On a grizzly, awful day in Brixton, I went to visit the organisers of The Poppy Project to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences. I’d love to be able to tell you that I stormed in there and showed them the error of their ways with copious intellectual shouting before setting the desk on fire, singing the red flag and lighting a cigarette off the debris, but I felt that it would be more helpful to listen and, at any rate, our common ground turned out to be more considerable than either of us believed. So much so, in fact, that most of the discussion time was taken up with sisterly bitching about the state of the world. Here's what was resolved, and here's what wasn't:
‘Every time someone tells me that I don’t really care about prostituted women, I see red. They have no idea.’ Denise Marshall, Poppy's chief executive, was keen to set the record straight, not least on the fact that she and her organisation support both the decriminalisation of 'the women' (by which I here assume she was inferring all prostitutes) and the offer of non-conditional support to all trafficked women. One thing that I hadn't realised when I wrote the original piece is that the conditions that the Poppy Project imposes on the women who receive its care, whilst very much a reality, are a government intervention in the scheme. Indeed, the original conditions of the funding included such gems as a mandate that women who received the Project's help would not then be allowed to apply for asylum, and a condition that they had to have sold sex on the day that they came to the Project. Poppy organisers fought these conditions and managed to get some of them reduced or even removed altogether - but some conditions do remain. Women are not obliged to appear in court, thanks to pressure from the organisers, but they are still obliged to give evidence to the police as a condition of Poppy's assistance. The situation remains unideal, and the marriage between even this most on-message of women's groups and the government which funds it is not an easy one.
Why did the government impose these conditions? 'That's a very interesting question,' said Denise. 'Partly, I think, it's an immigration issue.' The government, not fully understanding what the Project was trying to achieve with trafficked women, was keen that the Poppy Project did not become a vehicle for hundreds of terrible asylum seekers, simply desperate to work in the oh-so-fluffy British sex industry, to scamper into the country. Because protecting women is important, but so is securing the votes of Daily Mail readers.
Although the reasons behind the Poppy Project’s conditional help and their real attitude towards decriminalisation were quickly established, the research conducted by the Project - research recommending ‘The Swedish Model’ of prostitution reform along with other sanctions adopted by the government for its own ends - remained a bone of contention. The organisers did not persuade me that the research done for the Big Brothel report was in any way systematic or their conclusions sound, and the fact that they did not really attempt to convince a vocal critic otherwise is telling. Anna, Poppy's press officer, told me that part of the reason they push for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex is 'conceptual': 'we don't believe that men should feel that they can just buy women's bodies'. It is true, then, that a significant part of what the Project's research is trying to achieve is a shift in social morality through targeted legal change. The problem is that this rarely ever works, even if it were the job of the law to police people’s sexual morality. Legal prohibition often creates more problems than it solves, and certainly in Sweden, where criminalisation of the purchase of sex has been implemented, life has become riskier for the women who choose to stay in the sex trade.
We live in an amoral, free-market capitalist society where, like it or not, most bodies are up for sale for a given fee. Even were the buying of sex to become illegal, as the buying of some chemicals is now, there would still be outlets where sex could be bought, if in a much more underground fashion which poses greater risks for sex workers in the industry. Interestingly, even the Poppy representatives seemed to disagree on this one: whilst Denise was adamant that prostitution is not 'a fact of life', Hannah*, a former sex worker from the USA and a Poppy volunteer, claimed that she could not imagine a time when it would not exist. I cannot reconcile myself to the Poppy mantra that 'prostitution is not a valid career choice', because the fact stands that men and women who choose to go into sex work do have agency - agency predicated on poverty, desperation and, often, a misconception of what the job involves, but agency nonetheless. Prostitution may be a sad and disempowering choice, but it is a choice, and it has to be recognised as a valid one free from arbitrary moral stigma. The problem isn't prostitution itself, but the fact that in a society underpinned by class and gender inequalities people go into prostitution for all the wrong reasons, and are likely to face abuse within the industry – abuse which is all but sanctioned by the British justice system.
We also live in a society where prostitution, particularly female prostitution, has a negative moral loading which makes it far more difficult for sex workers to pursue justice when they are victims of crime such as rape and assault. And this is a fact that no legal move is going to alter until protections are in place to ensure that all women can bring their sexual abusers to justice. Without that sort of systemic change, without real commitment on the part of the police, of parliament and of society in general to valuing the personhood of all women, particularly the young, the poor and immigrants who are most likely to go into sex work, no legal change is going to make a significant difference to the experience of women who work as prostitutes.
The Poppy organisers and I are in agreement that prostitution is a dangerous and unpleasant industry to work in, and that the attitude of this society towards sex work is repulsively hypocritical. But I remain convinced that all that criminalising the purchase of sex would achieve would be to make some women feel a bit better for a short time and drive prostitution further underground in the long run, especially when combined (unlike in Sweden) with moves that further outlaw the selling of sex, which is what the Home Office is moving towards. The point isn’t that buying sex is wrong. The point is that it’s not okay to treat all women like whores, and all prostitutes like pieces of meat that you can punch with impunity. The ‘Swedish Model’ confuses the issue, compromising personal freedoms instead of addressing the real issue. The real issue is not the moral value or otherwise of a woman’s choice to work in the sex industry. It’s the state of the sex industry within a society that fundamentally does not value women, and that’s a complex distinction to make, but a vital one if we are to make progress for women without alienating our allies.
Prostitution is not a crime committed by men against women. The state of the sex industry is a crime committed by society against its poorest and most vulnerable. It is a crime committed by patriarchal capitalism against the poor women and young men that it values least. I believe that in looking to ‘criminalise men’ (their words), the Poppy Project are lashing out at the wrong enemy.
The fact stands, though, that if I spend much more time picking perfectly valid holes in the work of the Project on this blog, then so am I.
We have different ideological conceptions of what feminism means. But there is much that radically abolitionist, women-only groups such as Poppy and socialist feminists like myself can do together. Whether we believe the problem to be men in general or the entire structure of capitalist patriarchy, we all believe that desperate women working in prostitution need support, protection and rights. The practical work done by the Poppy Project is almost identical in motive to the work of socialist-feminist aligned Xtalk, a project established to help immigrant prostitutes improve their circumstances.
Even former employees agree that the academic rigour of the Poppy Project’s research leaves much to be desired, and the actions of government based on their recommendations more still. Our ideological differences are considerable, and we will come to those differences if and when there is a real chance of the most misplaced aspects of that research becoming law. Right now, though, we are more alike than we are unalike. And we have work to do.