Hookers, cops, abolitionists, health workers — we’ll be getting hot and heavy tonight at a debate on the sex trade. More specifically, a discussion of how best to tackle the small but vicious portion of the industry that consits of women (and men and transgenders? though we don’t seem to think of them as “victims” in the same way) who are trafficked or coerced into selling sex.
Taking the floor will be Laura Agustin, whose book, Sex at the Margins gives one of the most nuanced accounts of the whos and whys of professional sex, together with the always compelling Catherine Stephens. Catherine is a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth pre-Raphaelite dominatrix who moonlights as an arts critic when she’s neither doing her day job nor persuading the government that sex professionals have voices, too. John Birch of the Metropolitan Police’s Vice Squad will be giving the cop’s perspective, and Georgina Perry will describe how her clients, East End sex workers mostly, cope in an increasingly criminalised environment.
Conspicuously absent from the line up (though certainly not from the audience) are the front-line abolitionists, the Poppy Project et al. This does mean that the debate will probably be less of a “No I’m not, Yes you are” slagging match than usual. But their exclusion does make me a wee bit uncomfortable. I have no time for the “every sex worker is a victim” approach, and I know that those who are anti prostitution, full stop, often try to keep sex professionals from making themselves heard. But two wrongs don’t make a right. I know it is boring to hear people trot out their misery anecdotes as if it were science, to tout ideology as if it were fact. But if we believe (as I do) that the evidence is strongly stacked against criminalisation and abolition of commercial sex, and in favour of better support services and health and safety conditions for people who choose to work in the profession, then we have nothing to fear in allowing those who believe otherwise to have their little rants.
I’ve been shouted down on this front before (eg when I tried to invite the High Priestess of abolitionists Donna Hughes (aka Dumpy Donna) to defend her position at the Bangkok AIDS Conference in 2004). I know it is hard to fight ideology with fact. But I still feel we should have the courage of our convictions, and should be prepared to defend them in debate with just about anyone.
I think it will be a lively evening — I urge any readers in the London area to join the fun. It starts at 7.00, and there’s more info here