By Alice Glass
The prostitution debate has the dubious distinction of being one of the most fervently contested discussions of the last few years. But deciding which ‘side’ you are on, for some, is less a case of careful consideration, and more a way of pinning your political identity to the mast. Being ‘pro-prostitution’, in the various slightly different ways that sentiment can be framed, has become a marker of contemporary progressivism. A solid metric for establishing someone’s right-on-ness, and a way of currying favour with contemporary post-modern politicos. The central tenets of which insist one be socially libertarian whilst, bizarrely, discourse authoritarian. Basically anyone can do almost anything to almost anyone, as long as they dot their Is and cross their Ts in a politically seemly fashion. Even delicately questioning any of the rhetoric that is used to defend the full commercialisation and legitimisation of the sex industry is deemed churlish, reactionary, or even a form of bigotry.
Indeed, even some of the current academic research around the industry comes from a solidly and ideologically pro-prostitution industry perspective. They can ascertain (as though it were not obvious) that the greater levels of violence, the higher numbers of punters seen, level of intermittency occurring and the extent of social stigma experienced, correlates with the amount of emotional and physical illness found in prostitutes, but go on to make a non academic, but ideological leap, into believing fully industrializing the trade via the ‘laissez faire’ New Zealand (NZ) Model, is the solution to the problem. Basically, they can study that prostitution is rife with ailment, and they can assume that giving the industry and its profiteers more freedom, is the remedy. The assumption is based on a political position of being antagonistic to forms of state involvement, especially in commercial enterprise, and a belief that whatever the consequences and whatever the context, any human interaction nonetheless has a perfect right to be. Similar arguments have been made about domestic violence, rape and even paedophilia. The only thing the state has a purpose to protect is one’s estate and earnings, little to nothing else.
But the foundations of these arguments are irksome for many, and so rather than tackle them head on, everything from problematic sentiments, ritual obfuscations to outright fatuous logics abound in the service of the agenda. I want to give brief pause to a few of them. Whole screeds could be conducted on each and every question, so this list is more of a summation of the problems with some of the pro-industry rhetoric.
1. “Once the industry is fully decriminalized, prostitutes will form unions in order to fight for their workers rights.”
One of the postures often adopted by the vaguely ‘left’ end of the debate, proposes that post-full industrialisation, prostitutes themselves will form worker’s unions to agitate for their rights, and even ‘seize the means of production’. But seeing as prostitutes are themselves the product, this makes little to no sense. Indeed both Marx and Engels referred to prostitutes as members of the lumpen-proletariat and therefore impossible to form in to unions that can pose as a regular challenge to the economic and social might of their pimps. I’m not going to wander down into the complex corridors of Marxist theorizing, suffice it to say, given that such unions have not really manifested themselves in areas where prostitution has been fully subjected (in one way or another) to the market, those old economic philosophers might well have been on to something.
Oh of course, prostitution organisations exist in New Zealand, Australia, Holland, Germany, but as lobby groups for the industry and for its surrounding politics and profits. Unions they are not. During her research, Marxist feminist Kajsa Ekis Ekman roundly exposed this fallacy:
“I did not come across a single organization that actually functions as a union, meaning that it is founded and funded by its members and is composed only of people in the industry, and whose counterpart is employers and profiteers. Most of these groups are actually interest groups that strive to legalize all aspects of the sex industry through the labelling of prostitution as ‘work’.”
To give a working example: The main prostitution organisation in New Zealand is the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) – whose purported position is one of sex worker safety – and who were key in having profiteering decriminalised. Despite being a political organisation with a specific, single minded agenda, they are often used by academic researchers in the area to supply them with ‘stats’. Indeed, their website details support pages for both prostitutes and pimps, and they actively use the term ‘sex worker’ to mean anyone in the industry, again, disqualifying them from union status.
Seemingly they also support the Chow Brothers, who are noted for being the most financially successful prostitution tycoons in the country, but have been met with controversies over harassment of the women working in their strip clubs and brothels, of pushing the women, to help up their profits, to flog as much booze to their punters as possible, resulting in inebriated and hostile conditions. When women bought their tales of harassment to the court, tellingly the Chow’s lawyer had this to say:
“If the situation was as bad as they portray, why would the NZ Prostitutes Collective support (us)?”
It shouldn’t take a genius to work out that making a legal opening for, usually, rich male entrepreneurs to close in on the profit potential, is not going to empower those having to submit to the daily grind of prostitution. An intermittent economic demographic often detailed by their greater likelihood of having mental health problems, addictions, whose general vagrancy makes unionization a fulsome fantasy.
2. “If we don’t decriminalize prostitution it will be pushed further underground.”
This is an extremely curious assertion, given the nebulous nature of the idea of the ‘underground’. A term that is more often used to highlight some vague sense of something other-worldly, outside the ordinary or the urban, rather than a specific term to highlight a definable material reality. Indeed, people use it in different ways to mean different and often contradictory things.
Sometimes people use it to mean ‘out of sight’, or ‘in private’. Sometimes against the law or even more perilously, against authority or the state or society. Sometimes they use it to mean by its nature containing more danger, the implication being that the more something or someone exists ‘in among others’ the less danger it incurs. Which is even more curious, given that busy urban spaces are much more rich with violence and brutalisation, than isolated, rural spaces. Still rural isolation is illogically held up in horror movies as being the sum total of all that there is to fear. That is an aside.
How can we apply the slippery concept to the specifics? In the UK, prostitution can only exist as a private, behind close doors one-on-one ‘exercise’, so it meets one definition of ‘underground’, as in outside of sight, but not another, as in ‘against the law’. Despite the illegality, however, brothels are themselves in great number in our larger cities and are quite visible and accessible, both to punters and to any woman who ‘wants’ to work in them. Putting pause to the notion that full decriminalization will bring women ‘off of the street’. If the brothels are already there, why don’t they use them? Possibly because, as is my experience, women who use the streets are often too ill (by virtue of drugs and severe social and health problems) to cope with the strict regimes of both legal and illegal brothels. All full decriminalization does is enable brothels to get bigger, to concentrate profits and competition in specific areas and hands, and to therefore smaller numbers of people to have greater control over the market.
So they are underground in that they are legal, but accessible to sight and so therefore not? And what would pushing them ‘further underground’ entail? Removing the neon signs? And what if brothels are legal, but out of sight, unmeasured and therefore hard to account for in statistics?
Such as the so-called ‘SOOBs’ in New Zealand. Brothels, due to only containing up to four women – all purportedly working independently of an ‘agent’ or profiteer (pimp) – don’t require a license and are in no way restricted. Seemingly because of the permitted intermittency, privacy and obscurity of these brothels, it is very difficult to obtain sound information on their operations. Though they are not supposed to be, how do we know they are not run by pimps? In chains? How do we know the extent to which they contain violence, and further, the extent to which being prostituted in the vicinity of others diminishes or curbs that violence? If these brothels exist in cognito, effectively, how can the local community take account of things like force, commercial child rape, and coercion? How is this not ‘underground’?
We could equally talk about the arguments made against restrictions in street-based solicitation resulting in women having to make quicker decisions about who to get into a car with; having less freedom to ‘move’ is then also taken to mean ‘being underground’. The argument is tenuous and relies on the assumption that street based prostitutes can ‘spot’ a potential murderer if given more minutes to peruse. As though a murderer comes with a certain set of notable mannerisms. Don’t forget, five women were brutally murdered in Ipswich, East England, by Steve Wright, a known punter of old. Because they knew him, despite also knowing a killer was on the loose, they had seemingly no qualms about getting into his car. They trusted the banality of his presence.
Indeed, prostitute Samantha Tapper and receptionist Annie Eels, knew Garry Harding, who was a regular punter to the Shropshire brothel in which they worked and in which he beat them to death with a hammer. And lets not forget the murders of women in very over-ground by all standards brothels in legalised Germany and Holland.
Indeed, there is a rather strange idea that gets metered about: that there is something fundamentally dangerous to women about the outside, as opposed to the inside, which is in and of itself, a conservative notion that belies the basic fact that the most likely source of danger for women are dangerous men being taken in (or arriving in) their vicinity. Usually interiors. And If dangerous men taking brutal liberties with whatever ‘intimacy’ they can get with women, such as in the high volumes that women in prostitution have cause to suffer, is dealt with only casually by the surrounding society, then his liberty is extended.
The question often asked is, “what are the prostitutional circumstances of the woman, is she cheap or expensive, indoor or outdoor?” and not “what are the wider social circumstances of the woman, does she have close family or friends who will notice, or care, she is missing? Is she in a society that tolerates male violence?”
It is not the exterior nature of outdoor prostitution that makes it more dangerous (or “underground”), rather the opportunism of violent men who recognise the women’s lack of social currency, the lack of concern for their welfare, and the greater likelihood they wouldn’t be reported missing, as often they are already considered missing. Added, unless several prostitutes are killed in one sitting, society at large barely notices. Added, it is the case in Germany, that indoor, small apartment brothels are the most likely sites of prostitute murder, again, solidifying the fact that it is not outdoorness that is “underground” any more than “indoorness”.
We need a better explanation of what this word ‘underground’ means, what it refers to, what are its material realities, if it is to be taken seriously as an argument for the decriminalisation of profiteering.
3. “Only contemporary prostitutes should have a say in the debate, former prostitutes should not, it is no longer their business.”
This assertion is not only fatuous, but is the most unethical, as it is actively promoted as an attempt to de-legitimatise and therefore curb or utterly deny sex industry criticism or dissent from people who have experience within the sex trade. The logic is as follows: Those who are currently in the sex trade are the one’s who will be most effected by any law changes and therefore should have the biggest microphone or even the deciding vote. But this assertion breaks down on examination.
Lobbying for any given policy or legal change can take years, even decades, and that is even if we are taking it as a given that whatever is being lobbied for will be successful. In the UK, though there have been some slender changes in recent decades, such as a 2009 law making it illegal to pay for sex with someone under force or coercion, in total, shifts in this area are terrifically slow. Even when political change in this area has been quick, such as in France, it still took a few solid years to get it through parliament, and that is notwithstanding prior political engagement and energy to get political parties on side, or the length of time it takes post-reform for ramifications to be made known one way or the other.
The notion that those currently lobbying who are in prostitution itself are going to be the one’s affected by any consequent changes is extremely questionable. Many of the most outwardly vocal and vociferous supporters of the NZ model, currently in prostitution – such as Laura Lee, Maggie McNeill, Mistress Matisse, Charlotte Rose – to name but a few – are either comfortably in or near their middle years. Women like Cari Mitchell and Niki Adams, spokespeople of the English Collective of Prostitutes (whose experience within the industry is murky and hard to ascertain) equally so. The likelihood that, even if huge change happened in the next five years in the UK and North America, that these women would be on the front line of the long term effects is absurd. In all areas of policy, except for emergency policy changes, we generally and logically assume that activism concerns itself with the next generation. Whoever they might be and whenever that might be.
Added, prostitutes are an extremely intermittent and transient group of people, who often come in and out of the industry. As I have been in prostitution before I am much more likely to be again, than any other woman. Indeed many survivors and exited women I know have spent brief periods ‘returning’ due to desperation. The long term and fundamental support needed is scant on the ground; indeed then, the ‘rights not rescue’ concept actively pits and prioritises those who (at least in theory and by declaration if not practice) wish to stay in prostitution against those who wish to exit. But again, few of us will be the primary beneficiaries; even young activists are unlikely to remain in prostitution for very many years after changes take root.
Therefore, the political position we all share is only that we have experience of the industry and can speak from that place and with that knowledge, and even then that position must be situated into wider schema.
But the rhetoric exists because it is known that those who are critical of the push for the New Zealand model are more likely to do so once exited, due to both a need to maintain a certain simplicity of mind to cope with the psychological effects of the environment, and to avoid any potential attacks on their person for speaking out. Women in the industry who support the Nordic Model have to be doubly sure to keep quiet because of potential punter revenge violence. It is an existential problem with the industry, and just as it would be absurd to make domestic violence based only on the wishes of those currently in abusive relationships, so too it is here.
And that is without any discussion of the basic fact that has been continuously uncovered over and over again, that the term “sex worker” is used to mean a wide variety of people, including pimps and profiteers. So someone who was in prostitution for years can have their testimony nullified by someone who profits from prostitution. In a politics that is about decriminalising profiteering? Go figure.