I woke up this morning to news of a scandal: Culture Secretary John Whittingdale MP, in charge of the regulation of the press, is reported to have dated a professional dominatrix, and the press is reported to have known about it for years. The Daily Mail, the Mirror Group, and the Independent are all accused of investigating the story, and then shelving it, and the campaigning journalism sites Byline and Open Democracy have asked, with some justification, whether Whittingdale should have been regulating the press when they arguably held this power over him, this unspoken threat of blackmail. And, indeed, reporters theorise that Whittingdale has regulated with a light hand, ignoring, as culture secretary, some of the recommendations of the Leveson enquiry.
In the furore, two points haven’t been heard very much. The first is that some of the press have sensationalised the sex work angle with this story. Whittingdale reportedly took his girlfriend to the MTV Europe music awards, to tea and a New Year’s party at the House of Commons, and to a function where the Duchess of Cambridge was the guest of honour. The Mirror reported the sex worker’s mundane working arrangements, such as the fact that she kept a dungeon, with prurient wonder. Even Byline, in its supposed blow against corruption and in favour of press independence, said that the relationship “potentially jeopardised government security”.
Well, I’m a dominatrix, and I’ve been to Parliament twice – once to interview one of its MPs for this very publication, and once to give evidence to a Liberal Democrat working group on the criminalisation of sex work. It never occurred to me that I would be besmirching the august halls of Westminster, or threatening the security of government, by being there. Sex workers are so marginalised and stigmatised in our society that for the media to report association with one of us has become a synonym for perversion and dissolution. In its zeal, the media has neglected to consider how it reinforces sex worker stigma.
The second overlooked point is that if sex work was not stigmatised, there would be no story to tell. In a just society, dating a sex worker would be as unremarkable as dating a teacher or a joiner or an interior designer. There would be no threat of blackmail, no scandal, no echoes of the Profumo affair. But because sex work is seen as unclean, as inherently degrading, and because alternative sexual expression is viewed as comic and perverse, here we are.
I do not write this to defend Whittingdale. I have no love for a Tory who advised Thatcher, who wants to de-fund the BBC, and who may, indeed, have granted too much favour to the press that he oversaw, in fear for his political life. He is no champion of sex worker rights, either; in a statement read on Newsnight, Whittingdale claimed that he disavowed his partner on learning about her work, that he didn’t know about it until the tabloids came calling, and that he dumped her when he found out.
I write today because, while there is an important story about collusion and corruption here, sex work itself has nothing to do with it. The sex work stigma that may have kept Whittingdale from enforcing Leveson properly also keeps sex workers from reporting assault to the police, and keeps those who have done sex work from pursuing work in high profile professions or from working with children. The stigma and the laws that push us into the margins kill us. As we pull him into the light, let us build a society where being a sex worker, or paying for sex, are unremarkable.