A few days ago I came across an article in Foreign Policy. Aziza Ahmed wrote on prostitution and why there is a zero tolerance level to the world’s oldest profession. I thought to myself, “excuse me, that is the world’s oldest form of oppression.”
While the article raised some important questions, (especially with regard to child prostitution and the need for a sex workers union) it was at the same time very typical in stereotyping abolitionists as religious and faith-based bigots, moralists and conservatives who have no concern or rather a misconstrued notion of concern for women’s safety. Moreover, being a feminist (and an abolitionist), I was particularly offended by one sentence; “After all, sex will be bought and sold no matter a country’s laws.”
So, here I am writing from a specific feminist stand on prostitution discussing who abolitionists are and why am I one of them.
The abolitionist feminists believe that prostitution is the cornerstone of the patriarchal setup. Through its oppression and subjugation of women, it reinforces an extreme system of discrimination where one group is put in sexual servitude by the other. Thus, prostitution is the result of inequality, precisely speaking gender inequality.
While generally women and children are victims, now men are also being provided as sexual objects, a human commodity to be purchased, used, exploited and discarded predominantly by men. In this industry prostitutes are not viewed as individuals with rights or freedom of choice, rather they are seen as human slaves for sale and purchase. Those who pay for these women, children and men do not care if they have consented to be at their disposal. Their physical safety is never secured.
There are two opposing perspectives offered as solutions, the legalisation argument supported by the libertarians (who believe in sexual freedom from norms) and total criminalisation. An alternative to these two approaches is the abolitionist model. The abolitionist model has been adopted by countries like Sweden, Norway and Iceland. These countries, that happen to have an exemplary record in women’s rights, provide for criminalisation of pimps and johns and allow decriminalisation of the prostituted individuals.
The libertarians defend prostitution in the name of right to self-determination. However they fail to comprehend the social structure within which these choices are made. Even when they acknowledge the economic factor, they are of the view that from a range of poor economic options, prostitution is the best option for women. My question here then is, why prostituting women’s body is suggested as the last resort for their survival? Why are we inculcating the belief that in poor economic situations, prostitution is perhaps the best and only alternative a woman has?
Prostitution researchers reveal that, “women are in legal prostitution for the same reason they are in illegal prostitution, a lack of alternative survival options. Most women in prostitution did not make a choice to enter prostitution from among a range of other options. They did not decide they want to be prostitutes instead of doctors, engineers, lawyers, pilots. Instead their ‘options’ were more in the realm of how to get enough money to feed themselves and their children.”
Furthermore, the libertarians are of view that prostitution should not be linked to trafficking since this assumption fails to acknowledge those who have chosen prostitution as a profession. This opinion fails to apply to most of the countries, especially a country like India which is known to be the world’s hub in prostitution related human trafficking.
One of Asia’s largest red light districts, Kamathipura in Mumbai was constructed by the British in 1800s. In the 1890s police installed bars on the doors and windows of the rooms and today the abducted and trafficked women and children continue to work within these “cages.” As Nicholas Kristof pointed out in his 2011 report on raiding a brothel in India, the worst abuses take place in countries like Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Cambodia.
The libertarians also argue that this is a work that does no harm because the parties involved agree upon it. Hence, it should be legalised. This argument is delusional as it fails to acknowledge the fact that acts of violence and cruel, inhuman degrading treatment of women is inherent in prostitution. Violent acts can be committed and are committed (even if there is consent by both parties) because this is a work mediated by money and thereby it provides the power to control and freedom to indulge in acts that could physically and mentally destroy the victims.
In countries that have legalised prostitution, such as Australia, surveys suggest that even in legal brothels, the physical safety of prostituted women is the main concern. Women are still raped and assaulted. Legalising prostitution makes it an official industry with pimps and traffickers the legitimate businessmen who pay a licence fee to the state and continue with the system of organised crime and exploitation of victims.
Thus legalisation of prostitution is not a solution. For every legal sector, there is an illegal sector. So, even if we legalise prostitution, the chances that an underground sex industry will operate is always there. As pointed out by Lincoln Tan, there will always be those that do not wish to register as sex workers, those that don’t want to or can’t pay taxes, those that are working illegally without papers, those who are immigrants or trafficked, pimped or underage.
Then, what is the solution? The solution is to acknowledge that criminalisation of pimps and johns along with ‘harm minimisation’ techniques suggested by the libertarians and a well developed plan to provide exit services can help eradicate prostitution.
Harm minimisation approaches include providing housing, laundries, free contraception, and access to legal abortion, alcohol and drug counseling, ensuring a dignified police response when prostitutes report crimes. These measures are integral as long as prostitution continues to exist, and alongside harm-minimisation we should work towards harm-ending through exit services. Exit services aim at intervening to support people get out of the industry. Additionally, it requires measures such as creating awareness, education, housing, employment training and laws to prosecute pimps and abusers.
To those who support prostitution, I wish to ask them if they genuinely believe that prostitution as a profession leads to equality of women. Gloria Steinem, the American feminist and journalist rightly says that “Women are systematised into this demand and supply cycle and don’t have a choice as far as choosing this profession or even the gender they are born into.”