“People who have had luckier lives, as well as those who profit from the sex industry in some way, frequently refer to prostitution and pornography as ‘victimless crimes’. They point to a tiny fraction of sex workers who actually might be involved by choice. They selectively read history to find some tiny minority, somewhere, at some time, who gained something in the sex business. The very selectiveness of their attention indicates that, on some level, they know that for almost everyone, involvement in the sex industry is a terrible misfortune. As many an old cop will say, ‘Anyone who thinks prostitution is a victimless crime hasn’t seen it up close’.” (Parker, 2004)
It is sometimes claimed that prostitution is simply a service that is not that different from, for example, care work or waitressing, and as such it should be considered work like any other work. In this article I show that this is not true and that in fact prostitution is fundamentally different from all other work.
For simplicity and clarity, in this article I refer to prostituted women. However, most if not all applies equally to children, men and transgendered people who are prostituted.
It’s not just a service
“Though it might be objected that some prostitutes enjoy their work, the number of women who actually derive any great personal satisfaction or fulfilment from spending day after day sticking vibrators up strange men’s bottoms, feigning orgiastic delight as they sit on limp penises and so on, is probably insignificant.” (O’Connell Davidson, 1995)
In order to understand whether prostitution should be considered ‘ordinary work’, we need to consider what it is that the punter actually buys. Although is true that he buys a service from the prostituted woman that leads to his sexual pleasure, that is not all that he buys. He also buys the ‘right’:
- To use her body, including her vagina, rectum, mouth and breasts, for his personal and sexual gratification.
- To the pretence that she is enjoying it and/or acting out his fantasy, regardless what she is actually feeling.
- To insult her – for example, to call her ‘bitch’ or ‘whore’.
- For the exchange to take place outside all the social conventions that govern normal human interactions.
No other work* requires you to give up so much of yourself.
Other work sometimes involves elements that the worker may find disgusting (plumbing, cleaning toilets, for example) and sometimes requires a demeanour of cheerfulness (receptionist, waitress, for example). However, this work takes place within a social context that provides the worker with protection and dignity. An intrinsic part of prostitution is the absence of an equivalent social context. Legalising prostitution so that it is legally considered work like any other kind of work does not change its nature and accepting prostitution as work like any other would obscure these fundamental differences and would legitimise and normalise it.
In fact if any other worker were required to do or endure what a prostituted woman has to do and endure, it would be considered a gross violation of her employment rights. For example, if a boss called his secretary ‘whore’ or required her to give him a blow job, she would be able to seek redress under employment legislation.
* Here I consider ‘acting’ in pornography, lap dancing, escort work, stripping, etc. to be forms of prostitution.
Psychological harm and physical violence
“I’m a survivor. And I can say with authority that NO, sex is not worth buying. In the process of selling my body, I was shot five times, stabbed more than 13 times, beaten unconscious several times, had my arm and nose broken, had two teeth knocked out, lost a child that I will never see again, was verbally abused, and spent countless days in jail.” (Brenda Myers-Powell)
Prostitution is extremely stressful. Typically the flow of punters is erratic and unpredictable, so the woman must maintain a state of perpetual readiness. The encounters themselves are intrusive and physically and emotionally demanding. The punter uses the woman’s body sexually. She may find many or all aspects of the encounter repulsive and humiliating but she must not show this. In fact she must not show her true self at all – she must provide the ‘service’ with a smile.
“I would numb my feelings… I would actually leave my body and go somewhere else with my thoughts and with my feelings until he got off me and it was over with. I don’t know how else to explain it except it felt like rape. It was rape to me.” (Survivor quoted on Demand Change website).
Sexuality is integral and intrinsic to a human being’s sense of self. Each encounter is therefore an assault on the woman’s fundamental identity and sense of self. She has to distance herself from what is happening or she wouldn’t be able to survive. Many women do this by dissociating, or splitting off, in their heads. This can lead to long term psychological difficulties.
Many women also turn to alcohol and drugs to help themselves cope. Many then end up trapped in a ‘work-score-use’ cycle. Contrary to the stereotype of women turning to prostitution to fund a problematic drug habit, studies show that it is more common for women to turn to problematic alcohol and drug use as a way of surviving once in prostitution (Eaves, 2012).
And that’s just with the ‘good’ guys. But punters aren’t all ‘good’:
“Sexual violence and physical assault are the norm for women in all types of prostitution. One Canadian observer noted that 99% of women in prostitution were victims of violence, with more frequent injuries “than workers in [those] occupations considered . . . most dangerous, like mining, forestry, and firefighting.”(Gibbs 1999)
“70% of women in prostitution in San Francisco, California were raped. A study in Portland Oregon found that prostituted women were raped on average once a week. 85% of women in Minneapolis, Minnesota had been raped in prostitution. 94% of those in street prostitution experienced sexual assault and 75% were raped by one or more johns. In the Netherlands (where prostitution is legal) 60% of prostituted women suffered physical assaults; 70% experienced verbal threats of assault, 40% experienced sexual violence and 40% were forced into prostitution and/or sexual abuse by acquaintances.” (Farley et al. 2003)
Prostitution can also be lethal. A Canadian commission found that the death rate of women in prostitution was forty times higher than that of the general population (1985). Many women are murdered by punters.
Not surprisingly given the prevalence of violence, prostituted women experience high levels of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, in a study of 854 people in prostitution in 9 countries (including Germany where prostitution is legalised), 68% of the respondents met the criteria for PTSD. The rate amongst the German respondents was not much lower at 60% (Farley et al. 2003). This is in the same range as is found in war veterans. Other studies have had similar results (UCL, 2014).
PTSD is a serious and debilitating condition. It has been noted that when the stressor is planned and implemented by human beings, as in prostitution, PTSD can be particularly severe and long-lasting (Farley et al. 2003).
Health and safety
When prostitution is legitimised as work, it comes under health and safety legislation for the jurisdiction. In fact, this is one of the main arguments for considering prostitution as work like other work. However, this approach generally fails to consider that, as we have shown above, the punters themselves are the source of harm.
Health and safety legislation is aimed at protecting workers from having their health put at risk when carrying out their work. However, when applied to prostitution (for example, in some states in Australia where it has been legalised) the focus is on ‘safe sex’ and protecting the punter’s health and stemming the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV in the wider community, rather than on the right of women to safe work practices and a safe working environment. In addition, the violence that is so common in prostitution is minimised and viewed as a problem of a few deviant men rather than endemic to the power dynamics of prostitution itself.
When prostitution is legitimised as work like any other and legalised, women are generally required to register and undergo mandatory testing for STIs and HIV. Nowhere are punters required to be tested, in spite of the fact that HIV is overwhelmingly transmitted from the punter to the woman through vaginal and anal intercourse and not vice versa (Farley and Kelly, 2000), and punters, by their behaviour, are at high risk of infection. Mandatory testing is an abuse of prostituted women’s human rights and, together with registration, is one of the main reasons why many women prefer to work illegally after legalisation. Mandatory testing gives the illusion that something is being done without challenging men’s right to use and abuse women in prostitution. Mandatory testing does not change the fact that STIs and HIV are a perpetual and life threatening risk for women working in prostitution.
Once legalised, brothel owners and managers are typically required to provide safe sex information and resources, such as condoms and latex gloves. Although this approach reduces the risk for the woman, it does not come close to eliminating the risk or reducing it to a level comparable with risks in other work (because condoms slip and break, punters refuse to wear them, etc.). In addition, this approach contradicts the traditional health and safety philosophy that requires employers and workers to rethink and modify their practices to reduce and eliminate risks. But to modify the practices to reduce and eliminate risks to an acceptable level (for example, by requiring all participants to wear full protective clothing and to prohibit any intimate contact) would change the nature of prostitution itself.
Responsibility for compliance with safe sex practices inevitably rests with the prostituted woman but her ability to insist on safe sex practices is compromised by the punter’s belief that his purchasing power entitles him to demand any type of sex he desires. If the woman does not accept his demands, generally he will go elsewhere and she will not get paid. Sometimes brothel owners and pimps add extra pressure by penalising women who reject clients. All this conspires to ensure that it is the punter and not the woman who sets the parameters of the encounter. All the evidence suggests that this does not fundamentally change under legalisation.
“Women in prostitution must ultimately resort to psychological tactics that would be applicable to hostage situations in order to avoid such ‘occupational hazards’ as contracting life-debilitating infections, assaults, rape or death. In any other workplace these abuses of women’s human rights have nothing to do with labour regulations, but are considered a criminal offence. Nothing could more clearly illustrate the fact that prostitution is not, has never been, and can never be, an occupation comparable to other forms of legitimate work. It is at its core a manifestation of male violence against women.” (Sullivan, 2004)
One aspect of all of this damage is that it can erode the woman’s ability to visualise a different life for herself and thus it adds to the difficulties of leaving prostitution.
This is not to suggest that women who are working in prostitution should not have every available assistance in reducing the harm and minimising the risks involved. Quite the reverse in fact. This wish to reduce the harm is a major argument for the complete decriminalization of the women involved, as advocated by the Nordic Model. What I am saying here is simply that prostitution can never be made sufficiently safe that it can be considered a standard job.
“Social exclusion is the leading cause of entrance into sex work and exclusion is often deepened as a result of engaging in sex work.” (UCL, 2014).
The damage does not stop at the individuals who are directly involved. Prostitution as an institution has a negative impact on the fabric of society, the status of women and on punters individually, and men in general.
“Prostitution is not a myriad of individual acts of transactional sex. It is a highly organised industry, and the reality of that industry globally is that men are overwhelmingly the majority of those who buy sexual acts, and women and girls those whose bodies are bought. It is not an exchange between ‘similarly situated individuals who are making complementary choices: one to buy sex and the other to sell it’.” (EVAW, 2014)
In Choice in an Unequal World, I showed that the majority of those who enter prostitution are poor, young, and frequently recent migrants and/or belong to disadvantaged ethnic groups. The combination of the systems of prostitution and the harms that I have outlined above combine to entrench the prostituted woman’s already considerable disadvantage. Prostitution similarly entrenches women’s subordinate status generally and provides a disincentive to men as a class to fight to fix the enduring pay gap between men and women. As men as a class have more political power than women, this is a significant issue.
“Wounded by a perceived profound inequity and furious with the ‘bastardization of the Western male’, these men do what any other warriors without backbone do: they grab their weapons and head for the hills. In this case, though, their ammunition is the dollar, and their refuge from the war of the sexes is prostitution. For them, prostitution is the last bastion of manhood, where the old order they all long for remains intact. It is a place where men with cash in hand wield dominance over women. Men can be kings and women maidens, or women can play the masters if the men allow it. Everything revolves around the man. The woman is there for one purpose: to serve and please.” (Victor Malarek, 2009)
Research on sex buyers shows that men who buy sex tend to have a degrading image of women, are more likely to have misogynist attitudes, and to commit sexually coercive acts and other acts of violence against women (Malarek 2009, Coy et al 2007, Eaves 2009, Farley et al 2011).
“The two groups differed in their attitudes regarding prostitution as consenting sex or sexual exploitation. Sex buyers had significantly less empathy for prostituted women than did non-sex buyers. Sex buyers acknowledged fewer harmful effects of prostitution on the women in it and on the community. Non-sex buyers more often saw prostitution as harmful to both the woman herself and to the community as a whole. […]
Both sex buyers and non-sex buyers evidenced extensive knowledge of the physical and psychological harms of prostitution. Two thirds of both the sex buyers and the non-sex buyers observed that a majority of women are lured, tricked, or trafficked into prostitution. Many of the men had an awareness of the economic coercion and the lack of alternatives in women’s entry into prostitution. Almost all of the sex buyers and non-sex buyers shared the opinion that minor children are almost always available for prostitution in bars, massage parlors, escort and other prostitution in Boston [US].” (Farley et al 2011)
Prostitution therefore has a detrimental effect on all of the women that the punters come into contact with – wives, girlfriends, colleagues, neighbours, passersby, waitresses, etc – and by extension on all women.
“The whole thrill of it, prostitute hunting.”
“Prostitution can get you to think that things you may have done with a prostitute you should expect in a mutual loving relationship.”
“The relationship has to stay superficial because they are a person and you’re capable of getting to know them. But once you know them, it’s a problem, because you can’t objectify them anymore.” (Punters quoted in Farley et al 2011)
In the widest sense, prostitution also hurts punters and by extension all men. The punter’s sexual pleasure comes at the expense of vulnerable women but it also comes at the expense of his own humanity.
“When most of us strip away our sexual bravado, there is a yearning for something beyond the quick pleasures of the pornographic. […] I am arguing that there are compelling arguments from self-interest [for rejecting prostitution] – if we can go beyond very narrow understandings of self-interest and embrace a fuller and richer conception of our own humanity.” (Robert Jensen, 2004)
Legitimising prostitution as work would normalise prostitution, which in turn would encourage its expansion and growth. This would inevitably lead to a growth in the number of women and girls suffering its abuses and would put vulnerable women and girls in increased danger of violence and exploitation. Overall, therefore, legitimising prostitution as work like any other would entrench gender, racial and class divisions.
There are precedents for not considering some money-generating activities (such as drug dealing and pick pocketing) to be classified as work because of the social harm they cause. Those advocating that prostitution be considered work frequently point out that it has features, such as flexibility and lucrativeness, that make it a suitable occupation for those who have low levels of formal skills and/or caring responsibilities, etc. These features apply equally to pick pocketing, for example, but few seriously consider this a reason to advocate it. That it is so difficult for many people to see the harm that prostitution causes only goes to show how deep the roots of misogyny extend.
“Sexual liberals draw attention to the right to work and the human rights of women engaging in the sex industry, but in alleging that sex work is ‘just work’ and that women voluntarily engage in it with free will, they give legitimacy and authority to male dominance and the whole sex industry. Their ‘cares’ for the human rights and security of ‘sex workers’ are somewhat akin to the ‘cares’ of white slave owners for the Black slaves working healthily and contributing to the harvest of cotton. […] They say that [full legalization of prostitution (including pimping)] will eliminate discrimination against prostitutes and improve their working conditions. However, this could only lead to a grotesque, sexist society where people trade and traffic openly and legally in female sexuality.”(Morita, 2004).
Sexuality is a core aspect of being human and is central to each individual’s sense of self and personhood. As such, sexuality is fundamentally different from all other physical and cerebral qualities that we use during work. Earlier I showed that the prostituted woman does not simply provide a service, but is in fact required to engage her body sexually with the punter while all the time maintaining the pretence that she is enjoying it and giving up her rights to express her genuine feelings and preferences.
Feminists fought long and hard to show that non-mutual sexual behaviour is a violation of equality and therefore of human rights and for legislation that enshrines the right to equality in the workplace and more generally. The acceptance of prostitution as work like any other would undermine these real and hard-won advances.
When thinking of prostitution and human rights, it is helpful to consider two concepts that were introduced by Japanese feminists:
- Sexual personal right. This is based on the principle that sexuality is a core aspect of the human personality or human dignity and as such is a fundamental human right.
- Sex equality right. This is based on the concept that equality between men and women is a fundamental human right that requires the eradication of the gender power relations of domination and subordination.
Because these rights are fundamental, consent does not justify their violation. (Morita, 2004).
The following excerpt from the response from End Violence Against Women (EVAW) to Amnesty International UK’s consultation on ‘sex work’ touches on some key human rights formulations concerning prostitution:
“The 1949 United Nations Convention on ‘the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others’ states that ‘prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community’. This therefore defines prostitution as incompatible with the UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948 which guarantees human dignity and integrity to all.
More recent human rights approaches refer to trafficking and ‘forced’ prostitution, but as many have argued, ‘force’ need not be coercion from a third party, but can also describe a lack of alternative means to support oneself and family. Commentary on Article 6 in UN General Recommendation 19 on Violence Against Women recognises that poverty and unemployment ‘force many women, including young girls, into prostitution’. If force or coercion can be exercised as conditions of poverty and unemployment, which disproportionately affect women and girls throughout the world, then gender inequality itself can be described as ‘force’. This cannot be described as ‘consent’ to sell sexual services. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking pointed this out in noting that ‘it is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experience does not involve, at the very least an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability. Power and vulnerability in this context must be understood to include power disparities based on gender, race, ethnicity and poverty’.
Intersecting inequalities of gender and race/ethnicity are also hugely significant in women’s entry into, and experiences of, the prostitution system. Studies consistently demonstrate the over-representation of women and girls from minority communities in the prostitution system and particularly in its most abusive contexts. The Aboriginal Women’s Action Network on Prostitution in Canada has led a high profile campaign against proposals to decriminalise prostitution on the basis that disparities in socio-economic resources which make selling sex a gendered survival strategy are deepened for indigenous women. […]
Furthermore, commentary on Article 2 of General Recommendation 19 states that ‘attitudes by which women are regarded as subordinate to men or as having stereotyped roles contribute to the propagation of pornography and the depiction and other commercial exploitation of women as sexual objects, rather than as individuals’. Here again is an explicit link in a human rights framing which makes it clear that the depersonalisation of women both in the prostitution system and in each commercial sex encounter violates women’s human rights. […]
Given […] the gendered asymmetry of the sex industry, it is possible to view prostitution as meeting the definition of violence against women in the 1993 Declaration, as ‘gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women’. In CEDAW’s formulation, such gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that ‘impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general international law or under human rights conventions.” (EVAW, 2014)
This excerpt makes it clear that legitimising prostitution as work like any other would be a violation of the human rights of the women involved and the more general rights of women to equality with men. In addition, the February 2014 resolution adopted by the European Parliament on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender inequality draws on a number of other human rights instruments.
“When women’s bodies are on sale as commodities in the capitalist market, the terms of the original contract cannot be forgotten; the law of male sex-right is publicly affirmed and men gain public acknowledgement as women’s sexual masters – that is what is wrong with prostitution.” (Pateman 1988)
This article has shown that prostitution cannot be considered work like any other type of work, because psychological harm is intrinsic to its practice, physical and verbal violence are commonplace, it places the women involved at risk of life threatening infections and can never be safe, and it is in fact a violation of the human rights of the woman involved and the right of women to equality with men, and is likely to entrench the social exclusion of poor, young, migrant, and ethnic minority women in particular.
“To argue that there is something wrong with prostitution does not necessarily imply any adverse judgement on the women who engage in the work. When socialists criticize capitalism and the employment contract they do not do so because they are contemptuous of workers, but because they are the workers’ champion.” (Pateman, 1988)
I therefore support an approach to prostitution based on the Nordic Model or the Sex Buyers’ Law. This decriminalises all women, children, men and transgendered people who are involved in prostitution, invests heavily in harm reduction services for those involved and exit strategies for those who want a new direction, and criminalises the punter in order to reduce the demand and recognise prostitution for the abuse that it is.
- Coy M, Horvath M, Kelly L. ‘It’s just like going to the supermarket’: Men buying sex in East London, CWASU, 2007.
- Demand Change http://www.demandchange.org.uk/
- Eaves for Women, Breaking Down the Barriers (2012)
- Eaves for Women, Men Who Buy Sex (2009)
- End Violence Against Women (EVAW, 2014) Submission to Amnesty International’s Global Policy Consultation on Sex Work.
- Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot et al., Images of Prostitution: The Prostitute and Print Media, 10 WOMEN & CRIM. JUST. 47, 47 (1999).
- European Parliament resolution on Sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality (2014).
- Farley, Melissa The real harms of prostitution.
- Farley , M. et al. (2003). Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4, 2003, pp.33-74.
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- Ross, Colin A. et al., Dissociation Among Women in Prostitution, in PROSTITUTION, TRAFFICKING, AND TRAUMATIC STRESS 199 (Melissa Farley ed., 2003).
- Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, Pornography and Prostitution in Canada, 2 PORN. & PROSTITUTION CAN. 350, 350 (1985).
- Sullivan, Mary Lucille Sullivan (2004). ‘Can prostitution be safe? Applying occupational health and safety codes to Australia’s brothel prostitution’ in Not for Sale, Feminists resisting prostitution and pornography, Melbourne Australia: Spinfex.
- UCL Institute of Health Equity, 2014, A Review of the Literature on Sex Workers and Social Exclusion.