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Tuesday, September 11, 2007 

The poverty of prohibition.

It was a weekend of bad ideas, as Alan Johnson's bung for mums illustrated, but on the scale of denseness it's hard to beat the currently only being floated as part of a longer-term action against prostitution idea of making the buying/paying of sex illegal.

Putting aside for a moment there's a reason why women selling their bodies is known as the world's oldest profession, this idea takes its cue directly from the deeply discredited and fatally flawed part of radical feminist ideology that maintains every woman working in the sex trade, whether involved in producing pornography or working the streets is a victim of some sort. Like all the usual strong but deeply misguided ideological positions, it has more than a merit of truth to it: you only had to see the five murdered prostitutes in Ipswich last December, all addicted to one or more drugs, to see that they were victims who needed help. To apply this universally though is naive, discriminatory and even possibly misogynistic. Cast your way through any local newspaper's classifieds, and you're bound to find a whole cavalcade of advertisements for saunas, escorts and women working from flats, almost all of them selling sex, and the vast majority also doing it out of choice.

Radical feminism in general doesn't have an answer for why these women choose to do what they do, so it more or less treats them as though they either don't exist or as traitors to the cause, in it for the money. The irony of this is that those women are the ones with the most to gain from any ban on the buying or the selling of sex; the ones who don't need to walk the streets, hidden away from the gaze of CCTV cameras and the police are already the ones doing the best out of their work, reasonably to excellently paid and able to argue out their own terms. A ban, as well as naming and shaming, also proposed, would only drive the curious kerb-crawler far away from those women who survive by selling their wares on the streets, leaving them far more vulnerable than they already were. If trade dries up, their drug habits or men demanding money don't, pushing them to shoplift or commit other crimes, only making it more likely that they'll become the latest additions to our already overcrowded prison system.

This policy isn't just based around the notion of victimhood though, it's also based on the farcical assumption that you can somehow control human urges through legislation, and also that the selling of sex itself is morally wrong. You can't outlaw the fact that some men either can't or won't develop normal relationships and so use prostitutes on that basis, nor can you stop the philandering bored husband from visiting the local massage parlour, let alone the increasing fad for stag parties to visit European capitals famed for their red light districts. In fact, it's wrong to assume that it's just men using women; while it's on nowhere near the scale of female prostitution, there are more than enough male escorts out there, available for use by both men and women.

After all, it's not necessarily that men are exploiting women; in some cases it's quite the opposite. What is heterosexual pornography if it isn't a woman using what she either was given or bought to extract money from males who simply can't help themselves? It's them taking the money off idiot males who go goggle-eyed at the mention of all those acronyms that make up the specialist end of the market, rather than being exploited by the men invariably involved in running the actual business. The American pornography industry is remarkably self-regulating, thanks to measures brought in during the 80s after the Traci Lords scandal, and the notion that women are being forced into doing anything they don't want to over there is laughable.

Primarily, the government is concerned by figures that supposedly show that 85% of women working in brothels are from foreign countries, and takes this as proof that forced trafficking is endemic. On the contrary, it rather shows that some of these women know full well that they can make decent sums of money in a relatively short time, far beyond what they'd ever earn if they did the menial jobs most of the other migrants from within the EU are coming here to do, and without any of the stigma of walking the streets back in their home country and without their families knowing what they're actually doing. It's undeniable that some women are being effectively kidnapped and then forced into prostitution by gangs who bring them here, but the numbers are tiny compared to those who are actually more than willing to come here for similar purposes.

It's hard not to imagine that as well as appealing to the more feminist thinking members of the cabinet, it's also something that Brown and his "moral compass" couldn't help but be attracted to. Previous plans by the government that suggested allowing women to set-up mini-brothels where three could work, away from both the streets and predators of all kinds were predictably loudly condemned by the usual suspects, i.e. the Daily Mail, etc. Out the window goes Blair's lack of any principles and in comes the clunking fist's crackdown on vice, whether it be in the form of gambling, drinking or sex.

As Diane Taylor points out, the very last thing that will change the current landscape of prostitution, except for the worst will be the criminalising of men who pay for sex. Prostitution is such an intractable problem, without any obvious solution that it's easy to jump to the obvious reactionary position. Until we start valuing drug treatment programmes as much as we do prison cells, and providing real alternatives to street walking as we do to the thump of the gavel, nothing will be any different. And you're sure as hell not going to stop men from seeking out sex, unless you castrate them all at birth, which brings with it other problems.

Related post:
Stumbling and Mumbling - New Labour's misogyny

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