Tag Archives: prostitution

Keith Vaz, Brothel Clampdowns and Dark Clouds

When, a few weeks ago, a parliamentary committee – chaired by Keith Vaz MP – declared its support, in an interim report, for decriminalising sex workers, I was sceptical. My scepticism was based, not on inside knowledge of the committee, but on two main things:

  1. The declared purpose of the inquiry was to determine whether clients should be criminalised for paying for sex. But this point was ignored in the interim report. So why was an interim report issued before even considering the most important issue? This remains unclear.
  2. Over recent years, I’ve documented a rising ultra-conservatism which is permeating society, and is prevalent across the entire political spectrum (see my book Porn Panic! for details). Could it be, just as the pendulum is so clearly swinging away from liberal values, that we are about to see sex work fully decriminalised? Much as I’d like to believe that, it seems unlikely.

In the mean time, a couple of things have happened. The sudden downfall of Keith Vaz, following a tabloid sting, has led to him stepping down from the committee. The sting (which involved recording his alleged encounter with two young Romanian men), exposes him as a potential hypocrite (MP IN HYPOCRITE SHOCKER!) and has led to him stepping down from the committee. This was immediately seized upon by abolitionists, who called for the entire review to be scrapped.

Whether it is, in fact, hypocritical to pay sex workers while chairing a committee on sex work, will be left for another discussion. Can one imagine “Hypocrite MP who chaired football enquiry discovered to be Arsenal fan!”? Me neither.

Even more creepy than the carefully planned sting on Vaz was yesterday’s call from the “anti-slavery commissioner” (ugh) for Londoners to shop suspected brothels to the Metropolitan Police. The “sex trafficking” narrative has been escalated to a “sex slavery” one. The new campaign has been accompanied by hysterical language: “…sex workers in the capital were being beaten, raped and sometimes starved by the men controlling them in a form of human slavery that was blighting the capital”.

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The coverage neglected to mention the almost total failure of the police to find “sex slaves”. In fact, raids on brothels have been used to arrest and humiliate sex workers, bust them for drug possession, and identify (and then deport) illegal immigrants. In short, the sex slavery hysteria is yet another new cover for the recently merged anti-prostitution and anti-immigration movements. “Rescuing” has become code for “harassing, criminalising and deporting”.

This new, Stasi-type attempt at citizen spying also ignores the fact that Vaz’s parliamentary committee has recommended the decriminalisation of brothel keeping. The police are ramping up anti-brothel raids under a law that is now widely seen – including by parliamentarians – as outdated and redundant.

Not only have illegal immigrants been targeted in this way, but even legal migrants have been targeted for deportation. In May it was reported that Romanian sex workers – EU citizens – are facing deportation on the basis that they are criminals. And their crime? This is unclear, as prostitution is legal in the UK.

So while we appear to be looking at isolated incidents, these events take place in an atmosphere of rising authoritarianism, anti-sex prudery and xenophobia. While Keith Vaz is in no way a libertine, one can predict with confidence that he will be replaced (on the Home Affairs committee) by somebody more socially conservative.

As I document the rising fascism in British society, I frequently check myself: am I cherry-picking to fit my narrative? Have I been swayed by conspiracy theorists? I’d like to discover that my pessimism about the state of society is misplaced. But sadly, I don’t think it is (feel free to reassure me in the comments section below).

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The Great Sex Work Decriminalisation Swindle

As reported here last week, a parliamentary committee issued a report calling for sex work decriminalisation. My own reaction was somewhat sceptical; in contrast, sex worker activists and commentators rejoiced at a “historic victory” which, to me, didn’t seem much like a victory at all. This rejoicing led to deep confusion among observers, many of whom mistakenly believed that Parliament had rejected the “Nordic model”, which criminalises the purchase of sex.

In the intervening days, my scepticism has deepened. The sex work author and researcher Laura Agustín also questioned the report, referring to it as “meaningless”, and writing on Facebook:

“My advice is do not rejoice: This is stage one of making an anti-sex-buying law in which women selling are decriminalised while men buying are criminalised”

I agree: last week’s announcement was not a win for decriminalisation, but simply a deferral of the key decision wrapped in confusing language. And while, yes, the way is still left open for the committee to back decriminalisation, that isn’t what happened last week. Nor, I suspect, will it be the committee’s final verdict.

No decision has yet been made

First of all, the committee (as it made clear) has not reached a decision on whether to follow the New Zealand model (decriminalisation), the Nordic model (criminalise buyers) or some form of legalisation. Since this is the only decision that matters, then nothing of substance has yet happened. All the committee announced was that, whichever decision it eventually makes, it recommends the reform of laws on brothel-keeping and soliciting. But this is just stating the obvious: whether the committee favours New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, or some other model, there will be no point maintaining existing restrictions on brothels. So the lip-service paid to decriminalisation is – as Agustín says – meaningless, and apparently designed to mislead.

“Decriminalisation” has changed meaning

A good way to tell if you’re winning is to watch the reactions of your enemies. If – as sex worker campaigners claim – this is a victory, then prohibitionists will be fuming, right? Except… they aren’t. What the campaigners seem to have missed is that both sides have embraced the language of “decriminalisation”. Here, for example, is Vera Baird QC:

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“Regardless of whatever brings women into sex work … I fully back the notion of decriminalising sex workers”

Yet Baird is a staunch prohibitionist. This is politics: when your opponent has succeeded in setting the narrative, steal their narrative. Note the subtle use of “workers” rather than “work”. Similarly, the Christian Tory MP David Burrowes has called for soliciting to be decriminalised. Both Baird and Burrowes went on to call for the Nordic model to be implemented in the UK: which is semantic nonsense, since the Nordic model criminalises sex buyers.

In other words, “decriminalisation” can now either mean decriminalisation, or the exact opposite, depending who uses it.

Why has a meaningless statement been issued?

Given that the interim report means almost nothing until the key decision has been made, the question then arises as to why it was issued at all. I asked activists who were close to the inquiry process, but none seemed able to answer the question. The report was clearly issued to get media attention; if it was intended to confuse and misdirect people, it apparently succeeded.

The political climate is ugly

As I have noted for some years, British liberalism appears to be in decline across the spectrum. This is true on both the political right and left; the liberal centre has shrunk as social conservatives and authoritarians have taken over both wings of politics. In this climate, it would be surprising if a radical decision – such as decriminalising sex work – were to take place.

I hope Augustín and I are wrong, and the sex work representatives are right; but as things stand right now, it seems to me that we have been witness to the Great Decriminalisation Swindle.

UK Committee Recommends Sex Work Decriminalisation (Kinda)

British sex workers are jubilant as the parliamentary sex work inquiry, led by Labour MP Keith Vaz, has recommended scrapping laws restricting the sale of sex in the UK. While sex work is legal, sex workers have long called for complete decriminalisation.  In particular, sex work activists have pointed at the brothel-keeping law which effectively prevents two or more women working together for safety.

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The statement includes a quote from Vaz which strongly recommends the scrapping of these laws:

“Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.

The current law on brothel keeping also means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety.”

This is fantastic for those who have campaigned to make life safer for sex workers. There are caveats, however:

“There must however be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers, and changes to legislation should not lessen the Home Office’s ability to prosecute those engaged in exploitation.”

So, for example, it is unclear whether a partner of a sex worker who works from home might still be criminalised. Such a statement suggests that full decriminalisation is not, in fact, on the cards – rather a loosening of existing laws. Nonetheless, life is set to become easier and safer for sex workers in general.

However, this is an interim statement, and there is a huge omission: the committee has yet to determine whether sex buyers will be criminalised under the so-called Nordic Model, which has been implemented in Sweden, Northern Ireland, and most recently in France.

“The Committee will evaluate a number of the alternative models as this inquiry continues, including the sex-buyers law as operated in Sweden, the full decriminalised model used in Denmark, and the legalised model used in Germany and the Netherlands.”

As I reported in my article about France, the introduction of the Nordic model was dishonestly presented as decriminalisation. A Twitter user suggested to me that:

“France is not banning prostitution actually quite the contrary. We are banning the buying of sex and de-criminilising prostitutes” [sic]

So the language of decriminalisation is malleable and slippery. Since “decriminalisation” has become a popular word, so prohibitionists have adopted it and changed its meaning. Shifting the legal burden from workers to clients is not, of course, decriminalisation – it just uses different tools to achieve the same ends; it would also make a mockery of a new law that allows brothels to be kept, but doesn’t allow anyone to visit them.

So there is certainly great cause for celebration, but perhaps the most important decision has been left to a later date. We await with interest.

Brooke Magnanti and Paris Lees Appear at Parliamentary Sex Work Inquiry

An inquiry is currently under-way in the British Parliament into the laws governing prostitution, and last week Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle de Jour) and Paris Lees – both former sex workers – gave evidence.

There are two broad forms that a change in the law might take: either towards full decriminalisation – as has been the case in New Zealand since 2003 – or towards the criminalisation of clients (the so-called Nordic model). While the vast majority of sex workers favour decriminalisation (96% according to a recent survey), the inquiry made clear from the start that it is inclined towards the Nordic model:

“The Home Affairs Committee is looking at the way prostitution is treated in legislation. In particular, the inquiry will assess whether the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it.”

So from the outset, the inquiry appears to be slanted towards a legislative model that is opposed by sex workers: an approach that signals moralistic goals, rather than a desire to reduce harm.

Judging by The Mirror’s account, the discussion was somewhat surreal. Labour MP Keith Vaz, who seems to have a particular, long-term issue with sex work, appeared reluctant to believe the accounts of women who had actually been sex workers:

“Mr Vaz expressed disbelief at when Ms Lees said she’d never met anyone who had felt pressured into becoming a sex worker.”

It is well-known that prohibitionists claim to have met countless women who have been forced into prostitution, but these victims tend to remain invisible, and are apparently never able to speak for themselves. As Lees responded:

“It seems to me you’ve had people at this inquiry who’ve got absolutely no business talking about sex work. Whose only qualification seems to be that they write for the Observer.”

This experience is very similar to my own when debating against anti-porn campaigners. As I wrote in my open letter to the anti-sex Object some months ago:

“It has long troubled me that Object are prepared to make endless claims of rape and sexual abuse against the sex entertainment industries; and yet, to my knowledge, you have filed no police reports.”

Those interested in the issue should carefully watch the inquiry unfold in Parliament. Any truly open-minded exercise would doubtless come to the same conclusion as Amnesty International did last year: full decriminalisation is the only way forward that is backed by evidence. But, I suspect, this is not the recommendation that this particular inquiry will reach.

 

The Biology of Prostitution

The biological roots of prostitution are well documented, but upset religious and political sensibilities.

As a frequent speaker and debate participant on pornography and other sexual issues, I’m often shocked by the lack of scientific understanding of sex, the most fundamental of human issues. This doesn’t just apply to students and casual listeners, but also to many presenting themselves as experts. Science isn’t just absent from the discussion, but often appears to have been deliberately pushed out for political reasons.

Sex is, and always has been, a controversial subject, and so discussion of it is heavily censored. While, on the surface, discussion of sex has become far more acceptable in recent years, in practise, many facts are still considered unpalatable. And no subject arouses more emotion than the evolution of sex as a tradeable commodity: the biology of prostitution.

The idea that prostitution might be a biological impulse can deeply upset those with dogmatic viewpoints. For religious people, the thought of a God that created prostitution is too much to take: fundamentalists are still reeling from the revelation that homosexuality is widespread in nature. But revulsion at the thought of sex trade goes far beyond religion. As the political left has become increasingly conservative in its attitudes, it has become common to blame the existence of prostitution on Patriarchy or Capitalism. Thus, for some feminists, banning prostitution is a part of their war on Patriarchy. And for socialists, attacking prostitution is part of a righteous war against Capital.

But the history of sex trade goes back many millions of years before humanity. To understand how deeply it is embedded in our behaviours, we need to start from the beginning. In the case of sex, the beginning happened about 1.2 billion years ago. Prior to sex, creatures reproduced asexually – by cloning themselves. But cloning simply produces multiple identical copies. Cloned populations lack diversity: this means that they can be quickly wiped out by a disease, climate change or other external factor. Sex fixed this problem.

Sex combines genes from two individuals of different sexes. Unlike cloning, every individual produced is unique. This creates diversity, and makes species more resilient to change; it also vastly accelerates the speed of evolution, by providing far more variety to select from. The two sexes were originally very similar to each other, but quickly sexual strategies evolved, and became more sophisticated. One sex evolved a lazy strategy, and the other responded by taking on most of the reproductive effort. This strategic change defines the sexes. The key difference between males and females is quantitative rather than qualitative: males are low investors in reproduction, and females are high investors. This applies to all sexual species, including – of course – humans.

On the surface then, males were early winners in the evolutionary arms race that biologists sometimes refer to as the Battle of the Sexes. However, although males could (in theory) reproduce at far less cost than females, they faced one enormous obstacle to reproduction: a shortage of available females. Sexual strategies evolved and became more sophisticated. Since reproduction was limited by female availability, then increasingly females could set the terms for reproduction. Males, for whom reproduction was cheap, became forced to jump through hoops in exchange for the right to reproduce.

In some species (such as lions) males are required to violently compete for the right to mate: females simply wait for a winner to emerge. This process means that the strongest, and most violent males get to reproduce, which means that genes for strong, violent males are more likely to be passed down to future generations; this explains why in many cases – especially in mammals – males are bigger and stronger than females, as well as more adept fighters. Human males are around 20% more heavily built than females; in gorillas, the difference is as much as 50%

In other species, males may be required to pay for the right to reproduce. Perhaps the most extreme examples of this are in insects and spiders where males are eaten after sex. The value of reproduction is so high that males will pay with their lives in order to replicate their genes.

Generally though, sex trade is somewhat less terminal than this. Females of many species trade sex for food or other nuptial gifts. This behaviour is common throughout the animal kingdom. Male scorpion flies offer gifts in exchange for sex. Prostitution was observed in penguins over a century ago, and it is common in our close relatives, apes and monkeys.

A Yale economist, Keith Chen, studying whether monkeys could understand the concept of money, made a surprise discovery. Having worked out that coins had value, male monkeys then began to offer them to females for sex, instead of (as expected) trading them for food or drink. As the New York Times pointed out, behaviour that was once assumed to be uniquely human, is actually far more widespread:

“When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex. In other words, they behaved a good bit like the creature that most of Chen’s more traditional colleagues study: Homo sapiens.”

The fact that female sex is far more valuable than male sex provides a strong explanation for many human behaviours. When I recently interviewed black dominatrix Lady Andromeda for the Sex & Censorship podcast, I asked what options were open to people who were down to their last penny. Women, she said, can sell sex. And as for men? “They steal cars, or sell drugs.” This helps explain why the UK prison population is 96% male – a fact that’s hard to explain if one believes (as is fashionable in some places) that the world is run by men, for men. It also neatly explains lower male life expectancies and higher male suicide rates. An understanding of the biology of prostitution provides far better explanations of human behaviour than either the feminist “patriarchal oppression” narrative, or the correspondingly confused claims (by men’s rights activists) that men are oppressed. We are all, male and female, slaves to our biology. We tend to believe that we have free will, but increasingly, science suggests otherwise.

Porn debates I’ve attended tend to be littered with claims that our sexual behaviours are socially constructed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. These ideas aren’t just silly: they’re deeply misguided. If one believes that differences in gender behaviour are primarily social in origin, then it is tempting to look for authoritarian “cures”. If those people selling gay cures are dangerous, then those people who believe men and women should behave the same as each other are far more so.

The good news is that social progress is closing the gaps between men and women. Sexual freedom and migration have significantly brought down the price of sex, and rising food production means that hunger – a major driver of sex trade – is also in steep decline. Correspondingly, violence appears to also be in long-term decline (contrary to popular belief) – at least in part due to the easier availability of sex and food.

This is why anti-sex conservatism – as evidenced by events like France’s recent ban on prostitution – is such a dangerous force. Sexual freedom is about far more than the right to have fun. It affects every aspect of our lives.

My book Porn Panic! is now available for pre-order.

Podcast #6 – Interview With Lady Andromeda

This week’s podcast is an wide-ranging interview with black London dominatrix Lady Andromeda, a sex worker for over decade, who is out and proud about what she does. We talk sex work, slut-shaming and politics. She is on Twitter as @LadyAndromedaUK

The Slut-Shaming of a Sex Worker on Facebook

This story is hardly an unusual one. Sex workers experience slut-shaming and other abuse as standard if they dare have a public presence. I have a number of Facebook friends who are prostitutes, pornstars, webcam girls and strippers, and I’m all too aware how often they are attacked online. I’m sharing these images with permission from sex worker and activist Laura Renvoize, who was the subject of the abuse, and chose to share them on Facebook.

The comments reveal how a pseudo-left, pseudo-feminist narrative is often adopted by middle-class women who feel the need to intellectualise their slut-shaming. These days, since it’s become fashionable to be left-wing (or at least, to sound left-wing), attacks on sex workers tend to be veiled in pseudo-left language. It is fascinating that the old left issues of sexism, racism and capitalism have now become excuses for anti-sex work and other forms of bigotry.

Unfortunately, this is indicative of the intellectual rot on the new left. Simply shouting CAPITALISM has become a substitute for reasoned argument. Note the claim that Laura is ‘a disgrace to women and girls’: in this version of feminism, no woman can be liberated, since every woman is (we’re told) answerable to all other women for their behaviour.

Note also the argument-hopping: Laura is told that her chosen work is violence against women (one would think she would have been the first to notice that) and is then blamed for breaking up nice families by sleeping with attached men and other crimes. Prostitution is said to be a “sick industry that promotes everything wrong with the world”. Entertainingly, prostitutes are often (as here) that told they don’t “value themselves” – a strange accusation to throw at some of the highest paid people in society.

 

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Podcast #5 Vikki Dark Interview

For this week’s episode, I interviewed Vikki Dark, an author and academic as well as ex-pornstar and escort. Vikki has a negative view of the sex industries, and we had a wide-ranging discussion about porn, prostitution, slut-shaming and prejudice in academia. With thanks again to Red Roxy Studios for their support.

France’s Prostitution Ban – and Other Signals of Fascism

France’s prostitution ban is a sign of a deep historical shift in French politics

Yesterday, France adopted the “Nordic Model” for attacking the sex trade, making it illegal to buy sex. As ever, supporters of the attack denied that prostitution was being outlawed – for example, in response to my tweet on the news, I received this:

But it takes a truly Orwellian mindset to believe that one can outlaw the buying of a service without hurting those who sell it. This is, of course, designed to hurt sex workers. The bigotry of the anti-prostitution movement is there for all to see. Sex workers are not divided on this: they are clear, whenever they are listened to, that sex work must be entirely decriminalised. Impartial observers – such as Amnesty International, who recently adopted a policy of decriminalisation – have not found this a tricky, two-sided argument. It is well known that criminalising any aspect of the trade clearly harms sex workers.

So let us not treat prohibitionists as misguided people who care, any more than we should waste breath over whether it is right or wrong to lynch black people or gas Jews. Anti-prostitution campaigners are bigots, plain and simple. They seek to attack what they hate and fear. And this bigotry born of fear and loathing, that is rising in France, is part of a far bigger historical shift. France is sinking back into fascism.

What is disconcerting is that, unlike last time around, the driving force of French fascism is the the political left. A few days ago, for example, French Socialist government minister Laurence Rossignol said that women who wore veils were like “negroes who supported slavery”. The anti-veil law was presented with a thin progressive veneer, using ‘secularism’ as an excuse. But France’s secularism is not the religious freedom of the Enlightenment. It is an opportunity to viciously abuse minorities.

And as the sex work commentator Laura Agustín wrote on Facebook yesterday, this anti-prostitution law, too, is rooted in France’s deep racism: “In France where more than half those who sell sex are migrants the law is overtly anti-migration. The message is if you want to do this – Leave.” France has always been one of the worst places in Europe to be an immigrant. Now the French war on immigrants is getting vicious, and the left is at the forefront of it. The job of far-right leader Marine Le Pen is done: who needs the far-right when fascism is just as comfortably at home on the left?

The collapse of the progressive left is not just a French thing. It is no coincidence that, in the UK, a Labour-led parliamentary inquiry is also trying to ban prostitution. Open anti-sex attitudes, and veiled racist attitudes are now commonplace on the political left everywhere: the recent attack on a student wearing dreadlocks – simply because the student was white – shows the rot is there on the American left too.

As someone who once felt at home on the left, this change in the political landscape is disconcerting. The left’s shift towards fascist attitudes forms the heart of my new book, Porn Panic! Liberal values of equality, liberty and reason are collapsing across the political spectrum. France’s prostitution ban, and that of the veil represent dark clouds rising over the western world.

The Sex Worker and the Man with the Bionic Penis

When he was six, Mohammed Abad (“Mo”), lost his penis in a road accident. It is hard to imagine how an accident like this might blight a person’s life: what the effects on his self-confidence and his adult life might have been. Years later, modern medicine provided him with a “bionic penis” and he could finally think about having sex for the first time.

Mo’s Eight-Inch Bionic Penis

This week, now aged 44, Mo lost his virginity; this was met with an accompanying fanfare of media coverage. The story is a touching, feel-good one, but with hidden depths. It’s also a story of triumph for our National Health Service, which equipped Mo with a new, “bionic” 8-inch penis (Eight inches? One suspects the NHS will be bombarded with demands for the things from men who have perfectly functioning, but average willies).

But the part of the story that most piqued media interest was that Mo’s first sexual experience was with sex worker Charlotte Rose. Charlotte is Britain’s best-known prostitute, and has won multiple awards for her campaigning work. The story of the man with the bionic penis is a reminder of something that is so often overlooked in the debates over sex work: sex workers don’t just provide hedonistic pleasure. They are often the only option for men – and sometimes women – who, for a wide variety of reasons may not be able to find sexual partners.

Many sex workers, including Charlotte, provide services to disabled men with few other realistic options. Sex workers can provide a caring, non-judgemental service to people like Mohammed, who may understandably be terrified about how their unusual bodies might be received by a less experienced sexual partner.

I would challenge those people who seek to ban sex work to meet with people like Charlotte and Mo; to explain to them why people like him should not have the right to pay for sex, when sex is such an vital part of a happy and healthy life for everyone. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the confidence, ability, charm or social network to find regular sexual partners. Why should such people be denied the right to a sex life?