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Janice Turner on sex work

Janice Turner, who recently wrote a muscular defence(£) of Maajid Nawaz, turns to the topic of sex work in today’s Times (£).  The article opens with this highlighted text:

Prostitution (think of Amsterdam) used to be seen as a free market. Across Europe it’s now viewed as mere exploitation

This doesn’t seem a particularly useful summary (and it may be an editorial intervention rather than Turner’s own words).  People now, as previously, hold a range of views about sex work.  One important shift has been a decrease in moralising rhetoric around the topic.

She then observes that sexual harassment is far less tolerated than it was back in the 1970s (which is both true and welcome) but concludes:

If this bulwark of male power can be blown away in a generation, could another? Do men have the right to buy sex with prostitutes?

That’s rather an odd way of putting it. One might ask instead whether anyone has the right to stop people selling sex.  Of course sex work is associated with a whole range of problems: trafficking and various health and safety issues.  But these are not inevitable and can be tackled separately – criminalising sex work may in fact exacerbate some of the dangers.

Turner reports that buying sex is about to be made illegal in France, with clients being fined 1500 Euros for a first offence, and then asserts that:

The “Nordic” model of prostitution laws, which, in the words of the Icelandic politician Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, states “it is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold” is in the ascendent.

Sex work isn’t slavery (though in practice it may sometimes take that form), and the fact many sex workers are vulnerable and exploited reflects bigger problems in society which won’t go away if selling sex is criminalised.  Of course for most people sex, as a commodity or skill, seems rather different from other services one can buy or sell.  But that doesn’t seem a reason to ban it.

Turner points out that many sex workers in Europe are immigrants, and asks:

Is that something any Western nation should be proud of: an underclass of poor women from Thai villages and Ukrainian towns, imported to service First World penises?

But the same is true of many other jobs, most of them low paid and low status. Sex work is not unique.

I agree with Turner that sex work shouldn’t be romanticised, but some people do appear quite comfortable about earning money in this way, and also seem to have good relationships with their clients.  Here Josh Brandon describes how he texted his father when he won a male sex worker of the year award, and here Margaret Corvid explains why she is a professional dominatrix. Corvid is presumably confident and independent enough to have nothing to do with anyone who makes her feel uncomfortable – and that seems to me to be a more important goal than making her work illegal.

Turner asks:

If groping is no longer tolerable why is buying a woman’s body? What men have long called their “needs” should be distinguished from their desires.

I don’t fully see the logic here.  People don’t want to be sexually harassed.  But some people sell sex. Possibly they don’t particularly want to, but perhaps the people we buy other services from aren’t in their ideal job either, such as the workers from whom we buy the countless products and services we desire but don’t need.  There is a difference, in that sex workers are far more likely to be the victims of the serious crime of trafficking. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who pays for sex should be demonised.