SEX: From human intimacy to “sexual labor” or Is prostitution a human right?

by Cecilia Hofmann
CATW-Asia Pacific, August 1997

The continuing debate

Debates on prostitution rage on, as they have for over a hundred years. But if the commerce of sex was once a more hidden or at least discreet business, today there’s no ignoring the bombardment of sex sales talk; we live, it has been said, in a culture of pornography. With the worldwide explosion in recent decades of industries based on the production, sale and consumption of sex primarily personified in women’s bodies, there is an even more pressing need to understand the commodification of sex in the range and diversity of forms that pornography, “sexual entertainment” and prostitution are taking, and for feminists to analyze the significance and impact of these developments on women’s status.

Economic stakes

Perhaps because a powerful economy has arisen around the sale of sex and the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution, often integrated into local and national economies and hugely profitable for industrialists and for states, more voices are being raised to suggest and in some cases to demand that prostitution be accepted as commerce, as legitimate work for women and a valid means for women’s economic survival or empowerment. The child rights’ organization ECPAT estimated that in 1995, the flesh trade in Thailand generated between US$18 – 26 billion. In Japan, it has been estimated to equal the defense budget.

Diverging feminist analyses

Some arguments have been put forward to claim to find in prostitution a practice of women’s resistance to and sexual liberation from norms and traditional moral precepts of sexuality that have long served to control and subordinate women. Others see “empowered prostitution” as a means of wresting patriarchal control over women’s sexuality.Radical feminist thinking, on the other hand, has analyzed prostitution as a cornerstone of patriarchal domination and sexual subjugation of women that impacts negatively not only on the women and girls in prostitution but on all women as a group because prostitution continually affirms and reinforces patriarchal definitions of women as having a primary function to serve men sexually.

Human rights arguments

Human rights arguments are being marshaled on both sides of the divide for and against prostitution, particularly in light of the intensified movement in the 1990s to apply a human rights framework to women’s condition that at the same time poses challenges to and redefines mainstream human rights principles with a feminist perspective.

Right to self-determination

For the pro-prostitution advocates, foremost among the human rights principles invoked in the defense of the “right to prostitute” is the right to self-determination. This is understood as the individual’s right to make autonomous choices and decisions which can include engaging in what has been referred to as consensual commercial sexual transaction, as well as of setting or agreeing to the terms of that sexual exchange.

There are many problems with this position starting with its failure to acknowledge the social, economic and political structural imbalances and therefore, the skewed relations of power between women and men, which constitute the context within which these choices and decisions are made. Moreover, it fails to recognize that prostitution will continue to reinforce gender disparities in rights and status and as such, can never lead to social and sexual equality for women. As has been pointed out of human rights advocates, “By failing to take the phenomenon of male domination of women in both the public and private worlds into account, the right to self-determination (…) can in fact reinforce oppression against women through its complicity in systemic male oppression and violence.” (Charlesworth p.75)

Worse, it is predominantly a North and class-blind perspective that trivializes or glosses over the massive phenomenon of the abduction, deception and trafficking into prostitution of women and girls predominantly from countries of the South. This phenomenon is today also observed to be increasing dramatically from the dislocated economies of eastern Europe. Trafficking for sexual exploitation constitutes by far the most prevalent procurement method worldwide. The “self- determination” position takes still less into account the plain fact that the male users of prostitution do not ask to know or care if the human merchandise they purchase consent to their situation or are being held in sexual slavery. The stated consent of some, therefore, can damn others, women and girls who by no means have consented to prostitution.

The question of choice and consent as an analytical tool is a myopic one if not altogether useless to understand prostitution as an institution. Prostitution pre-exists as a system that requires a supply of female bodies. Women and girls will be kidnapped, deceived, enticed or persuaded to ensure that supply. How women get into prostitution is irrelevant to the functioning of the institution, rather, prostitution maintains itself as a system of male privilege by what is and can be done to women’s and girls’ bodies.What is one to make, for example, of the case of the thousands of Nepali girls trafficked into India every year, who for example, in the first two years of their confinement in Bombay brothels are kept closely guarded and not allowed outside because at any opportunity they will try to escape. In later years, they will stand displayed in their finery outside the brothel door with no risk of their running away. They may even leave for a time and return.

What has happened in the interval? What has been done to them? What is the quality of that later “consent” that would define prostitution as consensual activity? In recommending the recognition of prostitution as legitimate commerce, the government of the Netherlands goes so far as to propose the concept that a person may “fully and freely consent to his/her own exploitation.” (cited in le Monde Diplomatique March 1997.) For women, (as for workers, indigenous, colonized or other oppressed peoples) whose historical experience has been one of subordination and exploitation, this is clearly a barbarous and unacceptable concept.

Some prostitutes and prostitutes’ rights advocates vigorously assert the possibility of the integrity of women’s agency in prostitution and accuse anti-prostitution feminists of being patronizing and disrespectful of their perspectives.

The issue of consent, of “personal choice politics” rests on a western liberal understanding of human rights that elevates individual will and choice above all other human values and above notions of common good (Barry p.83). At the same time, it must be noted that in the realm of science and as a result of advances in bio-technology, the concept of personal choice has been questioned and ethical questions raised regarding the integrity of the human body and person, for example in connection with the sale of human organs, surrogate motherhood, or human cloning. However, individual choice is generally not accepted as an argument for drug use.

In defense of a conception of human and social good, the human community has often seen the necessity to mark the boundaries of personal liberty. But perhaps because mainstream concepts of social good have never included the good of the class of women, the traditionally “socially subjugated” (Charlesworth p.76), it is tolerated that prostitution, a “practice …(that) integrally contributes to the maintenance of an underclass” (Mackinnon p.73) be accepted on the bases that some few women are freely choosing it. On that same basis, slavery might have been accepted too, following the few slave voices that declared that they were content with their lot.

Right to work

Pro-prostitution advocates invoke the right to work. Questions beg, however, about why this work exists in the first place and what its underlying assumptions are, and why an experience of human intimacy has been transformed into a category of sexual labor.

Three views are presented on what prostitution advocates call “sex work.” It is work like any other, say, typing or waitressing; it provides a source of income for women with no other means of earning a livelihood; it fulfills a number of socially useful functions: sex education, sex therapy, providing sex for persons who would otherwise be deprived of sex, for example, male migrant workers without their wives, or disabled or old men. Following these arguments, prostitution is said to be a rational choice of work. What underpins this view is the assumption that men in any and every circumstance must be able to have sex.

In fact, it is the millions of buyers of sex, far outnumbering the women and girls in prostitution that they use, who not only making their choice but ardently defending their practice of prostitution. But their choice and practice is not only unexamined and unquestioned, it is brushed aside by such international agencies as the World Health Organization. In its Geneva report on AIDS in 1988, pages were devoted to the socio-economic profiles of women in prostitution while a terse paragraph stated that ” Clients are more numerous than the providers of sex services… The factors which lead persons to become clients are largely unknown.” The general refusal to devote critical scrutiny or to assign responsibility to the users of prostitution, who clearly constitute by far the more important component of the prostitution system is nothing less than tacit defense of male sexual privilege and practice.

A “victimless crime”

Prostitution has sometimes been called a “victimless crime” because women are assumed to consent and that therefore no harm is done. The notion of harmlessness does not take into account the issue of human intimacy that is being transgressed. Women in prostitution have told of the elaborate means they employ: refusing access to some part of their bodies, or the use of their own beds, creating fictional personalities or life stories, or other such measures, as attempts to preserve some part of an emotional or sexual life that is theirs alone and not for public use.

The view that repeated invasions of the body, that unwanted but tolerated sexual acts can be passed over harmlessly, is questionable, to say the least. Women survivors of prostitution in the Philippines, like those of WHISPER (Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt) in the US, have known “the act of prostitution as intrusive, unwanted, and often overtly violent sex that women endure….” (Giobbe p.67) In fact, the “work” of prostitution mostly consists of submitting to or carrying out clients’ sexual demands. Women tell of strategies to finish quickly with clients, getting them drunk, masturbating them to avoid their bodies being entered, for if women need and want the money of prostitution, they do not want the sex of prostitution which as such is a form of “paid rape.”

Merely accepting the fact that there are sometimes no good work options for women is to give up political battle for women’s non-prostitution, economic empowerment, and to tolerate the growing operations of enormously lucrative sex businesses that absorb women as the raw material for their industry. Feminists in solidarity with women in prostitution carry out much work with and directly for them while they are in prostitution, precisely recognizing that social and economic life is designed by patriarchal capitalism to allow women few good options, and that getting out of prostitution systems is a difficult process.

The second view of prostitution as socially useful work assumes that male need for sex is an unquestioned biological need likened to the need for food. This obviously contradicts evidence that people, women and men alike, have been known to go for long periods without sex and without the fatal outcome that going without food would have! What is true is that a culture of sexual consumerism has been stoked by patriarchal capitalism and that not only is sex used to sell products of all kinds, sex itself has been reduced to an aggressively marketed product. This is a relentlessly gendered capitalist enterprise that offers the bodies of women and children for consumption. But it must be recognized that what underpins this phenomenon is not biologically determined, but rather a pre-existing sexist ideology.

A certain stream of pro-prostitution advocates appear to look forward to the day when all our irresistible sexual needs and urges, women’s and men’s alike, will be adequately “serviced” by commercial sex. The only problem, as a Sheila Jeffreys, tongue-in-cheek pointed out, is how to find the millions of men and boys who will be willing to lie there and let clients stick any kind and number of objects into their bodies or to let themselves be photographed in ridiculous and degrading positions!

Prostitution is possible because men’s power as a dominating class over women exists. The existence of some men in prostitution is in fact most often in service of other men, and even when it is women who are the customers, the commercial exchange still mirrors class, race, age or other power differentials between the buyer and the bought. Most importantly, the prostitution of individual men never diminishes the power of men as a class while the prostitution of women is a direct result of and serves to maintain the subordinate status of women. It is true, of course, that class, race and other factors also operate in many labor or employment situations. But prostitution cannot be likened to work, it is “the most systematic institutionalized reduction of women to sex.” (Barry p.65) In a 1992 UN document, the impact of prostitution on women as a class was recognized: “By reducing women to a commodity to be bought, sold, appropriated, exchanged or acquired, prostitution affected women as a group. It reinforced the societal equation of women to sex which reduced women to being less than human and contributed to sustaining women’s second class status throughout the world.” (Tomasevski p.13)

“Right to freedom of expression”:

The system of prostitution that includes pornography and sexual entertainment in all its forms is defended as erotic art or as sexual freedom and expression. Invoked here is the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Strippers and other performers have sometimes even claimed to derive a sense of power in displaying sex that the male viewers are aroused to want but cannot have from the performer. In fact, it is not true that men cannot have sex when they want it: millions of women and children all over the world are trafficked into prostitution houses precisely so that men can have sex whenever and however they want, and without bounds. Sex is bought and it is inflicted: sexual crimes of as rape, incest, sexual harassment are prevalent everywhere: rape is committed every 6 minutes in the United States, every minute and a half in South Africa.

If prostitution is a form of sexual freedom and expression for women, then it is women who should determine and demand the sex that happens in prostitution. Obviously, this is not the case. And curiously, while prostitution is one of the most debated gender issues today, discussions almost never address the sex of prostitution. When a German customer of a Filipina prostitute demands to take a photograph to show his friends back home of the “two best things about the Philippines” – a beer bottle in the woman’s vagina, whose sexuality is being expressed and what is being said? When a group of men pay a woman so that they can simultaneously ejaculate on her, what ideas about women and on sexuality are being expressed? What is being expressed in Patpong’s “blow job bars” and entertainment programs that tout “Pussy pingpong ball, pussy shoot banana, pussy smoke cigarette, big dildo show, fish push inside her, egg push into her cunt, long eggplant push into her cunt” (Odzer p. 7)? The night clubs with shows of knives and razor blades in women’s vaginas are the live versions of the print and video pornography industry’s images of hand grenades in women’s vaginas, live rats coming out of them, dogs penetrating women. Is this so-called “adult entertainment”, sexual recreation, and sexual liberation? In fact, it is true that freedom of expression is amply being exercised here, but whose sexuality is being expressed and what ideological statements are being made? What is being demonstrated is male will to dehumanize women.

It is clear that sexuality was and remains political terrain where war continues to be waged against women. Such practices as rape, female genital mutilation, denial of contraception, discrimination against lesbians, pornography, “snuff” films where sex acts culminate in the actual on-screen killing of a woman make this plain. In this war, prostitution is a main battleground where women as a class are reduced to sex, denied equal humanity and delivered up to degradation, torture and death.

To purport to promote women’s sexual liberation by abstracting prostitution and pornography from male supremacist and woman-hating sexual ideology and practice is disingenuous and exposes women to grave harm. And while pro-prostitution advocates like to promote themselves as being “pro-sex” and to charge prostitution opponents as being “anti-sex” or “sex prudes,” it is quite remarkable how they never question basic patriarchal assumptions and male sexual norms and practices. This is amounts to complicity with those assumptions and practices, or at the very least, to acceptance of the ideological proposition that men have a “naturally” greater need for sex, including in the above-mentioned forms, that must be catered to at all cost. Once again, this view willfully ignores the social and cultural construction of sexual attitudes and behavior.

To be pro-sex is to oppose prostitution by reclaiming and reconstructing a sexuality that is life-enhancing, mutually respectful and beneficial, and if it is heterosexual, based on gender equality. This is by far the more revolutionary position; the pro-prostitution position is merely one of accommodation with the masculinist system in place.

The human right not to be prostituted

The true human rights that all women must enjoy begin with the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sex that is enshrined in all major human rights instruments. Prostitution violates this right because it is a system of extreme discrimination of one group of human beings put in sexual servitude by and for the benefit of another group of human beings. There is no denying that the overwhelming historical and majority phenomenon is of women and girls being prostituted.

Prostitution violates the right to physical and moral integrity by the alienation of women’s sexuality that is appropriated, debased and reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold.

It violates the prohibition of torture and of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment because clients’ acts and practices of sexual “entertainment” and pornography are acts of power and violence over the female body.

It violates the right to liberty and security, and the prohibition of slavery, of forced labor and of trafficking in persons because millions of women and girls all over the world are held in sexual slavery to meet the demand of even more millions of male buyers of sex, and to generate profits for the capitalists of sex.

It violates the right to enjoy the highest standard of physical and mental health because violence, disease, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and AIDS stalk, presenting constant and grave risks for women and girls in prostitution, and militating against a healthy sense of and relationship with their own bodies.

Accepting or promoting prostitution as an inevitable social arrangement of sexuality or as fitting work for women denies the efforts to achieve higher standards of human rights, including the human rights of women, as they are continually being expanded and articulated, most recently in the Beijing Platform for Action. And although even there, the lobby for the recognition of acceptable categories of prostitution made headway through the language of “forced” and “free” prostitution, the document is not consistent throughout. This is evidence of a continuing discomfort with that proposition. In fact, the incompatibility of prostitution with a conception of true sexual self-determination and freedom is articulated in the Platform for Action: “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences.”

Prostitution must be recognized not only as part but as a foundation of the larger system of patriarchal subordination of women. Feminists have the duty to imagine a world without prostitution, as we have learned to imagine a world without slavery, apartheid, infanticide, and female genital mutilation. Ultimately, gender relations must be reconstructed so that sexuality can be an experience of true human intimacy based on mutuality and respect, and not a commodity to be bought or sold.

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