Criminalising sex is a dangerous crusade Antonia Senior
Published at 12:01AM, June 6 2015
Making it illegal to pay for a prostitute won’t stop the oldest profession. It will go underground and put more women at risk
It doesn’t take long to find a prostitute. Ninety seconds on the internet, and I find a list of 19 women who live within one mile of my suburban house, offering everything from fetish work to adult mothering, whatever that is.
Helpfully, previous punters have left reviews. These are reminiscent of the old brothel guides of the 18th century, but without the wit and charm. Most seem to concentrate on the woman’s ability to provide the Full Girlfriend Experience, or GFE as it seems to be known in this peculiar corner of cyberspace. Many insist that the worker in question enjoyed the sex. Of course she did, dear.
It is a depressing foray. Beautiful young things offer acronyms and pictures of isolated body parts to deluded male and female punters. Yes, women too. The same website provided me details of ten straight male prostitutes within a one-mile radius. Aaron, “a young black stallion”, charges £40 for 15 minutes with the lucky ladies. But if I opted to invite Aaron around for a £40 frolic, should that be a criminal offence? In France, it may soon be illegal to pay for prostitutes. Punters face fines of up to £1,200 and up to six months in jail after an anti-vice bill was revived this week following attempts to kill it off. The Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart proposed an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill last year, which would have made paying for sex illegal in this country. It didn’t pass.
The stated aim of the French minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is to “see prostitution disappear”. A laudable aim; as hard to argue against as world peace and kissing kittens. There is a hardening of attitudes to the sex trade in Europe, driven by three factors. The first is a utopian impulse that insists we can eradicate prostitution. The second is a moral crusade. The third is concern for those coerced into selling their bodies.
It is a truism to say prostitution is as old as human history; the temples of early civilisations doubled as brothels and Jesus was forgiving of working girls. But Ms Vallaud-Belkacem hypothesises that if, millennia later, you remove demand, you will destroy supply.
If we’re taking history as a template, can anyone think of an instance in which legal prohibition of something naughty removed, rather than displaced, demand? Humans like sex, and some like to pay for it. I do not have to understand, or condone this, to recognise it as something we have to live with.
But my mild distaste for The Game is another woman’s moral crusade. Ms Vallaud-Belkacem belongs to a tradition that insists all sex workers are victims. This is the feminist paradox: the central tenet of the movement is that women must have the right to make their own decisions. Yet women have an awkward propensity to choose complicity in the exploitation of their bodies. The examples of liberated women behaving in an unliberated way are endless: Page 3, porn, the ambition to marry a footballer, the bikini-clad wife of the tycoon who lets him walk her on a leash like a dog.
My feminist sisters tie themselves in theoretical knots over the paradox. The easiest way to undo this part of the knot is to insist that all female prostitutes are victims — either directly or through the limiting of their life choices by poverty or drug abuse. Never mind that the women themselves, speaking through prostitutes’ collectives, deny they are all victims. Can you successfully ignore all facts that muddy a sexy theory? Welcome to the club of left-wing feminism.
Many women choose to be sex workers. It may be a choice between a low-paid job with long hours, or sex work, but this is still a choice and not an irrational one. Researchers at Leeds University found earlier this year that more than 70 per cent of those who had chosen to do sex work had previously worked in healthcare, childcare or the charity sector — and 38 per cent had university degrees.
Nonetheless, sex work is more dangerous than other jobs. A 2005 study showed that prostitutes were 12 times more likely to be murdered than other women their age. Rape is an occupational hazard.
A proportion of prostitutes are coerced into the game. But how do you differentiate between those who choose the life and those brutalised into it? When does economic migration by a woman who chooses sex work from limited options become trafficked sex slavery? Boundaries are blurred; insisting that they are straight-edged can only lead to poor law-making.
Prostitutes’ rights groups claim that criminalising punters forces sex work underground and makes it more dangerous. Sweden made it illegal to buy sex in 1999, and its government has claimed this has led to a decline in prostitution. Critics say that sex work in Sweden has moved into darker alleys, without declining in any significant way.
Recent figures suggest that 4.2 per cent of British men use prostitutes. In Greater London the figure rises to 8.9 per cent. Depressing statistics. But would we really want scant resources wasted on chasing these punters? What good would it do — and, more to the point, what harm?
We must resist moral crusades against prostitution and attempts to criminalise the profession further. The preoccupation of any legal framework surrounding prostitution must be the safety, health and welfare of the women involved. Prohibition does not help or protect anyone, least of all the women offering a Full Girlfriend Experience and more to 8.9 per cent of the nice, family men in my London nook.