Monday, January 31, 2011

My response to Indy on prostitution

I've been having an exchange with Indy on a previous thread about the discriminatory Swedish law on prostitution, and as my latest reply was several light-years over the character limit, I though I might as well devote a fresh post to it! Indy had said -

"In Scotland both buying and selling sex is illegal as I understand it..."

Not so - in fact, the opposite of that statement is true. All sorts of things associated with prostitution are currently outlawed (kerb-crawling, overt advertising of sexual services, etc.) but the actual buying and selling of sex behind closed doors is perfectly legal. In fact, it's so legal, it's taxed. The Trish Godman proposal to import the Swedish law would change that, criminalising only the buyer, while perversely leaving the seller with no responsibility whatever for what would by then be regarded as an illegitimate transaction, even when that person is acting completely independently.

"In the first place the Belle De Jour type of prostitute (if she really exists)..."

If by "Belle de Jour type of prostitute" you simply mean someone working through free choice and without coercion, yes of course they exist, and in considerable numbers. For example, see this open letter to Holyrood from one such person -

"My name is Laura and I am an independent escort. I am not pimped, coerced or working under duress in any way. I am not labouring under any addiction, nor am I the product of an abusive background. I have been a sex worker for some 16 years and it’s fair to say I love my job.

The first part of Trish Godman’s opening statement makes for interesting reading ;

“People who buy sex do so of their own free will, whereas the majority of prostitutes are unwilling participants in this exchange of cash for sex.”

Of what “majority” does she speak, exactly ? Over the years I have met women working at every level of the sex industry and in fact, it has been my experience that the vast majority of those women are happy in their work. Sure, there are days we dislike, the same as every other job, but the only women I have ever encountered who are truly unhappy are those who are drug addicted, or trapped through fear. This proposed legislative change does not take the above into account in any way, it seeks to prohibit the purchase of sex regardless of any circumstances."

Returning again to Indy's comment -

" not likely to come to the attention of the police in the first place and if she does i.e. if a self-employed woman, not being coerced or constrained into acting as a prostitute, makes her living providing a sexual service for a particular group of clients e.g. disabled men then she could probably get herself classified as a sex therapist of some sort and thus be outside the application of the law."

Because she is presumably working behind closed doors and takes care over how she advertises her services, she already is outside the application of the law, and the introduction of the Swedish model would not change that. The question you instead need to address is why it is just or rational to criminalise her disabled clients (or indeed her other clients), but not her, when she is getting as much out of that consensual transaction as they are. Furthermore, your hint that prostitution might be acceptable as long as only "certain groups" are the purchasers opens up a whole new can of worms, and another area of inequality before the law if we were ever to go down that road.

"For practical purposes the laws on prostitution these days relate primarily to street prostitution and to the provision of prostitutes as part of organised criminal activity."

As I understand it, you're saying that's precisely as it should be. Why, then, do you want to introduce a law that would change that?

"After all it would serve no-one's interests to lock up even more drug addicts in our already overcrowded jails and everyone recognises that."

Would it serve anyone's interests to lock up (or more likely heavily fine) disabled clients of prostitutes? I can't find the link, but I seem to recall reading a study that suggested that as many as a third of the clients of sex workers are "the lonely and the sad", ie. not necessarily disabled, but very far removed from the one-dimensional charaterisation of clients we're supposed to be buying into. Trying to create a legal framework that casts all these people regardless of circumstance and motivation as "exploiters of women", and the people who freely choose to provide them with sex (many of whom are not even women) in exchange for often considerable financial reward as "victims of male violence against women" is plainly nonsensical, and worthy of the logical contortions seen in authoritarian states down the years, where whole swathes of law is/was rooted in dogmatic articles of faith, rather than the "seeking of truth from facts".

For the avoidance of doubt, I'll go back and emphasise the point "freely choose to provide". If the prostitute is not acting freely, of course the law should take punitive action against whoever is responsible for de facto slavery. But that's not what the Swedish approach is about.

"That's why it would be much more effective to focus on arresting and charging the clients."

I've already set out why I don't think that's true, and this article expands on that point much more comprehensively than I can, explaining why the much-trumpeted "success" of the Swedish model is a mirage born out of wishful thinking. But even if, for the sake of argument, your proposition was correct, I would still have considerable difficulty with the idea that "effectiveness" automatically trumps natural justice and equality before the law. After all, a law relating to street violence that solely criminalised males under the age of 25 (and allowed everyone else to act with impunity) might well be reasonably "effective" at tackling the problem, but I trust most people would accept that it would be grossly discriminatory, and contrary to our most fundamental values as a liberal democracy.


  1. It seems to me that we are talking about two different things.

    I could not care less about women who have sex with men in return for money if they are doing it of their own free will. Indeed there may be a fair proportion of marriages/relationships which come into that category. How is anyone to judge?

    But you must surely be aware that most prostitutes are not independent businesswomen. Most of the trade is a part of the organised crime networks which are also involved in supplying and dealing drugs. We have all seen the reports of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation living in Scotland but how many arrests have there been? Very few if any. It may be that the Inquiry on Human Trafficking in Scotland will shed some more light on what is going on but it seems to be taking its time repoting.

    In the meantime, while I would not agree with Trish Godman's bill being applied to private consensual arrangements, I would very much support a much more robist approach to targeting and punishing the clients of street prostitutes and the use of prostitutes - usually Eastern Europen - being run by gangmasters in Glasgow and other cities in Scotland out of private houses. I know a lot more of this is going on and often involves people from the Roma community. The Roma are a very closed community which is why the police have not had much success in tackling the problem.

    As I understand it, the police are behind moves to shift the focus onto clients of prostitutes rather than to keep arresting the prostitutes themselves for the reasons I have already given. Targeting the clients is the most effective way to stop it. Obviously the whole sex trade is demand-led so when tackling the supply side doesn't work you have to tackle the demand side.
    That's what Glasgow is trying to do and they have support from across the different agencies - and from across the political parties. Maybe you ought to consider why that is. Perhaps it is not about ideology at all but because Glasgow is trying to find what will work best.

  2. Incidentally I read the link you posted. It's a document written by prostitutes campaigning against the Swedish laws on prostitution so it's not exactly giving an unbiased view is it? Are there any academic or non-partisan reports about the implementation of the policy in Sweden? If there are - and they show that the policy has had no effect on reducing trafficking or sexual exploitation - then I'd certainly be prepared to listen to that. I'm not in any way intellectually or ideologically committed to what Sweden is doing but it does seem to have a practicality that appeals to me.

  3. As someone who has used escorts in the past (hence the "anonymous" post), I suspect I am far more informed in the sex industry than either of you guys are. This comes from first hand experience (the girls I've been with) as well as anecdotal evidence (from posting on a forum where escorts and "punters" mix freely to debate matters of their industry). I'd like to clarify a few things here:

    1. "Belle de Jour" escorts certainly do exist - after all, the woman who wrote the Belle de Jour blog was, erm, a real woman. An intelligent woman who escorted to fund her PhD, rather than to fund a drug habit. She is, without a shadow of a doubt, not in a minority.

    2. Trafficking is not nearly as widespread as people try to make out, especially not in Scotland. I'm not suggesting it doesn't happen, but like most things reported in the media, it is vastly overblown, especially with a moral hot potato like selling sex. I believe girls who travel together to tour the country (as many escorts do, so they can increase their client base), are technically classed as sex trafficking, as it is technically transporting girls for the purpose of selling sex. But it doesn't mean they are sex slaves. This is like saying chefs, fishermen and scouts should be included in statistics about knife carriers.

    3. Most men who use escorts are actually pretty nice guys, who usually fall into one of three categories: a) middle-aged or older men (not quite elderly gents) whose sex life at home is non-existent. These men love their wives so would not want to embark on a bona-fide affair, but they still feel sexual urges. The strictly-business nature of sex for money means they can indulge their sexual urges while (rightly or wrongly) feeling like they have not cheated on their love for their wife.

    b) younger men who find it difficult to have sexual relationships with women. I was in this category, having lost my virginity to an escort in my late 20s. I'd never had a girlfriend, and was unlikely to get one as I always worried what would happen if I ever got into a sexual situation with a girl. My confidence was absolute rock bottom, but a night with that fantastic lady (who I basically asked to "teach me" what to do) gave my confidence a massive boost. A few months and a few dates later, and I was beginning my first proper relationship. Couldn't have done it without her, and without meaning to be too crude, the next few girls I had sex with were amazed when I told them how recently I had lost my virginity.

    c) men with disabilities who, let's face it, stand next to no chance of ever experiencing nature's greatest pleasure otherwise.

    Without escorts, men in these categories would be made to miss out on something that many other people take for granted, namely a sex life. Why should a shy man or a man in a wheelchair be denied this, just because they lack the looks, confidence and/or skills to sweep a woman off her feet?

    If a woman is coerced into selling sex, then this is obviously bad, and the vast majority of "punters" already steer well clear of any woman who they feel has even the slightest hint of being in this position. But what is the part which is wrong? Traditional moralists focus on the "selling sex" part, but the truth is it is the coercion which is wrong, so why not focus more on coercion than sex? If a woman chooses to sell sex as a career, that's her prerogative, just like any other woman who uses her body to make money (are we going to start banning fashion modelling, or worse still, make it illegal for men to look at fashion models?) As a result, if a man wants to use her services, then why should he be penalised? The law in England has changed so that the onus is on the man to make sure the woman is not there against her will, but what can he do other than say "are you here against your will?", to which they will never hear the reply "no", regardless of how true that is?

  4. You'll notice I pretty much ignored street prostitution in my earlier post. That's because this is obviously a far dodgier area, and not one I would touch with a barge pole. This is my point though - most "punters" are guys like myself, who just want to indluge in a little fun with girls who enjoy sex and decided to make some money from it (and if guys like me are dumb enough to pay for it, then why shouldn't they?) But the draconian laws which exist and may exist in the future to tackle street prostitution would also apply to men like myself, and the ladies we see. The sex industry needs to be recognised as a genuine industry, and rather than forcing it more and more underground, it should be given better regulation. We have bars that sell alcohol, casinos that allow people to gamble... why is this last remaining age-old vice not allowed to happen in a properly regulated establishment, allowing girls to have proper worker's rights and men to be safe in the knowledge that the girls they see are absolutely under no coercion to do what they are doing, and that they are completely safe?

    (Just to throw a quick aside in there, I'd much rather have sex with an escort - whose job depends on her staying free of STIs - than a one-night stand with a girl who will clearly "put out" for a couple of pints).

    Incidentally, what Glasgow are trying to do is massively criticised by both punters AND escorts, particularly as it is just pushing the sex trade more underground. Massage parlours which allowed women to ply their trade under the watchful eye of the proprietor have all been forced to close, meaning these women have had to either find alternative ways of plying their trade, or take up a different career (even though they chose this career). Also, it is currently illegal for two women to sell sex from the same property. This is a ridiculous law, as many women like to share flats so as to offer each other a bit of security (I said MOST punters are nice, but there's still a minority of idiots, as in any profession) and the current law makes this illegal. I've been in a flat where two Eastern European girls were selling sex, and I really don't understand why it is any more wrong than if only one of them had been doing it. Oh, and for the avoidance of doubt, these two women (and all the other Eastern European girls I've been with) were most definitely not being coerced. One of them was even in a relationship with a former client, and was soon to meet his family for the first time. I've even met an escort whose husband was a former client.

    The main problem with any debate around the sex industry is that most of it is tainted by moralists, religious nutters and various other people who prefer imposing their own viewpoints on the matter, rather than taking the time to find out what the men and women involved in the industry actually think about it. Guardian journalist Julie Bindle is particularly guilty of this - she claims to speak for women, but I've yet to see any escort say that Bindle speaks for her. Genuine concerns like trafficking and street prostitution are clouded by people who want to see sex for money banned outright, rather than to see the industry made safer. These people don't care that some women want to make a career out of sex and that there are ways of making this a safer career; they just want to see it stopped. But it's called The World's Oldest Profession for a reason - men have always been willing to pay for sex, and women have always been willing to offer sex for money. No amount of moral grandstanding will change that, and nothing will ever stop it existing. It'll just get pushed underground and will become much more ridden with criminals. Unlike drugs - where there is a genuine concern over people having access to substances that can kill - there are no side effects to sex (unless you don't practice safe sex - something which is far more likely to happen in an illegal sex industry than in a properly regulated one).

  5. Oh, and to back up my point about sex trafficking numbers being exaggerated, here's a Guardian article from one of the few journalists we can truly trust these days, namely Nick Davies of Flat Earth News and the NOTW phone hacking fame.

  6. "I could not care less about women who have sex with men in return for money if they are doing it of their own free will. Indeed there may be a fair proportion of marriages/relationships which come into that category. How is anyone to judge?"

    Well, quite. The problem here is that you originally said you supported the Swedish approach. That approach targets all men who purchase sex, regardless of circumstance or motivation, and without exception. The implementation of the law to date may fall short of that 'ideal', but the intention is absolutely clear - disabled men, for instance, who go to prostitutes, are "exploiting" women, committing "violence" against women, etc, etc. That applies even when these (potentially quite vulnerable) individuals are considerably less wealthy and more socially marginalised than the sex workers they see. The ideology is so full of contradictions and implausibilities it defies belief. The law it has spawned certainly does not zone in on the problem of trafficked or coerced women in the way you say you want.

    "As I understand it, the police are behind moves to shift the focus onto clients of prostitutes rather than to keep arresting the prostitutes themselves for the reasons I have already given."

    There's a huge difference between talking about the rational focus of resources and whether certain arrests are in the public interest, and framing the law of the land in a shamelessly discriminatory way. If what you're supporting (and from what you go on to say perhaps you're not) is the Swedish law that criminalises all men - without exception - who purchase sex, but treats all women who sell sex as incapable of knowing their own mind or of being criminally responsible for their actions, then that's the principle you'd need to defend.

    And from my vague recollection (I may be wrong), I believe the police were one of the groups who expressed reservations about the importing of the Swedish law the last time this topic came up last year.

    "Perhaps it is not about ideology at all but because Glasgow is trying to find what will work best."

    I don't know if you're referring to the approach of the city council, but if so it's the absolute worst example you could have given of a "non-ideological" approach. The public statements of councillors have mimicked almost word for word the articles of faith that underpin the Swedish law - they could hardly have been more ideological if they tried.

  7. "It's a document written by prostitutes campaigning against the Swedish laws on prostitution so it's not exactly giving an unbiased view is it?"

    That's a fair point (actually they're Canadian prostitutes trying to defend their corner in their own country), but I found it an impressive and well-argued piece, and one that makes an important case that some people are disturbingly unwilling to even listen to, let alone engage with seriously. For the ideologues who believe in the 'original sin of men', nothing seems to matter except that the Swedish government claims that their system works (which is scarcely an unbiased view either). No further scrutiny of those claims is needed - and it's certainly not welcome.

    "But you must surely be aware that most prostitutes are not independent businesswomen. Most of the trade is a part of the organised crime networks which are also involved in supplying and dealing drugs."

    No, I'm not "aware" of that in the sense of knowing it for a fact, or even believing it to be true on the balance of probabilities. I know that trafficking goes on, and I know that some prostitutes are drug addicts and/or caught up in the world of organised crime - but what proportion that is of the overall industry is another matter entirely. One of the most important points made by that Canadian report is that most of the claimed "knowledge" of statistics relating to prostitution is actually based on subjective and partial impressions of what is going on, and those impressions often conflict sharply with each other, as the comment from Anon demonstrates. Much of the industry is hidden from view, and thus difficult or impossible to measure.

  8. Anon : Thanks very much for the Guardian link - I hadn't seen that before. Sorry it got lost in the spam filter overnight.

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