As a life-long Labour voter and campaigner against Tory policies, particularly when it comes to issues relating to violence against women and girls, I find it odd to be writing this sentence. But today, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission published a report into prostitution that is so progressive, so comprehensive, and so practical that it leaves the other parties with egg on their faces.
Reports into prostitution tend to fall into two categories: either products of unbridled ideology dressed up as research, or a dull sifting of evidence from other countries. Home Office work on the issue falls squarely into the latter. Unenlightening and inconclusive, the tiny proportion of readers who stagger to the end, begging for mercy, tend to be more confused than when they started.
In contrast, this report makes clear something that should be blindingly obvious: yes, of course we need to weigh the evidence from countries who have tried different legal models, but the public policy response to prostitution can never be determined by data alone.
Men brokering and renting access to the inside of women’s bodies for one-sided sexual pleasure is an ethical question on which we should be able to take a view without first having read a dozen War-and-Peace sized reports.
But what is the central ethical issue? Consent. Or, more accurately, whether we want to live in a society that is happy to dispense with the need for consent when a man who can’t control himself, turns up at a brothel brandishing a few fivers.
This government, like many before it, claims to place a high value on sexual consent. For decades, feminist campaigners and law reformers have demanded stronger and clearer laws around consent.
Finally, some politicians leapt aboard the bandwagon. The Domestic Abuse Bill, currently before Parliament was, in part, a response. But this is about much more than sex. Consent is becoming the only undisputed principle in common ethics; one of the only ways that society can distinguish between a wanted and unwanted action. There’s a growing body of literature suggesting that non-sexual touch, even between parents and children, should depend upon the explicit consent of the child.
And here is the bald injustice. For some reason, this standard of consent does not apply to women in prostitution. They are exempted from those protections – on the losing end of a kind of consent apartheid. Their consent is for sale. Some in prostitution will object to this language, and accuse me of patronising them. They will argue that they freely choose prostitution as work, and that they give their consent freely. To them I put the simple question: would you agree to a stranger penetrating you if money weren’t involved?
That’s aside from the obvious difficulties in establishing true consent. As I showed in my book on the sex trade, the choice to enter prostitution is rarely free, often coerced by economic or social circumstances. I have lost count of the number of women I have met who stridently asserted their “free choice” while still being prostituted, only to exit years later and reveal the true story of routine violation and coercion.
I believe that true sexual consent should be about mutually-wanted intimacy, and I don’t believe that it exists within the system of prostitution. But even if it did, looking at it from this perspective places the burden of consent upon those caught up in it. But what about the men? As usual, they get off scot-free.
Which is where this report is ground-breaking. It poses the question: do we want to live in a society that allows for the purchase of sexual consent? This places the policy discussion where it belongs. Not in the doldrums of weighing up conflicting evidence, but focused on the kind of behaviour society thinks is decent.
The report contains a raft of measures that aim to strengthen laws around consent, reduce demand for prostitution, and help those caught up in it get out. I really recommend reading it, and I hope this new Tory Government realises that if it fails to act on the recommendations of this report, it won’t be long before Labour realises they have been outflanked and seizes the political ground.
It is quite something that the Conservative party, that has failed women and girls in numerous ways, such as withdrawing the funding for refuges and rape crisis centres, all but destroying the criminal justice system, resulting in numerous perpetrators never even seeing the inside of a courtroom, should be behind this report. But this publication shows the Tories are streets ahead of every other political party in the UK on prostitution. It is time to ask why the liberal and so-called leftist parties so regularly fail women when it comes to sexual exploitation.