The English Collective of Prostitutes have announced their speaking engagements for October and November – see the graphic below to find an event near you.
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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.
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.
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
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.
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?
LONDON: Sex & Censorship announces social media campaign for Tuesday 8th March in response to The Labour MP Caroline Flint’s anti-sex worker statements and actions.
Sex & Censorship calls on sex workers and their supporters to join a day of social media action against the misrepresentation of sex work and sex workers. Please read on to see how you can help.
What a difference a few days makes. Last week, as reported here, Jeremy Corbyn expressed support for the decriminalisation of sex work; it should be noted that his statement was made informally, and is not a statement of party policy. Still, this was a first for a Labour leader.
This stirred up the powerful anti-sex work contingent within the Labour Party, including Caroline Flint MP, who sent a number of outraged (and outrageous) tweets, including this:
Prostitution isn’t an industry it’s part of organised crime in which vulnerable women, men & children are exploited.
— Caroline Flint (@CarolineFlintMP) March 4, 2016
These claims are, of course, often made, yet never backed by serious statistical evidence. Do people like this really care about sex workers? Well, quite obviously not. The proof is in the way that Flint and others treat the workers themselves: by ignoring and silencing them.
Zara du Rose, a pornstar and sex worker, tweeted to Flint asking for evidence to back her claim. She was swiftly blocked. Du Rose wrote on her Facebook page:
So I’ve just been blocked on Twitter by Labour MP Caroline Flint MP
She made a comment stating that “few people” in the sex industry are there by choice.
I simply asked her if she had put any research into her comment & if she has the statistics to back it up. Does my question really deserve that result?
If this is how people in the government react when they are faced with an honest debate, then it’s no wonder so many voices are going unheard! The wrong decisions will be made & more sex workers will be put at risk if they go ahead with criminalising the buying of sex.
And the blocking continued. Dominatrix Megara Furie was also blocked for responding to Flint, as were sex worker activist Charlotte Rose, and National Ugly Mugs, a sex worker safety campaign. As ever, the message of abolitionists is: “We’re trying to save you, whether you want to be saved or not. Now shut up!”
Sex workers and their supporters can make their voices heard as outlined below. Please note:
Here’s how to tweet:
Please copy and send the following tweet (feel free to adapt it but include the link and hashtag to maximise impact). Send your sex worker friends this link and ask them to join. We can get this issue trending and make news!
Dear @CarolineFlintMP – I choose to be a sex worker. Sex workers demand decriminalisation! http://ow.ly/Z9TkH #decrimsexwork
If you’re not a sex worker
Copy and send the following tweet. Again, free free to adapt. Alert your sex worker friends and supporters and ask them to join.
Dear @CarolineFlintMP – sex workers want to work safely. Criminalising clients does NOT achieve that! http://ow.ly/Z9TkH #decrimsexwork
After tweeting Flint, feel free to continue using the hashtag.
You can also adapt these and post on Facebook (note that Flint has her own Facebook page).
Jerry Barnett from Sex & Censorship: “Flint’s comments are a reminder of the strength of anti-sex work feeling that remains in the Labour Party and elsewhere. Claims of widespread abuse and coercion are never backed by hard evidence, yet they continue in circulation. Flint is typical of activists who show contempt for the very sex workers they claim to be helping.”
The English Collective of Prostitutes: “Our question to Flint would be that if she wants an “anti-prostitution strategy” why isn’t it supporting Corbyn and McDonnell’s determined campaigns against benefit sanctions, the benefit cap, homelessness, low wages, zero hours contracts, etc? Regarding her comment that women are vulnerable and exploited. Our fact and fiction sheet reports research that shows that only 6% of sex workers are trafficked: http://www.pledgedecrim.com/#!fact-and-fiction/c9ik
Alex Bryce of National Ugly Mugs: “I am thoroughly disappointed by Caroline Flint’s conduct. As an elected official who has served in Government she has a duty to use her platform responsibly. She publicly expressed misinformed and, in my opinion, dangerous and stigmatising views about sex workers. Such comments entrench stigma which, in turn, can lead to the targeting of sex workers by violent individuals. When sex workers and organisations like mine, which provides life saving support to sex workers, responded to her comments she immediately decided to block them rather than engage in any meaningful debate. If she genuinely cared about the safety of sex workers then she would engage them and listen to their voices rather than silencing them. She should be thoroughly ashamed of her actions. It is tragic that elected representatives have so little regard for evidence and the voices of those most affected by the policies for which they advocate.”
I asked some sex workers what they would say to Flint, given the opportunity?
Charlotte Rose: “1st, what have you got against sex workers? 2nd, would you be open to come and discuss face to face with real sex workers? 3rd if you support democracy why have you blocked us?”
Laura Renvoize: “I’d say, in reality many countries recognise sex work as an industry. To continuously vilify sex work as crime is to perpetuate Victorian morals and harmful exclusionary “feminism”. As a sex worker the issues I have faced in sex work haven’t come from some kind of exploitation at all, but rather from the stigma perpetuated by public figures and the law, which leads institutions to treat me as a subhuman. If she claims to care so much about our safety then why isn’t she looking at the evidence or listening to us? Forcing us to be criminalised won’t stop sex work, it’s only going to force us to work with people now branded as criminals, forcing us into situations where exploitation could exist. This is my job, listen to me about it and try to not be so moralistic about other people’s sex lives.”
Megara Furie: “I would ask her to simply qualify her statements. As a trained scientist I learned to deal in facts. She has made a very bold and so far, unsubstantiated statement. I need to see how she intends to validate this and see sex workers on the other end of the scale be given a fair opportunity to put forward their facts and have them taken into respectful consideration. Plain and simple. If prostitution is part of organised crime then she sits with rackets in parliament, as I’m sure there are more than a few MPs who have used the services of sex workers or contributed to their motivation to work in the industry.”
Zara du Rose: “Why are you so determined to silence the sex workers who are trying to open an honest dialogue with you? All we have asked is where you got your facts from when you claim that ‘most’ of us are in it by force. For you to block every sex worker who is trying to tell you THEIR story is proving that you don’t care about anyone in that industry at all. Listen to the women who have made it their choice to be sex workers, you may learn something! Criminalising the buying or selling of sex will only make the vulnerable people out there more alienated & push them further underground. We need to start changing the way we view sex & women’s choices!”
Here’s an excellent article by Samantha Rea at VICE on sex workers’ experience of medical care.
If you thought getting healthcare for your desk job was bad, try being a woman in the sex industry. We spoke to escorts, porn actors, and former sex workers who ran into devastating prejudice when getting trying to get something as simple as a medical che
A positive statement from Jeremy Corbyn, though his party is very divided on this issue.
Views on sex trade believed to be Labour leader’s personal opinions rather than party policy