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A modest proposal for making the sex industry safer – make punters get a licence

We still aren’t talking enough about what supposedly civilised men actually do to women in prostitution.

“Civilisation” is a rum concept. For much of history it’s been defined with women on the outside: great men do their great works, and women are vaguely imagined on the fringes. Jeremy Corbyn thinks we should have a more “civilised” approach to prostitution: “I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people”, he told an audience at Goldsmiths, and that gender-neutral word “people” means he’s not only talking about freeing those in prostitution (mostly women) from the heinous burden of criminalisation, but also and more controversially striking away the laws concerning men who pay for sex.

Focusing on how prostitution policy affects women is certainly an advance on 100 years ago, when the Defence of the Realm Act treated suspected prostitutes as a danger to men. “Infected women” who “had sexual intercourse with any member of His Majesty’s troops” could be inspected and punished; women were placed under curfew, their movement was restricted, their homes invaded. (This brutal history is why many women in sex work who support decriminalisation of the industry are wary of well-meaning liberals who think “regulation” would be a benefit. Women who sell sex have got every reason to be suspicious of those who want to “regulate” them.)

But moving beyond misogynist anxieties about women in prostitution as a threat to civilisation isn’t enough. We still aren’t talking enough about what supposedly civilised men actually do to women in prostitution. In fact, some groups very carefully avoid talking about men at all. National Ugly Mugs, a reporting and information sharing scheme for incidents of violence against those in prostitution, says it issues warnings about “dangerous individuals”, but those dangerous individuals are, specifically, men. Men who rape, men who assault, men who murder.

The problem with having identified men as the source of harm in prostitution, however, is that you can’t have prostitution without men. Every industry needs a market, and men are the market for paid sex: one in ten British men has ever paid for sex, and one in 100 pays for sex regularly. For comparison, only one in 1,000 women has paid for sex even once. If we’re going to have a civilised sex industry, it looks like we’ll have to find a way to manage men first.

Let’s start small, then. If we accept for the sake of argument that prostitution isn’t inevitably damaging to women, then we could say that men who want to pay for sex are exercising a particular sort of freedom which we know could be damaging to other people if used recklessly. It’s a bit like wanting to drive a car really. So any man who wants to pay for sex can start by applying for a punter’s licence. Just as for a driver’s licence, he’d have to be thoroughly examined first, with a full physical, criminal record check, and a lengthy theory test asking questions like “what would you do if you weren’t certain a woman was acting outside of someone else’s control?” and “if you’ve paid a woman for sex and she then says no, should you carry on or stop?”

Obviously, a few unsuitable men would slip through the licensing process, so there would have to be regular retesting – say, every six months – and a points system. (Asking a woman to let you go bareback? Instant lost licence.) And the rule would be no licence, no sex. In fact it would go further than that: no licence, no opportunity to ask for sex. Supporters of the sex industry often insist that women consent to paid sex, but there’s always the question of how freely that “yes” is given if a woman is worried about feeding her kids, paying overheads to a brothel, or making a profit after her pimp has taken a cut.

This new system would get rid of all those concerns. If men were paying to ask for sex, women could refuse without fearing lost income. And – bonus! – men who pay for sex could be certain that the women they’re paying are participating with enthusiastic consent. I can’t think of anything more depressing and grotesque than knowing another person is only tolerating me penetrating them because I’ve bribed them, and it would surely be a relief to all decent-minded johns to know that they’re not just taking their pleasure on a minimally compliant woman.

Of course, I don’t think this system is complete, but I do think this is the only way to have anything approaching an acceptable sex industry: one where the main threat to the safety of women in prostitution was kept tightly under control, and where everyone could be sure that the service being bought is offered without coercion. Of course, some will find this harsh. Dehumanising of men, even. But there is another way. It turns out, men don’t actually need to pay for sex. They could just choose not to, and instead only have sex with women who actually fancy them. It’s a radical idea, I know, but doesn’t it sound civilised?

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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The 5 things the Tories aren't telling you about their manifesto

Turns out the NHS is something you really have to pay for after all. 

When Theresa May launched the Conservative 2017 manifesto, she borrowed the most popular policies from across the political spectrum. Some anti-immigrant rhetoric? Some strong action on rip-off energy firms? The message is clear - you can have it all if you vote Tory.

But can you? The respected thinktank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has now been through the manifesto with a fine tooth comb, and it turns out there are some things the Tory manifesto just doesn't mention...

1. How budgeting works

They say: "a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade"

What they don't say: The Conservatives don't talk very much about new taxes or spending commitments in the manifesto. But the IFS argues that balancing the budget "would likely require more spending cuts or tax rises even beyond the end of the next parliament."

2. How this isn't the end of austerity

They say: "We will always be guided by what matters to the ordinary, working families of this nation."

What they don't say: The manifesto does not backtrack on existing planned cuts to working-age welfare benefits. According to the IFS, these cuts will "reduce the incomes of the lowest income working age households significantly – and by more than the cuts seen since 2010".

3. Why some policies don't make a difference

They say: "The Triple Lock has worked: it is now time to set pensions on an even course."

What they don't say: The argument behind scrapping the "triple lock" on pensions is that it provides an unneccessarily generous subsidy to pensioners (including superbly wealthy ones) at the expense of the taxpayer.

However, the IFS found that the Conservatives' proposed solution - a "double lock" which rises with earnings or inflation - will cost the taxpayer just as much over the coming Parliament. After all, Brexit has caused a drop in the value of sterling, which is now causing price inflation...

4. That healthcare can't be done cheap

They say: "The next Conservative government will give the NHS the resources it needs."

What they don't say: The £8bn more promised for the NHS over the next five years is a continuation of underinvestment in the NHS. The IFS says: "Conservative plans for NHS spending look very tight indeed and may well be undeliverable."

5. Cutting immigration costs us

They say: "We will therefore establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union, while still allowing us to attract the skilled workers our economy needs." 

What they don't say: The Office for Budget Responsibility has already calculated that lower immigration as a result of the Brexit vote could reduce tax revenues by £6bn a year in four years' time. The IFS calculates that getting net immigration down to the tens of thousands, as the Tories pledge, could double that loss.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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