Some years ago I was returning home late from work when I saw, opposite the King’s Head pub on the Hagley Road, a single decker bus, a crowd of people and a clutch of police officers. I assumed the bus must have been involved in an accident and thought no more of it until the following day when I read in the local press that the Cuddles Massage Parlour had been raided and a bus used to take the women to a place of safety. The press were briefed that the women were from Eastern Europe and had been trafficked and detained on the premises against their will. Lurid tales appeared of electrified fences to the rear of the premises and cattle prods and guns used to keep the girls under control. This was a surprise to the owner of a neighbouring shop where girls from Cuddles regularly popped in to buy drinks and cigarettes. The police soon became embroiled in a row with the Immigration Service who claimed that the raid had nothing to do with trafficking but rather with arresting girls who had overstayed their visas and removing them from the country. The owner was later jailed for running a brothel but not, curiously enough, for trafficking and false imprisonment.
A couple of years later the police closed down another Bearwood brothel known as Fun Place, a place so discreet that few people even knew it was there. Apparently a local resident had made a complaint and the police felt obliged to act. So Bearwood is now free of prostitution as far as most people know, unless there are girls operating out of flats. So we can parade our consciences and rejoice that our neighbourhood is clean and free from vice.
But hold on. A quick Internet search reveals that most of the girls who worked at Fun Place are still in the industry, most of them locally. One of the few that no longer have sex for money is, a reliable source tells me, now working as a primary school teacher, which just goes to show not only that you shouldn’t judge people but also that prostitutes, sex workers, or whatever you want to call them are not a race apart but rather ordinary women many of whom will eventually leave the industry and get “respectable” jobs. They are also mothers, wives, daughters, sisters. In short they are full members of society like me and you.
Little is achieved by raids, which only seem to happen if a busybody makes a complaint or if the Olympics happen to be taking place a couple of miles down the road. They simply force the women to work elsewhere, which might mean the streets. Institutional hypocrisy abounds. I talked recently to the owner of a city centre brothel in Birmingham. She told me that the city council who license her premises as a massage parlour know perfectly well what goes on there but as long as the management pretend it really is a massage parlour, by, for example, having high massage tables rather than beds in the rooms, they are happy to pretend they haven’t noticed. It is dishonest and the raids which are purely arbitrary put women at unnecessary risk and waste police time.
I have entitled this piece “Women beware Women” because there is one high minded and doubtless well intentioned woman intent on putting an end to the current hypocrisy and double standards. Rhoda Grant MSP intends to do this by criminalising the buying and selling of sex. A bill to this effect is currently before the Scottish parliament. With the best of intentions she is going to make the lives of a whole lot of, generally less privileged, fellow women a hell of a lot worse.
A number of women and a smaller number of men earn money by having sex with people with whom they have no emotional attachment and who are, in many cases, complete strangers. This is associated with obvious health risks and with significant physical danger, particularly for women sex workers. The supporters of the bill, essentially a coalition of radical feminists and moralists, argue that sex work is inherently exploitative and demeaning of women. It is a potent symbol of their subjection to men. Where there is prostitution, violence and drug addiction are not far away. The children of prostitutes grow up to become the next generation of delinquents. The sex industry is a dirty and sordid trade and needs to be stamped out for the good of all women. Criminalisation is a way of cutting out demand that will stop the supply. Much of this is argued from a feminist perspective but those making the arguments are remarkably intolerant of women who happen to have a different view. An example of this was Julie Bindel’s intemperate attack on Dr. Brooke Magnanti, the scientist formerly known as Belle de Jour, in the Guardian a few weeks ago.
Opponents of the Bill are not saying that prostitution is a wonderful thing and entertain no romanticised notions of the “happy hooker.” What they are saying is that the overwhelming majority of women are not trafficked and not working to feed a drug habit. They are working to pay the mortgage, put food on the table, clothe their children and so on. They are ordinary women trying to make a living as best they can. Their decision to become sex workers was freely made, albeit within the constraints of their socio-economic position. The same could be said of cleaners. It is just that sex work pays better. Whilst there may be some women who see sex work as a lifestyle option they are probably the minority. Most of these women work because they need money and it is one of few options open to them to make a living wage. Criminalisation will not magic away the bills that have to be paid. Sex workers will remain sex workers but forced underground, with even less protection than they have now and with the danger of stigmatisation through a criminal record that will make it impossible to return to more conventional paid employment. As we have seen many women do eventually want to leave the industry.
There is, I think, a further and major difficulty that supporters of the proposed legislation fail to see. This is that sex work eludes easy definition. Not all sex workers are women servicing men. There are male sex workers too, catering for both women and men. Is it suggested that, say, a lonely middle aged woman who books a male escort for a couple of hours of sex should be given a criminal record? Is there exploitation in a gay man offering paid sexual services to other gay men?
And what about the world of BDSM? The service providers here are mainly professional dominatrices but there are also professional masters, that is men providing domination services for both men and women as well as, usually female, professional submissives who let you spank them for money. It is generally the case that the services provided in this whole area exclude penetrative sex yet all the activities that come under the BDSM umbrella are in some way an expression of sexuality. Should they too be criminalised? How would the law be enforced? Is a dominatrix a victim? My limited experience suggests not. The dominatrix I interviewed for a feature in her Solihull home last year came across as a balanced and wholly sane person who enjoyed her work. The house as well as the Porsche on the drive suggested it was rather more lucrative than any more conventional paid work she might have done.
That the apparatus of law enforcement will interfere in this area was shown by the Spanner trial 20 years ago when a number of men were imprisoned for engaging in wholly consensual sado-masochsitic activity or the more recent trial of barrister Simon Walsh for possessing images of legal BDSM related activity. This prosecution was brought under another ill thought out and unworkable law (Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008) brought in under the last Labour Government. This bans what it terms “extreme pornography” and specifies as extreme any image showing activities which might damage the breasts, genitals or anus. Visiting a dominatrix to have her stand in her stilettos on your penis may not, I suspect, float your boat. It certainly doesn’t float mine! It is, however, perfectly legal provided you have consented to it. However if she provides you with digital pictures of your suffering and you upload them onto your computer you are committing a criminal offence. The fact that the acts depicted were consensual and legal is no defence in law. If you think this is idiotic you are not alone. When moralising politicians go on crusade using women’s rights as an alibi that is what you get, and will get again in Scotland if the proposed legislation is adopted. No doubt England and Wales will follow the same misguided path in due course.
Human sexuality is complex and multidimensional. The range of professional workers in what might loosely be termed the sex industry reflects this. It even extends to the provision of tailor made sexual services to disabled people. Is it proposed that they be prosecuted for booking sex workers when they may have no other outlet for their sexual urges? The proponents of the Scottish bill show little sign of understanding this. The result will be flawed legislation that ties up police and court time at a time when, frankly, they have better things to do, as well as causing rank injustice. Experience suggests that the law will not catch the thuggish pimps and traffickers but rather the minor players and their clients, simply because they represent easier pickings.
Most people need sex and no-one should be condemned simply because they need to pay for it. Any encounter between a sex worker and a client is a commercial transaction freely entered into by both parties. It is not the role of society or the state to condemn and prohibit. There are sufficient laws already in place to deal with traffickers and pimps. The proposed criminalisation will do nothing to improve the lives of women in the sex industry, but may well do a lot to make them worse.