February 4, 2022

“I want to relax, that’s why I go to prostitutes. There’s a great little place near my house, where I can pay a flat fee and get all I want to drink, maybe even a burger, and as many women to fuck that I can manage. They have oriental girls, and they are happy to do it without a condom.”

I met this punter while investigating the sex trade in Auckland, New Zealand. It was said to be the gold-plated model for decriminalisation. While the men might have liked it, the women didn’t. “I have been raped more times and I can remember,” Lindsey told me. “Some of the bastards enjoy hurting us, the last one the punched me in the face after he’d finished and ran away laughing.”

Carly who worked in a large, busy brothel told me that even though there were house rules, all the punters ignored them: “What’s the pimp going to do? He just charges the men more for unprotected sex, because what they want, they get. Why anyone thinks that when you turn a pimp into a legitimate businessman that they will treat the girls better, I will never know. It’s made it much worse.” 

Most people assume that “decriminalisation” of the sex trade would make lives better for women in prostitution. It won’t. Along with its close relative “legalisation” it has made them worse. Which is why I am astonished that public money is going towards Decriminalised Futures, a highly politicised exhibition opening later this month at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA).

“Full decriminalisation of sex work is the rallying cry that unites the sex worker rights movement across the world,” reads the blurb on the ICA website. “Under this banner, sex workers and their allies have fought tirelessly for strong workers’ rights, an end to exploitation, an end to criminalisation, and real measures to address poverty.”

This “celebration of the ‘sex workers’ rights’ movement” features 13 artists from countries including the UK, France, Germany and the US,  and highlights the history of the campaign to decriminalise the sex trade. 

It is no surprise to discover that one of the major supporters of the show is the Open Society Foundation (OSF) — the world’s biggest financial backer of the pro-legalisation lobby. Also involved is SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement) which “aims to highlight the ways in which sex workers’ rights are inextricably linked to struggles for racial justice, migrant rights, anti-austerity work, labour rights, trans rights, and many other movements and campaigns”.

The debate is weighted heavily on the ‘“sex work is work/legalise it” debate, as this is the commonplace liberal position, but it is based on fantasy rather than fact. Prostitution is not work, and every attempt to legitimise the inside of a woman’s body as a workplace has failed. 

I know the global sex trade well. I have visited legal brothels and street toleration zones in the US, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. I have spent time with the women selling sex, the punters, the pimps and brothel owners, and I know that the only benefit of decriminalisation for the women is that they are not arrested. And that pales somewhat when you realise the devastating effect of assuming that prostitution can ever be work, and that the punters are merely paying for a service.

The Netherlands, which legalised its sex trade in 2000, realised in short order what an unmitigated disaster that move had been. Dutch politicians began to publicly admit that none of the promised benefits had been realised: rather than tackling the illegal side of the market, such as trafficking of women across borders, underage girls, and associated criminality such as drug dealing, violence and murder of the women by pimps and punters, the opposite happened. Soon after legalisation, the US Department of State ranked the Netherlands as one of the top five countries of origin for trafficking victims worldwide.

Under legalisation, the illegal sector grew alongside legal brothels and street toleration zones, and pimps imported their human merchandise from other countries to meet the growing demand.  Something similar happened in Queensland, Australia, where it has been reported that up to four times the number of trafficked women have been discovered in legal brothels than in illegal ones. 

Neither decriminalisation nor legalisation will ever result in a reduction of or an end to prostitution. Instead, both approaches set in stone the idea that prostitution is an inevitability. And the gold standard today, according to pro-prostitution activists, including SWARM, is the New Zealand model that Lindsey and Carly are toiling within. 

In 2003, New Zealand became the first country to decriminalise its sex trade, passed by only a majority of one vote in parliament. The application form to open a brothel in New Zealand is just two pages long: three pages shorter than the form to apply to adopt a pet from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London. 

Freedom of information requests by anti-sex trade campaigners in New Zealand found that, despite the promises from local governments that legal brothels would be regularly inspected, there had been only 11 inspections between 2003 and 2015 across the whole of New Zealand, all of which originated from complaints from the public. Meanwhile, the women are getting younger and the men are demanding sex without condoms. 

Rachel Moran, author of the best-selling memoir, Paid For: My Journey through Prostitution and now actively campaigning to dispel myths about the sex trade is vehemently opposed to the ICA’s exhibition. 

“Art is its own thing, but there is a strong argument for it to be true to life when it’s presented in the service of a political objective and with public funding,” says Moran about Decriminalised Futures. “This exhibition warns that it contains ‘depictions of violence’ but there are no warnings about the exhibition’s political objective — to campaign for the full decriminalisation of brothel keepers and pimps. This unacknowledged agenda constitutes visually presented political propaganda.”

The exhibition will doubtless be welcomed by the liberal feminists and the bearded dudes who chant “sex workers work” and “blow jobs are real jobs”, because they subscribe to a faux feminism that actually benefits men more than women. And it is telling that the majority of the artists whose work is featured in the exhibition identify as they/them, and at least one of the she/hers are trans women. The pro-prostitution and trans activists/queer identified activists have become so intertwined they sing from the same hymn sheet. 

But there should be no place for a sanitised, romanticised version of the sex trade in a city which is home to countless brothels full of abused women. While there is always room for debate about removing the harms from prostitution, a propaganda puff piece that legitimises and normalises prostitution is dangerous. In staging this exhibition the ICA is making a very strong, political statement about its acceptance of the world’s oldest oppression. It’s a shame the money wasn’t spent helping women out of the sex trade.

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