Unpinning the Rhetoric of Choice

(originally published at Cheltfems)

A friend sent me an email outlining why she supports Amnesty. I haven’t her permission to publish it, but thought my response might be of interest.

With the predominate rhetoric being about supporting lifestyle choices rather than defending those who only have one ‘choice,’ the Nordic model is often presented as illiberal.  It’s not a sexy argument fronted by a happy ‘Belle de Jour’ style hooker, and maybe that’s why so many other wise liberal people recoil from it. But there’s nothing left-wing or progressive about ignoring the most vulnerable, or supporting something that perpetuates the revolting idea that men are entitled to buy women’s bodies, or that sex is something ‘done to women.’  There’s a subtle hint in much of the criticism of supporters of the Nordic model which implies that if you’re anti-sex work, you’re anti-sex. Obviously that’s bullshit, but I do think that’s why a lot of people shy away from it; it’s counter intuitive and deeply ‘uncool’, which doesn’t mean it isn’t the moral and practical option.

The choice to work in the sex industry is not made in a vacuum.  I don’t blame those in the industry, it’s a fairly logical response to an illogical society, whereby women are so frequently valued on their perceived sexual availability rather than being recognised for who we are.  The sex industry is as diverse as it is lucrative; but the agency of a vocal minority does not justify the harm done to many.  Obviously exact numbers are hard to come by, but I strongly believe those on Twitter are the entitled few. Hypothetically, if that were disproven, I’m not sure that would justify the suffering of anyone else, or mitigate the harm caused to society at large.

Look at the numbers of women willing to undergo harmful and invasive surgery to make themselves attractive to men.  That is a social ill, an international epidemic of women hating our bodies, and it’s perpetuated by a fucked-up patriarchal society that makes money from it. Similarly to prostitution, there are huge vested interests.  It’s valid to question why a woman who says she felt liberated by having a labiaplasty feels that, and it’s also entirely fair to question why such procedures exist and who profits from them. Making political and social problems seem like personal choices is something the rightwing specialises in, and I see the ‘choice’ to engage in sex work in this way.  Everyone is damaged by the existence of sex work, men’s sense of entitlement to our bodies infects society. Socially sanctioning sex work, by decriminalising it doesn’t erase the stigma for women, it just spreads the message that men are owed sex.

The clients of organisations such as One25Rosa or most of the frontline women’s services, aren’t going to be on our social media radar, they’ll be on street corners or in brothels. Economic migrants, those who are trafficked, those who have substance abuse/ addiction problems are unpleasant to think about, they don’t make good copy. Amnesty has a shameful history of refusing to share a platform with survivors of the sex trade (Rachel Moran springs to mind).  Rather than recognise the agency of the few who are relatively privileged, we should protect the most vulnerable.  So decriminalising sex work, but prosecuting those who pay for sex would allow women safety and security to report abuse, but obviously it needs to be balanced with support and exit strategies.  There have been problems with how the Nordic model has been implemented, but this is often due to inhumane policing (e.g. evicting women migrants who work in brothels) rather than any fault with the model itself. Decriminalisation in Holland, New Zealand and Germany has lead to a massive rise in trafficking and exploitation of children. When buying sex is decriminalised traffickers and pimps flourish, look at Amsterdam and Hamburg, both have become prostitution destinations, with women and children trafficked to meet the increased demand.  In addition, when the entire industry is decriminalised, competition increases and as more women enter the industry, prices go down.

Everyone deserves to have dignity at work, but sex work is not comparable to other dangerous jobs. For one thing, it’s almost entirely women selling and men buying; that’s a fundamental and damaging power imbalance.  I don’t think women should be punished for working in the sex industry, but the society that presents that as an option must be changed.  If it were women selling their bodies for men to punch, would you not worry that men would start to believe that they had a right to do that, would it not concern you that there was a market for it?  If it was their choice, and it enabled them to feed their families/ addictions/ pay rent/ mortgages, is that ok or should no-one be that desperate?  I suppose, prostitution is at the nexus of so many intersected problems. The fact it’s often the choice of ‘occupation’ for Trans people doesn’t justify it any more than it tends to be poor women who work in the sex industry.  The onus should not be on individual choice, but on preventing harm in a deeply unequal society. To my mind, we need to stop people being marginalised, not make their ‘choice’ of occupation less marginal.

Decriminalising the buying of sex doesn’t make prostitution safer for women. In advocating this Amnesty are sanctioning men’s right to buy women’s bodies. Allowing that to go unchallenged will make inequality worse for women and girls everywhere.

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