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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is sex the next ethical industry?

Is sex the next ethical industry?

"“Horror stories happen”, says Catherine Stephens of the International Union of Sex Workers, “but they are a minority. Some people take a very strong ideological view around this, seeing all prostitution as violence against women. The implication is that a sex worker’s consent is fundamentally invalid...

The largest police raid to date on brothels, flats and massage parlours failed to find a single case of forced prostitution. It’s not only inaccurate to suggest that the majority of sex workers do not choose their profession, says Stephens: it’s patronising and disempowering. “Neither having sex nor getting paid is inherently dangerous or degrading.”

According to stereotype, men who pay for sex are on some power trip. But in the vast majority of cases, says Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Reader in Psychology and Social Policy at Birkbeck College and author of The Price of sex: Prostitution, policy and society, the reality is very different. She asserts that, for many punters, “mutuality is part of the attraction… Sex workers [actually] get bored by constant interrogation [from clients] about their wellbeing”...

Individuals selling sex to others is, of course, just a small part of the sex economy. Far from being underground or taboo, many aspects are legal, even glorified (think high class courtesans or beautifully crafted lingerie). It’s a trillion dollar cross-sector industry spanning live entertainment, pornography, pharmaceutical products, clothes and accessories...

The whole basis of corporate responsibility is that businesses don’t need laws to make them behave. For the most part, they want to have sustainable supply chains and minimal environmental and social impact because it makes business sense, and it’s what their customers want...

Brooks-Gordon’s research has convinced her that there is huge latent demand for an ethical sex industry. Not only do most clients want to feel wanted, she says; many would be hugely relieved to know that the sex workers starring in their favourite porn film, on stage at their club, or on offer through their escort agency, are there by consent, paid a decent wage, and have access to services that promote health and welfare. Potentially, she says, it offers a pretty progressive working model: “Self-employment, flexible working hours, the option of working from home – what more could you want?” If you’re after a vision of a really sustainable job, sex isn’t a bad place to start.

It all begins to sound rather obvious. We already have organic food, low-carbon transport, fair trade clothes and renewable energy. Why not apply the same logic to all basic human needs and desires? Is there really any fundamental moral difference between paying for food in a restaurant and paying for sex, freely sold?

If we’re really honest, we all pay for sex already. Take advertising... “I’d like to see people selling sex at a genuine level – rather than using it to sell something else”...

Sara Parkin, Founder Director of Forum for the Future, suggests a ‘Five Capitals’ analysis of the natural, social, financial, manufactured and human value of sex. What would that look like?

As far as natural capital is concerned, sex is an admirably low-carbon, low-impact activity. (“Probably more sustainable than a trip to your local National Trust property”, chuckles Sue Miller, Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.) On the social side, our desire for intimacy is so great – and mental and physical closeness so good for us – that some argue sex should be regarded as a human right. Tuppy Owens, Chair of the Sexual Freedom Coalition, cites countless instances in which disabled people have benefited from sexual services – from a stroke survivor left unable to speak in need of close non-verbal companionship, to a tetraplegic man enjoying sensual head massage from a tantric specialist.

In manufactured capital, Parkin playfully points out, the heat generated can help keep the electric blankets off... And sex products, from online porn to toys and clothes, all lend themselves to thoroughly sustainable production (and consumption) methods.

As for finance, Catherine Stephens argues that one great benefit of the sex industry is that it “puts money in women’s pockets”. It arguably puts money in the pockets of lots of men too – but some at least of this could be channelled to meet other needs. Take the Berlin-based non-profit group, Fuck for Forest. It sells access to erotic photos and films – all made by unpaid volunteers and fans – and donates virtually all the proceeds to conservation. Since 2004, it has raised over €180,000 for a range of causes, notably rainforest protection projects in Ecuador and Brazil.

And when it comes to human capital, it’s hard to imagine an industry meeting a more universal, basic human need – or at least, desire."
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