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Decriminalising sex work

Amnesty International and The Economist are very different organisations, but they have reached similar conclusions on policies regarding sex markets. Last August, the International Council of Amnesty International decided to back the complete decriminalisation of prostitution. Decriminalising prostitution, they reasoned, would better protect the human rights of sex workers, and be better for the health and safety of all involved. The Amnesty’s International Council took care to declare opposition to criminalising sex work for both clients and for sex workers. Criminalisation both on the demand side (clients) and the supply side (sex workers) implies pushing this ‘market’ into the hidden economy, increasing the risks that sex workers face.

Perhaps less predictably, The Economist, in a report on paid sex in 2014, also argued for a complete liberalisation of the market and against criminalisation policies. Robert Skidelsky, a prominent Keynesian economist and member of the House of Lords, recently joined the cause. In the interest of protecting the health and safety of sex workers, he advocated against criminalisation and in favour of regulation of the market.

At the same time, a number of prominent actors and organisations continue to advocate the so-called ‘Swedish approach’. Since its adoption in Norway and Iceland, this is more accurately called the ‘Nordic approach’, and is enshrined in the Kvinnofrid (violence against women) act of 1999, which condemns the industry as a locus of female oppression, and aims to combat the oppression of sex workers by criminalising sex workers’ clients. The Swedish government has promoted the approach domestically and abroad, through public education and conferences, fact sheets and intense lobbying at the EU and the UN.

As economists, we believe that public policy ought to be based on relative welfare considerations. In other words, under which arrangements are the actors, and the public, better off? Throughout our research on the economics of sex work, we have asked ourselves a set of basic questions around the welfare of those involved. What do we know about the agents, the prostitutes, the pimps, the clients and others? What types of people are they in terms of their sociodemographic characteristics, behaviours and motivations? Surveys and studies provided the data. How do they compare with the population as a whole? Importantly, as economists, we were particularly interested in the various institutional arrangements – streets, brothels, parlours, apartments – in which different actors might act, and how these respond to different regulatory arrangements. Regulation, after all, is not one thing, but rather exists on a wide spectrum, with different modes and degrees of criminalisation, decriminalisation and legalisation.

We have spent 15 years researching these questions using data from US and UK clients and an international sample of sex workers from eastern European and former Soviet Union countries, as well as from Africa, Latin America, China and South East Asian countries. We have worked with many collaborators and subjected our work to extensive peer review and professional criticism in papers, conferences and books. Here’s what we can tell you.

Sex workers, or prostitutes, are not just women. They are also men and transgender people. They face risks to their health, risks of violent assault, and risk of fraud (not getting paid for their services). In every case, these risks are higher where prostitution is criminalised, partly because criminalisation makes collaboration with both medical personnel and law enforcement more difficult. Criminalisation of sex work also makes the detection of under-age or trafficked people more difficult.

Perhaps surprisingly, our research on sexually exploited trafficked women shows that women who work in the streets are in some ways better off than sex workers in parlours, clubs or hotels. Street workers enjoy more freedom of movement, suffer less physical and sexual abuse, and are more likely to have access to health services than women who work in parlours, clubs or hotels. These market dynamics of sex work apply to women trafficked into sex work, too. For both clients and for sex workers, demand-side and supply-side, criminalisation pushes the market into secluded and, for the workers, isolating places. Flats, clubs and massage parlours are more separate from the rest of society. The welfare of sexually trafficked women decreases in these dangerous environments.

Sex workers’ clients are mostly men, but not exclusively. They are, for the most part, average guys. When we matched client data in both the US and the UK with the rest of the male population, we found no difference between the two groups on most measures. Still, clients care about the effects of buying sex on their reputations, and they face more risk when prostitution is criminalised. But by and large, clients of sex workers tend to be risk-takers. There is a high correlation between paying for sex and engaging in other risky behaviours. To many men, criminalised prostitution is actually more attractive than decriminalised or legal sex work. So pushing prostitution into the shadows not only makes sex work more dangerous, it actually increases demand.

Maria Laura Di Tommaso & Marina Della Giusta

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Italy’s erotic revolution in art joined the lusty to the divine

In the Sistine Chapel, you look up at Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and see muscular angels hurtling through space, nude or with just a scrap of cloth tight across their buttocks. Then after leaving the Vatican, you browse a bookstall and find an illustrated sex manual, designed by another great artist, where your eye is drawn to the same figure driven by a different impulse (Figure 2).

Fig 2. Unknown artist’s copy of Marcantonio Raimondi’s I Modi, ‘Toscanini volume’, c1555. Private collection, Milan

Explaining this extraordinary resemblance inspired me to write Eros Visible: Art, Sexuality and Antiquity in Renaissance Italy (2017). On the book jacket (Figure 3), another of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel nudes strikes a provocative pose and swivels his eye to meet yours, as if to say: What do you make of this? The answer is that a little-recognised ‘erotic revolution’ swept through Italy between 1500 and the post-1550 Counter-Reformation.

Fig 3. Sistine Chapel detail from book jacket, Eros Visible by James Grantham Turner

Of course, some pictures were condemned as erotic even before 1500: Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery moral reformer of the 1490s, ordered his followers to toss them onto the ‘bonfire of vanities’. But broadly speaking, during the Middle Ages, depiction of sexual activities was confined to the low, comic or grotesque style, while nudity was extremely rare in high art (except in scenes of Hell), and figures tended to be slender rather than voluptuously rounded. Classical nude sculptures were sometimes destroyed or branded as the devil’s work. Courtly love was exalted, but lust and libido were condemned. Erotic feeling was most vividly expressed in mystic accounts of the ‘bridegroom’ Christ and his ‘bride’ the human soul.

The beauty of classical art was more highly valued in the early Renaissance (the 15th century), as was the love-theory of Plato. However, this led to an even deeper split between the pure ideal and base reality, between sacred and profane love. Neoplatonism polarised the celestial and the earthly Venus, and insisted that bodily experience must be expunged from true love. Beautiful figures in art were still mostly draped, and rare exceptions such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus were kept for private viewing and interpreted as strictly celestial. The questioning and collapse of these rigid distinctions is the erotic revolution.

Like most revolutions, this one was hardly total. It differed from the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s in that it didn’t change social history, and no new contraceptive device liberated women from the endless cycle of marriage or prostitution. A more accurate phrase would be ‘erotic-aesthetic revolution’, radically changing the way that Italians conceived, created and thought about art. Great changes happened in the art world, which included the emergence of powerful patronesses, even though female artists and models were few. Passion and amore were valued as the wellsprings of creativity – not a distraction or pollution. Channels opened up between inspiration and arousal, between sacred and profane, between what is now separated into ‘art’ and ‘pornography’. Artists felt licensed to express all the passions and ‘motions of the soul’, not merely the chaste ones. Critics endorsed this by praising works that cause ‘whoever gazes’ to feel ‘an amorous fire/in their heart and their gestures’. Beauty was discovered in earthly as well as celestial love. Erotic response became the guarantee of the ‘living’ quality now most valued in art.

One way I measure this revolutionary change is by tracking key words such as lust or lascivious in writings about love and art. Philosophers of the Platonic school worshipped the celestial Venus – ‘chaste, orderly, superior, divine and spiritual’ – but denounced the lower, corporeal Venus as the root of all evil, ‘inferior, disorderly, variable, lascivious, animal, obscene’. Savonarola insisted on burning all ‘lascivious pictures’ (pitture lascive). Yet within an amazingly short time, lascivia was used without disapproval.

The writer Pietro Aretino justifies the Renaissance sex manual (Figure 2) by arguing that poets and artists have always amused themselves by making cose lascive, ‘lascivious things’. The patroness Isabella d’Este enjoyed art that was lascivo ma honesto, ‘lascivious but honourable’. In turn, artists were encouraged to bring out the ‘lascivious’ in their subject matter and in their sensuous brushwork, capturing the ‘living flesh’ and the excitement of falling in love. A wonderful description of Titian’s Venus and Adonis (Figure 4) praises the bisexual ‘mixture’ of masculine and feminine beauty in the ‘lascivious’ Adonis. The same Aretino promises the powerful ruler of Mantua a statue of Venus so ‘alive’ that it will ‘fill every viewer’s mind with libido’.

Fig 4. Venus and Adonis, Titian, 1554. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Courtesy Wikimedia

Leonardo da Vinci boasts that one of his religious paintings provoked ‘lust [libidine] in the owner’. For Leonardo, this is not a matter of shame but of pride in the superior power of painting, which ‘moves the senses more readily than poetry does’, and ‘depicts libidinous acts so lustful that they have incited viewers to play the same game’. The red-flag words libidinosi, lussuriosi and incitare shed their moralistic overtone. Leonardo in effect denies the fall of Adam and Eve and the shame that makes us hide the genital organ: ‘man is wrong to feel ashamed to name it, much less to display it, always covering and hiding what should be adorned and displayed with due solemnity’. Aretino justifies erotica in the same way:

What’s so bad about seeing a man mount on the back of a lady? So the animals should be freer than us? It would seem to me that the thingy that Nature gave us to preserve herself should be worn round the neck as a pendant, and in the cap as a medal … They should establish Holidays and consecrate Vigils and Festivals for it, not shut it up in a bit of cloth or silk.

Artists went ahead and visualised those ‘festivities’ (Figure 5).

Fig 5. Triumph of the Phallus, Francesco Salviati or follower, c1540. Private collection, Stockholm. Courtesy the author

This might all seem a phallocentric game that only elite males could join. In fact, I have found countercurrents to the alleged repudiation of female sexuality in accounts of the arousing effect of painting and sculpture. In Aretino, the viewer is ‘filled’ with the libido streaming from the Venus statue. Titian’s Venus melts and softens the viewer rather than giving him a hard-on: he ‘feels himself growing warm and tender, and the whole of his blood stirring in his veins’. Certainly the recipient is assumed to be male (the canvas was painted for Philip II of Spain, after all) but face-to-face with Venus’s bottom he is ‘penetrated to the marrow’.

As a final example of the revolution in action, consider another plate from that album of sexual postures, this time a lady mounting a man, a 19th-century reconstruction based on a tracing from a now-lost engraving (Figure 6).

Fig 6. Detail from Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck’s reconstruction of I Modi, c1850. Courtesy British Museum, London

The posture comes from one of those ‘lascivious things’ that amused the ancient Romans, but the modern Roman artist made a scene of it: Aretino, who wrote sonnets on the whole set of positions, imagines the man yelling: ‘Cupid, you little fuck, stop pulling the cart!’ This ‘lascivious’ print then inspired one of the most entrancing images of the High Renaissance: Parmigianino’s love-god carving himself a new bow (Figure 7). Parmigianino’s Eros/Amor turns to lock eyes with us, and his implicit question is still: What do you make of this, do you like what you see?

Fig 7. Detail from Parmigianino’s Amor (or Cupid Fashioning his Bow), c1530. Courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

At first, the answer was No. The art historian Giorgio Vasari, who celebrated the erotic art of his day, later condemned that posture manual as ‘ugly’, though without having seen it. The Counter-Reformation that started with the 1545 Council of Trent aimed to stamp out the sensuous and ‘lascivious’ elements that had allegedly contaminated religious art – especially Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. But reactions generate counterreactions so that, over the centuries, the lush sensuality of the High Renaissance has been celebrated, deplored and celebrated again repeatedly. Even now, after that other sexual ‘revolution’ of the 1960s, historians swing between a cerebral, idealising, Platonic approach and a deliberate campaign to put the body back into art, to value the erotic experience (of both sexes) and to question the division between ‘art’ and ‘pornography’.

James Grantham Turner

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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How Stigma Affects The Safety Of Sex Workers

I adore TED talks. Even the bad ones are good. Some of them are stunning and fantastic. One from (of all people) Fulbright scholar Dolph Lundgren nearly broke my heart. Especially as he was a resident of Marbella with his family for many years. The talk explains what happened and why he is no longer with them and lives in Los Angeles. But it was so human that it shocked me. And some on psychology, emotions and human relationships have been incredibly enlightening. I have never before heard of the TED Radio Hour, which is on National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States. A friend introduced me to it and I was surprised to find a really interesting talk there from a British activist for the rights of sex workers in the United Kingdom and far beyond. I think her talk should be obligatory listening for anyone who works in our industry, who is a client of our industry, or knows someone who works in the industry or pats for sex. You know, basically everyone!

juno mac giving ted talkJuno Mac is a sex worker and activist based in London. She works with the Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), a collective of sex workers focused on advocating full decriminalization of sex work, campaigning for better working conditions, and educational resources for sex workers in the United Kingdom. Her talk on how stigma compromises the safety of sex workers is powerful and full of insights even for professionals who have been in the business for as long as I have. It is well worth a listen for everyone. And it will open most peoples eyes to how preconceptions, misconceptions and ignorant views on the industry impact on the safety of sex workers.

When you cannot call the police after a rape or assault because you are more likely to be treated as a criminal than a victim, even being threatened with jail or (illegal) deportation, how does that make you safe? And surely it must drive women to be “protected” by pimps and exploiters if they cannot expect the law and civil society to take care of them. And if “women like that” are asking for it, how can they expect to be safe? In Spain we are fortunate not to have the same issues. We have our own and they are very complicated, but most of the ones that Mac discusses do not apply here in enlightened Spain.