As a woman, and a feminist woman at that, you cannot but take a stance over the issue of prostitution in society. Even though attitudes have shifted over the years, the topic is as current and explosive as it was over a hundred years ago, when feminist associations first started addressing the issue of prostitution.
Prohibition, abolition or regulation?
Today, most European countries reject the American model of prohibition, which criminalizes all forms of sex work, usually to the disadvantage of sex workers, who risk their safety working underground and have no right to social services or benefits.
Many European countries, such as France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, have all found different legislative approaches to dealing with prostitution through governmental control. They either follow the model of abolitionism, which criminalizes clients (Sweden) or only the third parties benefitting from sex work, such as pimps and traffickers (France), or they enforce strict regulation through decriminalization (Germany and the Netherlands), which allows for brothels and independent prostitutes to operate as long as they are legally allowed to work and are registered.
While prohibition can be rejected as the least desirable form of legislating prostitution, both abolitionism and regulation have not been able to reach their ultimate goals: to eliminate human trafficking as part of the sex industry and/or to decrease the demand for prostitution in general. I am going to refrain from referring to any particular numbers here, as any study on this topic must be taken with a grain of salt, since getting accurate statistics dealing with borderline illegal subjects is nearly impossible.
Feminists have sometimes aligned themselves with one movement, sometimes with the other, and there has yet to be an established consensus. As feminists, can we allow for the symbolic meaning of making sex work a legitimate business in our society, or should we stop and listen to those directly concerned?
orlan "le baiser de l'artiste" (1977)
Can the subaltern speak?
This debate about prostitution has always generated a lot of hypocrisy and ignorance on all sides, making it a very sensitive topic to discuss, not unlike the ongoing pornography and burqa/veil debates. With delicate issues such as these, which involve legislative and moral decision-making, choosing one positition over another always carries the risk of eventually forming certain alliances with groups one would otherwise consider antagonistic.
As with the burqa debate, I usually feel hesitant to discuss these subjects at all and want to leave it to the ones who are directly affected by this issue – in this case the sex-workers themselves. But as with the burqa debate it is difficult to simply leave it at that, because even those directly involved with the issues may fail to see the greater picture, the wider social implications of their decisions.
Naturally, sex-workers as well as anyone else, will most likely argue their case in a way that is most beneficial to their immediate needs. In the case of prostitution, which is considered a profession, this need is often economic. Why would sex workers argue in favor of the Swedish model, the punishment of their clients, which would inevitably lead to less business? The major demands of sex workers are clear: total decriminalization and the acceptance of sex work as legitimate employment.
sex workers protesting in brussels, 2005
However, it cannot be denied that the voices we hear from sex-workers (in the media, in blogs, at demonstrations) generally represent only a small percentage of all men and women offering sex for money. After all, the voices of most victims of human trafficking remain silent and unheard, as they have to fear violence, loss of anonymity and expulsion. Again, numbers for how many prostitutes work involuntarily are hard to find, and they also force us to define what we mean by “voluntary”.
Prostitution: a job like any other?
Imagine this scenario: If you could work in an office job or as a sex worker for the same hourly rate, which job would you choose? I am fairly certain, the majority of women would choose the former. I have no data to support this claim; it just seems like common sense, and this is coming from a sex-positive woman who has never found it particularly difficult to engage in sexual acts with men I was only little acquainted to.
However, the decision may get a little more complicated when presented with the choice between scrubbing toilets all day for 6 Euros an hour and having sex with a man for twenty minutes for 50 Euros (that is not a random figure but apparently the established rate for the average Amsterdam sex-worker). The percentage might increase in favor of the latter but only slightly. The problem arises when you look at how a day’s work having sex with strangers pays the rent and even a little more, while offering you flexible working hours, whereas the cleaning job will force you to do another less exciting job on the side, just so you can get by. For many single mothers and migrant women, who come to Western Europe untrained and without speaking the language, this is the only “choice” they have. So much for “voluntary” prostitutes.
After all, prostitution is not a job like any other, regardless of how one feels about sex. The risk of unwanted pregnancies, STIs and physical and emotional violence is immensely high in this type of work, and no governmental regulation, regardless of how scrutinizing it is, will be able to prevent this.
As I have suggested before, economic reasons play almost always a role for why women decide to work as prostitutes. Whether or not Marxist feminists are right in arguing that prostitution is a direct consequence of capitalism may be debatable (and no, I am not opening that can of worms here), but we cannot deny that social measures are the first means to address when talking about eliminating prostitution. To prevent disadvantaged women from exercising the only profession they are able to obtain, seems like a cruel thing to do, especially when other government measures force them into this position. This, however, does not necessarily speak in favor of the regulation model, which still classifies prostitutes as legal and illegal. Therefore I would argue that before we look at prostitution legislation, we need to look at immigration legislation and our social welfare models and ask whether they provide adequate alternatives.
ad campaign by COYOTE, via Sociological Images
However, I am doubtful as to whether there will ever be an ideal solution, for as long as there is a demand for prostitution. I am a strong believer that everyone has a right to sex, but not to have sex with anyone other than oneself. Potential clients of prostitutes, almost exclusively male, will have to ask themselves why they should have the right to buy sex and whether they feel comfortable to do so with women who may or may not be doing it “voluntarily”. Because you can never be 100% sure that you aren’t in fact perpetuating an industry which is inherently violent and exploitative.
As feminists, we can do all sorts of handwringing about what may be the best way to address this issue; in the end it is the men who purchase these services who could have the most impact. We should not let them off the hook by resorting to biological essentialism. There are alternatives to prostitution, because there are alternatives to patriarchy and poverty, but these need to be explored first and foremost before resorting to the curing of symptoms.