For sex workers the world has over recent years become a more hostile and frightening place. In the UK and USA and many other countries sex work is already criminalised to varying degrees and there is growing pressure, especially in Europe, to criminalise clients, and to extend existing laws that already deny consent to sell sex. The justification is a manufactured fear about human trafficking and sexual slavery which reflects in its angst the early nineteenth century “white slave trade” hysteria which led to the enactment of many of the repressive sex laws that exist today. There is an excellent study on that hysteria and its consequences in the USA at reason.com “Sex Slaves And The Surveillance State.”
Like before, this modern reinvention is spearheaded by religionists, authoritarians, and so called feminists. Together this at first seemingly odd alliance have colluded in not only reinventing an age old moral panic about human sexuality but have provided a vehicle that reflects populist fears about migration of labour, foreigners, sexual liberty, and especially women’s sexual freedom and autonomy. These old fears have been reinvented to accommodate modern contexts of gender equality and to satisfy an audience of media and politicians who like to present themselves as caring, liberal and progressive. It is however a duplicitous use of modern language to justify a rush to create ever more severe laws to limit, especially women’s sexual autonomy. It is patriarchy reinvented for a modern audience and which manifests in a powerful and very lucrative rescue industry whose leaders even claim the mantle of “Wilberforce,” the famous campaigner against slavery. These claims display not only an arrogance, but illustrate how easily existing prejudice and stigma about sex work can be manipulated so that oppression can be sold to politicians and to the media as progressive social policy when in fact it is the reverse.
Behind most hysterias there is usually a truth lurking. In this case the modern anxiety about sex work and about “human trafficking,” reflects a genuine concern about the status of marginalised peoples, often migrant workers, often existing within illegal working environments. These are very real issues, passionately voiced by sex workers themselves alongside concerns about human rights abuses within existing sex work legislation, about labour rights, about social exclusion and about stigma. Politicians and real liberals and real progressives should have heard these voices and worked with sex workers to find ways to address these issues positively. Instead we have seen a so called rescue industry, funded by governments and religious bodies, evolve and use their substantial funding and powerful connections to agitate for further criminalisation, stigma, alienation, and exclusion of sex workers.
Women’s groups, notably the “European Women’s” have openly called for the elimination of sex work from Europe, effectively endorsing social cleansing. The ideals of human rights that once drove progressive social policy now lies in tatters as wealthy and influential NGOs call for ever more oppressive anti sex work legislation, most notably arguing that the denial of consent is a useful tool in “rescuing” prostituted woman.
We seem to have forgotten that as a democracy we are governed by consent. In becoming an adult we are taught the importance of consent, and that having our own consent recognised and respected is an essential reminder and marker of our autonomy, of adulthood, even of citizenship. Despite this, consent is a right legally denied to sex workers with dangerous consequences. Sex workers cannot consent to engage and work through a third party for safety, cannot consent to share a work space for safety and company, cannot engage a third party to organise travel or accommodation, cannot cross borders, cannot consent to exchange sex for money. The result is the forced isolation of sex workers making them easy targets for often brutal criminals who feel empowered by laws that isolate and deny sex workers the protection of the law, or even basic safety provisions. Because the majority of sex workers are women, recognition of the right to consent is especially emotive, not only for safety, but because it re establishes the historical context of women judged as second class citizens, inferior to men, and not worthy of rights.
The law justifies itself by arguing that the sex worker may be coerced and therefore not free to consent, or too afraid of her abusers to tell the truth of her sexual slavery. This justification conveniently allows for the punishment of all sex workers and relieves the state of the dull responsibility of proving coercion. Those in favour of denying the right of consent implicitly justify that belief by asserting that even if a sex worker is not coerced they may either be mentally ill or have been “raped” so often that they no longer know good behaviour from bad.
Laws controlling prostitution and the thinking behind them them assert the states power over the female body and reaffirm the inferiority of women within society. The fact that much of the new legislation is being forced by women is also nothing new. Reinventing patriarchy through modern notions of gender equality has simply reinforced the role of privileged women as arbitrators of other women’s sexual behaviour. Once again it is women who enforce patriarchy in order to protect their own status by enforcing through the brutality of law their ideals of normal, moral, good behaviour, which not surprisingly means controlling other women’s sexual behaviour.
Denial of consent to sex for sex workers, because they receive payment, is a powerful assertion of the states power over the bodies of all women. Women especially therefore should feel an obligation to protect the rights of sex workers, not because they agree with the choice to sell sex, but because by protecting sex workers rights they also defend their own sexual freedom.