Once upon a time there was a university lecturer who scribbled AND in the margins of his students’ essays. This stood for ‘Asserted not Demonstrated’ and was a sign of the importance he attached to structure argument supported by facts, in other words to intellectual rigour.
Last week Rhoda Grant MSP published the results of the consultation on her proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland. Her headline was that 80% of respondents were in favour of the proposal. The individual responses can be seen by visiting http://www.rhodagrant.org.uk . That is to say most of them can as a number of omissions have been identified. It has been claimed that these omissions are mainly submission opposing criminalisation. Notwithstanding this I had a look through and ;picked out what seemed a representative sample. My thoughts are that quantity and quality are not the same thing and that a certain long retired academic would be writing AND until his arm ached.
Leaving out the responses that just said ‘I agree’ and nothing more, most of the responses in favour did not engage seriously with the issues but simply asserted the assumptions on which Rhoda Grant’s case is based. There are three main assumptions:
Where prostitution exists there can be no gender equality.
The majority of prostitutes are coerced into undertaking sex work.
Sexual intercourse with a prostitute constitutes sexual assault. .
The first point does not make clear whether prostitution is a cause or a result of gender inequality. This is important since, if it is the latter, criminalising the purchase of sex can do nothing to promote equality. If the former it is surely only one cause of many and by no means the most significant, particularly given the relatively small percentage of the population that either provides or uses paid sexual services. Are there no more important battles to fight?
The second point is not supported by available evidence. Rhoda is not, however, interested in this as she has, as she said in her TV debate with Laura Lee, extended the definition of coercion to include all women who engage in sex work through economic necessity. The problem with this, of course, is that, on this logic, most workers in most jobs are coerced, including those, probably women, who clean her office at Holyrood. .She has rendered the word ‘coercion’ meaningless and, in doing so, done a great disservice to those who are genuinely coerced into sex work by blurring the definition of consent. There is no logic in arguing that a woman’s consent to sex is automatically invalidated because she receives an envelope full of cash before getting into bed. Sadly, logic is not Rhoda’s strong suit.
The third point follows from the second. We do not, therefore, need to say too much about it except to ;point to more muddled thinking. If you accept the second point you must logically accept that paid for sexual intercourse is not just analogous to rape, you have to accept that it is rape. Rhoda is not prepared to follow her own logic, since she seeks views on appropriate penalties. If you think it’s rape then why seek views? The punishment for rape is set down in statute already. Perhaps she is looking to follow the model of Sweden with its on the spot fines. But, as we have seen recently, Sweden is not a country where rape is taken seriously.
Pretty much all of the submissions in favour simply parroted the flawed assumptions and muddled thinking I have talked about here. I formed the impression that many respondents dislike sex work for moral reasons and, knowing nothing about it, have grabbed the ready made arguments provided for them. I am not clear why particular weight should be attached to what they say..
The submissions opposing criminalisation were generally longer and contained detailed argument. Many were clearly written by people with detailed first hand knowledge of the sex industry. The main arguments I saw were:
Academic research dies not support the claims made for the so-called Swedish model.
The United Nations is opposed to criminalisation mainly for reasons of public health.
It was argued brilliantly from a feminist perspective that, after decades of struggle to get the state out of our bedrooms, no feminist should support proposals that will result in the state again policing the sexual behaviour of women.
Last but not least there was the personal testimony of sex workers saying that it was their choice to work, that they enjoyed their jobs, that clients treated them with courtesy and respect, even that it was not unknown for regular clients to become friends.
These submissions are, it seems to me, worth far more than the unproven assertions of supporters of Rhoda Grant. They may only account for 20% of responses but surely contain 80% or more of the truth. Yet they are being ignored. Why?
None of the submissions I read addressed a point that I think is fundamental. My partners’s (missing) submission did pick this up. It is that both sex and payment elude easy definition and will result in bad law, law which may lead to function creep and rank injustice. What is the position, for example, of the professional dominatrix? Or the professional submissive?
Those opposed to sex work should also realise that they too can, indeed should, oppose Rhoda Grant’s ill thought out proposals, because they will not achieve their stated aims. If you want to see and end to sex work you have to address the question of how sex workers can earn their living. Many sex workers are mothers, often single mothers, and the victims of Rhoda Grant will ultimately be their children, unable to go on holiday, unable to go on the school trip, waiting in vain for a Christmas present. This question was put to her last week. She had no answer.
As so often when policy is based on unproven assertions, on abstract ideas untested in the real world, real people suffer. All too often these people are women. That a woman is behind this, appealing to feminist ideas as she does, is depressing. And I don’t need to demonstrate that do I?