Should buying and selling sex be illegal? When the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) surveyed the parties before the last election, it found some unlikely ideological bedfellows. The Greens and the Lib Dems support full decriminalisation – removing the threat of prosecution from punters and managers as well as from sex workers – as does Ukip, which told the ECP: “The law should only punish acts that clearly harm others.”
Yet there are divides even within the parties. Unlike her outgoing leader, Natalie Bennett, the Green MP Caroline Lucas supports the Nordic model, also known as the “sex-buyer law”. This approach, pioneered in Sweden, categorises prostitution as violence against women and directs legal penalties towards those who pay for sex, rather than those who sell it.
Labour is similarly split. The Harman tendency – the party’s mainstream feminist opinion – supports the Nordic model, as does Scottish Labour. But the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has been parliament’s loudest voice against a sex-buyer law for many years. “We must listen to sex workers,” he told the House of Commons in November 2014. “The English Collective of Prostitutes, the Sex Worker Open University, the Harlots Collective . . . flamboyant names, but they represent sex workers, and all are opposed to the criminalisation of clients.” (Feminists’ opinion on this subject is regularly discounted because they have no “lived experience” of the sex industry. But has anyone ever asked McDonnell if the same can be said for him? Have they heck. Men’s private lives are private.)
This debate has long been one of the most divisive in feminism, because the stakes are so high. The sex work lobby believes that legal penalties drive the trade underground, making it more dangerous. The abolitionists do not think there can ever be a safe sex industry, given the rancid stew of male entitlement that fuels it. Conflicting statistics and studies abound, allowing experts to make whichever case they prefer.
Enter stage left Kat Banyard, co-founder of the pressure group UK Feminista and author of Pimp State, a full-throated roar against commercial porn and prostitution. Her first book, The Equality Illusion, came out in 2010, in the Feminist Dark Ages before Caitlin Moran’s bestselling How to Be a Woman spawned a dozen imitators and a thousand Twitter arguments. Banyard, however, did not take advantage of this feminist flowering to campaign online. Instead, she continued to work quietly with grass-roots activists. On the evidence of Pimp State, it was the right choice. In too many recent feminist books, the sentences themselves seem to flinch. Internet flame wars have scarred a generation of writers, who now feel forced into making endless qualifications and pre-emptive apologies. Pimp State has no such inhibitions. The simplicity and straightforwardness of its arguments come across as almost restful: demand for the sex trade is not inevitable; objecting to it does not make you a pearl-clutching prude. Consent cannot be purchased and the porn industry exploits its workers and normalises sexual violence.
Banyard’s arguments often seem to be in dialogue with those in Playing the Whore by Melissa Gira Grant – another progressive writer, concerned with labour rights, who looked at the same data and reached the opposite conclusion. Gira Grant and Banyard are symptomatic of the polarisation of this debate. Both sides agree that current laws are not working, leaving prostitutes vulnerable to violence and exploitation by both clients and law enforcement. There are other areas of agreement: punitive raids in which women are pulled out on to the street, in full view of journalists, should stop. Violence against sex workers should be treated as a hate crime (as it is in Merseyside). Criminal records hinder those who want to leave prostitution. All of these could be tackled without committing to a new legislative framework.
Eventually, though, we must make a moral decision. Is buying sex inherently wrong? Or is it only wrong in a world riven by sexual and economic inequality? Is the final goal a better sex industry, or none at all? The debate has extra heat because the home affairs select committee is currently holding an inquiry exploring the possibility of updating the legislation. (Full disclosure: I am the chair of trustees at a charity, nia, which has submitted evidence supporting the Nordic model. My position is that I will support whichever framework causes the greatest reduction in misery. Also, that punters are largely gross.)
Unfortunately, it is easier to identify bad arguments in this debate than good ones. For example, on 27 May, the direct action group Sisters Uncut explained that it supports full decriminalisation because: “In seeking to reduce the number of men willing to pay for sex, the Nordic model makes sex workers poorer.” (Hard to imagine a left-winger making the same argument about sweatshops: at least they are keeping people in work.) By the logic of Sisters Uncut, the truly moral thing is for more men to become punters, because that would make sex workers richer. All hail penis-based philanthropy!
Another fundamental question here is whether “sex work is work”. Banyard thinks not. She writes in Pimp State: “If ‘sex work is work’, then . . . what about City firms stipulating that female employees must have sex with male clients as part of their corporate entertaining duties? . . . It’s the kind of scenario feminists have spent decades working to get recognised as sexual harassment. But, I guess, if this is ordinary work, then at worst the requested task is merely outside her job description?”
She asks two employment lawyers what would happen if prostitution were recognised as work in British law. They tell her that clients could sue for unsatisfactory penetration and that brothels could discipline or fire workers who refused to see a particular client or perform a specific service. Here, again, there is agreement between the sex workers’ lobby groups and the abolitionists: no one wants the sex industry legalised. While the latter’s objections are obvious, the former prefer decriminalisation to legalisation because they do not want harsh regulation, compulsory registration for sex workers, or tax audits. In essence, their position seems libertarian.
The other counter-argument can be summed up in one word: Germany. It chose legalisation in 2002 and the result is vast mega-brothels in cities such as Berlin and Cologne, largely staffed by migrants who work as “independent contractors”. Paradise in Stuttgart serves 55,000 men a year. The workers pay a daily fee for the room and a city tax; in 2014, a Telegraph reporter who visited Pascha in Cologne found that the women had to see four clients a day to break even. “By 2013, just 44 people [in Germany] had officially registered their trade as prostitution to join the national insurance scheme,” notes Banyard.
No one thinks the German system works – including Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, which is now trying to bring in compulsory condom use and ban all-you-can-eat-buffet-style offers in brothels. The sex work lobby’s favoured model is instead New Zealand, which decriminalised streetwalking, brothel-keeping and living off the proceeds of prostitution in 2003.
“You should look at New Zealand,” the British journalist and former sex worker Paris Lees told the Home Office inquiry on 10 May. “If it had been illegal for the men who came to see me and paid for my time, that would not have stopped me doing it; it would have just made them more desperate, paranoid and edgy, and it would have made me . . . less able to turn away people who were perhaps drunk or hostile.”
This line of reasoning is intriguing: what happens to the men turned away for being “drunk or hostile”? Do they find someone else who needs the money more? Lees sold sex to fund herself through university; she wasn’t addicted to drugs or bankrolling an abusive partner. And how useful an example is New Zealand, given its demographic differences from Britain? It is a country of 4.5 million people, a four-hour flight from the next big landmass, with hyper-alert border police who’ll confiscate your trainers if they have too much mud on them. Can the same regulatory regime be the answer in a land of 65 million, part of a 28-country union with free movement of people?
That said, there are valid criticisms of the Nordic model, too. Campaigners such as Brooke Magnanti – also known as the sex blogger Belle de Jour – say that Sweden always treats prostitutes as victims, which is patronising. “The way they treat sex workers is as if we are children; as if we should be wards of the state, with no ability to make our own decisions,” she told the Home Office committee.
And some sex workers do freely choose their profession. I once interviewed a male “erotic masseur” called Colin, who seemed extremely happy bringing middle-aged women to climax in a flat in Pimlico.
Banyard’s book ignores those at the top of the trade who are protected by class or gender from its worst effects. Happily, though, these are exactly the kind of sex workers who have access to the media and in turn they largely ignore those at the bottom to bolster their own arguments. Pimp State has flaws but at least it is honest: abolition will restrict the liberty of people who want to sell sex. Those arguing for full decriminalisation should be similarly open. Do they want to minimise harms first, with the end goal of reducing the volume of the sex trade? Or are they making the fundamentally libertarian argument that the state has no business restricting a free market?
Those answers will help the left decide its attitude to buying and selling sex. We should be careful who we get into bed with – as Banyard convincingly demonstrates.
Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality by Kat Banyard is published by Faber & Faber (272pp, £12.99)
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind