It won’t have passed you by, no doubt, that one of the most divisive people in UK politics, has publicly backed a move towards the full decriminalisation of the sex industry. Jeremy Corbyn quickly became the site of focus for a bitterly waged battle on the merits or demerits of various forms of legislation regarding prostitution. Notable MPs in the Labour Party such as Harriet Harman and Jess Phillips expressed their chagrin for his pseudo-pragmatic stance.
Indeed, given the recent ratification of it as a principle by Amnesty, the pro industry lobby have become somewhat totalised in their belief that it is the absolute right answer to the problem of prostitution. Indeed, many don’t even view prostitution as a problem at all.
However, there are indeed some inadequacies within some of the discourses buoyed up by the pro industry lobby, that many are not willing unpick, or even admit to, it their dogged pursuit of their own truth.
1. It is Only radical feminists who are critical of decriminalisation.
This is a myth that the pro industry lobby often like to propagate, as a way of undermining any criticism of their cause. A socially untrusted group of people, often due to masculine power clinging and misogyny, feminists who disapprove of decriminalisation are often dismissed as puritans and pearl clutchers. However it ignores the fact that society itself has mixed feelings. A recent YouGov poll demonstrated that only 54% of people questioned favoured the move – an extremely narrow majority. Added to which, women themselves are incredibly reticent about the idea of full decriminalisation.
Despite what the pro lobby think, they can’t just convince men and sex workers that decriminalisation is the right measure. As Helen Lewis recently argued, this is a form of social policy that has ramifications for the wider society; the sex industry does not exist in vacuum. A much larger majority, including that of women more generally, need to be on side before such a radical social change could be administered.
2.‘Sex Workers’ are a monolithic category…
Again, as Helen Lewis argues, one of the flaws of the pro industry lobby, is their insistence that the public listen to ‘sex worker’ voices; a position undermined by the fact that, in no way, can all of those in the industry (or having exited the industry) have the same views and ideas on the things. Firstly, the language utilised is, in and of itself, problematic. ‘Sex worker’, is a politicised term that has ostensibly come about to professionalise, in the cultural imagination, the role of the prostitute in society. However, what has actually happened, is a consolidation of various wings of the sex industry to fit under one, neat, safe banner.
We are no longer talking solely about prostitutes, we are including in our debate strippers, webcam performers, centrefolds and most problematically, agency owners and brothel keepers. We are smoothing over the real, physical, lived realities in order to create a seamless political category. Now, a brothel keeper is put under the same ‘occupational’ banner as a street prostitute, and their needs are broadly considered tantamount. It is akin to giving a consultant doctor and a hospital porter the same job description. Clearly, one doesn’t have to be a radical feminist to see there being some material problems with this rhetoric.
3.…and a social demographic.
Added to which, there is a political agenda amongst the pro lobby to polish those who have experienced prostitution into a socially recognised demographic (curiously enough, as well as an occupational group – whatever works!) akin to ethic minorities or members of the LGBT community. Ostensibly, this is to protect prostitutes from violence and hate crimes – a decent aim. However, and notwithstanding endemic violence against women as a whole anyway, we are in danger of utilising this idea of sex workers as an inherent social demographic, to shut down any attempt at criticising the sex industry, even if on the whole you don’t have an intrinsic problem with sex for sale.
If you criticise, for example, the proliferation of mega brothels from a socialist perspective, you might still be at risk of being labelled a ‘SWERF’ – or sex worker exclusionary radical feminist. Criticising an industry is NOT the same as having bigoted values towards racial or sexual minorities. As a former prostitute myself, I feel somewhat more comfortable in being sex industry critical -however I worry that a generation of, particularly, young women are feeling compelled to publicly support the aims of the pro industry lobby, or at least stay quiet about it, lest they are labelled a sex worker hater.
4. Being For Decriminalisation is a socially liberal position.
The pro lobby fight for the legitimisation of prostitution as an industry, has often compared itself to socially liberal battles, such as that for equal marriage for the LGBT community. This is a disingenuous position, not least due to the reasons highlighted above. Unlike personal relationships, or expressions of religion or politics, prostitution is not a solely social issue, it is also an economic one. When highlighting caution against the movement, more often than not, the view is that – of course – the prostitutes themselves should be decriminalised, and they should be able to work together in cooperatives.
However, the full decriminalisation of prostitution is – in effect – an argument for the full industrialisation of prostitution. For businesses to be able to leverage their wealth to build large brothels and chains, thus consolidating potential industry profits and hiving them off into smaller and smaller numbers of hands. It is a form of Supermarket Economics that disempower smaller traders and produce makers.
Those who want prostitution to function ‘just like any other business’, and for it to be fully incorporated into our highly, free market, neoliberal, unequal society do so out of an ideological desire to see prostitution legitimised, as opposed to concerning themselves with the long term effects. In doing so, they oscillate wildly between talking about prostitution as though it were a private, personal transaction (in which case surely they would prefer the current legislation to be tweaked, rather than overhauled) and a business. The first point – that prostitution is a private affair – is duplicitously used to shore up the proponents of the industrialising agenda.