Last year, clicking through links from different blogs, I came across one called The Honest Courtesan, written under the nom de plume of Maggie McNeill. I've been reading it ever since; it makes a pleasantly interesting change from all the heated debate over parenting-related issues that is my more usual fare. Maggie is a former escort worker who blogs in favour of decriminalisation of prostitution.
I've never had a problem with the concept that prostitution should be legal; I've always found it far harder to see why it shouldn't be. I have never seen a voluntary exchange of sex for money as being something that should be the law's business (except insofar as any profession should be assured of good working conditions), and I'd like the portion of my taxes that's spent on law and order to be spent on clearing up things that actually do harm other people rather than wasted on arrests of/sanctions against people who weren't doing anyone any harm in the first place. So the idea of decriminalising prostitution (1) wasn't a new or startling one to me.
However, reading Maggie's blog, and some of the sites she links to, has been an education on the complexities of the subject. And an eclectic one. Maggie writes a lengthy post every day, nearly all of them on the topic of prostitution, and she approaches it from every angle imaginable. Current events, legalities, ethics, philosophy, personal experience (never written to be racy or titillating, but do be warned that she does get pretty frank and open about some of the details), history, and even the odd bit of prostitution-related fiction (and, no, it's never pornographic fiction). As you can imagine, I've learned a lot about the subject, and a lot about anti-prostitution arguments and some of their flaws.
So, a couple of years back, Maggie made a suggestion. For reasons explained here, she suggested making Friday the Thirteenth a day for speaking out in favour of decriminalisation of prostitution. I wasn't reading her blog then, and so I didn't see this until her follow-up post on May 13th of last year; as it happens, this is the first Friday the Thirteenth since then, and thus the first opportunity I've had to use this day to speak out on the subject.
While most happy to oblige, I wasn't sure where to start on dealing with the complexities of this subject and the many myths around it. As it happens, however, the perfect cue came up a couple of weeks ago; the subject of prostitution somehow came up in the middle of a blog debate about something utterly different, and one commenter summed the different positions up rather nicely:
What a certain sector of feminist thought argues is that sex work can be *chosen* and is a legitimate and potentially empowering choice for women. Those that disagree will often retort that no one would choose prostitution if other options were reasonably available and though they may not be “forced” at gun point they are “forced” by lack of access to education, poor support for addictive illnesses, shredded social safety nets, etc.
And so, for this Friday the Thirteenth, I want to reply to the position described in her second sentence.
First of all, there is an important factual error to note here: the claim that no-one would choose prostitution if other reasonable options were available. In fact, many women do precisely this. Last year, in Wales, researchers surveyed women in the non-streetwalker forms of prostitution (brothel work and escort work) to find out about their reasons for entering the world's oldest profession, and were surprised to find that – far from being forced into it by desperate circumstances – the majority of the women they spoke to had willingly left good careers in other areas to go into sex work. Similar findings were emerging from research done in the USA.
While many people will have a hard time believing those findings, the fact is that a career in the higher-end forms of prostitution has many benefits – it's very well paid, women can set their own hours, working conditions are often excellent (they may see their clients at luxury hotels, and at least one post on Maggie's blog is a review of the quality restaurants to which her clients took her before, or sometimes even instead of, getting down to the part of the evening more usually associated with the job), and there is no doubt that they're going to have a lot of satisfied clients. So, in fact, it isn't so surprising to find that there are women such as Maggie who genuinely enjoy their work in prostitution and who choose to stay in the job in spite of having other perfectly good options available to them. In fact, the biggest problems that many women face with the job are simply those thrown in their way by the restrictive laws around the profession that have been put into place in misguided attempts to help these women.
However, it is also, of course, quite true that many other prostitutes are only in the profession due to being forced into it by straitened circumstances – they don't like the idea of having sex with multiple strangers, but they need the money and either they have no other way of getting it or the other jobs available to them are worse. (2) And this fact is often used as an argument for trying to stamp out prostitution – that anti-prostitution laws are needed to help and protect those women forced into the profession. What this argument ignores, however, is that if someone has picked Option X as being the best available to them out of a limited selection of disliked options, all that removing Option X does is to leave them with the options that they've already concluded are even worse.
If a woman has decided that prostitution is the least unattractive option available to her at this time in her life, making it illegal is not going to change whatever life circumstances have led her to that decision. It may leave her with one of the choices that she has already decided to be more unsavoury to her (destitution, or working at a worse job); or it may leave her working as a prostitute anyway, with her lot made worse by the added burden of anti-prostitution laws. Either way, it is not going to help her. She does not need anti-prostitution laws set up in a misguided attempt to 'protect' her – she needs help and support coupled with an acknowledgement of the fact that, if she is an adult of sound mind, she is the person best placed to make decisions about her own life and that she should have the right to do so.
So, for the above reasons and many others: yes, I do agree that sex work can be freely chosen. I do agree that it is a legitimate choice. I do agree that it can be potentially empowering for women. And, while I recognise that there are large numbers involved in the industry who do not find it empowering and would not want to be in that job if they had a better option, I also recognise that making it illegal is not the answer to that problem. Today is my first Friday the Thirteenth of blogging for the rights of sex workers: I hope it won't be the last.
(1) There is, apparently, a technical issue of wording to be considered here: apparently legalisation is not the same as decriminalisation. Legalisation requires prostitution to be subject to whatever laws and licencing procedures the government may deem relevant, and governments, apparently, have an appalling track record on that score; their attempts to set up legal frameworks to control and regulate prostitutes have invariably led to laws that have done far more harm than good. Decriminalisation apparently means that you stop making it illegal without the requirement to throw in a bunch of totally unnecessary and problematic new laws. I am not a lawyer and don't play one on TV, so I do hope I got that distinction right. In any case, this is why decriminalisation is the term that Maggie uses and the one that I have used here, other than in the footnoted sentence describing my views prior to encountering her blog.
(2) I'm not, in this post, discussing the far more uncommon but far more tragic cases in which women are forced into prostitution in the more literal sense of being under threat of violence to themselves or their families if they don't comply, such as trafficked women. I think that people from all sides of the prostitution debate can agree that trafficking is a hideous crime that needs to remain illegal, regardless of what happens with prostitution laws. However, although making prostitution illegal is often advocated as a way of fighting sex trafficking, there is little evidence that it is of any help; meanwhile, anti-prostitution laws harm the women who are involved in the profession by choice.