What is the real problem with prostitution?

7 Jul

Someone once told me to always open with a joke before getting to the heavy stuff, so here goes! “How do you make a hormone? Tell her a misogynistic joke.”

Basically, Amsterdam was amazing. It was full of canals, cyclists, and coffee shops selling cannabis (or ‘jazz cigarettes’ as my friend Dawn calls them, adorably). And it also boasts the infamous Red Light District, which is one of the main tourist attractions and puts a whole different spin on the idea of window shopping.

Prostitution has enjoyed a long tradition of tolerance in Amsterdam. Like marijuana, the Netherlands’ approach has been to legalise the trade and impose regulations. However, my feelings about the RLD are conflated. Even just putting the human body on par with a product (even cannabis…) is problematic.

In ‘Making Sex Work: A Failed Experiment in Legalized Prostitution,’ Sullivan asserts the liberal feminist stance that sex work has the capacity of reducing women’s bodies to a basic commodity, and unconsciously aids in the institutionalising of the rights of men as purchasers of these bodies. Its normalisation has the potential to gravely undermine the workplace equality many women have strived for, and I can totally see this.

On the other hand, I think we have had more than enough of society policing what women do with their bodies. Here in the UK, Nadine Dorries is pushing for abstinence education for girls only (ugh) in schools, and abortion rights are under attack yet again (there is a pro-choice demo this Saturday though). If you want to make prostitution your chosen career, I don’t see why the hell you shouldn’t.

It is all too common for the media to dehumanise and attack sex workers. Do we all remember that vile Richard Littlejohn piece from way back, on the murder of the five Ipswich women? He argued that in their field of work – their work as“disgusting, drug-addled street whores” – “death by strangulation is an occupational hazard” and “in the scheme of things the deaths of these five women is no great loss.”

That the lives of these women were so one-dimensionally dismissed disgusts me to this day, and it is disgusting, disturbed men like Littlejohn that are the real issue surrounding the sex trade. The problem comes from dehumanising and oppressive societal attitudes and the relentless focus on these women’s trade which dismantles their worth as human beings.

It’s a tricky issue, but Amsterdam and the RLD seem to have prostitution spot on if it’s going to be done at all. Sex workers have their own union, access to police protection, and there is a significantly reduced threat of violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

I don’t think I’ll ever reach a concrete conclusion myself, but Feministissues.com has created a handy chart to show the spectrum of feminist reaction to the sex trade. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts too.

6 Responses to “What is the real problem with prostitution?”

  1. Becci July 8, 2011 at 10:07 PM #

    I’ve said, for a while now, that I think prostitution should be legalised. Obviously it’s highly problematic, for all the reasons outlined above, but legalising it would be a step in the right direction when it comes to recognising prostitutes as human beings, plus regulation would mean you could leave the line of work at any time, not getting trapped by pimps or whatever.

    But when it comes down to it I think that society’s biggest issue with prostitution is that we’re still determined to treat sex like this special magical thing and prostitution completely does away with that. I’m not saying that sex can’t be intimate or romantic or anything like that, of course I’m not. But it can also just be something that you do because it feels good. I mean, think about a massage: essentially it’s paying someone to touch your body and make you feel good. Is paying someone for sex THAT different? Yes, different body parts are involved but they are just body parts. Is there really a huge distinction between paying someone to rub your back and paying someone to rub your penis? That question isn’t rhetorical, by the way. I’m really trying to figure it out.

  2. Ankur Banerjee July 11, 2011 at 7:58 AM #

    Depends on whether you’re referring to the act of prostitution or ‘sex trade’ in general. Perhaps in Amsterdam or in other parts of the Western world it can be empowered choice of profession, but it’s a huge problem in the South/South-East Asia where many women are forced into prostitution by local mafia. They are lured to other countries in the guise of getting jobs and then forced into it. It’s a catch-22 situation for them because they are often in violation of local border control laws and cannot appeal to authorities for help for the fear of getting arrested. Even if they do turn informants for the police, then there’s the spectre of retribution from human traffickers, who can and do threaten to hurt / injure their families if they dare to speak out. Legalising prostitution in these countries may help the problem, but it’s never going to happen because it will political suicide for any government in the region that tries to implement such policies.

  3. kennedy121 July 19, 2011 at 9:16 PM #

    “Perhaps in Amsterdam or in other parts of the Western world it can be empowered choice of profession…”

    If this is a source of female ’empowerment’ in the ‘West’, then we really need to deal with our own problems as opposed to moralising about other cultures re- the treatment of women and their roles/position in society.
    Having visited Amsterdam a few years ago, I also agree that prosititution taking place in the way it is there is preferable to being driven underground and all the dangers that brings with it. However, there is no way that these women are making a truly empowered choice. Would any of the women working in the RLD in Amsterdam be doing that work if they were not making money? A 13 year old Bangladeshi girl may ‘choose’ to work in a sweatshop to make her money, rather than starve or undertake any of the alternatives on offer, but can one really aruge that this is a real choice?
    Sadly, in a highly unequal capitalist society, people are compelled to do many different forms of work they would otherwise not do. Office workers and prostitutes are degraded in different ways and varying degrees, but both are exploited and suffer from the stiffling effects of commodification of their bodies and labour.

    What we should really be aiming for is a society in which people can spend 10 hrs a day working in an office, or an entire night having sex with strangers, under no socio-economic duress or compulsion to do so, if they so choose. I’m guessing that much of the work billions of people currently spend huge portions of their daily lives undertaking to survive and make money for others, would no longer exist. Instead, people would be able to develop and flourish offering more productive and positive contributions to society than filing insurance claims or gratifying the short term sexual needs of strangers.

    If our concern and alternatives for sex workers were to end at their safety and unionisation, feminist and leftist thought could be held as deeply impoverished on the matter. Many people on the left and feminists don’t accept this argument though and will continue to fight for a true alternative, one that doesn’t internalise and unwittingly (though perhaps with good intentions) help reproduce the status quo, by making prostitution cleaner, ‘better’ and increasingly commercial.

  4. Michelle Slonim August 16, 2012 at 4:22 AM #

    Why is this a feminist issue? Can’t men be prostitutes too?

  5. Stephanie D August 16, 2012 at 1:24 PM #

    I think it has to do with the different way in which men and women sex workers are perceived.


  1. Topdeck Travel: Days Twelve Through Fourteen « the solipsistic socialite - August 14, 2012

    […] settled, Jamie took us on a tour of the Red Light District (I’ve already shared my opinion on that particular subject), and then took those of us who were willing to brave it to a live sex show at a bar called Moulin […]

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