The Lord Sewel ‘scandal’ should be about misogyny, not drugs

When a video of former Labour minister, Lord Sewel, doing lines of coke with “prostitutes” came out, media everywhere Lord Sewelresponded with both shock and mockery, but for all the wrong reasons.

In fact, when I first heard the news on CBC Radio last week, prostituted women weren’t even mentioned. It was reported as a drug scandal: “Lord Sewel caught doing cocaine!” Who cares, I thought. (An article published later at the CBC briefly noted that “Lord Coke” was accompanied by some “scantily clad female companions.”)

Other media outlets covered it as a “sex and drugs” scandal and a “coke-fueled orgy,” presenting Sewel, “a married father of four,” as having a secret “bad boy” life.

“The 69-year-old took part in a sex and drugs party last week,” the Daily Mail reported.

In The Guardian, Roy Greenslade writes that he pities Sewel. Criminal aspects aside, we should leave the poor man be. Greenslade notes the presence of “sex workers” but clearly sees that factor as beside the point.

Labour blogger and commentator, Mark Thompson, shared Liberal Democrat politician, Stephen Tall’s response:

Tall argues that the whole thing is a private matter — Sewel deserves “horse-whipping from his wife and family,” but that’s it. The illegal aspects should be decriminalized anyway, and it’s none of our business what kind of sex “consenting adults” engage in.

A writer at politics.co.uk is also concerned with “moralising,” seeing the whole thing as a victimless crime, mocking the “pearl-clutching” response from the public.

The truth is Lord Sewel did not hurt anyone. He did not force prostitutes to sleep with him. He did not force anyone to do cocaine. The fact someone wishes to take drugs and sleep with attractive members of the opposite sex is entirely unsurprising and uninteresting. If they are married it might say something about their personal morality, but that fact has no bearing on their political morality, which is all that should concern us as members of the public. It also says nothing about their professional competence. It is simply none of our business.

I might otherwise agree with the “pearl-clutching” accusation because I really don’t care if people use drugs or not… except that “pearl-clutching” is a sexist term and using drugs and paying women to have sex with you are not at all the same thing. And certainly, when we are in the midst of a heated, global debate about prostitution legislation — something Sewel would presumably have had a say on as a member of the Lords — this is very much an issue of “political morality.”

So while there is video proof of Sewel paying the women £200 each, the question of “what is the harm” centers mostly around proving he was using illegal drugs and proving that he used public funds to pay for his sexy party. The “moral” factor really only comes into play as a “family issue,” that is to say, the fact that he was doing all this behind his wife’s back.

So while the media might be painting this as a moral scandal, Sewel’s “bad” behaviour isn’t connected to any human rights violation. It is viewed as improper behaviour for a (married) member of the House of Lords but not for a regular Joe Blow.

The fact that the former Labour minister felt it was acceptable to pay for sex was of little concern to most media outlets. He’s using illegal drugs! He’s cheating on his wife! Seeexxx! was the real story.

While there is video of Sewel paying the women £200 — that is to say, there is very solid evidence that he paid for sex — the police have launched a criminal investigation into “allegations of drug-related offences.” This is, of course, because paying for sex is not a crime in England.

It’s clear the concern here is about money and “illegal drugs,” not the fact this man’s view of women. His misogynistic and racist comments — “We could but do with some nice little young Asian woman tonight… they sort of look innocent but you know they are whores” — have been mentioned here and there but are not central to the scandal. Racism and sexism aren’t illegal, after all…

I wonder what would happen if we saw women as human and not things? The fact the we routinely compare the debate around legalizing drugs to the debate around legalizing prostitution is notable, here. In what way is using drugs akin to using the body of a live human being? Considering that drugs, in and of themselves, are either harmless or harm only the user (without getting into the impact of the invented “War on Drugs” and the role of Big Pharma in all this), I find the ongoing comparison of prostituted women to drugs and the almost complete lack of concern about the actual human women involved in this story to be enormously offensive. I wonder, if buying sex were illegal, would we treat it with the same concern we do “using drugs,” an actually pretty innocuous thing that almost every human being around the world engages in? (See: Caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, OxyCoton, never mind all the rest of the illegal drugs like coke and MDMA most everyone I know uses or has used, recreationally, in their lives.)

Drugs are not a “moral” issue. They are substances people ingest for various reasons, including to deal with medical/psychological issues or to get high. Paying for sex and discussing women in derogatory ways is, in fact, a moral issue, as well as a political one. And I don’t say it is a “moral” issue in a religious sense (those who know me know how deeply unreligious I am), but in the sense that if one is an ethical human being who cares about and respects other human beings, one does not treat women as objects and does not refer to them as “whores.”

It is absolutely impossible to discuss prostitution, in this day and age, outside a political context and outside the context of women’s rights. Sewel is just one man in a long line of men who think they are entitled to do what they wish with women’s bodies and who see us as either entertainment or baby-makers.

The real “scandal” here is that the media and public take drug-use more seriously than human rights violations. There is no way we will move forward as a society, towards an equitable world, so long as we talk about prostitution as a joke or a private matter.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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