The Prostitution Industry and the Labour Movement

Frankie Green argues that by not taking a stand against prostitution, the Labour party leadership, leftwing parties and organisations have alienated and angered people. By condoning prostitution, they send out the message that it is acceptable to purchase women’s bodies, licensing a sexist, predatory masculinity. She argues that the Labour Movement must recognise prostitution as abuse and support the Nordic Model approach.

Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that ‘we will never be a successful society in which everybody is able to achieve their potential until we have full equality for women’ rang hollow for those disappointed by his previous comments on prostitution, and their alienation was reinforced by his reaction to last year’s revelation of Keith Vaz’s use of prostituted people.

Policy proposals which are welcome for their commitment to end violence against women and gender stereotyping, to address the disproportionate impact and dire effects of austerity and privatisation on women contending with poverty, homelessness, benefit and service cuts are seriously contradicted by the omission of any mention of prostitution.

By not taking a stand against the commodification of human beings, the Labour party has alienated and angered people. Pledges in Corbyn’s ten-point plan have the potential to better the lives of prostituted people and people at risk of being prostituted, but count for little if buying human bodies for sexual use is deemed legitimate.

Prostitution is at the heart of women’s oppression. The commercial sex trade – although it is obviously ludicrous to refer to ‘sex’ when desire and control are not mutual and only money makes it happen – is both cause and consequence of gender inequality in a world where men have greater economic, political and legal status than women.

At the junction of patriarchy and capitalism, sexism and poverty, the forces that sustain the global multi-million prostitution industry interlock, allowing it to prey, as Maori activist Dr Pala Molisa describes it, ‘on women already marginalised by class and race … [and feeding] off the despair, poverty and hopelessness that global capitalism is producing and that afflicts the lives of young people, especially indigenous women and people of colour.’

Molisa sees the ‘only distinction between what happens in prostitution, and any other form of non-consensual sex/rape is that the women in prostitution have made a choice to endure the rape in exchange for money.’

Labour could take the opportunity to be truly progressive on this issue. However, if the Party leader or other representatives condone prostitution, they are in effect saying to male colleagues that it is unproblematic to buy another person’s body to use, further licensing a sexist, predatory masculinity. Underlying this is the patriarchal concept of the assumed right of male entitlement to sexual access. Is there an unquestionable right for men to have their demands met?

As Jeremy Seabrook writes, ‘the very term “demand” takes precedence in the seemingly neutral equation of supply and demand; demand is imperious and dominant; supply, submissively responsive.’ [1]

Politicians who fail to join the call for the recognition of prostitution as abuse give the impression of having no problem with prostituted people being consigned to what Naomi Klein terms ‘sacrifice zones’: subsections of humanity or areas accorded no value other than the profit which can be taken from them by the extractivist mentality. This should be anathema to socialists. And yet the specious notion that prostitution should be categorized as a form of work has gained traction.

There are basic socialist tenets which bear on this, which anti-capitalists purport to uphold. One is that people are not things, and should not be used instrumentally. This aligns with the feminist principle that women are not objects, not for sale, do not exist for the use of men. We also believe that collective action against dehumanization is organised on the basis of human solidarity. Another shibboleth is that human nature is not immutable and fixed – the opposite of essentialist, a-historical notions which posit greed, selfishness and competition as natural and unchangeable. Coupled with the feminist analysis of gender roles as socially constructed, this belief in the possibility of change, that exploitation and oppression are not inevitable, means that prostitution need not be viewed as a given that cannot be eradicated, any more than other indefensible entrenched practices against which we campaign. Nor is the longevity of an injustice, frequently invoked by opponents of change – ‘oldest profession’, ‘intractable conflict,’ etc. – a valid defence.

Campaigners and groups, some within the Labour party, are advocating for the implementation of the Nordic Model, aka the Sex Buyer Law, (as adopted by France, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Northern Ireland, and most recently the Republic of Ireland) with its three-fold approach: decriminalising prostituted people, providing all necessary forms of support to facilitate those who want to exit the industry and criminalising the demand for paid sexual access to people.

Seeking to promote awareness of the harm of prostitution, and viewing it within a spectrum of misogynist abuses of women, we stand against attempts to entrench the pernicious idea of prostitution as a job rather than paid abuse. Swedish governmental spokeswoman Gunilla Ekberg described the model as focusing ‘on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able to flourish and expand.’

The use of euphemistic misnomers like ‘sex work’ and ‘client,’ are part of attempts to legitimise and sanitise prostitution by those lobbying for total decriminalisation.

Perhaps because the Nordic Model has been successful in other countries, the prostitution industry seeks to expand the market in places such as the UK, in an attempt to normalise what should be unthinkable. As gender equality gains more credence, the industry’s attempts to counteract its progress runs on a parallel course, despite the obvious fact that, as the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women says, ‘cultural acceptance and normalization of commercial sexual exploitation fuels the cycle of violence against women.’

Attempts by industry proponents to persuade audiences that prostitution is acceptable constitute a kind of grooming process, encouraging us to shut down the voice of conscience and empathy. Lobbying for decriminalisation provides a superficially plausible idea of safety. But there is no safe place in which to be abused.

The Left needs to ask who benefits from the promotion of prostitution as a form of work and why has it gained credibility? It should also recognize that prostitution is inextricably intertwined with trafficking. The organisation SPACE International (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling For Enlightenment) likens talking about sex trafficking without recognising how demand for prostitution drives it to ‘talking about slavery without mentioning the plantations.’ It should be axiomatic for a party or movement for which the belief in people treating one another ethically is a cornerstone to see this as crucial.

Jeremy Corbyn has mooted the possibility of alternative, constructive employment for those whose jobs would be affected if Britain took the rational path of not renewing that weapon of mass destruction, Trident; why not extend that principle to prostituted people?

Can a society, or a political party, that regards as legitimate the commodification of human beings for men’s sexual gratification truly call itself civilised?

The Labour movement, it seems, has distance to travel in taking on board the challenges to male supremacy wrought by feminism. Our movements have envisaged a transformed world where oppressive hierarchies of gender, racism and class are history.

This is inconceivable if the abolition of prostitution, and the provision of resources for those wishing to leave it, is not factored in. Jeremy Corbyn’s much-vaunted slogan that ‘no-one and no community will be left behind’ means little within such a context. Well-intentioned pro-equality programmes are rendered meaningless.

Take the urgent need for education to promote respectful, non-exploitative relationships and counter the endemic abuse of girls and women. How could making ‘Sex and Relationship Education compulsory in all schools, with a focus on sexual health, healthy relationships and consent,’ be effective if kids know that men have state-sanctioned entitlement to buy (predominantly) women’s bodies for their own sexual gratification? The contradiction is obvious.

In the better, future society Labour strives for would men continue to have this right? Will it still be the norm that as punters they are able to purchase and use people in this way, making a mockery of women and girls’ right to equality and safety? The sexist ideology underlying prostitution permeates society, affecting all women.

The notion that buying ‘sex’ is a private matter is used misleadingly, as if feminism hadn’t problematised this decades ago. Transactions involving third-party profiteering can hardly be described as private. And only from a male punter’s point of view can such an encounter be seen as private, as denoted by the indefinite article ‘an.’

For him it is a single event, whether daily, weekly, etc, enacted on the body of another person; for the prostituted person he is but one of a continual stream of men. He has an individual, private encounter; hers are plural, multiple, endless. And each repetitive transaction not only reduces the prostituted person to a monetised body, it performs the crucial heteropatriarchal work of the reproduction of masculine power and reiteration of the subjugation of women.

The concept of privacy serves the vested interests of social power relations well, but does not withstand the awareness that the personal is political, that our individual lives are shaped by wider socio-economic forces and the public sphere cannot be separated from the private. Legal developments regarding domestic violence and spousal rape have recognised this. Male politicians who appear not to have caught up with this change of consciousness, who reveal their bias by speaking from punters’ point of view, need to recognise that many people feel let down by such antediluvian attitudes.

‘The pitcher cries for water to carry/ and a person for work that is real.’ [2]

These lines by feminist poet Marge Piercy come to my mind when prostitution is described as ‘work.’ However, what if we were to take this idea at face value, and agree that prostitution is a form of work: perhaps the ultimate work under venal, unregulated neo-liberalism, taken to its logical ruthless extreme, callous and brutal in its unfettered greed for profit? Just another job in an economy in which lack of properly-paid employment, destruction of the welfare state, zero-hour contracts, weakened unions, debt and global human trafficking ensure a steady supply-stream of bodies for sale. Training for the job starts with childhood abuse. Perhaps it is the logical extension of the purchase of labour, albeit not only the time and energy of a person but their flesh, vagina, breasts, anus, mouth, wherein your whole body is bought to be mauled and penetrated by endless strangers. Suppose this is a form of ‘work’? Would that make it OK?

What then constitutes ‘work that is real’ – in which there is the satisfaction of doing socially useful, properly remunerated work, in which each person may fulfill their potential and use their gifts? Work in which pride can be taken is a far cry from that offered in today’s world, but is surely still an ideal that should be asserted. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), endorsed by the International Labour Organisation, call for decent work for women and safe and secure working environments for all, with particular attention to women migrants. The UN Secretary General’s Leave No-One Behind report defines decent work as:

‘productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Decent work involves opportunities for productive work, delivers a fair income, guarantees equal opportunities and equal treatment for all, provides security in the workplace and protection for workers and their families, offers better prospects for personal development and social inclusion …’

Given that most of UK prostitution is controlled by organised crime – criminal gangs not being known for providing ideal working environments – it would be farcical to suggest that prostitution could meet such criteria.

Evidence shows that when prostitution is decriminalised, gangs’ control increases under a veneer of legality. In buying another person’s depersonalised body for sexual use, power, control and contempt are expressed. The personhood of the woman being bought, her subjectivity, is dismissed. To understand the consequences of legalising this objectification, we need look no further than the horror of Germany’s brothels.

Is it not the duty of Labour to clearly demarcate different types of employment – to draw a line between what is legitimate and what is unacceptable? The work ethic – the idea that work has intrinsic value in and of itself, regardless of how socially useful or destructive it might be – is taken to extremes in current ideology: you must take any work; any job is better than none. Classifying prostitution as work attempts to bestow legitimacy, but not all work is automatically valid. The Labour movement, Trade Unions and other organisations have a responsibility to protect people from the untrammelled ravages of the labour market, to challenge it – not to simply mitigate or regulate the system but to say ‘no, enough, you cannot use people this way.’

Female university students are reportedly responding to offers from ‘an older men’s dating website’.[3] Could there be a more appalling indictment of the economic climate and enforced debt than young students opting for transactions in which they are valued not as intelligent human beings but as bodies to be purchased? The uncritical account of these abhorrent financial dealings provided free advertising for the Kent ‘businessman’ – pimp – behind the scheme, who remarked gleefully that ‘tuition fees have been great for business.’

The transformation of education from a public resource into a privatised commodity has resulted in students themselves becoming commodities. Normalisation of this means some are themselves unaware of the exploitation involved in their own objectification. This is but one of many groups of women whose lack of funding, support, employment, decent pay, housing and safety turns them into convenient prey for profiteering opportunists. Here is an intersection of factors where Labour could take a stand and promise to try to make a real difference. This would hardly be meaningful, however, if policies accept prostitution as an inevitability that can be ameliorated.

Wasted human potential is one reason for opposition to the proposed reintroduction of grammar schools; we reject the selection of children, with its underlying notion that people were destined for pre-ordained places in the social hierarchy.[4] An ideology writing off people from the earliest age is clearly unjust and immoral. Yet the same logic is not applied to the tolerance of prostitution, which writes off swathes of people – primarily, huge numbers of women. Why are they seen as fit for nothing more than use as bodies for men’s gratification and exercise of power? Is this not also an inhuman, rightwing and reprehensible waste of potential and lives?

Leftwing politicians should be as outraged by the subjugation of women as they are about the inhuman treatment of workers by corporate capitalism, yet often seem as laissez-faire and indifferent as bosses are to employees’ exploitation, as the coloniser is to the dispossessed, the racist to the refugee, the oil industry to our planet. They will continue to lose credibility amongst campaigners demystifying prostitution and working for the implementation of the Nordic Model if they are not seen to be able – or willing – to join the dots. They also have a responsibility to educate themselves about the horrors caused by legitimising prostitution, as in Germany which has become ‘hell on earth’ for prostituted women.

John McDonnell’s 2016 conference speech promised that the next Labour government will be ‘an interventionist’ one. Not for the prostitution industry it seems, where, if he and other decriminalisation advocates get their way, market forces can rampage unhindered by ethics, allowing brothel owners, pimps and punters to increase their profiteering.

Jeremy Corbyn has said ‘with achieving equality at the heart of all our policies, we can put Britain on the path to becoming an equal society for all.’ Supporting the abolitionist movement would be the most progressive policy in striving for this goal. Truly progressive politicians could hasten this, working towards the time when prostitution joins other oppressions in the capacious dustbin of history.

© 2017 Frankie Green

Frankie Green is a member of Nordic Model Now! and Administrator of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Morning Star on March 8, 2017.

[1] Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries, Navayana, 2014

[2] To Be Of Use, Doubleday, 1973

[3] Fees hike forces students to seek ‘sugar daddies’, Whitstable Times, May, 2012

[4] Department of Education official’s 1984 statement, cited by Gawain Little, ‘Grammar schools divide children and ruin hopes’, Morning Star, 1 October 2016

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