The Myth of ‘Consensual Prostitution’

Natasha MannThis post was guest written by Natasha Mann. Natasha is an intern with ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking. She helps manage TFHT’s Project 119, a lobbying effort to pass legislation that would criminalize the act of purchasing sexual services in Israel.

The difference between consent and coercion is vital to the discussion of legislation on prostitution. Those who assume that people willingly consent to enter prostitution oppose the criminalisation of purchasing sexual services. However, this presupposition ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority (consistently around 90%) of prostituted persons tell us that they are not in the sex trade of their own free will.

The average age of entrance into prostitution in Israel is 14. While most people would consider child prostitution non-consensual, adults that have been trapped in the sex trade since childhood are often overlooked. Adults in the sex trade are also made vulnerable by pimps, poverty, drug addiction, and ongoing sexual abuse – an Israeli social worker estimates that upwards of 95% of the prostitutes with whom she works were sexually assaulted as children by men who should have been looking after them. “I was my father’s prostitute from a young age,” states a former Israeli prostitute. “Why not be everyone’s prostitute?” A pimp in Israel further explains: “I know who will be a good prostitute. The girls who are raped at home.”

It is telling that the overwhelming majority of prostituted persons come from backgrounds of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as poverty and social disadvantage. When we talk about women ‘choosing’ prostitution, we are not talking about women who have access to the range of options most of us benefit from. Nobody claims that the selling of organs should be legal, because it would create an environment which would further exploit society’s most disadvantaged populations. The same kind of exploitation and coercion which would force people to sell their organs currently forces people to sell their bodies. This lack of viable options is why it is dishonest to refer to prostitution as a consensual transaction. In any other circumstance, sex under coercion is referred to as rape.

The effects and conditions of prostitution demonstrate why coercion is necessary to the survival of the sex trade. According to the US State Department, victims of prostitution meet the clinical criteria for post-traumatic disorder in the same range as victims of state-organised torture. Violent rape and physical abuse are commonplace in prostitution. Other long-term effects reported by prostituted persons include the destruction of their sexuality, and an increasing inability to emotionally connect to others, including their own children. Professionals of any other kind would not be expected to undergo these forms of physical and emotional trauma as a part of their job.

Legalising the purchase of sexual services has never protected prostituted persons, because coercion, rape, abuse, and exploitation are inherent in the sex trade. Allowing the purchase of sexual services to remain legal is to legitimise a form of rape. Legalisation fails to protect the victims of the sex trade, and instead protects those who traffic, sell, and purchase prostituted persons. Moreover, research has repeatedly proven that legalisation increases demand for prostitution and aids in the drastic expansion of the flesh trade. Therefore, the legalisation of purchasing sexual services ensures that greater numbers of women and children will be sold in the sex trade.

Instead of promoting paid rape as viable work, we should criminalise this kind of exploitation and provide women with alternative options. This form of legislation is referred to as the Nordic Model, and has experienced great success in minimalising trafficking and prostitution in countries where it has been implemented. Last year, the Prohibition of Consumption of Prostitution Services and Community Treatment Bill nearly passed into law in Israel. This legislation would have criminalised the act of purchasing sexual services, and thus criminalised the demand for prostitution, based on the Nordic Model. This is the only model of legislation which recognises those trapped in the sex trade as victims, as opposed to either consensual participants or criminals. It is the only model of legislation which seeks to end prostitution due to its exploitative nature. We have an opportunity to change the power of the sex trade over its victims, and it is time that we protect the victims over those who exploit them.

About the Author
Rebecca Hughes is a project assistant for the Task Force on Human Trafficking of ATZUM - Justice Works