MOTW: The Guardian, Kate Winslet, and Other Sex Work Hypocrites

The first in (what I hope will be) a regular moron-of-the-week feature.

History has just been made. The world’s leading human rights organisation, Amnesty International has finally, belatedly, accepted that sex workers are people with rights, and has called for their trade to be decriminalised.

For liberals, this kind of decision would once have been a no-brainer. But liberalism has become infested with puritanical, authoritarian ideas, and many liberals are highly illiberal when it comes to core issues of individual liberty – most of all, when sex is involved. Almost 4 years ago, I began to wake up to this, and wrote a piece about the Guardian’s sexual hang-ups. My observation that the secular left and the religious right had almost blurred into one entity was one of the catalysts that ended my Guardian subscription, and began my growing disenchantment with the increasingly conservative political left.

It was unsurprising then that the Guardian, so often a flag-waver for human rights, could not bear to apply its regular principles to the yucky issue of prostitution. In the run-up to Amnesty’s vote, a Guardian editorial implored the organisation to focus on other things. The piece was dishonest, suggesting that Amnesty was calling for some kind of global libertarian-inspired, unregulated free market in sex, which it most certainly was not.

The editorial almost reached self-parody, suggesting that Amnesty should pay heed – not to sex workers who were overwhelmingly in favour of the move – but to Hollywood celebs: “The letter signed by film actors who are normally reliable allies of Amnesty shows how damaging it is.” Don’t listen to the dirty hookers, listen to Kate Winslet!

The idea that actors know more about prostitution than prostitutes was widespread, and seemed to form a key part of the case against decriminalisation. But in this Internet era, sex workers can (for the first time) organise en-masse and speak for themselves. So we had the wonderfully named article Sex workers tell Lena Dunham, other celebs, to STFU about shit they don’t understand. And this was capped by an even more perfect tweet from the pornstar Stoya:

Stoya's tweet of the week!
Stoya’s tweet of the week!

Given that the workers themselves wanted to be decriminalised, and that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this would make life better and safer for them, the Guardian and other opponents were reduced to relying on the dubious link between trafficking and sex work, and the accompanying implication that sex workers are largely the powerless “trafficked” victims of global patriarchy. The left’s favourite nonsense-word-du-jour, neoliberalism, often appears in this false argument: IT’S THE NEOLIBERALS MAKING WOMEN DO TERRIBLE THINGS! Replace “the neoliberals” with “Satan” and you effortlessly switch between the “progressive” and the fundamentalist argument.

In fact, the trafficking argument against sex work is often a cover for anti-immigration attitudes (yes, they exist on the left too, just a little better hidden). When police raid brothels in the name of “saving trafficked women”, they often arrest those without valid papers and send them off for deportation. And thus, we have supposed progressives and feminists supporting anti-sex, anti-immigrant policing activities. Where do the liberals end and the far-right begin?

As if to underscore its own hypocrisy, the Guardian’s front page was yesterday dedicated to people who had truly been trafficked and exploited: Lithuanians who had been trafficked into the UK and exploited in the egg industry. There was no Guardian call for eggs to be banned. Illegal immigrants who take on low-paid agricultural work are allowed to have employment rights. Those who take on higher-paid sex work are not.

The decay is widespread: the trade union Unison has also vociferously opposed decriminalisation. And so we have, possibly for the first and only time in history, a trade union refusing to support workers in need of representation, and instead calling for the shut-down of an entire industry. Imagine if unions took this approach wherever they encountered workers being exploited: it is about as far from trade unionism as one can imagine (not all unions have followed this strange lead – the GMB for one has a branch for sex workers).

Amnesty’s decision is more than symbolic. It is a part of a tide that is slowly, finally, turning. It’s just a real shame that, rather than champion members of the world’s oldest profession, so many supposed liberals as well as supposed Christians have chosen to turn their backs on them.