Decriminalising prostitution would write injustice into law. We should be fighting for an end to the violence of prostitution, writes JO BARTOSCH
IT WAS nearly a year ago when Dennis Parsons, a local councillor in the town I grew up in, apparently suggested that prostitution should be recommended as a legitimate career choice for school leavers.
In the inevitable news frenzy that followed he attempted to explicate his remarks, claiming that “we are conditioned as a society to see sex work as unsavoury” and that it had been his intention to remove stigma from “sex work” by drawing a comparison with professions like accountancy.
I must admit to feeling somewhat sorry for Parsons; what he said was the obvious corollary of the “sex work is work” mantra. After all, if prostitution is rebranded as sex work, and a job like any other, his question about careers guidance in schools is perfectly reasonable.
That “sex work is work” is a position adopted by many apparently progressive men from John McDonnell to the chief executive of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty.
Both men are proponents of the full decriminalisation of prostitution, which would allow pimps, brothel owners and punters to operate without the fear of prosecution.
Nonetheless, anyone who purports to believe that “sex work is work,” or that decriminalising pimps and punters will protect women, is either ignorant about the realities of the sex industry or a misogynist.
Since 1990, there have been 153 murders of prostitutes in the UK. Given that the mortality rate for those in the sex industry is 12 times the national average, it’s perplexing that so much emphasis is placed on ending stigma rather than ending the demand for prostitution.
Unlike stigma, “consent” can be universally understood. One might ask: “Why do some men think it’s acceptable to have sex with someone who would not agree if they didn’t need money?”
Interestingly, the estimated one in 10 men in this country who use prostitutes are neither put off by the stigma nor by using money to coerce women into having sex.
It isn’t stigma that those in the sex industry live in the shadow of; it is violence.
For many it is violence that has led them to prostitution; a peer-reviewed study across nine countries revealed that 65-95 per cent of women in prostitution had been sexually abused during childhood. Indeed, significant numbers enter prostitution as children.
As campaigner and sex trade survivor Rachel Moran recalls: “What’s the youngest girl you’ve got?” is the most common question put to those who answer phones in brothels.
Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among women who have been in the sex industry are comparable to those of soldiers returning from a tour of duty; studies suggest two thirds of prostitution survivors are emotionally numb and tortured by recurrent nightmares and flashbacks.
It’s comforting to believe that sex workers are empowered women who are celebrating their sexuality and exercising agency.
It would be much easier to pretend that the four out of five foreign nationals who work in London’s brothels could have just as readily chosen to become hairdressers or bus drivers.
Even the poster girl for the “sex-work-is-work” brigade, Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle du Jour), recently revealed that her “choice” to become an escort was in part because she “ran out of money” and was “desperately afraid of sleeping rough.”
I understand Magnanti’s reluctance to pitch this story for the Diary of a Call Girl, the glamorous TV series that was apparently based on her experiences; the realities of prostitution aren’t nearly as saleable.
Make no mistake, “sex work” as a positive choice is a myth that’s as actively sold as it is hungrily consumed.
At an international level, Alejandra Gil was one of the key proponents of decriminalisation, informing UN policy and advising Amnesty International. Gil is currently serving a 15-year custodial sentence for people-trafficking.
Our readiness to accept a convenient lie is illustrated by the inflated media profile of “sex work” lobby groups.
As Kat Banyard revealed in her meticulously researched book Pimp State, the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) is in reality a closed group of 10 “sex workers,” an undisclosed number of whom are pimps (or “managers” as they prefer to be called).
It’s hard not to salute its chutzpah — the IUSW claims to represent thousands of sex workers and has pushed the case for decriminalisation to government.
The claim made by English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) that “prostitution is about money” is on point.
In its helpful “myth-busting” guidance ECP notes: “There is growing evidence that cuts in benefits are causing prostitution to rise.”
As readers of the Morning Star will know, austerity has not cut us all equally; figures suggest that women have borne the brunt of cuts across all income groups, with black, Asian and minority ethnic women particularly hard hit.
Surely the solution is to demand better living standards for all and not to make it easier for men with money to coerce women without into having sex.
The damage the focus on the “agency” and “choices” made by individual “sex workers” cannot be underestimated.
For example, it has been reported that social workers in the recent cases of grooming understood the victims abusers to be their boyfriends.
Blaming victims for choosing to be abused is the logical point of arguments that elevate respecting personal “choice” above critiquing a broken society that offers women and girls who need money such limited “choices.”
No-one wants to see prostituted women criminalised, and to right that injustice the feminist organisation Nia recently launched a fantastic campaign to wipe criminal records for soliciting.
Criminalising women only compounds the suffering of the vulnerable, but it is essential that we send out the message to punters and pimps that the trade in women’s bodies is abuse.
Full decriminalisation as in New Zealand, and legalisation as adopted in Germany, have led to an increase in trafficking and violence. In Sweden, the pimps and punters who use prostitutes are criminalised and actively pursued, whereas the women who sell sex are supported with counselling, drug rehabilitation and healthcare.
The numbers speak for themselves; in Germany there have been 69 murders, 28 attempted murders and two disappearances of prostitutes in the 13 years since prostitution was legalised. In Sweden, one prostitute has been murdered — reports suggest that she was killed by her boyfriend who was also her pimp.
Prostituted women are collateral in the attempts of misguided politicians to prove their liberal credentials. Decriminalising prostitution would write injustice into law, sending the message to some of the most vulnerable women in our society that their abuse is sanctioned by the state.
No-one should be coerced into selling sex for money, and as socialists we should be fighting against the injustices and inequalities that lead to this most heinous of human rights abuses.