Culture’s Role in our View of Prostitution
Today I sat and read through an article on prostitution in Barcelona.
I really enjoyed it. So much so I am going to spend a post unpacking my thoughts:
Written for a Swedish journal by a former prostitute turned journalist and reposted on a feminist website, I found this article to be a fascinating exploration of culture, morality, and our language around prostitution vs. sex work.
The tag line at the top of the article: “How to get an activist movement to keep women in prostitution
What use are sex worker groups that give out condoms and showers, but can’t help women who want to exit prostitution? Ekis reports from Barcelona on prostitution and the campaign for legalisation”
In the article this journalist first explores the fight of a sex workers rights group which is looking to legalise prostitution. Then she exposes the pain and dysfunction that surrounds the lives of woman working in prostitution.
One aspect of the prostitution debate that is often forgotten is how much a countries culture plays a role in the legislation and language used around prostitution.
The viewpoints on human rights and even feminism vastly vary in this debate.
For example: In the Netherlands the stance has been taken that it is a violation of a woman’s human right to prevent her from making the choice to sell her body for financial profit.
In Sweden, the view has been taken that it is a violation of a human right that any woman would have to sell her body.
Then there is the feminist debate on it.
There is one standpoint that says that woman in a legalized or decriminalized prostitution system are sex workers, making a valid work choice which provides a service to the community, and empowers women to have control over their sexuality and their bodies.
On the other side is a feminist standpoint that says that it is not empowering but degrading when a woman sells her body to a man, and that it furthers male dominance over woman. They argue that prostitution is harmful, equating a woman with an object that can be bought, sold, used and abused by men.
Basically it’s a fascinating debate. Many times throughout the above article the author brings it back to the language which affects our view on the issue. She rightly points out that you can change all the words surrounding prostitution, making it sound as normal and clean possible, but it is still not just a job like any other.
When the journalist interviewed the sex workers rights group who are pushing for the legalisation of prostitution, she eventually led the director to admit that even if you change the name of prostitution, you still don’t change the effects of prostitution on the mental and physical state of a woman. According to the director on sex workers rights: “If you see the girls who come here and who’ve been working with this for a long time, the pros as we say, they’re completely run down and torn apart, and they earn next to nothing, it’s shameful. They have no defence. It’s far from ideal, that’s true.” The director also admits that they have no programs in place to help woman exit from prostitution, but they do offer them free condoms.
My own country, Canada, seems divided by the issue of language as well. You have those who are for the abolition of prostitution, making it one and the same as sex trafficking, since no emotionally stable woman would make an informed choice to enter prostitution.
Then you have the other side that is calling for safer laws around prostitution and calling it sex work, since it will never go away. It’s the oldest profession on the planet. They say that completely decriminalizing prostitution, and all activities related will help prevent violence against women in sex work by allowing them to work openly and without fear of arrest or abuse by police.
In Vancouver the discussion on creating a safer environment for those in prostitution is further fuelled by the will of many wanting to prevent another tragedy such as the Robert Pickton case, where dozens of sex workers went missing, without police investigation, from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and were later found to have been brutally murdered.
However you say it people in prostitution tend to be among western society’s most vulnerable individuals. And when you add the draw of the west to those in developing nations, a country’s laws on prostitution vastly affect the freedom and future of vulnerable individuals around the world.
So back to my earlier comment on culture, recently I had a conversation with a successful Swedish business woman. Sweden has put a lot of resources into raising awareness about the equality of woman in society, and has worked to ingrain into their culture the idea that buying a woman is disrespectful and not accepted by society. She was appalled by the idea that people in the Netherlands actually think it is acceptable for women to sell their bodies. Even more so, she was disgusted by the thought that men would find the buying of a woman ‘cool’ or a turn on. “Maybe twenty years ago that was acceptable, but Swedish society has progressed.”
Often quiet on the debate about language are the women themselves, for example, in South Africa there was a time when I would ask women if they preferred if I called what they are doing sex work. Every single time I was met with a blank or confused stare. I stopped asking that question.
To be honest, nearly every girl I have ever interviewed who has been in prostitution has not called what they do ‘sex’. They always refer to it as F***ing. And the same word they use to describe what they do, is often also used by the girls themselves to describe their mental state. “You should realize when working with girls like us, we are all F*cked up in the head.” says one girl.
On top of that, I have never had a trafficking victim ever say out loud what she was made to do. Every single one of them has talked about being raped, and then having to do “That… you know what I mean”.
So much for it being sex work.
But then what is should we do about prostitution? Its not going away. It is linked to the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people. It is happening in every city. In this article on Barcelona, this journalist makes the statement that of the 300,000 women working in prostitution in Spain – 90% of them are foreigners. That is not something that legalisation is just going to fix.
To be honest, I still have no idea. I still sometimes call it sex work, sometimes I call it prostitution. I always differentiate prostitution from sex trafficking, because everyone can agree that being prostituted against your will is wrong.
A few months ago I wrote a post strongly stating that Canada should not legalise pimping. But I still feel like we need to design laws that will protect those in a vulnerable position. For example, the Netherlands recently created a law that, starting in 2012, will prevent women under the age of 21 from working in prostitution. I think that is a brilliant law when working in a country that says a woman can make a choice to be a sex worker. If that is the cultural standpoint of your country, then ensure it is woman making that decision, not teenage girls. Teenagers are never ‘sex workers’.
The truth is, I think I have come to the conclusion that every country has to design laws according to its culture, resources, and legal structure. This is not a one size fits all answer. We can base laws on other countries, but we need to then allocate the same amount of resources into those laws to get a similar result. In the end, it is about acknowledging vulnerable people in society and designing a system that will protect them. Its admitting the faults of our culture and faults in our treatment of women. It is about taking into account migrant labourers as well as the past or present segregation of minority people groups. Then it is being willing to design something that will work for your country and providing the framework and resources to actually make it work.
Culture plays a role, but culture can change. Lets be willing to make the cultural shift that will give people dignity rather than exploit them further.