woman in the subwayIt’ll take more than a sparkly dress to green the sex industry.Photo: Lou BuenoA longer version of this article was originally published in Green Futures.

Can the sex industry ever be sustainable? Some find the very question outrageous. Prostitution and pornography have too much to answer for. There’s the global spread of HIV, the trafficking of women and children, instances of rape apparently inspired by violent porn, and unhealthy obsessions with body image provoked by sexualized clichés of beauty.

But whether we like it or not, one thing is certain: The industry is here to stay. However hard we might try to regulate or moralize it out of existence — and everyone from governments to religious campaigners to feminist activists has had a go — the demand remains overwhelming.

And so the question of whether it could become an acceptable — even, dare I say it, exemplary — industry is far from an idle one. Of course, there’s nothing exemplary about abuse or exploitation of any sort. But before we assume the sex industry is all a sad tangle of pimps and victims, it’s worth listening to sex workers themselves. Syon Khan, an escort from Birmingham, told me, “I choose to be in the industry because I find it suits my personality type … You have to be a people person.”

The common assumption that sex work is inherently dangerous or degrading can, with bitter irony, actually make life harder for those involved. In November 2010, The Economist warned that laws designed to suppress human trafficking and sexual exploitation, leading to the closure of bars and brothels, have “helped the police to beat, rob, and rape sex workers ‘with impunity.’” Citing a report by Human Rights Watch, it asserted, “most migrant sex workers have left home for good reasons of their own — among them a desire to work away from their families, and to earn more money.”

Catherine Stephens of the International Union of Sex Workers agrees. “It’s not only inaccurate to suggest that the majority of sex workers do not choose their profession,” she argues, “it’s also patronizing and disempowering.”

So perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced take on the industry. Two narratives dominate the media today. On the one hand, you have the commercialized glamour of Belle de Jour, where a few hours’ work funds shopping sprees and high teas. And on the other, the industry that dare not speak its name, consigned to dark streets and seedy districts; rarely regulated, often criminalized.

There’s some truth in each narrative, but they both contribute to real problems in the way society deals with sex work. In their own ways, both the glamour and the stigma conspire to promote the objectification of women and their bodies. By defining the prostitute as “other,” they keep sex workers at the margins of society, with little recourse to protection from violence, health risks, and exploitation.

According to stereotype, men who pay for sex are on some power trip. But in the vast majority of cases, says Belinda Brooks-Gordon of London University’s Birkbeck College, author of The Price of Sex: Prostitution, Policy and Society, the reality is very different. She cites evidence suggesting that many customers would much rather believe that their companion actually desires them and has chosen to be there. “Sex workers [actually] get bored by constant interrogation [from clients] about their well-being,” she says.

Attempts at regulating the industry, from licensed brothels to “toleration zones,” have proved patchy at best. The most effective framework, says Stephens, is New Zealand’s — precisely because it’s extremely light.

Of course, regulation isn’t the only way to make things better. The whole basis of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is that businesses don’t always need laws to tell them how to behave. But, unsurprisingly, CSR professionals aren’t exactly queuing up to challenge the sex industry. As Solitaire Townsend, chair of Futerra, a sustainable communications consultancy, puts it, “Whenever people talk about sex, they seem to forget what they know about sustainability.”

For many, it’s hard to imagine what a sustainable sex industry would look like. So let’s have a go. Not for the sake of an agreeable fantasy, but because if we don’t try, we can’t hope to improve the health, safety, and well-being of those who work in the industry.

Sexy ethics

So what would be the characteristics of an ethical sex sector? Decent pay and working conditions are essential, including safe places to meet and entertain clients. What about an independent certification body on the Fair Trade model? It could monitor pay and conditions, and confirm that participants in a porn film or lap-dancing club are acting out of choice. Just look for the logo on the sign over the door or in the corner of the video.

Sexual health is, of course, a major concern. One of the most effective ways to cut HIV transmission is by ensuring that sex workers have access to condoms and know how to use them properly. The U.N. estimates that only a third of Asia’s sex workers are reached by HIV-prevention programs. Few people would see porn as health education, but Anne Philpott of The Pleasure Project — an international health education campaign aimed at sex workers — says it’s “perhaps the most effective vehicle out there” for promoting safe sex. With the internet, global access to porn has rocketed. It’s impossible to regulate who downloads it, but the use of condoms onscreen in a sexy way could make a huge difference to bedroom etiquette across the world.

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 beautifully crafted lingerie). It’s a trillion-dollar cross-sector industry spanning live entertainment, pornography, pharmaceutical products, clothes, and accessories.

Feel like watching the latest Fair Trade-certified porn film? The actors all enjoy decent pay, health insurance, and pensions. The carbon impact of the set lighting and travel is offset through investment in clean, efficient cookstoves sold at affordable prices to women in rural Africa.

Perhaps you’d prefer a spot of ethical lap-dancing? You can be sure the performers are all willing and well-paid: It’s certified by Care and Consent, the highly reputable international certification body for ethical sex. You tip generously, knowing that 50 percent of the profits are promised to the local women’s community center.

Or, maybe best of all, you opt for an evening in with your sweetheart. You’ve got everything you need: condoms made from rubber tapped sustainably in Brazil, hand-carved FSC-certified sex toys, and delicious Fair Trade dark chocolate body paint.

Tempted? You’re not alone. 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 in their favorite 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, sex work offers a pretty progressive working model: “Self-employment
, flexible working hours, the option of working from home — what more could you want?”

Penetrating the industry

Of course, engaging with this particular sector isn’t as simple as a board-level partnership with H&M or Shell. We can’t exactly phone up the world’s chief pimp and ask for a meeting. But, in many instances, the same broad principles can apply. It’s one industry where consumers have more influence over the supply chain than they care to acknowledge. A hefty majority of men watch porn, but few admit to it. Certification schemes — monitoring anything from condom use to consent — could help to take away the shame. Watching the right porn could even become an act of solidarity with those working in the industry.

Policy makers also have a role to play. “We need the government to support [sex workers] with the same mechanisms that any industry has: health care, pension schemes, and so on,” says Sam Roddick of Coco de Mer, an erotic boutique. “It’s basic stuff, but it would legitimize the business — and then we could challenge it.”

But politicians aren’t rushing in to take on such a cause. “Very few [members of Parliament] are even willing to debate the issue,” says Sue Miller, member of the House of Lords.”It doesn’t exactly play well with your electorate.” Interestingly, there is much more ready discussion around drugs — which can pose far greater risks to our mental and physical well-being than (safe) sex, and cause far more disruption and distress up the supply chain.

Talking point

So why is the sex industry so difficult to discuss? Some cite the subordination of women; others the 21st century’s weird mix of prurience and prudery. Philosopher Anthony Grayling traces it back all the way to the Judeo-Christian obsession with increasing the flock. “[A]nything that doesn’t result in pregnancy and reproduction is regarded as in some way aberrant.” The shame of Onan has a lot to answer for.

Whatever the reasons behind it, our reluctance to engage with the sex industry is doing no one any favors. If we refuse to recognize the value that sex brings to our society and economy, we certainly can’t add anything to it. And we won’t do much to reform it, either.