Banning sex work: the non-evidence base

Activists are gearing up a campaign to ban sex work in Scotland, with the explicit intention of protecting women engaging in sex work. Laura Lee has an enlightening account of the Conference Against Human Trafficking held in Glasgow. She was one of only two sex worker advocates to attend, and disagrees with a policy that will eliminate her livelihood and put remaining sex workers in greater danger. The prohibitionists do not find an evidence-base to defend this harsh, and potentially counter-productive, restriction on individual freedom to be necessary. For example, one introductory speaker began:

by saying that the movement to ban the purchase of prostitution should not be deterred by the lack of statistics, in fact she said, “we don’t need numbers just now”.

The rest of the account is highly recommended. Two characteristic attitudes of some at the conference seem to stick out. The first is a willingness to throw statistics into the mix when they seem to support a feminist argument, but to retreat into moralising when the details of the statistics are picked over. Statistics never stand on their own (they always require critical analysis) but without them, you don’t know how big the problems are and how well adjusted a remedy might be to a situation. The second is a perverse silencing of views even when those offering alternative perspectives are actually present. Questions and perspectives offered by sex workers may have been heard, but they weren’t necessarily listened to, only tolerated. One speaker says the only people against prohibition are “punters”, while two sex workers are standing right their willing to defend the legitimacy of their occupation. This is terribly ironic considering the emphasis that feminist theorists tend to put on the importance of personal testimony, and how patriarchal concepts have traditionally had an easy-ride in political situations because women (especially of low-status) are ignored.

This lax approach to evidence and alternative perspectives was, unfortunately, also very common amongst many supporters of the ban on extreme pornography. The result wasn’t just a law that has probably done an awful lot more harm than the notional good it may have achieved, it also meant that many predictions made by its supporters turned out to be unsound. Rather than a few dozen ‘symbolic’ cases a year, we have ended up with many hundreds. Rather than images that portrayed the exploitation of women, we have ended with up images of private parties of consenting men landing gay men in court.

Those were the unintended consequences of banning extreme porn. What will the unintended consequences of banning sex work be?