Jeremy Corbyn is about to find out what happens when you take a stance on sex work.
It is not a standard political attack. The response of those who believe in banning prostitution is ferocious and highly personal. He will be told he has betrayed women, that he supports pimps, that he doesn't care about trafficking and human slavery.
Labour's parliamentary meeting tonight is expected to see Harriet Harman, Caroline Flint, Jess Phillips and others attack Corbyn for telling Goldsmith's university he wants to decriminalise the sex industry and "do things a bit differently". There's a chance they'll succeed. Corbyn's views on this issue are evolving. He used to support the Nordic model – an approach which would criminalise the buyer, but not the seller, of sex. His shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is a long-time supporter of sex worker rights, and will be urging him to stand firm. It remains to be seen which influence will be the stronger.
The attack started the moment his words were reported. Harman said sex work was "exploitation and abuse not 'work/an industry'." Phillips called sex work "a known violence against women", and pointedly referred to Corbyn's sex in the tweet, as if to say that men have no part in the debate because their genitals invalidate them. In the Guardian, the (otherwise brilliant) Julie Bindle's riposte said Corbyn had summed up "the male left's betrayal of women".
Prostitution's exploitation and abuse not "work/an industry". Women should be protected and men prosecuted. https://t.co/wRWlp1lJZm— Harriet Harman (@HarrietHarman) March 4, 2016
— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) March 4, 2016
That's the standard tone of the sex work debate. The data is highly contested, the arguments are complex and difficult. But if you believe in the decriminalisation of sex work, you will instantly come under a sustained and highly emotive attack on your morality and your identity. It is not enough for people to disagree with you. You become a betrayer of women, a gender Judas encouraging violence against them.
It's not just Corbyn who has supposedly betrayed women. So has Amnesty International, which recently chose to advocate for decriminalisation after two years of evidence gathering and consultations, including with current and former sex workers as well as public health groups. The World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, the International Labour Organisation, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International have all also betrayed women, if you believe their opponents. The Home Office, which said there's no "unequivocal evidence that any one approach is more effective at tackling harm and exploitation", is also evidently betraying women.
Anti-sex work feminists are not the only people who act this way. Those who support sex workers unfortunately do the same. They often accuse their opponents of perpetuating violence against women by opposing sex worker rights and even try to have them barred from conferences and debates. It's an ugly approach, in which the two sides are often more interested in shutting each other up than engaging with one another.
That would be bad enough, but sex work opponents also shut up the people affected by the legislation. Look what happened in 2010. Labour was nervously edging towards legalising small brothels, with two prostitutes and a maid, when Harman used her influence to have the plans shelved. That caused considerable anguish among sex workers, who were forced to keep working alone or risk being prosecuted as pimps. Those are the same pimps which critics of sex work say they are trying to protect them from. Sex workers are often the victims of laws supposedly intended to help them.
Harman then managed to secure an amendment to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which basically introduced the Nordic model by the backdoor. The Nordic model is arguably an improvement on the law that we currently have, because at the very least it does not threaten sex workers with prosecution. But it still puts them in danger, by driving the trade onto the black market. The men (they are nearly always men) buying sex become more risk averse and demand meetings in hidden-away locations. The sex worker, forced by the state to work alone, must conduct their business in the way the customer demands if they want to continue working. They say this puts them at a greater risk of violence and rape. Personally, I'll take their word for it. They know more about how to stay safe than Harman does, as she passes laws from the green benches of the Commons chamber.
Harman's amendment made it an offence for a punter to buy sex from a prostitute if they had been 'exploited for gain' by a third party. Fair enough, you might think. But there was a catch: it was irrelevant if the buyer "is, or ought to be, aware that [a third party] has engaged in exploitative conduct". In other words, it was impossible to know whether you were breaking the law or not. The amendment did not make it illegal to buy sex exactly, but it made it impossible for the punter to know whether it was legal or not. It threw it into a legal grey area where all the behaviour-changing effects of criminalisation would take effect.
Sex workers warned the amendment would force them into ever-more dangerous situations by making customers more risk-averse. But no-one was listening. They had not even been invited to the consultation. Imagine any other situation in which a legal trade (prostitution remains technically legal) was ignored while politicians undertook major changes to how it was conducted.
But that's how the anti-sex work lobby treats sex workers: as gender failures, as victims, as people without agency. Harman said it herself: It is "exploitation and abuse", not the free decision of a consenting adult. As sex workers will tell you (if you bother to listen to them), this type of rhetoric actually makes it harder for them to report rape. After all, if they cannot consent to selling sex, technically all sexual activity they are engaged in through work is rape. The rape of sex workers is written out, by definition.
There is no real plan on the anti-sex work side. The Nordic model is more of an ideological band-aid, allowing radical feminists to oppose sex work on the basis that they have shielded women from prosecution. This is really a mid-stage solution, designed to operate while they 'kill off demand', with a public awareness project discouraging men paying for sex with women (the plight of male sex workers, who constitute up to two-fifths of them, is rarely mentioned).
It is a remarkable triumph of wishful thinking and ideology over basic sense and historical understanding. There will, in all likelihood, never be an end to sex work. It is a question of supply and demand, both of which are substantial and impossible to eradicate.
The calls for an end to demand remind me of an American Marxist academic – I forget the name – who once visited the Soviet Union. When a Soviet official came to meet with him in his hotel, he informed him that, among other things, Russia had succeeded in eradicating prostitution. "Well you may have no prostitutes in the Soviet Union," the academic replied, "but there are several in this hotel."
You can't get rid of prostitution. All you can do is limit its damage. That involves evidence-based policies on how to protect the men and women doing it. It's about bringing it above-board and regulating it. It involves listening to sex workers about the conditions which would make them safer and allowing them to work together for mutual protection. It requires the provision of state-regulated spaces where they can work without risk of prosecution or assault and where social services are able give sex workers practical options for leaving the industry if they want. It involves taking away the threat of deportation from non-European sex workers, so any that have been trafficked can talk to the authorities without worrying that they'll be sent to a detention centre and shipped out the country. And it's about making clear that sex workers are autonomous individuals making consenting choices as adults, and that buyers and governments must respect that.
Ideology does not help protect them, only a pragmatic approach with respect for the freedom of the individual will. Those who accuse Corbyn or betraying women and encouraging violence against them do nothing to protect sex workers. They merely ignore them. He should stand firm.