Arguing the toss, spiked style

This week: are laws criminalising prostitutes' clients a good idea?

At last! Men who exploit women for sex are going to get their comeuppance.

You mean like pimps and those who force women into prostitution?

I mean the clients. Sweden criminalised the buying of sex back in 1999 and now it looks like other countries are going to follow suit. The European Parliament has just voted in favour of criminalising the buying of sex. The French have just introduced a similar law, too. So it won’t be prostitutes getting arrested anymore, it will be the men who abuse them.

When you say ‘abuse them’, you mean ‘pay for consensual sex’?

It’s abuse. It’s a man using his economic position to make a woman have sex with him.

Criminalising it sounds like a terrible idea to me.

You would say that. You’re a man.

So I’m basically an abuser.

No, I didn’t say that. But it gives you the legal right to abuse women if you see fit.

I think we should keep the state out of bedrooms, even ones in brothels.

So you support this abuse?

I don’t think the buying and selling of sex is, in itself, abuse. I wouldn’t pretend it is glamorous, either. For most sex workers, from what I can see, it’s a pragmatic decision to get into that line of work. Even if they could get a job doing something else, many choose to become sex workers for a while because they can make a lot more money doing that than they can in a regular job.

See what I mean? Economic power relations, in which women’s bodies become commodities!

Well, in one sense, when it comes to selling our labour, we’re all commodities, or at least our labour power and skill is a commodity. How many people would actively choose to do their job? Most people’s work is pretty tedious, but we need to work to survive. So why the focus on sex as something radically different? It’s interesting that old-fashioned conservatives and feminists are united in the idea that there is something particularly horrible about sex, that somehow doing sex work is a violation rather than one possible chore among many. There are some pretty horrible ‘regular’ jobs out there, I can understand why some people decide that sex work is a viable alternative.

But so many women are utterly exploited as prostitutes, coerced into doing it against their will…

I’m sure that’s true in some cases, though I think because feminists view prostitution is disgusting, they can’t compute that a lot of people choose to do it. As a result, they assume that prostitutes could only do it because they are forced. That’s not true.

For example, every time there is a major sporting event, whether it is the Super Bowl or the World Cup, there are claims of widespread trafficking of prostitutes. They are never substantiated. When police have crackdowns on prostitution, in the name of tackling trafficking, they find few if any trafficked women.

And to the extent that there is any truth in coercion, there are plenty of other laws to protect women. It’s not legal to assault or blackmail someone just because they are a prostitute.

If you target the clients, the demand will dry up and the sex workers will be free to do something else. There would be no need for coercion.

No, I suspect that instead, the trade will carry on underground, just as it does anywhere prostitution is illegal. It will just be a lot riskier. Just because you target clients rather than workers doesn’t mean that sex workers won’t be at more risk if you involve the criminal law. When prostitution is legal and normalised, it at least means sex workers can call the police if there’s a problem. If you criminalise one side of the client-prostitute relationship, then it makes staying safe much harder for the prostitutes. That’s why all the organisations that represent sex workers are up in arms about these new laws.

It would be far better if we had a thriving economy where people were under less economic pressure to turn to sex work which, no matter how you dress it up, is demeaning for many (but not all) of the people involved. But given that it is famously the ‘oldest profession’, and it will carry on as long as some people want uncomplicated sex and others are willing to provide it for hard cash, I think it would better to get the state out of that relationship altogether.

Sex work should be a matter for individual moral judgement, not a matter for the police and courts. If you disapprove of prostitution, that’s your business. But keep the long arm of the law out of it.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

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