29th June 2016

The Boundaries of the Body

Saturday 28th June
The politics of the sex industry, and why we must criminalise demand.
Finn Mackay | Activist, founder of the London Feminist Network

Finn McKay 1

Finn Mackay, the founder of the London Feminist Network, is a prominent activist for women’s rights, who was also responsible for the revival of Reclaim the Night in London. We speak with Finn about prostitution and the commodification of sex.   Do you think that prostitution is something we should unilaterally condemn? I think the global, multi-b...

Finn Mackay, the founder of the London Feminist Network, is a prominent activist for women’s rights, who was also responsible for the revival of Reclaim the Night in London. We speak with Finn about prostitution and the commodification of sex.


Do you think that prostitution is something we should unilaterally condemn?

I think the global, multi-billion dollar sex industry is something that we should condemn, and we can do that without being against the individuals who find themselves struggling to earn a living within that industry. I support the Nordic approach – which many other countries are looking into, including Scotland and France – which is to decriminalise everyone involved in the industry, and instead criminalise demand. In 1999, Sweden made it a criminal offence to buy and sell sexual access to the bodies of other people.

What is it that makes sex different from any other activity that we commodify through work?

Well the boundaries of the body and of bodily integrity are written into our laws, and we seem to understand them and find them commonplace everywhere, it seems, except for within this debate about prostitution and the prostitution industry.

So, for example, our law recognises a difference between being punched in the face, which would be common assault, and being raped. Those are two different things. If a man, for example, was to be anally raped, he would probably consider that quite a different crime to him being punched in the face, and indeed our law would recognise them as different. The rapist would receive a harsher sentence than the man who punched him in the face, because it’s breached bodily integrity and the boundaries of one’s own body and control over one’s own body. So we do understand the two things as separate.

Do you think that the majority of women in the sex trade are in some sense coerced into it either by society as a whole or by their circumstances, or do you think that it’s a personal choice they’re making that they still shouldn’t be allowed to take?

I think most people working in the prostitution industry, men and women, are there because they have found themselves within a limited set of options. They find themselves, not in circumstances of their own choosing, with limited options, and out of those limited options, survival sex for money becomes a viable option.

Obviously not every single person in the prostitution industry is being coerced in the sense we would understand. I’m sure not all of them have drug problems, not all of them have violent pimps, not all of them suffer from homelessness. But around the world people in the sex industry do tend to be marginalised in lots of ways.

That doesn’t mean every individual finds themselves in those circumstances, but it does mean we shouldn’t sell down the river the vast majority for whom that is the case, and pretend that people are making a glamorous, valid career choice to enter the sex industry when I just do not believe that is the reality. The research does not bear that out to be the reality for the majority of the people in the world.

Is breach of bodily integrity the criterion for prostitution being socially unacceptable? If someone engages in sex acts that don’t involve this breach, is that the same as doing any other vaguely sexualised job, such as modelling?

Well I think the whole sex industry is founded on inequalities of sex, race and class. It could not function if we did not live in an unequal society, so I don’t think we can live in an equal society while it still functions. It’s profoundly gendered: the majority of those people selling are women, the majority of those people buying are men. It is a gendered institution that depends on men’s superiority over women, and I think we have to look at that gendered dimension. We have to look at what it says about society, which is that it makes a mockery of any claims to equality as long as we live in a world where a man can pick up the phone and order a woman like a pizza.

I’m against the global, multi-billion dollar industry for political reasons, not for moral reasons. As a feminist, I don’t have a problem with sex and sexuality; I want women to be able to explore, express and enjoy their sexuality without stigma and without shame. And if anything, it is the prostitution industry which tries to aggrandise women for sexual behaviour, whilst shaming and policing and hurting women for the same.

Do you foresee any particular strategies that might help us deal with the problem of prostitution globally, rather than just within Britain?

Yes. I would definitely support the approach adopted by Sweden in 1999, and I would say that such approach needs to be rolled out more widely. The statistics are contested, statistics are difficult, but there are official groups and third-sector charitable groups in Sweden who say that that law, which criminalises demand – so it criminalises the punters and decriminalises the people involved in the industry – has reduced people being trafficked into the country, has reduced on-street prostitution, and has certainly reduced the numbers of children involved in prostitution. It hasn’t eradicated it, but it has reduced it. Because if you reduce demand, you reduce the numbers of people involved in prostitution, which is why I think it’s so important that we focus on the demand side.

How do you think that this plays into the debate around pornography? Do you think the two issues are linked?

I think prostitution and pornography are linked, because often they are part of the same sex industry. Often women in pornography do find themselves coerced in certain ways, if we look at histories of poverty, of marginalisation. Also, women in the pornography industry do report being violently forced and coerced: they report bad treatment, they report sexual violence, they report things happening to them that they never agreed to, against contracts that may have been signed.

In some cases pornography is just a visual account of a woman’s sexual abuse and sexual assault. So, in that way, the two are definitely linked, but of course they’re also part of the same sex industry, which is founded on the inequality of women vis a vis men, which is the product of a patriarchal, sexist society, which is why it also has to be ended.



Sign up now for unlimited access to iai news.

You have reached your article limit.

Sign up for free

Join iai+ now to enjoy unlimited access

iai news

Get full access to our fortnightly ideas magazine, with features and interviews from the world's leading thinkers.

Have your say

iai tv

Watch more than 500 talks and debates across four channels of programming.

Hear it first


Be the first to discover the programme for HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's biggest philosophy festival, and enjoy exclusive iai+ insider offers.

Unique events

iai academy

Join our digital courses taught by renowned scholars from the humanities and natural sciences.

Read More:
Watch More:

Related articles

Join the conversation

to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started:

Gilbert Reid 2 on 03/07/2014 1:41pm

Criminalizing the customer merely drives the sex trade underground and therefore leaves sex workers without any protection and liable to the worst kinds of exploitation - including murder. The article above is gesture politics and ideology, a priori and self-righteous, and not really serving the interests of women or men. Perhaps it would be nice to have a world without prostitution (are dominatrixes who most often don't have sex with their clients prostitutes by the way?) and pornography (who defines the limits of pornography? Mennonites? The Taliban? The Pope? Cosmo Magazine?) but it will never happen - you might as well try to abolish desire. Invasive repressive totalitarian utopianism, as manifest in the above article, is as we know the enemy of the good society and of meaningful reform which is respectful of men and women and of people in general. Sweden is a fine place, but in many respects it is not a model of the 'good society'. In any case, men are not the only users of pornography, nor of professional sexual services.

Culture & Sexuality on iai tv
Most viewed
  • Unilever Debate Social2
    Rethinking Feminism
    We think feminism fights for equality for everyone. But from the right to wear headscarves to t...
  • 445 The Laughing Philosopher credit to Paul newman V3
    The Laughing Philosopher
    To be taken seriously is an accolade for the thinker. But from Nietzsche to Derrida, big ideas ...
  • time3
    Masters of the World
    For Euclid and Pythagoras, mathematics was the secret language of reality. Yet Godel demonstrat...
  • mind machines
    Mind Machines
    40 years on from the film 2001 many of its predictions have come to pass - videophones, flat sc...
  • extended mind
    The Extended Mind
    Rupert Sheldrake reveals how even in our most ordinary perceptions our minds are not confined ...
  • science delusion
    The Science Delusion
    Is the world really a purposeless machine? Independent scientist Rupert Sheldrake challenges th...
  • habits of nature
    The Habits of Nature
    Do natural laws evolve over time? Biologist Rupert Sheldrake questions science's fundamentals. ...
  • terror222
    The Death of God and the War On Terror
    How did the death of God give birth to Western capitalism and the religious fundamentalism of I...
  • Bold Text
    Example: [b]Bold[/b]
  • Italic Text
    Example: [i]Italics[/i]
  • Underlined Text
    Example: [u]Underlined[/u]
  • Struck-out Text
    Example: [s]Struck-out[/s]
  • Colored text
    Example: [color=blue]blue text[/color]
  • Alignment
    Example: [align=right]right aligned[/align]
  • Code Block
    Unformatted code block
    Example: [code]Code block[/code]
  • Email link
    Create link to an email address
    Example: [email]you@yoursite.com[/email]
  • Email link
    Create link to an email address
    Example: [email=you@yoursite.com]Email[/email]
  • Unordered list
    Unordered list
    Example: [ulist][*]unordered item 1[/ulist]
  • Image
    Show an image in your post
    Example: [img]http://www.website.com/image.jpg[/img]
  • Website link
    Link to another website or URL
    Example: [url]http://www.website.com/[/url]
  • Website link
    Link to another website or URL
    Example: [url=http://www.website.com/]Website[/url]
Sign up to iai+ to get free unlimited access to all articles on iai.news and all videos on iai.tv, as well as advance notice of the events.
You can watch up to an hour of video per month and 20 mins of any one video without signing up.
You have read 4 articles on iai.news. To read more than 6 per month you need to join iai+. Joining iai+ is free and gives you free unlimited access to iai.tv and iai.news.
You have read your maximum monthly limit of articles. Join iai+ to view an unlimited number of articles on iai.news and videos on iai.tv. Joining iai+ is free and only takes a minute.
Why sign up for the iai?
  • All you can watch
    Unlimited access to hundreds of hours of debates and talks from the world's leading minds, all for free.
  • Have your say
    Join the iai community and engage in conversation and debate around the issues that matter.
  • Hear it first
    Be the first to hear about our video releases, articles and tickets to our festival HowTheLightGetsIn.