British politics is in quite a sorry state. The Tories are apparently so childish that they actively drown out whatever point opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn tries to make, and Labour is hopelessly divided, which brings us to a particular issue that Labour has decided to bicker about. Last week, Jeremy Corbyn upset various members of his own party by saying to students at Goldsmiths University that he would prefer to decriminalize sex industry, on the grounds that he would not “want people to be criminalized”. This statement was made two months after Leeds introduced a fully legal red light district, which was set up after recent research had found that police action against sex workers failed to reduce levels of prostitution in the area.
While Corbyn’s reasons were quite valid, he’s inadvertently revealed that people in his own party aren’t exactly ready for this discussion, as perhaps best demonstrated by the temper tantrum thrown by Harriet Harman, who openly stated that “women should be protected and men prosecuted”. Similarly, another Labour MP, Caroline Flint, spent her energies riling up the Labour backbenchers into a frenzy over the matter, and has consistently posted outraged rants on Twitter espousing the claim that prostitution is “not an industry”, and claiming that “few people in the sex industry are there by choice”.
Of course, Flint and others like her have made a plethora of claims about prostitution and the sex industry, but these have not been backed by any sort of statistical evidence. In fact, when one sex worker asked Caroline Flint to back up her claims, she was blocked. The Labour MP continued blocking other sex workers and activists from responding to her tweets, under the delusion that she and others like her are protecting sex workers. It seems very obvious that people like Caroline Flint and Harriet Harman have no idea how to treat sex workers, since they’re treating them as if they can’t make their own choices, and since they’re always referring to female sex workers, it’s literally not very much different to how sexist they perceive the sex industry to be. Say what you will about prostitution, but which is more sexist – an industry where men can pay for sex with women (or the other way around), or politicians treating female sex workers like children?
For me, this is the other thing that is very weird about the discussion of prostitution. Whenever most people discuss the sex industry, whether in politics or not, they always refer to female sex workers, even though there are male prostitutes (and a wide range of words for them). Depressingly, any talk about the sex industry in the political arena is almost bound to involve slut shaming, and if that’s not enough, it’s mainly the female MP’s that seem to be doing a lot of the shaming. It shouldn’t be too surprising though, because in this country, they’re the ones enforcing the narrative that sex work is rape, sex workers are victims without agency, and that willing prostitutes are “handmaidens of the patriarchy”. That does not sound like a party that empowers women. In fact, they sound no different to the conservatives.
That’s why Jeremy Corbyn’s call to decriminalize the sex industry is important. He revealed just how little Labour’s zealously prudish backbenchers cared about the rights of sex workers. People like Harriet Harman believe that they want to protect sex workers from exploitation, and have readily accused Jeremy Corbyn of “betraying women” and “supporting pimps”. What they won’t allow themselves to realize (and probably would realize if they did the research) is that not only do many prostitutes do sell sex on their volition (even if it’s mainly for the money), but also that, if prostitution was completely legal, pimps would actually have less power than they would if prostitution was completely illegal. In countries where it isn’t, most prostitutes wouldn’t be likely to call the cops for fear of legal reprisals, thus they wouldn’t be able to do anything about the risk of physical assault from either their pimps or their clients.
As for the so-called “Nordic model”, which criminalises the purchasing of services from a sex worker, there are numerous testimonies from sex workers who say that it has done more to harm women in the sex trade than helping them. In turn, the Nordic model sounds more like the 18th Amendment, with idealistic intentions and poor results. If such a model were introduced in the UK, we’d only be taking a step backward, and all because most of this country’s politicians can’t talk about the sex industry in a frank and mature fashion. Yes, sex work has been known to be a dangerous profession under certain circumstances, but tighter criminalization of the trade will not do anything to help them, and will only make matters worse.