In a recent article for the Huffington Post, comedian Chris Dangerfield provides a new spin on an old argument regarding the sex trade. The argument is a familiar one: prostitutes are exploited but hey that's okay - because so are billions of other people. There is, he claims, no difference between the exploitation of a prostitute and that of a person working in Tesco stacking shelves for 12 hours a day.
Is he correct when he says that the exploitation of a prostitute is no different from the exploitation of a shelve stacker? And how might we test the claim?
A study conducted by The Council for Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, Oregon in 1991 concludes that 85% of prostitutes reported sexual abuse in childhood, and 70% of them were victims of incest. There are numerous other studies which seem to confirm the same bleak pattern. This is perhaps the most important way in which prostitution is different from working in shop or a factory - the often horrific conditions of a shattered childhood create the homelessness and instability on which the sex industry thrives. They provide its necessary pre-condition.
And the actual consummation of the act itself - the moment at which one human being pays a sum of money in order to reduce another to the status of a human toilet - is explicitly premised on the victim's powerlessness. No longer do they confront the other person as an independent sexual being with their own set of needs and desires, but rather as a 'thing' which is entirely subject to the whims of another. A living receptacle. Prostitution is not simply about sex; it is about power and objectification.
And, in reducing another person to 'thing-hood', we inevitably reduce ourselves. In Latin America the colloquial name for prostitute is 'puta' or 'bitch' - which designates not so much lust as hatred. The phrases 'slut' and 'whore' have historical resonance in words such as 'subhuman' and 'wicked'. Such demonisation has a certain logic to it; by hiring a prostitute the client is brought face to face with his own emptiness; in consummating the act, he is as well manifesting his own lack- the inability to connect with another person on a genuine basis of freedom and equality. The very act of paying for sex itself exacerbates the grubby inadequacy of the 'John' - the prostitute, then, becomes the living reminder of his own deficient premise. How can he not despise her for that?
People might argue I am painting too grim a picture. That such po-faced 'moralism' only serves to smother what is essentially a fun activity between consenting adults. I can almost hear the inevitable wittering - "My best friend's mum's sister's niece's bridesmaid's daughter works as a prostitute, and she makes, like, 2000 quid every evening, and she really loves her work 'cause all the men give her so much attention and it, like, makes her feel really empowered and in control."
No doubts such Belle de Jours do exist. But the point is they exist as an extremely tiny minority. For most prostitutes their work provides a misery almost without limits. We know this because up to 95% of them are problematic drug users. According to the Home Office, more than half of women in the UK who work as prostitutes have been raped or seriously sexually assaulted. The overall mortality rate is 12 times the national average.
But beyond this I don't believe those who argue this is merely another form of exploitation really genuinely believe in what they are saying. Most fathers and mothers would not be, in all likelihood, too adverse to their teenage daughter or son getting a job in a supermarket or McDonalds at the weekend for some extra pocket money but I'm willing to bet that those same parents would be horrified and hurt to discover their daughter (or son) had been working in a brothel.
But then again, perhaps this is the real crux of the issue; the people who argue so ardently for prostitution tend also to be those who will never experience the trauma of having their loved ones in the profession in the first place. I argue absolutely for the rights of daughters (and sons) to be able to live 'this life' - and I do so in the name of freedom and against sexual hypocrisy (providing, of course, they are not my daughters, my sons).
Humour is a powerful thing. It goes beyond just making us laugh. Sometimes it is capable of smuggling in some very nasty notions all in the guise of a cheeky-chappy, slap on the back type affability. Dangerfield's article seems to be provocative and liberal but it is anything but.
It is merely a rehash of the dull conservative demand that those who are most vulnerable in society should be allowed to enjoy the only freedom they have - the freedom to be exploited.