Monday, October 17, 2011

Feminist Question of the Week: Should prostitution be legal?

So my question this week is one that's pretty controversial, I think...Over the past three days I've been involved in a discussion about the legalization of prostitution with some educated (and I would say conscientious) friends of mine. I stood on one side of the issue and my three friends (who are all male incidentally) stood on the other.

The boys argued that the legalization of prostitution would regulate the practice, thereby protecting women (and the occasional male prostitute) from sex trafficking, disease, unwanted pregancy, and violence.

I countered that legalizing prostitution would merely contribute to the continued objectification of women (since I felt it would still reduce women to a sexual/anatomical function). My argument had nothing to do with sex; if two consenting adults would like to share a sexual experience, have a nice time, however I worried about the "selling yourself" part of the whole equation.

Several of my friends countered with the fact that it's an issue of free will and that some women enjoy having sex and think that would be a great career. Here I disagreed, stating that lots of women do (and should) love sex, I just think that reducing it down to an issue of money still allows a man to basically rent a women's body (for me, a women owning her body is paramount--I suppose in my view prostitution seems to invalidate that).

Anyway, you get the idea; we've been up and down and around this position alot the past few days and I'm grateful for the discussion, it's really given me some new perspectives to think about (seriously Steve, it has been a good discussion).

What I'd love at this point though, is to hear your perspective on the situation...what do you think? Should prostitution be legalized?

In case you need a little info or something to give your opinions a kickstart, here is a wikipedia article about the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands.


  1. It should be legalized. Since I'm posting anonymously, I'll go ahead and identify myself as a woman. My reasoning is thus: having lived in a country where children can be bought and sold into prostitution, but cannot approach the police for help without being jailed for prostitution, it is absolutely better that prostitution be legalized. Where prostitution is legalized, prostitutes are protected legally from rape, from trafficking, and can get help when they need it as far as disease goes. There are countries in this world where the police will go undercover to prostitutes, have sex with them, and then not pay, instead threatening the prostitutes with jail if they complain. This gets the prostitutes in trouble with their pimps and also ends with the prostitute being reduced to a sex slave, which is worse, I think. I think prostitution is a sad practice, but if people are going to participate in it, they should have the freedom to decide to do so, and the freedom to decide not to do so. Certainly a woman's body should not be bought and sold, but if it IS, it should be because the woman CHOSE for it to be. For the vast, vast majority of prostitutes in this world, there is no element of choice at all. And that's a bigger injustice.

  2. Anon, that's awful about the police...I wonder though how many of these women (legal or not) would choose to be in prostitution. According to some of the figures that I looked up, the Netherlands is still one of the hot spots for human trafficking and 70% of those prostitutes are foreigners, in fact, they even have had to close down brothels within the red light district because the human trafficking was getting so bad...Legalized prostitution just doesn't seem to be helping these women.

    I suppose that part of my argument too, was that in a world where women were not culturally reduced to a sex object, that women would hopefully see no need to sell themselves for money--two people could therefore engage in sexual activity, willingly, without the needed impetus of money. To me, legalizing it seems almost to condone the action of "renting" or using a women's body...the very act that you must pay the woman to sleep with you, seems to suggest that she probably doesn't want to that much (though that might be an oversimplification). Though, perhaps my argument relies too heavily on the idealistic?

  3. This is Steve

    Rachel, just to put my points out there again:

    Your argument presupposes that a woman cannot accept money for sex without giving up ownership of herself, and sacrificing some vital piece of her self-hood on a temporary basis. It assumes that all women will see the situation as you see it, in that a monetary transaction for sex immediately gives ownership of the body to the man (or woman in the case of male prostitutes) for an agreed upon amount of time. However, it disregards the possibility that a free-minded and mature woman may NOT see herself in such a light when she agrees to sex for money, and in a legalized prostitution scenario would be able to cancel said transaction at any time they desired, with any rules they so choose to enact. All the power in that scenario therefore still rests with the woman.

    It also presupposes that all women must see sex as something greater than the sum of its biological parts. Again, this isn't necessarily true. Some women may take no issue with being a wet nurse to a child - renting her physical body out for a time, an act not considered "prostitution" because it is maternal. In the same way, a woman may take no issue with having sex for money, and in the end that is HER CHOICE no matter what someone else might feel about it.

    The perfect world scenario is too hard to argue against because it is fallacious. It seems to assume a world where people don't lust after one another, where love is always requited, and where there is no resource scarcity.

    It is important to note that decriminalized nations like the Netherlands and Germany have also decriminalized the pimps and brothels that do the exploiting of the women. This doesn't really solve the problem. Only the women prostituting themselves should be decriminalized because they are the final arbiters of their body. So if the argument is that prostitution shouldn't be legalized exactly like this, then yes I would agree. But as long as the woman is making the choice for herself, in the end it is her decision and hers alone to decide what to do. Removing freedoms just because a monetary transaction makes some people squeamish about how it makes other women look doesn't empower people, and it never will. Locking people up for paying for sex (assuming both parties are consenting and not coerced) is a much greater crime than it purports to correct.

  4. I agree with a lot of what Steve said, particularly around the concept of selling one's body. To me, exchanging a sexual behaviour for money does NOT constitute selling of the body to anyone. If I take payment for performing a particular sexual act, all the client walks away with is the satisfaction of that act- they don't walk away with my limbs, my genitals, or my soul. Saying that it's selling the body speaks more to an individual values system than to a reality; a person's body is sold when they are kidnapped and trafficked, not when they're choosing to engage in sex work.

    The sex worker's union in Montreal, STELLA, used to draw a major distinction between decriminalization and legalization. For them, the difference was that legalization means regulation- government being able to force sex workers to receive routine STI tests without forcing clients to do the same, criminalize some acts but not others, etc. Decriminalization, in their view, would make sex work more like any other industry- rather than having a special law that makes it legal, there's no law that says it's illegal. This protects sex workers more than legalization does for the aforementioned reasons- if a sex worker is doing something that's not illegal, there's police protection, whereas doing something that might be illegal (let's say that selling anal penetration is illegal, for example, when oral penetration is not) means that the sex worker who is raped when providing anal penetration can't rely on the police when the sex worker who is raped when providing oral penetration can. A really really good example of how regulation can screw up sex workers' ability to protect themselves comes from Quebec, where the law against pimping was worded so vaguely that sex workers couldn't make referrals. So a client wanting a particular service that Sex Worker A doesn't provide can't ask who else might provide it- even if Sex Worker B, a friend of A, does and would be willing to negotiate with this client. STELLA worked with a lot of sex workers who had clients force themselves on sex workers, or had sex workers agree to acts they didn't want to perform, because of this law.

  5. I think this is actually a really good question to discuss - particularly in light of all the issues raised in this discussion. For me, the greatest concern I have is in protecting human beings from being forced, coerced, and manipulated into dangerous circumstances as sex workers. To assume that the majority of sex workers are happy with their career choice would be misguided, considering all the factors that contribute to sex work, particularly for women whose mothers introduced them to sex work as minors. But I agree that it would also be wrong to assume no sex worker legitimately wants this career.

    So, my question is whether legalizing/de-criminalizing sex work would increase or decrease sex slavery (and other circumstances that are sex slavery at heart). In truth, I have no idea what we should do in terms of laws about sex work, except for one thing: I don't believe for an instant that sex workers should be punished for what they do, especially in light of how many are introduced to sex work while they're too young to resist, and in light of how vulnerable they are to begin with.

    At the same time, I worry that by de-criminalizing sex work we might ignore deeper issues that force some individuals to turn to sex work when it's not what they want at all. For instance, maybe a single mother turns to sex work to feed her kids - that's not a happy choice, and no human being should ever be in that position.

    So, whatever measures a country takes in the law books, we can't over simplify the problem by pretending all sex workers are happy with their decision, just as we can't pretend that criminalizing behavior prevents it from happening.

    Also, isn't it interesting how much of this discussion has focused on repercussions sex workers face? But what about the Johns/clients? Anyone know who faces worse repercussions in the US under current laws?

  6. There are a lot of great points. I wish that prostitution simply did not exist but I realize that as long men want to solicit sex for money there are very few effective means, I don't know of any, that could stop it from occurring. I would agree that sexual services demeans something beautiful into something utilitarian but people pay for the fine arts and that is not seen as prostitution so I am not sure where one draws the line. If the body is fine art incarnate, then who is to say that selling the body is fundamentally wrong? And just because I would argue that it is fundamentally wrong, I don't think I have the privilege to make that choice for anyone else.

    I want to focus on the idea of sex for money. While prostitution is at this point illegal in the US, selling sex for money is not–at least as I understand the legalization of pornography. Is sex for money in pornography different than sex for money in a live setting?

    I guess there are some obvious differences when it comes to safety for the participants but beyond that...why is sex for money in pornography legal when sex for money in prostitution is illegal and unprotected?

  7. I think I should clarify that I agree, punishing/incarcerating prostitutes is often just punishing women who were forced into that career; I definitely think there are better ways of handling the situation than jail time.

    Jonathon, I agree that the issue is complex and we've also brought up the issue of where do we draw the line? Basically, one could argue that everything is prostitution: if a man takes me out on a date and pays for it, isn't he just paying for the pleasure of my company? At my job (even though I don't engage in sex acts) my employer still pays me for my services, for my time?

    While the issue continues to become more and more complex and mutli-faceted for me, I still can't help but think that legalizing prostitution isn't helping to diminish the negative aspects of prostitution: women are still being forced into it....but my viewpoint and this reponse doesn't completely address the issues and questions raised by Emily.

  8. This is the original anonymous.

    I just want to say that I realize that even if prostitution were legalized, people would still be forced into it. However, those same people would still have the legal option of going to the police for help. That option may never be realized for some, but having the option is still a big step in the right direction.

  9. Erica, I want to go back to what you said about the law that described pimping in loose terms. You said:

    "So a client wanting a particular service that Sex Worker A doesn't provide can't ask who else might provide it- even if Sex Worker B, a friend of A, does and would be willing to negotiate with this client. STELLA worked with a lot of sex workers who had clients force themselves on sex workers, or had sex workers agree to acts they didn't want to perform, because of this law."

    While it's easy to see why a sex worker might agree to something s/he didn't want to do, because s/he didn't have the recourse of referring the client to someone else, I think it's misleading to explain rape/assault - a client forcing the act on that individual - as the result of that law. I'm not saying it doesn't factor in at all, but if we were looking at rape or sexual assault in any other context, would we let the perpetrator off by saying, "he forced himself on her, as a result of not getting action at home"?

  10. True, Emily, but I think the impact is one of generating a socially acceptable excuse rather than actually causing the assault. If even feminists believe that giving money to someone means you've bought their body in its entirety, then what does a broader social context believe about a sex worker's right to give and withhold consent? A predator could simply say "I gave zer/her/him money" and let everyone assume that the sex worker had no capacity to say no as a result. When it's codified that someone can ask for options, or can make sure that a given sex worker is performing an act zie/s/he is okay with performing, it's a lot harder for a predator to squeak by with that excuse. And it also doesn't put someone (read: the sex worker) in jail for drawing a boundary around what zie/s/he will or won't do.

  11. What the heck does "zie" mean as a pronoun? Just curious.

    This is Steve again.

    I agree there is all kinds of confusion and gray areas as far as how to codify the legalization of prostitution. People will try and expoit any system that is put in place no matter what the law is, unfortunately. However, the question that was posited to me was should prostitution be legal, as in should the man/woman prostitute or man/woman john be punished for choosing of their own free will to pay for or accept money for sex. The clear answer to me is no - the government really has no business dictating and punishing a person for making this personal choice AS LONG AS it is a personal choice, with no coercion. If you think that the government's job is to step in and incarcerate people for paid for sex acts, then we can probably never agree. Free will is paramount to me, unless it infringes upon another's same right. Therefore, if you want to sell your talents as a wetnurse, a dominatrix, or a sex-haver, then I may or may not think that is a great plan you have there, but it would be supreme arrogance for me to think I should be allowed to imprison you to stop you, or take away your possessions because it offends me.