This has probably been said somewhere already in the course of this recent discussion about new anti-sex work legislation in Britain, but I lack the time that would be required to ensure that I’m not repeating something.
Right off the top in that thread, one of the commenters who supports the new legislation brings up drug addiction with the following point:
It is recognised that violence, experience of abuse, poverty and drugs are at the root of street prostitution in Glasgow. Women are involved in prostitution because of their need to fund drug use and because they have no other viable means of earning the amount of money which they require, through legitimate pursuits….Now, these issues don’t speak of autonomy or of exercising agency, they speak of abject poverty and disadvantage where other concerns aside, 95% of prostituted women in Glasgow are addicted to heroin.
She goes on to discuss the need for a complex, interconnected system of outreach and support for the multivariate social and economic issues that lead some women into dangerous sex work due to lack of (real or perceived) genuine alternatives. I should assume it’s obvious that I’m all for that.
But try as I might, in any of the comments that bring up poverty and drug abuse, I can’t see any argument that explains to me how this new legislation criminalizing the purchasers of sex work in certain contexts (if I understand the legalities correctly) will provide new options for these women. It seems only logical to suggest that it’s actually going to take options away, and anyone who has any understanding of drug addiction and desperation can immediately recognize that if you take one option away, there’s always another one that’s even less safe, even more soul-destroying, and even less profitable that you will become willing to stoop to if that’s what it takes.
I don’t understand why people think that legislation is really going to find ways to protect these women. Selling drugs is currently illegal, but drug addicts still find a way to buy them. You can victimize the purchaser/demonize the dealer in this situation just as you victimize the seller/demonize the purchaser in the sex work equation, if you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that “outside the law” is familiar territory for people you’re already describing as addicted to heroin. Making one more part of their transaction illegal isn’t really that scary. Many of the comments supporting this legislation seem to take a tone that suggests that criminalizing the purchase of sex will somehow result in sex work becoming less “socially acceptable” and that this decrease in acceptability will make people understand the plight of trafficked, poverty stricken, desperate, drug addicted women. Given the way people view drug addicts now – as criminals, as somehow fundamentally different from good, law-abiding, citizens like ourselves – I can’t imagine how that’s going to happen, exactly.
I’ve written before about the way drug addiction is deployed as a rhetorical strategy in these conversations. In sincerity, I think some of the women writing in support of this new legislation are demonstrating more real compassion and understanding than I alluded to in that earlier post. Still, I can’t help but feel that there’s something hollow in these statements, not least because it feels like they really miss the point about what addiction means, let alone about how the social relationships around it tend to work. I know these are women who are working/have worked with substance misuse and addiction, and I don’t question their concern…but I feel like there’s a fundamental link missing in the thought process, and if the real point is to help alleviate this kind of problem, a knee-jerk support for anything placing limits on sex work is a huge blind spot, imo.