Friday, 15 December 2006

By any other name

The appalling events around Ipswich have inspired many thousands of words of media comment, much of it trite, prurient or fatuous. One piece I saw, by a female journalist who is usually fairly level-headed, was headed “Decriminalisation is the only way to safety” a pronouncement which apparently refers to the Green Party’s policy on prostitution.

Selling sex for money is not, of course, illegal in the UK (there is a useful summary here of laws throughout the EU), so it is presumably the ancillary activities such as advertising it, joining together in a co-operative, soliciting and perhaps pimping and brothel-keeping which they think should be legalised. To make her own version of the proposal absolutely clear, the journalist went on to say “we should stop regarding sex work as having any sort of stigma… It should be a job choice like any other…”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with prostitution, we just have to tidy it up a bit, amend our attitude and regard it as something perfectly acceptable, and all will be O.K.

Exactly how this will work is not spelt out, and perhaps the Green policy-makers cannot see that a legal, properly regulated trade in prostitution, with every kind of protection afforded both to free-lance workers and employees—Health and Safety and employment rules properly enforced (minimum wages, contracts, pensions and so on), and the Inland Revenue keeping a watchful eye on tax evasion—would be a multi-billion pound industry. It would from the start attract the attention of our top entrepreneurs, not only as employers but in providing all the services needed, such as training, careers advice in schools, selection (head-hunting at universities) and the establishment of professional standards and qualifications. And, of course, marketing: Richard Branson would have a head start here with his already widely-known brand name.

Male prostitution, I suppose, might still remain a cottage industry.

All this, of course, is lunacy. The article prompted a sensible reply from someone who has seen what happens in places where there is legalised prostitution, and knows that it singularly fails to achieve what its proponents imagine. But it would not be fair to think of them as merely simple-minded: if you have a naive idea of what the trade is like, then the daffy notion that prostitution could become “a job choice like any other” arises naturally from adopting the term “sex worker”. It was George Orwell who first showed the extent to which attitudes can be moulded and ideas changed simply by controlling the words used to describe something: you don’t change the thing, but Newspeak makes you regard it quite differently.

I wrote about this phenomenon in the context of prostitution a couple of years ago in a post called Opinion poll; this was a feeble and jokey piece mainly concerned with Sainsbury’s check-out girls, but somehow it evoked some lively comments from women writers, one of whom provided a fascinating magisterial survey of terms for prostitutes in their social context through the ages (whores, courtesans and so on). I contributed enthusiastically for a while but we got side-tracked into talking about death, putrefaction, the Dewey Decimal system and other irrelevancies, and then a soi-disant dyke from Prescott, AZ, joined in and I felt that the discussion had wandered off the point and it was time to end it.

See here for a fair comment (from another female journalist) on what the trade is really like and why the idea of de-stigmatising it is daft.

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