Luckily enough for the Tory party, quite a few international markets went boom on the day that this story broke. Strip club vouchers offering discounts for Tory delegates, in with the brochure for the upcoming Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.
Let’s not wallow around in anyone's gloopy moral residue. Sex work isn't nice work, but it isn't immoral, and a visit to a strip club is simply a statement that you are happy to cash in on the privileges of your wealth and gender in the most sickly self-indulgent of ways, and that you are comfortable enough in that privilege that you don't mind buying other people's bodies for your personal sexual gratification in a room full of your colleagues. Hey, there's a big market for that sort of thing, and markets, as we've all been reminded this week, are amoral, not necessarily immoral. Markets merely allow the flow of wealth and power to seep a little more smoothly towards the top. And hey, since it's the annual Tory piss-up and we're all very pleased with ourselves, why not flaunt that philosophy, especially if, in the words of Ian Taylor of Marketing Birmingham, the vouchers were 'produced to help maximise the economic impact for local businesses'.
What angers me about this sordid little story isn't the fact that Tory MPs might enjoy visiting strip clubs. Statistics suggest that well-paid, powerful white men will number most patrons of these newly-licensed 'entertainment establishments' (A legal loophole means that since the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003 lap dancing clubs currently only require a Premises Licence for the sale of alcohol to operate, despite being part of the commercial sex industry. The number of lap dancing clubs across the UK is estimated to have doubled since 2004). There is always, always going to be a market for the more culturally and fiscally powerful to buy sex. What adds insult to time-worn injury, however, is the fact that it's a buyer's market. This was not an advertisement, but a voucher: a voucher offering conservative delegates a 66% reduction in entry price to Birmingham's Rocket Club.
Now, these are bloody hard-working girls. The women who staff strip-clubs and brothels don't do it for kicks, whatever the makers of Secret Diary of A Call Girl may say. They do it for the money, and they earn every penny of that money by laying the most intimate parts of their personhood on the line and risking their physical and mental health every day within a profession that earns them ostracization from friends and family. These women deserve better than to be offered up as discounted goods. These women deserve to be treated with respect.
In the vast majority of cases, women don't become sex workers - prostitutes, lap-dancers, streetwalkers, strippers or porn stars - for the kicks. No, they do it for the money. They do it because there is simply no other way to earn that scale of living wage as a woman under 30 in the current UK job-market. In the Guardian today, most commenters seemed to miss the point of a heart-rending article by a prostitute and single mother. Her point was that she became a prostitute because her former job as an office PA was not paying her enough to support herself and her two children and was, at the same time, taking up so much time and energy that she barely got to see them. Her decision to go into full-time sex work was, as it is for many women in her situation, entirely an economic one.
We need to start respecting women’s work, whether or not they have made the difficult decision to enter the gloomy world of sex-work. If Tory MPs such as Anne Widdecombe really feel that the inclusion of the voucher in the brochure represents the party ‘throwing every value out of the window,’ if they don’t want to face the escalating realities of sex work for women of every class and background in the economic real world of contemporary Britain, then maybe they should start to analyse why women make these choices.
Eighty three per-cent of sex workers, according to recent studies by Object and Fawcett, want to leave the profession; but thousands of women every year make that career choice, and they make it because the country in which we live is currently fostering a gruelling long-hours culture in which women make up the bulk of lower-paid, exploited workers. Women are still paid 17% less than men in full time work and 33% less in part-time work, and when they get home they are still expected to perform the bulk of domestic chores, especially if they are single parents, as many sex workers are.
But the Tory delegates who have been so warmly invited to enjoy the bodies of the low-paid women of Birmingham at a discount price do not think this is a priority. In fact, a key part of current Tory policy proposes an end to equal pay audits, insisting that ‘only those firms which lose sex discrimination cases will be subject’ to them ('Welfare to Work', 2008). Until the Tories get serious about offering low-paid workers decent living wages, then any paltry statement blaming the City of Birmingham for putting entirely appropriate adverts in the back of their brochures will be crass hypocrisy. Until that day, they may as well schedule complementary sessions with hookers into the official programme and stuff a few fivers into Lady Thatcher’s pearly g-string whilst they're at it. Any less is pure hypocrisy.
And with that, I'm off to the Labour Party Conference for a week. I'll be checking in regularly but comments may take a few hours to appear!