Writing in the Guardian, Cath Elliot trumpets the unanimously warm reception for a new attempt to lock men up for buying sex. She’s proud of her own contribution to the debate, she says, though the hyperlink she gives for that contribution simply takes us to a remark about the International Union of Sex Workers which hovers between the blatantly inaccurate and the slanderous.
I’ve been following this issue a bit recently — in fact I wrote a little a piece about it for this month’s Prospect — and I was keen to go to the meeting in Parliament which Cath mentions. Sadly, I’m unable to assess her contribution to the debate. I got through parliamentary security with a bottle of wine and a cheese knife (!) but couldn’t get past the feminist bouncers who were turning away anyone who is interested in actually debating the future of prostitution in this country. Also turned away: colleagues from the World Bank, staff from the offices of MPs supportive of rules that will make sex work safer, and (needless to say) anyone who actually chooses to sell sex for a living — the people the meeting organisers don’t believe exist.
“As everyone in the room agreed, it’s time to bring an end to the selling of women and girls: who could possibly disagree with that?” concludes Ms Elliot. The organisers didn’t need to police the crowd to get everyone to agree on that point. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe that selling people is wrong. Not anyone outside the Premier League, anyway. Selling sex, on the hand, is not wrong, in the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of women and men who choose it as a profession. Oh but wait, they don’t exist….
The truth is that they do exist, just as the ex-Nevada hooker who left the profession with debts because she hadn’t managed to save any of the $2000 + a week she earned while on the game exists. Some women who sell sex do it because they are forced to. They are trafficked, and we already have laws against that. Some do it for the same reason people work in McDonald’s — because it is the best job they can get for the skills they have (though you tend to earn more selling sex than burgers, and the hours are more flexible). Helping people who hate their jobs (in prostitution or McDonalds) to “exit” is surely a worthwhile thing to do. But some women (and men, of course) sell sex because they want to. Forcing them to stop by criminalising punters would be like promoting welfare in the restaurant industry by outlawing fast food. The distinction between the voluntary and involuntary sale of sex is an important one, and one that the draft policing and crime bill is inching its way towards recognising. Trying to keep willing sex workers out of the room is both undemocratic and unhelpful.