Young women with low-paid jobs in retail are dead useful, aren’t they? I don’t mean just for stacking shelves and beeping stuff through the checkout. I mean as a debating device for the middle-classes, people who’d never dream of finding themselves on their hands and knees in Asda, making sure the Moshi Monsters tinned spaghetti hadn’t got mixed up with the Third & Bird wholewheat pasta shapes.

When I was growing up, for instance, the threatened penalty for not working hard at school was “ending up on the sweetie counter at Woollies”. Whereas to me this would have meant strawberry laces on tap, to my parents this meant only misery and failure. It’s only in a post-Woolworths world that we see how much worse it can get; if the pick ‘n’ mix counter were open today, it’d be run by staff receiving only JSA for their troubles.

In his desperate defence of Page Three, Neil Wallis asks “why shouldn’t a girl stuck behind the bread counter at Tesco, an office girl down the local council, the unemployed, find a new glamorous life via Page Three?” Why not, indeed? Well, mainly because no one  finds “a new glamorous life” simply by virtue of there being mundane wank-fodder in your average newspaper. But still, bread-counter girl comes in useful if you’re wanting to cast all your opponents as snobby, middle-class know-it-alls who want to rob the little people of their simple pleasures. It doesn’t matter that these simple pleasures aren’t there for them, as long as they – the unspeaking, non-real poor – are there for you to patronise and misrepresent.

I was reminded of this while reading an interview with Kat Banyard – “Britain’s leading young feminist”, no less – in the Guardian. There is much about this piece that is annoying, although to be fair not all of this is Banyard’s fault. She can hardly be held responsible for the fact that interviewer Decca Aitkenhead throws in mentions of dungarees and catfights, all the while nodding approvingly at Banyard’s self-effacement (“no Andrea Dworkin sloganist, dramatising defiance via dungarees, nor a gladiatorial Germaine Greer show-off, nor another glossy Naomi Wolf”. Phew! Those other white feminists – they’re just way too noisy, aren’t they?). But Banyard is responsible for making the following argument when asked whether, with appropriate legislation, there can ever be such a thing as an OK sex industry:

No. There can’t. You can’t commodify consent. The inherent harm at the heart of this transaction we see evidenced in the astronomical rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a result of having repeated unwanted sex because you need the money. It’s often argued that it’s just like stacking shelves. That it is ordinary work, just like any other work. But if you’re stacking shelves, is it a bit different if your manager says: ‘Right, before you go at the end of your shift can you give me a blowjob?’ Would you feel uncomfortable about that?

To be honest, I probably would feel uncomfortable at that – especially as it has sod all to do with stacking shelves (and perhaps also because I’m crap at blow jobs). Nonetheless, I also feel uncomfortable about this as an argument. Who is Kat Banyard – or any other privileged, middle-class feminist – to speak of the relative impact of sex work when set against that of stacking shelves?

Clearly Banyard has researched this more than I have, as her reference to “astronomical rates of post-traumatic stress disorder” show. But she still speaks of an industry which does not have the values and regulation that others propose. Moreover, to then bring in our ever-useful supermarket girl with her “ordinary work, just like any other work” feels disingenuous. No work is “just like any other work”. Some jobs are really, really fucking awful and taking your clothes off doesn’t have to come into it.

My worst ever job was in a motorway service station, clearing tables. It was boring, smelly and low-paid, but all the same, I knew it wouldn’t last. I was still at school, living with my parents, and for me it was pocket money. The job I have now is a million, trillion times better. I can moan all I like, but it is a total dream compared to that. The fact that I am paid more to do something that I often enjoy seems positively unfair. And if I didn’t have this option – if I did find myself choosing between stacking shelves and sex work – then I don’t know what choice I’d make. I don’t know the relative values – the losses and gains. I don’t know how much of yourself you lose by doing any job that is undervalued, exploitative and badly paid. I don’t know how much trauma is associated simply with being poor.

I do not wish to suggest that supermarket work is miserable or that it’s worse than endless hours of stark, painful, depersonalising sex. Nonetheless, “unwanted sex” feels like a term which is both over-used and poorly defined. Does it mean any form of sexual activity in which one or both participants is/are motivated by something other than sexual desire? If that is the case, then I have had plenty of “unwanted sex”, not due to pressure or coercion (I’d give that kind of sex a different name), but because I have my own motivations and make my own choices. They’re not always the most beneficial choices, but they’re mine. You could argue that it’s better to have a dull, boring shag in return for money than in return for … Well, some of the reasons I have used in the past are so ridiculous I’m not going to mention them. Besides, I worry about being judged. I worry about people assuming my decisions weren’t really mine to take.

A whole range of inequalities limit the choices we make. Why single out particular ones – ones which, in a fairer world, we may indeed choose not to make – as more pitiable than others? Banyard claims not to believe “anyone has the right to judge another woman for the choices she makes in a highly sexist culture”:

Women have to find ways to survive and get by each day, and how we do that will depend upon our circumstances. I think judging other women on that basis is the antithesis of what feminism is about. And we need to have our sights set on the structures and the industries which feed this culture, who are the ones driving it and reaping the profits from it.

On this, I am broadly in agreement with her. But the phrase “find ways to survive and get by each day” sounds inappropriately forgiving. Women – working-class women in particular – might need more choices, but they don’t need forgiveness for the choices they’ve already made.

Reading Banyard’s words, I become slightly – but only slightly – more sympathetic to the argument against No More Page 3 made by Martin Robbins. I still believe No More Page 3 to have been a wildly inappropriate target, but if the central point is that sex, if freely chosen, doesn’t have to be nice, aesthetically pleasing, or even orgasmic, then I’d agree. It’s just sex. Your motivations are your own business. Your freedom to choose your own destiny should, however, be everyone’s concern.

Well, that’s the end of that post. I truly hope that somewhere out there, there’s a blog written entirely by women who work in supermarkets, where they pontificate endlessly about what middle-class feminists and disgraced former newspaper editors really want …