No preconceived views

Catherine Bennett on Keith Vaz and that home affairs select committee report:

The first fact mentioned in the new report on prostitution by the home affairs select committee is that “around 11% of British men aged 16–74 have paid for sex on at least one occasion”. The home affairs select committee is composed of eight men and three women. Given the men’s ages, their resources and arguably enhanced opportunities, as MPs, to conclude such transactions, maybe it is not so remarkable that at least one of the parliamentarians deciding on the future legality of prostitution may also have been a sex buyer.

It’s more surprising, really, that no one on the committee, principally its chairman, Keith Vaz, seems to have questioned whether, with that level of gender imbalance, it was the ideal investigator of the overwhelmingly gendered issue of prostitution. During its second hearing, an entirely male committee would question two women, both former sex workers. Vaz assured witnesses that he approached the hearings with no “preconceived views”, as required. “After we have completed our inquiry, parliament probably will not look at this again for many years.”

No preconceived views…except of course the view that men are entitled to buy access to women. But what relevance could that view possibly have to an inquiry on prostitution?

For his supporters, of course, none of this, any more than his alleged unsafe sex or companions’ use of cocaine (and poppers), has a bearing on the Vaz prostitution report. We would not, Peter Tatchell argued, “demand that MPs who drink and smoke declare an interest when they discuss legislation affecting the alcohol and cigarette industries”.

So Peter Tatchell thinks that prostitutes are commodities just the way alcohol and cigarettes are.

I’m sure he would say he didn’t, if you asked him, but that certainly is the implication of that silly argument.

Long before leading the inquiry, he advertised, in a 2009 debate, his opposition to interfering with paying sexual transactions. To be fair, a tender concern for prostitutes, or fallen women as they used to be known, is something of a parliamentary tradition, dating at least back to Gladstone. “Ministers have used the phrase, ‘Let us tackle the demand for sex,’” Vaz objected. “We cannot just say to people, ‘Do not have sex’, or, ‘Do not have sex in these circumstances’; governments should not be involved, in my view, in making such statements.”

Presumably this very clear position changed at some point before he assumed command of a government inquiry set up to, among other things, examine the “demand which drives commercial sexual exploitation”. Anyway, full disclosure: I was recently a member of a commission that supported the introduction in Britain of “Nordic model” legislation that aims, precisely in the way once unacceptable to Vaz, to reduce demand for prostitution by penalising the buyers and not, as now, the sellers of sex. Introduced in Sweden in 1999, and now enacted, with variations, in four more countries, including France, the legislation proceeds from the principle, endorsed by the European parliament and many women’s organisations (and opposed by an equally vehement lobby), that prostitution amounts to acutely gendered exploitation, with horrifying costs to the many of the women and girls whose bodies are thus commodified.

To take just one figure that emerged in the Vaz hearings, when assistant chief constable Nikki Holland wanted to illustrate prostituted women’s vulnerability: “We have had 153 murders since 1990, which is probably the highest group of murders in any one category, so that gives the police cause for concern.”

But murders, such as those of five women in Ipswich, and a recent homicide in Leeds, did not appear to worry Mr Vaz overmuch.

Because it’s not his problem, is it. He’s not a worker, he’s a buyer. He’s not motivated to protect the workers, he’s motivated to protect the buyers.

If Vaz’s interim report is not dismissed as fatally compromised, family guy now buys sex with the official blessing of the home affairs committee. Sceptical of most research, it is airy about trafficking, artful in describing rights-based arguments as quaintly “moral” and wilfully obtuse about the power imbalance between sex buyers and sellers. In what, on the evidence of his hearings, may well be the authentic voice of Vaz, it denies any connection between sexual exploitation and “prostitution between consenting adults”. Maybe that’s his way of declaring an interest.

Listen to the sex buyers.

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