Sexual politics

Originally published in Prospect Magazine – 4th July 2009 — Issue 160

Sex workers have persuaded MPs not to criminalise their clients. It’s about time they had their say

Having lived in India, Indonesia, Kenya and other recent adopters of democracy, I’m no stranger to the untidy realities of parliamentary government. And while the mother of parliaments has not been setting a good example in recent months, one of the legislative backdrops to the expenses scandal tells us more about parliament’s true strengths and weaknesses. To find out more I have been talking to Catherine Stephens, a sex worker who, like many in her trade, has spent time hanging around Westminster. Lately Catherine has been there on parliamentary business, trying to knock some sense into the nation’s laws on prostitution. And she scored a significant victory on 19th May at the third reading of the current policing and crime bill.

The legislation covers gang law, airport security and what the government can do with your DNA—as well as whether men should be jailed for paying for sex with prostitutes. If it passed you by it might well be because the Speaker interrupted its third reading to make a statement about MPs’ expenses, and promptly fell on his sword.
Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford and champion of safer sex work, was speaking at the time. He soldiered on as gaggles of MPs took possession of the chamber. Harris politely gave way for the Speaker’s eight minute interruption, and then quietly resumed as most of his colleagues drained away.

The debate gave a fascinating glimpse into British democracy. Discussion of a law that may mean life or death in the sex trade, and that threatens men with arrest for an offence that is not clearly defined, was sandwiched into a couple of hours. The government bangs its drum on “evidence-based” policy but failed to present any evidence that locking up prostitutes’ clients will reduce trafficking of women. Labour’s John McDonnell summed it up well: “We not only do not give ourselves the time to discuss legislation, but we legislate in absolute ignorance of the facts of what is happening on the ground… This is no way to run a country, is it?”

Hard to disagree. And yet. The bill introduced by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in November 2008, born of a feminist belief that prostitution is inherently exploitative, wanted to criminalise clients. Not surprisingly, people like Catherine who pay their rent and Tate membership fees by selling sex don’t want to see demand dry up. They don’t feel exploited. But they do know trafficking exists, and want it stopped.

Catherine is an activist at the International Union of Sex Workers, which has for years, together with other groups like the English Collective of Prostitutes, organised press briefings and public meetings. In the face of this bill they met MPs, gave evidence before committees, and presented data (which the government had not released) showing that while blanket laws against buying sex don’t stop trafficking, they do make identifying trafficked women harder. The cops say information on possible victims often comes from punters, who are hardly going to go to the police if threatened with arrest. Hookers, health workers and cops also oppose the bill’s attempt to ban brothels; working alone is a lot more dangerous than sharing a receptionist and a maid with other prostitutes.

Such lobbying seems to have done the trick. The amended bill now allows two prostitutes to share premises and take bookings through an agent, while ensuring that men who buy sex from women who sell it willingly will avoid prosecution. It still contains some elements that are unworkable, bordering on idiotic. If a prostitute tells a client she’s a willing seller and later turns out to have been lying, the client can be jailed. But with the efforts of Catherine and her friends some of the remaining silliness may get ironed out. The fact is that people who work in the sex trade are beginning to influence the laws that govern them. Some may think this is no way to run a country, but I’ve yet to see a better idea.