Privacy, like power and money, is one of those unevenly distributed commodities. And as with power and money, if you want to lay claim to privacy, having a penis is a great place to start. Even when a man’s personal conduct is in direct conflict with his public duties, he can still try to plead his entitlement to a “private life”. That’s the line Keith Vaz’s defenders have taken since Sunday, when the Sunday Mirror published allegations that the Labour MP for Leicester East paid two men for sex and that he did this while chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is currently conducting an inquiry into the laws on prostitution. The same day Vaz was exposed, the Sunday Times published a list of “childless politicians” who were, inevitably, women: if you’re female, scrutiny is permissible all the way into your uterus, however little it has to do with your work.
The commons committee that Vaz chaired launched its inquiry into prostitution in January stating in its terms of reference: “In particular, the inquiry assesses whether the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it.” In other words, Vaz was involved in an inquiry to decide whether people who pay for sex should be criminalised. The committee’s interim report, published in June, declared that it was “not yet persuaded” that criminalising punters would be “effective”, despite evidence of the policy’s success in Sweden and Norway.
Regardless of how much direct influence Vaz had over the committee’s findings, this is an obvious conflict of interest. It’s plainly not appropriate for an MP to make recommendations about a potential law when his own undisclosed conduct would put him on the wrong side of it. Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk — suspended from the Labour Party after his own explicit texts to a 17-year-old girl were revealed — has implored the public to offer “compassion” to Vaz, saying that he’s broken no laws.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s first response was similarly to point out that Vaz “hasn’t committed any crime that I know of” and to minimise the allegations as “a private matter”. Vaz’s own committee has recommended that no “burden of criminality” should fall on those who pay for sex, which is precisely why this story is not a “private matter”. But then, Corbyn himself has previously argued that decriminalising the sex industry is the “civilised” approach, on the assumption that all the harms of prostitution can be pinned on the laws against it.
And then there’s Peter Tatchell, whose campaigning work for gay rights frequently involved “outing” closeted individuals who made homophobic public statements, and yet who told BBC Radio 4’s Today this morning that he “found it very difficult to see any public interest justification for that intrusion into Keith Vaz’s privacy. As far as I can see, he has not broken any law or caused anyone any harm, and there’s no allegation of hypocrisy.” According to Tatchell, a hypocrite is someone who acts against their own unstated interests — those who use the guise of disinterest to publicly facilitate what they privately indulge get a pass, it seems.
During her oral evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in May, former sex worker Paris Lees tried to embarrass the Conservative MP James Berry by demanding to know if he had “ever been in a position where you felt that you needed to sell your body for sex”. The aim, presumably, was to expose him as a privileged man with no right to pronounce on the subject. Vaz, as chair, declared that his colleague did not have to respond. The committee chose the side of men’s privacy too when it set itself against the sex buyer law — men, despite being both the market that drives demand for prostitution and the main threat to sex workers’ welfare, are discreetly unmentioned in the interim report’s conclusion. In that privacy, the pleasure, the safety and the consent of those in prostitution has been purchased away.