Deborah Orr: Should we help or punish these vulnerable members of our mixed-up society?

These liberal sexual attitudes are instead manifestations of exploitative and abusive behaviour
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The Independent Online

I was only ever dimly aware of the Belle du Jour controversy, in which a weblog ostensibly written by an anonymous graduate call-girl gained a huge and admiring readership, a vast amount of media interest, and a huge advance for a paperback book, all in what seemed like a very short space of time. Likewise I'm only dimly aware of the controversy over J T LeRoy, the US writer whose books about life as a pre-pubescent truck-stop prostitute have attracted a wide array of celebrity fans.

I am aware, however, of the nature of the so-called controversy. It centres on authenticity. The chattering classes don't just want to read gritty accounts of life in the sexual marketplace. They want to feel certain as they do so that they are not being gulled into believing something that has actually been fabricated.

In the case of Belle du Jour, particularly, it's hard to see why this is so important, because the concept being offered to readers is age-old anyway. The idea of the beautiful, powerful, classy, amoral prostitute, breaking taboos on her own terms, and winning, is far from new, and highly useful. Never mind that such prostitutes, if they ever exist, are few and far between. They are ever present in the fantasy of prostitution that helps men to justify their own paid-for sex with the real women whose actual provenance - in terms of age, say, or addiction or trafficking status - they would rather not know.

In the case of J T LeRoy, something even more disturbing is going on, which is that people seem to need reassurance that the extreme acts of criminal abuse described in the fiction really were experienced by their author. I must say, on the contrary, having read the books and met their quietly charismatic creator that I'd be over the moon to learn they had not happened to this child or to any other.

But that, of course, is not the reality either. Fiona Mactaggart, the Home Office minister who presented yesterday's overhaul of the prostitution laws, says that what she wants to get across is that prostitution is to a large degree, child abuse. A shocking number of children become involved in the selling of sex in contemporary Britain, and Mactaggart emphasises that even among adult street prostitutes, the tendency is for people to have been lured into the trade in their teens, or even younger. To that end, she has championed a range of measures that are sympathetic to the plight of prostitutes, and that seek to shift some of the burden of blame away from the women who rent their bodies to the men who hire them.

These latter measures include encouraging the police to target kerb-crawlers a great deal more than they do at the moment, and allowing the courts not just to fine offenders but also to confiscate their driving licences. The police are also being encouraged to gather and share information about violent users of prostitutes - which seems like the least they can do in a climate that has seen 60 prostitutes murdered in the past decade. There is talk also of naming and shaming the users of prostitutes.

What is perhaps surprising about these measures is that among the people most upset by them are prostitutes, or at least those among them who are represented by the English Collective of Prostitutes. This campaigning group has argued since its foundation in 1975 that cracking down on those who purchase sex simply puts women at greater risk. Fear of apprehension makes the men seeking sex more edgy, and it forces women to get into cars more quickly, without taking the care they would prefer to. All of this makes the transaction more tense and therefore more dangerous. Likewise, it pushes prostitution deeper underground, making the women involved in it more isolated than ever.

Interestingly, the Collective does not want prostitution to be legalised. It wants decriminalisation instead, and support for prostitutes and their clients to be much more forthcoming. Included in Mactaggart's changes are some of the changes that the Collective has long argued for. The law will now let up to three women work together, with the obvious advantage being that they are off the streets and safer in numbers. It is this modest protective measure, however, that has been billed as, to quote the front page of yesterday's London Evening Standard, "Brothel on your doorstep go-ahead".

One can only assume that it is in the neighbourhood that the demand for authentic whore-on-client action runs out. While reading the all-true-honest exploits of Belle du Jour might be good racy fun, having her ilk operating from the flat upstairs is simply taking authenticity too far. The idea of the liberated post-grad sex-worker doing some lap-dancing at Spearmint Rhino, manning a phone-sex line because of it's work-from-home hours, and making an honest fortune by getting artificial breasts and posing for the lads mags, has led many commentators to suggest that in the permissive age the idea of sex workers as vulnerable victims is narrow and patronising. But even if this cliché is true, it is quite beside the point.

Maybe living near a Belle-de-Jour-style operation would not be too dissimilar to living near any highly social and popular young woman. But that would be in a rather ideal world, one that reflects the fantasy of our sexually commodified culture, rather than its reality. If prostitution was typically like this, it wouldn't be a problem. But it isn't, and it is. Prostitution is overwhelmingly a consequence of drug misuse, of inadequate parenting and social care for children, of the experience of sexual or physical abuse, of educational underachievement, of exposure to unemployment or to generalised criminality, of poverty and of mental illness. In other words, it is usually a consequence of social exclusion. To coin a Home Office phrase "it blights communities".

Prostitution has boomed in recent years, and so have the numbers of men who claim to use prostitutes. Experts offer many theories about why this should be the case - including the blandly persuasive one that a lot more men are willing nowadays to admit to it. If this is true, then it is a grotesque illustration of how what are often considered by their deluded originators to be liberal sexual attitudes are instead manifestations of abusive and exploitative behaviour - sometimes, indeed, self-abusive and self-exploitative behaviour.

I would defend the right of a healthy and functioning woman to offer sexual services. Likewise I'd defend the right of a healthy and functioning man to purchase them. But the thing is, such people don't need a lot of defending. They can quietly get on with whatever it is they are getting on with, in the way they always have. The vast majority of prostitutes though, are simply products of a messed-up society that cannot even decide something as simple as this: whether to help or to punish its most vulnerable and exploited members.