The issue of prostitution is one that has provoked much discussion and debate over the course of many centuries. For some, the so-called ‘oldest profession in the world’ is something that has always and will always be a feature of life. Some suggest it is a viable form of employment as a woman can use her body as she wishes. For others, prostitution is not a profession and is something that stems from both unequal power relations between men and women and exists as a form of sexual exploitation degradation. This article will analyse these two competing arguments on the issue of prostitution by firstly outlining two examples from Australia and the Netherlands where prostitution has been legalised and is seen as viable employment before going on to outline the arguments that suggest that prostitution is exploitation, degradation and based on unequal power relations. I will then critique each of these arguments before concluding that prostitution is the purest form of exploitation that exists towards women and should never been seen as a viable form of employment.
Prostitution is big business. Although it is impossible to know exactly how much is spent on prostitution services each year, it is estimated to generate revenues of ten billion per year (Reynolds 2003, p.xvi). Estimates on the amount spent per-day in the United States range upwards to forty-million (Spector 2006, p.6). A similarly huge figure in a comparative sense is available in the United Kingdom where the prostitution market is worth an estimated two-hundred and fifty million per-year (Home Office 2004). With these amounts of money involved, it is inevitable that prostitution will generate interest from criminal elements that can make easy money on the exploitation others. Understandable also is attempts by governments to regulate and legislate on prostitution either to try eradicate it or to minimise the harm to the prostitute and society in general, depending on their ideological outlook. In certain places, legislation has sought to formalise prostitution as a viable form of employment.
In Australia for example, prostitution has been legalised in several states and territories for over thirty years. In the majority of cases, brothel premises as well as their owners and operators are subject to licencing; although the sex workers are not. However, sex workers who are employed in ‘legal’ prostitution are entitled to many of the same rights as other Australian workers (Sullivan 2004, p.21). The move towards legalisation in Australia and away from the old ‘British system’ began in the late 1960s. In the 1970s some Australian feminists argued that prostitution should be treated as ‘work’ and the prostitutes as ‘sex workers’ (Aitken, 1978 cited in Sullivan 2004, p.24). This was argued on the pretext that laws that punished women and not their clients as unjust. In the state of Victoria, the debate on the legalisation of brothels began in the late 1970s and by 1984 the ‘Planning (Brothels) Bill’ was passed into law. The preceding debate to this bill centred on the inevitably of prostitution and the necessity for effective management of the business. The legislation enacted was to address a number of problems associated with prostitution such as organised crime, drug use, the spread of HIV / Aids and visible prostitution in residential areas (Sullivan 2004, pp.29-30). As Mary Sullivan has pointed out, “legalisation has been promoted mainly as a cure-all for local ills, such as violence against women and girls, organised crime and corruption, sexually transmitted diseases and threats to public health” (2007, cited in Jeffreys 2008, p.175). However, research has suggested that these measures have not offered better or safer working conditions for most prostitutes (Sullivan, 1999, cited in Sullivan 2004, p.31).
In the Netherlands, a similar legalisation approach has been taken which recognises prostitution as a viable form of employment for women who work as prostitutes of their own accord. During the 1970s the Dutch government decided to tolerate prostitution, adopting a stance that if consenting adults agree to a transaction, then there is no legal reason to interfere. However, the government still banned the promotion of prostitution and a third party earning from a prostitute which essentially upheld a ban on brothel keeping. During the 1980s, a demand for legalisation and the recognition of prostitution as labour was initiated by prostitutes and a small group of feminist supporters.
At this time feminists had three different views on prostitution. The first saw prostitution as sexual violence. The second saw it as a vocation where women could explore their sexuality and the third saw it as labour but distasteful labour as economic necessity (Altink 1995, p.42). The debate centred on these different views and produced a policy which stated that on the grounds of autonomy, women from any country had the right to work as a prostitute but that coercion and exploitation should be prevented (Ibid). This policy was enshrined in the ‘Repeal of the Brothel Ban’ bill which meant that provided they met certain standards and conditions, brothels were legal. Voluntary prostitution, i.e. non-coerced, is seen as sex work, and municipalities have the responsibility to licence brothels and set health and safety standards for prostitutes (Outshoorn 2004, p.202).
In the cases of both Australia and the Netherlands the debate on the necessity to legalise prostitution was mainly driven by two factors. The first was what legislators saw as the inevitably of prostitution. From this viewpoint, prostitution has and always will be a feature of society. Therefore, measures must be taken to reduce the harm to both the prostitute and society in general through what is commonly referred to as ‘harm minimisation’ (Jeffreys 2008, p.183). The second factor in accepting the inevitability of prostitution seeks to eradicate a number of undesirable by-products of prostitution. These include violence and rape against prostitutes, organised crime, sex trafficking, the spread of STIs and the corruption of moral standards in society. As the idea of prostitution was seen as inevitable, regulation and legalisation was seen as the best option in these cases.
Supporters of legalisation vary in the reason for their support. Some suggest that prostitution is empowering for the woman prostitute in so-far as being an equal to a man, a women should be allowed to decide to do what she wants with her own body without society regulating it. For others, a financial transaction between two adults should be seen like any other transaction. The language of neo-liberal economists has become part of the sex industry with terms such as rational choice, agency and entrepreneurship being used to describe the prostitute’s experience (Jeffreys 2008, p.16). From this perspective it could be argued that as porn is legal and accepted then prostitution should also be accepted. Both involve payment for sexual acts. The only difference is one is performed on camera and the other in private. The state is seeking to interfere in people’s private lives while allowing public sex to occur. In this sense, the state must stop imposing moral preconditions on the free functioning of the market, and the state has no right to interfere with the market except to regulate the externalities of protection such as the health and safety risks to those men and women engaged in such transactions. By regulating and taxing the industry, these health and safety standards can be met.
While the above arguments for the legalisation of prostitution seem somewhat rational and convincing, they are flawed from the outset. The argument that prostitution is a viable form of employment is based on the premise of two misconceived notions. The first is that prostitution is inevitable and the second is that free choice and consent occurs between prostitute and client. The first notion takes a defeatist approach to eradicating an act that has negative consequences for the seller of sex, the client and society in general. As Josephine Butler stated in 1875:
“Robbery and murder are evils that have always existed, but no society thought of saying: Since we cannot eliminate robbery or murder, let us agree to a way of living that will submit them to certain regulations and monitoring so that, for example, the law will determine in what places, at what times and under what conditions stealing and killings are permitted” (Quoted in Jeffreys 2008, pp.183-184).
In taking the approach that prostitution is inevitable, a number of factors are overlooked. These include but are not limited to the second misconceived idea that prostitution occurs as a consensual, rational choice for the prostitute. Research has suggested that rational choice for prostitutes that is free from economic, psychological, physical or emotional coercion is very rare. Previous research showed that 88% percent of the prostituted women surveyed wanted to leave the sex trade (Farley and Barkan 1998). It is in this sense that prostitution should be seen as exploitation, degradation and based on unequal power relationships.
Prostitution as exploitation can be seen through a number of factors. For example, many prostitutes work under the control of a pimp who profits from the exploitation of the sexual labour of the prostitute. Research has suggested that many women, between forty to eighty percent, working in prostitution had worked for a pimp (Kennedy, et al. 2007, p.3). In addition to this, many prostitutes are the victims of human trafficking. The United Nations estimates that of the two and a half million people that are lured into forced labour, forty-three percent are forced into sexual exploitation (United Nations, 2013). Many are also forced into prostitution through the economic necessity out of poverty.
To illustrate the exploitative nature of prostitution, Anderson and Davidson (2003) conducted a survey on men’s perspectives on human trafficking. They found that when men witnessed exploitation, coercion and trafficking when purchasing sex, it did not change their attitudes towards purchasing women for sex. Many women prostitutes are also exploited because of their addiction to drugs, and engage in prostitution to fund their addiction. Research conducted with crack-addicted women found that a number of them started in prostitution to pay for their drug habits (Erickson, et al. 2000).
In addition to the exploitative nature of prostitution, the degradation of women prostitutes is widespread and in this sense, prostitution can never be seen as ‘viable employment’. For example, although there are some who suggest that prostitution involves free choice, in reality there is no choice for the majority of prostitutes in who will have to have sex with. Many are forced to have sex with whoever will pay them. More than half of women from the United Kingdom who have been involved in prostitution have been raped and/or sexually assaulted at the hands of a punter or their pimp (Home Office, 2004). Most are forced to engage in degrading sex acts and they encounter violence on a daily basis in their ‘work’. Girls and women involved in prostitution experience high levels of violence (Ruhama & TSA Consultancy 2005). Miller and Schwartz (1995) conclude that women in prostitution are uniquely positioned to experience the brunt of many of the attitudes that create violence in society. As a form of ‘employment’, women prostitutes suffer more than any other employee in any other profession.
Account must also be taken psychological effects of prostitution. Not only have many of the women involved in prostitution experienced abuse, but sixty-eight percent of these women meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the same condition and treatment that victims of torture would receive (Farley, et al. 2004). In no other form of employment, except perhaps for soldiers engaged in war, is this feature of a person’s employment.
All of these effects on prostitutes are enabled through unequal power relationships that exist in society towards women, but in particular those who engage in the sex industry. For example, the majority of prostitutes are women, yet the majority of pimps or brothel owners are men. In addition to this, the majority of trafficked persons are women, yet the majority of human traffickers are men. The prostitution industry in many ways is a reflection of wider society with prostitution seen as a service industry, and services industries in general are staffed by women, with it being undervalued and poorly paid work.
Many proponents of the legalisation of prostitution would argue that all of the exploitative, degrading and unequal factors above illustrate the necessity for legislation and regulation to protect prostitutes and society in general. However this is a huge misunderstanding of the interplay of dynamics which drive women to prostitution, and of the effects of prostitution on those involved. The factors that drive someone to sell their body, including economic necessity, psychological problems due to previous sexual abuse, drug addiction and trafficking, as well as the violence, rape and psychological trauma that prostitutes suffer in their ‘job’ mean that as a career choice, prostitution should never been seen as viable employment.
In conclusion, prostitution has been around for many centuries and some see it as ‘the oldest profession in the world’. However, this phrase buys into the concept of prostitution as a perennial feature of life and perpetuates the idea that it is inevitable. Prostitution is not the oldest profession in the world, rather it is most likely fishing of hunting are. Prostitution is not inevitable either and those who argue that it is merely perpetuate the myth that it is a feature of life. However, prostitution does not have to be a feature of a society in which women are valued as equals to men. Prostitution would not be necessary in a society where everyone was entitled to a job and a decent standard of living, nor accepted in a society where violence towards women was not prevailing. Prostitution would not be practicable in a society without trafficking. Prostitution and all the damage that goes with it is never a viable form of employment. To correct the damage that prostitution causes to individuals and society, it is not legislation and regulation of prostitutes and the sex industry that is necessary, but a change in fundamental workings of societies.
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