A parliament of whores? Access denied!

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.

This post was published on 29/06/09 in The sex trade.

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  1. Comment by Lina, 29/06/09, 08:15:

    “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.” Please Elizabet – can’t you see the problem here? In theory it might be very easy to talk about a distinction between voluntary and involuntary sale of sex – in reality not so….I thought you had met enough victims of trafficking in your life to see why this is so hard to distinguish in reality – come on! There are so many factors playing in that often influence a victim of trafficking / forced prostitute to pretend the sale is voluntary although it is not – such as the threat of being killed by her/his trafficker (due to weak witness protection capacity of a State for example) and of having her family killed back home, not getting her salary back (which she/he need to pay back the debts to the trafficker), etc. I think criminalize the act of buying sex – note: it should not be illegal to sell sex (in order to weaken the stigma towards prostitutes)- actually contributes to decrease in trafficking for sexual exploitation, and that is more important in the long run than ensuring the right of a few women to sell sex voluntarily! Depends on where your sympathies are though….with the well-off callgirls who actually have other options in this life or with the abused?

  2. Comment by Charlie, 29/06/09, 10:18:

    The demand for women to be used in prostitution fuels the demand for trafficking, force and co-ercion. It is a simple as that. You can not seperate ‘good prostitution’ from ‘bad prostitution’. I am afraid the price is just too high. The right to dignity and safety for all women far outweighs the profit margins of a few. Prostitution is harmful to all those involved, even those that you say ‘choose’ it. It is also harmful to all women in society, as while men believe that they can buy a woman’s body, equality will never be fully achieved.

  3. Comment by Roger, 29/06/09, 10:23:

    You said it all Lina:

    “Depends on where your sympathies are though….with the well-off callgirls who actually have other options in this life or with the abused?”

    So it is not about justice, it is not about law, it is not about protection of the most vulnerable or about evidences, but it is all about “sympathies”.

    Strangely enough, the same sympathy-led approach have led 25 years of HIV prevention into a wall. The widows and and the orphan got all the sympathy of the world whilst the junkies and MSM where ignored. Whilst the former were taken great care of, the later were stigmatised.

    If you want to make a change, act on evidences, and the evidences does not point towards prostitution or trafficking being the problem but rather its manifestation…

  4. Comment by Paddy, 30/06/09, 03:46:

    I dislike the concept of prostitution, and would never hire a prostitute. However, I believe that criminalising all punters would be unfair and unhelpful.

    Unfair, because, if you consider the sex addicts, or the intimacy-phobics, or people who just cannot or will not be attractive to the opposite sex, do you really think they should be prosecuted as “sex offenders” because they pay through the nose for what other people get for free? When, at the same time, richer, more powerful men would doubtless continue to get away with having all the “mistresses” that they like.

    Unhelpful because, as ugly as prostitution may be today, do we really think there’ll be less ugliness to it, or any less disease transmission, if we drive the purchasers even further underground than they are now? Do we think this wouldn’t open the door to new blackmailing scams (get some rich dupe drunk, get him to pay for sex, cash in)? To enforce standards on the trade, the trade has to be visible and to have a stake in legitimacy.

    To criminalise a transaction of this kind is simply to make criminals of honest men and women. Yes, many of the punters will be exploitative, and many more will be exploited. Some couldn’t give two hoots about whether the sex worker they hire is in control of the situation or not; a few would prefer if she wasn’t. But we can’t, in all fairness, punish them all for the actions or wishes of a few.

  5. Comment by Diamond Dolly, 02/07/09, 11:51:

    Yeah that`s it. Lock the men up for buying sex, so other HIV+ men can have sex with them! Talk about justice.

  6. Comment by Mikael Apelsten, 05/07/09, 03:01:

    It seems that Lina, Charlie, Roger, Diamond and Paddy all missed reading: http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10869


  7. Comment by Charlie, 06/07/09, 07:05:

    I’ve read this article. What is your point?

  8. Comment by Elizabeth Pisani, 06/07/09, 07:24:

    MY point in writing the article was that men and women who sell sex have the same right to a voice in a democracy as men and women who see all exchange of sex for cash as a form of violence.

    As the Policing and Crime Bill has made its way through parliament sex workers in Britain have raised their voices, and are being heard. Attempting to muzzle someone, to remove their right to speak, is surely a greater act of violence as giving someone 25 quid for a hand job, no?

  9. Comment by Charlie, 06/07/09, 09:00:

    I don’t think that anyone’s voice has been removed from the democratic process; that much is clear. I do feel though that the greater voice of prostitution is silenced by those who want to increase their profits and get off, regardless of the harms of such an institution. Prostituted women and survivors often can’t or won’t speak out about the reality of the industry because of psychological trauma and because of fear of response from a society that has witnessed and been brainwashed by the glamourisation of the so-called sex industry. But many do, against all the odds. Although no ‘muzzling’ has occurred in my opinion, even if it had, how can you claim that it would be ‘violence’, especially compared to what goes on in both forced and non-forced prostitution? Do you want to see more women, children and men having to sell their bodies, or less?

  10. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 07/07/09, 02:31:


    I too am sickened by seeing human beings abuse their bodies horribly, some to the point of disability or death, for others’ pleasure and profit, at what almost always works out in the end (except at the very top of the business, and not always there) to be really very little money. It’s even more sickening to see older people–very often parents–grooming young children to live such lives.

    Still, I don’t think it would be reasonable or just to criminalize professional sports.

  11. Comment by Charlie, 07/07/09, 11:20:

    Oh dear, another attempt to compare being repeatedly subjected to unwanted sex with unwanted men, numerous times a day and this time with sport. Usually it is cockle or leek picking, or working in Macdonalds. I doubt very much that the life of any professional is not stressful at times, but think about what is really going on here.

  12. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 08/07/09, 02:03:

    Charlie, you repeatedly beg the question (in the old-fashioned sense of _petitio principii_): you assume what is to be proved — in this case, that in all or nearly all cases, prostitution / sex-work consists of being “subjected to unwanted sex with unwanted men”. “Subjected to” denies all agency to all persons engaging in that sex-work; this denial is itself denied, *of themselves*, by numerous such persons, and the burden of proof becomes yours to show that they are wrong (whether lying or serious deluded) — merely asserting that they are wrong (or, worse, refusing to acknowledge that they have even spoken) is fallacious at best and dishonest at worst.

    And, while I’m accusing you of fallacious argumentation, I note that in typing out that last quotation I noticed that I had nearly missed another of your fallacies: you have equivocated between “unwanted” and “forced”.

    Finally: work at Macdonald’s doesn’t, and even stoop labor like cockle or leek picking needn’t, cripple the workers; “sport” (as you call professional athletic entertainment–fair enough, I called it that earlier) leaves very many of those who do it for a living physically crippled, and often (at least in the case of boxing and American football) demented from repeated head traumas. The life of “training” which athletically promising children (including ballet dancers as athletes for this purpose) also produces many more cripples than it does super rich superstars (crippled or not). That you can dismiss those facts (as “stress”) is strong evidence, to me, that an interest in controlling human (specifically, women’s) sexuality is what rules you, and not (for instance) an interest in minimizing physical and mental harm to workers, or in increasing the proportion of the population (particularly the female population) who have true agency in their lives.

  13. Comment by Charlie, 08/07/09, 06:38:


    Thank you for your wordy reply. It is very clever of you to try and fool the reader into interpreting what I have written as what you have written.

    Anyway, to be brief, if the burden of proof is on me to prove that ‘they’ are ‘wrong’ (where did this come from) then can I trouble you for some proof that I am wrong?

    I did not equivocate between ‘unwanted’ and ‘forced’, that must be your personal interpretation. Unwanted sex can take place in non-forced prostitution, and certainly takes place in forced (rape).

    Consensual unwanted sex, or rape, can leave a person feeling violated in a way different to other physical traumas, in part due to the part that power plays. I simply cannot compare sport with rape/unwanted sex. Just to clarify, consent doesn’t mean you want or choose something. I might consent to a surgeon performing an operation based on trust/risk but remain uninformed for example what the outcome will be.

    Finally, prostitution has nothing to do with a prostitutes sexuality. The existance of a financial exchange is the basis of the act, which will, inevitably, be performed to the customers liking.

  14. Comment by D Fox, 10/07/09, 09:42:

    “Finally, prostitution has nothing to do with a prostitutes sexuality. The existence of a financial exchange is the basis of the act, which will, inevitably, be performed to the customers liking”.

    What a weird understanding of the relationship between a sex worker and his /her client. In ten years in the business I have had many sexual requests but I decide what I do not the client. Take away the money aspect and it is just consensual sex. I consent to lots of things in life some willingly such as eating ice cream and some unwillingly like paying tax. I sell a service to my clients that is all and what I do with my clients is between my client and me and has noting to do with the state provided it is consensual and legal.
    Those who are forced or coerced are of concern to everyone in particular sex workers. You do not stop abuse however by instigating further abuse using the power of the state to interfere with consensual activity. You stop abuse by empowering people AND by recognising their rights. Pushing the sex industry underground to ease the conscience’s of some will result in further alienation and stigmatisation and will create an opportunity for corruption and worse abuse than already exists because of our enforced alienation by already bad law here in the UK.
    Attempt to control the bedroom and to use the law to socially engineer society inevitably results in bad law. Sex workers have suffered for centuries from moralists and religionists and now from so called feminists tryingt o save us.It is time it stopped and that they listened to the people they devote so much time trying to save.

    D Fox (male sex worker).

  15. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 13/07/09, 12:23:

    Pimping to fund the pursuit of Olympic medals. I find myself faced with a moral conundrum: is this a case where the means justify the ends?


  16. Comment by Charlie, 22/07/09, 07:48:

    Mr Fox,

    What an interesting and enlightening comment you make; ‘take away the money aspect and it is just consensual sex’. Fascinating!

    Stating that prostitution will be driven underground by any type of criminalisation is simply a red herring used so often by the pro-prostitution lobby, a lobby who act as a front for the highly profitable sex industry, and on behalf of those interested in maintaining their profits regardless of who it affects. I do not believe prostitution will be driven underground. If punters can find prostitutes then so can support agencies and (where required) the authorities.

    A quick reminder; there is consensus throughout the women’s movement that all those involved in selling sex acts should be decriminalised. No human should be fined or arrested for there exploitatative circumstances, regardless of how they got there. The suggested model criminalises the purchase of sex acts, therefore, most crucaially, tackling demand and reducing exploitation, which counts for the vast majority of prostitution. The pro-prostitution lobby also likes to accuse the government and other agencies of seeking to further criminalise ‘sex workers’. This is simply not the case. It will be the punter that will finally be held accountable for carrying out unwanted sex (often rape) and other violence against a prostituted person.

  17. Comment by cath brown, 03/08/09, 02:41:


    Your comments that the “pro prostitution lobby” – i.e anyone who doesn’t agree with you – is a “front for the highly profitable sex industry” is very revealing. Are you suggesting that someone of Elisabeth Pisani’s standing in the field of epidemiology is acting as a “front” for the sex industry?

    It’s very clear from listening to your lobby that you don’t give a damn about the welfare of the women affected. Why not be honest and admit that you find the idea that anyone sells sex offends you? In fact it offends you so much that you refuse to believe that anyone would do it willingly and you demand the full weight of the criminal law to protect your fragile sensibilities. This law is about protecting you from offence and not about protecting prostitutes.

    This is obiously why your fellow lobbyists have worked so hard to conflate prostitution with trafficking and why you consistently silence or smear anyone who questions your logic.

    This is precisely the point Elisabeth was trying to make and your attempts to suggest she and others are a mouthpiece for pimps illustrates the veracity of that point

  18. Comment by Charlie, 03/08/09, 11:07:

    Cath Brown,

    The idea that anyone sells sex willingly neither offends nor shocks me. That is why I am in favour of complete decriminalisation of those who sell sex. There are many complex factors INCLUDING (not limited to) deep rooted and gendered (it would be niaive not to recognise the gendered element of this) opression that drive women to sell their bodies to numerous men that they would not have sex with otherwise. I have come to learn some of these reasons through friends that have ‘chosen’ to sell sex.

    I want to see the law protecting vulnerable people AND reducing sexual violence, sexism, sexual discrimination and sexual harrassment for ALL women. With regards to the prostitution element of the wider ‘violence against women’ agenda, the ‘Nordic’ model is the only way to do this effectively by gradually changing attitudes towards buying/renting women’s bodies. Where countries have legalised or fully decriminalised prostitution, both the legal and illegal sectors of the industry have expanded, encouraqing increased rates of trafficking and coercion, including child prostitution and other organised crime. It sends out the message that it is in fact OK to view women’s, girls and boys bodies as commercial entities; an idea that only furthers sexist attitudes and those of sexual dominance (including in the case of rent boys) and violence. In fact last year the Mayor of Amsterdam closed down a third of the red light district after admitting that the ‘regulation’ couldn’t protect the women and that organised crime was rife. Germany have recently begun to review their decision also, in the light of international and domestic obligations to tackle the all important demand for women and girls bodies.

    For the few that continue to pursue their profits claiming that they are not affected in any way from their activity, this is fair enough. But they do so to the detriment of all women; if their claims are true then they are at the top of a hierarchy which relies on the demand for commercial sex and the abuse of those lower down the chain to exist, and unfortunately very often, taking money from the husbands, fathers, partners, families of other women and children. I understand the different circumstances involved, but for me, the price paid by the majority is just too high.

    There exists a ‘madonna/whore’ complex among men and within masculinity (they all admit it quite openly to me, out in that real world!) Does an equal and just society consist of the belief that a group of women, girls and rent boys should be set aside to service men for cash whenever they feel like it?

  19. Comment by Charlie, 03/08/09, 11:55:

    Oh, and I have every reason to believe that Elizabeth Pisani’s intentions are good, but believe her vision is limited and somewhat skewed by the ‘glamourisation’ the industry has experienced.

    The pro-prostitution lobby, however, is primarily made up from brothel/agency owners, those ‘high-end’ persons discussed, pimps (sorry, there really is no ther word I can use), and most importantly, consumers of sex. This is widely known. It is quite obvious to me why these profit and pleasure seekers would want to legitimise this harmful trade.

  20. Comment by cath brown, 04/08/09, 05:50:

    Here we go again.. Do you have some ideological crib sheet that you merely cut and paste from as you constantly repeat yoursef.

    There is no point restating your jaundiced beliefs about sexuality. I am well aware of the gender-feminist ideology. I simply don’t agree with you.

    Your approach perpetuates the idea of women as passive recipients of male sexuality, removes their agency and teaches men and boys to hate themselves.

    To say Elisabeth has been ‘skewed by the glamour’ is ridiculous but typical as you always smear your oponents as either evil or naive. Have you actually read Elisabeths’ book? She has spent a large part of her career working with prostitutes in settings VERY far from glamourous.

    The difference between you and Elisabeth is that she has actually dedicated her time and energies to working with the women (and men) affected and advocating for them. Whereas you just concentrate on criminalising their customers, removing their livelihood and exposing them to unsafe conditions.

    Whilst I would dearly love to waste hours debating your ideology, I fear my time would be better spent correcting a few of the factual innacuracies of your latest post.

    The Mayor of Amsterdam is a reactionary policitician elected against a backdrop of tension around immigration in Amsterdam. The right wing in the Netherlands object to the red light district because they say it attracts immigrants. Attempts to close it are motivated by this as much as anything. There has also been a lot of pressure from property developers who would dearly love to get their hands on some prime real estate in the most overcrowded country in Europe. Many believe the mayor is pandering to commerce and bigotry in much the same way that Westminster council tried to evict prostitutes from soho.

    The ‘Nordic Model’ has been far from sucessful. There is growing evidence that it has merely moved the phenomenon to neighbouring countries (Denmark) and that the women who remain have been forced to work in much worse conditions. It has had terrible consequences for their sexual health and personal safety. Public support for the approach is now less than 30%.

    You represent your oponents as being a well funded lobby for the sex industry. Leaving aside the obvious inaccuracy of this claim let’s look at the finances of the agencies lobbying for the law. The key players are extremely well funded by central government under the laudable aim of providing refuges, housing etc. However, it now appears they have spent considerable time and energy campaigning around sexual politics.

    Others reading this may wonder how all this has been achieved. Sadly, the gender feminists now dominate sexual politics in Britain. They ruthlessly control the formal womens movement and eject anyone who does not agree with their sex negative approach. As their agenda has progressed they have also been forced to exclude reputable sexual health and HIV organisations, the gay movement and sex worker agencies – all of whom they now perceive as being a ‘mouthpiece for patriarchy’.

    However, the one thing their recent flurry of campaigning has achieved is to motivate others to join together to challenge their prejudiced, dangerous rhetoric.

  21. Comment by cath brown, 04/08/09, 06:44:

    One other thing Charlie. You appear to be a very prolific contributor to blogs on this topic.

    Some of the things you have to say are interesting and I don’t doubt your genuine beliefs. However, I think you may want to think about the ethics of your approach.

    It’s very easy to scour the internet and then, from the safety of anonymity, smear and vilify the author. At least Elisabeth has the the guts to publish her opinions in her real name on her own website.

    Why not write some original articles, authored in your own name, which can then contribute to the debate, rather than merely carrying out a series of anonymous hit and runs against those who disagree with you.

  22. Comment by Charlie, 04/08/09, 08:35:

    What makes you think I don’t already?

    Apologies for using a comments column to make comments 🙁

  23. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 06/08/09, 03:59:

    cath brown, to Charlie: “Why not write some original articles, authored in your own name, which can then contribute to the debate”.

    Charlie: “What makes you think I don’t already?”

    This shouldn’t need spelling out, but in case it does, here goes: supposing that you do write “in your own name” elsewhere, since here you write simply as “Charlie” there is no way for readers to associate the own-name articles with the Charlie-handle “hit and runs”, which are therefore effectively anonymous (and equally are therefore not given any of the credence they might earn from the own-name articles, supposing those to be well-argued, etc., etc.). Get it?

  24. Comment by Charlie, 06/08/09, 06:40:

    To be honest, I am starting to feel rather attacked by the people that oppose my opin ions on this comments list. I have read back through my posts and apart from one regarding comparing pressure to achieve in sport with rape/unwanted sex, where I used the words ‘oh dear’ in frustration more than anything else, all I have done is put accross my opinions on the matter. Some of my opinions are based on hard fact, others not, but that is the point; that is why comments are allowed on this piece. I begrudge the adversarial tone that some of the people on here are taking, especially as they accuse me of ‘lashing out’ at people I don’t agree with (it just hasn’t happened, it is called opinion), while doing exactly that themselves towards me. The points I have made are clear and it is up to the reader to go away, do research, and make up their own mind. The tone of some of the commentors here is just insulting, so their words speak for themselves really. I am off to continue my campaign for equality and to end violence against women. Have fun.

  25. Comment by Anonymous, 11/08/09, 06:27:

    so is this a column for 5 year olds because that’s what you 2 sound like-

  26. Comment by Maya, 07/10/09, 10:35:

    To Cath: not all gender feminists are “sex-negative.” And I would never call good organizations that are empowering sex workers “mouthpiece[s] for patriarchy.” to Charlie: you’re misrepresenting the argument.

    I really don’t appreciate the anti-gender feminist bias, or bias against sex workers. We’re all on the same side, but we need some guidance from the ground, like Elizabeth Pisani’s book, not partisan bickering! But we can’t make assumptions that what works in Bangkok will work in the Netherlands or the US… Pisani knows that, but I fear that some of commenters here don’t…

    What we should do, however, is find a way to talk to each other and work together.

  27. Comment by Patricktherogue, 16/10/09, 10:50:

    I think the libertarian talk show host, Neal Boortz, said it best, “If you can give it away, why can’t you sell it.”
    What people like to avoid in this debate is the whole context of how and why people have sex, and how sex in exchange for money is really one part of a continuum. When one considers all the reasons a woman has sex with a man, an exchange of money doesn’t seem to be quite the seedier end of it. Don’t get me wrong, sex can be a truly beautiful and vital part of life, but it can also be manipulative, demeaning, coercing, and alarming, and all without money involved at all.
    If we allow government to start poking and prodding around all the reasons people have sex, I think that the restrictions on when, where, and how may be just beginnning.
    On this issue, the libertarians have a point. As long as an activity between two adult people is consensual, the government should leave it alone, because to do anything else opens a door into places most of us would rather not go.

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