Efforts to decriminalise prostitution won’t help sex workers but instead empower a layer of brothel bosses, argues RAE STORY
THERE are two predominant forms of libertarianism, the first being concerned with the liberty of the individual (or the personal) and the second with the liberty of commerce.
To illustrate, in the US, corporations have a certain amount of “personhood” status and, in some cases, money can be argued to be a form of “freedom of speech.”
This is an important manipulation, as it uses the language of the individual in order to further the potential growth of the already powerful.
Prostitution is also a salient example of the confusion between notions of personal and commercial freedom.
The proponents of the industry often talk about it as a form of personal liberty, consensual adult activity or even an extension of sexual orientation.
However, they do this while arguing for the freedom of the business to run, to develop and even expand.
This needs referencing with regards to current debates about prostitution, and specifically to the grand march among “sex worker organisations” towards full, unadulterated decriminalisation.
It is the model that is favoured in New Zealand, and its great sell is that it assures the general public that any problems involved in prostitution will be simply deregulated away.
You’ll notice, however, that the problem these organisations deem most significantly solved by decriminalisation is that of stigma.
The idea is, if we are to remove the social stigma surrounding prostitution, all other problems associated with it will also be miraculously fixed.
In one study, even though it was clear that punter violence and “poor boundaries” within the transaction contributed to the mental health problems of prostitutes, the biased researchers chose to focus in their conclusions mainly on stigma as a cause.
Why is this happening? The smashing together of elements of the libertarian and a regressive form of personal identity feminism has resulted in the belief that we should be able to do whatever we like, but we shouldn’t be able to think or say whatever we like.
Ergo, prostitution should be decriminalised and “set free,” but those who criticise the sex industry, even as they would any other potentially exploitative industry, should be muzzled.
There is even a term for it, “Swerf,” or sex worker exclusionary radical feminist, and it has been propagated with the intention of making it akin to being called racist or homophobic.
But decriminalisation is a fairly straightforward form of economic libertarianism, disguised as social progression.
It doesn’t intend to free the individual to sell sex — that is already legal in Britain — it intends to free the business of selling sex.
In places where there is legalisation or decriminalisation, a supermarket form of economics has permeated the prostitution business.
Mega-brothels have sprung up, which offer women up in mass numbers for relatively low prices.
The brothel decides on the cost, the commission, the working environment and, as I know from my own experience working in a decriminalised brothel in New Zealand, the management can be extraordinarily avaricious.
Indeed, things seem to have only got worse. Chelsea is currently working in a brothel in New Zealand, and she confirmed that, in the short time of decriminalisation, the management have got increasingly demanding.
“Yes, both the price and our fees have been put up but not our pay. Our advert fee is up to $40 and shift fees $40, so if we get one half-hour job earning us $80, we actually get paid nothing and if we purchase condoms we actually get in debt $25. Or $29 if we rent a locker for our things, which is necessary, as desperate hookers take everything, and (given the situation) I can’t really blame them for it.”
In a recent set of interviews I conducted with prostitutes, Laura was scathing about brothel work in Britain and was vehemently opposed to decriminalisation.
“Women lining up in lingerie to be picked is degrading and humiliating and should never be legal. Also the tiny amount of money you make per customer in brothels once management take their cut, means you have to see lots of men per day, one after the other.”
If we had decriminalisation, these brothels would be enabled to grow and pursue ever more profit.
The biggest brothels would require financial leverage to get going, and so the wealthiest people would have the most movement to define the industry in their favour.
Why then, are sex workers’ organisations so keen to affirm the model if it benefits the brothels and not the prostitutes?
Many have argued that these organisations have become peppered with brothel and escort agency owners.
Douglas Fox runs an escort agency and is a predominant activist with the International Union of Sex Workers.
The organisation Coyote, a purported prostitution trade union, has been argued to consist of 3 per cent prostituted women, with the other percentage “vested interests.”
These organisations frame themselves as trade unions, but an organisation cannot really define itself as such if it is not a workers’ body which negotiates between the workers and the industry owners.
These organisations, arguably, are instead, lobby groups for the protection of the industry, not the prostitutes. Hence why the focus of these organisations is so vociferously on stigma. In some instances, stigma is actually an accomplice to guilt.
Not the guilt of the men who buy sex or the managements that organise the business so as to benefit themselves, but the guilt the wider society experiences at having women from poor backgrounds being used in this manner.
What these organisations offer the general public is enormously attractive. We don’t have to negotiate with prostitution as a problem, we just have to let the free market do its work.
We don’t have to concern ourselves with the ramifications for the women used in the sex business, we just have to accept that as long as we don’t criticise that business, the women will be OK. They will even thrive.
As Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues: “[Liberals’] claim to want nothing but the lesser evil, once asserted as the principle of the new global order, gradually takes on the very features of the enemy it claims to oppose. In fact, the global liberal order clearly presents itself as the best of all possible worlds: […] and it ends with imposing its own market-liberal utopia.”
Rae Story worked in prostitution for 10 years in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. She now writes about the sex industry from a feminist and socialist perspective, including critical commentary on brothel decriminalisation, legitimisation and other associated topics. You can find her blogs at inpermanentopposition.wordpress.com.