I have become a master of asserting my consumer rights. Every time the courier delivers something late they get an angry email. Every time I buy an apple that is crumbly I take it back to the shop and throw it in the manager’s face. Every time I get called a thief at the cinema, I drop whatever life-sized cut-out I’m carrying and give them a piece of my mind.
People often ask me, in reverential awe, “How are you so laid back all the time?” And I answer them, sagely and with appropriate humility, “I am not laid back all the time. I complain whenever my choices aren’t respected.”
I have written elsewhere about the problem with rights language. Human rights as a concept has many benefits. For one thing, as the Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra reminds us, human rights is one of the few tools by which the developing world can hold the west to account. But the fundamental problem with rights go deeper than our tendency to demand them in trivial settings like when we want a train ticket exchanged or some identification document stamped. Human rights, as things we possess, are almost bound to get hijacked by the logic of capitalism.
Is it not significant that the rights that you most commonly defend are your consumer rights? My email-flinging, apple-pitching, tantrum-throwing ways may be the sign of a life that is too comfortable. I don’t have real problems to get upset about so instead I complain for hours to my bank about changes to their website’s login procedures. But that analysis is too thin. Consumer rights are not just the rights to which we most commonly attend. They are also the form to which all other rights get reduced. In America, your right to bear arms involves possessing weaponry. You have to buy them first. The rights are rights about the ability to own. In Ireland, your right to religion involves tax-back on donations. The law doesn’t care if you are Trinitarian or Unitarian, Shia or Sunni. It cares if you give your money to the priest though. Even the A-grade rights – the right to life for example – are inextricably tied up with commerce. Many death sentences are commuted because the legal defence team was found to be incompetent. That is a high stakes form of consumer law. Your refund is considerably larger than the compensation I get from Lidl if my usb powered heated coaster malfunctions.
This summer, Amnesty International has been in fierce debate and have decided that sex workers’ rights are human rights. They are calling for the decriminalisation of prostitution. They have arrived at this position after 2 years of consultation, which was not some desk-bound academic exercise but involved widespread consultation, primarily listening to the people most directly affected – sex workers. Proponents of this view argue that decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. And indeed, most of life as we live it exists in that grey zone between decriminalised and legalized. Selling computers was never decriminalised and it is legalised (hence you get asked by Dell to tick a box promising you won’t use your PC for terrorism), but when I empty out the contents of my computer, fill the box with soil, and plant daffodils the law has very little to say about it one way or another. It might step in when I process those flowers into a powder and sell is as “digital medicine” that cures autism, cancer and dampness. Then it will be criminalised. If, after a time, it turns out my cure works, it might then be decriminalised and legalised. But Amnesty’s call, on the face of it, is to liberate the oldest profession, one way or another, from the oversight of law. The police won’t hassle the working girls. But the working girls won’t be paying social insurance tax any time soon.
The real beneficiaries of this proposal, critics argue, will be the pimps. That the police won’t hassle the working girls means the managers of the prostitution rings will suddenly benefit from a productivity efficiency. You don’t need to be an economist to know that this will increase profits. Amnesty’s position is proposed in direct defiance of what has come to be known as the “Swedish model”, whereby being a prostitute is decriminalised but being a buyer is punished severely. Amnesty argues that this has left prostitutes exposed to police violence. Their approach removes police entirely and so makes the sex worker safer.
Critics argue that the structure of prostitution is inherently violent and that this policy basically calls evil good, freeing pimps to have unmitigated control over the lives of the (overwhelmingly female, immigrant, and disadvantaged) employees that would be created by these proposals.
This might be an admirable attempt to develop policies that reduce harm, if it wasn’t such an incoherent mess. After all, the claim that the choice to engage in sex work is a right means that you are already claiming something far more than decriminalisation. Rights are, by definition, legal entities. They require laws to enshrine them, to protect them, to enforce them. Without the oversight of law, your rights are just rhetoric. To claim rights involves admitting that you are claiming laws need to be passed. You can’t merely decriminalise. You have to thoroughly normalise it. And in that making-rights-normal you end up implicating all the other rights-holders. Rights are bound up in responsibilities. If you have a right, that makes me responsible for it. They stretch with universal effect. They are, necessarily, communal.
What looks like an audacious libertarian move to radically reform a market so that the active players can determine their own futures folds in on itself by simultaneously demanding a massive legislative agenda that would integrate that market into the regulated world of other products and services. Farm labourers aren’t set free when the EU regulates agri-business. The guys who run the agriculture industry benefit. Why would we assume that the pimps who become the executives of the newly legitimised adult companionship industry wouldn’t similarly benefit at the expense of the sex workers?
But the problem runs so much more deeply than that. My facetious opening about consumer rights takes on a dark and sombre tone when we consider what is actually proposed when we imagine sex work as a way of life as likely to flourish as working on a farm. This is not a liberating move by Amnesty. It is the surrender of Amnesty to neo-liberalism. This is not emancipation for sex workers. It is a new chapter in our collective captivity to our obsession with ownership.
The sex work advocates (who are often the pimps) declare that it is their bodies, their choice, their rights. Implicit in that argument is the admission that the very flesh of the human is the machine for profit. The sweat of the prostitute is different from the sweat of the farm hand, because the product being purchased is quite literally the body of the prostitute. The rhetoric of capitalism has been inexorably grasping at more and more of our lives, ever-reducing the space and time that is not commodified. Our love letters are surveilled and harvested for tips on how best to advertise at us. Our steps are counted and tabulated in the name of cheaper health insurance premiums. Our entire national economies are painfully re-orientated to win the confidence of markets. In countless visible and invisible ways, you are massaged towards being a more productive consumer. The emancipated prostitute is a logical triumph of this savage capitalism. The consumer consumes the fellow consumer, the person is the product, all of history’s antagonism against women of the street evaporating under the late-modern miracle of tax credits, labour law, and individualism.
I can choose crummy crumbly apples, and often do. I can choose to pilfer my way around the local cinema and send verbose missives to the postman when my book comes crinkled. I can choose to buy a train ticket and choose to insist on my right to change the ticket, loudly, even though there is a stressed queue behind me waiting for their turn to shout at the poor person behind the bulletproof glass.
These are simple, mundane choices.
It is utterly incoherent to suggest that the choice to engage in sex work is equivalent to my choice to buy a gadget at Lidl. Choice is an insufficient, redundant, trivial category for so serious a conversation. Consent is barely better. No one chooses to do sex work like they choose to spend a few weeks temping in an office. Sealing envelopes and selling sex are not equivalences. My body is rendered as a possible product by the fact that your body has been so rendered. The pimp harms me when he harms you in a way that the recruitment firm never does. I am my body. I am not a product. The substance of what it means to live, all of us, together, starts to crumble when we move from acknowledging that tragically bodies are sometimes sold to forgetting to name the tragedy.
That prostitutes tend to be women, tend to be immigrants, tend to come from the majority world, tend to already be poor, tend to be under-educated, under-nourished, and under-loved is not a consequence of absent law or insufficient policy. It goes so much deeper. It cannot be disconnected from the fact that the users of prostitutes tend to be men, tend to be citizens, tend to come from the western world, tend to be well off and well educated and well fed and well respected. They use prostitutes. They pretend that sex is a right, a need, a biological imperative and they use this pretence to turn the human being in front of them into a tool.
Harm reduction matters. With that we forcefully agree with Amnesty. Making life better for sex workers matters. That’s why the sex worker should not be subject to punishment. The pimps and the johns are the problem. Amnesty avoids that. But even better again would be a world where there wasn’t a market for bodies. Human flesh, living or dead, in part or in whole should not be sold.
If “the Left” exists for anything, it exists to politically represent the view that the best things in life are not to be bought. They are too valuable. The Amnesty policy is liberal in the purest sense, in that it is anti-humanist. It imagines a world of isolated, alienated, atomised human beings all out to carve whatever they can from a hostile universe. I know my Christian readers – many of whom have an in-depth knowledge of sex work far finer than mine because of how common serious ministry to prostitutes is in urban churches – will have heard this news and instinctively sensed there was something wrong with it. I hope I have helped to put flesh on that suspicion. Christian humanism declares that the truth of this world is that we are all in the boat together, bound by DNA and language and culture and space and there is more than enough for all our needs if we make sure to give when we hear the call. The Christian humanist and the hard Marxist agree: alienation is illusion. But I plead with my readers on the Left to consider how futile this Amnesty policy is, how sold out to the markets it is, how brutally calculated it is for the sake of profit.
Your Correspondent, Remembers that the place everyone wants to be in the brothel is not in the bed, but at the till