This essay first appeared in Cliterati on October 27th; I have modified it slightly for time references and to fit the format of this blog.
Nearly three years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Social Autoimmune Disorder”, in which I compared modern society’s persecution of sex workers to a disease “in which the body’s protective systems turn from attacking pathogens and other invaders to attack some portion of its own tissues instead”:
The bodies of societies sometimes also develop such syndromes; the systems which were meant to protect society from invaders or other troublesome organisms are instead turned against some of its own systems, sometimes even vital systems. And just as in biological autoimmune disorders, those who are affected most are usually women…one…[example] is the continuing persecution of prostitutes in England and the United States, despite the obvious social function we serve…
In the past few decades police, especially in the United States and countries over which it has a powerful influence, have gone from primarily fighting those who harm the body of society (violent criminals) to primarily attacking the body itself (ordinary citizens accused of violating any of the countless laws against nonviolent, consensual behavior). And when these infected police departments attack the mechanisms society has evolved to channel its libido, the metaphor folds back upon itself: the figurative disease may result in the spread of literal disease.
Many of the persistent myths about sex work are exactly the opposite of the truth. For example, prohibitionists often claim that pornography and stripping increase “violence against women”, when in fact the prevalence of rape, child molestation, domestic violence and other social ills decreases with the increased availability of, and decreased stigma against, porn and other forms of sex work. Another looking-glass claim is that whores spread disease; in fact, the incidence of every kind of sexually-transmitted infection in developed nations is much higher in the sexually-active portion of the general population than it is among prostitutes, and only 3-5% of all STIs can be traced to either side of a paid sex transaction…which is to say that over 95% of them come from unpaid sex. The reasons for this should be obvious: sex workers have a vested interest in keeping ourselves clean and we enter into relations calculatedly rather than in the heat of passion or as the result of inebriation, so we scrupulously use condoms while a great many amateurs (especially those under 25 and above 50) do not.
In a sanely-run world, sex workers would be held up as examples of how to have an active sex life while protecting oneself from the potential dangers thereof…but no part of this world is sanely-run. Instead, sex workers are widely stigmatized where we aren’t outright criminalized, and the tools we use to protect ourselves are labeled “prostitution paraphernalia” in the diseased minds of the police. In many places (including most of the United States), cops steal sex workers’ condoms and represent them as “evidence of prostitution”; the obvious effect of this is to discourage the use of condoms among everyone likely to be harassed by police, professional or not, thus resulting in a public health nightmare. Unfortunately, the concept of harm reduction is completely alien to those who are obsessed with conformity, “law and order”, arbitrary rules and “sending messages”; they are wholly unable to recognize that their precious laws pose a clear and present danger to society, and therefore endeavor to enforce compliance even when the facts are directly before them.
Nor is this self-destructive behavior limited to countries where it is well-established by precedent; even in places where officials have by some miracle been made to see the wisdom of harm reduction policies, the police can be counted on to act in ways which endanger everyone unless they are forcibly restrained from doing so. Scotland provides a perfect example: until recently, the country had eight different police forces; but when they were all brought under one umbrella, prohibitionist fanatics from Glasgow got in control, and in only a few short months have done their level best to wreck the system of tolerated brothels which has kept Edinburgh sex workers safe for decades. But in late October, they unveiled their crowning idiocy:
…Police chiefs [sent]…a letter…[asking] the city council to add new conditions to licences, including that “no items of a sexual nature will be permitted on the premises”…[HIV group the Terrence Higgins Trust and sex worker organisation Scot-Pep savaged the proposal, which they said would ruin decades of sexual health education]…A recent report by the World Health Organisation…read: “Condoms should never be considered to be evidence of sex work, either in official laws or through unofficial law-enforcement practices, and condoms should never be confiscated from sex workers”…[and] MSP Margo MacDonald said…“this…makes the police look…rather amateurish”…
The police, who were obviously unprepared for such strong resistance, backpedaled furiously: “Police Scotland does not advocate the banning of condoms…at no point do the recommendations make reference to the banning of condoms…” Pull the other one, gents; only the hopelessly gullible could believe that you didn’t intend the purposefully-vague “items of a sexual nature” to include condoms. Fortunately, the council proved somewhat less credulous than they might have been, only allowing themselves to be bullied out of cancelling the licenses of six out of the thirteen saunas; the other seven were renewed without the foolish and dangerous restrictions demanded by the police. It seems unlikely that this will deter their attempts to harass sex workers into hiding for very long, however; remember that the violent raids to which the saunas were subjected in recent months came despite the fact that their licenses were duly renewed last year. Unless the burgeoning power of police to victimize peaceful people is radically amputated, it must eventually result in catastrophic consequences for any society so afflicted…and as I have warned many times before, though such consequences always start with sex workers or other marginalized groups, they never end with us.