Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
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Whats Wrong with Adults Paying for Sex

This summer, Norway has quietly joined Sweden in outlawing paid sex. Men who have sex with prostitutes working in brothels or on the street face hefty fines or six months in gaol, while the women involved will be offered assistance to exit the industry. “We want to send a clear message to men that buying sex is unacceptable,” said the Norwegian Justice Minister, echoing the sentiments of Swedish detective Kajsa Wahlberg. “We don’t have a problem with prostitutes. We have a problem with men who buy sex.”

Sweden’s first attempts to move away from a liberal, harm-minimisation approach to prostitution began in 1997. Then, everyone laughed. No one is laughing now, with a number of EU countries having either adopted elements of the recriminalisation approach, or considering doing so in the future. Australia could be next. The “women-as-victim” paradigm on which recriminalisation is based is the brain-child of radical English feminist Sheila Jeffreys, now based in Melbourne, and is supported by conservative Christian groups like Women’s Forum Australia and the Australian Christian Lobby.

Prostitution and substance-abuse pose significant policy dilemmas for liberal democratic societies. This is because the foundational claim of such political cultures-that competent, rational citizens are entitled to make their own decisions, even if we think they are wrong-clash with the widely shared view that some choices are not just mistaken, but harmful for those involved and for society at large. Recriminalisation capitalises on this conundrum in two ways.

Firstly, by conflating things that should remain separate to make the problem seem larger, and the harms greater, than they are. Making paid, consensual sex in a legal brothel the same as sex slavery; the one-time use by a student of marijuana as no different to heroin addiction. Secondly, by manipulating our reflexive sympathy for the vulnerable into agreement that for some people, choice is a hazard, and so need not be defended. Instead, we just need to say, “no.”

I’m not convinced. Prohibitionist rhetoric and policy has a lousy track record, no matter how desperately radical feminists and conservative Christians join forces to convince us otherwise. Sure, it may work for some people in some cases, but the resistant rump are just forced underground, attracting both shame and stigma as they descend. Like it or not, substance use and paid sex will always be with us. Criminalising them just makes it harder for harm minimisation policies aimed at preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS and minimising the risk of violence to succeed.

Just as worrying is the harm caused to those that the new approach reinscribes as victims. The language is telling. Liberals speak of sex workers and drug users. Paternalists describe prostituted women and addicts-adults incapable of making good choices and so requiring legal rescue from their consequences.

Women, in particular should beware. Professor Jeffreys says the subjugation of the prostituted woman is a microcosm of all women’s domination by men. She faults straight sex, which she sees as the means by which men maintain power over women and perpetuate the patriarchy, which explains her belief that real feminists must be lesbians. What social re-jigs might be required to resist such subjugation is anyone’s guess, though I’m sure it will be for our own good.

And here lies the problem. Exploited people – women, drug-users – may deserve our pity, but they don’t deserve our trust. We need to empower people to make better choices, not deny them any chance to control their lives.

Publication History

Whats Wrong with Adults Paying for Sex, Sun-Herald (Sydney)
18 Jan 2009

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