This is our truth, tell us yours
I usually stay out of Twitter conversations about sex work since we have an in house expert here. I’ve also written in the past about how I chose not to be a sex worker – and how I might have made different choices in different circumstances.
Sarah Ditum is on Twitter this morning, promoting herself, as she must, since what she sells is the wisdom of Sarah Ditum, to anyone who’ll pay for it, and using gender and sex work as her topic. As her bio says, she also writes on ‘feminism, family, fitness and some things that don’t begin with F but I can’t remember right now.’ This, apparently, is what passes for journalism now – the constant creation of ‘content’ that has nothing to do with news and everything to do with providing clickbait. (Incidentally, we chose not to go down the advertising route on this blog for precisely this reason, so we could avoid clickbait – WordPress may put adverts on here, but that’s their choice and their moral dilemma, not ours.)
So, since Sarah’s opinons are the product she’s selling, and presumably tailoring to her market place, we can’t be sure they’re what she actually believes. However, in Sarah’s market segment authenticity of sorts is a key mark of quality, like the red tractor on a pound of pork sausages, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she means what she says.
Anyway, Twitter and sexwork. Now, Sarah believes that all sex work is gendered; ‘the sex industry is not gender neutral: those who are hired for sex are overwhelmingly women, those doing the hiring are even more overwhelmingly men.’
Now, leave aside all the rent boys and male escorts I’ve known – apparently Sarah can’t see them or take them into account. If I’d made different choices, and gone with older men for money rather than drinks and access to places I otherwise couldn’t go, I would have been invisible to her. Sarah is entitled to her view of the world, and it may well be that it’s a product she’s selling to a customer base she understands (she is a MumsNet blogger after all – it’s not as if she’s targetting Daily Mail haters or the remains of the Trotskyite left.) All the same it’s a curious view of the world, and it begs the question as to whether the fact that more men than women buy sex is due to something intrinsic to gender, or is a byproduct of a gendered distribution of wealth. Sarah doesn’t want to explore that possibility.
Sarah believes that the answer to the ‘problem’ of sex work is to stop it. She believes that, in the process, all women’s lives will be made better, even if that involves a denial of choice to some women who are quite happy being sex workers. (And of course, to the men who are happy being sex workers.)
On Twitter Sarah argues that the answer to the problem of sex work is to decriminalize the sale of sex, but to criminalize its purchase. Now, leave aside the amazing fuckwittery involved in not knowing that it is already legal to sell sex in the UK, because that may just be Sarah pandering to the stupidity of her readers (you have to give them what they want, after all, and not challenge them too much) and think about what that would mean for the transaction and those involved.
Some forms of prostitution already involve risk for the buyer and the seller in equal part – street prostitution mainly. In a street transaction, the seller risks being lifted for soliciting, and so does the buyer if s/he kerb crawls. Street prostitution is, generally, the most dangerous kind of sex work. This is probably the kind of sex work Sarah has most in mind when she talks about it. It’s hard to tell though, because Sarah’s engagement with some of the evidence is not to critically evaluate it, but to criticize it for not being gendered enough, and there’s far more detail to her critique of the language than there is nuance in her understanding of the complexity of sex work.
Imagine a street transaction where the seller is risk free, and the buyer at risk just for wanting the transaction (as opposed to now, where a buyer conducting themselves discretely can manage risk to a significant extent). The shifting of risk and its intensification (by making the purchase, or its attempt, an absolute offence) will not end demand. The fantasy that demand is ended by prohibition has been cruelly exposed by the war on drugs, by America’s experiment with the prohibition of alcohol, and, of course, by the various attempts of the last forty years to police street prostitution in the UK. Sarah thinks that because criminal sanctions have failed to end street prostitution, what’s required are more criminal sanctions. Logically speaking, that doesn’t make sense.
Is there any evidence we could use to test that assertion of mine? Yes. When I was first offered money for sex I was under the then UK age of consent. That absolute prohibition did not deter the man who offered me money, nor the men who bought me drinks or gave me lifts. There is no evidence that prohibition reduces or eliminates demand. So, inevitably, the debate will shift, if we agree stopping sex work is a good thing and prohibition is the way to do it, to enforcement and its most extreme arm, entrapment.
Gay men in the UK have a rather unpleasant experience of the lengths the police will go to to entrap men. There is no reason to believe that they wouldn’t do the same thing if the purchase of sex were made illegal. There is plenty of world wide experience though that says that demand is not eliminated by such activities, it simply relocates – often to less safe locations where there is less support. In the gay community, if word got out that one cottage was unsafe, because of enforcement, guys just went elsewhere, often to riskier environments. For those who’ve worked trying to provide resources and support to men who have sex with men (who are a high risk group for STIs and HIV, analogous to street sex workers) enforcement could mean re-doing months of work identifying locations and places where men could be contacted or targetted with safe sex advice and resources. There is no reason to believe that the impact of more enforcement of new prohibitions of sex work would be any different.
And there you have it dear reader. For reasons of ideology, not evidence, Sarah Ditum would make life less safe for sex workers, and the state more powerful.
Unless of course, that’s just a product she thinks sells well to the Mumsnet crowd. You never can tell…