It doesn’t seem to take much for Jeremy Corbyn to fall out of favour with his own party. This time the Labour leader has come under fire for his comments about prostitution. Speaking to students at Goldsmiths University in London at the end of last week, Corbyn said he favoured decriminalising prostitution: ‘I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people. Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more [of a] civilised way.’
Corbyn is right to call for decriminalisation. Under the Sexual Offences Act and the Policing and Crime Act, it is technically legal to sell sex in private in Britain. But soliciting for sex in a public place, kerb-crawling, owning or managing a brothel and pimping are all illegal. Corbyn’s comments follow the release of the ‘Commission on the Sex Buyer Law’, produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade. The commission proposes criminalising the buyers of sex (normally men) rather than the sellers of sex (predominantly women). It suggests making it a criminal offence to ‘pay for sex, attempt to pay for sex, pay for sex on someone else’s behalf, and engage in a sexual act with a person knowing or believing they have been paid to participate’.
Though Corbyn made clear that his comments were personal, and not representative of the Labour Party view, many of his fellow MPs have taken him to task. On Twitter, Harriet Harman wrote: ‘Prostitution’s exploitation and abuse not “work/an industry”. Women should be protected and men prosecuted.’ Labour MP and full-time faux-campaigner for women’s rights Jess Phillips tweeted: ‘Man says we should decriminalise a known violence against women. Why did it have to be this man. #shedstear.’
Critics of decriminalisation think of themselves as champions of womankind. Some feminists who want to keep prostitution criminal even call themselves ‘abolitionists’, quite outrageously, and falsely, comparing themselves with those who fought to abolish slavery. In the process, they don’t only engage in fantasies about their own historic role – they also strip women of their moral agency and autonomy through comparing them to slaves: people who had no control over their lives. Sex trafficking is illegal – and should remain so. But making life harder for women who choose to use their body in a way that some people disapprove of, and making out that such women are enslaved, is an attack on women’s freedom, and on the very idea that they have the capacity to make choices.
When feminists say that the largely poor women who engage in prostitution have all been coerced, that such work can never really be consensual, they are demeaning women far more than they are the male buyers of sex. They’re treating them as moral infants, in need of rescue.