The news that well-paid European men rented young women and girls for sexual use in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake reminded me of a judgment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that made legal history by ruling that consent has no relevance when there is coercion.
Imagine a woman working in her field in Rwanda in that awful summer of 1994. She’s alone with her children when 20 armed men approach her with the intent of raping her. If she runs, they might shoot her, or rape or kill her children. So she stays…
Now put yourself in the position of a young mother after a massive earthquake in a country that’s been systematically impoverished by Western powers over decades. She has no money, no home, and no way of feeding her children. She’s out of options and desperate. So when an unattractive white man offers her money to surrender to his sexual abuse, she accepts…
I think we can all see that in such circumstances, whether the coercion is brute force or extreme inequality, consent has no validity.
But why is it so much harder to see this when the coercion or inequality is here in the UK?
Why is the government so quick to censure Oxfam while turning a blind eye to similar abuses of power closer to home?
The #MeToo movement has exposed how powerful men commonly coerce younger women into sex in return for progress in their chosen field. This is exactly what Kate Maltby accused former first secretary of state Damian Green of. The substance of her complaint was not that he brushed her knee with his hand but that he was making it clear that if she wanted him to help her political career, she must have sex with him.
This dynamic mirrors the prostitution relationship. A man, a beneficiary of the structural inequality between the sexes, uses money or patronage to gain sexual access to women, who by virtue of their sex are excluded from many of the benefits he has so easily gained.
When prostitution is legitimised, this behaviour becomes normalised so that eventually it becomes invisible.
So what if Malty had succumbed to Green? No doubt everyone would have blamed her for “sleeping her way” to the top. Which exactly illustrates the double bind that women are in: the “choice” between a rock and a hard place.
And Green can act innocent and claim he never made any “sexual advances” towards her and it was all a misunderstanding – implying she’s a silly over-sensitive woman. And everyone nods their heads. These silly young women, they just don’t understand the game.
But actually she knew what the deal was. And so did he. He knew exactly what he was doing.
But how is anyone to critique that game, when any serious feminist analysis is written off as “pearl clutching,” “moral values,” “whorephobia,” or accusations of being a “SWERF”?
This is what the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) did in its 2016 report into its prostitution inquiry. A large number of women’s organisations and individual women, including those who’ve survived prostitution, made submissions to the inquiry providing evidence of the harms that prostitution causes and calling for the Nordic Model as a way of addressing them. The Nordic Model decriminalises those who are prostituted and provides services to help them build a new life, while making the purchase of sex a criminal offence, with the key aim of creating new social norms and reducing the demand for prostitution that drives sex trafficking.
The committee wrote off those submissions as “moral values” and “emotive reactions” and contrasted this with its own “rational assessment.” But it only listened to those who told them what they wanted to hear – that prostitution is “work like any other” and is a legitimate arrangement between “consenting adults” – and who promote the full decriminalisation of all the actors in the sex industry, including sex buyers and pimps.
When I read the report, I had no doubt it had been written by a sex buyer. So I was not surprised when a couple of months later Keith Vaz, the chair of the inquiry, was exposed as a sex buyer himself.
In a subsequent interview, one of the young migrant men Vaz prostituted, said:
“No one wants to do this, to sell their body. It’s a shame, people are only doing this when they have to, when they don’t have a choice and they can’t get a job or money.”
And there we have it. As soon as he got out of the situation, he was able to articulate the reality: It was horrible; he didn’t have a choice; it was his only option for survival.
For consent to have any meaning, you need to have meaningful options.
So much for Keith Vaz’s claim to impartial and rational assessment.
So why can the government see the violation when it applies to poor black women and girls in Haiti and not when it applies to desperate women and migrants in the UK?
Even though Vaz clearly broke the parliamentary rules on conflicts of interests – one of the aims of the inquiry was to consider whether sex buying should be made a criminal offence – he continues as a Labour MP and member of the NEC. Jeremy Corbyn himself claimed that it was a private matter, much as Oxfam seems to have seen the abuse of the women in Haiti at the time.
The Home Office legitimised the HASC report by accepting it uncritically and has commissioned research based on its appallingly biased recommendations, as we found out recently in the response to a FOI request. The specification of the research is so sloppy, there is a good chance it, like the inquiry, will find out nothing they don’t want to hear.
Could it be that, like Vaz, many with power – both on the Left and the Right – don’t want to change the exploitative prostitution system, let alone look at their own behaviour? Could it be that both the men who have political power and the women who depend on them for patronage are directly or indirectly beneficiaries of this exploitative system?
Could this be because prostitution is a foundation stone of the inequality in our society and a key tool for keeping ordinary people divided against each other, men against women, women against women, breaking collective solidarity and making everyone easier to control and exploit? Could it be that prostitution is necessary for the neoliberal capitalist project to flourish?
Be in no doubt, we will not change the corrupt and corrupting system of male control and patronage within our political system while sex buying is considered acceptable anywhere.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star.