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The state is not the sex worker’s friend

These new disintermediated internet marketplaces can have interesting effects.

Last month, MPs launched an inquiry into the apparent rise of so-called “pop-up” or temporary brothels. The phenomenon, where sex workers use Airbnb, hotels, or short-term holiday lets as a work base, has caused concern among politicians and the police.

It is not all good news, though:

But the pressure to make back the cost of the hotel meant she ended up booking clients she would not otherwise have seen. “There’s something – for me anyway – that felt quite bleak about rocking up in a hotel,” she said: “You get a ‘spidey sense’ and you’re like ‘I’m not sure about this one’… you do end up taking more risks.”

Apart from cost, there are other advantages to setting up a more permanent shop:

With CCTV and a panic alarm, she says the more permanent setup means she has better security measures: “I honestly can’t imagine working any other way now and it astounds me that what we’re doing is technically illegal.”

Reducing risks from clients brings more risk from state interference.

“At the moment, I have absolutely no trust in the police whatsoever,” she says. “You can literally go from being the victim, to being the criminal in a matter of minutes.”

Is it time to end the war on some consensual sex?

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38 comments to The state is not the sex worker’s friend

  • RRS

    Not if you are a U S legislator

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    You can’t get votes unless you win a war! So the war may be unwinnable, as far as politicians are concerned. A politician who gets portrayed as a friend of brothels would have a hard time winning any votes. Perhaps you need a new term for what they do. ‘Tumescence Therapists’, anyone? It could be reclassed as a medical benefit.

  • Eric

    If you ended the war on consensual sex then, well, just anybody would be doing it!

  • Vinegar Joe

    The State is always out to screw you.

  • Paul Marks

    The law may be a farce, and I am NOT going to defend it – but the idea of the “Happy Hooker” is a myth. This is a squalid trade that is based on degradation. These women are in a desperate situation – often addicted to drugs and subjected to brutal abuse.

  • Alisa

    Really, Paul? How many of them have you actually talked to? And how many people in other occupations do you know that are happy in what they are doing?

  • Rob

    “At the moment, I have absolutely no trust in the police whatsoever,” she says. “You can literally go from being the victim, to being the criminal in a matter of minutes.”

    Hardly unusual. Probably applies to 95% of the population.

  • bobby b

    “You can literally go from being the victim, to being the criminal in a matter of minutes.”

    Okay, I’m gobsmacked.

    Prostitution is legal in England?

  • Mal Reynolds

    @bobby b: prostitution is legal, brothels are not

  • How many of them have you actually talked to? (Alisa (December 7, 2017 at 1:28 pm)

    I concede it is a fair question – between those who have very little acquaintance and those who have too much, there are not so many who can claim both to have knowledge and to be trusted for an impartial view.

    I have some connection with a group in Glasgow who offer a popup non-brothel – shelter, some refreshments, a place to talk and an unpressing offer of a route out for those who wish to consider it. The facilities are often resorted to very casually and briefly by prostitutes between clients. One could fairly say these girls are operating at the lower end of the profession. That said, one finds plenty of examples for Paul’s point of view. Some do take the opportunity to leave the profession. Some are murdered – sometimes suspiciously soon after it first appears they are thinking of trying to.

  • Alisa

    Niall, the problem with Paul’s assertion is its broadness. Of course there are lots of prostitutes out there such as he and you describe. Point is, this is only one level; there are several others, depending on local laws and other circumstances, and on the woman herself. Plus, ‘based on degradation’ – for the life of me I can’t see why satisfying someone’s need and getting paid for it must include degradation. Not saying it can’t, but it can in many other occupations as well.

  • Snorri Godhi

    prostitution is legal, brothels are not

    Can you please define “brothel”? (I am asking about the legal definition in the UK of course.)

    It seems to me that meeting customers in hotels or even at their homes, is fine at the high end of the profession, where presumably the girls have their security arrangements, and the customers pay for it via high fees. The (British) State is actually discriminating against sex workers at the lower end of the profession; or perhaps more accurately, driving a wedge between the high end and the low end.

    Speaking of brothels, there was an article on the BBC about a German mega-brothel, asking the question whether Germany has gone “too far” in the legalization of brothels. The only evidence that Germany might have gone “too far” was that the brothel is big and luxurious.

  • John K

    I believe a “brothel” in English law would be two or more girls working in the same premises. So legally, they have to work alone, rather than having the security of another person in the house.

    Thanks, Mr State.

  • Julie near Chicago

    “Sex therapist.” Really, no joke. In the benighted Provinces, at least, pros were called that for a spell back in the ’70s-’80s. No doubt dreamed up by those in the Industry OR by people looking to make prostitution seen to be a normal, wholesome provision of a welcome service.

    .

    I hate the term “sex worker.” It’s hard for me to get the concepts of “prostitute” (of whatever gender) and “worker” to exist in the same context in the same mind at the same time. The fact is that to act as a partner in a sexual experience is simply not within the normal (usual, conventional, even traditional) idea of “work.” Because, after all, the ideas of sex and “pleasure” are pretty strongly and intimately bound together most of our minds; and so is the idea that there’s a nearly-unbridgeable chasm between “work” and “pleasure.” “Work” is whatever the ill-natured Great Frog has required us to do, like it or not, should we wish to go on living. “Pleasure” is what might be available if you’ve got any free time left over after Work (and Chores).

    It is not seen to be either Productive or Legitimate (categorization decided according to two extremely different criteria of course). So it cannot be Work. [In various cultures, various times and places, to be an actor or other showman was not entirely the Done Thing. Lenny (Bernstein’s) mommy (I think it was) was still nagging at him about when he was going to get a Real Job, when the Winderkind was beyond the first rich blush of Wunderkindness, say in his 70s — or so it’s been said. Because in Russia, to be a Jewish traveling minstrel was to be entirely declassé…at least in certain circles.) Then again, presumably the Greek travelling poets (storytellers) were considered a good thing — or so I gather.]

    Nobody calls actors, opera singers, dancers, stand-up comedians, producers of movies and shows and revues and whatnot, financial backers of same, impresarios, stagehands, photographers or illustrators of the entertainers as they entertain — nobody calls these “entertainment workers.” (Those who do the actual entertaining are called “entertainers.”) Why aren’t the providers of “sexual services” or “sexual entertainment” called “sexual entertainers”?

    .

    Speaking purely abstractly, I don’t see what is wrong from a moral point of view with offering sexual entertainment (or “release”) in return for payment in money, or stuff, or status/power/glory/trips-round-the-world/etc., provided the usual libertarian conditions of voluntary free trade (yes, redundant), and the acceptance of moral and physical responsibility for any results, desirable or not, proceeding therefrom. (This assumes the “results” do not include contraction of an STD without prior warning from the carrier. That would become a matter of criminal negligence at the very least, no?)

    Unfortunately, Reality is never Purely Abstract.

    . . .

    But that is about one possible view on the provision of sexual services. Firefly notwithstanding, I don’t think it represents a view common in our time (I’m not so sure that courtesans, concubines, or those who provide themselves as “sex toys, or even as “sex therapists” in the Xaviera Hollander sense: prostitutes or call-“persons” of some sexual persuasion or specialty, mostly either have a desirable life-style or experience great personal fulfillment and satisfaction in their occupation).

    In the real world, I expect Paul is right: “sexual entertainers” mostly have not got a very healthy time of it, being in an occupation in which they are at considerable physical risk (for the most part) from both their handlers (pimps) if any and their customers; legal risk; psychological risk; risk of extortion and blackmail; risk if not prior involvement with really nasty drugs and their manufacturers and purveyors; not merely risk, but the near-certainty, of being looked upon almost as lepers by the average person … etc.

    As Paul says: Dangerous, degrading, and demeaning.

    I suppose there are exceptions to this, or to most of it, in some areas even of Seattle, Boston, and Manhattan. If so, I’m very happy for them — in an abstract sort of way. But do Ms. Hollander, and Heidi Fleiss, and Wots-‘er-name Biddle really have the fallout effect (most of what we actually accomplish for good or ill is just fallout from our being whoever we are) of raising the public’s opinion of sex-for-pay and the real fundamental-human-worth of those who provide it; and thereby of improving the Human Condition and Making the World a Better Place?

    . . .

    In sum, and directly On Topic: It’s not at all clear that “the State” is any worker’s “friend.” Why should it be expected or thought to be the friend of the sexual entertainer, nor of the entire sexual-entertainment industry?

  • Julie near Chicago

    PS. Could also call it the “sexual services industry.” We could have a ‘Sexual-Services Employees International Union.’ It might or might not hope to become a branch of the present SEIU.

  • Alisa

    Dangerous, degrading, and demeaning

    Lots of jobs are dangerous; I have seen no explanation so far for the ‘degrading and demeaning’ part.

  • bobby b

    Back when I did crim law, I represented a number of people charged with prostitution. (Which is illegal here.)

    There seemed to be two groups. Group One was comprised of young, good-looking people who made a reasoned decision to sell sexual services for lots of money, and who could find willing customers. Group Two were the very poor, usually chemically messed-up, not-so-attractive people who sold sex mostly because they simply could do nothing else that paid them anything.

    Group Two had at least ten times as many members as Group One.

    The Group Two people were truly degraded and demeaned victims, mostly because their actions were illegal. They would get beat up and raped regularly, but couldn’t ever call the cops because the cops would mostly just victimize them all over again. Once you can’t go to the cops for protection, you become fair game for every sadist and pervert out there.

    Some people very strongly believe that sex outside of marriage is immoral, and that prostitution is thus an immoral act which should be illegal. Those people should be encouraged to keep their own pants zipped, but to otherwise mind their own business. A big slice of very poor, uneducated, usually battered and beaten young people are denied a chance for a halfway-decent life by keeping this activity illegal. I applaud England for legalizing this, and would add that being able to form brothels and associations would go a long way to adding even more security to people’s lives. There is protection in numbers.

  • Alisa

    Some people very strongly believe that sex outside of marriage is immoral, and that prostitution is thus an immoral act which should be illegal.

    There are probably just as many who are fine with sex outside of marriage, but think paying/getting paid for sex is immoral. Those people usually don’t think that prostitution should be illegal though (unless they are deranged feminists who want to criminalize the clients rather than the prostitutes).

    Your last para hits the nail on the head.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    No, prostitution IS demeaning. Ten years ago, I was on a jury where a woman, originally from Egypt, claimed that her husband had married her in Egypt, and then they moved to Australia, and her husband forced her to work in a brothel. None of the workers ever said they loved the job, or thought of it as anything other than demeaning.
    Indeed, other than the disputed case of Samoa (Coming of age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead), NO society has ever encouraged women to be promiscuous. I think the reason is in our genes- faithful mothers can prove their children’s paternity, and thus a claim on his income, whilst raising their children.
    Alisa, can you point to a culture that encourages prostitution in its’ female members? That doesn’t think of prostitution as degrading?

  • Paul: This is a squalid trade that is based on degradation. These women are in a desperate situation – often addicted to drugs and subjected to brutal abuse.

    Often true, but by no mean always, which is why laws specifically against prostitution (as opposed to violent abuse and coercion) are a huge mistake.

    Alisa: How many of them have you actually talked to?

    In my case, two, although admittedly neither was in the UK (I knew a self-styled ‘courtesan’ in the USA quite well as she was my immediate neighbour and used to look after my cat when I was away (she did not work from home and used to joke she ‘worked on Wall Street’, which in a sense she did). The other was somewhat lower on the totem-pole of life, this time in wartime Croatia, and we met because she want to trade ‘goods for services’ for something I had… I declined, but did buy her dinner, put her in touch with someone else to find what she was after (no, it was not drugs), and had a very interesting & memorably hilarious chat). Significantly, both were ‘self employed’ so perhaps that is why they appeared to be navigating the world’s oldest profession reasonably well, at least as far as I could tell. Make of that what you will.

  • Alisa

    I personally know one, and she only fits Paul’s stereotype in that she did get into that business to finance her drug addiction. But anyone talking to her would very quickly understand that ‘desperate’, ‘demeaning’ or ‘degrading’ simply are not part of her attitude or experience (and yes, being ‘self employed’ is an important part of that). I understand very well that she is not broadly representative of anything, but OTOH I understood from her that she is by no means unique either. Like I said earlier, Paul’s assertion is way too broad to describe the reality of that occupation.

  • EdMJ

    Tim Ferriss had an interesting podcast covering some of this area the other week. Some of you might find it interesting to hear the interviewee’s perspective on her profession: https://tim.blog/2017/11/17/alice-little/

    Alice Little (@thealicelittle) is considered the #1 top-earning legal sex worker in the United States. She is a 4’8″ legal sex worker at Nevada’s world famous Moonlite Bunny Ranch. This episode is definitely not suitable for work (NSFW).

    Nick, in terms of a culture “That doesn’t think of prostitution as degrading?”, prostitution was “neither illegal nor stigmatized in ancient Rome”, according to this interesting article: https://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/meretrices-and-prostibulae/

  • EdMJ (December 8, 2017 at 1:53 pm), if I recall correctly, in ancient Rome, prostitution was not only not illegal but was taxed.

    Comment needless!

  • Julie near Chicago

    O/T (except not), responding to Niall above: In modern U.S.A., maryjane is not only illegal but is Constitutionally prohibited.

    Regardless of whether it enters interstate “commerce” or not.

    If I understand Gonzales v. Raich, and on through the sitch as of Dec. 8, 2017, correctly.

    . . .

    As for the Bunny Ranch, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (inspired, if that is the word, by the Bunny Ranch in Nevada, by all accounts) is a longish movie and I hear it didn’t do so well at the box office, but I thought it was amusing and entertaining. Starred Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, but I thought Charles Durning stole the show with his “I Do a Little Sidestep” number.

    To show that brothel owners can indeed have hearts of gold, see Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda in The Cheyenne Social Club.

  • bobby b

    ” . . . The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas . . . “

    Ah, memories.

    Because of the songs, this was probably my pre-teen kids’ favorite movie for a year when it came out. They probably watched it thirty times (which means, so did I. Still love Hard Candy Christmas.)

    We had to skate over the whole “whorehouse” topic (“it’s like a fancy hotel!”) but that was easy.

    Then, one day when eldest son was thirteen, he cornered me in my study and stammered “you never told us that a whorehouse was about . . . about . . . SEX!”

    It was traumatic.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, I messed up again, what else is new. I wrote:

    maryjane is not only illegal but is Constitutionally prohibited

    But my point was,

    maryjane is not only illegal but is Constitutionally regulated under color of the Commerce Clause.

    I just draw a complete blank when you tell me that you absolutely prohibit my doing X, and then tell me that I’m in the Deep Stuff because you have the unassailable right to tell me how I must go about doing X, and I was doing it wronG. [Hard-G sound.]

    Very confusing.

    . . .

    bobby: I knew you was a high-class fella; so not at all surprised to hear the entire bobby clan share the trait. Glad you-all enjoyed the movie, and I can imagine Eldest Son’s bemusement when the light dawned.

    Thanks for the grin. ;>))

  • the other rob

    Can you please define “brothel”? (I am asking about the legal definition in the UK of course.)

    It’s been a long time and it was never my field, but I believe that this may be at least half of a red herring.

    IIRC, the two relevant crimes in English law are (or were, at least) “Solicitation” and “Living off immoral earnings”.

    The latter is where the brothel confusion comes from. Clearly the operator of a brothel, assuming that he or she did so for profit, would be earning money that the state considered to be immoral.

    But so too would be the earnings of a street pimp, who had no premises, likewise the touts and panderers, to resurrect two older terms.

    The beauty (from the state’s point of view) of the “Living off immoral earnings” crime is that it can be oh so broadly charged. Rent a flat to a hooker who works from home? You’re nicked and the flat may be forfeit. Own a print shop and print some “tart cards”* that used to be placed in phone booths in London, likewise. Even the humble house cleaner is not outside the scope of this crime.

    *Are those still a thing? Back in the day I used to know a chap who made good money gathering them up and selling them to customers as far away as the USA or Japan.

  • Eric

    There seemed to be two groups. Group One was comprised of young, good-looking people who made a reasoned decision to sell sexual services for lots of money, and who could find willing customers. Group Two were the very poor, usually chemically messed-up, not-so-attractive people who sold sex mostly because they simply could do nothing else that paid them anything.

    Group Two had at least ten times as many members as Group One.

    If they really can’t do anything else that pays them anything, how can it be argued we’re helping these people by taking away their only source of income?

  • Alisa

    If they really can’t do anything else that pays them anything, how can it be argued we’re helping these people by taking away their only source of income?

    Indeed. There is also the client side, which is partially comprised of men who literally cannot get sex anywhere else, due to being physically or mentally disabled (or both). But hey, as with any other voluntary transaction, there are always people to be found who know better than either the supplier or the client.

  • The last Toryboy

    Ancient societies didn’t seem to particularly stigmatise it? Temples of Aphrodite in ancient Athens were consider a part of the democracy…

    Christianity stamped all that out.

  • Snorri Godhi

    If they really can’t do anything else that pays them anything, how can it be argued we’re helping these people by taking away their only source of income?

    Good point! (Another point that needs to be made is that, no matter whether their choice is good or bad, it is their choice: to presume to know better than them, is to deny their free will. Are you listening, Paul?)

    Without denying Eric’s good point, i’d like to note that, with a system like in the Netherlands or Germany, it becomes more difficult for Group Two prostitutes to earn a living, because better-looking girls become more easily available, albeit at a somewhat higher cost. I see that as a feature rather than a bug: it discourages Group Two prostitution without denying them the right to choose.

  • Thailover

    “Really, Paul? How many of them have you actually talked to? And how many people in other occupations do you know that are happy in what they are doing?”

    Define “happy”. “Bar Girls” in Bangkok with sixth grade educations earn as much per year as Thai airline pilots for major airlines. And yes, it’s voluntary. They move from bar to bar on a competely arbitrary basis and come and go at will. I’m not suggesting that all sex work in the “third world” is freedom incarnate, but the mass media portrayal of ubiquitous slave pens is a mixture of lies and hyperbole.

  • Laird

    “a mixture of lies and hyperbole.”

    That pretty much describes anything you read in the mainstream media.

  • Thailover

    Alisa: How many of them have you actually talked to?

    In my case, er, uh…I lived in Pattaya over 8 months at one point and over 4 months later on. ‘Lived in Phuket as well. Also travelled up north Thailand near Laos for a bit. So I would round it to a near thousand.

  • bobby b

    “Lived in Phuket as well.”

    Could someone do that comfortably if they spoke only English and Spanish?

  • Thailover

    “Could someone do that comfortably if they spoke only English and Spanish?”

    It wasn’t too challenging, but you do run into people who speak no English at all.

    Funny story, the last time I lived in Thailand, I took lessons on speaking Thai for three months, but it turns out that virtually every average person one runs into in Pattaya or BKK spoke an Issan (North Eastern Thai, i.e. “hillbilly”) variety of Lao.

  • John K

    IIRC, the two relevant crimes in English law are (or were, at least) “Solicitation” and “Living off immoral earnings”.

    Wasn’t “living off immoral earnings” the trumped up charge which a vindictive British state prosecuted poor Stephen Ward for? Just about the only thing he did not do was live off the “immoral” earnings of Mandy Rice-Davies or the sadly departed Christine Keeler.

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