I’ve cut my introductory paragraph because it was a necessary yawn-fest. Re-reading this now, in the cold light of having had several proper nights sleep and a sensible break, I can think of approximately seven thousand things I should have said, and seven thousand more that I should have said better. This response is quite personal and idiosyncratic – I contributed to an official response in a different context, and witnessed the creation of several further badass official responses, and all of those were necessarily more measured, so I felt that those bases had been covered by people with exponentially more knowledge than me, and that the best thing I could do would be to take a different approach. Which is what this is.
Your consultation document has a section on terminology that could perhaps be generously described as postmodern, in the sense that it appears to be structured mainly by absences. For instance, ‘terminology’ fails to define either of the two words that are used incessantly throughout your text – namely, ‘exploitation’, and ‘demand’. (More on both of those later; I’m merely pointing out a rather striking gap at this stage.) One word you do discuss (thanks for that) is ‘prostitute’. Here’s a reminder of what you said:
“… Many words can be derogatory, some describe what is believed to be a chosen profession, and others promote stereotypical ideas. Throughout this consultation the word prostitute will be used to designate a person who is exploited sexually while recognising that a minority of individuals state that they have chosen to be a prostitute.”
There are a couple of items I’d like to unpick in this paragraph. “Many words can be derogatory”. Yes – ‘prostitute’ is widely considered to be one such word, but do go on. “ … and others promote stereotypical ideas”. Goodness, well, I’m a little surprised you’re opposed to that, given that you’re pushing forward a piece of legislation that has been described by one academic as “based on […] sexist and paternalistic notions”, but that’s not yet my main point either. I’m very interested in your phrase, “describe what is believed to be a chosen profession”. This is written in the passive, rather than active voice, so we’re left in the dark about who is doing this ‘describing’. Could it, perhaps, be sex workers? Naming our own experiences? Did you consider that detail unimportant?
Your use of the passive voice here allows you to avoid the question of who is doing the describing – in such a way as to erase sex workers voices (we’re not describing ourselves thusly, oh no – an anonymous third party is doing so) – which rather neatly encapsulates your view of sex workers as objects to be acted upon (“saved”, maybe), instead of agents acting in our own lives, does it not? Apparently other people describe us. We might wonder where we were when this was occurring. Additionally, the passive voice here (plenty of active first person elsewhere, I notice – “I believe”, you firmly tell us at the start of paragraph 11) enables you to cast doubt on our ability to name our own experiences – without having to acknowledge this rather … impolite – disbelief as your own.
Let’s look more closely at what I mean by impolite disbelief. “What is believed to be”. I’ve already explained why the question of who believes so is quite important, at least for those of us who like to be seen as agents not objects (that would be: all of us). But why not “some describe what is a chosen profession”? After all, you quickly go on to describe these most brazen hussies as “a minority” (as ever, more on this to come), so you do seem to believe we exist (very kind). Are we not the experts on our own lives because of … false consciousness? Some kind of weird cosmic error? Are other women who live in compromise under “gender inequality” (so much more 21st century than ‘patriarchy’, I agree) – for instance, my married or make-up wearing sisters – are they also to be patronised in this manner? “…‘Happy marriage’ describes what some believe to be a chosen state”. Hm.
You do it again, of course, in the same paragraph. “… a minority of individuals state that they have chosen to be a prostitute.” Let’s try some other examples. ‘A minority of men state that they have experienced sexual harassment.’ ‘A minority of men have experienced sexual harassment’. Do you see the difference? Maybe when discussing a choice between the steak and the risotto, these nuances could pass unnoticed into the abyss. When discussing something as delicate as other people’s capacity to speak meaningfully of their own marginalised experiences, it might behove you to at least pretend to try to be polite, or risk looking needlessly inflammatory. Not the best bedrock for policy, eh?
The choice between the steak and the risotto brings me onto a further, er, quibble with your language. “A chosen profession”. Let me tell you about ‘choice’. I graduated into a recession; most of my cohort were either unemployed (a fairly horrible state these days; endless stupid hoops to jump through to prove you’re ‘looking’ for jobs which don’t exist), or being ground down in bars and cafes and pubs, being tired and – ooh, your favourite word – kind of exploited, actually. I’ve waitressed; I’ve worked in bars, and I’ve made coffee in fancypants supposedly-ethical artisan stores (living wage? Yeah right). Bar work was the only one which made me even nearly enough money to live on, but I got pretty sick of it because of that one time I was sexually assaulted by my manager. So when I graduated, and was faced with a ‘choice’ between two different jobs in the service industry, both of which were not prestigious, both of which came with a medium-high risk of sexual assault, neither of which were presented in a parcel labelled ‘Dream Job’ – when presented with that ‘choice’, I ‘choose’ the option with the higher hourly wage, which is how I ended up being a sex worker instead of doing bar work.
When you say “choice”, you’re either ignorant of the fact that people make the best ‘choice’ they can with the options they have, or you imagine that we all had a ‘choice’ to be, oooh, President of Harvard Law School, but we turned it down just so we could ruin your statistics by turning up in the hooker census, all mouthy with opinions you don’t like or want to hear. There’s not the clear bright line that you seem to imagine between those who ‘chose’ this and those who ‘didn’t’, because beyond the most appalling cases of coercion (c.f, the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers), ‘choice’ only ever means “these are all non-ideal, but what’s my best option?” Some people have fewer options. Migrants whose immigration status is in limbo are denied the right to either work, or to receive benefits. Where do you think this policy of forced destitution leaves people? Since you profess to be so concerned about those who are denied a ‘choice’, why not legislate in such a way as to offer migrants in limbo another choice to add to their current options of a) homelessness or b) working illegally? I shouldn’t need to spell out to you, of course, what working illegally does to one’s chances of being – that word again – exploited. Continue reading