The debate on sex work, particularly the debate in feminist circles is a minefield for te unwary, a place where ideology trumps reason and one which may be leading to the implementation of policies that are not supported by any serious evidence, and may be harmful to many vulnerable people, mainly women. Jeremy Corbyn merely said what most informed observers think, that the best way to protect sex workers from violence and exploitation is to decriminalise prostitution. This was a courageous step and one think for which he is now being pillories.
I don’t want to go into the detailed arguments again but just say that decriminalisation of sex work is advocated by such well-known pimping organisations as the World Health Organisation, by charities working to help vulnerable sex workers such as National Ugly Mugs, and by pretty much every serious academic expert on the subject (many of whom are women). I have read widely on the subject in the last three years and find the arguments against criminalisation of clients, against “End Demand” and against the so-called Nordic Model cogent and well supported by evidence. Many of these making them are either sex workers, women or feminists, frequently all three. Jeremy Corbyn is saying nothing remarkable, in fact he is taking a rational and considered position.
Yet he has stirred up a hornets nest with many senior Labour women (none of whom, to my knowledge, has any specialist knowledge of the area) rushing to condemn him and repeating the tired mantras about the pimping lobby, about the need to rescue “prostituted women” and so on. These women are remarkably intolerant of anyone daring to disagree with them. Caroline Flint, for example, has blocked on Twitter a number of sex workers who had the temerity to ask her to provide evidence to substantiate her claims. She even blocked National Ugly Mugs. This refusal of elected representatives to engage in discussion is rather depressing.
I accept that some people are trafficked into prostitution although there is no reason to believe that they are other than a small minority. I accept too that many sex workers may not particularly enjoy their work and would rather be doing something else. If they are to exit sex work , however, they will still need to earn a living and the crusaders have not provided much in the way of serious proposals for how they might do this. Criminalisation will actually make the plight of those who are trafficked worse. The Police Service of Northern Ireland opposed the bill to criminalise purchase of sex in the province precisely because it would divert resources away from the investigation of trafficking and because they know (which the likes of Harriet Harman seem not to) that sex workers and clients are often a valuable source of intelligence about trafficking victims.
Anyone who thinks that criminalisation will reduce trafficking has evidently not looked at the history of the criminalisation of drug use over the last 50 years, or indeed the story of the prohibition of alcohol in the United States between 1920 and 1934. The story of prostitution abolitionism bears certain similarities. As in the case of narcotics and alcohol, many of the advocates are genuinely high minded and idealistic people who have a genuine moral aversion to the things they are trying to ban. I do not doubt their sincerity. But if they are not stopped, they do will cause a lot of harm to a lot of vulnerable people.