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Anti-prostitution: its illogic and inapplicability in law

March 25, 2016

Anti-prostitution rhetoric has moved on since the times of outright claims of its immorality. These days, it is more common for anti-prostitution advocates to focus on the emotional and physical well-being of sex workers, and to suggest that their sex work is inherently damaging them. It should be noted, first of all, that this opinion is largely not informed by experience, let alone first-hand experience. It is usually informed by ideology; generally, feminist theory of a certain kind, which considers the “sale of women’s bodies” a signature of patriarchy.

The significance of this viewpoint is that it colours all perceptions unchangeably. If sex work is a symbol of rampant patriarchy, then sex work is automatically never acceptable. To this wing of feminist thought, the concept of an egalitarian society which still features sex work is inconceivable. To anyone for whom this is inconceivable, sex work can never be discussed under any other assumption; a dramatic increase in sex work among men which equalises the process of selling sex would never be considered a sign that sex work can be disentangled from patriarchy. Instead, this social change would be roundly waved away as not-good-enough, and selected examples from minute samples would be used to claim that female prostitutes still have it worse, therefore prostitution is still patriarchy. This sort of confirmation bias is, unfortunately, an inevitable aspect of partisan sociology.

If the aforementioned view of sex-work-as-patriarchy sounds clinically theoretical, that’s because it is. The addition of emotive language comes as an afterthought, to make the argument more palatable to a compassionate but sceptical audience. This is not a viewpoint designed to represent the real experiences of sex workers, or women of any kind. In fact, anti-prostitution advocates often ignore the experiences of sex workers that do not fit with their pre-existing theory of the unavoidable subjugation involved in prostitution. They will disregard, even sneer at, female sex workers who indicate that their experience is generally positive – as if this viewpoint is automatically invalid simply because it does not fit the theory. It is to be taken as self-evident that the theory is true; the theory becomes more important than the evidence because theory sounds stronger than evidence. Evidence necessarily represents multiple conflicting problems, whereas theory is a cherry-picking process which ignores anything the theorist assumes to be anomalous. That assumption is of course based on the theory, leading us round in circles.

For this reason, I believe that it is anti-prostitution that is inherently anti-feminist; what is feminism for, if it no longer represents the individual women it proposes to aid and protect? Illogically, female sex-workers are silenced because their real experience inconveniently challenges a pre-packaged theory. But theories are only as good as the practises they encourage. Outright bans on prostitution restricts clientèle to people who not anxious about breaking the law – people, in short, who are more likely to be reckless, desperate, have some kind of moral deficit, or are less inclined to observe the norms and values of their society – even, perhaps, sensible ones. None of this is a recipe for respectful sexual encounters, the like of which sex workers hope for. If one imagines that the real problem of prostitution is its tendency to attract aggression and mistreatment (and a sense of entitlement over both), this issue only stands to get worse if sex work is illegal.

In theory, anti-prostitution discussion is supposed to promote compassion: “Women are being used and abused, therefore we must take whatever steps we can to prevent this abuse.” Although itself morally sound, this idea starts to unravel when it develops into specific, practical action: “We must make prostitution illegal, and penalise the buyers.” The first problem with this idea is that it does not invoke compassion for both sides; it shows a lack of compassion for people who purchase sex, whose individual stories are not known.

It is complicated to examine whether someone should be allowed to buy sex; whether sex is a need; and whether compassion should be felt for such individuals. I will not address it here, since I am less interested in the right to buy and more in the right to sell. Although it might seem that to speak of one is to speak of the other, in fact it is the difference between the right to choose what one does with one’s own life, and the right to choose what one does with someone else’s. It is hard to argue a moral case for the latter, but we argue over the former all the time.

In the UK, there is legal precedent for restricting the personal choice to work in sex; we have similar policies on drugs and voluntary euthanasia. Alcohol use and abortion are counter examples – even though abortion does not only concern the rights of one individual, but rather two, and thus is harder to rationally justify than the choice to be a sex worker. We also do not greatly restrict freedom of speech; there are legal sanctions for inciting violence against a social group, but as a rule we are free to say what we will even if the upshot is that it harms other people.

There is good reason to be against legal intervention on any of these issues; anti policies of any kind restrict choice, whereas pro policies of any kind create it. The law is a blunt tool which sacrifices the right to choose for the ability to protect a certain group of people – in this case, protect mistreated streetwalkers at the expense of high-end sex sellers. Assuming, of course, that streetwalkers require or desire this protection. After all, they may prefer to have the option than to not have it. Those who do it so they can keep their home or their children have more options than your average man in the same situation.

Indeed, in history, women have been able to turn to prostitution as a means of greater autonomy, compared to married women. This suggests that, while widespread prostitution is certainly a sign of patriarchy, it is also an address to it; its presence in society should not be taken as submission. Of course it is better to have equality in jobs and careers so that women do not feel as though sex work is their only option for financial independence. But even with rises in equality, prostitution is not fading from society, but rather becoming more visible. This suggests that prostitution renders some advantage for women that they want to utilise. It may be, for some, a dubious advantage, but it is nonetheless valued to varying degrees.

It is hard to legislate against something which is desired by its own alleged victims, who continue to conduct the same behaviours they have always done regardless of the law. Banning prostitution has never magically ended it; just as there will always be people who want to buy sex, there will always be people who want to sell it, for better or for worse. The question of whether society should have prostitution is a moot point; the fact that they will anyway creates a need to regulate within the sex industry rather than against it. The process is complicated by communication barriers; if sex work is made unspeakable by intolerant members of the Left – who, for some reason, are attributed moral fortitude where the Right would be accused of prejudice for exactly the same argument – it restricts the process of determining what practical action needs to be taken in support of those who choose to become sex workers. Any politician who speaks on this issue will be lambasted by vocal opponents as sanctioning an inherently abusive trade. This bad publicity makes them think twice about trying.

One popular feminist argument is that the right of wealthy escorts to continue sex work pales in comparison to the right of women not to be abused. We should be wary of this manner of expression. The two rights are not antithetical, as they are made to sound. Already, we have legal systems to ban trafficking and ever more distinct classifications of sexual abuse that protect sex workers on the job as well as women in relationships. The idea that banning sex work is required in order to end all exploitation and abuse relies on the notion that paying someone for sex is automatically abusive.

We could dismiss this claim, due to its being unfalsifiable. For one thing, in a world of casual encounters, whereby gifts of drinks and meals essentially buy sexual favour within ordinary social lives, it is impossible to determine who has been “paid for sex” and who hasn’t. The legislature and judiciary would get themselves into all sorts of entanglements trying to figure that out. When someone marries a rich man, are they being paid for sex? Not according to research that suggests that women are more attracted to men with money – not pretending, not gold-digging, actually more attracted. It would be a cynical person indeed who suggested this subconscious process of sexual selection is akin to a scheduled handjob in a parked car.

And how does one test inherent abusiveness? We cannot; instead, if there is a single instance of sex work occurring that is not negatively perceived by the sex worker themselves, we should take this as anecdotal evidence that the practise does not necessitate harm. To assume harm when no harm is felt by the alleged victim is not only irrational, but condescending – we are suggesting that a sex worker is not able to analyse her own experience correctly. For anti-prostitution activists who wish to make that claim, the fact that Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour) happened to be getting a PhD while working as a call girl must be decidedly inconvenient.

In a free society, we must be very careful which processes we legally prohibit. I would argue that it is preferable wherever possible to regulate certain choices socially, as opposed to intervening legally; freedom of speech is the perfect example, because it is a human right and therefore enshrined in law, but obviously serves as a weapon of negative social change. Such is in the case for anti-prostitution speech, irrespective of the intention of the speakers (who would, of course, stand to gain nothing from over-protective laws circumscribing freedom of expression); even with compassionate, socially responsible will, public anti-prostitution stances cause harm to sex workers. I will discuss this in my second article next week.

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