In this interview, I talked to Miss Matthews, a dominatrix and porn maker, about her (almost) 25 years in the sex industry, which began after she dropped out of Oxford University aged 19. Does she regret anything? And that eternal question: how would you feel if your daughter wanted to do this? This audio version is initially for patrons only. The video will be published later on my YouTube channel.
This is a slightly longer, unedited version of my article The Price of Sex, which appeared in Quillette recently.
Working as a photographer for a charity a few years back, I was travelling through Malawi and stopped overnight in a mining town. It was a Wednesday, and myself (plus the local charity workers I was travelling with) headed out to a bar. Other than a woman serving at the bar, everyone else there was male. Some were playing pool. Some were drinking, but most were doing neither. I asked the bargirl why there were no women in the place. Responding as if I was slightly dim, she explained: “the men get paid on Friday”. On the surface, in a mining town, the gender pay gap is huge, with the vast majority of money officially going to men. And yet, by Saturday morning, much of the cash has been transferred to bar owners, prostitutes, girlfriends and wives. A privileged observer might suggest that women in such a town should be ‘liberated’ to earn their own money. But the point is that they are. While most would agree that women should be free to take mining jobs if they choose, it’s unlikely that many women would want such gruelling, dangerous and unhealthy work when being a bar prostitute, a girlfriend or a wife to a miner is available as an alternative.
The total value of the sex trade could be said to be the value of the net transfer of wealth from men to women. How can we begin to value an industry this big, ancient and diverse, especially when much of it – probably most of it – is undocumented and untaxed?
During another African trip – this time to Bamako in Mali – I asked a young man whether he had a girlfriend. He explained “Non… pas moto, pas copine”. He had no moped, and so, no of course he didn’t have a girlfriend. He told me that the girls back home in his village were friendly and open, but the big-city Bamako girls had higher expectations. So of course, buying a moped became a first priority for any aspiring young Malian. I had noticed that Bamako’s streets were filled with mopeds, mostly driven by men, but often with women sitting on the back. For a man, a moped means sex as well as transport. These anecdotes point towards the difficulty involved in calculating the extent of the sex trade. Some percentage of Bamako’s moped sales represent a hidden transfer of wealth from men to women: men buy mopeds, and (attractive) women therefore get free transport. What is this transfer of value worth?
Now consider how many similar transfers of wealth take place. The UK flower industry was worth almost £1bn last year. Of course, flowers are bought by many people for all sorts of reasons, but many are bought romantically by men for their female partners, or for courtship. What about restaurant meals, hotel rooms, concert tickets, diamonds, taxi fares, cocktails, vacations…? What proportion of money spent by men on these things is related to a promise, a hint, or a mere hope, of sex, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled? Historically, what proportion of the silk carried (invariably by men) along the Silk Road found itself worn by the wealthy wives and mistresses of Europe?
Males (in our species, and others) are, by definition, the low-value sex. The key difference between males and females in reproduction is that males are low investors and females are high investors. Female birds and reptiles lay big, nutritious eggs. Female mammals have to carry (and feed) infants for weeks or months of pregnancy, and then suckle them afterwards. Even in plants (at least those species that produce separate male and female flowers), the females are forced to invest more. It is no coincidence that marijuana farmers destroy male plants, and retain the females for their big, resin-heavy flowers. Females are more valuable, almost everywhere.
This truth about sex displays itself very differently in different species. In humans, it is expressed in a trade that is fundamental to us, and has shaped our recent evolution. In an essay titled Why Do Men Hunt? (published in a collection titled Why Is Sex Fun?), the science writer Jared Diamond explains the evolution of hunting skills in human males. His explanation? That men developed hunting skills and tools in order to acquire meat that could be traded for sex. Our recent evolution was heavily shaped by trade. Humans may not have the speed, strength, teeth or claws of most predators, so our brains evolved instead. Our ancestors developed language, teamwork, advanced weapons and the ability to strategise, because these abilities improved our chances of reproducing. A man who was a good hunter brought meat back to the clan, and a man with meat will mate more often and produce more children. The children in turn inherit the skills of their hunting fathers. The evolution of the modern human brain coincided with the extinction of the largest mammals (megafauna), on every continent, starting around 125,000 years ago. Until the rise of modern man, being big was a tried and tested survival mechanism. Humans changed that – the largest mammals were an early casualty of the human sex trade.
If Diamond answered the question Why Do Men Hunt?, the answer to the corollary question Why Don’t Women Hunt? was obvious. Women didn’t hunt (in the traditional sense at least) because they didn’t have to. Hunting was dangerous and required a large investment of valuable calories. Why hunt when men will bring you meat? This does not mean of course that women were freed from intra-sex competition. While men competed with each other in terms of hunting abilities such as strength, agility and technical innovation, women competed to win the best meat (and sperm) from successful hunters. While female competition was less physical than the male variety, it was no less intense, and was focused on presenting attractiveness and youth (which are proxies for fertility and genetic health). Women therefore took a lot of interest in their own, and their rivals’ appearances, both in order to copy techniques that other women employed to maximise their attractiveness, and to socially shun and stigmatise younger and better-looking rivals.
And so a primitive economy was born. The sex trade launched technological and economic growth, and the sex roles continued broadly as they had begun. Men relied on innovation, risk-taking and social status to attract mates, and women became skilled in the arts of attracting (and preferably keeping) a mate. As the male-led industries evolved and diversified from their origins in hunting and fishing, thousands of new industries, roles and professions were spawned.
The original female industry – the sex trade – was undoubtedly far bigger than any of the other (male-created) industries, because its role was to collect a dividend on all male-led activity. The greater the innovation and diversification of male-run industries, the larger the sex trade became.
As civilisation evolved, so did the sex trade. It began with ‘primitive prostitution’ – straightforward trades of meat (and other rare gifts such as honey or decorative items) for sex, but with technological advances such as private property, money and contracts (verbal or written), it became increasingly sophisticated. Private property allowed a man’s social status to be valued based on his wealth (which of course, he took care to signal loudly). Publicly-acknowledged contracts allowed the development of marriage, in which women could offer exclusive access to their fertility in exchange for a male promise to provide for them (and their children). Sexual exclusivity was valuable to men, who now had a level of certainty over having fathered their children. In exchange for this guarantee of paternity, men paid far more for sex with wives than they would for casual sex.
A value hierarchy emerged, with wives at the top above mistresses, then prostitutes, and at the bottom, ‘sluts’ – women who committed the sin of giving away sex for free. Each layer in the hierarchy undermined the value, and so incurred the wrath, of the layers above. It is no accident that today, the leading anti-sex campaigners (those who seek to restrict prostitution, striptease, pornography and other expressions of sexual freedom) are female. To reduce the availability of sexually available young women in society is to strengthen marriage, and push up the price of sex, the female commodity.
The price of (female) sex is driven by men’s ability to pay, and by availability. Unlike virtually any other commodity, the supply is fairly inelastic, since biology mandates (approximately) a 50-50 population balance between men and women. This means that, as the male-led industries have grown exponentially, the price of sex has kept track. While the average price of sex is very hard to estimate accurately, the price of prostitution is a good proxy and is easy to measure. Cultural, economic and demographic changes have had the effect of increasing or reducing the price of sex. Wars and famines that reduce the male population more than the female will naturally affect the ratio of supply to demand and lower the cost of sex, and sex-selective abortion of girls, such as that seen in China and India, will increase it. Similarly, mass migration will tend to raise or lower the price, depending on the culture and gender balance of the migrants. When Polish people won free movement into the EU in 2004, I heard complaints from both low-skilled male friends in the building industry, and from sex workers that rates were being undercut by the new migrants. The Economist suggested in 2014 that German sex workers had felt a similar effect. But (the Economist reports in the same article), the price of sex has declined globally in recent decades, reflecting other trends including online advertising for sex workers, hookup culture driven by dating apps, and reduced social stigma for sex workers and women engaging in casual sex.
Uniquely as a commodity, the price of sex varies immensely based on the wealth and social status of the buyer. For example, in divorce cases, the value of years invested by wives is calculated based on the wealth of the husband. Possibly the greatest sex trade in history was the the $38bn divorce settlement from Jeff Bezos to his ex-wife MacKenzie. Although this was justified by the fact that MacKenzie had helped in the early stages of founding Amazon by driving cars and doing the accounts, her payout would have been far less if she had not also shared the founder’s bed. Her sexual value is considered equivalent to his role in creating one of the world’s biggest companies.
If the Bezos case represents the most valuable sexual contract on record, one of the most expensive individual shags in history was achieved by Boris Becker, who managed to impregnate a Russian model (Angela Ermokova) in a cupboard at a cost of £20m ($25m). As in the Bezos case, the value of the sex (and the payments for the resulting offspring) was based on Becker’s wealth rather than either the local average price of sex or the typical cost of raising a child. The acquisition of a wealthy man’s sperm is a lucrative niche of the sex trade.
Unsurprisingly, sex workers are better aware than most of the value of sex, and less ashamed to discuss it without euphemism. I’ve seen posts from sex workers asking for free services, from photoshoots and car repairs, to video editing and rodent removal.
How does one value all this free stuff, given willingly by men in exchange for sex, or a hope of sex, or merely to impress an attractive woman? This question is probably unanswerable to any degree of certainty. One thing is sure though: for men, sexual and romantic relationships can be expensive. In 2017, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that men from poor backgrounds in their forties were twice as likely to be single as men from wealthy backgrounds. Another British study revealed that men spend about £1,300 a year more than women on dating. Dating is not just a way to discover a person’s personality, but a way to assess a man’s wealth and generosity. Women are advised by friends to ‘value themselves’ and not sleep with men on a first date. The modern generation of dating apps produce data that reveals the extent of difference between male and female courtship behaviours. A study on Tinder for example found that men have to swipe right about 15 times more than women to get a similar level of response. These are not marginal differences, and they shine a light on an old reality: that female sex is vastly more valuable than male.
We may not be able to calculate the extent of the wealth transfer from men to women, but we can gauge the scale of the trade by examining male and female relative outcomes. The gender pay gap has become well known, and is widely (and falsely) presented as evidence of female disadvantage. The gap is typically calculated at between 10% and 20%. Not only do women earn less than men on average, but they work for fewer years of their lives than men. On this basis women must – surely – be poorer than men? If they are, this will be easy to demonstrate via various metrics. A naive researcher might expect the outcomes for gender to be similar to the racial disparities in the United States, where African Americans are paid less (on average) than Whites or Asians. Predictably, this racial pay gap is represented in other metrics: African Americans are more likely to be jailed, to be shot by police, and (most important) to die younger than other groups. Life expectancy is an excellent proxy measure of general wellbeing.
And yet, when the same measures are applied to gender, the outcomes are the reverse of what might be expected. American men are more than ten times more likely to be imprisoned than women and around 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police. Similarly, women outlive men significantly. How is it that women should be nominally poorer than men (based on pay differences, at least), yet by all metrics of wellbeing appear to be better off? This difference in lifespan tends to be blithely dismissed as ‘biology’, but this alone is no explanation. Yes, biology is the underlying reason men have worse outcomes than women. Not because men are inherently prone to die younger, but because the sex trade requires men to take the greatest risks and the toughest jobs.
The reality of these outcome disparities is that black people represent a disproportionate proportion of America’s least successful 20%, and so do men. America’s prisons are full of poor people (disproportionately black and disproportionately male) who broke the law, in many cases, because they could find no other way to survive. Middle-class women have little understanding of how poor communities function, and so will happily accept ‘toxic masculinity’ explanations for male criminality. But working-class women tend to see things more clearly. When I interviewed Lady Andromeda, a black, south London sex worker, she explained simply: in poor communities, women can sell sex and do relatively well. In fact, working-class women in London who sell sex can easily earn more than most middle-class men. But what options do men have in the poorest communities? “They steal cars, or sell drugs,” she said. It is not, of course, that women cannot do these things. But they have a safer, better-paying, and (in London at least) legal alternative. This is why poor men are far more likely to end up in prison, or murdered than either poor women or wealthier men.
So women, thanks to the sex trade, have better outcomes than men. This still leaves the chicken-and-egg question: does the sex trade exist because women choose it, or because (as feminist theorists may claim) it is forced upon them by systemic misogyny and glass ceilings? Clearly, women do greatly better than men in poor communities and mining towns, but what about at the high end of society? We are often told that the gender disparity in corporate board positions is proof of a male-rigged system. Wouldn’t women become CEOs too, given the opportunity? It appears not. The book Superfreakonomics outlines a study of male and female MBA graduates. While women earned similarly to men early in their careers, the wage gap rapidly increased. However, it was found that women “…who leave the workforce are disproportionately those with very high-earning husbands.” It appeared that female MBA graduates often used their MBA to marry high-earning men rather than pursue long-term business careers. On paper, their earnings fell behind men, but in practise their lifestyles were upheld by switching some of their corporate earnings for sex trade earnings. After all, being a senior manager of a large corporation is punishing, involving long hours, endless travel, and missing out on social and family time. Is it better to be a CEO or a CEO’s wife? Each shares the same wealth, home, vacations, but arguably, the CEO’s wife has a better lifestyle than her husband.
From Jared Diamond’s question Why Do Men Hunt? to the modern versions: Why Do Men Mine?, Why Do Men Sell Drugs? or Why Do Men CEO? the answers are similar. But the direction of travel looks positive for equality. The trends of recent decades – for women to join the once-male economy, for increased sexual freedom, and for the price of sex to fall – point towards a narrowing of the gap in outcomes between men and women. Economic innovations such as Universal Basic Income may help narrow the gap further. Conversely, the current trends towards conservatism and nationalism may halt and reverse the liberal revolutions of the 20th century, with potentially unhappy consequences for men and women.
My latest article, The Price of Sex, examines the economics of sex. While many people regard the sex trade as simply a synonym for sex work, it goes far deeper than that. The sex trade is everywhere, fundamentally woven into the human psyche, into the economy, and into our history. It’s so widespread and obvious that, like the air around us, we usually choose not to notice it. This is an article I’ve been planning to write for a long time, and I’m delighted that Quillette chose to publish it. Click to view the article at Quillette.
This is a cross-post from my contribution to the Adam Smith Institute blog.
Last week the Crown Prosecution Service published updated guidance for prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act (1959). Legal campaigning has brought about a big change: the liberal tests of harm, consent and legality of real acts are now key parts of their working definition of obscenity. The CPS explain:
… conduct will not likely fall to be prosecuted under the Act provided that:
- It is consensual (focusing on full and freely exercised consent, and also where the provision of consent is made clear where such consent may not be easily determined from the material itself); and
- No serious harm is caused
- It is not otherwise inextricably linked with other criminality (so as to encourage emulation or fuelling interest or normalisation of criminality); and
- The likely audience is not under 18 (having particular regard to where measures have been taken to ensure that the audience is not under 18) or otherwise vulnerable (as a result of their physical or mental health, the circumstances in which they may come to view the material, the circumstances which may cause the subject matter to have a particular impact or resonance or any other relevant circumstance).
The guidance supports a realistic notion of consent which means that depictions of most safe, consensual activities under the umbrella of BDSM are unlikely to be subject to prosecution:
“Non-consent for adults must be distinguished from consent to relinquish control. The presence of a “gag” or other forms of bondage does not, without more, suffice to confirm that sexual activity was non-consensual.”
The CPS acknowledge the damaging impact on the rule of law when prosecutors rely on subjective notions when making charging decisions:
“An ill-defined concept of moral depravity or corruption does not provide for legal demarcation of sufficient precision to enable a citizen to regulate his or her conduct. However, where conduct or an activity is itself criminalised, that may be a clear indication as to its tendency to deprave or corrupt.”
This is a substantial improvement for the OPA which has previously been used to prosecute consensual sexual expression, including publications depicting and defending LGBTQ sexual practices.
For now, the guidelines relate only indirectly to decisions to prosecute for possession of Extreme Pornography (Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008). They appear to clarify that prosecutors should not normally be targeting depictions or records of legal acts between consenting adults. This avoids the logical incoherence at the heart of previous obscenity definitions that meant people could be prosecuted for publishing or possessing visual records of practices that were perfectly legal to conduct, such as fisting.
This is good news for liberals and anyone with an interest in freedom of sexual expression. We have to remain vigilant to see how prosecutors use these guidelines in practice. But this is at least a substantial improvement on past definitions that provided little guidance for citizens, producers or prosecutors.
What is responsible for this surprisingly liberal turn? There is little we can say with absolute certainty other than that the CPS has wisely chosen to adjust its prosecution practice to better reflect contemporary public attitudes towards minority sexual practices and porn producers.
There are a few likely contributors to this reform. Various, sometimes overlapping, strategies formed an ecology of activism and advocacy that changed the legal and policy environment. Central to the story is the civil liberties group Backlash (declaration of interest: I have volunteered my research expertise at Backlash). It began as an advocacy group, campaigning against the extension of obscenity law to include possession of extreme images that the Home Office presumed to be a necessity in the Internet age.
After the law was passed despite well-informed opposition, obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman joined Backlash as legal advisor. In a switch in strategy, Backlash started providing legal advice and financial support to defend some criminal allegations that involved consenting acts between adults.
Juries tended to favor the defence in these cases that Backlash identified as consensual. Juries rejected prosecutions for the possession of erotic horror images, possession of fisting and urethral soundings, ‘twink’ porn, as well as the sale of fisting videos. These criminal cases couldn’t set legal precedents as they never got to the stage of appeal. Nonetheless, these failed prosecutions probably deterred the CPS from pursuing many future cases.
Meanwhile, other campaigners brought this issue to wider public attention. Jerry Barnett’s website Sex and Censorship and book Porn Panic helped to link the anti-porn agenda to a wider pro-censorship movement that is now prominent in some Internet political movements. Sexual freedom campaigner, Charlotte Rose, organized a ‘face-sitting’ protest outside Parliament aimed specifically at new media regulations and helped to raise the profile of sexual freedom more generally.
The protest attracted mainstream media attention. Pandora Blake used regulatory action against her website as a test case to quash some of the more subjective regulations. Blake then ran a campaign to show that it was the Obscene Publications Act, underlying these new inconsistent and censorious regulatory practices, that needed reform. The lost cases and reaction from vulnerable parties together prompted the CPS to consult on adjusting their guidelines to better represent what the general public evidently thought to be worthy of criminalization and censorship.
Obscenity and pornography regulation has attracted a great deal of scholarly interest. Initially, from critical supporters of the ban on extreme pornography from the field of feminist legal theory. Media communications scholars, especially Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith, in the nascent porn studies sub-discipline, challenged the idea that porn had systematically negative impacts on culture, society and the status of women.
My article, ‘Millian Liberalism and Extreme Pornography’ showed that there was a surprising overlap between the interests of queer sexual politics, including the freedom to engage in transgressive expression and a right to establish safe spaces for minorities to support and cultivate their identities, and the classical liberal approach to freedom of expression and association. My Adam Smith Institute report, ‘Nothing to Hide’ argued for making consent to legal acts the primary way of judging the legality of sexually explicit images. It prompted LGBTQ media to highlight the risks of the law for their audience, and to start quizzing the Home Office about how they intended the law to be used.
Initially, academic feminist proponents of the extreme porn ban, including Clare McGlynn, sought quite a broad application. They argued explicitly that the law should not apply to a narrow notion of harm but also to ‘cultural harm’ or the imputed indirect, social impact of the availability of pornography, not just those participating in the acts themselves). More recently, these proponents have accepted a greater role for consent in defining the limits of image prohibition.
They now focus on the problem of ‘revenge pornography’ (the non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit private images). In contrast to ‘extreme pornography’ and obscene publications in general, ‘revenge porn’ constitutes a personal violation and severe social problem that both liberals and feminists agree requires civil and criminal remedies. Fortunately, there has been some degree of agreement on where future criminal justice activity needs to be directed.
Criminal obscenity law is just one strand in a tangle of issues threatening sexual expression and freedom of expression in the UK. This change doesn’t do very much to make the government’s age verification system and broader surveillance of Internet access safe. It only marginally improves the legal protection of sex workers who use or offer online services. So there are a great deal more liberal reforms needed. Nevertheless, this success shows that campaigning, through legal challenges, protests and informed scholarship, can lead to genuine reform. I see this as a model for future campaigns aiming for greater personal liberty.
Those familiar with this blog will be aware that I have for a long time been a campaigner for sexual freedom, and against censorship. As well as political campaigning, I sometimes write about the science of sex – for example, on how the trade of sex is innate in humans as well as many other species. I have recently launched a dating service that allows users to either offer or request a gift when they post. Readers of the Sex & Censorship blog can get 60 free Jems (worth £45) to try it out (see details at the end of this post).
Many people maintain a belief that “sex trade” refers to prostitution only. But prostitution is merely one, particularly straightforward, example of sex being traded. From marriage to sugar daddies, from gifts of flowers to diamond rings, the sex trade is vast; quite possibly, it’s collectively the world’s biggest industry.
The price of dating and mating underlies pretty much everything else in the economic and social sphere. When supply rises (as it did for example after the invention of the pill), the price falls. When supply is constrained (by, for example, laws against adultery or prostitution), the price rises.
Similarly, the price of romance is constrained by how much men can pay. Once, when travelling in a West African city, I asked a young men if he had a girlfriend. “No,” he replied mournfully, “I don’t have a moped”. Moped ownership was, in Bamako at least, the entry level for any woman to take you seriously.
The fact that romance is a tradeable commodity is widely understood, but also can be difficult to talk about. And yet, it’s a fact that poorer men are far more likely to be single than wealthier ones. You cannot change human nature, but you can make dating more honest.
This is why we developed Jaunt. Jaunt is a site for singles to find fulfilling dates, not an escorting site. But yes, it does allow a gift to be suggested on each jaunt (our word for a date). So a club night might come with an offer of free tickets, or an evening in a restaurant with a request for dinner and drinks. In fact, you can offer or request pretty much anything you like, except for cash.
The idea isn’t to “encourage” people to pay for dates, but simply to make visible what has always been there. Men spend far more on dating, courtship, romance and mating than women do. This isn’t “wrong”, it’s a fact of human nature. But honesty is important, especially when starting out on a relationship.
Sex & Censorship readers are offered 60 free Jems (that’s plenty!) to try out the site. First, sign up (you’ll get 10 free Jems to start with) and create your first jaunt. Then mail email@example.com to get another 50 free Jems.
The issue of sex work decriminalisation seems straightforward on the surface. But nothing can be understood without understanding the underlying political context, and especially that in these strange times fascism flows under the surface of all political debate. In Britain, sex workers enjoy a relatively liberated status compared to those in many other countries. Both the sale and the purchase of sex are legal activities. The primary obstacle to liberty is the fact that “brothels” are banned; and a brothel constitutes any two or more people working in the same premises. And so, sex workers often work alone (and unprotected), often against their wishes.
These days, faux-liberal language is routinely used to hide conservative attitudes. So two years ago, when a parliamentary committee expressed support for “decriminalising sex workers”, activists celebrated. But as I warned then, the announcement was an empty one. Note the choice of words: not “sex work” but “sex workers”. The announcement left open the option of the “Nordic model”, which criminalises buyers, not sellers. Rather than express solidarity with sex workers, this model applies a feminist lens to the issue, treating prostitutes as victims rather than as free agents. Some of my acquaintances in the sex worker activist community were angry with me pouring cold water on this “victory”. But it was no victory.
Sex worker as victim
The treatment of sex workers as unwilling actors is not just a game played by anti-sex work feminists and the “rescue industry”, but by some sex worker advocates too. Left-wing activist groups see prostitution not as a choice, but as something forced on women by the ethereal “Patriarchy” and “capitalism”. These activists are adamant that nobody could ever really enjoy sex work, and that sex work is a necessary stop-gap until the eventual overthrow of patriarchal-neoliberal-capitalism (insert your own neo-leftist word spaghetti here). Inevitably, sex worker activist groups have become infected with identitarian attitudes, and so announcements tend to be riddled with lip-service being paid to trans people, “women of colour” and other groups deemed to have been forced into sex work by their “systemic oppressions”.
These sex worker activist groups tend to be dominated by privileged, middle-class women, and their attitudes infuriate many sex workers. Privately, sex worker friends confide their dislike of being portrayed as victims, and I sometimes receive messages from sex workers who are outraged that they are not allowed to claim they ever enjoy their work, for fear of being branded traitors or patriarchal shills.
Given the worldview of the far-left – that all “workers” are victims of capitalism – it is unsurprising that Jeremy Corbyn (a typical conservative of the middle-class left) has announced support for the Nordic model:
“I don’t think people that are, mainly women, working in sex industry should be criminalised from working in it… Those benefitting should be the ones we go after.”
This was all so inevitable. As the working class has turned its back on the left, so the left has become an increasingly privileged clique seeking to impose its twisted vision of “social justice” on those they deem to be victims.
From the Nordic model to the censorship model
The Nordic model represented a subtle shift as feminists took over the morality movement from Christians. Instead of treating prostitutes as criminals, they chose to treat them as victims, and turned their attacks on clients instead. But now, the Nordic model may also be outdated and unnecessary, because censorship is a far more effective way to attack sexual liberty.
The Digital Economy Act (2017) introduced a state Internet censor to the UK, and that changed everything. The authorities no longer need to outlaw anything. They simply need to find an excuse to block content. The Act was ostensibly about pornography, but I’ve warned repeatedly that this was a smokescreen. Porn is simply the first category of content that will be blocked. Having implemented the blocking system, the state can add as many new categories as it chooses. The recent US laws FOSTA and SESTA point the way forward. Moralists no longer need to attack either sex workers or their clients. Instead the state can criminalise (using the excuse of “sex trafficking”) the platforms that they use to communicate. The Labour MP Sarah Champion recently introduced a debate into the House of Commons last week on this subject.
The UK’s two leading sex worker platforms, Adultwork and Viva Street, were singled out to be named and shamed, just as those of us who tried to run UK-legal porn platforms were attacked in 2012. It’s perhaps ironic that individuals at both companies have been broadly supportive of the blocking system, mistakenly believing that they could stay on the right side of the law. They were wrong: the British state, having watched from the sidelines for decades as the Internet took away its censorship powers, is now getting its claws stuck back in.
This isn’t about sex work, any more than it was about pornography or “hate speech”. We are watching the erosion of Internet free speech. Free speech is not just another issue: it is the issue of our age. Unless we resist now, future generations will marvel at the golden era of free expression that we enjoy from about 1990 until… well, around now.
How do you help? Sex work decriminalisation is a worthy goal, but the free speech issue cuts far deeper. You can help the English Collective of Prostitutes respond to the government survey (deadline 16th July), and you might consider supporting my Patreon campaign. The issue of free speech has been recently hijacked by the far-right and my goal is to bring it back into mainstream politics.
The English Collective of Prostitutes have announced their speaking engagements for October and November – see the graphic below to find an event near you.
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:
“Regardless of whatever brings women into sex work … I fully back the notion of decriminalising sex workers”
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.
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.
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.
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.