We realize that Jeremy has had rather a lot on lately! But we hope a dialogue on this crucial issue will be possible. @Lezzers4Jezzer
11 April 2016
Like many people delighted at last to have a ray of hope in our political landscape, I support your promotion of social justice, your principled stance re the racist treatment of asylum seekers and the rights of the Palestinians, and your opposition to the cruel austerity narrative and the right-wing economic policies that currently prevail.
In the wake of new legislation in France, I write with regard to your recent comments about prostitution. I appreciate your willingness to debate openly and would like to offer some thoughts on this issue.
There is a fundamental question to consider here: can a society that regards as legitimate the commodification and buying of (predominantly) women’s bodies for men’s sexual gratification and exercise of power truly call itself civilised? If not, what is the best way to work to end this trade in human bodies?
Those who advocate decriminalization of prostitution often argue that this represents a way of keeping vulnerable women and men as safe as possible, a principle all human rights upholders would surely support. I suggest that this safety cannot be achieved by reforming the status quo, that prostitution exists within a spectrum of misogynist abuses of women, and that joining with the movement to abolish prostitution would be the most progressive policy.
The French law will promote awareness of the harmful impact of prostitution and re-education of punters, France now being one of the European countries to follow the Nordic model which criminalises the demand for paid sexual access to people, decriminalises those who are so exploited, and offers exit routes for prostituted people, including education and training. Here, people have worked long and hard on initiatives that provide examples of alternative approaches which actively support and facilitate people to leave prostitution, e.g., the End Demand campaign http://enddemand.uk/ which puts responsibility on those buying sexual access and is supported e.g. by the Fawcett Society: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/2014/10/end-demand-fawcett-supports-new-sexual-exploitation-campaign/
Icelandic feminists have shown that the sexual commodification of women can be ended, while Gunilla Ekberg, the Swedish government’s lead official on prostitution a decade ago, described the Nordic model as looking at prostitution as a form of male sexual violence. The law focuses ‘on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able to flourish and expand.’ In Canada the Department of Justice supported new legislation with plans to use $20 million to assist people who want to leave prostitution, to fund trauma therapy, addiction recovery, employment training, housing, etc. It is now illegal to purchase sexual access to another human being in Canada. This is a great step forward in recognising the harm done by prostitution, showing that what is required is the political will.
The Labour Party could be inspirational in following this path. I hope you and other Labour politicians would, for example, join survivors, organisations and parliamentarians from around the world who attend events such as the International Abolitionist Congress in Paris, organised by CAP International: Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution http://www.cap-international.org. Representatives and MEPs could also support the European Women’s Lobby campaign and the Brussels call: Together for a Europe free of prostitution http://www.womenlobby.org/get-involved/ewl-campaigns-actions/together-for-a-europe-free-from/the-brussels-call-together-for-a/?lang=en –‘The European Women’s Lobby has for years been committed to working towards a Europe free from prostitution, by supporting key abolitionist principles which state that the prostitution of women and girls constitutes a fundamental violation of women’s human rights, a serious form of male violence against women, and a key obstacle to equality between women and men in our societies.‘
‘The pitcher cries for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.’ These lines from the poem To Be Of Use by feminist writer Marge Piercy come to my mind when prostitution is described as ‘work’. The use of euphemisms like ‘sex work,’ sex industry,’ and ‘client,’ needs to be exposed as signifying the attempt to legitimise prostitution as an acceptable job when, as Dr Finn MacKay has rightly said, it is a ‘shameful blot on humanity.’ I can’t put it better than Rachel Moran, who was prostituted in Ireland from the age of 15 and has written on why the Nordic model ‘is vital to liberate women from sexual abuse and economic exploitation.’ ‘The second class status of women is upheld when the spurious idea that we exist for the use and entertainment of men is promoted at governmental level’… this model is ‘simply the only law on earth that assumes, as a starting point, that prostituted persons are worth more than what the circumstances of their lives have forced them to accept.
She goes on to ask ‘why do parliaments reject legislation to criminalise those who pay for sexual access to female bodies? Because of the deep misogyny carved into the male power structures of our world.’ She also points out the significance of language: ‘lobbyists use the deliberately whitewashing language of “sex work”; as though oppression could be morphed into something else by simply assigning it a different name. The truth is prostitution is a brutal system of socially institutionalised and financially compensated sexual abuse, and no amount of repackaging will ever do anything to change that.’
My local newspaper has reported that female university students are taking up offers from an older men’s ‘dating website’ (‘Fees hike forces students to seek ‘sugar daddies'”, Whitstable Times, May, 2012) Could there be a more appalling indictment of the current economic climate and enforced student debt than the horrific fact that young students are taking up the option of transactions in which they are valued not as intelligent human beings but as bodies to be purchased? The paper’s uncritical account of these abhorrent financial dealings provided free advertising for the businessman – pimp – behind the scheme, who remarked gleefully that increased ‘tuition fees have been great for business.’ The transformation of education from a public resource into a privatised commodity has resulted in students themselves becoming commodities for sale. The normalisation of this means some are themselves unaware of the unethical exploitation involved in their own objectification. This is but one of many groups of women whose lack of funding, support, employment, decent pay, housing and safety turns them into convenient prey for profiteering opportunists. As government policies and public spending cuts force women out of work and into increasing poverty and inequality, the clock is turned back on gains made through our struggles. Here is an intersection of factors where you could take a stand and promise to try to make a real difference. It’s hard to see that this could be meaningful, however, if policies condone prostitution by accepting it as an inevitability that can be ameliorated.
In New Zealand legislation around prostitution, including brothel ownership and pimping, means the industry operates under employment and public health laws. This follows from the notion that prostitution is a form of work that should be regulated like others, involving unionisation and legislation, better conditions etc. This entrenches the view of prostitution as just another job. I have been involved in feminism since the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and with many other activists I ask: who benefits from this idea gaining credibility? Why is the lobbying by pro-prostitution advocates taking such hold and in whose interest? Feminism is a political movement to end all forms of the exploitation and oppression of women. This cannot be divorced from socialist principles. Our movements have envisaged a transformed world where the oppressive hierarchies of socially-constructed gender roles, institutionalised racism and class are history. This is not conceivable if the abolition of prostitution is not factored in. This should surely be a priority for any party working toward the real equality which can only come from radical political change, as opposed to a liberal notion of equality within an unjust system.
Those lobbying for the prostitution industry argue that abolitionists are puritanical or patronizing. This argument is clearly designed to silence or guilt-trip campaigners and does not stand up to scrutiny. Indigenous activist and critic of the New Zealand model, Dr Pala Molisa, describes how prostitution ‘preys on women already marginalised by class and race’ … ‘Like the war industry, this global multi-million dollar industry feeds off the despair, poverty and hopelessness that the engine of global capitalism is producing – and that afflicts the lives of young people, especially indigenous women and people of colour.’ Demolishing the proposition that prostitution is ‘empowering’, or a matter of choice, he sees that the ‘only distinction between what happens in prostitution, and any other form of non-consensual sex/rape is that the women in prostitution have made a choice to endure the rape in exchange for money … and other kinds of rape victims/survivors have not had to make this choice to purposely put themselves in harm’s way as a means of economic survival.’ http://e-tangata.co.nz/news/breaking-the-silence/issues#
The specious notion that prostitution is simply ‘providing a service’ by selling ‘sex’ also needs challenging. (Punters are not buying ‘sex,’ in fact, they are buying a depersonalized human body, which is ‘theirs’ to use for a period of time.) What is the assumed right to this ‘service’? Behind it lie patriarchal concepts of male sexual access and rights of control, which feminism has always opposed. Is there an unquestionable right for men to have their demands met, further entrenched by the global marketplace? As Jeremy Seabrook writes in Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries, ‘the very term “demand” takes precedence in the seemingly neutral equation of supply and demand; demand is imperious and dominant; supply, submissively responsive.’
But what if we agreed that prostitution is a form of work after all – perhaps the ultimate work under venal, unregulated neo-liberal capitalism, taken to its logical ruthless extreme – callous, contemptuous, brutal in its unfettered greed for profit and exploitation of the world’s resources? In this context perhaps it is just another job, in an economy in which a scarcity of properly-paid employment, destruction of the welfare state, low pay, zero hours contracts, weakened unions, debt and global human trafficking ensure a steady supply stream of bodies for sale. In such a situation lives are rendered precarious and employers have the power and advantage of a labour market where notions of fairness are being shredded. Training for the job starts in childhood with abuse and other forms of the devaluing of girls. Perhaps prostitution is the logical extension of the purchase of labour – albeit not only the time and energy of the worker but their flesh, vagina, breasts, anus, mouth, etc. Suppose this is a form of work? Would that make it OK? Pala Molisa, agreeing with Chris Hedges that ‘prostitution is the quintessential expression of global capitalism’ says this is ‘a culture where workers around the globe are increasingly debased and degraded. Where they become impoverished and powerless. And where they’re thrown away like so much human refuse when they’re no longer of use.’
What then constitutes ‘real work’ – a concept increasingly forgotten, in which there is the satisfaction of doing socially useful, properly remunerated work, in which each person may fulfill their potential and use their gifts? Work in which pride can be taken is a far cry from that offered in today’s world. But it is surely still an ideal we should assert and uphold. You have offered the possibility of alternative, constructive employment being created for those whose jobs will be affected if Britain takes the sane path of not renewing that weapon of mass destruction, Trident; why should this principle not be extended to prostituted people?
As a feminist I come at this issue from concern about women and men being prostituted. But we should be concerned too about what effect the legitimisation of prostitution has on men who can assume the right of sexual access to other people’s bodies. What sort of men do we want to live amongst – our sons, brothers, fathers, neighbours, colleagues? In the better, future society we hope and strive for would they continue to have this right? Will it still be the norm that as punters they are ‘serviced’ by purchasing and using other people in this way? That would make a mockery of upholding the idea of the right to equality and freedom from harm for women and girls. There is an urgent need for education for young people which promotes respectful, non-exploitative relationships, to counter the endemic abuse of girls and women and the attitudes that give rise to sexist violence. Don’t we have a responsibility to champion this now? If you, as Labour Party leader, at a meeting or conference say, promote ideas which legitimise prostitution, you are in effect saying to your male colleagues and audience that it is OK to go out afterwards and buy a woman’s body to use. Can that really be what you believe?
I thank you for the time taken to read this, and hope that a discussion within the Labour Party develops on this crucial issue, changing the minds of those who think prostitution is acceptable and showing that a truly progressive agenda must aim for its abolition.
All best wishes
[We’d like to add links to two more great organisations to those provided in the letter: thanks to Rachel Moran for bringing them to our attention:
Ireland’s Turn Off The Red Light campaign: http://www.turnofftheredlight.ie