A few weeks back I went to a debate on whether prostitution should be legalised at Conway Hall as part of a London Thinks event. I say debate, but it wasn’t really a debate as such; there was no clear motion, no clear structure and no vote before and after to ascertain outcome. A spectacle, yes. Entertaining, yes. Emotive, yes. But a debate, I’m not so sure about that. Nonetheless there were some really interesting points presented and opinions voiced.
The chair was a journalist that has a particular interest in marginalised sections of society. She was a petite, mixed race lady with an educated accent and a sharp matching suit. I remember in one particular quip she fired back, as a solitary man at the back had raised his hand to ask a question “And make it pithy”. Not particularly relevant you might think, but to me a word I have only really seen in highbrow books and articles. One does not see the word pithy in The Sun newspaper—not that I read The Sun of course.
It made me consider whether this kind of debate may have actually been a little elitist in a way. Organised by those who stand watching on the side-lines at the horrors evident in some parts of society, event mildly excited by the friction and the terror. After all, us human beings are curious about the absurd.
Others on stage included a dominatrix called Margaret Corvid, 2 women that had been prostituted into sex work and as such were against legalisation and 2 woman who believed that legalisation is the only way to empower women—this wasn’t going to be a smooth ride, but that’s why I was there and the atmosphere in the room had a chaotic, frantic buzz like the energetic energy that lingers in the air amidst a critical moment in a boxing round.
The introductions began and it became clear that this hour was going to be emotionally charged. One of the women who’d been prostituted into sex at an early age had a strong northern accent and I looked on in morbid horror as she bluntly told her story about how she had lost over 10 years of her life to getting high and being made to fuck men. This was in this country, England. Not some far away land with harrowing problems that you can ignore by over concerning yourself with the trivialities of day to day life, pretending it’s not really real. Understandably angry and hurt by the appalling way men treated her, the views she possessed were only just short of man hate.
Dominatrix Margaret Corvid, and I only remember her name because before each time she spoke, she would animatedly stand up and exclaim, in a rather fuzzy and slurred tone “Ladies and Gentleman my name is Margaret Corvid and I’m here today to tell you that….” and would continue on with whatever she wanted to say, with not too much thought put into making the words come out of her mouth make any sense. Margaret was dressed in a short black dress and a blazer with gladiator type heels, probably the only tell-tale sign she was into kinky shit. A member of the audience hollered out a question that everyone was thinking. “Why if you’re so happy doing what you do, do you feel the need to be high at an event like this?” Fortunately she didn’t hear, but everybody else did, including the rest of the panel—the tension grew.
One of the main arguments that prostitution should be legalised is that it gives women more rights, it means that the law protects them instead of penalises them. The Nordic model was also quoted many times, this system has been introduced in Sweden and means that prostitution has been completely criminalised, stripping women of agency and autonomy. According to studies this has pushed prostitution even further underground, increasing pimping and all the absurd abuses that are associated with the ‘oldest profession in the world’. What other industries is physical abuse and even murder a possibility?
Even the word prostitution has been neutralized through the use of the term ‘sex work’, as if it’s just like any other regular job. One of the ladies opposing legalisation said “it’s not sex it’s exploitation and it’s not work its oppression.” Alternatively, those for legalisation felt very strongly that a woman had a right to choose and that millions of women every day serve men’s needs without being paid—a sorry state of affairs it seems!
It was clear after all of this that there was a vast spectrum of prostitution being spoken about and there is not a blanket answer to this problem of men paying for sex and women being willing to serve this demand. Indeed is it even a problem at all if both parties are consenting? For some it is, and for others it’s not. In fact it is a matter of human rights that we have the freedom to make our own minds up about it. But is it really freedom to work in the sex industry or is at a choice after many other better choices, for one reason or another have been removed?
As such, this sort of never ending questioning doesn’t constitute action. For me, this is a deep social issue that pervades all of our social existence. It’s the sexualisation of women, it’s the abuse, the sexism, the patriarchal society we live in, the immense measure of power that men have, the millions of women at home suffering in silence preparing food, doing the dishes, taking care of the children—it’s a job, a full time job—yet even in today’s world a women’s labour is still not seen as equal to a man’s.
I was in awe of this environment. I was struck by the openness and honesty of the individuals in the room. It was amazing to hear that real women with big voices and big hearts cared about discussing these kinds of issues. The female condition, the second sex, inferior morally, mentally and physically to our male counterparts. How do we even begin to overcome these deeply embedded values within society? By facing them, by talking about them, by being the change you want to see in this world.
Open, honest, upfront, head on.
Oleksandr Kravchuk: Red-light district
Lei Han – Shanghai, prostitutes in back alleys