Sex, money and politics – is prostitution just another political football?

In her Labour Party conference speech, equalities minister Harriet Harman provided us with a vision of Labour as fighting ‘the good fight’ against social injustice, violence and inequalities. What may be news to many, though, was Ms Harman’s clear message: “prostitution is not work – it’s exploitation of women by men – often women who have mental health problems or drug and alcohol addictions”. The solution: a new criminal offence introduced to criminalise men who buy sex from a woman who is being pimped. Ah. Easy. No matter that such a new offence does nothing to ameliorate the problems Ms Harman herself chose to highlight (addictions, mental health issues, etc.).

Ms Harman’s speech, the message it sends and the suggestion of yet more primary legislation criminalising one or other aspect of what is, and remains, a perfectly legal activity (the commercial exchange of sex for money) is just one more chapter in what has become a depressingly familiar story. Throughout the history of prostitution policy reform, campaigners and politicians tend to gloss over the highly complex social realities that make up this thing called prostitution. From the drug addicted, impoverished young woman standing on the street corner in any major city across the world to the man or woman running their own successful escort business through the internet, from the woman working to pay her bills and feed her children to the highly paid provider of fetish – the sheer diversity of selling and buying sex, of the people involved and the conditions in which sex is sold gets distilled into two or three key images: the child abused; the woman trafficked; the abusive man who thinks that paying for it means he is entitled to it. And from those images, ever more ‘preventative’ (and punitive) policies are created.

Of course, this is not new. In the last decade, UK policy activity viz prostitution has intensified at an alarming rate and seemingly at odds with what researchers have known for millennia. Abuse does occur. Exploitation does occur. But sex sells and at times and in places, it sells very well. What we’ve known is this: bringing in laws which over-simplify economic, social, personal, sexual, psychological human relationships in an endeavour to ‘save the victims’ often backfires – not on the law makers, but on the very populations of individuals who are trying to be saved. But perhaps what sells just as well is being the government who brought in the policies that, this time, will finally eradicate the trade in human (female?) flesh that remains stubbornly present in our modern times. It probably sells better than the admission that successive governments have failed to tackle some of the root problems that mean that selling sex – however dangerous, however risky – might be better than other choices: poverty, social exclusion, the lack of welfare support, global inequalities in wealth, health, security, vitality. And who is going to argue against it? Who is going to argue for the choice? Who is going to support the man who wants to buy sex? Who will support the right of a woman to sell it? (Of course, there are organisations from across the globe who do – for example http://www.prostitutescollective.net/ and http://www.scarletalliance.org.au/ – but for some reason these women’s and men’s voices rarely appear in party political messages).

So, the game goes on. Harriet Harman is asking the Governor of California to shut down an internet site because it provides ‘reviews’ of escort services and massage parlours. What she didn’t mention is that the site is legal and offers sexual health advice as well. No matter. It seems that what’s more important than the difficult and troubling realities of prostitution is winning the political goal.

Jo Phoenix
Reader in Criminology at Durham University and editor of Regulating sex for sale: Prostitution policy reform in the UK, published September 2009

Visit The Policy Press website at http://www.policypress.co.uk

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