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The York Union's latest event, on the decriminalisation of prostitution, featured a decidedly diverse panel. Arguing against decriminalisation were former sex worker Fiona Broadfoot, and famous (and controversial) feminist writer Julie Bindel. Against the motion were Laura Lee, a campaigner for sex workers rights, and Dr Catherine Hakim, a social scientist.
No voting took place, with the focus instead being on a constructive discussion, though vestiges of a debate style persisted. Something out of the ordinary was the placement of security on the door. This was, the organisers said, in direct response to comments made on the University of York Feminist Society Facebook page promoting heckling of Ms Bindel (who has in the past made controversial remarks seen as transphobic).
The room could not have been more still than when Broadfoot declared "I speak for dead girls"
During the introductory speeches, very clear themes emerged. Bindel and Broadfoot advanced an argument for the illegality of purchasing sex acts and operation of brothels. It was heavily emphasised that prostitution was a male dominated issue, with the fault lying with their inability to control their actions and desires
An interesting switch of the traditional stance of focusing on women as victims, it allowed debate as to the cause and potential reasons for the sex industry. Moreover, discussion of the whole industry and whether or not its prevention was possible was also on the table.
Opposing views came from Laura Lee who felt that decriminalisation of the industry would restore dignity and allow justice for those mistreated in the industry. Her emphasis on safety for sex workers was compelling. The views of Lee and Broadfoot, both of whom based their opinions on personal experience, were able to show the potentially tragic side of the industry and as such why discussions and attempts to solve these issues are essential. The room could not have been more still than when Broadfoot declared "I speak for dead girls", nor when Lee listed the suffering of those she knew of.
In conversation with Lee after the event, she stated that the industry either made or broke people and fortunately in her case she felt the former to be true. Such differing experiences were always going to alter opinions and the outcomes these two women wished from the discussion.
All panellists agreed that improving safety was paramount but no concrete solution was provided
A more statistical approach was adopted by Dr Catherine Hakim, whose conclusions were rooted in her book Honey Money, as well as a recent study undertaken for the Institute for Economic Affairs. In her eyes, the purchase of sex workers was for more than the sexual acts that they perform. Beauty and other desirable traits were all part of what she described as women's "erotic capital".
Her opinion was that the sex industry would never disappear from the world. Male demand for sex being perpetually higher than women, the best answer would be decriminalisation. A less emotive, more clinical argument didn't seem to fully carry the room, particularly compared to the more involved and harrowing perspectives found elsewhere.
Obvious disagreements did occur throughout the evening. This became especially apparent in the question and answer section, which followed the initial speeches. The preferred model which the panellists wished to adopt was one of high contention. Those against decriminalisation were advocates of the Nordic model, whilst the other two panellists suggested a more liberal model such as that of New Zealand (or preferred the lethal deterrents to violence provided in China). All panellists agreed that improving safety was paramount but no concrete solution was provided.
Questions from the floor fell into two categories. The educated provided an interesting platform for further discussion, such as questions on alternative sex work systems and preventing the issue from simply moving abroad. However, some questions were merely ill-informed and obviously pre-decided without listening to the panel during the discussion. To my right, Nouse's Politics Editor was seen to wince at one best summarised as "won't someone think of the children?"
On occasion the debate did get heated. Denigration of the uncaring attitude taken towards sex workers by police in somewhat riper language raised a few smiles. Despite the occasionally deeply intense disagreements, the consensus on protection seemed to foster a certain amount of fellow feeling between Lee and Bindel.
Less conducive to sophisticated and intellectual argument were Broadfoot's comments about sex workers being like "pieces of meat", not long after Lee had explicitly stated how degrading such comparisons were. Despite defending her opinion, such language being used by a fellow panellist obviously caused annoyance to Lee and a muted disapproval from the audience.
The issue of how well paid the industry is was also hotly contested. Lee referred to "savvy business women", and Hakim advocated the short term benefits of such well-paid work to graduates.
This stood in stark contrast to Broadfoot and Bindel, who were openly disgusted by such suggestions. Bindel even accused Hakim of "making up" her figures, and restated this in conversation following the event. Despite these moments of intense dispute and emotion, the debate remained overwhelmingly respectful, slightly to the surprise of all.
The event was well-handled by the York Union, especially in light of the potential controversy and threats. Such tact and maturity allowed for a predominantly smooth discussion on such critical issues. All sides being able to put educated and interesting views across. The fact that no solid conclusions were reached illustrates the complexity and emotive nature of the issues discussed. It would have been impossible to leave without a much clearer understanding of the issue- and of the high, human cost of inaction.