FFS Unison, join the dots between the endless ways men make women’s lives a misery and the industry that commercialises such behaviour.

The draft agenda for the Unison National Delegate Conference in Brighton, 14 – 17 June 2022, has been published. It makes interesting reading. I counted about 10 heartfelt motions calling for an end to: sexual harassment, sexism, misogyny, violence against women and girls (VAWG), and/or sexist bullying. But at 201 pages and with no table of contents, it’s quite possible I missed some.

And that’s not counting the motions calling for the full implementation of CEDAW, the UN’s women’s bill of rights – in recognition of the fact that women are still far from achieving material equality with men. If you have any doubt about this fact, you only have to look at those multiple, sometimes harrowing, motions calling for an end to the enduring impunity men have to make women’s lives a misery in a myriad of ways, to realise that progress towards sex equality has not only stalled but is reversing rapidly.

And I didn’t count the many other motions calling for an end to low pay, and the inequality faced by single parents, disabled and LGBT people, and others on the basis of race or ethnicity – all of which affect women, often disproportionately.

And yet in February 2022, the Unison National Women’s Conference (NWC) agreed to end its 12-year formal support for the Nordic Model, the only approach to prostitution policy that is predicated on the understanding of prostitution as a form of gender-based violence and that aims to hold men to account for the damage they cause and to encourage a change in their behaviour.

Instead, the NWC has agreed to work with the National LGBT+ Committee and other Unison bodies to develop new policy in this area. The National LGBT+ Committee has a formal policy of support for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade (full decrim). And as it’s the first Unison ‘body’ that’s mentioned, it strongly suggests that Unison is on course to adopt a policy of support for full decrim – unless Unison women realise what’s at stake and resist this development en masse.

I didn’t notice any discussion in the draft agenda about why sexual harassment, sexism, misogyny, VAWG, and sexist bullying are currently such widespread problems. What could possibly have made men more prone to such behaviour over the past decade and a half?

The elephant in the room is of course the mainstreaming of pornography and the sex industry.

The evidence is unequivocal that both porn consumption and buying sex are associated with attitudes that underlie men’s verbal and physical aggression towards women, including rape and sexual harassment. If you don’t believe me, you only have to spend a few minutes reading the reviews that men leave on punter forums about their prostitution encounters to get up to speed. Here are a few examples:

“She looked nearer 60 than 50, but I made the most of her and called her a cock sucking bitch. I said get on your back and take some real cock you whore. I asked if I could call her names first as it would be the only way I could maintain a hard on with such a woman.”

“I could have literally been shagging the pillow and got more response… I’m paying for this and expect a decent service … I can only assume she hates what she does.”

“The liars get away with it because the industry is unregulated. It is not like going into a shop where the consumer has rights.”

Clearly the authors of these reviews are not seeing these women (who they’ve used and abused sexually) as full human beings with equal rights as them – but rather as commodities, or objects they can buy – or perhaps more accurately, rent. These attitudes are not an anomaly. They are the inevitable consequence of prostitution.

Frankly it is inconceivable that such attitudes would not affect how male prostitution users treat the women in their workplaces and elsewhere. This is of extreme concern because we know from history that regarding human beings as less than human, opens the way for abusing them, denying them full human rights and equality, and worse.

In fact, the draft agenda includes evidence of this. Motion 83 from the Bedfordshire Police branch notes that an officer at Charing Cross Police station bragged about “visiting a sex worker when he was on steroids”. While this was, quite rightly, used as an example of unacceptable behaviour, the motion didn’t draw any conclusions about the links between the normalisation of men’s prostitution use and the increasing pervasiveness of men’s sexual harassment of women in the workplace and public spaces.

And yet, the NWC voted to end support for the Nordic Model, the only approach to prostitution that aims to change men’s attitudes towards prostitution – to help them see that prostitution-buying is incompatible with equality between the sexes – and therefore to reduce the amount that happens.

The Nordic Model also invests in alternatives and genuine routes out for the (mostly) women involved. This is hugely positive because research consistently shows that the vast majority of women involved in prostitution want to exit the industry but lack the resources to do so. All laws that penalise those selling ‘sexual services’ are repealed, so anyone who wants to continue in the industry can do so without fear of being the target of criminal sanctions.

Support for the Nordic Model would therefore seem like a no brainer for women. How could the WNC vote to end support for it and start a process that is likely to lead to support for full decrim, in which all the actors, including the pimps, brothel owners and punters are given a free for all? In practice this is guaranteed to lead to an explosion of the industry – as visiting the brothel becomes as normalised for men as visiting the pub. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know that this will lead to more sexual harassment and male VAWG everywhere, just like it did in New Zealand.

The draft agenda for the National Delegate Conference this June includes a motion that mirrors the one passed at the National Women’s Conference calling for Unison to drop support for the Nordic Model and work with other Unison bodies to develop new policy in this area.

Unison, please come to your senses. Please vote against this motion.

Further reading

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