Feminist Arguments Against Industry of Prostitution
This article is based on a ten minute speech presented at the conference on violence against women and girls held in Bristol in November 2011 and chaired by Nicola Harwin; Women’s Aid.
This article was printed in ‘Safe’ magazine, Spring issue of Women’s Aid magazine, 2012.
By Finn Mackay, Feminist Activist & Researcher
Debates over legal approaches to prostitution have been awakened once again following recent comments from Simon Byrne, the ACPO lead on prostitution and sexual exploitation. His comments promoting the legalisation of brothels are based on the example of New Zealand, which introduced this approach in 2003. Prostitution has long been a contentious issue in the Women’s Liberation Movement, splitting Feminist individuals and groups. This is largely because the debate is often reduced to an either/or argument between harm minimisation and abolition, with those veering towards the latter view accused of moralism, conservatism and, worse, of a disregard for women’s safety. It is perhaps timely then to revisit the Feminist understanding of prostitution as a form of violence against women, and this article will attempt to address some of the contemporary challenges to this political stance.
Readers are probably familiar with the argument that prostitution is work like any other, that the decision to enter this industry is a matter of individual choice, with which the state or anyone else should not interfere, but only facilitate that choice to be enacted as safely as possible.
Groups like the English Collective of Prostitutes (part of Wages for Housework) are calling for what is known as brothelisation, the state legalisation of brothels, similar to that in Australia and New Zealand, describing prostitution as “consenting sex” which “should not be the business of the criminal law”. Groups like the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) also advocate the New Zealand model, and promote prostitution as a legitimate business.
There are some things I’m sure everyone would agree on, for example, that those involved/exploited in this industry should not be criminalised. Feminist groups are calling for decriminalisation of those exploited in prostitution; for the crimes of loitering and soliciting to be removed from the statute and for any records for these offences to be wiped, as having such a record only further inhibits women from entry into the formal labour market, training or education and unfairly brands them a criminal. Feminist groups are not calling for women in prostitution to be criminalised, and Feminist groups do not support the fining or imprisoning of women or the serving of anti-social behaviour orders.
No doubt there is also agreement, regardless of political stance, that those exploited in prostitution have a right to protection and support. People in this country are entitled to their rights as citizens, and to their human rights whatever their immigration status, regardless of how they make an income. This is where what is called harm-minimisation can play a role. No Feminist is arguing against harm-minimisation, against CCTV cameras in areas where prostitution is known to commonly take place for example. Nor are Feminists arguing against a better police response when prostituted women report crimes, including rape. Nor are Feminists arguing against services such as free contraception, drug and alcohol counselling, access to safe legal abortion, benefits advice, housing, laundries, refuges, needle exchanges etc. These harm-minimisation services are sadly vital as long as prostitution continues to exist; but importantly, the Feminist argument highlights that we must always and also look towards harm-ending, alongside harm-minimisation. Society cannot, and should not, be satisfied for ever more with placing tiny sticking plasters over the huge wounds that prostitution leaves on our society and on the bodies of those chewed up within it: the women murdered, missing, raped, battered, scarred. To do so is to merely maintain a whole class of people in sexual service to the other half of the population and thus sustain this fundamental injustice; an injustice which makes a mockery of claims to equality in our country. And while these debates go on, tonight on our streets up to five thousand young people will be exploited in prostitution, to fulfil a demand we are told to accept as inevitable. Children continue to be groomed and pimped, with the average age of entry into prostitution worldwide estimated at around only fourteen years old. Women children and men in this industry continue to be disproportionately affected by violence, including sexual violence, with Canadian studies suggesting that women in prostitution face a homicide risk forty times higher than the national average.
It is time to envision a society, and a world, without prostitution. This may sound idealistic, but the theory matters, the direction of travel matters, the aspiration matters; because if we can’t envision such a society, then we cannot even begin to build it.
This is why many Feminists are advocating the Nordic approach, calling for the complete decriminalisation of all those exploited in prostitution and instead for the criminalisation of demand. In 1999 Sweden outlawed the purchase of sexual acts in prostitution, effectively criminalising punters, while decriminalising all those selling ‘sexual services’. This move was in line with Sweden’s understanding of prostitution as a form of violence against women and a symptom of inequality, as well as being part of their commitment towards tackling global sex trafficking. Any such legal move must go alongside a large and dedicated financial investment in both harm-minimisation and exit services, and this is no less than what those people exploited and harmed in prostitution deserve, many of whom have been let down consistently by the very state services that should have protected them.
It is possible to implement both harm minimisation and exit services, this is not an either/or argument, though it is often reduced to such by proponents of the sex industry and by groups such as the IUSW, who have been described as an industry lobby group.
It is not necessary to legalise and normalise the whole of the sex industry in
order to provide exit and harm minimisation services, and we should be wary of those groups who frame the debate in this way and threaten such an ultimatum. As stated earlier in this article, citizens in this country have a right to welfare benefits, health care, to a police response to crimes committed against them, to training and employment, to education, to support with housing and child care, to support with drug and alcohol addiction. People have these rights regardless of what they do to make money to survive and everyone should be able to access and benefit from these entitlements. Not that this is easy for anyone, particularly for refugees and asylum seekers, and especially in the current economic climate, where we are witnessing devastating ideological cuts to our welfare state and to essential services that are vital for the most disadvantaged.
But the answer to poverty and marginalisation is not to negate our social responsibilities and hand over this authority to the multi-billion dollar sex industry. Brothels and strip clubs in our communities are not providers of drug rehabilitation, of rape trauma counselling, of housing. Lap-dancing clubs in our communities are not providers of higher education and they are not providing a public service by recruiting young student women struggling to pay the high fees and expenses now associated with completing a University education. The answer to the latter situation for example, is to unite together and fight for the return of the student grant and for free education for all – not to turn to the often criminal sex industry, as if it is some sort of safety net for women, when it is usually the very opposite.
The so-called ‘sex industry’ is an industry built on the inequality of women, it is built on the deep fissures of inequality that in fact characterise society at every level, inequalities of class, race and wealth. It is an industry that harms those in it, which damages those in it and it is not surprising then that global research finds that around 90% of those in it would leave immediately if they had the economic freedom to do so.
Securing this freedom must then be one aim of all Feminist campaigns against the prostitution industry. If it is accepted that prostitution is not a positive feature of society, if we agree that it is not a positive career option for women, children or young men, then we must tackle and reverse the social and economic conditions that enable prostitution to thrive. Our society has failed people who need refuge, who need safe housing, who need food, who need health services, who need money to survive, who need justice to be served on rapists and abusers. We have raised girls who think their worth is based on their attractiveness to the opposite sex, we have reduced women to nothing more than sex objects; we have brought up boys to believe that women are second-class. Thus, we have created a conducive environment for prostitution. This is not natural, it is not inevitable, and it can be reduced, maybe ended; at the very least it can be challenged, rather than glamourised, normalised and condoned.
If the UK were to follow the example of legalised brothels, such as in New Zealand, Amsterdam and Australia, what do we expect would happen to this so-called industry? Is it not common business sense to assume that when an industry is legalised and promoted, when it can freely advertise and set up anywhere in our towns and cities, that it will therefore grow, that it will expand? And, if the industry grows, who will fill the new ‘vacancies’ that will be created? More women, children and men in prostitution; we have to ask ourselves if that is the sort of outcome we want.
There is also the argument that wherever there is a legal sector there will always be an illegal sector, and this has indeed been found to be the case, everywhere that has legalised. There will always be those that do not wish to register, those that don’t want to or can’t pay taxes, those that are working illegally without papers, those who are immigrants or trafficked, or underage.
It can be enlightening to study the local newspapers of towns and cities in countries where brothels have been legalised, to see what is happening on the ground. In Queensland for example, local papers recently reported on complaints from legal brothels regards being undercut by the illegal sector, resulting in the closure of three legal brothels. There are also concerns about trafficking and links to organised crime and about safety in both sectors. The legal sector is not a panacea, it does not guarantee women’s safety; for example, a woman is reportedly sueing a legal brothel in Victoria after being threatened with a gun for refusing to have unprotected sex. A survey in Australia this year found physical safety still the highest concern for women in legal brothels. Women are still raped, assaulted and attacked in legal brothels and tolerance zones. And, in countries which have legalised, this happens behind the closed doors of legal, profit-making brothels paying a licence fee to the state, therefore making the state a pimp.
Legalising prostitution turns it into a business, turns it into a career option and turns pimps and traffickers into legitimate businessmen overnight. Legalising prostitution removes any obligations to provide exit services from what becomes a profession like any other, it can give a green light to organised crime and it formally defines women as commodities, as objects of exchange for men’s presumed natural needs.
And this is the real question about prostitution: the question of men’s rights, and, whether we as a society believe that men have a right to buy and sell women’s bodies or whether they do not. We know that people will do what they have to do to survive and to make money, this isn’t rocket science, it isn’t a feature of people’s sexuality or sexual identity. People make desperate choices to provide for their children, to keep a roof over their heads, to feed their families – and they should not be criminalised for doing so when their desperation is exploited within prostitution. But why do men choose to buy women’s bodies, men who are often in full time employment, in relationships and in a position of relative privilege? And, why do we as a nation protect and condone that choice as if it cannot be helped, as if it is a feature of our human biology that some of us are born with a price on our head and others with a birth-right to buy us?
Imagine if our country stood up and said that this is not acceptable, as Sweden has done, stood up and said that every woman is worth more than what some man will pay for her and that we will criminalise rather than condone men who assume a right to buy the body of another human being. If our laws are lines in the sand, if they define collective aspirations, then ours are clearly lacking on this issue. This is despite the changes in the Policing & Crime Act 2009 under the last Government, which were indeed a step forward; for the first time directing the eyes of the law onto those who fuel prostitution – punters. This victory was a result of tireless campaigning by women’s groups, led by the Feminist ‘Demand Change’ campaign. Nevertheless, these changes did not go far enough and those exploited in the ‘sex-industry’ are still being branded as, and treated as, criminals, with all the increased vulnerability that engenders.
Rather than simply throw our hands in the air and legalise the whole of the sex-industry, some genuine vision and ambition is needed here. It is time to choose which side we’re on, because the multibillion dollar sex industry is doing fine and well, it does not need our support, it certainly does not need our protection. But around the world, exploited in prostitution, there are women, children and men who do, many of whom can see no end to their situation; so we must. We must make it happen; we must end one of the oldest human rights violations our world has known and relegate this blot on our humanity to history.
For more information and to get involved in campaigns see:
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
Survivors Manifesto from CATW:
Survivors of Prostitution and Trafficking Manifesto
Survivors of Prostitution and Trafficking Manifesto
Press Conference – European Parliament
Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation
“Who Represents Women in Prostitution?”
October 17, 2005
We, the survivors of prostitution and trafficking gathered at this press conference today, declare that prostitution is violence against women.
Women in prostitution do not wake up one day and “choose” to be prostitutes. It is chosen for us by poverty, past sexual abuse, the pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities, and the men who buy us for the sex of prostitution.
Prostitution is sexual exploitation, one of the worst forms of women’s inequality, and a violation of any person’s human rights.
Many women in prostitution have been severely injured, some have died, and some have been murdered by their pimps and customers.
Physical violence, rape and degradation are often inflicted on us by customers, pimps, recruiters, police and others who gain from prostitution. The public either judges us as “whores” or thinks we make a lot of money.
The condition of women in prostitution is worsened by laws and policies that treat us as criminals and the scum of society, while customers, pimps, managers and sex business owners are not made accountable. Our condition is also made worse by giving licenses to prostitution enterprises and legal protection to pimps, customers and the sex industry
Most women are drawn into prostitution at a young age. The average age of entrance into prostitution worldwide is 13.
Victims of prostitution and trafficking have almost no resources to help them exit. Programs that provide alternatives for women in prostitution are very few.
Women in prostitution dream of a life free from oppression, a life that is safe, and a life where we can participate as citizens, and where we can exercise our rights as human beings, not as “sex workers.”
We, survivors from Belgium, Denmark, Korea, the UK and the United States declare:
1. Prostitution must be eliminated. Thus, it should not be legalized or promoted.
2. Trafficked and prostituted women need services to help them create a future outside of prostitution, including legal and fiscal amnesty, financial assistance, job training, employment, housing, health services, legal advocacy, residency permits, and cultural mediators and language training for victims of international trafficking.
3. Women in prostitution need governments to punish traffickers, pimps and men who buy women for prostitution and to provide safety and security from those who would harm them.
4. Stop arresting women and arrest the perpetrators of trafficking and prostitution.
5. Stop police harassment of women in prostitution and deportation of trafficked women.
6. Prostitution is not “sex work,” and sex trafficking is not “migration for sex work.” Governments should stop legalizing and decriminalizing the sex industry and giving pimps and buyers legal permission to abuse women in prostitution.
As survivors of prostitution and trafficking, we will continue to strengthen and broaden our unity, help any woman out of prostitution, and work with our allies to promote the human rights of victims of trafficking and prostitution.
 M.H. Silbert and A.M. Pines, 1982, “Victimization of street prostitutes, Victimology: An International Journal, 7: 122-133;
D.Kelly Weisberg, 1985, Children of the Night: A Study of Adolescent Prostitution, Lexington, Mass, Toronto
 Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, 1985, Pornography and Prostitution in Canada 350
 ‘Prostitution & Trafficking in Women’, Regeringskansliet, (Swedish) Ministry of Industry, Employment & Communications, July 2004