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Last Tuesday, the Debating Society together with Femsoc held a debate around a very controversial topic, which, despite its millennia of existence worldwide, has never reached a conclusion. That is, of course, the discussion surrounding sex work, which can range from sexual therapy, to porn, to BDSM, to street prostitution and everything in between. Naturally the debate focused heavily on prostitution, which is not surprising, considering the press it gets with regards to trafficking, the so called ‘Swedish model’ of punishing the buyer prompting the rest of Europe to reconsider its own regulations, prostitution rights groups and the big fat question mark which still hovers above it with regards to understanding it and dealing with it.
As the debate focussed heavily on sex work, and because it is the most controversial of the sexual service industry – some may oppose prostitution whilst being fine with stripping, porn and so on – I will run over some of the main points which were brought up at the time, or in wider debates, to consider and bring in whatever I did not manage to say in my five minutes of speaking time, in which so many of my carefully prepared points went out the window and I just pretty much winged it. I am personally very for the idea of destigmatising sex work, so not all points here do reflect my own opinion.
Prostitution has no positive effect on society, therefore is not an acceptable career choice
The opposition put forward the idea that a career must have a positive effect on society, for example a fire-fighter, a teacher, a politician (debatable in our current climate although lets be fair, there are some decent ones out there, we just don’t know where yet) and so on. I must vehemently disagree with this point, especially living in a society where big business is not being carried out in a way which is compatible with rights and human dignity. All those working for Nestle, L’Oreal and Coca Cola are considered to have legitimate careers, however the effects they have on humanity are truly devastating (which is why this particular writer has not bought Nestle or L’Oreal products for three years – Coca Cola unfortunately seem to own everything that Nestle doesn’t which makes it slightly tough). Moreover, sex work can have a positive effect on the seller, due to job satisfaction, earnings and so on and the buyer, for obvious reasons.
Sex workers are ‘fallen women’ who have slipped through the net in society
While this sort of sentiment is well meant, it is truly misdirected. There are of course those
who have been through hell, abused when young, trafficked, drawn to cities with false promises, addicted to drugs and much more, but to believe that they will take help assumes the ‘victim, perpetrator, hero’ relationship which we so love to apply to everybody who we think doesn’t enjoy our lovely, Western ideal of empowerment and progression. No doubt, there are those who do want to exit prostitution, there are those who have inadequate access to healthcare, insufficient education and drug problems, who should be supported. However we must remember that many come from areas where state intervention is incredibly oppressive, where one is legally and socially branded for being a sex worker, so even well intended attempts of reaching out can be treated with suspicion. We don’t all come from a position of privilege which allows us to trust authority. Even in our own society, as well as more liberal ones such as in Germany, admitting being a sex worker, and God forbid a willing one, can mean the justice one receives after abuse is affected or non-existent, that finding another job can be difficult and lead to further isolation and surveillance. When one considers this, it is clear to see why hundreds of thousands of sex workers, despite systems of so called ‘tolerance’ would rather work under the radar, rather than put themselves up for the judgement of a society which knows nothing about their story, their life and which plasters an identity on them simply due to their career choice.
Furthermore, if one was to approach a sex worker, tell them that society has failed them, that they don’t agree with what they are doing, that they have fallen through the cracks but that it’s okay because they have this really great rehabilitation system to get them back into ‘normal’ life, what would be the response? Why would somebody want to enter back into a system which we are admitting has failed them? Especially after years of stigma and discrimination. Rather than trying to sweep these people under the carpet, why are we not trying to patch up the cracks, to prevent people from ‘falling through’? The first step is communication, which can only truly occur based on mutual respect and trust, and by keeping the stigma around prostitutes, we are giving them no reason to trust us whatsoever.
It is immoral
Rather old fashioned, but still hanging around, this argument has as much weight as a balloon made of feathers. We as a society have hopefully progressed past the point that we care what goes on between two consenting adults. Many, however still enjoy piling all their issues with wider society – the inadequacies of capitalism, gendered violence, objectification of women – onto sex workers, because they are a very visible symbol of everything we fear, and we believe that they have, against our understanding and comprehension of equality and morality, chosen to be objectified, abused and so on. Again, rather than dealing with the actual problem, which is mirrored, but not created, by the world of sex work, we like to fight what we think is the symptom. This is a great way of hiding the problem, giving the illusion that it does not exist, but does nothing to safeguard the rights of sex workers or deal with our own problems.
It cannot be a career choice, because it is not a genuine choice
This argument is fuelled by sensationalist media and obsession with trafficking, however prostitutes rights groups are in strong opposition to it, simply because they have made a choice. Due to the nature of, and of course stigma, surrounding sex work, it is incredibly hard to get reliable statistics based on sex work, pressure to engage in sex work and trafficking. Increasing the amount of discrimination surrounding prostitutes does nothing but push them further into the arms of opportunistic traffickers or abusers. Pictures of disgust are painted throughout the discussion of these passive, victimised women standing in windows on the streets of Amsterdam and it is easy to see why many react so emotionally to this. However, would we rather have it behind a window or pushed behind closed doors?
What will we do, after all our efforts at ‘helping’, people still choose to engage in sex work? Continue to deny their bodily autonomy and self control and disregard their consent? To paint these people as victims is to endanger the ones who have made a choice, who admit it and go on to be social pariahs due to our lack of understanding and acceptance for their decision, and appear to us to have consented to be a stubborn social deviant, undeserving of rights granted to those who want to be ‘helped’. We can somehow accept the widespread objectification of women in the media and yet not accept when a woman takes it into her own hands and takes control of it. No doubt, if conditions in society were ideal, there would be fewer sex workers, but to stigmatise them twice over, once for some of them being victims of violence, drug users and so on, twice for being a sex worker, has no productive effect whatsoever. The issue lies in the rights of wider society, such as migrant rights and class differences, and this defines what sort of experience one has with sex work. So rather than ignore the conditions which do push sex workers into dangerous situations, we need to ensure that prostitution is a job, in which one can take control and define the terms of work.
It is dangerous for the health of society
This is an age old view which has seen the segregation and ‘ghettoisation’ of sex workers for millennia, constantly displacing them, moving them along, isolating them into easy to target ‘red-light districts’ like a disease, and making it easy for anti-prostitution campaigners and authorities to carry out protests, raids and general abuse. Yes, a prostitute will have multiple partners, but it has been suggested that they will overall be much stricter about sexual health than the rest of society, due to the nature of their work. There are cases of sex workers being offered more money to work unsafely, but rather than worry about the people offering this, we focus on the prostitute who accepts, who may have very good reason to need a lot of money, particularly where he or she can be fined regularly for ‘soliciting’ when waiting for a bus and more ludicrous instances of injustice. Of course there should be an age limit for sex workers and their clients and so again, what happens with two consenting adults is up to them. If a client is willing to take the risk, then it is truly on their head how it turns out. By treating prostitutes like an infection, like sexually aggressive women ready to unleash a plague on the (not so) innocent and (not so) STD free society then how can we expect them to accept advice about sexual health? Further, women have been arrested simply for carrying condoms, which completely leaves the argument, that their discrimination is in the interest of public health and safety, void.
It is patriarchal by nature
Put forward by the only other FemSoc member speaking, Tom Coole, this is the most compelling argument on the opposition. Although there are of course many in control of their sex work (many of whom come from a position of privilege and high flying careers and are therefore able to make a balanced decision), there is still a lot of objectification and abuse involved in sex work. Quite literally, sex and the body are commodities up for sale for whoever has enough money to pay for them, leading to a ‘money buys power over others’ situation. To this, I would add that it is time to do more to put the sex workers in control of their working conditions. Not the client, not the state, as regulationists would have it, but the worker. If he or she wants to be dominant, go for it. If they want to be passive, so be it. If they want to provide a romantic experience, absolutely fine. But let’s allow them more power over themselves, free from controls, but strengthened by self autonomy.
It has always existed and always will
To which the response came: but slavery has also always existed. Although slavery and sex work are not entirely comparable, it is a valid point that we cannot accept something just because it has been around since the dawn of time. So has the patriarchy. However it has not always been viewed as we see it today. Ancient societies have practiced ‘religious prostitution’, women have been encouraged to have extra-marital sex in certain societies and women’s body parts have in fact been praised by some, so it has not always been seen as a social problem. The word ‘reality’ was thrown around, that despite the ability for some to make decisions to work in prostitution, that we should accept the dangerous ‘reality’ of the situation. To me, the reality is, it will always exist and it is how society reacts to it that defines the experience of the sex workers. We can continue to deny it and punish those that practice it, or we can deal with the situation we have, admit the wider problems existing in society and stop trying to push our own ideals onto others.
To sum up there are parallels to draw between this debate and other rights based discussions; you can be pro sex work, you can be anti sex work, but you can accept the need for decriminalisation, destigmatisation and better communication, in order to support the rights of those who we are concerned about. We could deal with sex work as a problem, to be hidden, or it can be held up to the light, so that we can see our own failings as a society, so that we better understand it and so we can realise that the issues faced by sex workers are not unique to their profession, and that we can, together, with better communication, fight the real issues.