By Rebecca Hewer.
In the past thirty or so years policy interventions concerning prostitution have focused on the women who sell sex. Whether it’s prostitution as public nuisance, prostitution as public health risk or prostitution as an inevitable accompaniment to the scourge of drug use, our policy makers have done much to address the supply of sex, but little to address the demand.
There are a number of explanations for this trend. Prostitutes are the more visible community and are thus easier to target. Prostitutes are more likely to be marginalized, whilst the men who frequent them are often respected members of their communities. Many believe that purchasing sex is merely the expression of normal male sexuality and that to penalize men for following their basic animal urges would be prudish and overly authoritarian.
Things may, however, be changing. Albeit slowly. Many local authorities now include prostitution in their violence against women strategies. In Scotland, Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, is proposing a bill that would criminalize the buyers of sex. And in England and Wales, a relatively recent amendment to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes it illegal for a man to buy sex from a woman who is being forced to sell it, regardless of whether or not he is aware of said force. The relative impunity of the buyer may, therefore, be drawing to an end.
There is by no means, however, a consensus on the matter. The subject polarizes the feminist lobby. There are those who believe prostitution is a legitimate form of employment and should be legalized in order to allow vulnerable women to become economically independent, whilst others argue that all prostitution is exploitation born of the culture of objectification which so oft prevents women from obtaining equality. Some might say that the debate transcends normal political distinctions. I, however, disagree. For me, opposing the legalization of prostitution and advocating for the criminalization of the purchase of sex is a left wing issue. And here’s why:
- The belief that someone should have the right to buy sexual services is indicative of a commitment to market principles. It’s the idea that all things can be commodified, given a price and sold – that the worth of something is always measured by how much we are willing to pay for it. In the market, money reigns supreme and all other, more humane, considerations are represented as ideological drivel incompatible with the ‘organic’ existence of capitalism.
- Much of the debate is predicated on the idea of ‘choice’: the idea that the right of the individual to choose should take precedence wherever possible. Individualism trumps communitarianism. This debate hinges on the mythical idea of the happy and empowered prostitute, who willingly sells sex. Why, we are asked, shouldn’t she be allowed to do so? And we reply: because she does not exist in a vacuum. The vast majority of prostitutes are vulnerable, subject to coercion, and daily the victims of violence. They need our protection. We do not legislate for the one, we legislate for the many. We should not run a society in the best interests of the lucky minority, but in the interests of the vast majority. And why prosecute the buyers rather than the sellers? Because we should not persecute the vulnerable, the poor, the exploited but we should hold the influential and wealthy accountable for the harm they cause by abusing their positions of power.
- The criminalization of the purchase of sex is integral if we wish to achieve the aims of the wider equality agenda. The success of the sex industry is predicated on the objectification, commodification and sexualisation of human beings. People are marketed by use of their defining characteristics: their race, their disability, or their age. A woman who is pregnant can expect to make more money than a woman who is not – because pregnancy is seen as a more finite commodity demanding a larger price tag. And this dehumanization entrenches ideas of worth which harm the road to equality we all so much wish to travel.
Prostitution may not be an issue that feminists can agree upon, but it should be one the left can agree upon. The sale of sex is the most troubling form of wage slavery we will ever encounter. The sale of human beings can never be made acceptable. There is no way to incorporate prostitution into mainstream society whilst striving for equality and there is no way of protecting the vulnerable without prosecuting the powerful.
Rebecca Hewer is a Young Fabians Member.