A reaction to Harriet Harman’s proposed law on selling sex
Posted by That Other Mike on 23/12/2007
The UK government in the person of Harriet Harman, currently occupying the positions of Deputy Labour Leader and Equality Secretary, has mooted a law making the buying of sexual services illegal:
Commons Leader Harriet Harman has told the BBC she wants the law to be changed to make it illegal to pay for sex.
She said ministers were to look at how Sweden brought in such a law, and said a “big debate” was needed in the UK.
It would counter international human trafficking which sees girls bought and sold by criminals in the UK, she added.
The inspiration for the proposed law is clearly stated to be Sweden’s current model, which in 1999 criminalised the purchase but not the selling of sexual services. An accompanying opinion article discusses Sweden’s law in brief.
Sweden’s law was brought about because the Swedish government considered that prostitution to be per se an act of violence against women, which is where it departs from rational lawmaking as an attempt to alleviate social problems associated with prostitution. To class prostitution in this way –as intrinsically an act of violence or as inherently exploitative– is law-making for the sake of conforming to gender-role dogma.
The proposed law will not help or assist any prostitutes from leaving it; it will not eliminate prostitution; it is a feel-good law with some serious problems.
Taken in the abstract, prostitution is a commercial transaction between someone selling a service and someone buying it. To assess it as intrinsically exploitative is simply doctrinaire; it is no more so than any other capitalistic arrangement.
That’s fine, in the abstract; but what about the reality? It’s true that prostitution as an industry is plagued with problems. Rampant drug use, abuse by pimps and sexually-transmitted diseases are rife within prostitution.
Does this represent a challenge to legalised prostitution as an idea? I would say not. These problems occur and are worsened because of its criminality; making prostitution as an activity illegal drives it into the criminal underground, causing contact with criminals and abusers who remain untrammelled by legal proscriptions and unpunished when they commit acts of violence.
It’s the same argument we use for the legalisation or decriminalisation of various drugs – drive an activity which is otherwise not intrinsically harmful into the underground and you create an association with the criminal element.
Given that prostitution is not by definition harmful, and the association with other crimes is a consequence of its being made illegal, we come to the idea of it being an act of violence against women. Again, let us consider the abstract; a commercial transaction in which one party agrees to perform a service for another. Said activity is sexual in nature, of course, but again, that doesn’t translate to violence.
The view of heterosexual intercourse as an act of violence is simply ridiculous, and can be seen as the consequence of the lunatic fringe of radical feminism1 which view penetrative sex as a violation. I don’t know how to put it any other way. If someone is coercing prostitution from a woman by violence or its threat, then by all means, get the person doing it and throw him or her in jail. You will have my blessing, and no doubt that of the rest of the thinking world. However, the same applies to anyone being coerced by violence or its threat into anything.
Following that, we come to the idea of criminalising the buying but not the selling. The idea is basically to stop prostitutes from being criminalised if they are the victims of aggressive and violent pimps, which is all well and good; but how does criminalising the men who visit prostitutes constitute a good idea? It demonstrates a lack of consistency and an abundance of ideology (again); if we disapprove enough as a society to make buying sex illegal, surely we ought also to make the selling illegal as well? By simply making one side of it illegal, we are discriminating in favour of one party in a criminal transaction when both are equally culpable, in the name of an idea of human sexuality which is based not on fact or reason but on ideology. There is certainly also a compelling argument that the law will drive prostitution even further underground, while consequently reducing the women’s safety.
The idea of protecting vulnerable members of society, in this case prostitutes, is an excellent one; part of the reason we band together in societies is for mutual protection and strength. The proposed law, however, will do nothing to address the problem of prostitution. All it does is put up a smokescreen of apparent care towards prostitutes without doing anything substantial. If Harman et al were serious about doing away with prostitution altogether, they would be taking steps to actively target pimps and human traffickers, as well as providing shelter and education for their victims. I don’t see that happening any time soon, for the simple reasons that it would a) take a huge and complex commitment in time, energy and resources, and b) it isn’t very glamorous or liable to win many votes. The proposed law criminalising johns, on the other hand, is simple and easy to spin into some good electoral PR.
There is one way to ameliorate and even perhaps solve the problem of human trafficking and deleterious effects of prostitution – legalise it. Not merely decriminalise, because that only preserves the status quo in a legal grey area, but legalise. Licence brothels and other purveyors of sexual services, and you can remove disease and criminality while leaving those who practise it free to form unions and cooperatives and be fully protected under the aegis of the law. And, of course, you can then tax it; given the current UK government’s trigger happy approach to taxation, I should have thought that alone would have been a huge incentive. Current estimates of the taxability of prostitution suggest that it could net the Treasury up to £250m per annum2.
There are a number of other standard arguments against the legalisation idea, of course, some few of which actually make sense. The first and possibly most sensible argument against is the impact on local communities; we might propose legalisation but not want it in our back gardens as well, which I think is entirely appropriate and consistent. This can solved by planning permission or zoning depending upon locale, or by not allowing brothels or prostitution within city limits.
Another argument is on public morality grounds, which seems weak at best; we allow and even encourage all kinds of things now which were previously seen as immoral. More to the point, it is inconsistent with the spirit of personal freedom and the viewpoint that morality ought not to be legislated which is the central characteristic of the modern West cultural paradigm. A similar argument is that legalisation will increase prostitution. There is also little to recommend this argument – it is not in and of itself true, and rests heavily on the assumption that prostitution is inherently something to be discouraged and actively worked against.
To conclude, I would say that the proposed law will not do anything to protect vulnerable women or discourage prostitution, and will succeed only in criminalising men who have committed only a consensual offence or at the worst unknowingly supported criminals.