Kathy Sheridan: Prostitution is not a happy career choice

Criminalising the purchase but not the sale of sex does not make the industry legitimate

‘The notion that men have a 24/7 entitlement to a special cadre of women to meet their sexual needs seems extraordinary in an age when ignorance can be no excuse.’ File photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

‘The notion that men have a 24/7 entitlement to a special cadre of women to meet their sexual needs seems extraordinary in an age when ignorance can be no excuse.’ File photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

 

The insertion of the terms “liberal” or “liberal-left elite” into a headline must be a guarantee of clicks and paydays. Why else would certain papers and writers resort to them so often?

In that cliche-ridden word factory, the “liberal-left elite” invariably support politicians who are their “darlings”, spend much of their lives with their hands raised in “horror” because . . . (insert current excuse for an argument here), and are of a single mind on everything from same-sex marriage to abortion. Also, they are responsible for all global ills, from the collapse of the global economy to the hoisting of Trump into the Oval Office (these are real theories).

Since these perennially useful cliches must have a firm basis, the writer must begin by assuming (or pretending to assume) no single member of the “liberal-left elite” has ever had an individual thought and exists in a champagne-sodden bubble. This removes the need for boring old nuance. It’s an approach that finds full expression on the issue of prostitution and comes with the massive bonus of being able to drag feminists into the piece, “that tribal caste now in power.. before whose coercive wrath our pathetic male politicians pale, quail and fail”, to cite one Sunday Times columnist.

Mmmh. I am peering at footage of the combined elected might of the Dáil and yes, that has to explain the little sprinkling of females. The poor lads were clearly brutalised into becoming the public face of that all-powerful, feminist tribe whose greatest desire, as every fool knows, is to remain invisible.

Sexual crimes

What drew this ire last week was the emergence of that spectral tribe from the cellars, claws extended, to cackle over the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015, stewarded successfully through the Dáil by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, and voted through by the Seanad yesterday. New provisions defining consent in sexual crimes hoovered up much of the publicity, quite reasonably, but the measure to criminalise the purchase of sexual activity though not its sale was a long time in the making, having been debated and scrutinised for at least half a decade.

The arguments against were well-aired: the law should not intrude between consenting adults; sure it’s the woman’s choice; legal attempts to govern human libido are just silly; prohibition never worked ; it merely drives prostitution deeper underground; sanctimonious feminists will never understand.

Michael McDowell, barrister and former tánaiste, dubbed it “a blackmailer’s charter” in his Sunday Business Post column. “A prostitute’s customer suddenly becomes a criminal while the prostitute is free to roam the streets and public houses, importuning passers-by to be his or her customers.” Under the “new regime, a prostitute will be able to loiter in public places offering sexual services without any fear of being prosecuted by a policeman for such activity. But if some poor divil, likely with drink, agrees to have sex with a prostitute for money or money’s worth, he or she will be liable to be publicly prosecuted in the criminal courts, socially disgraced, quite likely dismissed from employment, and conferred with a life-long criminal record”.

Some poor divil, likely with drink . . . laid low by a black-hearted woman (although he is careful not to label the sexes). An oldie but a goodie.

If only the former, highly vocal minister for justice had offered some alternative.

Profoundly vulnerable

Most well-informed people agree the vast majority of people in prostitution are profoundly vulnerable even before they enter the industry. From there, attitudes and agendas diverge. But any industry founded on such rank inequality and the kind of power that allows a buyer to command and control another person’s most intimate core is surely on very dodgy ground. And that’s before the pimps and gangsters enter the picture.

The notion that men have a 24/7 entitlement to a special cadre of women to meet their sexual needs seems extraordinary in an age when ignorance can be no excuse. Anyone can click into an “escorts” website to see precisely what is meant by “services”. That the women mainly come from the poorest edges of several continents – and are often referred to as “it” in the punters’ scorecards – tells us precisely where the power lies.

Still, fans will insist on prostitution as a legitimate career choice, superior to poorly paid burger-flipping or retail work. But burger-flippers are not routinely assaulted. That’s why this debate is mainly focused on how best to ensure the women’s physical safety, and why this aspect is what shapes governments’ responses. But in what twisted universe does this nuanced thinking turn prostitution into a happy career choice?

Hands up, all you industry fans who will be thrilled to see your wife, husband, son or daughter heading off for some in-service prostitution training. Excellent. First, a word of advice: have a look at the mountain of evidence showing the psychological, emotional and physical damage caused by prostitution. No one group in this debate has a monopoly on ignorance.

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