It was reported in The Guardian on Friday that Jeremy Corbyn, when asked, told a group of students that he was in favour of decriminalizing the sex industry. In the perfectly reasonable and progressive way that Corbyn tends to operate, he said:
I am in favour of decriminalising the sex industry. I don’t want people to be criminalised. I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people. Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more civilised way.
He made the typical mistake that he’s made over and over again since his election as Labour leader: he expected too much from the media and his colleagues in parliament. Immediately, newspapers had to verify that he was expressing his own views (not those of the party), and the the opponents in his party took to Twitter to express their outrage that their leader was, yet again, voicing a revolutionary, representative, sensible idea. Corbyn called for a more civilized approach to the subject of sex work, instead he was bogged down by individuals with their own agendas trying to score a cheap political point. It’s enough to drive you mad.
So let’s take a deep breath and patiently deconstruct the old-fashioned and narrow minded resistance that Corbyn received from Harriet Harman, former deputy leader of the Labour party (so in touch with modern women that her primary tactic for winning over female voters was a pink fucking bus) and Jess Phillips, Labour MP. In full, Harman said, “Prostitution’s exploitation and abuse not “work/an industry”. Women should be protected and men prosecuted.” Putting aside the patronising assumption that all sex work must be exploitation or abuse, attempting to prosecute the men who hire sex workers has already been attempted and it has actually been proven to increase the risks of abuse for sex workers more than decriminalization. Commonly referred to as the ‘Swedish Model’, research has found that this approach to managing the sex industry means that “without the opportunity to screen clients or safely negotiate the terms of sexual services … sex workers face increased risks of violence, abuse, and HIV.” Phillips, on the other hand, took to Twitter to post, “Man says we should decriminalize a known violence against women. Why did it have to be this man. #shedstear.” This childish and ill-informed tweet preys on the ignorance of the public for short-sighted political gain. Yes, the sex industry as it stands is a known violence against women. Does that mean we should leave it as it is, sweep it under the carpet, pretend it isn’t happening? Or does that mean we should actually try to combat it in a different way than we have been, which has been failing miserably (last time I checked, the sex industry still existed!) Sitting on the sidelines and scoffing at a man who is trying to reframe the conversation with more compassion and empathy for those involved in the sex industry is so unprofessional.
The underlying current that runs throughout the conversation around sex work at the moment is that it is a bad thing and should be stamped out. I am not trying to underplay or trivialise the blatant fact that many women are exploited by third parties through physical abuse such as rape or trafficking, but simply trying to deter women from going in to sex work (making it illegal), or men from trying to obtain it (the ‘Swedish Model’) actually creates more problems than it solves. It drives sex work underground and means that, to a woman whose only option is sex work, their only means of entering that line of work is through a shady back door where they have no rights, are not protected by the police, and are going to fall deeper into a pit of abuse and exploitation. A blanket ban on prostitution (as on literally anything else where there is demand, such as drugs or alcohol) will always fail. Sex work has existed almost as long as human beings have – and it will not go away by stigmatising the women who are forced (or not) in to that line of work. What I could be arguing for here is legalising the trade – and at first glance this may seem like a legitimately enlightened perspective. Except for the fact that this often comes with coupled with bureaucracy and a price which many women who are forced to turn to sex work to survive cannot afford. Therefore, they are again operating outside of the law and are not protected. I am not saying that we should treat sex work like any other kind of work because it remains the truth that, for most women, it will be a last resort when they run out of any other source of income. What we need to do is target the problems that force women to turn to sex work in the first place – trafficking and poverty. Of course, that’s all a bit too difficult for the single-minded politicians of today to address. Instead, let’s just mock Corbyn, simplify the issue, and play to the scary stereotypes that people have of this mysterious and seedy occupation. How about instead we see what sex workers themselves want?
I needn’t argue for decriminalization any further after this video really, but I will. Amnesty International have made a strong case for decriminalizing the sex industry, and are very clear in their proposals that so-called ‘pimps’ and traffickers will still be prosecuted – obviously – but sex workers need rights to be protected. They’ve also shown evidence that, under current legislation, sex workers were frequently evicted from their homes in Norway – which is going to push them to even more desperate means to survive, and more importantly, not solve the problem of protecting these women.
And they aren’t alone. A report by the UN called for decriminalizing the sex industry because prostitutes who were “rescued” by law enforcement often suffered a significant loss of income, and “that there is no evidence that [anti-prostitution] initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life of sex workers.” According to the UN, the main goal of creating barriers for women to become prostitutes, and for men to access them, don’t even work.
That, in a nutshell, is my main point of contention over this whole ridiculous issue. I don’t need to make any personal arguments for why prostitution should be decriminalized – it’s already been done for me by far more reputable organizations. What really gets me is that the political elite – and indeed much of the general public – are so reactionary! It drives me insane. Rather than actually attempting to treat the issue in a more civilized way, as Corbyn was suggesting, his colleagues instead, again, use it to their own advantage to point at Corbyn and essentially mock him! How have we reached this point? Where politicians act like school children? Where instead of having a reasoned and researched debate, they press the panic button and ignorantly try to bully a man who actually does know what he’s talking about?
It really worries me that the political class are stuck in the past. They refuse to acknowledge that the way things have been do not work, and when somebody offers an alternative solution, they freak out and point to the symptoms of a problem that they themselves have been unable to solve as evidence that what is being suggested is crazy. It makes absolutely no sense. This is just one example – but I see it every week in the media. Drug prohibition, austerity, inequality, trickle down economics… We are stuck in a discourse that points to the negative outcomes of bad policy as abnormal, and that the solution to the negative outcomes is not to go back to the drawing board and fundamentally address the causes of the negative outcomes, but instead the way forward is to enforce the terrible policies even harder. It’s madness.