Sex work and the prohibitionists

Can we take criminal law out of the lives of sex workers?

The British do like to ban things. It is one of our national vices.

And the things we often like to ban are what other people get up to. We tend to believe that our moral disgust or ideological certainty about what other people do converts easily into legal prohibitions. To ban something, we seem to assume, is to eliminate it. Writing out a new page in a statute book is seen as somehow having the same effect as casting a spell: if we use just the right form of words, and are sufficiently solemn in doing so, we believe we can change reality.

Political debates can thereby be limited to whether something "should be banned". Rarely addressed are the more important questions of whether something can be "banned" and what may be the unforeseen consequences of having a ban. These are seen as second order concerns. It does not seem to matter how or whether the ban will work in practice: the deplored activity must be prohibited. It shouldn't be allowed.

However, to "ban" something is not to eliminate it; it merely means that future incidents of it may be attended by different legal and other consequences than it otherwise would have.

There is no one explanation as to why the clamour to ban things has such a central role in our political discourse. One possible reason is that the progressive widening of the franchise, and the attendant development of our democratic culture, was in respect of control of the legislature, and not the executive directly. Politicians could gain support by promising to make laws rather than actually doing things: "vote for me and I can ban this for you". Another possible explanation is the latent Puritanism in our national culture has long mixed with that popular deference to the rule of law which EP Thompson traced back to the early 1700s: so when we do not like something, we instantly think of the law as the best way to stop it.

This is not a simple left/right issue. Both conservatives and radicals want to ban things: different things, of course, but the political reflex is very much the same. Only the topics vary: fox-hunting, smoking, abortions, pornography, sado-masochism, recreational drug use, and so on. Everyone seems to want to ban something which other people do.

And so the news last week that the government is again thinking of criminalising those who pay sex workers comes as no great surprise.

Indeed, it seems our government is again "looking to Sweden" in respect of how to deploy the criminal law in the context of sex work, as if invoking the name of a Scandinavian country is enough to cloak an illiberal and grubby initiative with the soft glow of freshly-fallen Nordic snow.

In fact, our domestic laws regarding sex work are a complete mess.

Their general effect is to marginalise sex workers socially and to surround them with those whose conduct is at instant risk of criminalization. This is neither sensible nor safe for the sex workers.

Threats of criminal convictions are more likely only to deter someone from detectable types of behaviour than to deter them from refraining from the deplored behaviour altogether.

Criminalization really needs to be taken out of sex work, unless there is evidence of trafficking. (And the purported evidence for widespread trafficking has been discredited by Nick Davies and Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon amongst others).

A wiser approach to the law and policy of sex work was last week shown by a female Canadian judge, in a 132-page judgment which is both beautifully-written and a superb exercise in progressive jurisprudence.

Judge Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice struck down a range of prohibitions related to sex work policy. She came down on the side of the "right of prostitutes to express themselves in an effort to protect their personal safety". Furthermore, she notes "by increasing the risk of harm to street prostitutes, the [provision banning communications for the purposes of prostitution] is simply too high a price to pay for the alleviation of social nuisance".

This judgment of Judge Susan Himel is humane and refreshing. It applies the law in a liberal and proportionate way. It takes seriously the concerns and interests of sex workers. It is a judgment which should be read by every person with an interest in the topic. One only hopes it will not be appealed.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He was shortlisted for the George Orwell blogging prize in 2010. On 18 October 2010 he will be chairing a talk at Westminster Skeptics by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon (with a reply to be given by Dr Brooke Magnanti) on the Law and Policy of Sex Work.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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“I hate censorship”: Larry King on his journey from prime time TV to Russia Today

The talk show host opens up about interview technique, his unique method of tweeting, and his experience of working with the state-backed channel now known as RT.

The first celebrity interview Larry King did was by chance, in a Miami Beach restaurant. He was a 26-year-old local radio presenter, and had set up his mid-morning show to broadcast from the popular Pumpernik's deli. In walked the singer Bobby Darin, famous for his hit version of “Mack the Knifereleased that year, 1959, and gave the young journalist his first showbiz interview. King has been asking questions ever since.

The 83-year-old US talk show host and household name estimates that he has done around 60,000 interviews in his time. And he’s still going. After 58 years of presenting radio and TV programmes – he hosted the nightly interview show Larry King Live on CNN for 25 years – he now hosts Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King on RT America (the US output of the channel originally known as Russia Today).

That’s why he has been in London – to publicise his two shows as part of the Russian state-funded network’s tenth anniversary publicity drive.

“I haven’t been here in a long time, and I’m sorry I haven’t been here more because it’s a terrific city,” he says, when I sit down with him at the Mayfair Hotel restaurant. It echoes with light jazz and pristine corporate chatter.

Like a society tortoise, cheeky but reflective, King sits low on a plush leather bench with his head hunched forward. His right hand is planted beside him as an anchor, and his left is reserved for banging the table and gesticulating. He wears stylish black thick-rimmed glasses, and the rest of his outfit is every bit the smart-casual elderly hack: jeans and a blazer, stripy tie clashing with the stripes on his shirt.

“The only thing – you cannot find a good cawffee. Maybe it’s the wadda?”

An almost stereotypical born-and-bred New Yorker’s response to being away from home – his Brooklyn roots brought even closer with his assertion that he loves the “Bridish sensa yumour”, in spite of our nasty water.

Known for his laidback, non-confrontational interview style and array of high-profile subjects – Donald Trump, Morrissey, Muammar Gaddafi, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Michelle Obama, Barbra Streisand, Marlon Brando, the Dalai Lama, Frank Sinatra and Vladimir Putin are just a few – King left Larry King Live in 2010.

It was the preening tabloid troublemaker Piers Morgan who replaced him on the prime time slot in January 2011. But Piers Morgan Tonight was a doomed venture, axed in March 2014 after plummeting ratings. King and Morgan’s relationship has been fraught, with the former calling his successor “oversold” and accusing him of making the show “all about him. He used the word ‘I’ a lot.”

In a characteristically classy response, Morgan tweeted: “I made my CNN show all about gun control & saving lives. You made yours about blowing smoke up celebrity backsides.”

He also called King an “old goat”.

King doesn’t want to discuss this spat, but warns against talk show hosts who make interviews about themselves.

“I don't use the word ‘I’, because I find, in interviewing, for my style, ‘I’ is irrelevant because the subject is not me. The subject is the guest. What I think is immaterial; my role is a conduit from the guest to the audience.”

Perhaps this detachment dispelled any qualms King may have had about hosting two shows on the often laughably biased Kremlin-backed propaganda channel. He doesn’t seem happy about some of his broadcaster’s activities though.

“I certainly vehemently disagree with the position they take on homosexuals – that's absurd to me,” he frowns. “ . . . If they say homosexuality is, like, whatever they say, all I know is, I've asked this question all my life . . . I’m heterosexual. I have no idea why. A homosexual can’t tell me why they’re attracted to people of the same sex, just as the heterosexual. You could tell me I like that skirt, I like high heels, but I don’t know why. I just know that it’s true. So I don’t understand why a state could tell people how to feel about other people.”

But he insists: “They [RT] have never censored me, or told me who to have as a guest, or not have as a guest. They distribute my show. I do the show for Ora TV [an internet network], and I have a wonderful working agreement with RT . . .

“I hate censorship of any kind, abhor it, so I would never approve of you telling me what I can say, or I telling you what you can say. And I've never been censored – in fact, my whole life – by anyone. I've been fortunate. I’ve never been told ‘don’t book this guest’, ‘don’t ask this question’, ‘don’t reveal this’. And it’s never happened to me with RT . . . If they do it, I disagree with it.

He adds: “State ruling against any individual thought is abhorrent to me. I don’t like dictatorships, I don’t like fascism, I don't like communism. I don't like ‘isms’.”

Perhaps King’s thirst for freedom is best expressed through his Twitter feed. His odd one-sentence proverbs about life’s banalities have become something of internet legend – ie articles have been written about them. Here are some examples:

“I like the smell of turpentine.”

“I've been having a hard time finding Nestlé's Crunch bars lately.”

“I don't know why, but I've never enjoyed drinking water.”

“I know about tonsils, but what is an adenoid?”

“The fear of a colonoscopy is unwarranted.”

“The rat is perfectly named.”

“Are there any babies being named Fred these days? #itsmy2cents”

“It seems to me women don't wear ankle bracelets anymore. #itsmy2cents”

“Where exactly is the Internet? #ItsMy2cents”

That final example makes the most sense considering King’s strange relationship with Twitter, and modern technology in general. He doesn’t type any of his tweets himself, preferring – when he has an idea he’d like to impart to his 2.62m followers – to pick up his chunky old black flip-phone, call his producer or assistant, and dictate his thoughts. Sometimes he dictates them directly to his wife. He proudly takes his phone out of his jacket pocket to show me.

“It's a relic, but it's my relic. I don't text, I don't like texting. I like talking . . . I use the internet to my advantage, in that I dictate tweets. But I don't read a lot of tweets. I don't know where to read ‘em! Because this phone doesn't get tweets . . . I just call a number, and the person who answers it sends them out. Why do I have to type them?”

He gestures to the three PRs (yes, three) sitting in on our interview, all of them on their smartphones. “Before I had a heart attack years ago, I used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. Cigarettes controlled me. When I woke up in the morning, before I put on glasses, before I got out of bed, I had to reach for that pack of cigarettes. It controlled me. Now, look at this,” he points at them as they sheepishly look up from their phones. “See that? I never want to be a victim again of anything.”

In spite of his one-way use of technology, King is plugged in to internet controversy. He nods when I bring up the recent story of Vanity Fair angering readers with a feature celebrating late-night talk show hosts illustrated with a photograph of ten suited hosts – all of them men.

“I don't know why [there are so few women presenters],” he says, but doesn’t shrug it off. He continues talking about the subject even after our interview is over and I’ve stood up to leave. “It’s also true about radio talk shows . . . If you turn on the radio in the morning, the man is the host. Why? I've never hired people, I don't run a station. I remember this story, it's true, but I don't know why. I've no idea. Why is the man the host of a morning radio show?”

He pauses and then barks: “Why on local TV are all the weathermen women? And they all wear tight dresses. Why is that? I want men weathermen. More men on the weather! Show me a picture of all the male weathermen on local TV.”

That would make a vintage Larry King tweet. He’d better dial it in sharpish.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.