Puritans and the politically correct hopping into bed to shame men who pay for sex
If women have a right to choose, then that must include the right to sell their bodies, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
There are things to welcome in Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald's new Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill, which was published last week following its recent approval by the Cabinet.
Fresh measures to protect children from online exploitation. New offences added to the statute book to include engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child. A strengthening of the laws on possession and distribution of child pornography.
The measures are wide-ranging, well thought out, long overdue - so why muddy the otherwise clear waters by pursuing an ideological obsession with criminalising men who pay for the service of prostitutes?
Shaming and demonising men who purchase sex has become one of the moral crusades of our time, uniting ardent feminists and die-hard puritans alike in the deluded belief that they can wipe out a type of human interaction that has existed in every known civilisation from the earliest point of recorded history.
Legislators and campaigners could have chosen to go down a route of legalisation and regulation, as in Germany, though that would have meant confronting absolutists who regard any sensible compromise with the sex trade as heresy. Instead, they chose an ideologically pure path, which has the potential to make the lives of sex workers significantly more dangerous and difficult.
Who says so? Sex workers themselves, who have criticised the bill for ignoring research showing that this approach doesn't work and has hugely damaging side effects.
Though what do they know? They're only the ones who work in the trade and whose lives will be most affected by this bill. Naturally, they must defer to well-meaning do-gooders who prefer to take a simplistic moral stance on an issue which would be better served by removing personal feelings of disgust and disapproval from the discussion.
You know, the kind of debate demanded when discussing all other sexual activity? Straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, polysexual, polymorphously perverse - every step on the continuum of sexual behaviour is now to be tolerated, indeed must be celebrated, or those who refuse to do so will be condemned as bigots.
Basically, you can do whatever you wish with your own genitals these days and no one else is permitted to condemn or disapprove. However, when money changes hand, you can only do with your own genitals what others decide is best. We have simply disbanded the genital police in one area in order to set them to work in another. There are as many reasons why people have sex as there are people having sex. Who is to say that one reason is better than another? Women have sex because they want to. They have sex when they don't want to because they fear they'll lose their partner otherwise. They have sex out of gratitude, and pity; to punish, to reward.
The one reason they're not supposed to have sex is because they're being paid to do so.
Yet, it's hard to see why that reason alone is worse than the others, unless we adopt the standard socialist shibboleth that money is the Great Satan, corrupting everything it touches. Sex for money may well be so different from other types of sex that society must enact special measures to stamp it out, but the case why that is so hasn't actually been made. It is merely stated as fact.
Choice is the great buzzword of modern feminism. A woman has a right to decide what to do with her own body. "Get your rosaries off our ovaries", isn't that how it went?
This concept has become inextricably tied to arguments around abortion, but either a woman has a right to do what she wants with her own body or she doesn't. She can't be given complete bodily autonomy when she's pregnant and then take it away from her when she isn't.
Yet, when it comes to prostitution, a woman is not deemed to be a free agent, capable of making rational choices about her own life, but a puppet, a victim. Any sense of independence she feels is declared illusory. Even if she thinks she is making a free choice, she must be informed that she is sorely mistaken, and, being mistaken, must allow her betters to make such decisions on her behalf.
At this point in the argument, defenders of Scandinavian-style laws that target punters rather than prostitutes invariably insist that they're not depriving any woman of her right to choose, merely clamping down on the men who exploit them, but this is dishonest sophistry.
By targeting the client of a particular service, one inevitably affects the provider too. The two are inevitably interlinked. Even if it's true that a woman is never truly free to make these choices if she is only selling her body because she needs the money, or because she hasn't understood the nature of her own oppression, couldn't the same be said about all sorts of work?
Is the employee on the minimum wage or zero-hours contract making a genuinely free choice? Is the middle-class professional, struggling to pay a mortgage on a property whose value has collapsed since the housing crash, making a free choice?
Most people's underlying attitudes to their jobs was summed up best by poet Philip Larkin: "Why should I let the toad 'work' squat on my life?... Six days of the week it soils with its sickening poison, just for paying a few bills! Ah, were I courageous enough to shout 'Stuff your pension!'"
That's not the same at all, feminists and puritans insist with one voice, because prostitution strips a woman of her inherent dignity; but that's a purely subjective value judgement. A woman who chooses to work in prostitution might not see it this way at all. To her, 10 minutes on her back with a stranger might be infinitely preferable to an eight-hour shift on her feet - but she is not allowed to make that qualitative decision for herself.
Is renting your body temporarily really any worse than giving every hour of the day to some pampered middle-class couple who need an au pair?
Such couples will happily exploit vulnerable foreign women into cleaning the house and looking after their children seven days a week, but if the same woman decides she wants to make better money by trading in sex, they will suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to "protect" her - from men, from sexism, from society, most of all, from herself.
They will also expect to be congratulated as compassionate for doing so. We really haven't moved on much from Victorians wanting to save fallen women.
To borrow the language of the abortion debate, one might say that those who defend the right of women to work in prostitution, and men to pay them for their services, are taking a pro-choice position, and those who oppose that right are taking an anti-choice position.
As such, we should heed the advice of Choice Ireland, the voluntary organisation founded in 2007 for greater access for Irish women to abortion, and adopt a policy of "resistance to hardline anti-choice fanatics".
There are no more hardline anti-choice fanatics around right now than those who want to wipe out prostitution. They're the frontline of intolerance and the Justice Minister shouldn't be encouraging them by letting zealots define the nature of the debate.