The outcome of the Roman Polanski debacle showed us two of our more vomititious cultural mores:
1) the law (specifically rape) is secondary to some indefinable and subjective notion of ‘art’;
2) a) some celebrities are rape-excusing idiots;
b) the opinion of said celebrities makes the excusing of rape more valid than the legal obligations for it to be punished.
So we learn the power of celebrity, of selective justice, and the depressing fact that those who have platforms to be role models for young women are using such a privilege not to empower women by reminding them of their status as human beings, but instead to excuse forced sexual intercourse between an adult man and a drugged female minor as, y’know, ‘not rape rape‘. Whoopee.
I’m reheating the morning leftovers of this story not because it has lacked any media attention (though it didn’t receive the lambasting one would have hoped for), but in order to demonstrate how normalised we have become to rape culture, specifically when it comes to the rape of young girls by rich, powerful men. This wasn’t rape, some libertarians will imagine; this was the timeless erotic trope of a robustly nubile artist being hopelessly seduced by his Lolita. He just had to ignore the inconvenient bit where she said ‘no’ and drug her with Rohypnol first. Is it cynical to imagine that, had this been, say, a bishop and a young boy, the outcry would have taken quite a different turn, and that the flimsy exuses of ‘but he has suffered enough by having to live in Paris and make films’, or ‘but he is a great artist’ (whatever that means), could then quite rightly go piss in the wind?
I bring up this story because the normalisation of rape culture matters. There isn’t a single female person who isn’t affected by it. If you’re lucky the worst you will get is the threat of violence from a pack of chest-beating sub-primates who have somehow comandeered a Vauxhall Nova and think it is their born privilege to slur vague sexual threats as they speed by with Daniel Beddingfield pounding out of their sub-woofers. If you have a little less luck than average, you’ll be asked or coerced by your partner into performing sexual acts in the same manner as people who are paid to pretend they are enjoying sex. If you’re pretty damn unlucky, you will be forced into sexual intercourse against your will by someone who thinks they are somehow entitled to your body.
At the very worst, you will have to endure the hellish, soul-destroying, downright dangerous ordeal of repeated industrial rape which is the reality of most prostituted women.
Besides being often the people in society who are the most marginalized and the most oppressed by poverty, drug dependence, mental illness, and other positions of social disempowerment, prostituted women are the people who pay the real price of rape culture. They are the ones on whose bodies the whole sick fantasy is acted out again and again, in ways too brutal for any of us who are lucky enough not to have resorted to prostitution can imagine. They face misogyny, violence, and hatred every day they work, and know that they will face the same again tomorrow, assuming, that is, that they’re not killed or don’t kill themselves first. It’s enough to make the lairy sexist boy racers suddenly seem like Stephen flipping Fry.
Last Saturday I was lucky enough to catch a talk by Rebecca Mott and others, who were sharing their experiences of prostitution. Anyone who thinks that prostition is a free choice, can be empowering, or just needs unionising to make it all alright, should read Rebecca’s blog and get the truth first hand. Then they should pass it on to the next misguided liberal intellectual type who, like, totally supports women’s rights to be sex objects, and then reel them back into planet Earth too. As Denise Marshall, Chief Executive of Eaves Housing for Women and speaker on the panel, pointed out: ‘prostitution can be considered a valid career choice the day it turns up on the careers list at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.’ Which, for any readers unfamiliar with the specific bastions of British privilege, will be when hell freezes over.
There is an avalanche of bullshit from both the right and the left on the issue of prostitution, to navigate through which would require one to have more free time than the whole staff of the Gary Glitter fanline. The cultural assumptions propping up the whole sorry affair are that women’s bodies are a commodity which can be bought and sold, and that men have some kind of fundamental right to sex which women, as members of the sex class, do not possess (translated: if a man is too odious to succeed in getting laid, he can expect the ‘right’ to go out and pay for sex; if a woman is too odious to succeed in getting laid, she can go buy a vibrator and…er, that’s it. Not bother, exploit, or pay to rape anyone.) We need to strip society of the illusion that the ‘right’ to sex – and the ‘right’ to buy it – are somehow fundamental. In short, we need to get the men who would use prostitited women wanking back into their socks.
When we as a society excuse rapists like Polanski, or anyone else who violates another human being against their will, we are actively enabling rape culture and denouncing the seriousness – and indeed the criminality – of the act (and with conviction rates already lower than a snake with vertigo, that is hardly a state to be desired). We are also allowing the privilege of our indifference to be paid for by every prostituted woman who has to face the real, painful, bodily consequences of a social system which tells her she is no better than property, with no agency of her own. Anyone who thinks that the exchange of coins either provides full agency, or proves that the women enter this trade fair and square, would do well to spend a night in Soho talking to the 9 out of 10 prostituted women who can prove otherwise, or to their pimps.
All of which is roughly why so-called ‘liberal’ newspapers like the Guardian who use the term ‘sex work’ and ‘sex workers’ in a bid to show how edgily cool and accepting they are can sit and swivel. ‘Sex work’ is to ‘prostitution’ what ‘collateral damage’ is to ‘dead citizens’; a contrivedly neutral reconfiguration of a term, which has been sanitised to protect the interests of a party who you can bet is someone other than its referee. Without pornification and rape culture to keep women in the habit of being viewed as sex objects and not fully valid human beings, the workforce for prostitution would haemhorrage away, and so, in an ideal world, would its clientele. It’s time we listened to the experiences of people who have endured the daily abuses of prostitution and declare finally that enough is enough. To those who argue that men will and should always objectify women, on account of being from Mars and having ten heads, I offer the humble suggestion that they go and perform some ‘hand work’ in a sock.