Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan explains why prostitution is NOT the same as any other career

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Lucy Mangan
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Why aren’t you a prostitute?

Does that seem an odd question? I’m only asking to try and help the chairman of the Cheltenham Lib Dems Dennis Parsons, who reckoned at his party conference (though he claims misrepresentation) that prostitution was the same as any other career. The only difference, apparently, is the stigma surrounding it. “The fact that we are asking ‘should we seek to prevent people entering sex work?’ is part of the problem,” he said to the gathering. “You wouldn’t ask the question ‘should we prevent people becoming accountants?’”

So. Why aren’t you a prostitute? I’m especially interested in replies from accountants, obviously, but I’ll take them from across the floor.

While I await your emails, perhaps I can hazard a few guesses. Is it because you feel that you are substantially less likely to be attacked, raped or murdered in your chosen career than you would be exchanging sex with strangers for money? Is it because you’d rather not be controlled by a pimp? Is it because you’d rather choose whose penis goes in your body and when? Is it because prostitution is not at all the same as accountancy?

Here’s the thing. I don’t think embarrassment is a prostitute’s main problem. I don’t think that’s the basis on which most people choose or don’t choose to enter the business. There may be one free-range, organic, artisanal prostitute somewhere who freely chose her lifestyle after a happy, secure childhood and actively prefers to risk life and limb every night rather than endure the boredom of office parties for whom other people’s prejudices are the greatest blight. But apart from her – no. For the majority of prostitutes, the main problem is everything else.

Everything that led them there. Poverty, abuse, exploitation, home lives that lead to escape in drink or drug addiction, running away, vulnerability, one bad boyfriend, the need to feed yourself and your children. Coming – under your own steam or trafficked by people who know there’s more than one way to make money from a desperate body – from a broken, war-torn country. Whatever strips away your choices, your confidence, your agency and your chances of empowering or protecting yourself and leaves you with nothing but your saleable flesh and a need to survive until tomorrow, that’s the problem.

This pretence that it is society’s prejudice that most harms prostitutes allows two things. It allows governments to avoid providing support services for all the women who wish to be leading different lives, and to avoid tackling all the hard, expensive problems and inequalities that create the roads towards such work (though it does enable them to inch closer to the decriminalisation of the industry, which would net an estimated £1bn in taxes per year).

And it allows the estimated 10% of the male population who (ab)use them to continue to pretend that they aren’t the problem. To pretend that everything is hunky-dory – that everyone who pays prostitutes is involved in a genuinely consensual transaction, and that they are not taking advantage of people for whom this paid-for act of penetration is just the latest in a long line of ways in which life has f**ked them.

I say, f**k that.