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The law and policy of sex work: I

Posted at 14:45 on 3 Nov 2010 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: other pictures, Politics, Sex worker rights

The mainstream debate about sex work legislation seems to have hotted up lately, and strangely, what I've seen hasn't made me as frustrated and angry as it usually does. I'm not saying that the legislature will do anything sensible in Britain any time soon, but I've seen some encouraging signs that the decriminalisation argument is gradually growing wings.

Firstly, I was startled by these tube adverts the other week, from the Economist:

"Typical," I thought. "Why are these 'controversial' issues always framed in such a way that it affirms right-wing ideals? It claims to be provoking debate but in the meantime, there are big ads everywhere saying prostitution is a crime, not a business - surely that's got to have an effect on people."

It wasn't until I went back through the same station on my way home that I noticed the advert next to it for the first time:

So much for leaping to conclusions! That's nowhere near as bad as I feared - both arguments laid out in a reasonably balanced way. I mean, it's simplistic and they aren't the arguments I'd necessarily have chosen, but as a debate it's certainly presented more neutrally than I at first assumed.

For reference, here are my answers to the points on the "crime, not a business" ad:

1. It exploits vulnerable people, so society should not condone it.

'Prostitution' doesn't exploit anyone, just as or 'nursing' or 'data entry' or any other profession doesn't exploit anyone. People exploit people - and by definition, exploitation is done by people with power to people they have power over. People are are intrinsically no more likely to exploit vulnerable people in the sex industries than in any other industry. Arguably vulnerable people are more likely to end up in sex work than other lines of work, but one of the things that enables exploitation is the fact that sex work is criminalised. If sex workers enjoyed the same legal protections as other workers, they would be at far less risk of exploitation.

2. If sex has a price, it loses its value.

Again, I can only unravel this one by looking at other lines of work. If a teacher is paid to teach, does that mean that the time and energy they put into bringing up their own children is worthless? If a cleaner is paid to clean, does that mean that it's worthless if they voluntarily do some housework for their partner? Of course not. The existence of sex work does not suddenly make all sex innately transactional. It can still be given for free, and is worth just as much as it always was to the person I'm sharing it with. If I have sex at work, it doesn't devalue the sex I have in my leisure time, just as being paid to appear in spanking films doesn't devalue the play I enjoy in private.

In addition, it's arguable that most sex is transactional, but in a less explicitly negotiated way - people have sex in exchange for all sorts of things, be it nice dinners, intimacy, someone to talk to or anything else. There's nothing wrong with that; a healthy human is inevitably selfish in many ways and most people make choices on the basis of what will benefit them. Arguably, a sex worker is more ethical than, say, a person who puts out in order to manipulate someone into doing something they want, because the transaction is explicitly negotiated and consensual. (This obviously only applies to consensual sex work, but forcing someone to have sex against their will is called rape, and there's already a law against that which has nothing to do with sex work legislation.)

3. If Britain legalised brothels, it would become a centre for seedy sex tourism. London can do without its own version of Amsterdam's red light district.

This is transparent NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). London is already a global centre for sex tourism, it's just mostly underground rather than officially sanctioned. This means that the workers enjoy far less protection and security. People who argue for criminalisation are essentially saying that they would rather enjoy a surface a veneer of 'morality' than make sex workers safe. No person with a shred of compassion should give this argument any credence.

I think the arguments given for 'prostitution as a business' are reasonably sound, if again inevitably simplistic. The only comment I would make is about the first one:

1. People should be allowed to buy or sell whatever they like, including their own bodies.

This stems from the association of liberatarian attitudes to decriminalisation of prostitution with libertarian attitudes to the decriminalisation of drugs. While many people, including myself, support both measures, I don't think you have to accept the latter to accept the former, and entangling them like this helps neither debate.

Mostly, though, this is simply an inaccurate description of prostitution. Sex work is not selling your body - it is hiring it out, for a pre-agreed time period and under strict terms and conditions. Selling your body would mean voluntarily selling yourself into slavery, and as far as I know no-one does that - even BDSM practitioners who enter slavery usually have time periods and terms written into their contracts. Selling someone else into slavery is a wholly different thing, and is a revolting human rights violation regardless of whether they are subsequently used as sex slaves or any other type of slave labourer. So "selling yourself" is, in fact, impossible. If we want this to be a rational debate, let's stop using language which is distracting and inaccurate.


In my next post in this mini-series, I'll talk a little more about the libertarian contribution to the debate, with reference to the most recent meeting of the Westminster Sceptics.


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