Monday, November 26, 2012

Response to Rhoda Grant's consultation on criminalising the purchase of sex

Having got into the swing of responding to consultations earlier in the year, I thought I'd have another go with Labour MSP Rhoda Grant's consultation on criminalising the purchase of sex (ie. the Swedish model). I was particularly motivated to take part given that the last consultation on this subject, conducted by Trish Godman, was such a complete joke from beginning to end.

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I am resident in Scotland, and I am responding to this consultation as a private individual. I am a political blogger, but I do not represent anyone other than myself. I am not a sex worker, and to the best of my knowledge I do not know any sex workers. However, given that much of the impetus for the proposed law change comes from women who themselves have little or no knowledge of sex workers, and who primarily see the potential Bill as a means to advance ‘gender equality’ in broad-brush terms (as opposed to improving the lot of individual sex workers in a real-world setting), it seems reasonable to suppose that many of the responses to the consultation will be from women who are as detached from the central issue as I am. There will also undoubtedly be many responses from rather more knowledgeable women, keen to explain how misconceived and counter-productive the proposal is from the point of view of their own gender. But what may well be largely missing is the voice of men. That is deeply ironic, given that the most direct impact of the legislation would be on men, not women. The intention is simple – to criminalise and shame men, and men only, for indulging in a certain type of consensual sex. Given that this disgracefully discriminatory use of the criminal law would be directed against our gender, I feel that it is vital that as many men as possible speak out in opposition, regardless of whether we would be personally affected by the legislation.

It’s important first of all to identify the precise rationale for the desire to discriminate against men. Your consultation document repeatedly uses language that is suggestive of a crusade against slavery in a literal sense - “sexual servitude…a commodity to be bought and sold”. But we know that you cannot be referring to literal slavery, because payment for sex where coercion or trafficking is involved is already comprehensively criminalised and severely punishable. The proposed law change can therefore only have consensual paid sex in its sights. In which case, how can your use of language be justified? Are we supposed to infer that sexual servitude is a self-imposed phenomenon?

Although you don’t spell it out, the answer is of course that you buy into the fantastical ideology that underpins the Swedish law banning the purchase of sex. In noting that the bulk of sex workers are female and that the majority of their clients are male, you discount the obvious explanation of biological differences between the genders, and instead see a manifestation of systematic exploitation and oppression of women by men. It doesn’t matter that many female sex workers believe they are making a free choice, because this is a type of ‘false consciousness’ caused by the economic constraints that women live under in their state of oppression.

The only problem, of course, is that this is bunkum. Men are just as likely to find themselves under the type of financial pressure that drives some women to become sex workers, but the difference is that women may feel they have one additional option open to them. Indeed, one of the papers you cite quotes women who make clear that they do not regard sex work as the only option they have been left with, but simply as an option that is preferable to all the others –

‘What job pays £60, £100 a night? Sometimes you can earn £100 in an hour if it’s busy. You know where you’re well off, don’t you?’

Like you, I come at this issue from a left-of-centre perspective. I can allow myself to imagine a utopian society in which it might be considered a desirable thing that virtually no man has access to consensual paid sex, for the simple reason that no woman feels driven by financial considerations to offer it. But in that utopia, no man or woman would do any other type of work that they would not choose to do if free from financial pressures. Very few people would choose to be cleaners in that scenario, for example. What confuses me is that your party is keen on that (essentially Marxist) utopian ideal for the sole purpose of eliminating sex work, but loathes it in every other context. All forms of potentially unpleasant work other than sex work are not only deemed tolerable, but are considered morally virtuous. Indeed, during the Blunkett era, we were told that work – any work – was an all-purpose cure for sickness, depression and suicidal thoughts. The end result of this bizarre example of doublethink is that you would seek to force many sex workers into another unpleasant job that pays less and that they prefer less.

To put it mildly, that is not a laudable goal in a supposedly liberal society. Until and unless utopia arrives, we ought to be clear-sighted about sex work as being just one more imperfect – but legitimate - option in a world full of imperfect options.

It’s also worth pointing out that a significant minority of the clients of sex workers are disabled men seeking sex for therapeutic reasons, men seeking sex from other men, or women seeking sex from either men or other women. The idea that these individuals are the malevolent drivers of the Great Male Oppression of Women is, I would hope, self-evidently ludicrous enough to illustrate the nonsense of the ideology that lies behind this proposal. In respect of disabled men, some surveys have shown that female sex workers are concerned that they are exploiting their more vulnerable clients (for financial gain), rather than the other way round.

I will turn now to the specific questions contained in the consultation document.

Q1: Do you support the general aim of the proposed Bill? Please indicate “yes/no/undecided” and explain the reasons for your response.

No, for the reasons stated in my introduction. I also want to challenge some of your own reasons for reaching the opposite conclusion.

“For example 75% of women in prostitution in the UK became involved when they were children…”

That statistic appears to be pure invention. The study you cite questioned only street prostitutes who started work before the age of 18. By definition, therefore, 100% of that sample became involved in prostitution when they were children, not 75%! The 75% figure is the percentage of the sample who reported that they were still working at the time of the study. How you get from there to the claim that 75% of all female prostitutes (not just street prostitutes) started when they were children is something of a mystery, and to put it mildly, this calls into question the credibility of the evidential basis for your proposal.

“The buying of sexual activity is sexual exploitation and is recognised as a form of violence against women.”

Recognised by whom? Your statement may be literally true in the sense that some people (for ideological reasons) regard all paid sex, no matter how consensual, as “violence against women”. It would also be literally true to say that the moon landings are “recognised” as fake, in the sense that some people devoutly believe that to be the case. In neither example is there any particular reason to suppose that this represents the consensus of opinion. Most people, I would submit, expect actual violence to be present in an act of “violence against women”, and not just the incorporeal type of ‘violence’ you are somehow able to discern in consensual paid sex.

“International and Scottish evidence based research suggests that men who have purchased sexual activity believe that a number of consequences including legal penalties, financial penalties or public exposure could act as an effective deterrent if effectively enforced.”

Placing men, and only men, on the Sex Offenders’ Register if they cheat on their wives would also be a highly effective deterrent against the committing of adultery. But it would still be a very silly, illiberal, and discriminatory thing to do.

“The study also indicated harmful and violent attitudes of men who buy sexual activity:

32% stated that rape happens because men get sexually carried away; or (34%) because their sex drive gets “out of control”;

12% said that the rape of a prostitute or call girl was not possible; while 10% asserted that the concept of rape simply does not apply to women in prostitution.”

There have also been numerous studies and surveys showing very similar results among the general male population. It could well be that if a sample of television repairmen were interviewed, 12% of them would also say that the rape of a call girl is impossible. Would this mean that the repairing of televisions contributes to harmful and violent attitudes? Of course not. It would simply mean that television repairmen are representative of the male population at large.

It’s perfectly conceivable that there may be a correlation between paying for sex and harmful attitudes about rape, but the figures you cite utterly fail to establish one.

Q2: What do you believe would be the effects of legislating to criminalise the purchase of sex (as outlined above)? Please provide evidence to support your answer.

Given that your proposal is essentially identical to the laws already in force in Sweden and Norway, the best way of predicting the effect is to examine the Scandinavian experience. This shows that your law will entirely fail to have the desired effect of literally ‘ending’ demand for paid sex. It will in turn fail in its secondary objective of leaving women who suffer from ‘false consciousness’ (those who ‘erroneously’ think they have made a free choice to sell sex) with little choice but to abandon their work. There will still be many potential clients for sex workers, and therefore sex work will continue. However, the profile of the potential client base will change in character. With ‘nicer’ clients most likely to be deterred by the change in the law, prostitutes will increasingly be forced to take their chances with more violent and abusive clients if they want to maintain their livelihoods. They will also have little choice but to assist their clients in evading detection by the police, leading to the abandonment of vital safety precautions.

As far as women who are not sex workers are concerned, there is some evidence that draconian legislation on prostitution increases the rape rate –

“In the multiple regression model the rape rate was shown to be correlated with the homicide rate and anti-correlated with the availability of prostitution. Both relationships were at above the 95% confidence level. It is estimated that if prostitution were legalized in the United States, the rape rate would decrease by roughly 25% for a decrease of approximately 25,000 rapes per year.”

In a nutshell, your proposal will increase the risk of actual - as opposed to metaphysical - violence against women.

Q3: Are you aware of any unintended consequences or loopholes caused by the offence? Please provide evidence to support your answer.

It’s impossible for me to judge the extent to which the harmful consequences I’ve listed above are unforeseen or ‘unintended’. Some apologists for the Swedish model openly acknowledge the increased trauma that has been caused to thousands of sex workers, but regard that as a price worth paying for the prize of a largely symbolic law. I would hope that forms no part of the thinking of proponents of the Scottish proposal, and that they regard the real-world welfare of sex workers as more important than the pursuit of ideological purity, but the wording of much of your consultation paper leaves me with grave concerns on that point.

Q4: What are the advantages or disadvantages in using the definitions outlined above?

I would suggest the disadvantage is not the difficulty in working out what a reasonable person would construe as “sexual”, but rather the difficulty in working out what constitutes a reasonable person.

Q5: What do you think the appropriate penalty should be for the offence? Please provide reasons for your answer.

Obviously I do not think there should be any penalty at all. However, I am aware of the absurdly extreme suggestions that have already been made by some respondents to this consultation, such as lengthy jail sentences and public shaming in newspapers. I would simply note the grotesqueness of applying such penalties to, for example, a vulnerable disabled man who spends a large percentage of his disposable income on a high class escort. They would, I presume, constitute his ‘punishment’ for an act of ‘violence’ against a woman who cheerfully pockets that money and uses it to help fund a life of considerable luxury.

Q6: How should a new offence provision be enforced? Are there any techniques which might be used or obstacles which might need to be overcome?

Q7: What is your assessment of the likely financial implications of the proposed Bill to you or your organisation; if possible please provide evidence to support your view? What (if any) other significant financial implications are likely to arise?

On both questions 6 and 7, I would refer you back to the serious concerns identified by the Association of Chief Police Officers in their submission to Trish Godman’s consultation.

Q8: Is the proposed Bill likely to have any substantial positive or negative implications for equality? If it is likely to have a substantial negative implication, how might this be minimised or avoided?

Your proposal will have profoundly negative implications for gender equality, for the very simple reason that it is intended to. Female sex workers and their male clients will no longer enjoy equality before the law when they enter into a consensual paid sex transaction. Both genders will suffer harmful consequences – men will be less equal than women in respect of the criminal law, but women will be less equal than men in the perception of a society that has deemed them incapable of making free, rational decisions and being held responsible for them.

There is no way of ‘minimising’ these negative implications. They can be avoided by not enacting the proposed Bill.

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You can read Ms Grant's whole consultation document, and find information on how to submit a response, by clicking HERE.


  1. Never heard of rent boys, I take it. I don't know where they hang out in the UK or Swedan but a drive through the Castro in San Francisco or a trip to the porn store would disillusion you of the idea that all sex workers are female.

    I know it's convenient to decide that the world is oppressing you for being male, but I suggest getting over it. It is your vivid imagination.

  2. Good grief. That comment is so gloriously and unwittingly ironic that it's difficult to know where to start.

  3. Excellent article, James.

    I would not be surprised to find -although I have an open mind:-)
    that Rhoda Grant and co. occupy the same mindset which thinks that virtually all domestic violence is male on female and that the reverse, if it happens at all, is still the fault of the male.

    As for JR Tomlin, with whose politics I agree, I think she needs to re-read your article, preferably after removing her own gender biased specs :-)

  4. JR Tomlin - the whole consultation (and indeed the bill itself) is based on the fatuous idea that "prostitution is a form of violence against women". It is not James that needs to "get over it", it's people like Rhoda Grant who have a very narrow-minded view of sex work.

    Anyway, good response to the consultation, James. This bill is potentially very dangerous, and I mean that literally. If passed, people will have their lives put in peril, and it won't be the evil, oppressive men who are committing the apparently violent act of passing an envelope of money to a woman and engaging in consensual sex (the irony meter explodes if the woman in question is a dominatrix...)

    All legislation must have a desired outcome to warrant it being passed. I can see two possible desired outcomes of this bill.

    Outcome 1: to stop sex workers becoming victims of violence, and thus make their lives safer and free from fear
    Outcome 2: to stop people buying sex, and therefore eradicate prostitution

    Outcome 1 is the one we should be aiming for, as it is a laudable aim. Outcome 1 is practical, admitting that there will always be people who want (or need) to pay for sex, and there will always be people who choose to sell it in response. With that in mind, we pass legislation that provides as safe an environment as possible for these people. We can judge their decisions privately, but people have a right to choose what they want to do with their own bodies, and as long as it isn't impacting on the rest of us, it's not our place to interfere.

    Outcome 2 is ideological, intended to impose one person's morals onto others. It aims to remove something that has been with us since the Babylonian age, and more likely longer. More importantly, it aims to remove a person's freedom to choose what to do with their own body - this is a basic fact.

    There are also two possible undesired outcomes of such legislation:
    Outcome 3: people who carry on sex work find themselves at increased risk of violence and sexually-transmitted diseases
    Outcome 4: people carry on buying and selling sex regardless of the bill

    Outcome 3 is undesired from a practical point of view. No right-thinking person can want people to be put at increased risk, much less as a direct result of legislation. People being forced to accept clients they would once have refused, and being coerced into performing acts they would once have said no to, such as unprotected sex, anal sex or bukkake (for those who don't know what that is, I don't recommend looking it up on a work computer.)

    Outcome 4 is undesired from an ideological point of view. It means the stated aim of eradicating prostitution has failed, and people continue to buy and sell sex, which is apparently abhorrent.

    This bill aims for outcome 2 - the eradication of sex work - but will lead to outcome 3 - increased danger for those who remain in the industry. In fact, it will also lead to outcome 4, as will ANY legislation on sex work. Just as drug laws haven't stopped the use of illicit drugs, so too will prostitution laws never stop the buying and selling of sex. If people really feel compelled to stop it, they must remove the conditions that lead people to choose that life. Unfortunately for Ms Grant, such measures include vastly increasing the pay of nurses (my first encounter with an escort - indeed my first encounter with a woman - was with a nurse who escorted on her days off because she "really likes shoes", so chose to supplement her nursing wage to afford luxuries), legalising all drugs (I'll bet she'd love that), and even then, there will still be women - particularly middle-aged women with a high sex drive - who simply choose to sell sex in order to satisfy their voracious sexual appetite.

  5. Rather than trying to push an already taboo activity further underground, we should be passing laws to make the lives of those who sell sex safer. Remove the ridiculous brothel laws for a start, which make it illegal for two girls to work under the same roof, meaning girls either flaunt the law (which many do anyway), or work in total isolation, putting themselves at increased risk if the pleasant-sounding client on the phone turns out to be a violent brute. This might also help get women off the street, which is indeed a laudable aim - while I am in favour of allowing people to do whatever they want in the privacy of their own bedroom, it is quite fair to not want to see women standing on street corners offering their services.

    There used to be several massage parlours/saunas in Glasgow, which provided a safe and controlled environment for women to sell sex. However, Strathclyde police/GCC have shut them all down, meaning these women are now forced to either find accommodation to carry on as "independents" on their own, or go out and work on the street. If only more councils were like Edinburgh...

    This war on sex workers (because that's what it is) needs to stop. This bill is dangerous, and must not be passed. Fortunately, with Norway looking to repeal their similar law, and Denmark recently deciding against introducing a similar one, I suspect it will fail. Let's hope so anyway.

  6. Excellent article, James, and a fine analysis of the possible effects of this misguided, if well intentioned notion.

    Didn't Edinburgh Council at one point in the past allow sex workers to use designated saunas to work in, giving them a secure environment, with medical checks not only available but compulsory?

    If I remember rightly, this ensured that the girls were safe, that the clients behaved reasonably (there were people "bouncers" on hand if clients "got carried away", and that the girls had regular health checks, thus minimising harm to them, their clients and their clients' partners and so on... Presumably this impacted on the work/cost of the local GUM clinic.

    It also had the effect of getting many girls off the street, improving life quality and indeed safety for the residents of the areas where street walking was rife. Win win win situation, from where I look.

    There are some things that legislators have to accept are with us, have been with us for thousands of years, and will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

    Legal sanctions only ever put this kind of "vice", if you will, underground. Be it alcohol in the USA's prohibition period, or the UK's ever present drugs underworld.

    Again my congratulations on a cogent and beautifully presented argument.

  7. Thanks, Tris. Yes, the Edinburgh approach was very enlightened. Fortunately Margo MacDonald is still in the parliament as a champion for common sense and harm reduction.

  8. Oh, this looks like such an excellent response. Thank you!