Following the publication of our piece in the Spectator (“It’s time outrage at sexual exploitation extended to prostitution”), former Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm hit back with an article arguing for the decriminalisation of prostitution and taking issue with our argument that women are harmed by prostitution.
Quoting John Stuart Mill, the hero of liberalism, Mr Leyonhjelm provides the following justification for his position:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
Leyonhjelm claims that prostitution fails by this test to qualify for government intervention. He admits that there are some heinous examples of forced prostitution (he cites comfort women of the Japanese military during World War II) but concludes, without evidence, that “these instances are rare” and that “overwhelmingly, prostitution occurs because there are willing buyers and willing sellers of sex.”
This rosy picture, while it might appeal to armchair philosophers, is very different from the image that emerges from the testimony of prostitution survivors who lift the lid on the reality of what occurs in the industry, and the circumstances in which such women come to be participants in this practice in the first place.
It is at odds with the overwhelming evidence that demonstrates just how harmful, exploitative and dangerous prostitution is for women.
It is also contradicted by the evidence from countries where prostitution has been legalised, which shows that there is such a significant expansion of the prostitution market that human trafficking in those countries increases.
The problem with Mr Leyonhjelm’s argument is that it fails to take into account the inherent inequality of the transaction between a buyer and a seller of sex; Leyonhjelm has obscured the vulnerability that makes some individuals stand out as potential prey to predators. He demonstrates no understanding of the grooming process by which isolated targets are encouraged into prostitution and he ignores the effects of trauma, which constrain their choices and make it hard to leave. He mistakes willing sellers with available sellers; a crucial difference.
The result is that, probably unwittingly, Leyonhjelm ends up channelling the propaganda of the sex industry. Those who benefit from the decriminalisation of prostitution would heartily approve Leyonhjelm’s ‘nothing to see here’ message. Leyonhjelm’s representation of ‘sex work’ as the free choice of empowered women and his dismissal of opposition to prostitution as so much prudish moral posturing by killjoys who resent other people enjoying themselves, is worthy of a seasoned sex industry lobbyist.
The corollary of John Stuart Mills’ dictum is that power can – and should – be rightfully exercised in order to prevent harm. We expect our policymakers and legislators to be both willing and able to recognise harm when the evidence for this stares us in the face.
Leyonhjelm’s arguments for non-intervention depend for their rationale on the lies promulgated by the sex industry that prostitution does not harm the prostituted and that “sex work” is the free choice of the liberated. Such shallow thinking and failure to engage with the evidence is disappointing from someone who has previously distinguished themselves in public life.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia.
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