An inherently exploitative dimension

The Guardian has a surprise:

This week, the French national assembly finally ended two years of wrangling and became the fifth European legislature to introduce a ban on buying sex. It is following the example set by Sweden in the late 1990s, and then by Norway and Iceland. In the UK, the Northern Ireland assembly banned it in June last year.

Many sex workers, admittedly, don’t want their clients criminalised. In France, backed by a commission of the senate, they vehemently protested that it would make their work more, rather than less, dangerous: it would reduce the number of punters, they say, and leave them facing greater competition, the more vulnerable because they would have less choice.

But reducing the number of punters is the goal, in order to reduce the number of women forced into and/or trapped in prostitution. The goal is not a large and growing market for access to women’s genitals.

If criminalisation drives prostitution back into the shadows, and leaves workers more exposed to harm than they were, then there might indeed be an argument to find a different battleground for the moral fight, and concentrate instead on minimising the harm suffered by the women who, for whatever reason, are offering sex for money.

The great difficulty, however, is that it leaves the sex industry intact. And in all paid-for sex there is, arguably, an inherently exploitative dimension. Even if there is nominally consent, in most cases, if not all, this will be a choice that women make out of desperation, rather than anything positive. The social and economic circumstances in which a woman sees sex work as the best available option represents, in itself, an environment of coercion. Criminalising not the women involved but their clients – particularly when, as in the French proposal, it is accompanied by a properly funded programme to help sex workers into more secure jobs – may be the least-bad answer, in both moral and practical terms.

Unless you look at the very few women who actively enjoy sex work and are delighted to be able to make a good living at it, and conclude that they represent a significant enough percentage of sex workers to base policy on them and not on the women who are coerced or trapped or both. But who would be that naïve?

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