The Economist’s Pimp

Nordic Model Now! member, Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans, replies to Robert Skidelsky’s recent Project Syndicate article.

What should be done about prostitution? Robert Skidelsky, an economist, member of the House of Lords, and contributor to Project Syndicate, has answered that question unequivocally. In an article entitled the Economist’s Concubine he concludes that prostitution should be completely decriminalised. The Labour Party, the Green Party and Amnesty International are of the same mind and their policies deploy the same rationale as Skidelsky. So, what is the rationale?

Skidelsky’s argument follows a well-trodden path:

In the UK, the law on prostitution is confused. Whilst prostitution is not illegal, some related activities are against the law, and prostitutes can be found guilty of criminal offences. The overwhelming evidence demonstrates that complete deregulation is the solution. In liberal democracies consenting adults should be able to buy and sell sex without state interference. Prostitution should be placed on a par with other forms of labour and understood as work.  Strict health and safety regulations should be applied in order to safeguard sex-workers from client exploitation.  Those who object to this approach, usually “feminists”, are wrong-headed and their alternative remedies “too extreme”.

Other critics of UK legislation are also concerned about the criminalisation of prostitutes. However the language of ‘sex-work’ obfuscates its realities. Prostitution is not equivalent to other forms of work. In prostitution the woman becomes the commodity.  Health and safety regulations which protect the worker, for example the worker at a supermarket till, are unenforceable since contravention is inherent in the use of the woman as a body.  The acts perpetrated by johns (increasingly informed by pornography) would immediately be perceived as violence if carried out by the buyer of goods at the super-market check-out. Decriminalisation is a pimp’s charter. Testament to this is the bargain-basement industrial-scale brothels which have sprung up in Germany and where women are used as a capital resource for efficient profit.

The Nordic model is an alternative to deregulation. This strategy criminalises the john but not the prostituted woman. It has already been adopted by Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada and, most recently, by France. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates decriminalisation exacerbates violence and harm, whereas criminalization of the john reduces these by reducing demand. Most importantly, men’s view of their own sex-entitlement is challenged. The prostituted woman is not left economically vulnerable. Exit programmes are set in place which include financial support and educational opportunities.

So, what does Skidelsky think of the Nordic Model?  As an economist, he critiques it through an exploration of economic theory.

Skidelsky tells us that since the 1970s economics demonstrates humans apply economic calculation to every aspect of life, including marriage and “love”. Prostitution is a distilled example of weighing up financial costs and benefits with regard to sex.  The demands of “randy” men are linked with the supply of sex by economically disadvantaged women. The fit between men’s demand and women’s economic need is serendipitous.  Although a “strong ethical argument” can be made against decriminalisation (he doesn’t specify which one) it wouldn’t be popular in our “liberal civilization”. Consequently, although the economic view of human nature is “as constricted” as the feminist one, Skidelsky favours decriminalisation. He quaintly dismisses the claim that violence is inherent in prostitution on the basis he sees “no reason to believe this”. Decriminalisation crucially relies on women’s voluntary choice, and this must be respected in our civilised society. Ultimately all feminist arguments “based on notions of inequality and coercion are superficial”.

Hopefully Skidelsky is also cognisant of the critique of Economic Man which coincided with the theoretical turn described above. Before the 1970s economics worked with a model of the individual as a rational economic decision-maker.  This model came under critical scrutiny from within economics itself, and also from sociology and philosophy.  ‘Economic Man’ was exposed as a construct.  Complete economic rationality is impossible in the traditional market place, in the bedroom and in all other domains. Decisions are informed by social class and gender, as well as by psychological and emotional factors.  It is a pity Skidelsky didn’t take heed of this more nuanced theory of economic behaviour. His ostensibly pragmatic, non-partisan, and neutral argument naturalises men’s sex-demand, and leaves unexamined the social and psychological determinants of men and women’s decision making. He recognises, “most prostitutes have chosen their work reluctantly, under pressure of need” but disavows inequality exists between the contracting parties. Why? The Nordic model challenges his own constricted model of human nature, Randy Man and Available Woman.

Advocates of the Nordic model point to the misapprehension of it by proponents of decriminalisation.  Skidelsky’s mode of argumentation can be seen as a classic example. He claims “feminists” don’t acknowledge male prostitution and this fact undermines their argument. However advocates do recognise the existence of male prostitutes. The fact remains that buyers are almost exclusively men whether those prostituted are women, men or children. He also claims women’s voluntary choice is viewed simplistically as coercion.  In contrast, advocates argue that although coercion often happens, many women make voluntary economic choices to enter prostitution.  The answer to prostitution does not reside in economics however but in resisting the normalisation of prostitution, and in dismantling the patriarchal attitudes of which prostitution and women’s poverty are the effects.

The answer to the question of prostitution requires a paradigm shift in sense and sensibility. I hope the UK joins other liberal democratic countries in adopting the Nordic model. Perhaps in the future we will wonder why, at the beginning of the 21st century, decriminalisation could even be regarded as freedom rather than an obstacle to equality, a violation of human dignity and a contravention of human rights. Perhaps it will seem as antediluvian to our great grand-children as the Victorian rationale (backed with reasoned evidence) for why men should not grant women the vote and why the feminist argument for women’s enfranchisement was extreme. Advocates of the Nordic model, in refusing the ‘rights’ of Randy Man, may even be commended for their optimism about men. Let us live in hope.

This article was originally posted in the Huffington Post.

Leave a Reply