Keith Vaz, the high profile Labour MP, was splashed across the front pages on Sunday after he was caught paying for sex with two male escorts in an old-fashioned tabloid sting. He was outed by the Sunday Mirror, who recorded Vaz pretending to be a washing machine salesman called Jim.
According to the paper, he reminded the escorts to bring poppers and bragged about having unprotected sex. "We like Eastern Europeans," he told his companions, "they're nice." Handing over payment of $100, he joked it would be "a lot where they come from".
It sounds like Vaz is far from an ideal customer. Stingy, condescending. Not quite an "ugly mug" (sex worker slang for a bad client), but the sort of client a sex worker might rant to their mates about afterwards. They'd probably want to tell them who he was, too. It's not every day you find yourself at the home of the guy heading up the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC), who recently presided over a cross-party investigation into prostitution.
When the story was reported this weekend, it came with the usual clichés: his "double life"; the expected bigotry ("he was a closeted gay man") and, predictably, with the subtext that the whole HASC investigation into sex work should now be discredited.
"In light of Keith Vaz's conflict of interest, HASC should re-examine its prostitution report, which is little more than a punter's charter," tweeted Times columnist Janice Turner, for example.
The whole thing is a kick in the teeth for sex workers. The results of the inquiry – which initially seemed as though it was going to have a strong anti-sex-work slant – were a minor triumph, with recommendations made that the UK immediately decriminalise sex workers and lift criminal sanctions against brothel-keeping and soliciting. Vitally, the report concluded that the so-called "Swedish model", which criminalises clients, may be unsafe.
So was the whole thing just an elaborate ruse by Vaz? A labour-intensive way for him to continue seeing escorts himself? If it was, he went out of his way to throw us off the scent, launching an investigation that was, initially, skewed towards the Swedish model, subjecting sex-working, or formerly sex-working witnesses Laura Lee, Paris Lees and Brooke Magnanti, to hostile and ill-informed questioning.
No, if discrediting is due here, it is of Vaz alone. His hypocrisy is stunning. He feigned ignorance of the sex industry when he himself was playing a role in it. But that doesn't mean the enquiry should be written off.
The inquiry took into account written submissions from sex workers, sex worker organisations, police forces and health services across the UK. When the findings were released, they were the result of a panel decision and seven months investigation. Vaz played a role, but to write off the report as a "punter's charter" is to ignore some pretty important voices in the debate: the workers themselves.
Backed by organisations like Amnesty International, sex workers all over the planet are calling for full decriminalisation – and refuting the Swedish Model – on the basis that it will allow them to work safely, to screen clients properly, to fight stigma.
Here's a document calling for decriminalisation signed by 174 sex worker organisations, including those based in the UK, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, Nepal, India, Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Belarus, Moldova, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Fiji, Hong Kong, China, Poland, Austria, Denmark, Jamaica, Guyana, The Netherlands, Turkey, Thailand, Romania.
Yet abolitionists just want to make this debate about the punters, the men. They don't care about protecting the rights and safety of sex workers; they think the HASC report, the call for decriminalisation, is just a "punters' charter". In fact, more myopically, "a punter's charter". The unique vision of Keith Vaz.
The HASC report was the result of thorough research, not Keith Vaz's predilections. So when you hear the abolitionists call for it to be scrapped, ask yourself whether they care about the many sex workers who contributed to its findings, and the thousands more whose voices will be utterly lost if it is ignored.
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