Following months of lobbying for women’s rights group OBJECT, feminist organisations from UK Feminista to the Fawcett Society are celebrating another strike against the sex industry, with Employment Minister Chris Grayling’s announcement that phone sex work and lap dancing will no longer be advertised in UK job centres. This followed the Fawcett Society’s decision to launch a judicial review against the government, claiming that 72% of budget cuts to welfare and tax benefits would be met directly by women, thus contravening the Gender Equality duty.
On the surface, both look like victories for gender equality, especially if the Fawcett Society wins its legal challenge. But some women are more equal than others, it seems, and in the case of the ban on sex work employment ads, the celebrants are those with enough economic privilege for whom sex work will never have to be a viable option.
Whatever your opinion on sex work, it goes without saying that nobody should be forced to take a job that compromises their moral or ethical beliefs. Certainly never with the threat of them having to forfeit their Job Seeker’s Allowance if they do so. This applies whether it’s Muslims declining bar work because they can’t tolerate having to serve alcohol, or vegetarians refusing to work in abattoirs. To date, there has never been a single case of a UK job seeker losing their benefits because they refused to accept a sex work position. If you don’t like the job offered to you, you don’t have to take it, whether that’s forklift truck driving, or shifts on a phone sex line.
In the government’s recent public consultation on Job Centre Plus sex work ads, the DWP stated ‘we do not insist people consider or apply for vacancies from within the adult industry or penalise any customer claiming benefits, who, after expressing an interest, subsequently refuses the offer of employment.’ So far, so obvious, it could be argued: how could the DWP state anything else? But government statistics confirm that, of the 351 vacancies advertised in the sex industry during the period 1 August 2007 to 31 July 2008, the DWP only received two complaints of harassment from job seekers who took up positions in the sex industry and found their terms of contract breached (ie they were asked to provide additional sexual services). With no comparable statistics available for harassment rates across other industries, it seems difficult to prove that the risk of harassment in the sex industry is significantly greater than that of other sectors.
Meanwhile, the argument that women or men may feel obliged, in times of desperation, to take work they would not previously have considered, could equally apply to graduates who do not want to take up menial data entry positions when they have spent several years training for a particular career to which they cannot gain entry. Ultimately, all individuals have to set personal boundaries and standards relating to the compromises they make when times are tough. But by deciding that job centres will no longer advertise positions in the adult industry, the government has made that decision for them. So much for Act 23.1 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (aka free choice of employment).
Of course, the argument from feminist groups opposing the ads will be that the move does not curtail freedom of employment, rather present glorified advertising of such positions. It’s a perfectly reasonable, if moral, (libertarians would deign, moralistic) objection on the surface, but it neglects to think more realistically about what happens once the sex industry’s openings slip off the Latest Positions noticeboard.
For years, sex workers’ rights campaigners have pointed out that only by regulating the industry can you improve the safety and well being of those working in it, and it’s entirely applicable here. At least by advertising through the Job Centre, the DWP has the opportunity to keep an eye on its operations. Chris Grayling claims that he wants to see an end to advertising positions “that could support the exploitation of people”. But this could apply to so many industries. Childcare, where au pairs are expected to work 18 hour days at the behest of harassed, middle class mothers. The media and politics, where unpaid, eager interns put in 50 hour weeks in the hope they’ll be taken on as permanent staff but are usually just replaced by another voluntary ingénue when they run out of money. Whether an industry exploits its workers or not depends on all how well the DWP regulates it.
When it comes to matters of choice, there are ideal choices and there are pragmatic ones. For a single working mum with two small children, lap dancing might be preferable to a minimum wage cleaning job. If she can’t afford childcare, working in the evening may allow her to trespass on the kindness of family and friends to look after the kids. And what’s more – and this is what those feminists campaigning against sex work really can’t accept – if she doesn’t espouse their brand of ‘feminism’, in the post-feminist, capitalist free market, it might be the shame of not being able to send her kids on school trips or buy them new shoes, rather than that of gyrating around a pole that truly oppresses her.
At least in regulated sex industry jobs women can earn their own money, regardless of the inherent sexism of the activities. However objectionable it may be, there are still too many other arenas where men can pay, overtly or covertly, for privilege over women. Take a site such as SugarDaddie; there, countless Rousseauian women chase ‘dates’ with men they hope will bless them with exotic holidays, personal allowances, and pandered-to patronage, all in exchange for unspecified, euphemistic ‘intimate’ time, the price of which is never explicit, and the transactions of which are impossible to regulate. At least if they were breathing sordid nothings done the line to 50-something male fantasists, these women would have legal claim to earnings, as evidenced by a wage slip. That’s not to justify the sexism. But it is to recognise that in the scheme of lesser evils, economic disadvantage, and financial dependence on men may just be the greater ones.
At the recent UK Feminista conference, Karon Monaghan QC advised attendees that standing up against the economic injustice of the Budget should be a feminist priority. Certainly that 17 % gender pay gap is not going to diminish if the government does get away with its discriminatory Budget cuts. The sex industry maybe sexist. But until all women are afforded the right to make their own choices about what constitutes ‘exploitation’, anti sex work feminists would do well to remember that economic disempowerment is arguably the biggest threat to UK gender inequality. Taking away yet another option from the most vulnerable women will not help counter that.