I was browsing through the small ads for prostitutes in the local paper when I had an idea that could transform the industry and dispel the unease which might afflict potential customers who think it is something degrading to everyone involved, deeply involved with organised crime, and rather too disgusting to be carried on in public.
Last autumn, Harriet Harman announced that she was negotiating with the Newspaper Society, which represents local papers, for tighter regulations on these advertisements, which seem now to be everywhere. Even in rural and prosperous North Essex the two freesheets carry dozens every week, after the local news: “Pub will make way for six flats” and “Dippy the Duckling recovers from a draining experience” the 24 pages of property and the motoring ads: “Classy, discreet, fun escort, Toni, new prices” (perhaps consumers should try to imagine how it feels to be a prostitute advertising that you now are cheaper) or “Executive massage, by appointment, sophisticated, sensual service. Staff vacancy”, which, if it has a “staff” of escorts, is almost certainly illegal.
The Newspaper Society did respond to Harman with revised guidance about prostitutes advertising in February. This states, among other things, that “Advertisements offering [sexual] services or requesting such service providers, or recruiting such service providers, should not be accepted if the publisher knows or has reason to believe that [illegal] activities are taking place. Publishers must be wary of advertisements containing … coded references … and abbreviations used to denote sexual services; or advertisements containing names, graphics, photographs, text suggestive of illegal sexual services.
But, as the Society also points out, in some times and places, the police want to have prostitutes advertising in the local papers: it keeps them off the streets. This was certainly the position of the Suffolk Police when the Ipswich prostitute murders were under way last year. Besides, money is money. The Society has practical suggestions for papers that want to keep their hands clean: only accepting payments for these ads by cheque or credit card and insisting that these come in person from people with two forms of photo ID. There is also a possibly more realistic glimpse into the ways that the industry operates: “Refusal of advertising might lead to threats or actual attacks upon newspaper companies’ staff and their property. Companies must therefore also make sure that all their staff are properly protected and in addition, that measures are taken to protect staff, public and others in publicly accessible areas of newspaper offices, including reception areas.”
But it seems to me there is so much more than simply protecting their staff from angry pimps that newspapers might do if they are going to welcome the sex trade into the consumerist carnival. Why not set their journalists to investigate the advertisers? After all, some small proportion of the advertising profits on any newspaper does end up as journalists’ salaries, and there are not many journalists who would wish to profit from slave trading, even if their employers are indifferent to the possibility that the brothels whose money they take are not just illegal but using trafficked women.
Let some enterprising newspaper chain set up a Fair Sex Trade mark, like all the other Fair Trade campaigns, only dirtier. Prostitutes who had been certified as fairly traded would be known to have certain characteristics: some of them would be quite obvious and easy to fulfil, such as having no unnecessary packaging. The ecologically conscious consumer could reject prostitutes with air miles on them and demand that they be locally raised, even if humane conditions might not be the most efficient way to produce them. A guarantee that only high-quality ingredients went into them should eliminate the junkies. Sustainability might be a little more difficult to arrange, but perhaps the women certified under this scheme could guarantee to raise their own children into the trade; even customers really committed to fair trade might wish to pass their own daughters in, if they had any surplus.
Some Guardian readers may feel that these proposals are a little extreme, and presume too much on the goodwill of the customers. But what I say is that if we are going to accept prostitution as a normal trade, with no more moral component than any other, then the customers will have to do their bit, too. Of course, it should be made easy for them, so that prostitutes who have been certified under the scheme must be easy to recognise. I suggest a small tattoo, proclaiming that “This woman has been fairly traded, and certified as such by your local newspaper”. Alternately, the papers which feel they have something to be ashamed of here might just stop carrying the ads at all. But which — to speak for a moment without irony — which do you think is more likely?