The world’s oldest profession has historically enjoyed waves of acceptability in certain cultures. Think courtesans and geishas and Julia Roberts. For the most part, however, sex trade workers are regarded with disgust, disdain and pity. These men and women are viewed as criminals, a scourge on society. While the act of prostitution is legal in many countries, legislation tends to prohibit any activities surrounding the sale of sex. Solicitation or communicating about sexual transactions, benefiting from the proceeds of prostitution and running a bawdy house remain illegal in Israel while an estimated 10,000 men and women sell their bodies for cash. 10% of these prostitutes are minors, often 13 or 14 years old. The laws prohibiting any activities associated with prostitution while permitting the actual act are incoherent and damaging; they both prohibit prostitutes from working safely indoors and also from soliciting on the street, creating an untenable situation for already marginalized and stigmatized women and men.
Canada’s Supreme Court has recently overturned similar laws against prostitution, declaring the prohibitions as unconstitutional and a danger to the security of sex trade workers. Like Israel, prostitution has been technically legal in Canada for many years with most activities surrounding the act itself remaining illegal. In 2007 three sex trade workers sued the government of Canada to overturn these prohibitions, declaring them a violation of basic civil liberties and the principles of justice. These laws effectively made it impossible for prostitutes to work in safe and fair conditions, placing them at risk of assault, disease, rape and arrest. These laws also promoted the stigmatization of prostitutes, pushing them further and further to the edges of society. Last week’s decision was lauded as a triumph by sex trade advocates and numerous women’s groups.
Naturally, feminists are divided on this issue. On the one hand, there are women’s activists who regard prostitution as a legitimate profession. This camp professes autonomy as the grounding basis for fully legitimizing prostitution; if a woman chooses to sell her body, it is her right to do so. Limiting her is a denial of freedom of choice and expression. On the other hand are women’s groups who support greater stringency in prosecuting johns and pimps as a means of fighting prostitution. This so-called ‘Nordic model’ punishes the most likely perpetrators of genuine wrongdoing, making it illegal to buy, but not sell, sex. The pro-regulation side claims that it is discriminatory and paternalistic to regard prostitution as anything other than a valid profession. The pro-criminalization side claims that prostitution is inherently bad for women and that steps must be taken to curb the number of women working in the trade. Both sides claim to have the sex workers’ best interests at heart, so which option is preferable?
I am by no means a teetotaler with regards to internet, pornography or sexual preferences. While I strongly believe that every person has a right to sexual expression and satisfaction so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others, the unmanageable flow of information on the web and the general desensitization of an entire generation of youth have given rise to an environment where violent, dehumanizing sexual proclivities are not just accepted, but glorified. Thanks to Rihanna and 50 Shades of Grey, anyone not living in a box now has a basic understanding of BDSM. The images of women tied up and gagged, beaten and whipped, are permanently engraved onto the psyches of young men. Isn’t this what women really want?
We carry graphic images of sexual violence with us, and it infects how we view sexuality. Violence against sex workers is rising steadily while the average age of prostitutes continues to drop. In a world where potential johns have readily available, at-home databanks of extremely violent pornography for inspiration and every little girl knows how to pout for a selfie, it is more necessary now than ever before to protect sex workers. Not that it was ever safe to be a prostitute. Sex workers are murdered at a rate of approximately 200 per 100,000 in the US. The next most dangerous profession has a risk factor of 30 out of every 100,000. Prostitutes are also a favorite victim of deranged serial killers. From Jack the Ripper to the Pickton Pig Farmer, time and again history has shown that nobody looks very hard for missing hookers. It seems that these women are simply fair game.
Last week I heard a talk by one of my peers whose doctoral dissertation outlines how prostitution ought to be legalized out of respect for a woman’s autonomy. She likened prostitution to working as a cashier or waitress; just another career option for many women who do not have access to more lucrative professions. Her argument rests on the idea that prostitution has been stigmatized by society’s faulty and prudish notions about love and sex. But the assumption that women autonomously choose to work as prostitutes belies the less innocuous societal ills that cause most women to make this choice. Recent studies have shown that more than 70% of women in the sex trade were sexually abused as children. Many have no high school education and the vast majority has no college education. The average age that prostitutes enter the trade is 14 years old. Once ‘on the market’, at least 80% of sex workers are assaulted or raped, often repeatedly. 15% of all suicide victims had been prostitutes at one time or another. The statistics are far lower for male and transgender sex workers, indicating that sexual violence is more prevalent when directed at women by male clients. If a woman is abused, sexualized from a young age, denied access to education, coerced by pimps and lead to addiction, can this genuinely be called an autonomous choice?
Until all women are able to freely choose anything whatsoever, it seems simplistic to the point of lunacy to portray prostitution as a valid career choice. Feminists supporting this perspective have failed completely to see the forest for the trees. A shockingly high number of prostitutes in Israel are single mothers. On average they service between 10-12 men every day that they work. This money pays for daycare, rent, food, clothing and amenities which they would not otherwise be able to afford. What kind of a choice is this? On the other side are those who view prostitution as inevitably exploitive and therefor a phenomenon that must be eliminated. As naïve as it is to believe that women choose to hook, it is equally naïve to believe that women will avoid this trade if it is made less accessible. The Nordic model drives sex workers underground, making the profession more exploitive and stigmatized. As long as there are men willing to pay for sex, there will be sad, hurt and desperate women willing to sell themselves. When laws are more punitive, it is the prostitutes who are punished.
In this increasingly violent and misogynistic environment, what can be done to protect sex trade workers? Arguing autonomy is misguided, while arguing criminalization is dangerous. I would follow Canada’s lead and propose that prostitution and all activities surrounding it be legalized, but not in the name of autonomy. That is a farce. Prostitution needs to be legal so that society can protect these vulnerable women and girls from abuse and degradation. Sex workers who operate out of brothels are much safer than street walkers. These ‘houses of ill repute’ often have panic buttons in the rooms and security guards who deal with difficult customers. They employ drivers who chauffeur women to and from the brothel, making sure they get home safe. While the manager often takes 50% of the profits, street walkers pay at least that much to pimps who are more likely to be abusive. Street walkers are also at greater risk for disease and addiction. Brothels can provide institutionalized STD and drug testing, enforce the use of prophylactics, set fair prices and refuse to employ minors. So long as brothels remain illegal, prostitutes face far worse dangers on street corners. If we allow state-sanctioned bawdy houses to employ women who would be prostitutes regardless, we are caring for our most vulnerable and marginalized citizens. This is not a judgment for or against prostitution. It is simply the best way to improve the lives of sex trade workers.
I do not believe that women choose to be prostitutes. Although there may be exceptions to this generalization, most women would do anything else if they could be guaranteed the same income. It is not a profession like any other, it is one where humans are commodified to be bought and sold for the pleasure of others. We live in a world that glorifies virtual sexual violence, and this glorification is very ugly in reality. Criminalizing prostitution only makes working conditions more dangerous, and there will always be prostitutes. There always have been. It is our moral duty to protect these individuals. They are equally deserving of life and dignity. They need the law to protect them, without judgment. Canada has taken a step in this direction by striking down anti-prostitution legislation that did not promote justice. In Israel I believe we ought to do the same: the only way to make prostitution safe is to make it legal. Furthermore, if we move our focus from suppressing all forms of prostitution, we will have greater resources to eliminate more damaging forms of the sex trade such as child prostitution and sexual slavery. It is time for us to shake out the complacency and take positive steps towards promoting justice for sex workers.