Thoughtful comment on gender and politics

Prostitution, trafficking and a whole lot of legislation

Image: Ira Gelb/Flickr

I used to be a debater – professionally, not just in my personal life! I debated all through school and when I went to university I became President of Leeds University’s debating society. One of the best pieces of advice I was given during my debating career was that it’s much harder to argue for something you believe in. Be wary when you get to stand up for a woman’s right to choose abortion, to argue in favour of gay marriage, or against the death penalty. Surprisingly, it can be a bit of a poisoned chalice.

The reason is that our beliefs tend to be based on our emotions. Even the most logical amongst us has a gut reaction to most things. You’re jumping for joy when you get to argue in favour of gay marriage because you ‘just know’ it’s right. But the reality is you probably haven’t thought through the arguments why. And then you have to stand up for five minutes in front of a room full of people and give a logical explanation of why gay marriage should be legal and you find yourself with nothing to say except for:

Well, it just SHOULD be, anyone can see that.

This lesson rang truest for me after I’d hung up my debating hat. I was doing my Masters at LSE and in my feminist political theory class we were having a debate on prostitution – is prostitution intrinsically exploitative? I’d been put in the ‘yes’ camp, and very relieved. I’ve always firmly held the belief that no woman can enter prostitution out of anything other than desperation. No child says:

I want to be a prostitute when I grow up.

I just couldn’t understand how any woman could sell her body through choice, and of course, it is usually a woman selling sexual services to a man. I pitied the people on the other side of the debate – how could they possibly argue prostitution did not exploit women? Well, I needn’t have worried – my opponents made a good fist of the argument! And through the debate I came to understand my own position on prostitution a lot better.

I realised that for me the problem with prostitution is the world in which it takes place. Ours is a world filled with inequalities: women earn less, own less property, have less power, are at greater risk of violence and are continually sexualised and objectified in the media. Prostitution as a profession seems to amplify the negative side of women’s experience. Pimps and traffickers prey on the vulnerable, prostitutes are more at risk of violence and rape, they are more susceptible to disease and less likely to have access to appropriate healthcare.

My opponents argued that prostitution, like any other contract of labour, is a free exchange where the gender of the parties involved is purely incidental. They also pointed out that while prostitution may not be my personal choice, it’s not my place to judge what another woman might find empowering. Through the research for this post I have read countless accounts online written by ex-prostitutes about the exploitation they experienced whilst working, but I have also spoken to sex workers, who say, that for them, prostitution is a positive choice.

Despite the voracity of my opponents, I didn’t come round to their point of view; I still believe that prostitution is exploitative. But I did have to think long and hard about my own opinions and whether I was imposing my values on other women, at the expense of freedom of choice. This debate took place several years ago, but I still think about it from time to time, particularly when the issue of prostitution is raised in the media.

When prostitution is raised in the media it’s usually around a debate about whether it should be banned. This week that debate was reopened by Caroline Spelman. The former Tory cabinet minister has said we should introduce the Nordic model in the UK, whereby buying sex is criminalised. She says this is to deal with the exploitation in the industry, especially of those who have been trafficked.

As I said before, prostitution only seems to amplify the inequalities of the sexes and just under 40% of prostitutes working in the UK are thought to be either trafficked or are classed as ‘vulnerable’ by the police. The trafficking of women for the sex trade worldwide is a serious issue and I couldn’t agree more with Spelman that we’re not doing enough to tackle it. And I can see why the Nordic model is so attractive; by criminalising men we cause demand to dry up and make the trafficking of women for the sex trade a less lucrative business. And there’s lots of compelling evidence that the Nordic model does reduce exploitation and trafficking.

But if trafficking’s the real problem we want to solve then why not just ban trafficking? As it happens, a new Draft Modern Slavery Bill is currently before Parliament. As crazy as it sounds, the government is dealing with the issue of trafficking with laws on trafficking, not on prostitution. This is in line with what charities who support victims of trafficking have called for… almost. As the bill moves through Parliament it will be up to politicians, activists and the public to hold the government to account and make sure the resulting legislation is fit for purpose.

It’s very easy to conflate the issues of prostitution, exploitation and trafficking. I understand Spelman’s position and given the evidence from Sweden I feel deeply torn on this issue. I know where I stand from an ethical and moral perspective, but how should I translate that to my stance for how society should deal with trafficking and exploitation on a practical level?

This is one of the few occasions in my life where I find myself sitting on the fence, somewhere between reasoned argument and gut reaction. I stand strong with all those working to get the most out of the Modern Slavery Bill. I think we need to tackle trafficking and exploitation with legislation that targets just that, rather than prostitution.

But if that fails, where do we turn next?

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