Friday, 22 May 2015

The Sex Work Debate

On May 13th, I was in the audience for the misnamed 'London Thinks' debate at Conway Hall on sex work. There was precious little thinking going on as two sets of allegedly empowered females went hammer and tongs at each other from fixed positions. There was certainly no serious representation of the male point of view, barring an excellent call from the floor for positive unionisation of sex workers by a representative of the TUC. The audience was quite factionalised and often aggressive (despite some very able chairing by Samira Ahmed).

The most useful intervention, other than the TUC speaker, came from a pleasant young female and black Londoner (again from the floor) who refreshingly rose above a sea of identity politics to talk in a matter of fact way about the sexual culture of young males in her circle with tolerance and openness. If this is the young today, roll on time so that they can run the country!

On the one hand, we had representatives of the anti-sex work lobby who seemed to rely on dubious statistics, ideological formulations that stereotyped males (such as the villainous and insulting term 'rape culture' and the absurdly simplistic 'patriarchy') and the extrapolation of horrible personal experiences into general public policy,. This is never ever a good idea. Their final position was the Nordic Model - the criminalisation of male customers and (allegedly) social services support for vulnerable women, although how the hell that latter would happen, in an age of austerity and all-round administrative incompetence and authoritarian malice in the lower reaches of our system, beats me.

On the other hand, we had what amounted to a small business lobby speaking the language of quasi-Thatcherite economic rights set in a stone of centre-left theory about exploitation. Ideology again - almost pat out of a lobbying text-book. They seemed to see the male as little more than (ironically) an object - the customer or 'punter' to be fleeced of his funds. However, their solution to a social reality was far more sensible - the so-called New Zealand model of decriminalised but regulated sex work designed to ensure health and safety and legal protection for the workers.

I was persuaded that this latter model was the right one although I have been struck by the comments of a friend about German decriminalisation which seems to have solved the problem it was designed to solve - taking organised crime out of the game much as the legalisation of betting did in the UK many years ago - only to entrap women in classic large-scale capitalist enterprises where the conditions are better but not good.

There is damn-all for sex workers if big capitalists skim off the earnings of labour on the standard capitalist model and nothing is done about stigma or the wider social conditions that lead to vulnerable or poor women being directed into this work reluctantly because there are no alternatives. One suspects the Germans are simply trying to corral their vulnerable migrants and underclass into manageable units rather than invest in policies that might raise questions about the single market, incompetent pan-European law enforcement and the costs of transforming the conditions of the lower decile in any society by bringing to bear the resources and skills of the upper decile.

The point is that our society should cut through all this nonsense and get down to basic principles. The problem of sex work is lack of consent on the one hand - which the sex workers themselves point out can be handled with improved and better financed law enforcement that respects the sex workers as persons - and general economic conditions on the other. If a sex worker actively chooses sex work, then this is her or his business and as he or he is right that the alleged prostitution of the body is no worse (subject to health and safety considerations) than the alleged prostitution of the mind by a corporate lawyer (under some circumstances). There is also many a male trapped in a loveless marriage and a dead-end job whose liaison with a sex worker is the only thing between him and suicide - the girls in such cases should be trained as social workers, be considered economic assets and get a regular living wage.

Issues of consent can be handled by sound policing while those of reluctance and poor choice by decent social policies that educate and help people out of poverty, alongside regulation for health and safety, and, above all, the elimination of the vicious stigma applied to these people and their dependants. What is not helpful is driving this trade underground so that the nice people cannot see it (oooh, look the law is working! like hell!), creating the illusion that there is no problem by having periodic show trials of punters or (on the other hand) banging up the girls (in particular) in cattle farms albeit with human resources departments and regular visits from government inspectors.

We need reforms not to the behaviour patterns of women and men (we are dealing with human beings here and not Kantian saints-in-waiting) but to the behaviour patterns of bureaucrats and policemen. We still do not have, as the Rotherham abuse cases have shown, social strategies for investment in the most vulnerable people in the care sector aged between 12 and 18 nor do we have a strategy for handling the massive flow of economic migrants which feeds the sex trade's worst aspects.

Instead, the moralists and fools simply want to throw those women and men who have reached some form of stability in life and have made choices as human agents, no different from those have others stacking shelves or waiting at table, into the hands of the criminal classes. They also clearly want to have males who purchase sex treated as if they were paedophiles, humiliated in show trials. We are still not dealing with the central causes of paedophiliac exploitation as Government works hard to evade its historic complicity in its criminal networks, so it is scarcely likely that the same people will get much of a handle on migrant and underclas exploitation without revolutionary change in our national political culture.

Everyone evades what is necessary - national investment in bringing the most vulnerable to the point where they can make sound and healthy decisions for themselves and the encouragement of conditions for sex work in which the sex workers themselves own their own businesses and bodies and law enforcement actively protects them from bad customers and the underworld alike. There is much to be said for the New Zealand approach in this context - as a start. Above all, if sex work is to continue at all (and it will, regardless of governments) it should be under conditions where the price goes up and the sex workers get the profits precisely because the only people doing it are the people who want to do it rather than because they have no choice in the matter. The moralists and seventies radicals should back off now and leave it to the socialists and trades unionists ...