With Amnesty International publishing a resolution on 11 August 2015 against laws that criminalise the activities of sex workers, it seems the legal status of sex work is in dispute once again.
Despite Amnesty’s careful consultation process, many feminists have been quick to deride the resolution, with some (Bindel, for example) even suggesting it is a pimp-lobby success.
Even were sex workers given adequate space for their views to be heard (they're not – further, there is strong evidence that decriminalisation has worked very well in New Zealand, a fact seemingly widely ignored by those opposed to decriminalisation), it seems that the views – or gains – of the pimps and johns (contested terms, yes, but I’ll use them because they represent the worst case) are not especially relevant in this discussion.
My argument: Decriminalising sex workers but not johns is an insufficient policy for improving the lives of sex workers to the extent they deserve. Even if pimps and johns benefit in ways we agree are morally repugnant (I don’t, but let’s stay with it), this would still be true.
Here are some things that all of us who live in the legal economy can do that sex workers have a much harder time with: finding a place to live, remaining there (sex workers often face eviction if they're discovered), being successful in a rental application in a secure area, renting a place to do business in a secure area, applying for a loan or rental, getting medical insurance (or any type of insurance) and finding other sorts of employment that cover any of the above when they can be had.
Access to these things is of benefit to a great many people who would feel naked and anxious were they ever to experience such insecurity – and some seem to think that these goods should only be gained through socially approved forms of work. Maybe it’s because I’m a socialist (sorta), but it feels really obvious to me that we should be striving to give these benefits to people whatever sort of thing they do.
Everybody opposed wants to talk about the johns, but the problem isn’t the johns, it’s economic insecurity. It’s inequality. It’s scarcity. It’s poverty and mortality. And very often lust. As Foucalt understood, these things are seldom disconnected for anyone. That’s why rich men buy sports cars and why women are impressed with them. Yes, there is rampant exploitation in the sex industry, but the industry is just the carrot: the stick is want.
You can’t make the sex industry go away by banning the carrot – you have to take away the stick. We all run from that stick. To stop people being exploitable, you have to give them security. Someone with healthcare, housing, enough to eat and leisure to participate in public life isn’t very exploitable. (And, if someone chooses to do sex work from that position, it really does seem obvious (to me anyway) that that’s just a choice they’ve made (for certain meanings of the word choice). Who then has a right to control that?)
But whatever – I’m a dreamer and this is capitalism. At some point you have to deal with reality. People are exploitable. If we won’t clean up that mess, it seems intensely cruel to pursue a social code that makes people’s lives more distressing. Is that a compassionate society? No.
And one thing that people do to survive, or prosper, in capitalism is start a business. It seems impossible to me that one could run a business in the formal economy (with all the benefits of participation noted above) where one’s clients are criminalised. The importance of this is something too many on the left disdain and this economic right is not a trivial one – business partnerships and ownerships are key tools people use to make enough money.
Sex workers are just people. Like all other people, they deserve these things. But they can’t have them if the johns are criminalised because the having of so many of these things depends on being part of the formal economy.
So a policy of criminalisation can’t be good enough, whatever else we have to accept. How about we spend more money on helping make things safer instead of on policing? Safety being a good, perhaps some won’t feel the want so hard.