So this Labour spat over the decriminalisation (or not) of prostitution: it is tempting, as always, to sigh and say ‘Jeremy Corbyn really doesn’t help himself, does he?’. In this case, though, I’m not sure it’s that way round. After all, he is within his rights to give a personal opinion in response to a question from a member of the public, especially one consistent with his support for Amnesty International’s position on prostitution. (Whether he elaborated on it is unclear, because predictably the press have only reported The Controversial Thing What He Said, but nobody could accuse Amnesty’s stance of being poorly considered.)
As the press gleefully reported, he was immediately attacked by ‘angry female MPs’, every reporter conveniently ignoring all criticism from male MPs to portray this as a straightforward battle of the sexes. Mind you, it wasn’t the media that made it about gender in the first place, was it?
Enter Jess Phillips, hashtag shedding a tear because Corbyn is a man who ‘says we should decriminalize a known violence against women’. This introduction of gender politics is deeply unhelpful. Even if we accept the genderisation of the discussion itself on the basis that most of the victims of prostitution are women, Corbyn’s gender is irrelevant – it is entirely conceivable that a man (especially this man) can advocate for women’s rights, and in any case the Amnesty view is championed by women and women’s groups alike. To portray Corbyn as a chauvinist with no respect for women’s dignity is pretty low and more than a little disingenuous.
Equally disingenuous, or just plain ignorant, is reacting as though Corbyn doesn’t care about violence against women, portraying him as a champion of the sex trade and confusing decriminalisation with legalisation. The Women’s Equality Party have even put out a statement which insinuates that Corbyn was ‘advocating the sale of bodies for sex’, a hugely reductive leap of non-logic.
The sad thing is that these angry Labour MPs don’t recognise that, on this, they are genuinely all on the same side. Corbyn has aligned himself with a proposal grounded in a desire to protect the vulnerable, and whilst they disagree over the proposed solution, they might at least give Corbyn the credit for raising the discussion and engage in a more sensitive, sophisticated way.
(Oh, and the shadow cabinet member who said Corbyn should ‘go and join the Green party’ can piss right off: this debate is not served by you attaching your political prejudices to it, and since you’re the one taking them anonymously to a right wing newspaper, consider that perhaps you’re the one in the wrong party.)
Prostitution is an emotive issue, but for that very reason politicians must be wary of letting their emotions cloud their ability to reach objective conclusions, particularly in the absence of a party line. Nobody doubts Harriet Harman’s commitment to women’s rights, but her conflation of abuse with her distaste for prostitution confuses the issue; Corbyn shares her desire to protect women, so her objection to his description of prostitution as ‘an industry’ seems a bit petty when you consider that industry and exploitation are hardly mutually exclusive. Fine, we can stop calling it an industry if you like, but that won’t stop it being one a dictionary definition sense, and it won’t solve any problems.
And whilst it is a legitimate point of view to consider all prostitution exploitative and degrading, however consensual, that is a different discussion. An important discussion, but a more broadly ideological one with opinions (indeed, feminist opinions) on both sides. It would be disastrous to confuse that debate, with all its grey areas, with the clear cut need for legislation that protects the victims of categorical abuse such as coercion, sex trafficking and child prostitution; the so-called Nordic model (decriminalisation of the sellers and criminalisation of the buyer) is an attractive solution to those who are morally opposed to prostitution full stop, but it may not be the solution that best helps the vulnerable (in fact, the Amnesty proposal is supported by 60% of organisations working with sex workers, of which, conversely, only 4% support the Nordic model).
None of which is to say whether Corbyn is right or wrong, it is simply to ask, can you just sit down and talk about this, please? I mean, talk to each other rather than to the Telegraph or the whole of twitter? If you really care about these vulnerable women, men and children, then instead of spoiling for the fight that the media have predictably turned into the main story, acknowledge that you are unified in your beliefs that the current law doesn’t work, that criminalising victims doesn’t help and that you want to do something about it?
You do want to do something about it, right?