The old sexist joke about women and politics goes that the place of a woman in the movement is prone. For the Liberal Democrats, until 2015, the place of a woman was in an unsafe seat if she made it into parliament at all – of the three main parties, the Lib Dems had the fewest female MPs, and they were concentrated in the party’s most precarious constituencies.
When the Lib Dems collapsed at the polls, it became a party of men. And a party of men is exactly who you’d expect to come up with a policy of totally decriminalising prostitution, likely to be adopted at the Lib Dems’ spring conference.
Of course, they’re Lib Dem men, so there’s a veneer of do-gooding. Some of it is even actually good. The policy would quash all historic convictions for prostitution, removing a huge burden from women in or exiting prostitution; and it also includes provisions to expand services for those who want to stop selling sex, with plans to offer support in health, housing and education.
If that was the whole of the policy, the Lib Dems would be doing something unambiguously positive – even radically feminist. Criminal records that bar women from legal employment, summary fines that can only be paid by taking more punters, and short prison sentences that disrupt women’s lives without offering any kind of positive interventions all help to snare women in prostitution by punishing them for being prostituted.
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Despite Crown Prosecution Service guidelines saying that prostitution should be “addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS violence against women strategy”, the criminal justice response in practice is a vicious double bind. The role of prostitute is basically the role of scapegoat: she exists so men can take out their urges for dominance on someone, and then she must pay the penalty for what is done to her.
As the CPS guidelines suggest, prostitution law doesn’t only target those in prostitution. In fact, used properly, its targets should primarily be the pimps and the punters: the men who use women for sexual gratification and financial gain. And it’s where the Lib Dem policy touches on the buyers and the sellers, rather than the bought and sold, that its weaknesses become obvious. Because the Lib Dems also want to wipe all convictions for kerb-crawling and brothel-keeping, allowing the exploiters the same clean start as the exploited.
The idea that this would make prostitution safe is based on the bizarre misapprehension that the only thing making prostitution unsafe is the law. Actually the thing that makes prostitution unsafe is men, and without men to pay for sex there would be no prostitution.
The Femicide Census has revealed that when women in prostitution are killed, their killer is usually a client. In general, women are most likely to be killed by a current or former partner – who in the case of prostitution may well actually be the woman’s pimp, dressing his coercion up as romance.
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Everywhere that total decriminalisation is tried, women are hurt. When Leeds designated a particular industrial area as a managed zone “for prostitutes to work without fear of police action”, it became the site of Daria Pionko’s murder. When Germany attempted to make prostitution into “a job like any other”, it brought the rise of megabrothels, where women can be abused on a battery basis. Amsterdam’s red light district didn’t free up sex workers to become vaginal entrepreneurs, but it did make the city a centre for trafficking.
After all, you have to get those girls in the window from somewhere, and contrary to the Lib Dems’ rhetoric about “consenting adults”, most women’s path to selling sex is one of desperation. Consent under duress is no consent at all. So if the Liberal Democrats refuse to see the male violence in prostitution, it’s because they really do think that the proper place for women is prone.