A lesson for Nicola Sturgeon about politics and prostitution – Susan Dalgety

editorial image
Share this article
Have your say

If Boris Johnson was Doris Johnson, she would be judged more harshly. And why goes the law not go after the johns and pimps of the sex ‘industry’, wonders Susan Dalgety

Kamala Harris is a West Wing presidential candidate. A woman of colour, born in California, to an Indian mother and Jamaican father. She has enjoyed a distinguished career in public service, from a district attorney’s office to the United States Senate.

She is a moderate progressive, which is how most Democrats like their Presidents, supporting a ban on deadly assault rifles and raising taxes on wealthy Americans.

Her combative style, honed by two decades as a public prosecutor, would have made debates between her and Donald Trump compelling viewing.

She is, to put not too fine a point on it, a very handsome woman with a wardrobe full of expensive-looking pant-suits and a mane of glossy hair usually only seen on shampoo adverts. And she can dance.

Yet earlier this week, she unexpectedly withdrew her candidacy to be the Democrat candidate next November, leaving a gaggle of septuagenarians and a small-town mayor to battle it out.

“It is with deep regret — but also with deep gratitude — that I am suspending my campaign today,” she tweeted, adding, “But I want to be clear with you: I will keep fighting every day for what this campaign has been about. Justice for the People. All the people.”

But it seems most of the people would rather have a bloke, any old bloke, as their presidential candidate than a professional, likeable (enough) woman. It is not that voters don’t think that a woman should be president, or Prime Minister, it is just that women politicians are judged more harshly than their male counterparts.

Imagine Boris if he were a menopausal Doris, with a shock of uncombed, dyed-blonde hair and an ill-fitting suit, mumbling her way incoherently through a speech, while her young lover waited in the wings.

You can’t? Of course not, because it wouldn’t happen.

READ MORE: Feminists and millennials are remaking the world – Susan Dalgety

READ MORE: Why we must act to stop prostitution becoming an ordinary ‘job’ – Jacci Stoyle

Women politicians are simply not given the latitude we afford men. Ask Nicola Sturgeon or Theresa May. Or Amy Klobuchar, one of only two women remaining in a field of Democrat candidates where there are now as many men over 75 as women of any age.

She recently pointed out, during a TV debate, that a woman with the same inexperience as 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, would not even be considered as a candidate for the top job.

‘Nordic model’ of prostitution

Mayor Pete’s preparation for president has been a spell as the civic leader of South Bend, Indiana, a city only slightly larger than our own dear Paisley. Klobuchar has been a senator since 2006.

“Of the women on the stage, do I think we would be standing on that stage if we had the experience he had? No, I don’t.” growled Senator Klobuchar.

“Pete is qualified to be up on this stage, and I am honoured to be standing next to him,” she said, “But what I said is true. Women are held to a higher standard.”

Reluctantly tearing myself away from my regular diet of US political podcasts, I immersed myself for a few hours in an online debate about the “Nordic model” of prostitution.

Twenty years ago, Sweden introduced a law banning the purchase of sex, arguing that this protected women and girls. Several countries have followed suit, including Ireland, and there are calls for the Scottish Government to introduce a similar law. A meeting in Holyrood on Thursday night, organised by MSP Ruth Maguire and campaign group UK Feminista, heard arguments for outlawing the purchase of sex.

“We need to dismantle the mythical barriers that some prostitution is classified as safe and empowering,” urged campaigner Diane Martin, a former prostitute, whose moving testimony was live tweeted by @wondersbec, a feminist researcher.

“It is not a job like any other,” added Diane. “It is not empowering. It’s not a service... to survive I had to split off psychologically from my self, from my body.”

And she ended with an exhortation to politicians.

“Please believe the voices of survivors who know the lived reality of the sex trade. The voice of women who want to leave the sex trade of abuse.

“Criminalise the demand. Say that in Scotland, nobody is for sale.”

My role in Edinburgh’s sex trade

As a young politician, I used to help manage the sex trade in Edinburgh. For a spell in the 1990s, I was a member of the city council’s Licensing Committee, and we were regularly asked to license premises as “saunas”, which we all knew were brothels.

“Their fire certificate is up to date, we have no objections,” the representative from Lothian and Borders Fire Service would say.

“The applicant has no criminal record,” intoned a senior police officer.

“We do know these are brothels?” I asked once, and once only, before being kicked under the table by a friendly comrade and voting to grant the licence.

I was idealistic back then. Or naïve. Probably both. Far better that women were able to ply their trade from the comfort of a warm tenement than in the back streets of Leith, I thought.

I even flirted with the idea that sex work was no more exploitative than any other manual job. Not one that I would choose for myself, but a noble pursuit for those who did.

How stupid I was. Sex work, even for those women who purport to enjoy strange men invading their bodies for a few pounds, is inherently violent.

For every woman who trades her very essence for a Prada handbag, there are scores of girls abused for half a bottle of cheap vodka or a line of coke. Prostitution is not work. It is exploitation. I guess that makes me a ‘swerf’ – a sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist – or in plain English, I believe prostitution oppresses women and girls.

I don’t think flashing your vagina to a group of drunk, inadequate men in a lap-dancing bar is empowering. Camming – where a woman performs sexual acts live on Skype – is demeaning. And hard-core pornography kills.

It seems I am in good company. Among the tweets bemoaning Kamala Harris’s departure from the presidential race were some cheering, “Good riddance. She’s a swerf!”

Like Ruth Maguire, Diane Martin and a host of other women worldwide, Harris supports the Nordic model. “We have to stop arresting... prostitutes and started going after the johns and pimps,” she said earlier this year.

Good advice Kamala. I hope Nicola Sturgeon is listening.