“We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women, and its name is prostitution.” ~Victor Hugo
At the root of this enterprise, lies the seemingly boundless demand. This may be driven in part by the commercial nature of modern culture. Everything is for sale, and sex is successfully used to sell almost everything. Can it be surprising to find that people themselves have become commodified, regarded as disposable objects for sale or rent? We have a culture that glorifies pimping as some sort of glamorous vocation. Can you imagine if that same paintbrush were applied to brutal slave masters? Or to the traders that sold human beings on the slave block? There really is not much difference.
When you read newspapers that boldly advertise sexual services, you become complicit to some small degree. The National Organization for Women (NOW) cites the Division of Criminal Justice Services in New York: “… ‘adult’ ads featuring specific ethnicities or ‘in call only’ escort services are most often found to have human trafficking ties.” Clearly these newspapers and phone directories both promote and profit from human trafficking. But you do not need to remain silent. Write a letter to the editor. Phone some of the legitimate advertisers and express your concern.
A form of court mandated education for the clients of prostituted women, called ‘john schools’, have a very low recidivism rate. They attempt to teach respect for women, viewing them as the sisters, daughters, and mothers they truly are. They also teach that few women become prostitutes by choice, and commonly there are prior histories of sexual abuse. Even in those places where prostitution is legal, women are trafficked from other locations. They typically won’t announce their victim status, they may even deny it. By visiting a prostitute you are supporting an industry that most literally enslaves women.
As we have noted in our discussion of sex trafficking, the overwhelming majority of people drawn into this kind of subjugation are the poor, the desperate, the weak and vulnerable. Almost always we are talking about women and children, but boys, transgendered youth and other marginalized populations are also at risk. Frequently these victims have a history of violence or sexual abuse at home. If they do not already have substance abuse problems, their pimp is likely to cultivate that dependency. It is not uncommon that women are brought to prostitution through an initiation in other sexually exploitative work such as bars and clubs that feature ‘adult entertainment’, or more explicit exposure in the pornography industry.
To the traffickers and pimps who control and exploit these people, they are little more than meat to be bought, sold or traded for profit. Money on the hoof. They are disposable, expendable, and easily replaced. They are of course exposed to all manner of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. Shockingly, homicide is a leading cause of death!
The manipulation and control over these victims has been honed by experience. Brutality is artfully mixed with displays of concern and affection. Often these women will not see themselves as victims. It is psychologically easier to believe that they are indeed acting as free agents. They may see their pimp as a protector and benefactor. Their abuser, and his other victims, may constitute the only ‘family’ a prostituted woman can claim.
The Great Divide
More than any other single issue, the question of how to approach the problem of prostitution divides the abolitionist community. In its most simplistic form, the debate has revolved around criminalization versus legalization and regulation. Entangling the entire question are concerns about individuals’ sovereignty over their own bodies and their right to choose to have sex, on whatever terms they wish, with whomever they wish. Against this we weigh the profound abuse that we clearly see taking place in the vast majority of situations where people are being prostituted.
The argument for legalization/regulation goes beyond just the civil liberty stance, that neither the government nor any church has the right to dictate sexual choices. It also envisions that by de-criminalizing the ‘world’s oldest profession’, people who choose to engage in this will be both less fearful and less stigmatized. They will not need pimps to protect them from the police or bail them out of jail. Sex work will come to be viewed as another honest profession like many others. Suitable for some perhaps to choose, even if distasteful to many. The public health implications of this scenario are enticing. Sex workers being licensed and having regular health check-ups as a requirement. Safe sex practices and sex education could be more easily promulgated. Police corruption and the influence of organized crime would be greatly curtailed. In some communities that have taken this approach, licensed sex workers have banded together forming unions or coalitions to work toward better pay and safer working conditions. In India, though not legal, sex workers are a vocal political force, leading marches and organizing public demonstrations.
This model exists in the United States only in some counties in Nevada, where brothels like the Mustang Ranch have become notorious. Amsterdam is probably the most notable city to have embraced this model of tolerance, creating a designated ‘red light’ district. While this seemed manageable for quite some time, recent years have seen a great many difficulties causing a reassessment of the entire approach. The problems largely arose with the infiltration of organized trafficking rings that established a whole clandestine tier of unregistered prostituted women who could compete with the licensed brothels. This has brought things very much right back to the low point of many pimps, much abuse, corruption, disease, and sexual slavery.
An Enlightened Approach: The Nordic Model
In 1999 Sweden embarked upon what may be the most enlightened approach, a compromise of two seemingly opposed notions, that relies upon a little bit of legal sleight of hand. In Sweden, it’s not illegal to be a prostitute, but it is illegal to hire one. Additionally the government established a comprehensive outreach program that encourages sex workers to change their livelihood. The law considers prostitution a form of violence against women. Visiting a prostitute is currently punishable with a six-month jail sentence. However, despite about 2,000 arrests, no one has been jailed and convictions have only led to minor fines – due mainly to difficulties with finding evidence and the low maximum penalty on the statute books. While this is clearly an attempt to address the demand side of the equation, it has had mixed results. Proponents point to an initial dramatic drop in street prostitution. Detractors claim that the trade has simply moved indoors via the internet making monitoring more difficult and reporting abuse less likely.
It may be hoped that ongoing research will help determine whether prohibition or legalization leads to higher levels of sex trafficking into, or within, a country. Clearly this is a complex issue that societies have wrestled with since time immemorial. But it is important to note that human rights groups and abolitionists share far more common ground than this dispute might lead you to believe. The question of the best approach to prostitution, and which approach best reduces human trafficking, will undoubtedly continue to be debated. Results of differing approaches will be analyzed and argued over. Healthy debate is all to the good. It may turn out that different approaches are best in different cultures, traditions, or societal circumstances.
What is largely agreed upon by all, is that exploitation by third parties is wholly unpardonable. Pimping and sex trafficking are crimes that should be universally recognized as deserving the harshest criminal penalties. This constitutes modern-day slavery. Likewise there is no fundamental disagreement about the sexual exploitation of minors being the most terrible crime deserving punishment in full measure. Most abolitionist groups are also in agreement that at least in those jurisdictions where prostitution is illegal, the buyers of sexual services should be no less criminally liable than the sellers. It is the view of Fight Slavery Now! that even though we may not reach full agreement on the best approach to the complex issues surrounding prostituted women, there is still ample common ground allowing us to march forward. We support all groups seeking to raise awareness about these issues and we welcome continued public discussion.
Some specific points to keep in mind:
- Prostituted women are rarely exercising a free choice, but rather are being manipulated and exploited by others.
- To lead people out of prostitution requires a strong commitment to offering supporting social services.
- The institution of prostitution is driven by the demand for sexual services.
See also our page: Other Approaches, for a worldwide perspective on prostitution and the law.
The most gripping and straight to the heart blog about prostituted women by survivor/activist Stella Marr:
My Body The City: The Secret Life of a Call Girl
Legalized prostitution in Australia attracts traffickers, Youngbee Dale, The Washington Times Communities, July 3, 2012
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