Demand Change – End Prostitution

Speech for Launch of DemandChange!
Demand Change! Event, Portcullis House, June 2009

There are many people who ask us to accept that prostitution is inevitable. Because it has been in existence a long time we are told it will never go away. This assertion is used to dismiss activism against prostitution, as futile and naïve. We are patronised by people without vision, by those who defend the status quo, by those who would steal any hope for a better future. How dare anyone ask us to accept any oppression based simply on how long it has been in existence! We understand only too well that oppression has been around a long time. And that sad fact motivates us all the more to effect change wherever and however we can.

Because every day that remains the same is a day that takes the lives of our sisters, that grooms our children, that recruits more women into this so-called industry to be bought and sold. We do not accept this as inevitable, we refuse to believe that a whole class of people are expendable and we absolutely refute that women are only worth what men will pay for them.

There are some who say that prostitution is a job like any other, that this is a debate about choices, pay and conditions. They also would have us believe that there is something new and radical about something they themselves keep telling us is the ‘oldest profession’. But before any of that, we have to ask ourselves what kind of society creates the social and economic circumstances whereby prostitution ever becomes a possibility in the first place? When society fails women and children who need refuge, housing, protection – then we foster the conditions for prostitution to grow. We groom women from an early age by teaching girls that their worth is based solely on their sexual attractiveness to men. We create a demand by raising boys to believe that women are second-class citizens. But this is not a natural fact of life. It is not a feature of our biology that some of us are born with a price on our head and others with a birthright to buy us.

And if it is not natural and inevitable then it can be changed, and at the very least it can be challenged, rather than justified and excused, rather than glamourised and promoted, and this is where activism comes in. And we are engaged in this struggle as Feminists because this is matter of basic human rights. Indeed it is an issue for anyone who cares about social justice and freedom.

Such a serious struggle cannot be reduced to health and safety regulations. This is not something we can tinker around the edges with, while leaving the institution intact. Because it is the institution itself that is the problem. Built on the oppression of women, it would not exist in an equal society and likewise equality cannot exist while it still does. As long as prostitution remains in our world, the idea of equality remains just that, an idea. And that aspiration is undermined; is crushed, every time a woman is bought. It is ripped apart every time a man assumes a right to buy the body of another human being. And this is what prostitution is really about, it is about men’s rights. Do you think that men have a right to buy sexual access to women’s bodies whenever they choose or do you not?

I could stand here and reiterate statistics like those we have already heard today. Statistics about how many women are raped by their punters and pimps, how many women are groomed as children, how many women are battered, spat on, burnt and broken. But the question that haunts such a debate, when we really think about it; is how many is too many? How many women murdered and missing is beyond tolerance? Which women is it ok to buy and trade and who decides? And then there is the problem that what can be bought, can also be taken, and surely if it is ok for some women to be paid for rape, then what about the rest of us? Do we all have a price, and where money fails, will force suffice? These are the real questions we need to be asking about prostitution.

In reality, the only inevitability about prostitution is that it will continue as long as demand exists. But we are not naïve, we know only too well that this is not something we will be able to change overnight, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it either. Indeed like so many other abuses, like rape and child abuse, prostitution may never be truly eradicated. But since when has that meant we give up? We do have a say, as individuals and society. And one way is through our laws. These can be our lines in the sand. We can stand up as a society and say no. We do not believe it is acceptable to buy other human beings and we criminalise rather than defend those who attempt to do so.

The multi-billion dollar sex industry is unfortunately doing fine and well, it does not need your help; it certainly does not need your protection. But around the world, exploited in prostitution, there are countless women, children and men who do. And if you believe that their lives do count, if you believe in their rights rather than writing them off, then this campaign has to win. And so we need your help, we need you to start talking about the truths of prostitution. Create a safe space for the silent majority to voice the fundamental truth we all know in our heart of hearts, that we wouldn’t wish prostitution on anyone, and that if it isn’t acceptable for us or for those we love then it isn’t acceptable at all. And such changes of heart, can change the world.

Imagine waking up in a Britain that had stood up and said that women and children are for sale no more. Now you can decide to be part of making that real. And this is where that so often misused word ‘choice’ will really come to matter – when each and every one of us, choose which side we’re on.

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