You know the Puritans right? You know, religious fundamentalists, all covered in black and buckles and shifted off to the New World to found a new religious paradise? The closest they ever came to sexual contact was maybe the occasional, risqué glimpse of an exposed ankle or perhaps, following years of sober and pious marriage, shaking hands with gloves on.
Well, it turns out that everything there is about right except for that last bit. The pious Puritans loved sex. And I mean loved it. Sure a quick marriage was a prerequisite and sexual contact outside of marriage was publicly punished, but once you slipped on that wedding band and said your vows you could go to town. In fact you were encouraged to in accordance with your biblical duties. The cause of a sizable number of divorces within the early puritan colonies was having a husband or wife who did not ‘fulfill the marital obligation’ so to speak.
So why exactly am I recounting the sex lives of a bunch of 17th century religious fundamentalists?
Well I got to thinking about the Puritan’s sexual activity as I read about the new laws set to come into force in this country which would criminalise the purchase of sex. The Criminal Purchase of Sexual Services legislation is all set to be finalised over the coming months and is being championed by our Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. The law would only punish those who buy sex without criminalising the sex workers, many of whom are unfortunately coerced into this role by a brutal system of human trafficking.
But why criminalise the buying of sex in the first place?
Okay, let’s be serious for a moment. Almost everyone likes sex. Now I write about politics for fun so, as you can imagine, I don’t get a whole lot of action, but I have it from reliable sources that apparently people like sex and they do it a whole lot. Is it not the ultimate indicator of this that the society we most picture as being repressed and sexless, that of the Puritan settlers of New England, is being discovered to have been sex obsessed once you put a ring on it?
The continual criminalisation of the sex trade is quite frankly ludicrous. The desire for sex will always be there and for some that desire will extend to those who are perfectly willing to pay for it. That has been true in almost every human society we can identify, and studies show that monkeys once given a monetary system inevitably come up with prostitution. Our approach to the “oldest profession” is one of hysteria and moral alarm as opposed to one of common sense, harm reduction and a morality built around compassion and empathy.
In a properly registered and regulated sex trade, such as those in Amsterdam or some parts of the United States, both those who wish to purchase sex and those who wish to sell their services as a sex worker would be better protected. Careful regulation and oversight, which would include minimum wage laws, mandatory STD screenings and rights and protections which would safeguard both consumers and workers, are the only way to deal with the issue of the sex trade in a moral manner.
Criminalising this trade, which has always existed and will exist long after you and I are dead, is the legislative equivalent of sticking our fingers in our ears and saying “lalalalala I can’t hear you”. It is reckless and irresponsible and it destroys our ability to deal with this element of our society in a reasoned and sensible manner.
Some people want to buy sex, some don’t see much chance of an alternative to getting it and others don’t see much problem with selling it as a service to assist their education or put food on the table. What two people do in a room does no harm to anyone else and if they happen to exchange money in that time, where would you like it to go? To gangs and violent pimps? Or into our taxation system contributing to a better hospital, to a better education for our students and children and to greater investment in jobs and our technology sector? Even if the prospect of a sex trade fills you with moral revulsion you have to concede the moral superiority of this choice. Either we close our eyes to it and the sex trade rumbles on, as it has for thousands of years, with violence and slavery and degradation. Or we chose to accept it and make the best of this persistent element of our world, making it safer, more secure and healthier for the individual and for society. And hey if we might rob some money from violent gangs to lower college fees, I’m not going to complain.
All and all our attitude to criminalising the sex trade says a lot about our society and our governance. Despite few sober and rational arguments saying that our current attitude is sensible, we continue to legislate and govern with our primitive monkey brains. We take a simple, vicious, dogmatic and ignorant approach to this part of our society without holding up the evidence critically and governing and legislating with all the reason, wisdom and compassion we can muster. I hope that my generation, as we become more open and enlightened, will have the courage to shake off the shackles of dogma and tradition and reason this one out. And hopefully we can come to a solution that doesn’t have to be hidden in the darkness, thrown into grimy alleyways while we blind ourselves to its realities. Hopefully we can create a system that can be held up to the light of day and ensures our society is as healthy, moral and prosperous as possible.
Photo/ AKM/ Flickr