Monday, September 10, 2007

The price of sex

It seems there may be plans afoot to criminalise the buying of sex (in the UK) mimicking the Swedish approach to prostitution. Because these are not fleshed out proposals there are a number of grey areas of detail.

Such as in what circumstances would the purchase of sex be illegal? Currently kerb crawling is illegal but having someone come round to give you a "massage" is not - where would the line be drawn? There is also particular reference to trafficked women - would this be specifically mentioned in the legislation?

Whilst it's clearly a progressive reaction to try to shift the focus of legislation away from the prostitute onto the client I'm off the opinion that we should be removing punitive criminal charges from the buying and selling of sex altogether, and this legislation, if enacted, could well end up being a backwards step.

The state should be focusing on both the criminal activities that often go hand in hand with the industry and the protection and care of sex workers helping them to get out of the vulnerable situation that they may well be in. Both the accompanying criminal activity and the protection of sex workers themselves is currently given little or no priority precisely because of the industries part-criminalised status.

Cari Mitchell of the English Collection of Prostitutes told the Guardian that the Swedish model had been a "disaster" for Swedish prostitutes. "Criminalising clients forces prostitution further underground. Women have even less time to check out men fearful of arrest. Instead, women are pushed into more isolated, less well-lit areas where they are more vulnerable to attack. Whatever anyone thinks about men paying for sex, safety should be the priority."

What, at first glance, may feel like legislation to defend women actually harms their ability to protect themselves whilst at work. The use of the possession of condoms as evidence of sex work, for instance, simply encourages unsafe practices pushing the sex industry further out into the dark corners of society.

I don't want to portray prostitution in a sensationalist way or as glamorous or filled with victims who've had no choice about their situation, we need to be clear headed on this I think. Diane Taylor has an excellent piece in Comment is Free today where she makes some important points on this;

"Ideologically unpalatable though it may be to some, the majority of women involved in prostitution have made a choice to sell sex, because they see no alternative way of earning what can sometimes be substantial sums of money. Undocumented migrants in particular have few options available to earn money. The twilight world of prostitution in a rich western country is one. Their goal is to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, and they see this as one of the few ways they can do it."

In the left / feminist sphere "sex positives" have been attempting to take on the moral backlash against prostitution, rightly asserting the right of women (and men) to take part in the sex industry in a safe, empowering and unashamed manner - but the focus is always on the right to sell sex, and protecting those who do so rather than the buyer. That's something we need to explore a little I think. If it's okay to sell sex how can it be not ok to buy it?

They make the point that society's view that sex is a special case and cannot be regarded as a form of labour is a valuable one because it goes directly to the cause of prostitution's ghettoised, yet ever present, status in society. It's also one that's hard to take at times. I know which industry I'd have preferred my Mum to work in... but it's an argument we'd be unwise to ignore because of its centrality to our attitudes towards sex work.

Of course this is not the position of all the left. The SSP have tended to take a strong line that prostitution is down the line violence against women, although if you look at items like their pamphlet on prostitution published a few years back they clearly have a more nuanced approach when given time to explore the issues more carefully.

The fact is that the arbitrary line we draw where a client visiting a prostitute is doing wrong and the viewer of porn, who is absolutely "enjoying the fruits" of the sex industry, is engaging in acceptable, if private, behaviour is one worth exploring. This seperation of ourselves into discreet, commodifiable parts which we can partition off from the social relations that create and inform them is, seemingly, a ubiquitous phenomenon in modern capitalist society. For example, when the magazine FHM can publish revealing pictures of a 14 year old girl against her consent I think it hints that the dividing line between respectable society and its untold, forbidden side is not so thick at all.

If we really want to protect vulnerable women (and I hope we do) then we need to re-examine the drugs laws. We need to look at wages, and child care and housing. We need to look again at the trafficking laws which are used to deport women, not protect them from abuse and contribute to the feeling that they are unable to come forward if being abused (there was an interesting article on this in feminist review a little while back).

The English Collective of Prostitutes argue that we need to "Break down the division between prostitute women and the rest of the community, enabling sex workers and other residents in red-light areas to work together on the basis of common rights, needs and aspirations."

We can't do this through repressive legislation - only through progressive policies in the economic, social and legal spheres. They argue that sex should not be seen as a special form of labour and that we should "Separate consenting sex between adults, which should have nothing to do with the law, from offences of nuisance, which should be dealt with on the basis of what the nuisance is rather than who the person is."

It seems to me that this is a good place to start. To chip away at the "otherness" of sex workers rather than shifting the authoritarian gaze to a different part of the industry.


Natalie Bennett said...

Very well put.

Jim Jay said...


Anonymous said...

You should find these articles interesting
The Swedish Model of Criminalizing the Purchase of Sexual Services -written by a British woman Negative consequences
of the Swedish law against the purchase of sexual services

Dorothea said...

Yes, a very interesting post, thankyou.

You’d think that it would be straightforward common sense to end all punitive measures against sex between freely consenting adults, and the same with drugs, putting the focus solely on welfare issues. The GP policy you reference seems excellent, I’d be interested to see the drugs policy.

The main obstacle seems to be the people who cling on to their monotheist “certainties”. It’s difficult to know how best to tackle such people. The commercialisation of absolutely everything causes a lot of misery too.

Can we learn from the experience of other countries such as Australia and New Zealand?