Wow, the Guardian has published another sensible piece on the sex industry, within a week of the last one! But actually it’s the Observer, which is usually better anyway, and the author, Helen Lewis, is editor of the New Statesman, so …
There should be a word for an idea that is sensible in moderation, but becomes toxic if taken to extremes. Perhaps we could call it an alcopinion. In the recent debates about Amnesty International changing its policy on prostitution, we’ve heard a lot of one particular alcopinion: to fight our way through the legal, ethical and safety concerns, the answer is simple – we should ignore everyone else and “listen to sex workers”.
Those pushing this line present the current debate as a straightforward dichotomy: on one side are sex workers, an apparently homogenous group who want decriminalisation of both sides of a sexual transaction.
On the other side are Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep and assorted actresses who signed a letter to Amnesty saying that decriminalising sex buyers was siding with “pimps and other exploiters”.
According to the prevailing tide of internet feminism, it is easy to tell who is right. You simply look at who is speaking. “Stay in your lane, rich ladies,” sniped a writer at Feministing. “People who trade sex need people to listen to them. And they don’t need you.” But framing the debate this way is absurdly misleading. It conveniently ignores that the Amnesty letter wasn’t only signed by Dunham – she is not the sole arbiter of feminism in 2015, whatever 1,000 overwrought blogs would have you believe. It was also endorsed by charities, academic researchers and those who style themselves as “prostitution survivors”. These are women with direct experience of the sex trade who believe it is intrinsically demeaning and harmful.
And there it is, the problem with the injunction to “listen to sex workers”. Yes, policy debates are too often conducted on Mount Olympus, far from the lives of those affected by them. We should be alert to that. But from this moderate premise blooms an alcopinion. If we are ordered to listen to sex workers, the obvious retort must be: which ones?
Unsurprisingly, women who experience prostitution as little more than paid rape will do everything they can to leave the trade. But that means they’re not sex workers any more. So – hey presto – their opinions can be discounted. We end up in a “no true Scotsman” situation that skews the answers we get; only people with an overall positive view are permitted to talk about that industry. It’s as if the Leveson inquiry had only heard from News of the World journalists.
There is another problem with the current fashion for divining authority from personal experience. It forces disclosure. In the case of the Amnesty debate, there is an implicit demand that women must lay bare their personal sexual histories to gain the right to speak. (Oddly, men never seem to have to preface their thoughts with: “As a long-term punter, I believe…”) Not everyone who has sold sex wants to go public about it. Are those people not allowed to speak? Finally, prostitution is a public policy issue. We all live in a society in which sex is bought and sold and its existence has consequences for all of us. Demanding that the vast majority of us shut up is like telling renters they can have no opinion on the mortgage market or that atheists can’t complain about faith schools.
Lived experience gives a speaker a unique form of insight, but our infatuation with identity has led us to an intellectual dead end. Arguments often become an exercise in finding a member of a minority group to act as an avatar for our existing beliefs. In the 1980s, Bill Cosby was praised by the right for telling black Americans to work harder and be more respectable; today, there is no shortage of articles where the headline might as well be “Why I as a [blank], think X about Y”.
Gallingly, in the case of the Amnesty debate, the sound and fury obscures that there is significant agreement between the two sides. Both abolitionists and pressure groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes want to end humiliating police tactics; better support for vulnerable women and no more criminal records for those who sell sex. Reciting identity-based pieties, like a modern form of the rosary, won’t help any of that. So yes, let’s listen to people who have sold sex. But not just the ones we agree with.