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PROSTITUTION is at the heart of women’s oppression. The commercial sex trade is both cause and consequence of men’s greater economic, political and legal status — although it is absurd to refer to “sex” in the case of the sex trade when desire is not mutual and only money is the facilitator.
At the junction of patriarchy and capitalism the forces sustaining the global prostitution industry interlock, preying, as Pala Molisa says: “On women already marginalised by class and race … [feeding] off the despair, poverty and hopelessness that global capitalism is producing and that afflicts the lives of young people, especially indigenous women and people of colour.”
Prostitution’s underlying assumption is of men’s entitlement to demand sexual access, but is this an unquestionable right?
As Jeremy Seabrook writes: “‘Demand’ takes precedence in the seemingly neutral equation of supply and demand; demand is imperious and dominant; supply, submissively responsive.”
Those who condone prostitution effectively tell others it is acceptable to purchase women’s bodies, licensing a sexist, predatory masculinity.
They appear to have no problem with prostituted people being consigned to what Naomi Klein terms “sacrifice zones” — subsections of humanity accorded no value other than the profit extracted from them.
For socialists this should be anathema, yet the specious categorisation of prostitution as “work” has gained traction on the left.
Basic socialist tenets — such as that people are not things and should not be used instrumentally — align with the feminist principle that women are not objects, they are not for sale and do not exist for men’s use.
Belief that exploitation and oppression are not inevitable, coupled with an analysis of gender roles as social constructs, means prostitution is no more ineradicable than other entrenched wrongs.
Anti-prostitution campaigners — some within the Labour Party — advocate the Nordic Model’s threefold approach: decriminalising prostituted people, supporting those wishing to exit and criminalising demand for paid sexual access.
Aware of prostitution’s harm within a spectrum of misogynist abuse, they focus “on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able to flourish and expand.”
Prostitution is inextricably intertwined with trafficking. SPACE International likens discussing sex trafficking without seeing how demand for prostitution drives it to “talking about slavery without mentioning the plantations.”
The Coalition Against Trafficking In Women says: “Cultural acceptance and normalisation of commercial sexual exploitation fuels the cycle of violence against women.”
The prostitution lobby is now seeking to expand the British market, using euphemisms like “sex work,” “sex industry” and “client” to sanitise prostitution.
Prostitution proponents engage in a kind of grooming, encouraging us to shut down conscience and empathy. The left should ask: who benefits? This should be axiomatic for activists who consider ethical treatment of others a cornerstone of their work.
Anti-Trident campaigners have mooted alternative employment for workers if Trident is not renewed — why not extend that to prostituted people?
The left has a distance to travel in taking on board feminist challenges to male supremacy. The transformed world envisaged by left-wing movements, where oppressive hierarchies of gender, racism and class are ended, is inconceivable without the abolition of prostitution.
Labour’s slogan “No-one and no community will be left behind” would be empty and pro-equality programmes rendered meaningless.
Can education focusing on “sexual health, healthy relationships and consent” succeed if kids know that men have state-sanctioned entitlement to (predominantly) women’s bodies?
In the better society we’d like to see, would men continue to have this right, making a mockery of women and girls’ right to equality and safety?
Positing use of prostitutes as a private matter is wrong-headed — transactions involving third-party profiteering can hardly be described as private, and only from a male punter’s perspective can be seen as such.
Individual lives, shaped by socioeconomic forces, are constructed to serve vested interests.
Legal changes regarding domestic violence and spousal rape acknowledge this, but politicians who have not caught up with the fact that this applies to prostitution too reveal their antediluvian bias by speaking from punters’ point of view.
Marge Piercy’s poetry comes to mind when prostitution is described as work. “The pitcher cries for water to carry/ and a person for work that is real,” she wrote.
But perhaps it is the logical extension of the purchase of labour, albeit not only people’s time and energy but their flesh, vagina, breasts, anus, mouth, whole bodies bought to be mauled and penetrated by endless strangers.
Just another job in an economy where low pay, slashed welfare, debt and global trafficking ensure supply of streams of bodies — venal, unregulated neoliberalism at its brutal extreme, callous in its unfettered greed, with training provided through childhood abuse. Suppose this is work? Would that make it OK?
What constitutes “real work,” with the satisfaction of socially useful, properly remunerated fulfilment of our potential? The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, endorsed by the International Labour Organisation, call for decent safe work for women.
The secretary-general’s Leave Noone Behind report defines decent work as “productive … conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.”
As prostitution in Britain is mostly controlled by organised crime — criminal gangs not being known for providing ideal working environments — prostitution clearly meets no such criteria.
With decriminalisation, gangs’ control increases under a legal veneer. The purchase of a human being’s depersonalised body for sexual use, power, control and contempt is an expression of contempt.
To understand the consequences of legalising this objectification, look no further than the horror of Germany’s brothels. Anyone seduced by industry lobbyists should educate themselves about this hellish scenario.
Isn’t it the left’s duty to demarcate types of employment, distinguishing the legitimate from the unacceptable? Labour movements and unions have a responsibility to protect people from the untrammelled ravages of the market, not just mitigate it, but say: “No, enough! You cannot use people this way.”
Labour promises to be interventionist when in power; this must include the prostitution industry, where, if decriminalisation prevails market forces can continue rampaging unhindered by ethics.
Wasted human potential is one reason for opposing grammar schools — rejecting selection and notions that children are destined for preordained places in the social hierarchy, a clearly unjust, immoral ideology. Yet similar logic is not applied to tolerance of prostitution, which writes off swathes of people, primarily women.
Why are they seen as fit for nothing more than use for men’s gratification? Is this not also an inhuman, rightwing and reprehensible waste?
Leftwingers should be as outraged by women’s subjugation as they are about corporate capitalism’s treatment of workers, but often seem as laissez-faire and indifferent as bosses are to employees, colonisers to the dispossessed, racists to refugees. They continue to lose credibility if they are not seen to be able or willing to join the dots.
- Frankie Green is a member of Nordic Model Now.
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