The latest debate around sex work has found none other than Lily Allen at the epicentre of it. Ahead of the release of her upcoming memoir My Thoughts Exactly (as well as the subsequent release of the story in The Mail on Sunday), the singer revealed that she slept with female escorts during her 2014 Sheezus tour, because she was “lost and lonely and looking for something”. It didn’t take long for the backlash to ensue.
Positively mortified fans, with faux concerns that Allen’s being a mother somehow rendered her pursuit of services from sex workers immoral, reminded her of her apparent wrongdoing. One commenter on Instagram suggested that paying “to use other women’s bodies as if they were commodities” stood in direct opposition to her feminist ideals. Others made the observation that if it’s not okay for men, it’s certainly not okay for women: “Not sure people would be so supportive if this was a married man with very young kids. Publicity seeking and sad that her kids will hear this in a few years”.
Those who did leap to Allen’s defence, however, reminded people that, despite society’s often violent opposition to sex work, there is no shame in seeking it out. And I agree. A shocking amount of people are woefully ignorant about sex work, and even more intolerant of listening to sex workers themselves.
“How could they possibly be happy, empowered, feminists with any semblance of agency?” Muse the anti-sex work brigade each time the case for decriminalisation is made. “What about sex trafficking?” Suggest those who don’t quite understand that the reason trafficking has such currency in the first place, is not because we aren’t already tough on sex work, but because the very laws we use to prohibit it play directly into the hands of traffickers.
Take the government’s decision to follow in the misguided footsteps of America’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), for example.
More concerned with appeasing the fears of people who vehemently disagree with sex work than actually listening to what the majority of sex workers in the industry were saying, FOSTA-SESTA soon became law. And, as many sex workers warned, as a result of being restricted from using websites like Craiglist and Backpage to bring in business, a number of people in the industry were forced to rely again on picking up clients from the street, with the assistance of the very people the law was purporting to protect these people from in the first place.
By the end of the year, under the Digital Economy Act, the UK government will bring in similar laws, disguised to protect young people from the dangers of porn. In addition to forcing people to forego their privacy, the age-verification law will require all adult content sites to employ age verification tools – an expense only the most profitable of platforms will be able to afford – again, ridding a great deal of sex workers of the independence and safety measures they need to take in order to make money.
I’m no fan of Allen’s. The early days of her career, wherein signifiers of so-called urban-ness formed the basis of her success, immediately marked her as suspect in my view. Who was this girl, with the famous, wealthy father, partially private education and insistence on proclaiming that she was Alright, Still? And why had everyone fallen for her act?
I felt the same when, again, in 2014, during the Sheezus era, she surrounded herself with twerking women of colour, using them as props as part of a wider point about the exploitation of those very same women. But the fact remains that, although she isn’t “proud” of it, there’s nothing wrong with being a client of a sex worker.
While it may be tempting to suggest that Allen’s openness about paying for the services of an escort should form the basis of the case against criminalisation – let me be clear, I’m of the firm belief that sex work should be decriminalised, I think we should be more honest about our reliance on sex work, and in the same breath, maintain our right to privacy over our sex lives – it would be much more helpful to pay attention to the studies, activism and voices of sex workers all over the world who have long argued for the same result, for many a compelling reason. Reasons that serve to protect the people who know what it’s like to work in the industry in the first place.
The calls for decriminalisation were not as loud last year, when Romina Kalachi, a sex worker from Kilburn, was murdered by a client, and police put out warnings for sex workers to be “extra vigilant” despite the fact that the law currently makes it extremely difficult for that to happen. Nor were they as far-reaching when in 2016, mother and escort Jessica McGraa was murdered by a client in Aberdeen, and tabloids made light of the situation. But they should have been, and they should still be.
If this debate has revealed anything, it’s that we have a tremendously long way to go when it comes to respecting sex workers and the sex work industry at large. Let’s not go backwards by shaming people like Allen for admitting to using those services, nor by making people like her the martyrs of causes they haven’t spearheaded.
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