It’s been around as long as humanity itself, but let’s not go there. We don’t talk about it, and we certainly don’t engage with it – the only thing we consider worse than admitting to having paid for sex is admitting to being paid for it. Of the two – men paying for it or women selling it – it is the sellers who are most reviled.
We have fixed ideas of what sex work involves. Either it’s something glamorously Belle du Jour-ish, all swanning around five star hotels earning more cash per horizontal hour than the rest of us do in a vertical week, or it’s trafficked slaves, drugged and abused and held against their will in conditions so appalling we cannot bear to even think about it.
But what if in between these two extremes there’s a more mundane middle ground? For self employed prostitutes, it’s a job. It’s work. An academic at Loughborough University has just written a paper on how a new law in the North making it illegal to pay for sex is putting prostitutes at greater risk in an already high-risk job. France is about to do the same, in an attempt to follow the Swedish model where the buyer is the law-breaker rather than the seller.
The academic, Dr Jane Pitcher, interviewed 36 self employed prostitutes – female, male, and trans – to get a handle on their working life. She found that they all worked indoors, chose their own hours and clients, and set their own rates of pay. None had been coerced into the work, and many were registered as self-employed. They had good relationships with their clients. It was far from the glamour / misery dichotomy – or as a placard at a recent French rally put it: “Sex work is work.”
But because it’s so utterly let’s-not-go-there, we cannot accept sex work as work. It’s just too murky. We associate it with addiction and murder and trafficking and disease. And this means that when things do go wrong – which of course they do, given that sex and money are involved – prostitutes don’t really feel able to report anything to the authorities. Further criminalisation, in a well-meaning attempt to curtail trafficking, will make sex work for non-trafficked workers even more difficult, even more covert.
So what should be done? This is the tricky bit. The obvious solution is to decriminalise all sex work, making it safer, more regulated, and not driven underground. It’s not like prostitution is ever going to go away, or it would have gone by now. People will always want to buy and sell sex, and prohibition creates crime, instead of preventing it. For women, it creates unsafe working environments.
But as a society, are we ready to suspend our value judgements for this line of work and just view it as another form of self-employment, where workers need some form of legislative protection rather than patchy criminalisation? Oh crikey. Let’s not go there.