Every women has a right not to be prostituted

Every women has a right not to be prostituted

The Continuing Debate

Debates on prostitution rage on, as they have for over a hundred years. But if the commerce of sex was once a more hidden or at least discreet business, today there’s no ignoring the bombardment of sex sales talk; we live, it has been said, in a culture of pornography. With the worldwide explosion in recent decades of industries based on the production, sale and consumption of sex primarily personified in women’s bodies, there is an even more pressing need to understand the commodification of sex in the range and diversity of forms that pornography, “sexual entertainment” and prostitution are taking, and for feminists to analyze the significance of and impact of these developments on women’s status.

Economic Stakes

Perhaps because a powerful economy has arisen around the sale of sex, totally integrated into local and national economies and hugely profitable for industrialists and for states, more voices are being raised to suggest and in some cases, to demand that prostitution be accepted as commerce and as legitimate work for women and a valid means for women’s economic empowerment. The flesh trade in Thailand has been estimated by ECPAT to generate between US$18 – 21.6 billion a year or over half of the entire 1995 budget of that country, and in Japan equals the defense budget; attesting to the fact of the huge revenues generated.

Diverging Feminist Analyses

Some arguments claim to find in prostitution a practice of women’s resistance to and sexual liberation from norms and traditional moral precepts of sexuality that have served to control and subordinate women.

Radical feminist thinking, on the other hand, has analyzed prostitution as a cornerstone of patriarchal control and sexual subjugation of women that impacts negatively not just on the women and girls in prostitution but on all women nas a group because prostitution continually affirms and reinforces patriarchal definitions of women as having a primary function to serve men sexually.

Human Rights Arguments

Human rights arguments are being marshaled on both sides of the divide for and against prostitution, particularly in light of the feminist movement to apply a human rights framework to women’s condition while at the same time posing challenges to and redefining mainstream human rights principles with a women’s perspective.

The Right To Self– Determination

For the pro-prostitution advocates, foremost among the human rights principles invoked to defend the right to prostitute is the right to self– determination. This is understood as the individual’s right to make autonomous choices and decisions which can include engaging in consensual commercial sex as well as of setting the terms of that sexual exchange.

There are many problems with this position starting with its failure to acknowledge the social, economic and political structural imbalances and the sexual relations of power between women and men which constitute the context within which these choices and decisions are being made. Further, it fails to ask the crucial question of whether prostitution can lead to social and sexual equality for women or will in fact continue to reinforce gender disparities of rights and status. As has been pointed out by human rights advocates, “By failing to take the phenomenon of male domination of women in both the public and private worlds into account, the right to selfdetermination (…) can in fact reinforce oppression against women through its complicity in systemic male oppression and violence.” (Charlesworth 75)

Worse, it is predominantly a North and class-blind perspective that trivializes the massive phenomenon of the abduction, deception and trafficking into prostitution of women and girls, mostly from countries of the South but today, also from the dislocated economies of eastern Europe, and which constitute by far the most prevalent procurement methods worldwide.

Still less does it take into account the plain fact that the male users of prostitution do not ask to know or care if the human merchandise they purchase consent to being put at their sexual disposal. The stated consent of some, therefore, can damn others, women and girls who by no means have consented to prostitution.

The issue of choice and consent as an analytical tool is worthless to understand prostitution as an institution. Prostitution pre-exists as a system that requires a supply of female bodies and therefore, women and girls will be kidnapped, deceived, enticed or persuaded to ensure that supply. How women get into prostitution is irrelevant to the functioning of the prostitution system, rather, prostitution maintains itself as a system by what is and can be done to women in prostitution, and what sexual privileges prostitution allows the male clientele.

What is one to make, for example, of the case of the hundreds of Nepali girls trafficked into India who in the first two or three years of their confinement in Bombay brothels are kept closely guarded and not allowed outside because at any opportunity they will try to escape. In later years, they will stand displayed in their finery outside the brothel door with no risk of their running away. They may even leave for a time and then return. What has happened to them in the interval? What is the quality of that later “consent” that would define the prostitution exchange as consensual activity? In recommending the recognition of prostitution as legitimate commerce, the government of the Netherlands goes so far as to propose the concept that a person may “fully and freely, consent to his/ her own exploitation.” (Cited in to Monde Diplomatique March 1997). For women (as for workers, indigenous or colonized peoples) whose historical condition has been one of subordination and exploitation, this is clearly a barbarous and unacceptable concept.

Some prostitutes and prostitutes’ rights advocates vigorously assert the possibility of the integrity of women’s agency in prostitution, and accuse antiprostitution feminists of being patronizing and disrespectful of their perspectives.

The issue of consent, of “personal choice politics” rests on a western liberal understanding of human rights that elevates individual will and choice above all other human values and above notions of common good. (Barry 83) At the same time, it must be noted that as a result of advances in bio-technology, the concept of personal choice has been questioned and ethical issues have been raised regarding the integrity of the human body and person, for example in connection with the sale of human organs, surrogate motherhood or human cloning. Individual choice is also generally not accepted as an argument for drug use. In defense of a conception of the human and of social good, human community has often seen the necessity to mark the boundaries of personal liberty. But perhaps because mainstream concepts of social good have never included the good of the class of women, the traditionally “socially subjugated” (Charlesworth 76), it is tolerated that prostitution, a “practice… (that) integrally contributes to the maintenance of an underclass” (Mackinnon 73), be accepted on the basis that some few women are freely choosing it. On that same basis, slavery might have been accepted following the few slave voices who declared that they were content with their lot.

The Right To Work

Pro-prostitution advocates invoke the right to work. However, the question begs why this work exists in the first place and why an experience of human intimacy has been transformed into the category of sexual labor. Two views are presented, either that prostitution is work like any other such as typing or waitressing, or that it fulfills a number of socially useful functions: sex education, sex therapy, or providing sex for persons who would otherwise be deprived of sex, for example, male migrant workers without their families and disabled or old men. Following this view, prostitution is said to be a rational choice of work. This view also holds that men in every circumstance and at all cost must be able to have sex.

In fact, it is the millions of buyers of sex, far outnumbering the women and girls that they use, who are not only choosing but ardently defending their practice of prostitution. But their choice is not only unexamined and unquestioned, it is brushed aside by such international agencies as the World Health Organization that in a Geneva report on AIDS in 1988 devoted pages to the socio-economic and cultural profiles of women in prostitution and in a terse paragraph stated that “Clients are more numerous than the providers of sex services… The factors which lead persons to become clients are largely unknown.” The general refusal to devote critical scrutiny or to assign responsibility to the users of prostitution, who constitute by far the more important component of the prostitution system, is nothing less than tacit defense of male sexual privilege and practice.

The view on the right to work further holds that where there are inadequate, poor or outright bad economic options for women, prostitution may be the best option and that in any case, it is work that does no one any harm because the two parties most directly involved agree to what will happen in the prostitution exchange. This fails to acknowledge that in fact, violence is often done to women in prostitution not just because laws do not protect women or that work conditions are not what they should be, but because men’s prostitution use of women and the acts carried out are sexual enactments of a culture and system of subordination of women. Therefore, violence and degradation, even when not acted out, are inherent conditions of prostitution sex. For one thing, the possibility of violence is always present, for another, sex mediated by money means power to dictate what sex will happen. A client encountering refusal of a particular sex act or even condomless sex by a prostitute (or a wife, for that matter) will merely hire another woman who may be needier and will accept his demands. Harm will therefore be inflicted to another, more vulnerable woman.

Prostitution has been called a victimless crime, because women are assumed to consent and that therefore no harm is done. The notion of harmlessness does not take into account the issue of human intimacy that is being transgressed. Women in prostitution have told of the elaborate means they employ: refusing access to some part of their bodies or the use of their own beds, creating fictional life stories or other such measures, as attempts to preserve some part of an emotional or sexual life that is theirs alone and not for public use. The view that repeated invasions of the body, of unwanted but tolerated sexual acts can be passed over harmlessly, is questionable, to say the least. Women survivors of prostitution in the Philippines like those of WHISPER (Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt) in the US have known “the act of prostitution as intrusive, unwanted, and often overtly violent sex that women endure” (Giobbe 67). In fact, the “work” of prostitution mostly consists of submitting to acts carried out by clients or by pornographers on women’s (and children’s) bodies. Women repeatedly tell of strategies to finish quickly with a client, for if women need and want the money of prostitution, they do not want the sex of prostitution which as such, is a form of “paid rape.”

Merely accepting the fact that there are sometimes no better work options for women is to give up political battle for women’s non-prostitution economic empowerment and to tolerate the growing operations of enormously lucrative sex businesses that absorb women as the raw material for their industry. Feminists in solidarity with women in prostitution carry out much work with and directly for them while they are in prostitution, precisely recognizing that social and economic life is designed by patriarchal capitalism to allow women few good options, and that getting out of prostitution systems is a difficult process.

The second view of prostitution as socially useful work assumes that male need for sex is an unquestioned biological need likened to the need for food. This obviously contradicts evidence that people, women and men both, have been known to go for long periods without sex and without the fatal outcome that going without food would have! What is true is that a culture of sexual consumerism has been stoked by patriarchal capitalism and that not only is sex used to sell products of all kinds, sex itself has been reduced to an aggressively marketed product. This is a relentlessly gendered capitalist enterprise that offers the bodies of women, girls and also boys, for consumption. But it must be recognized that there are pre-existing and socially constructed sexist concepts of sexuality on which patriarchal capitalism feeds and which are not simply biologically determined.

A certain stream of pro– prostitution advocates appear to look forward to the day when all our irresistible sexual urges and needs, women’s and men’s alike, will be adequately “serviced” by commercial sex. The only problem, as Sheila Jeffreys, tongue-in-cheek has pointed out, is how to find the millions of men and boys, who will be willing to lie there and let women stick any kind and number of objects into their bodies or to let themselves be photographed in ridiculous or degrading positions!

Prostitution is possible because men’s power as a dominating class over women exists. The existence of some men in prostitution is in fact most often in service of other men and even when it is women who are the clients, the commercial exchange still mirrors class, race, age or other power differentials between the buyer and the bought. Most importantly, the prostitution of individual men never diminishes the power of men as a class while the prostitution of women is a direct result of and serves to maintain the subordinate status of women. It is true of course, that class, race and other factors also operate in many other labor or employment situations. But prostitution is more than “work”; it is “the most systematic institutionalized reduction of women to sex.” (Barry 65) In a 1992 UN document, the impact of prostitution on women as a class was recognized: “By reducing women to a commodity to be bought, sold, appropriated, exchanged or acquired, prostitution affected women as a group. It reinforced the societal equation of women to sex which reduced women to being less than human and contributed to sustaining women’s second class status throughout the world” (Tomasevski 13).

The Right To Freedom Of Expression

The system of prostitution that includes pornography and sexual entertainment in all its forms is defended as erotic art or as sexual freedom and expression. Invoked here is the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Strippers and other performers have sometimes even claimed to derive a sense of power in displaying sex that the male viewers are aroused to want but cannot have from the performer. In fact, it is not true that men cannot have sex when they want it, millions of women and children all over the world are trafficked into prostitution houses precisely so that men can have sex whenever and however they want, and without bounds. Sex is bought and it is inflicted: sexual crimes of rape, incest, sexual harassment are prevalent everywhere: rape occurs every 6 minutes in the United States, every 1 1/2 minutes in South Africa.

If prostitution is a form of sexual freedom and expression for women, then women should be able to determine and demand the sex that happens in prostitution. Obviously, this is not the case. In fact, while prostitution is one of the most debated gender issues, discussions almost never address the sex of prostitution. When a German customer of an Filipina prostitute demands to take a photograph to show his friends back home of the “two best things about the Philippines”: a beer bottle in the woman’s vagina, whose sexuality is being expressed? When a group of men pay a woman so they can simultaneously ejaculate on her, what sexuality is that? When Patpong offers “blow job bars” and entertainment programs that tout “Pussy pingpong ball, pussy shoot banana, pussy smoke cigarette, big dildo show, fish push inside her, egg push into her cunt, long eggplant push into her cunt,” (Odzer 7) or shows of knives and razor blades in women’s vaginas that are the live versions of the huge pornography industry’s images of hand grenades in women’s vaginas, live rats coming out of them and dogs penetrating women, is this “adult entertainment,” sexual recreation, sexual liberation? In fact, it is true that freedom of expression is amply being exercised there, but whose sexuality is being expressed and what ideological statements are made about women? What is being demonstrated is a male will to dehumanize women.

It is clear that sexuality was and remains political terrain where war continues to be waged against women as such practices as rape, female genital mutilation, the denial of possibilities of contraception, discrimination against lesbians, pornography or “snuff” films where sex acts culminate in the actual death of the woman make quite plain. In this war, prostitution is a main battleground where women as a class are reduced to sex, denied equal humanity, and delivered up to such practices.

To purport to promote women’s sexual liberation by abstracting prostitution and pornography from male supremacist and woman– hating sexual ideology and practice is disingenuous and exposes women to harm. And while pro– prostitution advocates like to promote themselves as being “pro– sex” and to charge prostitution opponents as being “anti-sex” or “sex prudes,” it is quite remarkable how they never question basic patriarchal assumptions and male sexual norms and practices. This amounts to complicity with those assumptions and practices or at the very least, to acceptance of the ideological proposition that men have a “naturally” great need for sex, including in the above forms, that must be catered to at all cost. Once again, this view willfully ignores the social and cultural construction of sexual attitudes and behavior.

To be pro-sex is to oppose prostitution by reclaiming and reconstructing a sexuality that is life– enhancing, mutually respectful and beneficial and if it is heterosexual, based on gender equality. This is by far the more revolutionary position; the pro– prostitution position is merely one of accommodation with the masculinist system already in place.

The Human Right Not To Be Prostituted

The true human rights that all women must enjoy begin with the right to non discrimination on the basis of sex that is enshrined in all major human rights instruments. Prostitution violates this right because it is a system of extreme discrimination of one group of human beings put in sexual servitude by and for the benefit of another group of human beings, and there is no denying that the overwhelming historical and majority phenomenon is of women and girls being prostituted. It violates the right to physical and moral integrity by the alienation of women’s sexuality that is appropriated, debased and turned into a thing to be bought and sold. It violates the prohibition of torture and of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment because practices of sexual “entertainment” and pornography as well as clients’ acts are acts of power and violence over the female body. It violates the right to liberty and security and the prohibition of slavery, of forced labor and of trafficking in persons because millions of women and girls all over the world are held in sexual slavery to meet the demand of even more millions of male buyers of sex and to generate profits for the capitalists of sex. It violates the right to enjoy the highest standard of physical and mental health because violence, disease, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and AIDS stalk, presenting grave risks for women and girls in prostitution and militating against a healthy sense of and relationship with their own bodies.

Accepting or promoting prostitution as an inevitable social arrangement of sexuality or as fitting work for women denies the efforts to achieve higher standards of human rights, including the human rights of women, for example as articulated in the Beijing Platform for Action. And although even here, the lobby for the recognition of acceptable categories of prostitution has made headway through the use of the language of “forced” and “free” prostitution, the document is not consistent throughout, evidence of a continuing discomfort with that proposition. The incompatibility of prostitution with a conception of true sexual self– determination and freedom is articulated in the Platform for Action: “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences.”

Prostitution must be recognized not only as part but as a foundation of the larger system of patriarchal subordination of women. Feminists have a duty to imagine a world without prostitution as we have learned to imagine a world without slavery, apartheid, infanticide or female genital mutilation. Ultimately gender relations must be restructured so that sexuality can once again be an experience of human intimacy and not a commodity to be bought or sold. by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – Asia Pacific

Reprinted by permission from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Available online at http://www.uri.edu/ artsci/wms/hughes/catw/sex.htm

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Mar 2001

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