Socially sustainable sex could save the economy, the environment, and our society
Charlotte gently closes the door and slips into the adjoining room, where her colleagues are having a laugh over a cup of coffee. She flicks on her phone and scans her account. All the tabs are green: earnings high, health risks low, working hours reasonable, carbon footprint tiny, client feedback off the scale. . . . All that’s left for her to do is rate her own well-being. She thinks of the baths, massages, and caresses she’s given that week; the sweet, serene expressions breaking through from behind weary frowns—and gives herself a discreet pat on the back: She’s a do-gooder, and it makes her feel great.
It’s a far cry from the view most people have of sex work. According to the more familiar narrative, it is the industry that dare not speak its name, consigned to dark streets and seedy districts; rarely regulated, often criminalized. Women of low means and lower self-esteem shrink under its stigma. Their clients are aggressive and abusive, and they’re desperate for a way out. Any job would be better, wouldn’t it?
There’s certainly an ugly side to the sex industry. Exploitation and trafficking play a part—but 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, citing a report by Human Rights Watch, warned that international 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.” The magazine 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 patronizing and disempowering.”
According to stereotypes, men who pay for sex are on a power trip. But in the vast majority of cases, says Belinda Brooks-Gordon, author of The Price of Sex: Prostitution, Policy and Society, the reality is very different. For many johns, “mutuality is part of the attraction. . . . Sex workers [actually] get bored by constant interrogation [from clients] about their well-being.”
Meanwhile, the public mood toward prostitution appears to be shifting. A recent BBC poll found 71 percent in favor of greater social acceptance; an online CNBC poll found 85 percent in favor of decriminalization.
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. And, as hackneyed clichés about the “oldest profession” remind us, it’s been here forever.
It’s certainly proved almost impossible to regulate out of existence. Though that hasn’t stopped us trying. Laws against selling sex litter the statute books of almost every country through the ages. There have been countless endeavors to keep erotica out of sight—from the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, to the prosecution of Penguin for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, to the X rating for sexually explicit films.
With the Internet, global access to porn has rocketed. A quick Google search cuts out the need for embarrassing trips to the pharmacist, sex shop, or red light district, and it’s easier than ever to find sex for sale. Demand remains stubbornly high, despite the best educational efforts of everyone from Christian fundamentalists to feminist activists. Like it or not, this is an industry that’s here to stay.
Attempts at regulating it, from licensed brothels to “toleration zones,” have proven patchy at best. The most effective framework, says Stephens, is New Zealand’s—precisely because it’s extremely light. But, as we know, regulation isn’t the only way to make things better. The whole basis of corporate social responsibility (CSR) 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.
Recent years have seen huge improvements in the way we consume food, fashion, and travel—partly thanks to positive engagement from sustainability professionals. But, as Solitaire Townsend, chair of the sustainable communications consultancy Futerra, puts it: “Whenever people talk about sex, they seem to forget what they know about sustainability.”
It’s a theme echoed by Sally Uren, deputy director of the UK sustainable-development organization Forum for the Future. “Even some unsavory sectors, from arms to tobacco, have been given the CSR treatment,” she says, “but the sex industry has slipped under the sustainability radar. Yet, guns and smoking kill. If we can have sustainable bullets, surely there can be sustainable sex!” So why isn’t there? Is it because we’re embarrassed by it? Is it because we feel we have nothing to add? More likely, it’s that we have difficulty imagining what a sustainable sex industry would look like—or have never even tried. So let’s have a go . . .
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 actors’ travel is offset through investment in clean, efficient cookstoves sold at affordable prices to women in rural Africa.
Perhaps you’d prefer an ethical lap dance? You can be sure the performers are all willing and well paid: Their employer has been approved by Care and Consent, the highly reputable international certification body for ethical sex. You tip generously, knowing that 50 percent of the profits go 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 sex toys certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, 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 relieved to know that the sex workers starring in their favorite porn film, dancing onstage at their club, or available through their escort agency are there by consent, are 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?”
It all begins to sound rather obvious. We already have organic food, low-carbon transportation, 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?
Of course, engaging with this particular sector isn’t as simple as a board-level partnership with a corporation. We can’t call up the World’s Chief Pimp and ask for a meeting. But, in many instances, the same broad principles can apply, says Sally Uren: “A sustainability framework would allow an honest evaluation of social, environmental, and economic impacts, and perhaps find new ways of tackling old issues.”
So if we shake off the stigma of selling—and buying—sex, how does it rate in sustainability terms? 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. 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 who is in need of close nonverbal companionship to a tetraplegic man enjoying a sensual head massage from a tantric specialist.
In manufactured capital, Parkin playfully points out, the heat generated by sex can help keep the electric blankets turned off, reducing our energy usage. 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 of this could be channeled to meet other needs. Take the Berlin-based nonprofit group Fuck for Forest, which 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 more than $300,000 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.
We might conclude that sex is, potentially, eminently sustainable. And yet, “CSR professionals aren’t exactly queuing up to work in one of the biggest industries on the planet,” says Townsend. Part of the problem is that the criminalization of organized prostitution makes it impossible to set up the necessary mechanisms for traceability and accountability—something of a catch-22. But, Townsend argues, we could start by engaging with mainstream porn. “I’d love to see integrated environmental reporting by a porn company,” she says.
Sam Roddick, founder of London’s high-end sex shop Coco de Mer, agrees. “The porn industry has to be challenged,” he says. “It’s so formulaic, it’s not even funny. We need to challenge its content, distribution channels, and monopolies. We need to make sure that those who create new content are abiding by laws, and are traceable. Everyone needs clear and good boundaries within which to work.”
This is one sector in which consumers have more influence over the supply chain than they sometimes care to admit. As long as people are prepared to pay for erotica, there is a degree of accountability that can be leveraged. Certification schemes—monitoring anything from condom use to consent—are viable as long as people pay to peep. Buying the right sort of porn, as opposed to downloading it for free, could even become an act of solidarity. There are no shortages of parallels here with the music industry’s faltering embrace of an online model.
Meanwhile, it’s not just about making the best of a bad egg. Porn is perhaps the most effective vehicle out there when it comes to promoting safe sex. As Anne Philpott, founder of the Pleasure Project sexual health campaign, puts it: “We have to put ‘sexy’ back into sex education.”
Which is where, in theory, the government might come in. Sam Roddick thinks it’s about time it did. “We need to challenge the government to support [sex workers] with the same mechanisms that any industry has: health care, pensions, and so on. It’s really basic stuff, but it would legitimize the business, first of all, and then we could challenge it.”
For escort Syon Khan, it’s a simple quid pro quo. “I pay income tax on the sex work I do,” she says, “so I should be entitled to the same benefits as any other tax-paying professional.” Politicians seeking election, however, do everything they can to avoid any mention of sex.
So why is the sex industry so difficult to discuss? Why do so many in the sustainability world feel they would be tarnished by association? Some cite the subordination of women, others the 21st century’s weird mix of prurience and prudery. The Judeo-Christian notion that sex is only for procreation also comes into play. Some civilizations, like Japan, don’t share the same anxieties. In Japanese art, prostitutes are depicted with as much dignity as aristocrats. Take Kitagawa Utamaro’s kimono-clad beauty gracefully concealing her sex with a painted fan. Now try imagining a gilt-framed portrait of an elegant whore in action on the wall of a stately suburban home.
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, environment, and economy, we certainly can’t add anything to it.
Anna Simpson is managing editor at Green Futures. Excerpted from Green Futures (Oct. 2010), the leading British magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures, published by Forum for the Future.www.forumforthefuture.org/greenfutures