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‘La Prostitution-chic’: High Fashion and the Reform of Prostitution Laws

‘La Prostitution-chic’: High Fashion and the Reform of Prostitution Laws

‘La prostitution chic’ is what critics have labelled a video that French fashion house, Louis Vuitton, launched to advertise their Autumn/Winter Collection 2013. In it we see models, draped in luxury, lingerie-inspired clothing, fur coats and elegant high heels, lingering in Parisian alleyways and slinking into passing cars. While these women are using their bodies to sell high fashion, one could be forgiven for assuming they were in fact selling sex.

Prostitution is not currently illegal in the UK, but the law does create potential offences in respect of most aspects of a prostitute’s work.

While many would see this as clichéd attempt by a designer to seduce customers into buying their latest fashions, a letter to French magazine Libération criticised the advert for glamourising prostitution, assimilating fashion with the second most profitable criminal activity in the world, after drug trafficking. However, this video also raises the question of whether the United Kingdom can effectively reform its laws on prostitution if we are unable to grasp the true nature of prostitution in this country.

Prostitution is not currently illegal in the UK, but the law does create potential offences in respect of most aspects of a prostitute’s work. For example, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is an offence to cause or incite prostitution or control it for personal gain and it is illegal to run brothels, to solicit sex and to curb crawl. As it stands, the law is fragmented and localised efforts to regulate sex work mean that there is no uniformity or consistency within the UK. The law does not prevent brothels operating in every city, nor does it serve to adequately protect the women who, every year, are abused, raped or murdered in the course of their work.

The debate over the reform of these laws reignites every so often, but the conflicting schools of thought about which direction to take tend to prevent any concrete changes from being achieved. The former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and Member of Scottish Parliament, Rhoda Grant, have made attempts to further criminalise the act of buying sex, but not the selling of it, as a way to cut the demand. However, this was met with the argument that further criminalisation of a prostitute’s activity maintains her position on the fringes of society, operating on the edge of illegal activity. Furthermore, critics warn that criminalisation will drive the sex industry further underground beyond the reach of any protection or services that are available to prostitutes.

At the other end of the scale are those who believe prostitution is a viable economic activity. Under the contract theory, it is a private business transaction which should be subject to minimal state interference and, far from oppressing women, it is the epitome of sexual liberation. Radical feminists take the view that this fails to appreciate that prostitution operates in a patriarchal market so the exchange of services will never be entirely free and that it is overly reductionist to make the distinction between a women selling sexual services, rather than her body, when the two are intrinsically linked.

…the conflicting schools of thought about which direction to take tend to prevent any concrete changes from being achieved.

While I firmly support the debate over the reform of prostitution, it is noticeable that the language often relied upon in this discourse refers to ‘the prostitute’ as if she is a single entity, the ‘other woman’, which begs the question — do we really know who Britain’s prostitutes are? By circumventing this question and instead concentrating on theoretical arguments, we drift further away from the likelihood of achieving a durable solution.

At long last, the spotlight has turned to human trafficking in the UK and, while it has diverse manifestations, it is now unquestionable that it plays a large part in our sex industry. Sexual slavery is not a new phenomenon by any means, but clearly it has never been fully appreciated or taken into account amid the arguments over prostitution. Whatever approach is adopted, it must be one which recognises that prostitutes in this country are not a homogenous group.

There is a sad irony to Louis Vuitton’s advert. The director chose to use European women to make the advert provocative and ‘sexy’ to a British audience because of our romanticism of the glamour and sophistication of continental Europe. Yet, in reality, for most of the foreign women working as prostitutes in this country, their lifestyles are as far from luxury and allure as it is possible to be.

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