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Prostitution need not be tolerated

22 March 2013

Growing sexualisation strengthens calls for an end to selling sex, argues Susan Dowell


MANY people, including some Christians, see prostitution as an inevitable presence in our society: they think it would be a waste of time to try to eradicate it. But I do not believe that we should tolerate this degrading trade any longer. I want to argue against those who maintain that it is a freely chosen profession that empowers women.

"Remove prostitution from human affairs, and you will unsettle everything because of lust," wrote Augustine in the fourth century. Some eight centuries later, Thomas Aquinas compared prostitution to "the sewage system in the palace. Do away with it, and the palace will become a place of filth and stink."

It comes as a surprise to most people to find the church Fathers advocating the tolerance of prostitution. But the debate about the place of prostitution in civilised society (and I can find no example of a society or religious culture that did not see itself as civilised) is as old as the "profession" itself.

That the case for its accommodation has prevailed is evident from history and from what we see in the world around us. But this prevalence cannot, of itself, stand as evidence of the wisdom or desirability of what has prevailed, any more than victory in war proves the righteousness of the winning side.

This age-old debate has intensified in the past decade. Although mainly argued from a secular perspective, it is striking how the case for accommodating prostitution continues to rest on the arguments quoted above: the requirements of public order (Aquinas), alongside those deriving from human nature itself (Augustine).

THE Augustinian argument continues to hold, but in a way that that has required those who hold it to take regard of a range of cultural changes in the way that Western culture has shifted in its perceptions of male and female nature over the following 16 centuries.

When St Augustine spoke of lust, we can be certain that he was referring to male lust. It was not until the 19th century that it became permissible for respectable women to admit to having drives such as lust, and not until the early 20th century that they felt entitled to pursue them.

This sense of entitlement must have been shocking to our Victorian and Edwardian forebears. But it quickly proved to be unstoppable, because it fed into, and was fed by, a wider social movement that demanded women's equal participation in all aspects of life, private and public.

One consequence of this change was that the silence that had surrounded sexual matters gave way to more honest discussion. The current debate about the "inevitability" or otherwise of prostitution is thus largely conducted by and between women, many of whom define themselves as feminist.

Here, too, the prevailing consensus continues to be that "the sex industry cannot be wished away," as Tanya Gold, writing in The Guardian (18 April 2012), put it. So the efforts of all responsible people should be directed towards ensuring that it is conducted with due regard for the well-being of the women involved.

It is hard to argue with the latter part of this proposition, and I am inspired by the front-line ministries, mainly comprising women, including women in religious orders, which operate every night to keep our streets as safe as they can be for the women working there.

But the case for accommodating prostitution, as presently put, is based on suppositions that I wish to question, beginning with the frequently iterated assertion that there are women who freely choose this way of life; and that the trade today does in fact cater for women's "lust". Again, one cannot entirely disregard this claim. History and literature abound with stories of "happy hookers". 

"SEX workers" is the preferred term today - one that is insisted on by groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, set up in 1975, which operates in much the same way as a trade union, by fighting for better working conditions. If some defiant tweets are anything to go by, it offers a high level of job satisfaction to the service-provider. I came across this example recently: "Guess what? I am a feminist and a prostitute, I peddle sex. . . I enjoy it. Get over it."

I would have no problem getting over it, were I convinced that the writer represented a significant number of her sisters. Exact statistics are hard to come by, but the material available suggests that an overwhelming majority of them are drawn into prostitution for a host of reasons that have little to do with job-satisfaction, or with lust.

At one end of the spectrum are those forced or duped into the trade, as in the phenomenon of sex-trafficking, where young women from Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere are recruited into prostitution by empty promises of legitimate work. A friend who works with the Eaves' Poppy Project, a network devoted to the plight of trafficked women, tells me many are given heroin, in order to inculcate a dependency, which serves to render them ever more reliant on the not-so-tender mercies of their "protectors", or pimps.

The same applies to those British-born women who drift into prostitution. Here, too, feeding a drug habit, combined in many cases with having to feed their children after abandonment by a partner, leads them to take what most envisage as a temporary solution to their economic difficulties.

I find it difficult to square this depressing picture with the image of a modern, autonomous woman exercising her "right to choose" her lifestyle.

THANKFULLY, I am not alone in this. The commentator Julie Bindel, a supporter of the Eaves' Poppy Project and the person to whom the "Get over it" tweet was addressed, is one of an increasing number of feminists who argue that prostitution should be primarily seen as both "a cause and consequence of women's inequality" (The Guardian, 2 March 2012).

The Church Fathers would have had no quarrel with this statement. Believing, as they did, that women's inequality was a God-given fact of life, the cause and consequences of that inequality were not something that they felt called to address. In this context, prostitution was viewed solely in terms of its effects on men, and the well-being of a male-ordered society.

But our society no longer takes this to be a fact of life - still less one divinely ordained. There are, of course, Christians who believe in male headship, and many more who believe that women and men are equal but different, with complementary roles, but I know of none who would endorse a laissez-faire attitude to prostitution on such grounds.

Modern feminism, on the other hand, was founded on a wholesale rejection of gender inequality. It also obliges us to address the economic realities of the sex-trade itself, which continues to be predominately run by men for men, for male lust.

THIS judgement is endorsed by Natasha Walter in her investigation into the sex industry, Living Dolls: The return of sexism (Virago, 2010). Walter shows in chilling detail how the once-healthy openness about sexuality has been overtaken by a "hyper-sexualised culture", in which young women in particular are persuaded to compete in this male-run market.

This leads me to wonder how far we have come since St Augustine's time. Not far enough; but further than we might have done without the efforts of those who know full well that, as St Augustine put it, "removing prostitution from human affairs" would indeed "unsettle everything", but are still prepared to do just that.

One such was Josephine Butler, who is honoured in the Anglican Church calendar as a "social reformer" for her successful campaign to overturn the infamous Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s. Butler did more than campaign on behalf of street women; she befriended and loved them, taking them into her home when they were destitute and dying. Every phrase among the many she wrote about these women's lives is imbued with a profound respect for their dignity.

Like many of her modern counterparts - including those working in the front-line ministries that I mentioned earlier, but unlike most impartial commentators today - she envisaged a radical transformation, if not total eradication, of the trade.

This is a risky position to take in a world where labels such as "meddling" and "do-gooder" continue to be applied to radical reformers, particularly those whose campaigns are concerned with sexual justice. But, as Christians and others down the ages have attested, there is nothing inherently inconsistent in meeting people where they are, while at the same time working and praying for a world in which they could be somewhere better.

It is a risk worth taking when we think of the rising levels of violence and degradation inflicted on women across the world. 

THE underlying question that we all - governments and individuals - need to address today is just what can and should be required of men. The Swedish government recently brought in laws that criminalise the purchase, but not the sale, of sex. It is too early to tell how effective this new legislation will prove, but there are signs of hope.

Contrast this with the situation in the Netherlands, where prostitution was fully legalised in 2000. Here, violence against street workers has risen dramatically, along with drug-dealing, sex-trafficking, and the grooming of young girls. The experiment has been an unmitigated disaster. The Dutch government has been pressured by protesting citizens to acknowledge this publicly, and the legalisation will almost certainly be repealed.

"Can there ever be such a thing as an OK sex industry"? was the question posed by the journalist Decca Aitkenhead (The Guardian, 15 October 2012) to Kat Barnard, one of the rising generation of feminist activists. Barnard's answer - a resounding "No" - would be echoed by many more people today than would have been the case ten to 20 years ago, as the effects of increasing sexualisation of our culture have become apparent.

I agree that commercialised sex does not have to be embedded in our society: it is not an inevitable aspect of life. We should not deny anyone the possibility of change, and we should all work for the radical transformation of the sex industry.

Susan Dowell is the author of Country Matters (Jubilee Group, 2001), and the co-author of Dispossessed Daughters of Eve: Faith and feminism (SPCK, 1987).

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