Tired of the repetitive and unfounded message that we must all, and the phrase is now so overused let’s put it in quotation marks, “not conflate prostitution and human trafficking”, it is about time to address some of the rubbish being put out there that is misleading at best, certainly hyperbolic, and perhaps bordering on criminally complicit at worst.
Let me start by saying there is SOME truth in the now-cliched call not to conflate the two. But there is only one very good reason not to conflate the two or, rather, there is one qualifier to the concept; we should not conflate prostitution with all forms of human trafficking. Doing so, of course, means we can run the risk of denying the myriad other purposes for which people are trafficked. Conflating the two has, in the past, served to create a kind of defeatism; just because we cannot end prostitution means we should do nothing against trafficking. This is a good, and the only, reason, we should not conflate the two.
There is one VERY compelling reason to conflate the two. And it kind of trumps the reasons not to. You cannot end one, without tackling the other.
It is now time to recognise that trafficking for sexual exploitation is an OVERFLOW from the demand for paid sexual services – i.e. prostitution – created by men and maintained by men. The demand for sexual services causes a market for, in this case, women, to provide sexual services to men.
The world has, largely, two schools of feminism speaking about the issue. And since the mid-1990s, these two schools have battled it out in the field of human trafficking – a great schism if ever there was one.
One school, sometimes called the ‘lipstick feminists’, are of what we might label the individualist view. That is, they have read Kathleen Barry’s great “Female Sexual Slavery”, but have failed to either read or understand her update 15 years later, ‘The Prostitution of Sexuality”. Those of this individualistic school are the ones who believe (N.B. many of this school are actually men, who have either been told what they should say by women of this school, or have read the Cliff”s Notes to Kathleen Barry but don’t really know how it turns out, and of course they have almost certainly never been subject of sexualised violence) that the rights of the individual are paramount, and the right to self-predetermination trumps any harm that comes from prostitution. This school sees the selling of women’s bodies to be a valid – and somehow free – ‘choice’. Followers of this school see prostitution as a kind of ‘work’. And they believe that it should be regulated or legitimised, through legislation or regulation. This school sees state-run or state-sanctioned brothels as the way forward.
Member of this school are identifiable by their use of terms such as ‘sex work’, ‘sex worker’, the ‘sex industry’ etc. To these people, prostitution more largely is just a big factory, churning out sex for men while women take much-needed cash and no harm is done. These people have to, by choosing this model, internalise the ‘happy hooker’ concept that sees women in prostitution as somehow happy for being able to exercise their choice.
Then, there is the other school.
And this important school is now in the ascendance. This school comprises those who have read and understood precisely what Kathleen is describing latterly when she talks about the industrialisation of sex. That is, while we have since the 70s been putting more emphasis on the individualist approach (the subject of her earlier work) and believe that a woman’s right to choose what she does to earn money is the paramount right in the discussion, the industry grows and grows into the towering behemoth it is now, and consumes far more women over time than it would otherwise. Because we allowed it to happen.
Rapacious demand consumes all the women in the local market who have been cornered into prostitution, and so women from abroad are required to meet the supply deficit. And hence the trafficking of women. Ask the Netherlands why they are going to change their ‘free market for sex to a more restricted model? There were not enough Dutch women to supply all the sex demanded by this open market they created, and women are being brought in from all over the world – many, not ‘free’ – to meet the supply shortfall.
It is precisely this natural consequence of ignoring the systemic implications of the defence of individual rights that has created the monster that is prostitution and, in this globalised world, trafficking as a means of making burgeoning demand and limited supply come together.
The time has come for the approaches to ending prostitution that put men back on the map as both consumer and protector. Policymakers and legislators have for too long been making law and policy on prostitution for the entertainment of (or protection of) other men. The German and Queensland models, are examples of this now clearly failed approach.
The essence of the problem with regulated and legalised approaches to prostitution is the singular failure to recognise the way men’s minds work. Legalisation and regulation of prostitution mean for many men, ‘okay’. Witness the buying of women as a part of ‘lunchtime meal deals’ for men in Victoria and Queensland in Australia. Women have become, through legalisation and regulation, a legitimate product to be bought and sold. This is the key failure of these individualist approaches to prostitution; they send a message to men that it is okay to buy women’s bodies. As a result, more men do it, and demand increases.
The alternative is to recognise that prostitution is not an ‘industry’ created by women for women. It is created, and perpetuated, by men for men. Policy and legislative frameworks that legitimise prostitution are doing nothing but serving one of the most outrageous ends of patriarchy; access to women’s bodies. Women who defend these approaches uphold – sometimes unwittingly, but most just unthinkingly – patriarchy.
Prostitution is not about love, or even sex. It is about power. And as such is a form of violence against women. Don’t just take my word for that; women in prostitution have the highest rates of sexual abuse in society, and the highest levels of rape and homicide of any group of women. Many women in prostitution suffer post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms equivalent to victims of war. It is far from given that regulated and legalised prostitution protects women. It institutionalises their victimisation, and ensures the continued rise in demand that means more and more women will be taken into prostitution.
One of the most significant determinants of violence against women in any society is lack of equality in the distribution of power between the sexes. When policymakers and legislators comprise sufficient female representation, things start to change for the better, to change in favour of women and against patriarchal ends like prostitution.
Witness the tide of change in Europe and North America to prostitution. Kicked off by those countries where female representation in Parliaments is high, the Nordics, Sweden, Finland, Norway etc, the blame for creating and perpetuating prostitution is put where it belongs, on the male consumer of women. A tide of consensus has been achieved in these countries that prostitution does promote violence against women, and that regulating or legalising not only perpetuates the wrong but allows the wrong to flourish to industrial levels.
To these progressive Nordics, add France and soon the UK, for seeing the light on this subject. Canada, the US, New Zealand and Ireland are among those awakening states also moving down this path. Even Germany and the Netherlands, both long being places where women were kept in servitude either by the state or the free market to service men as men needed, are also realising they can no longer stand by and allow the industrialisation of prostitution and all that that means for women, including their being trafficked to fill supply.
After the failure of legalised or regulated prostitution in many European countries, including Sweden, new laws were introduced which sought to criminalise the purchase of sex. With a view to penalising the male buyers while not criminalising the female sellers – through processes that combine education with deterrence – these laws seek to criminalise the actions of buyers, pimps, and the owners of the ‘means of production’ in prostitution.
In Sweden, attitudes to sexual services have changed in much the same way as changed attitudes to wearing seat belts or to smoking; buying sex is now simply not socially acceptable in Sweden, and the market for women’s bodies has decreased dramatically. The results of the ‘experiment’ of these laws in Sweden were and remain compelling. Sweden has the fewest trafficked women in the European Union. Traffickers, pimps, and brothel owners fled Sweden for other more lucrative legal markets, swamping nearby Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands.
That it is a woman’s choice to sell her body is a lie that is bought and sold by men for men. And it is swallowed wholesale by those women who believe in the supremacy of individual rights, no matter the outcome for women more broadly.
Research bears out that, despite the ‘happy hooker’ lie thrown out by the owners of brothels, the vast majority of women in prostitution are not there by choice. And certainly not in any sense of free choice by any reasonable understanding of that term. Recent Swiss research reveals the power of constraints such as drug use, poverty of financial hardship, lack of education, perceived lack of other choices, being dominated by a male etc. These and other factors are prime in influencing a woman’s decision to be prostituted.
Further research also bears out the fact that the vast majority of women in prostitution want to get out if they can be helped to find the way out. Once in, it becomes bewildering and self-perpetuating. Exit becomes dreamlike. This experience was born out in the early 2000s in, for instance, Italy, where NGOs such as ‘On the Road’ began working on behalf of the state to reduce trafficking of women into sexual exploitation, and found overwhelming support amongst women in prostitution that if they can just be helped to see, and find a way, out of their situation, unsurprisingly, they will gladly leave. Exit strategies involve safe housing, detoxification programmes, psychological counseling, job retraining, and finding paid work.
Viable exit strategies mean significant change in the numbers of women in prostitution. However, even with exit strategies, the places of women who exit prostitution will only be filled by others, if not by local women then by smuggled or trafficked women, while demand remains high and growing.
A civil and humane society does not allow women to be raped, trafficked, traumatised, sexually assaulted, through buying and selling in state-run or state-sanctioned institutions.
Although the former Italian Prime Minister (that paragon of male virtue) may disagree with me, women are not commodities for men to buy and sell at their leisure. Some women buying into that, or allowing themselves to be bought and sold, does not make it so.
The only end to this burgeoning demand is to change the choices men make. Make men’s buying decisions harder.
Criminalising the buying of sex is the ONLY way to change buying decisions, reduce trafficking for sexual exploitation, and eliminate prostitution.