Comment: The coalition’s new puritanism

Chris Grayling’s decision to ban sex work vacancies from Job Centres shows the coalition government to be just as puritanical as Labour was.

By Ian Dunt

Rather unusually, Chris Grayling made a good point today. It was not his main point of course, but he must still be commended. The employment minister was busy announcing that sex industry vacancies would be banned from Job Centres when it happened. The main thrust of his argument was very tired and irritating and we shall come to it in a moment. But first we should give the man his due and note his partially successful response to the point that the ban was an instance of government moralising.

Not so, Grayling insisted. Once new rules come in forcing those on unemployment benefit to get work, it would be quite wrong for those facing the measure to have to take a job in the sex industry. Therefore, sex industry ads had to be removed from Job Centres. One must give credit where it is due, and accept the argument. The sight of the state effectively forcing women to take their clothes off for paying customers is the stuff of dystopian comedy. The same holds true, I would suggest, for any job which a claimant could have a moral exemption to, such as working for an arms manufacturer or an oil company. These job vacancies have not been affected, suggesting that nakedness is now officially more dangerous than war.

Unfortunately, the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) decision is absurd and unnecessary, and Grayling’s argument is no saving grace. If it is possible to impose an outright ban on the vacancies then surely it was possible to insert a clause in Iain Duncan Smith’s upcoming welfare reform bill exempting sex industry vacancies from those a welfare claimant must take up.

The current course seems far more problematic. Job Centres had an outright ban on adult entertainment vacancies up until 2003, when Ann Summers won a high court battle branding the ban illegal. The DWP insists the new rule, which will remain in place until ministers get legislation onto the statute book, is legal because it refers only to work which involves the “direct sexual stimulation of others”, not the cleaners or cashiers who also work in sex entertainment establishments. Perhaps it does, but putting the exemption in the welfare reform bill would have been far more sensible and respectable.

The decision to announce a ban during silly season, when it would receive maximum publicity, reveals the real intent: to send a political message. The feminist puritanism of Harriet Harman appears to have been replaced by the Conservative puritanism of Grayling. The move seeks to further distinguish between the respectable world of supermarket shelf stackers and data entry workers – unpleasant jobs which welfare claimants will be forced into – and the apparently sordid world of sex webcams, strippers and lapdancers.

This approach is most dangerous when it comes to prostitution. Efforts to prohibit prostitution put sex workers in ever greater danger of rape, violence and murder by driving them further underground. When it comes to strip clubs and webcams, the stakes are not so high. The principle is the same, however, and the cultural aim – to cement the idea of the sex industry as something innately sordid and shady – is identical. The talk of “exploitation”, without any evidence to back it up, suggests that many politicians still refuse to accept that a woman would ever willingly choose to make her livelihood in this way.

But there is nothing morally wrong with women – or men – earning money in the sex industry. Today’s announcement is simply another tired resuscitation of an outdated prissiness, a desire to interfere in how people chose to make money (or spend it) when it comes to their bodies.

Unfortunately, it is also good politics. Those who are against this form of puritanism do not usually feel strongly enough to vote on the basis of it, while those who are for it – angry Christians, family values groups and the like – most certainly do. Today’s move will keep the government in the Daily Mail’s good books.

There was really no legitimate reason for today’s announcement. It’s just bland, old-fashioned English curtain twitching. It’s not surprising, but one must maintain a sense of disappointment to avoid complete exasperation.

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