This report from the Sunday Times this week …
Jean Johnson, 63, makes an unlikely champion of the working girl. The wife of a retired airline pilot, her life has consisted of raising her three children and being a pillar of the community. Her involvement with the Women's Institute goes back 30 years; she's seen women move from competitive cake-making to championing such causes as Aids research, fighting domestic violence and now, at her behest, the legalisation of prostitution.
The delicious union of the WI and prostitution provided an irresistible story for the nation's news desks last year. "I'd never even heard of the Daily Sport," says Jean. "Their front cover read 'WI wants knocking shops', which wasn't strictly true."
Last March, a film company whisked Jean and her friend and fellow WI member, 73-year-old Shirley Landels, to a bunny ranch in Nevada, sat them in the window of an Amsterdam brothel, "to see how it felt", and took them to a prostitution co-operative in New Zealand. Yet nothing they saw on their world trip shocked Jean and Shirley more than trawling the streets of Southampton, where they witnessed the perilousness and the mundanity of prostitutes' lives in the UK. "There were no miniskirts or high heels here," says Jean, "the girls - some of them students and young mums - worked between 5pm and 7pm to catch men in their cars on their way home from work. They're vulnerable to violence and exploitation. And with the economic crisis, I think it's going to get worse."
It was the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich at the end of 2006 that had spurred Jean into action. She proposed to her local WI in Holybourne, Hampshire, that they ask local authorities to provide safe spaces for sex workers, and most of the 30 members - "after a few gasps" - came out in support. "We all thought it could so easily be us," says Jean. "The murdered girls came from all strata of society." In January last year the majority of the county's 7,700 WI members across 206 branches voted for the resolution that gave Jean and Shirley a mandate to talk to MPs and the local authority to try to improve conditions in Hampshire's estimated 600 brothels. The chief of police and even the local Roman Catholic bishop came out in support, but when they sent it to the WI's National Federation in June as an urgent national resolution, it was rejected. Undeterred, in July, they took over a shop in Winchester, sat a girl in the window, dressed her as "a lady", and surrounded her with tea and cakes. The message was: "If anyone can legitimise prostitution, the WI can." In August they turned a van into what looked like a mobile brothel, filled it with posters, condoms and "various lubricants", and parked it in the centre of Winchester. The vicar of Alresford, hoping for tea, and failing to engage his brain before opening his mouth, called out: "I'm off to the bank, then I'll be over for a quickie!"
In October Shirley Landels - "a brilliant, brilliant lady" - died after suffering a stroke. Jean, with the support of Shirley's daughter, Andy Knight, is determined to carry on campaigning. She loathes the double standards she's witnessed. She recalls meeting a girl who had been imprisoned for soliciting. "She was petrified in case the judge and barristers hearing her case turned out to be clients. The banks are involved too. After all, most brothels take credit cards. It's ridiculous! We're still pretending prostitution isn't happening in Britain."
In November Jean went alone to Westminster to speak at a meeting of MPs and lords involved in amending the Criminal Justice Bill. She spoke again this month, to the campaigning body The English Collective of Prostitutes. "I want not just to legalise prostitution and make it safe for the girls, I want to get rid of the stigma." Her diary is filled with WI bookings for her talk, "Service Providers". The reaction, she admits, is mixed. "I've had a few letters telling me I've brought the WI into disrepute." So she has a subject in reserve. "I love shoes," she says, "so occasionally, I talk about them instead. I've got a pair of red patent ones I'm very fond of. I call them tart's trotters."
The GOS says: What a wonderful story.
I strongly support Jean Johnson's campaign, not because I think it will make the women safer, or that it will improve their working conditions, or that it will take other forms of crime off the street - I frankly have no idea whether it will or not. I don't know any prostitutes, though I'm sure if I did they'd be very nice.
No, I support it for the most naïve of reasons: my common-sense prevents me from understanding what it's got to do with anyone else what a woman chooses to do with her body. Or her brain, or her time, come to that, so long as she isn't harming others.
It's OK for a woman to sell her time and her bodily efforts by, say, working in a factory or cleaning offices. It's OK for her to sell her brain by working in a solicitor's office or being a teacher. It's OK for her to sell her compassion and instinct to care for others by being a nurse. It's OK to sell her beauty by taking her clothes off for a magazine.
So why isn't it OK for her to sell her other womanly attribute, her ability to provide sexual satisfaction to those who want it? It's her body, why can't she do as she wants with it? She can tattoo it, she can starve it, she can lay on the beach and tan it, she can dress it up to look beautiful, she can bare it and still look beautiful … it's hers, and I can't see why society thinks it can deny her right to dispose of it as she wishes.
And please, please, on pain of what I promise will be direct and very scathing response because I can't abide pompous stupidity at any price, DO NOT write in and say that prostitutes don't choose to work in this way, or that they shouldn't do it because they are feeding a drug habit. If they have a drug habit they'll feed it any way they can, and if this method is denied them they'll just steal. That'll be better, will it? The problem is with the habit, not the profession.
And yes, one understands that women do sometimes get forced into prostitution. It must be true, because we read it in the papers. How, exactly, would legalising prostitution make this MORE likely? How would that work, exactly? Being a bus driver is perfectly legal, and no one coerces women to do it. Working behind the counter in Boots is perfectly legal, but I don't see any large gentlemen in flashy clothes dragging innocent girls off the street and shoving them behind the perfume counter.
Or do we really think that it's a good thing, forcing girls to work on the cold streets, in the dark, scared of their pimps, scared of their punters and scared of the police? At the very least, Jean Johnson's campaign offers the prospect of removing one of these fears. That's got to be progress, hasn't it?
By the way … 600 brothels in Hampshire? Just think of the Council Tax and VAT if they were legal …
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