobby" is gathering steam. Across the globe, reputable organisations support the rights of sex workers: the UN has called for the decriminalisation of brothel-keeping and the purchase of sex; evidence from medical practitioners in the NHS suggests that decriminalisation allows for the better delivery of sexual health services; the World Health Organisation is on side; UN Women, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health are all on side.
For their part, sex workers continue to deny that the "pimp lobby" exists, suggesting the term is simply a method employed by people like Bindel to make their testimony irrelevant.
"We cannot actually be telling the truth and must therefore be the pimp lobby, that shadowy cabal that controls every sex worker who does not scream victimhood," sex worker Jem writes on her blog.
Be vigilant, citizens.
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