The hoo-ha generated by Nick Davies’ Guardian article exposing the dodgy statistics deployed by the anti-prostitution feminists and their allies in the government which seems to have resulted in a huge waste of public money and police time spent scouring the country for ‘trafficked’ women, as detailed in my previous post, has at long last sparked off an overdue debate about the credibility of the government’s latest attempt to criminalise the clients of prostitutes who use the services of such women, even unknowingly.
Davies has another, even more powerful, Guardian piece demonstrating beyond a shadow of doubt that even if the government ministers, the Home Office, and the agencies involved touted these inflated figures around in good faith, they were irresponsible and reckless in the extreme in doing so. If, as seems increasingly likely, there has been a gross misuse of public funds prompted by a wild goose chase stoked up with phoney statistics plucked out of the air to fit an ideological agenda, it is a scandal which calls for an official enquiry and, if found proved, requires some resignations including ministerial ones.
Of course, where trafficking is concerned it is quite true that even one genuine case of a woman being forced into prostitution against her will is one case too many; and that the law and the police should do everything in their power to stamp out such abuse. But to use unsubstantiated allegations that there are many thousands of women working as ‘sex slaves’ in Britain as an excuse to toughen the laws against all prostitutes and their clients is an entirely different matter.
I appreciate the moral objections held by many people – not all of them religious – against prostitution, and also the sincere conviction of feminists that prostitution degrades women in a way which should not be permitted, even if the women themselves freely choose to be prostitutes. But I do not accept that in a democratic society anyone should be ‘forced to be free’ by doing something, or abstaining from doing something, which does not involve unwilling third parties.
That, to my mind, is the central moral issue over prostitution. It is about liberty; it is about choice; it is – however perverse this may seem to some – about human dignity.
To treat others with whose moral choices and personal behaviour you disagree as delinquents, unwilling clients, ‘victims’ requiring to be ‘rescued’, robs them of their dignity and is arrogantly presumptuous. In recent years there has been all too much of this condescending meddling in other peoples’ privacy, especially in matters of sexual behaviour. For a too short period in the 1960s and ‘70s it seemed as if over-rigid moralistic attitudes towards all sexual activity outside marriage, whether consenting or not, as sinful, disreputable, and sometimes illegal were becoming outmoded and that a new ethic of more tolerant understanding towards mutually desired relationships whether heterosexual or homosexual was evolving. Consenting sex, whether accompanied by love or not, was more frankly accepted as a fact of life. The author of the best-selling Joy of Sex, the respected biologist Dr Alex Comfort, viewed sex as one of the healthiest human sports, to be practised enthusiastically with a gourmet’s discrimination. The Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, Dr John Robinson, declared that the proper function of the law in society was not to prohibit but to protect, not to enforce morals but to safeguard persons, their privacies and freedoms.
While the aim of safeguarding the persons of prostitutes, and especially those who are unwillingly involved in the sex industry, is laudable, it should not be at the expense of their privacy and freedom. By all means let us put the maximum effort into tracing and rescuing women – and men – who have been compelled into sexual slavery; but it is not right to penalise those who have chosen to earn part or all of their living by providing sexual services, or those who avail themselves of those services on a mutually consenting basis.
Prostitution, like any other walk of life, covers a multitude of circumstances and personalities. The assumption that all prostitutes are sad, miserable, usually drug-ridden creatures is demonstrably false. Some are, no doubt. But there are also plenty of women – and men – who have freely chosen this life, and often not solely for its financial benefits. Some of them (horror of horrors!) actually enjoy sex, and are genuinely friendly with their clients. Not all prostitution even involves sexual activity: much of it is about alleviating loneliness. I have been told of one client who used to seek out the company of a sympathetic sex worker simply for an hour’s companionable chat and a cup of tea; no sex occurred, but when the client departed he left a £50 note on the mantelpiece and felt that he had received value for money. Admittedly this may not be typical or even frequent, but it does illustrate that the contention that all sex workers are being cruelly and cynically exploited doesn’t hold water. I agree with the Victorian bisexual literary critic John Addington Symonds who once wrote: “Good Lord! In what different orbits human souls can move. They talk of sex out of legal codes and blue books. I talk of it from human documents, myself, the people I have known, the adulterers and prostitutes of both sexes I have dealt with over bottles of wine and confidences.”
My approach to these issues is from the standpoint of humanity – of free choice, consent, privacy, and non-interference in personal lives by bossy social engineers. I suppose my philosophy would nowadays be labelled ‘Libertarian’, but that is a label which irks me because it marginalises what rightly used to be the mainstream attitude of a more tolerant, civilised society than today’s and relegates it to a fringe eccentricity. If that really is the 21st century British ethos, so much the worse for our society and our country.
I do not know what Harriet Harman, Fiona McTaggart, Julie Bindel or Denis MacShane do in their boudoirs or other places of assignation, who they do it with, or how they do it. So long as it is mutually consenting, it is none of my business: they can do it solitarily, in duos, in threesomes or in larger groups, in the bath, or hanging from the ceiling by their toes for all I care - it is a private matter. And personal privacy is the chief casualty in this incessant prurient snooping into other peoples’ consenting sex lives. Pierre Trudeau, sometime prime minister of Canada, once said that the State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. I agree with him. Mutually consenting sexual activity – whether for love or for payment, for both or for neither - is the individual citizen’s personal choice and private affair, and a basic human right.