Nordic Model Now! member, Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans, responds to Peter Tatchell’s recent political interventions.
Peter Tatchell’s political interventions, in particular his ‘outing’ of prominent figures for their hypocrisy in publicly condemning homosexuality whilst being gay, have cast him as a radical, someone driven by strong ethical principles. I was once an admirer, although I sometimes balked at his tactics of naming and shaming. I saw him as someone who stood up for men and women to be free from the compulsions and constraints of heteronormativity. I now see him as someone firmly and cosily lodged within the very established values, institutions and power relations that I assumed (perhaps wrongly) that he had once been fired up to resist. What accounts for my change of heart?
Tatchell has recently demonstrated that he is not so much a ‘human rights campaigner’ as a ‘gay rights campaigner’. His argument that exposing Keith Vaz as a punter cannot be justified in public interest terms is one such example. The truly appalling moral issue, Tatchell alleges, is the homophobia of sections of the Asian community responsible for Vaz keeping himself in the closet. Tatchell deploys the following criteria to make his case: Firstly Vaz, in paying prostitutes, has not broken the law. Secondly Vaz is not a hypocrite since he has always supported gay rights and the decriminalisation of ‘sex-work’. Thirdly Vaz is not morally culpable although he may have been ‘unwise’. The real moral culprit is the ‘squalid’ press who outed him for ‘sordid money-making’ purposes. In other words, Vaz is a victim and his private life should have been left private.
Before I analyse Tatchell’s criteria let us briefly examine the remit of the Home Affairs Select Committee over which Vaz has presided as Chair for the past decade. The Committee’s task for the last few months and in the months ahead is to review the current laws on prostitution and recommend revision. Although prostitution is legal in the UK various related activities are criminal offences. The law is confusing, interpreted differently by regional police forces, and when prosecutions are brought it is largely of prostitutes not punters. A criminal record will stay with her for the rest of her life, often forcing her to remain within the sex-trade.
The Committee has reviewed copious evidence in order to ascertain how to bring the law in line with current sexual mores and societal aspirations for gender equality. The Committee heard two competing solutions and has produced an interim report. The first solution proposes partial decriminalisation: selling sex should be completely decriminalised; buying sex should be criminalised. The purpose of a Sex-buyer Law is two-pronged: it reduces demand for prostitution and therefore the supply; it undermines the normative framework that naturalises and legitimates men’s entitlement to buy sex. Compelling evidence was provided to the committee that in Sweden where the Sex-buyer Law was initially implemented sexual violence has been minimised and the sexual attitudes of men have changed. The Sex-buyer Law is now also in existence in Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland and France. The second solution proposes total decriminalisation, including of pimps and brothel owners. The interim report suggests the Committee is veering towards decriminalisation since it concludes it ‘wasn’t yet persuaded’ that criminalising punters would be effective in reducing the violence and oppressions inherent in prostitution.
Let us now return to Tatchell’s mode of argumentation. Firstly, it is true that Vaz had not broken the law. This is an extremely narrow and restrictive account of the place of the law and Vaz’s relationship to it. There is clearly a conflict of interest. If having completed its investigation the Committee recommend the Sex-buyer Law, Vaz would find any future buying of prostitutes a criminal offence. Moreover laws are not neutral and value-free, as Tatchell knows with regard to the law which once made homosexuality illegal. Laws are periodically reviewed as to their social utility and appropriateness in regulating human conduct, indeed it was the precise remit of the Committee to do just that. Tatchell’s response, as well as that of Vaz, perfectly demonstrates what proponents of the Sex-buyer Law argue, namely that as long as paying for sex is legal punters and their defenders casually absolve men’s use of prostitutes from any culpability for sexual exploitation.
Secondly, it is true Vaz had not been a hypocrite in Tatchell’s narrow sense of hypocrisy. However if hypocrisy is limited to not making public pronouncements that contradict one’s covert practice then broader societal hypocrisies will be lost to critical scrutiny. Prostitution is a gendered issue: 99% of punters are male; 80% of those prostituted are female. Prostitution is also a geo-political and class issue: vast numbers are economic migrants from Eastern European (including the prostitutes Vaz paid). The real hypocrisy of Vaz was to chair the Committee as if he was agnostic and neutral. He turned a blind eye to evidence of the inequality, poverty, sexual abuse, exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery which are drivers of prostitution and which are inextricably bound with it. That Vaz is a punter is not a private matter but is a grave public matter which deserved our immediate and concerted attention.
Thirdly, Tatchell’s ethical reasoning is partisan and inconsistent: the press industry exploits human beings for profit and should be regulated; the sex-industry is benign and harmless, and should be de-regulated. It would behove Tatchell to examine the human rights of the prostitutes in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark where all aspects of prostitution are legal. The brothels run by pimps are not havens of feminist sexual empowerment but serve up women as commodities for men’s pleasure or capital gain. De-regulation doesn’t solve the problem of exploitation but exacerbates it. The truly appalling issue is not homophobia but that the Left increasingly frames prostitution as a private matter, even as a matter of sexual liberation.
Tatchell himself should be named and shamed. He is clearly not a progressive concerned with the human rights of women as well as men but is aligned with a traditional masculinity, whether heterosexual or homosexual, that not only views men as fundamentally entitled to sex but regards this entitlement as sacrosanct, trumping other considerations. His analysis is reductive and his charge of homophobia manipulative. Let us not allow ourselves to be bullied by him into silence about the serious breaches of human rights involved in prostitution.