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I t was in the early s, when the British feminist Sheila Jeffreys migrated to Australia, that she realised just how huge the global sex industry had become. Prostitution had been legalised in Australia in and, looking through the newspaper one day, she realised with horror that women were being advertised for sale alongside their photographs. 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.
As professor in political science at the University of Melbourne and a long-term activist against sexual violence, Jeffreys' books include Anticlimax, which laid bare the myth of the s sexual revolution, and Beauty and Misogyny, which uncovered the brutalities of the beauty industry. She tells me that The Industrial Vagina came about when she realised that the sex industry was "spiralling out of control". Jeffreys' book explores how the sex trade has been transformed from a small-scale, furtive, vilified industry, into a hugely profitable and legitimised one.
As such, the text teems with startling figures. Or the detail that the pornography business is now so successful and mainstream that it is covered by the financial newspapers, with some companies, such as Beate Uhse - Germany's most successful sex-shop chain - listed on the stock exchange. This has been happening at a time when women's power has supposedly been increasing. Why would prostitution, stripping and pornography become more popular as women take a stronger public role?
Jeffreys tells me that because women are now "able to say 'no' more often to degrading sexual practices", the use of prostituted women is a way for men to uphold their traditional privileges. Jeffreys has also discovered just who is making money out of this market. It is, of course, a huge earner for pimps, traffickers and brothel owners, but many others are profiting too: hoteliers make extra revenue by supplying prostitutes to businessmen; taxi drivers make commission by delivering male tourists to particular brothels.
Where is the criticism from the left of this gross capitalist industry? We can slate the tobacco and nuclear industries, but not the sex industry, in which the poorest and most disenfranchised women are abused. The women involved rarely make money from prostitution, she claims, despite the popular view that the work is highly lucrative for them. Jeffreys has never been afraid to address controversial topics, a trait that has gained her many detractors, as well as admirers.