“In every modern society, humans exchange money or other valued items for things that they desire and could not otherwise obtain. For various reasons, a significant number of people cannot get sex, or sufficient sex, or the kind of sex they want, freely. Unless at least one of these conditions changes, demand for paid sex will continue.” ~ Peter Singer
Prostitution is widely known to be the oldest profession on the planet—and one of the most dangerous, shadowy, and stigmatized.
This line of work is thought to be vile, dirty, and wrong.
According to mainstream society’s beliefs, because prostitutes are desperate to earn money, they’ve chosen the last resort of selling their bodies. We believe these are uneducated women who cannot understand what they are doing and fail to recognize their own oppression. That they’re drug addicts and manipulated by their pimps. Because they are brainwashed by their exploiters, nothing they say can be relied upon. Although the above may be true in some cases, it is time to reevaluate these judgmental stereotypes that have been held in Western society for so long.
Advocates who support legalizing prostitution maintain that it would reduce crime by empowering prostitutes to seek legal protection in abusive situations; improve public health by requiring the use of condoms and thereby decreasing the spread of venereal disease; increase tax revenue; help get prostitutes off the streets; and enable consenting adults to make their own choices.
Opponents believe that legalizing prostitution is not only immoral, but also related to increases in STDs, global human trafficking, and the crime that often accompanies prostitution (rape, assault, and homicide). They contend that prostitution empowers the criminal underworld and promotes misogyny.
In August of 2015, Amnesty International, along with support from several prominent gay, lesbian, and transgender rights organizations, passed a resolution supporting the decriminalization of sex work, having come to the conclusion this is the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights and lessen their risk of abuse on the job.
The debate around this issue refers almost exclusively to female prostitutes, though there are obviously a significant number of male, transgender, and gender-diverse sex workers who are active in the industry. Unfair as it is, men do not suffer the disgrace and shame in the same way as women in the sex business do.
Denying sex workers the right to do their work legally infringes on other rights, such as their access to legal aid and recourse. Can we honestly deny that the world’s most ancient career choice is “work,” regardless of our personal opinions, morals or ethics?
Sex work is frequently misconstrued to be sex trafficking. It is important to distinguish between modern-day sex slavery—which is perpetuated by human trafficking—and the consensual exchange of sex for money between adults. While the former is completely unacceptable and must be eradicated wherever possible, the latter is up for discussion. Modern-day abolitionism focuses on the rescue of women said to be victims of human trafficking. Although much of this goes on under a feminist banner, colonialist maternalism is a more fitting description.
In Sweden, and a number of other countries that have followed suit, it is legal to sell sex, and simultaneously against the law to buy sexual services. As a result, Sweden now has less prostitution than neighboring countries and the highest sex prices in the European Union. Yet, not all Swedes believe this is right or just. According to Swedish-Canadian attorney Gunilla Ekberg, “Prostitution is colonization of women.”
Rachel Moran, a former child prostitute and advocate for the abolition of the sex trade, argues in a 2015 New York Times op-ed that prostitution should not be legal. She writes, “I cringe when I hear the words ‘sex work.’ Selling my body wasn’t a livelihood. There was no resemblance to ordinary employment in the ritual degradation of strangers’ using my body to satiate their urges. I was doubly exploited—by those who pimped me and those who bought me.” While her personal story of exploitation as a young teen is tragic and moving, Ms. Moran makes a critical error by conflating the distinct spheres of sex work and sex trafficking.
The question as to whether prostitutes choose and desire their job as sex workers can only be answered and known by each individual worker. There can be no doubt as to the deep stigma attached to everyone in the sex industry, from strippers to pimps to “hookers” of all ages, shapes, sizes, and genders.
If prostitution were abolished, whore stigma would disappear, opponents of legal prostitution claim. However, contemporary movements against slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and rape culture clearly show how whore stigma is applied even to women who do not sell sex. Instead, the aversion to prostitution strengthens the stigma, despite the prostitute’s demotion to the status of victim rather than the criminal transgressor she once was.
The debate around the legalization of prostitution is complex. At first glance, without awareness of the key issues at stake, one’s gut reaction would be to categorically reject the idea of legal prostitution. Sex workers around the world face threats of abuse, brutality, rape, and even murder.
However, where sex work is illegal, prostitutes who are assaulted, raped, robbed, blackmailed, or extorted have no recourse. Rather than continuing to prosecute marginalized people as criminals, we should be providing them with social services and protections. Some people actively choose to become sex workers, and they deserve workplace protections just like everyone else.
What is needed is effective policy based on empirical research, including laws that give basic protections to sex workers and the right to bodily autonomy for all people. At the personal, familial and local community levels, we must work on the root problem and strive to end the stigma surrounding prostitution and sex in general.
“Prostitution is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The problem is patriarchy, inequality, discrimination, inequitable distribution of resources, religious control and fear of women. We need to turn our focus from the symptom to the underlying problem. We can and must do better for women. We need to join hands and together face the real enemy.” ~ Dianne Post
Author: Michelle Margaret Fajkus
Editor: Catherine Monkman