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Compassionate anti-prostitution harms sex workers

April 1, 2016

Following my last article on the illogic of anti-prostitution in the law, I will move on now to discuss how public stances of anti-prostitution cause more harm than good to prostitutes, including those on the bottom level, i.e. streetwalkers.

Compassionate anti-prostitution is intended to challenge the notion that anyone who chooses prostitution is making a free choice, or that the end result of that choice is ever acceptable to the individual’s psyche, whatever they might consciously think about the matter. Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, its expression on public platforms does not improve the lives of streetwalkers, because of the filter-down effect.

When a high-profile feminist goes on BBC Radio 4 to talk about prostitution and its effect on women, her audience are most likely even-minded or bohemian middle class people in their 30s. Say that some of those listeners are convinced. They may repeat the sentiment, minus the fifteen minute elaboration; the overarching message they take is that “Prostitution is bad for the women who do it.” Here, this hypothetical listener has absorbed the compassion, but left out the nuance. Their repetition of this argument in the pub or at the office water cooler will flow through this filter removing all contextual detail that could help someone listening to reform the argument into something different, using the same evidence, thereby forming a substantial counter-argument.

Although the hypothetical office water cooler co-workers may not themselves be convinced by this stripped down argument, the fact that it has been uttered increases its prevalence. If Ms Radio 4 is repeated to several hundred people, her influence increases several-hundred-fold. Even people who repeat the argument while disagreeing with it magnify the effect of her opinion by bringing its attention to more people. As the argument snowballs, it loses its attribution. No one remembers Ms Radio 4, much less what she actually said. Instead, society has an increased sense that there exists a mode of thought that says prostitution is bad. Even the fact that Ms Radio 4 specifically said that it was bad for them gets skimmed off somewhere along the line.

Once an increasing number of people in society know of a particular viewpoint, it becomes more comfortable to express that viewpoint. No one wants to be first. No one wants to stand out and make a scene (unless they have constructed their career out of exactly that). If anti-prostitution becomes an established view, even if it is a minority view, it is more freely shared and perpetuated. People will come up with their own inventive reasons why prostitution is bad, usually off the back of their own cultural misconceptions; in parts of society where sexual health and safety are not well understood, sex work is more commonly perceived as dirty – as though the act of accepting money itself somehow fosters the transfer of chlamydia.

Compare this to homosexuality and its perception in society over the past few years. It is quite difficult for anyone to get away with saying anything slightly off-colour about homosexuality on a public platform in the UK. People are particularly intolerant of intolerance against gay people; to the extent that comparatively bland heterosexism (the like of which you could find at any respectable office water cooler) is lambasted as homophobic all over the country. Then the press picks it up and runs with it, because they love a scandal. I’m not saying that any of these processes are wonderful, but they do serve some purpose to protect against homophobia. By decreasing the level of acceptable heterosexist rhetoric in overall society, the filter-down effect is a decrease in homophobic ideas. A society that constantly pushes an anti-homophobic stance makes it difficult for people to feel comfortable expressing homophobic ideas.

People vary in terms of critical faculty, but at the least sophisticated level, reasons for social change are not understood, considered or at all cared about. The changes themselves are observed and absorbed unconsciously. Even if Ms Radio 4 is the most tolerant person alive and genuinely wishes no harm or prejudice against sex workers, it will be her argument that is eventually whittled down to “prostitution is bad, therefore prostitutes are bad”. At this most basic level, no one particularly cares who decided this, or why; it is a cultural attitude, and cultural attitudes are often treated with the reverence of religion. People have faith that what is correct in their culture is purely correct – up until the moment that they have a personal reason to question any one part of it. Moreover, negative perceptions of groups of people tend to stick fast once granted.

This distinct lack of empathy and compassion is no doubt not quite what anti-prostitution activists have in mind when they speak about prostitution and its pitfalls, yet nonetheless they unwittingly help to cause it. Such people would most likely blame still pervading, old-fashioned conservative thinking for these attitudes – but if they did, they would be missing the fact that every so often, the Right rephrases its arguments to keep up with the sentiments of the Left, in order to not be left behind; and, whenever they do, they pick the ones that best suit their existing viewpoint. Having a Left-wing activist say that prostitution is destructive to prostitutes is a dream to the Daily Mail, which can then run several column pieces on how these increased dangers are symptomatic of the decline in robust Christian morals – seemingly with the implicit backing of regular, secular society. If the influence of Ms Radio 4 is on several hundred people, the Daily Mail influence is several thousand. That effect on society could be profound. Not to mention the fact that attitudes and representations, if popular, pass from paper to paper; to TV show, to TV show, onto social media and back again.

The right-wing press might consider sex workers to be wretched fools; the left-wing view that they may not be fools, but they are wretched, is scarcely an improvement. Prostitutes are not wretched, however wretched they might seem when they are understandably feeling down in the dumps about the way their life has panned out. They are still agents of their own will. This acknowledgement is important, because counter-intuitively, people who curb-crawl are not people who think favourably on prostitution. They are subject to the same set of cultural attitudes that says prostitutes are dirty, immoral, almost subhuman and deserve what they get. Abuses of sex workers on the job come from these perceptions; if prostitution is not acceptable, the prostitutes are not to be accepted; whatever happens to them they bring on themselves, because of that transgression. Therefore, the concept that prostitution is always bad, because prostitutes get treated badly, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Although I am certainly not in favour of censorship, I will say that self-censorship – in other words, a practical understanding that what one utters in public has an impact beyond what one intends or can predict – is an important part of navigating the minefield of ethics, and one that I fear is too quickly abandoned in favour of the perceived need to express one’s opinion loudly and often. Anti-prostitution activists will constantly say that they are not anti-prostitutes, in the same manner as a Christian may love the sinner and hate the sin. What they are missing is the acceptance that they are perceived, translated and moulded into one-and-the-same, a process they are not in control of. Ironically, if they value the end of sexual abuse from male clients to female sex workers, they would have to accept a stance of tolerance and understand the value of positive portrayals of sex workers. I will discuss these in the third and last of this series, next week.


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