Tea, Consent, and Commercial Sex

You may have heard about the video which explains sexual consent by making an analogy with tea:

I like the use of analogies and metaphors to get a point across. I also enjoy tea better than the average American, some acquaintances saying my love of tea could rival that of the British and Irish. With that in mind,…

Let’s say that someone has heard about my knowledge and skill regarding tea, and would not only like me to brew and serve some tea for them, but would be willing to pay me for it. I give it a moment’s thought, and agree. The table is set, the tea is brewed and served with suitable edibles, the whole experience enjoyed by my guest, who pays the agreed-upon remuneration plus a gratuity.

Not bad.

So, why not make this a business? I spread the word about my willingness to make and serve tea to paying customers, from word-of-mouth to the World Wide Web, and build a customer base. I set some limits on what I will and won’t do, establish a schedule of fees for different levels of service, and build a base of regular and occasional clientele. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes it’s tedious or even annoying – but so long as no one uses force or deceit to get me to make them tea, or doesn’t pay the agreed-upon fee, I’m good.

Now imagine that I run into people who have a problem with this. Some argue that, to “protect” me and/or my clients, I need to be licensed – not the same kind of licensure that a restaurant or catering company goes through, but special licensing through the police, along with excessive and intrusive health checks, severe limits on advertising and location, and constant political and social scrutiny. Others would argue that, while there’s nothing wrong with serving tea for free, as soon as you exchange it for money, some nefarious force robs tea-service-sellers of consent, and all tea-service-buyers are selfish and abusive, not to mention the people who run those filthy teahouses, so let’s “rescue” the poor tea-service-sellers and punish those nasty buyers and bosses by making it a crime to pay for tea service, or living off the avails of tea-service-selling, because you should only consent to making or having tea when you truly love the other person.

What about if a tea-service-seller argues they’re not being forced, they don’t hate what they do, the majority of their clients are not abusive assholes, and they don’t need the police or anyone else interfering in their business? Well, the ones who argue that all tea-service-selling is a form of modern-day slavery dismissively argue that those poor sellers are “not representative” and deluded by “false consciousness,” so no one should listen to them. The stigmatizing narrative of the “anti-sellers” even begins to negatively affect the sellers’ community, yet still they persist and protest, based on the basic premise that the only people who get to decide who has tea with whom, and under what terms, are the people themselves.

Money is not magic. It doesn’t have any mysterious power to erode or negate consent. And if it’s possible to give and receive something consensually, then it’s also possible to buy and sell it consensually.

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Seattle Prosecutor Val Richey’s Warped Idea of Consent

The basic argument for decriminalizing sex work is rooted in the basic premise that government should not interfere in the private interactions of consenting adults. Ironically, prohibitionists like King County prosecutor Val Richey would claim to agree. The problem, they assert, is that money somehow erases consent.

“What you have is someone paying this person essentially to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes,'” Richey recently told the Seattle Times. Interviewed about the massive bust in that city last year, he insists that, because the women were “doing it for the money” and not “as a leisure activity,” they must have been coerced.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, in her recent blog post for Reason magazine, summed it up with a priceless gem of a quote:

By that logic, anyone who wouldn’t perform their job without remuneration is a victim of labor trafficking!

The simplest definition of consent is “voluntary agreement or permission” – one person wishes to engage in an activity with another, and the second person willingly agrees and permits. This also implies that the person being asked has the option to refuse. Most importantly, the principle of consent recognizes that each of us places various conditions on whether or when we agree to a given action.

Let me give some examples based on my love and knowledge of tea (and yes, the Youtube “Tea and Consent” video springs to mind). I will gladly accept a cup of tea from a friend, but not without certain conditions – no milk (given my dairy allergy), little if any sugar, and definitely not any from the Charleston Tea Plantation (which, quite frankly, is indistinguishable from having boiled three year old balls of lint). I will also gladly share stories and opinions about tea in casual conversation. But let’s say that someone asks me to taste the results of their tea-blending experiments, or to make a special blend and serve it at a special event, or to write a paper or deliver a talk. Yes, I’d enjoy doing so, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to abrogate my right to be compensated for such work. My requiring payment for the time and effort required says nothing about whether I would enjoy doing so. It is a condition to my agreeing to do so, just as much as any other condition I might impose.

The same holds true with sex work. Payment does not negate consent; it is a condition of consent, just like other limits that sex workers place on their participation. As Liz Brown rightly points out, to argue that being paid automatically equals being forced is to regard all paid labor as a form of slavery. Granted, people frequently take jobs they would rather not do. But limited choice is not the same as having no choices at all – and to tell those who enter sex work that you will limit their choices further “for their own good” is both paternalistic and hypocritical.

This is also the case with sex work clients. Their choices are often framed by circumstances beyond their control, from physical or psychological disability, to the sudden loss of an intimate relationship. They establish certain conditions, and must abide by the conditions of prospective providers. To reduce the interaction simply to money, and reduce money further into an instrument of coercion, is to ignore the full context in which client-provider interactions take place.

Money is not the instrument of coercion here. It is the archaic and inhumane laws against consenting adults agreeing to their own conditions for sexual expression. It is the enforcement of these laws which hamstring the ability of sex workers to assure their safety through screening and other measures, and to seek recourse whenever consent is violated. It is the paternalistic ideology of prohibitionism that is to blame for unduly limiting the choices available to both clients and providers. Whenever government shackles the power of individuals to consent with one another, it is tyranny.