Prostitution policy and the NOTW smears

Mike Macnair remembers the discussion in the SSP over the question of prostitution

Scottish National Party MSP Margo McDonald's private bill proposing the creation of 'tolerance zones' in which prostitutes would not be prosecuted forced the SSP to debate the whole question.

The debate produced conflicting resolutions at the SSP's 2004 conference, which were remitted for further discussion. This resulted in a policy which characterises prostitution as a form of sex abuse and violence against women: a position already defended by Catriona Grant in Frontline, the journal of the now dissolved International Socialist Movement SSP platform (No12, 2004).

In entering this debate, the SSP was indirectly following the American and English women's liberation or 'second-wave feminist' movements of the 1970s. The core of this debate was: is the sexual subordination of women to men produced by their economic subordination, or is it the other way round?

The 'Marxist feminists,' including in the left groups, generally concluded that the underlying cause of the sexual subordination of women was their economic subordination. As far as the question of prostitution was concerned, it followed that prostitution was an aspect of class subordination. They took the view that the key was to get women into employment and to fight for equal pay and against job discrimination, for collectivised childcare, and for women's control of their reproductive choices. By increasing women's economic clout, their range of sexual choices would be increased.

One group took a distinct line. Wages for Housework argued that overcoming the economic subordination of women in capitalist society involved the demand that the reproductive labour invisibly performed by women in housework, childcare, etc should be recognised in monetary value.

Growing out of this, WFH militants began to work with women who were beginning to organise that group of women who were actually paid for their women-specific work: sex workers. The English Collective of Prostitutes, loosely linked to WFH, has been campaigning since 1975 for decriminalisation of prostitution: that is, the abolition of all the criminal and civil laws which stigmatise prostitutes, and for the collective organisation of sex workers to improve their wages and conditions and defend them against violence.

In contrast to both these lines, the 'radical feminists' and 'revolutionary feminists' argued that the underlying cause of the economic subordination of women was their sexual subordination; and that this, in turn, was ultimately a matter of male violence. For some, this policy implied separatism and 'political lesbianism' (that women should choose sex with women as a matter of political commitment).

For a broader section of the movement, radical and revolutionary feminism implied that the main target of the women's movement should be men's violence against women. But this was a hard target to pin down. Some began work on shelters and support for women affected by domestic violence; but this gradually turned into a form of social work supervised and funded by the state, rather than a political campaign. Others argued that the critical target was pornography: 'Porn is the theory; rape is the practice'.

Anti-porn activists became involved in seriously problematic alliances. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon promoted a city ordinance in Minneapolis which would have created civil liability for publishing pornography (it was struck down as unconstitutional). They did so in alliance with perfectly conventional rightwing 'purity' campaigners. Feminists in Canada won a redefinition of legal obscenity in terms of 'promoting violence against women'. The first target of the new definition turned out to be a lesbian sex magazine.

This type of feminism is thus clearly class-collaborationist in its politics, and statist in that it seeks and promotes women's dependency on the state, not the collective organisation of women as part of the working class struggle. It has been supported by the Eurocommunists and the Labour 'soft left' of the 1980s, the academy (Dworkin-McKinnon and similar views feature on many undergraduate reading lists) and more recently the state. With this aid, it has to a considerable extent managed to become identified as 'the' feminism or as feminist orthodoxy.

A diluted version of this kind of feminism has become the common coin of police and state-bureaucratic empire-builders and of rightwing 'morality' campaigners. Even islamist campaigners for veiling can represent themselves as 'feminist' by using arguments drawn from Dworkin-MacKinnon and similar writers, when they in fact seek the subordination of women.

A part of the process has been the gradual and insidious extension of the idea of 'abuse' - from child sex abuse, rape and domestic violence, to any sort of sexual relations which, though on their face consensual, involve inequalities of power. The full-blooded separatists of the 1970s and 80s at least had the honesty to be open about what this reasoning implies: that there should be no sexual relations between men and women, or between members of different races or classes.

Cat Grant's arguments in Frontline, and the SSP policy on prostitution which has come out of them, amount in substance to this Dworkin-MacKinnon species of feminism. At least Grant argues for decriminalisation. But by arguing that prostitution is violence against women and is 'abuse', as opposed to recognising that it is usually associated with violence against women (partly because it is criminalised), she has bought into the line of a particular class-collaborationist and statist feminism: and the SSP's policy has bought into it too.

Given the evolution of the SSP majority - including Sheridan - towards accepting this sort of line on prostitution, the News of the World's claim to have exposed Sheridan as a user of the services of prostitutes was bound to be exceptionally explosive. The SSP's political choices on this issue meant that this could not be laughed off as simply a matter of smears about a comrade's personal life. If the NOTW's claims were true, it would be more like the exposures of Tory sexual misdeeds at the height of Major's campaign for a 'return to traditional values'.

Of course, the acceptance of the state's favoured form of feminism was not the whole of the story. The SSP had built itself to a considerable extent round a cult of Tommy Sheridan; and it had sold itself as a group of 'clean' politicians, perhaps Sheridan most of all. The NOTW smear campaign would obviously undermine that. But without the sexual politics of the policy on prostitution, the party could have gone on selling 'clean politics' in spite of the News of the World's 'revelations'.

After all, the dirty politics that really concerns voters is corruption, lies and betrayed promises - not the human sexual behaviour of politicians.