Does the lack of interest in John Whittingdale’s behaviour reflect changing attitudes to sex work?

While the minister's relationship with a sex worker has been treated as a liability, a majority of the public support decriminalisation of sex work

No one seems entirely certain what the key point in the John Whittingdale story is, beyond the fact that he had a relationship with a woman who was a sex worker.

It may be that the culture minister left himself open to media blackmail and that there was a media cover up, it may be that he should have revealed this conflict of interests, or it could be old-fashioned gossip about a politician’s sex life.

But underlying all of these angles is the assumption that there’s something seedy, embarrassing or blackmail-worthy about a relationship with a sex worker, or sex work itself. Whittingdale himself describes the relationship as ’embarrassing’.

In fact, polling data clearly shows that the public is not uniformly anti-prostitution.

Last week, after France introduced a new law making the purchase of sex illegal, YouGov conducted a poll assessing support for a similar measure in the UK. Of those who offered an opinion, 48 per cent supported criminalisation of purchase, while 51 per cent were opposed.

sex work

Image: YouGov

This follows another poll in August 2015, which found that 54 per cent of the population supported decriminalisation, while 21 per cent were opposed. In March, Jeremy Corbyn aligned himself with the majority view, commenting:

“I am in favour of decriminalising the sex industry. I don’t want people to be criminalised. I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people. Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more civilised way.”

His statements provoked an angry response from several of his Labour colleagues, and some feminist organisations. Sex work is a contentious issue among feminists. Some believe that criminalising the buyers of sex while decriminalising the sellers is the only way to clamp down on the industry, while others argue that decriminalising and regulating sex work is the best way to protect workers’ safety.

The 2015 poll showed that decriminalisation sex work is more popular among men. 65 per cent of whom supported decriminalisation, while 15 per cent were opposed. Among women, decriminalisation had 43 per cent support, with 27 per cent opposed.

The UK’s Home Affairs Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the way prostitution is treated in legislation, with a particular focus on whether the the ‘burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it.’

Given the balance of public opinion on this issue it may be that, in Whittingdale’s case, the story didn’t receive much coverage because the public is simply not that interested.

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