It is nearly three years since I stumbled on the debates about sex work and its legal status and following the arguments about Rhoda Grant’s attempt to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland was certainly an education. This was particularly true of reading the cogent, well informed responses to the consultation by opponents of the proposal. Two and a half years on two responses have stuck in my mind. One was from a Scottish professional dominatrix who lives and works in England who raised the issue of the grey area legally that her work inhabits and pointing out what being unable to session with her might mean for many of her clients. The question of whether professional domination is sex work for the purposes of any legal definition is, as far as I am aware, still unanswered, The second response came from a Glasgow based feminist collective and argued that after the advances in sexual freedom over several decades which had largely removed the state from our bedrooms such a law would be thoroughly regressive.
Rhoda Grant failed in her attempt. Across the water in Northern Ireland Lord Morrow succeeded and, 21 and a half hours ago as I write, the policeman re-entered the bedrooms of those of the province’s women who make all or part of their living selling sex. To be fair to the police they didn’t want this and made a well argued submission to the consultation saying that they didn’t see it as their role to police sexual activity that they had no reason to believe was not consensual in the vast majority of cases, and that they considered that attempting to police such a law would divert scarce resources,from the fight against real trafficking. Tellingly they pointed out that clients are often a valuable source of intelligence about trafficking victims, a source that would be choked off by criminalisation.
Lord Morrow, of course, knew better and the PSNI now have to police a wholly unworkable but nonetheless damaging law. You may well have read in the newspapers today the litanies about “victims” “prostituted women” and so on. These comments are wholly disingenuous. It has been a criminal offence for clients to have sex with coerced or trafficked women for several years now. The sole effect of Morrow’s law is to outlaw consensual sexual activity between consenting adults. I will say nothing about the legal arguments that will doubtless ensue over what constitutes payment but finish by saying that in Northern Ireland the fears of the Glasgow feminist collective have been realised. The state is back in the bedroom. And that is bad news for us all.