I’m normally a fan of Laurie Penny’s writings about socialism and feminism, but I think she has a tendency to see only what’s on the surface when it comes to the debate about sex work between prohibitionist feminists and those who campaign for decriminalisation.
Her latest offering on the subject seems to fall into the same trap as Laurie attempts to find a “middle ground”.
Ms Penny’s thesis seems to be based on the idea that the sex workers’ rights movement is purely focussed on saying “Hey, it’s a free choice! Don’t tell us what not to do!” and casts the anti-sex work claim that all sex work is non-consensual sex as being a response to that. I’m not well enough researched on the history of the debate to say which came first, but my experience of it is rather the opposite – that sex workers’ rights campaigners want to focus on practical matters and only talk about choice as an attempt to refute the claims of the other side. When you look at the quotes from Finn MacKay (of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution) included in the article, it does seem as though “choice” is more central to the anti- position than to the sex workers’ rights side of the argument.
The theme that Laurie develops is that prostitution should be analysed on economic, not moral, grounds. But in making this claim, I find it hard to find very much evidence of background reading into the sex workers’ rights position. She claims that there was almost no opposition to the new laws “such as those that gave police greater powers to raid brothels and confiscate any earnings found on the premises”, because everyone focussed on Clause 14. But it seemed to me like everywhere I looked in the sex workers’ rights blogging there was discussion of the whole deal at some point as it was debated in Parliament! Similarly, there have certainly been discussions about the economic realities and necessities surrounding sex work on this side of the debate.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing, though, was that Ms Penny at no point discusses exactly why it is that sex workers, and sex workers’ rights activists, find it impossible to work with the prohibitionist side of the debate. Finn MacKay is quoted explaining why the prohibitionists won’t work with those who favour decriminalisation: “Equality for women is a farce in a society where it is considered normal for men to buy our bodies. We can’t be free while so many of us are literally for sale. As long as I believe prostitution is a form of violence against women, then how can I work alongside anyone who promotes it as a job like any other?” But no space is given for the voices who have reason to feel disgust at the Finn MacKays of this world. And a couple of the reasons why it is so hard to work with the prohibitionists are actually given right there in MacKay’s quote: as long as they cast sex work as “selling bodies” and women being “literally” for sale, debate is impossible because of the fundamental denial of agency involved; what’s more, by claiming she knows what is or isn’t violence against sex workers, she denies the very humanity and right to determine the meaning of one’s own experiences, to anyone involved in sex work. At no point in Ms Penny’s piece is this assumption undermined – not even from the quotations from sex workers’ rights activists at the “Women’s Question Time” event; inasmuch as it is debated at all it is only in the context of the simplistic “choice” debate that Laurie thinks is the end-all, beat-all of the way people approach the issue.
Ms Penny’s wish for people to stop shouting at each other long enough to have a revolution is all very well, but until the people shouting at sex workers acknowledge their humanity, there’s no way for sex workers to be a part of their revolution. This is the fundamental problem with the debate.