The Trouble with Idealism

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While I’ve been extolling the potential virtues of gender equalitest sex work, Stephen Griffiths has been charged with the murder of three women who had been working as prostitutes to fund their drug habits.

It’s a case to make even the most hardened chauvinist’s skin crawl. From the fact that one of the victims ended up on the streets after suffering domestic violence at home, to the horrific murder of Suzanne Blamires with a crossbow bolt to the head, the whole case is black-laced through with misogyny.

I was born and brought up in Wakefield, and educated at the girls’ high school, just across the road from QEGS, where Griffiths was a pupil back in the ’80s. Combine this with my most recent post on the danger of the UK sex work legislation, and you can see why it’s struck a diminished chord.

From a vantage point, it’s been easy for me to debate the philosophical questions regarding the relative post-feminist empowerment of those profiting out of projected male fantasy; the utopian ideal of us being able to separate sexism and sex work. But what this case foregrounds is how vitally we need to rethink legislation on sex work, not just in terms of how we licence it, but how we link up other relevant pieces of law with regards to safety, physical and mental health and social deprivation.

Writing in the Guardian, Brian Tobin of Iceni, an organisation providing support to individuals and communities affected by drugs, emphasised that the real issue affecting the victims of Stephen Griffiths was their drug addiction. All three were working as prostitutes to feed heroin habits. While important to note that we can never either fully anticipate or counter the actions of psychopathic individuals such as Griffiths, Tobin makes an excellent case for why prioritising drugs counselling and support will help with the fractured lives of many involved in street prostitution.

In response to the murders, Object and Demand Change, an anti-prostitution campaigning group were quick to assert why legalising prostitution would not have protected Stephen Griffiths’ victims. Legalisation, they reminded us, whether in New Zealand or the Netherlands, has only ever sanctioned the legitimate running of indoor brothels not street work. Ergo, these women would not have been protected by any potential British legalised system of sex work.

What Object and Demand Change’s argument fails to take into account, of course, is the knock-on effect of recent Policing and Crime Act legislation which makes legal brothel-working ever difficult. It’s true that in the cases of Suzanne Blamires, Shelley Armitage, and Susan Rushworth, their drug addictions would have barred them from legitimate UK brothels, which are absolutely intolerant of drug use. But making it more difficult for all prostitutes to operate inside will drive those without other options to the street.

While the law on this occasion may not have prevented these specific murders, the current myopic brothel legislation, Clause 21 of the Policing and Crime act, could effectively sanction murders of others in the not so distant future. Using the case of these women to argue that legalisation is untenable effectively renders the example of the few justification for the endangerment of the many.

Meanwhile, journalism joins legislation in compounding the damage done to sex workers. Newspapers such as the Mail and other assorted mindless red tops need to reframe their presentation of these women as individuals with complex, extenuating circumstances. Simplistically referring to them as ‘murdered prostitutes’ (the Mail) or ‘vice girls’ (the Mirror), compounds the stigma of sex work, and, implies that they are dead because they were sex workers. If the tabloids are going for the jugular (ie circulation figures and topping up their morally bankrupt coffers), then at least have the courtesy to headline them as drug addicts. Besides maximising profits, they might actually be telling a more truthful story.

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