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[Feminism Friday] Prostitution: regulation, exploitation and death

crossposted from Hoyden About Town

The Netherlands has found that their licensed, regulated and inspected brothels have not made the industry all that much safer for prostitutes on the whole: they have merely pushed the most abusive practices further underground. Last month Nicholas Kristof wrote of Holland’s experiences for the New York Times, and explained why he no longer believed that the legalisation model would generally benefit prostitutes.

For the Netherlands’ licensed prostitutes, the regulations on health and safety led to some “modest public health benefits”. Both they and the clients who simply want a straightforward transaction of sexual services seem to find the added security for both workers and customers appealing. But as the sex industry grew the more attractive the profits became to criminal gangs, and the incidence of trafficking, violence and child prostitution grew, to the point where they are rolling back their laws on licensed brothels in an attempt to send a no-tolerance message to the abusers.

Kristof points out that Sweden has had much greater success in lowering prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex rather than the selling of sex:

Some Swedish prostitutes have complained that the policy reduced demand and thus lowered prices, while forcing sex work underground. But the evidence is strong that the new approach reduced trafficking in Sweden, and opinion polls show that Swedes regard the experiment as a considerable success. And the bottom line is that if you want to rape a 13-year-old girl imported from Eastern Europe, you’ll have a much easier time in Amsterdam than in Stockholm.

Licensed brothels, safer for both the worker and the customer, were meant to protect sex workers (and their customers), to regulate a simple commercial transaction for sexual services in the same way that other commercial transactions were regulated. They were meant to cut the connection between prostitution and organised crime, to decrease horrific violence, and particularly to minimise trafficking and child prostitution. Instead, the connection to organised crime continues to grow, and all the illegal practices that no government will ever license continue to thrive.

So what drives a market in illegal brothels even where fully legal brothels are widely distributed and easy to find? Amanda at Pandagon argues quite convincingly that the reason lies in flawed models regarding the transaction model for prostitution i.e. the popular idea that what is being sold is simply sexual services is not merely woefully simplistic, it’s actually dead wrong when we are analysing the fundamental appeal to a crucial subset of men, the men who appear to form the most profitable consumer demographic of the sex trade.

The experience of the Netherlands indicates that the licensed brothels don’t actually offer large numbers of customers what they really want when they pay to spend time with a prostitute, because once the law mandated that the workers had to be treated with basic care for their safety then those customers chose instead to go elsewhere. It is not only the sexual services that these men want to buy, they want to buy the opportunity to degrade and harm as well i.e. what they really want to buy is a rape. (This ties in to the recent Australian story about long-haul truck drivers exploiting Aboriginal women in remote communities sexually and how the truckers over the years were requesting younger and younger girls, even girls under 10 who inevitably would be harmed by sexual penetration.)

In comments at Pandagon there were arguments that there were other factors bothering men who chose to avoid licensed brothels: a concern that records kept at such places might threaten their marriages and/or community reputations. Maybe so. Perhaps a compromise with the Swedish model is needed: purchasing sex from a licensed brothel is totally legal, but purchasing sex from any other source is a prosecutable act.

One thing that can’t be denied is that in jurisdictions where selling sex is criminalised, then sex workers are easily coerced simply by threatening to report them to law enforcement (where they’ll probably have to bribe the police with so-called “freebies” on the way to the holding cells), which is the major reason to support decriminalisation. [Edited to add: For more arguments for decriminalisation and sex workers' rights see the Sex Worker Outreach Project East - thank you Djiril in comments] This is where the Swedish model does help to redress the balance: instead of the client having the power to coerce the worker via the threat of a complaint to the police, in Sweden the worker holds the power of a complaint to the police, meaning that workers can defend themselves against unreasonable demands. Edited to add: There are however many criticisms of the Swedish model as well (link again supplied by Djiril in comments).

While there were lots of different points of view argued in that thread (and various others I found since, discussing prostitution in the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal), including the usual about how regulating prostitution was denying women agency in their “choice” decision to undertake well-remunerated work where men treat them badly and even hurt them, very few of those making the choice argument were willing to look at what exactly the harm to prostituted women entails, in detail. It’s not just a few bruises and a recovery period of a few days, the harm to prostituted women lies overwhelmingly in the rate of premature mortality: prostitution is literally killing women, by murder more than any other cause, and a whole heap of people simply don’t care.

No other industry with a comparable mortality rate is unregulated by the state, and in none of those industries would the workers be allowed to sign away their basic health and safety guarantees in order for more pay. Employers who try to coerce miners or firefighters to go into work without adequate safety measures are quite rightly prosecuted and socially condemned, yet the workplace death rate of those professions combined does not match just the homicide rate amongst prostitutes, let alone the death rate once drug overdoses are taken into account.

From a longitudinal cohort study of prostitutes in Colorado Springs (Potterat, Brewer et al, 2004):

Few of the women died of natural causes, as would be expected for persons whose average age at death was 34 years. Rather, based on proportional mortality, the leading causes of death were homicide (19 percent), drug ingestion (18 percent), accidents (12 percent), and alcohol-related causes (9 percent) (table 3).

When the researchers looked specifically at violent death, they found that the prostitutes in Colorado Springs had about a 1% risk of being murdered during their period of active prostitution (average active period about three-five years) and that “active prostitutes were almost 18 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age and race during the study interval“.

The researchers pointed out that their methodology was necessarily limited and could not fully account for mortality numbers, especially for homicides: women murdered overseas, or murdered women whose bodies were never found, would not be accounted for. It’s worth pointing out too that it’s only cohort studies like this, where women are identified as prostitutes before they are murdered, which gives us figures anything close to representative, as very few murdered women are identified as prostitutes on their death certificates, and thus that datum doesn’t get included in the general population statistics.

The workplace homicide rate for prostitutes (204 per 100,000) is many times higher than that for women and men in the standard occupations that had the highest workplace homicide rates in the United States during the 1980s (4 per 100,000 for female liquor store workers and 29 per 100,000 for male taxicab drivers).

The homicide rate for prostitutes underlines their vulnerability like nothing else. If a pimp or john threatens a non-compliant prostitute with death, they know simply from their co-workers who have died that those words are a very credible threat. With the next highest cause of death being drug-related, it’s ludicrous highly problematic to speak of prostitution as a free choice for any but the much-glamourised “high-class call girl” (and although I don’t have figures to hand I would not be at all surprised if the homicide and drug-death rate for elite/freelance prostitutes wasn’t also significantly higher than for the average population).

This is why I have no patience at all with those who have defended Eliot Spitzer’s buying of prostitutes as engaging in an activity which does no harm. While the young woman known as “Kristen” may well have chosen to engage in “escort work” just to pay the bills for her aspiring music career, that economic freedom for her and the other women who work at the “glamour” end of the sex-trade with the high-flyers does not justify failing to make life safer for the ordinary women in the sex-trade, who are dying at an average age of 34 while these elite sex workers build their nest-eggs for a few years and then go on to a fairly normal life.

Regulation of the sex trade on an occupational health and safety basis could theoretically be a partial answer, but it will only monitor the ethical johns – the ones who just want to get laid and who have no interest in abusing the women they pay to provide this service. Regulation won’t stop the abusers who are more interested in the opportunity to hurt and degrade women than they are in getting professionally laid, and it won’t stop the exploitative pimps and madams who are quite content to make a profit from the abusers either. These people will merely move underground and the trafficking and the drug deaths and murders amongst those sex workers will continue at this appalling rate.

Elite prize-fighters accept that the way they make their living is highly regulated in order to protect others: the street-sluggers dreaming of big prize-money need to be protected from from brain-injury and death in unsafe fights organised by unscrupulous managers and promoters. Boxing fans have been socialised over the years to view underground prize-fights as unacceptably unethical brutality compared to the artistry of a “proper” prize-fight. Do underground fights still occur, and fill the stands with spectators? Yes, but it’s rare, the venues are small, and it is universally condemned and swiftly prosecuted when it occurs. Prostitution needs to be at least as regulated as prize-fighting, with criminalisation restricted to those who disregard worker safety by not conforming to regulations and those who pay for a known unsafe performance : the workers whose safety is being risked should never be the ones who are criminalised.

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About tigtog

writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

19 comments on “[Feminism Friday] Prostitution: regulation, exploitation and death

  1. i would wish to ask if u have ever had any experience working in the sex industry? i have been working in the industry for over 3 years and i can honestly say that i find ur article both degrading and patronising both to workers and their clients. the idea that every client except those from the “elite/freelance” sector of the industry r just out to “buy rape” is absolutely appalling and upsetting. u realise you are basically setting a heirachy of morality between classes of women and also saying that any man willing to trade money for sex is a rapist in hiding. in my 3 yrs of working i have only walked out of a booking once and that was purely because i couldnt provide the service the client needed. i think it is disgusting for u to imply that every woman is helpless and defenseless against the horrible sex industry. while not to invalidate the experiences of those forced into work by people or circumstances it is degrading for u to imply that every worker is there because they r either fearing death or need money for their next hit. maybe instead of spending your time using gender cliches and stereotypical assumptions u might think about what problems exist in society that may cause certain individuals to rape someone, why women r viewed in society as something to use and discard and why women are treated with disrespect because i dont know about u but i get more of that on the street walking home than i have ever experienced during my work hours. the problems dont exist with the workers or the clients or the idea of sex for money, the problems exist in predetermined gender roles, larger ideas on a social level as a whole, and descrimination towards sex workers. you can regulate sex word all u want but if at the end of the day the person u are making your complaint to is still looking at u like a dirty whore its not going to make a goddamn difference. you call yourself a feminist, well maybe u should think about how ur so called ideals stand with your sisters when they might need help to mmake the industry what it needs to be.

  2. Cleo, I would wish to ask if you have actually read the article?

    Several times I very carefully made the distinction between ethical johns who purely wish to make a straight-forward commercial transaction for sexual services, and then the abusive johns who actively avoid brothels who ensure the safety of their workers.

    You have ignored that entirely.

  3. Pay close attention folks. If you blink, you might miss the bigger issue here. The overall condition of sex workers, together with mainstream porn, gives a window into male sexuality and we’d better take note.

    Every abuse in sex work can be attributed directly to male demand. Forget about the mafia for a moment. Do you think that a grown adult male cannot tell (or at least suspect) when “his” prostitute is underaged or under duress? Does he ALWAYS have the choice to put on a rubber? Absolutely.

    There are already too many shitty, half-assed, poorly enforced or unenforceable safeguards in place for women that simply don’t address the real cause of male violence toward females. Just look at the disgusting clusterf*ck of rape legislation. It’s a joke. And now we can’t even have a meaningful discourse about rape prevention without it turning into, ‘but the bitches lie!”

    This is how we treat male and female sexuality? Can we do better?

  4. Cleo, I also never said that only elite/freelance sex workers have ethical clients – I referred only to how abusive johns avoid licensed sex workers in jurisdictions where sex workers are licensed and their workplaces have to meet health and safety standards (such as the Netherlands). These abusers don’t suddenly just become satisfied with legal sex that insists that the workers be safe, they go and seek illicit sex instead. So that data cannot be directly extrapolated to jurisdictions where sex work is unlicensed and still criminalised, and I never said that it could.

    Licensed sex workers in those jurisdictions are ordinary workers, not just elite/freelance escort workers. In fact, many of the elite/freelance workers in those jurisdictions are not licensed (because their clients want to be extra-discreet), and thus have fewer protections from abusive johns than the ordinary licensed sex workers.

    What the Colorado Springs study shows is that in a normal city in the USA, where prostitution is still a criminal offence, the workplace mortality rate for sex workers from drug overdose and homicide combined is much higher than for any of those oh-so-dangerous male jobs like mining and firefighting which MRAs always pull out to justify pay disparities between the genders. The main difference is that all the morality clouds hovering over the issue of commodifying sex allow those who make the most profit from the sex trade to get away with not ensuring the safety of their workers, something that the employers of miners and firefighters are not allowed to do..

  5. Hi!
    I am wondering what you think of some of the critiques of the Swedish model found here:
    http://www.bayswan.org/swed/swed_index.html
    I see a lot of people who think the Swedish model is a good idea, but I very seldom see them responding to those criticisms.
    I am also wondering if you have read anything on “Bound, Not Gagged” (http://deepthroated.wordpress.com/). They have a lot of interesting arguments coming from the other side of this. Many of them have experience in prostitution, and not just as “high class call girls.”

    I have been interested in this issue for a while, and it seems to me that a lot of the people who are against full decriminalization fail to address some of the stronger arguments for it. I really don’t think stories about how awful things are for prostitutes are necessarily a good argument for the Swedish model, due to some of the arguments in the first link, and “Bound, Not Gagged” has some interesting stuff on decriminalization vs. legalization which I think are very relevant to what you wrote here.

  6. Thank you for the link, Djiril. A lot of material to absorb there. I can certainly see that the Swedish model has strong abolitionist overtones which aren’t helpful for the workers and clients who simply wish to have a straightforward business relationship, even if decriminalising the workers is one step in the right direction.

    I’m totally for decriminalising all sex workers, as I said in the last line of the post. However, the high workplace mortality rate for sex work as shown in the Colorado Springs study indicates that a pure laissez-faire approach will simply not do enough to protect sex workers from abusers who are willing to pay extra for unsafe practices and the exploitative managers who are willing to take that money and coerce sex workers into unsafe practices. What model can protect them while removing the stigma of criminalisation from sex work generally?

  7. Renegade Evolution has some criticisms of this post. You can read her post and the discussion here.

  8. I’m not sure that there is a legal model which can solve all the problems you mentioned by itself. Reading some of the sex worker rights publications I have, it looks like there is a lot of grassroots activism going on which has the potential to change things, but I have also noticed a tendency on the abolitionist side to refer to anyone who doesn’t agree with their objectives as “pimps,” along with a willingness in mainstream feminism to believe that the only people working for sex worker rights organizations are “the fortunate few,” which does not appear to be true from what I’ve read. See this post:
    http://deepthroated.wordpress.com/2008/03/22/reaching-the-media-sex-workers-against-rape/

    You should also check out SWOP east’s Sex Worker Human Rights Statement, where they talk about what they are trying to achieve:
    http://www.swopeast.org/?q=node/10
    This is the abbreviated version (taken from a post on “Bound, Not Gagged”):
    • Decriminalization of all aspects of sex work involving consenting adults.
    • The right to form and join professional associations or unions.
    • The right to work on the same basis as other independent contractors and employers and to receive the same benefits as other self-employed or contracted workers.
    • No taxation without such rights and representation.
    • Advocating sex worker rights to be free from coercion, violence, sexual abuse, child labor, rape and racism.
    • Legal support for sex workers who want to sue those who exploit their labor.
    • The right to travel across national boundaries and obtain work permits wherever we live.
    • Clean and safe places to work.
    • The right to choose whether to work on our own or co-operatively with other sex workers.
    • The absolute right to say no.
    • Access to health clinics where we do not feel stigmatized.
    • Re-training programs for sex workers who want to leave the industry.
    • An end to social attitudes which stigmatize those who are or have been sex workers.
    • Working to end child sexual tourism

  9. my main two complaints, the use of “scare quotes” around the word choice when refering to women in sex work by choice, and the failure of seemingly everyone who ever writes from a certain position on sex work to link to sex workers or sex work adovcates.

    Tigtog- over at my place you mentioned that since I can afford security, that I have some huge high place of privilege…well, if you assume I pay my security in cash, you’d be wrong. I do it by choice, true enough, but I think entirely too many people throw the word “privileged” around at any sex worker with computer access entirely too freely. Yep, I have some nice things in my life. I’ve worked hard for all of them. Like a whole lot of other people-in and out of the sex biz.

  10. As I said at your blog, I take your point about the scarequotes. Linking to a site like SWOP East would also have been useful, I agree, and I’m glad that Djiril has provided the links above.

    Even if you pay your security in kind rather than in cash, aren’t you still privileged in that you have the attributes that make a bodyguard willing to make that trade with you? How many other sex workers are unable to find a bodyguard to do the same for them because they are less attractive/healthy? Isn’t this why so many fall into an exploitative pimp relationship?

    As for privilege generally, every single one of us with computer access is privileged. Our voices are much more likely to be heard than the voices of those with no computer access. It’s not a sex business specific critique.

    PS: post has now been edited to remove scarequotes ~tigtog

  11. Djiril, thank you again for the links, especially to SWOP East. I had read that before and forgotten where, I expect that quite a few of my points in the post about rights for sex workers to be safe and uncoerced are ultimately derived from posts such as that covering similar ground.

    PS. post has now been edited to add links to SWOP East and the page of links to critiques of the Swedish model ~ tigtog

  12. According to the Federal Police, there is no evidence of the thriving sex trade involving underage Indigenous girls that you mention.

    Personally, I don’t consider the cops a great source when it comes to sex workers, opportunistic or not, but I’m just as sceptical of unproven accusations levelled at Indigenous Australia by sensationalist white journos. The image of the oversexed underage black worker is hardly an unloaded one in this country.

  13. sceptical of unproven accusations levelled at Indigenous Australia by sensationalist white journos

    Me too, although my own perception of this story was that it was accusing the truckies of exploitation more than accusing the girls of initiating wrongdoing. I didn’t even read it as implying that the girls were oversexed, although now that you mention it I can see that there is always that implicit angle. Just that they wanted drugs and/or money, and sex was the way that they could get it.

  14. “Even if you pay your security in kind rather than in cash, aren’t you still privileged in that you have the attributes that make a bodyguard willing to make that trade with you? How many other sex workers are unable to find a bodyguard to do the same for them because they are less attractive/healthy? Isn’t this why so many fall into an exploitative pimp relationship?”

    Only if you are looking at a very narrow scope of sex workers am I all that privileged. That’s part of the overall problem here, the assumption that most, if not all, sex workers fit into the abused and exploited street worker genre…which really may not be the case at all. I’d be willing to bet honest to god cash money that in my neck of the woods, there are probably just as many sex workers like myself…independent contractor types without heavy handed pimps/managers/agents whatever as there are women in those sorts of situations. They may not all love it, but did choose to do it. The problem comes when the media and various people with abolishionist stances constantly use one image or one sort of study to detail the whole of the sex industry. One also must remember, all things considered, because sex work is illegal in many forms, why on earth would most relatively content / happy prostitutes who live somewhat comfortably and do their thing quietly risk that to speak out? Most of them are not as fired up about changing the system or what have you, they just want to make a living and be left alone- and people like Farley don’t go looking for them. I know a lot of sex workers, and a good chunck of them could have security with them if they wanted it.

  15. Hey,
    I enjoyed a lot about your article. I am a radical feminist against the commercialized sexual exploitation of women and girls in the sexist, racist global pornography and prostitution industries. The sex industry is about capitalism, sexism, and white men making money off the lives of women. I am also a survivor of abuse involving pornography in my home as a child and I have been privileged enough to work with women survivors of the prosititution industry, and the women I have talked with say they want a life without prostitution.

    I don’t know why it is so difficult for most people to beleive that a majority of women in prostitution (I don’t say workers, because I view it as paid rape, not work, but I do say women in prostitution or prostituted women, because she is still a woman, just like me, except I am lucky enough never to have had to prostitute to survive, so in that way I am privileged). I think that, if you are a woman who is hurt or devestated by your experience in prostitution, no one cares and no one wants to hear your story. Men only want to hear the women who say they like it and want to keep “working” for them–and women in prostitution have to say that they like it, otherwise, how are they going to keep clients? I think it’s not because women in prostitution are weak or drug adicted or whatever else people say (though I do think many women have pimps who get them addicted to keep them in it, and I think to get through the kind of sex it is, you would maybe need to be drugged so you don’t feel the pain). I think women do it for food and to pay rent and raise kids though because they need the money.

    I think your distinction about ethical johns is really, *really* poorly thought out (I’m not trying to attack you, I just think that shit is way off)–NO man who thinks he has a right to purchase sexual access to a woman’s body, to buy access to her body as though she were a fuckable commodity, not a human being–NO man like that is ethical. If these men really wanted to help women in prostitution, they would give them food and money without making women suck their dicks or fucking us before they give us the money we need to live off of. Women in prostitution NEVER should be stigmitized, they are doing what they have to, to get by in this world and they are not the “dirty” ones–what’s hateful and dirty and fucked up is when men think they should be able to use somebody’s economic need, and inferior social status relative to them, to coercce her into having sex.

    Most men who use women in prostitution have partners/wifes and children too. It affects women outside the industry too, so, if your father uses women in prostitution, you see that even your dad thinks of women as people to be used, and your mom isn’t enough for him, he thinks he deserves to fuck as many women as he can pay for.

    I think as women, we want to feel powerful and as though we have control, but pretenting we have more power than we do helps no one but the oppressor. If we had a world where women had economic and social equality, there would be no prostitution because women would have the kind of real freedom needed to be independent of men. It is bizarre to me that so many people assume it couldn’t possibly be true that many, many women who end up in pornography and prostitution were sexually abused–the sad truth is, 1 in 3 women in this country, just in general, is sexually abused before she turns 18. With so many women having histories of abuse, it makes sense that some women end up in an industry that repeats that pattern, where men use you to get something they want, access to your body, and value you only as a hole they can stick it in. One woman in prostitution who got out of it had a great quote about how she doesn’t understand why now people call prostitution liberation, because for her, it felt like being a spittoon for men’s semen. I know a woman who runs a battered women’s shelter for women leaving prostitution in Florida, and some of the things the women say about it once they are out, are just so heartbreaking…the average women in prostitution has sex with 35 johns a week, and these women said things like the sex felt like “he was filling me with poison” and “it felt like he was wiping himself on me”

    I don’t see women in pornography and prostitution as some different class of women than me. Some of my women friends have had pornography made of them, or even been prostituted, and it makes me so angry that men didn’t see them as a special, beautiful human being, a person with a right to dignity and freedom from having strangers stick their dicks in her body. Also, my father used women through pornography all through my childhood, and looking at those images, at the masochistic role men expect women to play during sex (men expect us to like being used and degraded as an object) made me feel terrible about myself and about being a woman. Living in a world where I know women can be bought and sold for sex makes me feel terrible and devalued as a woman, even outside the industry. I have to walk the street each day with men who use women in prostitution, and they sure don’t seem to respect me! I get street harrassed by men all the time. Please do not begin to support arguments for legalization, the Swedish law is a good approach to this issue, because it doesn’t say what happens to women in prostitution is an acceptable form of “work” and that pimps are “sex entrepeniurs” and johns legitimate sex “consumers.” I feel like we live in a time when we are loosing everything it means to be human, if we can commodify experiences between two people that should be about intimacy and equality. Also, some of the so called “sex-worker” groups are run by women who do not work in the industry, and anyone can tell you they do anything…if you would like more radical feminist information about helping women in prostitution, this is a wonderful site, and I would suggest reading writing by prostitution survivors who were able to get out, Sapphire, Andrea Dworkin, Christine Stark and others…Here’s the link:
    http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/

    I wouldn’t say any man willing to use money to get sex is a rapist *in hiding*…he seems pretty out there to me, especially if rape involves the use of coercion to get sex (but nobody ever believes prostituted women can be raped, and when they are, nobody cares)…at any rate, this man, who believes it’s his right to buy sex from women, is simply a misogynist.

    I want to respond to this comment

    >>maybe instead of spending your time using gender cliches and stereotypical assumptions u might think about what problems exist in society that may cause certain individuals to rape someone, why women r viewed in society as something to use and discard and why women are treated with disrespect because i dont know about u but i get more of that on the street walking home than i have ever experienced during my work hours. the problems dont exist with the workers or the clients or the idea of sex for money, the problems exist in predetermined gender roles, larger ideas on a social level as a whole, <<

    The problem is with sexism, and yes, gender roles. And the oldest gender role for women, the one that’s been around forever, is to be the “whore” the one men fuck, because they think they have a right to. Men fuck and women are there to be fucked, those are your basic gender roles. Women are viewed as people to be used and put away. That’s exactly what the system of prostitution is founded on! Women, all women on some level, are still viewed as the ones naturally meant to be prostituted, to be fucked for money and used, and the masculine gender role is to use male privilege to buy sex. That definitely needs to be brought down, but as long as you keep systems of prostitution in place, as long as you say it’s okay for men to buy women like that, those roles will never go away and women won’t have equality.

  16. [...] working directly for sex workers’ rights or criticisms of the Swedish model within the post. That post has been updated to reflect those criticisms. The post below is as originally published. Links that were added to [...]

  17. Stephanie, I published your very very long comment, even though the comments policy explicitly asks people to be brief, because you obviously have thought a lot about this and spent such a long time on the comment. I’ll ask you to note though that, as I have found over and over, an excessively long comment has essentially stifled further debate.

    Regarding your criticism of my idea of ethical prostitution consumers: I find I fall midway between the radical feminists view of sexuality and the sex-radical view of sexuality – I think that it ought to be possible for humans to view recreational sex as simply one particularly enjoyable athletic pursuit, where buying time with a professional is just like playing golf with the club’s golf pro, but we certainly are not there yet. The way in which sexual purity hangups are tied up with reproductive relationships traditionally tied to property inheritance issues, plus the fetishisation of sexual dominance, complicate our view of sex immeasurably, and the stigmatisation of prostitution is part of that.

    However, I think it certainly is possible for men who just want uncomplicated sexual services to pay a sex worker to provide them without necessarily viewing that woman negatively or with intent to degrade her through the sex act. Unfortunately, our current socialisation of brutality in porn and portrayals of women in prostitution as either rag-dolls to be battered or glamorous trophies to be bragged about certainly don’t encourage men to be ethical clients of women in prostitution.

    NB I keep on saying women because they form the majority of sex workers and this is a feminist blog. Of course men in prostitution face similar issues.

  18. Something struck me the other day. I was criticised over at Ren’s for not giving Cleo as a sex-worker-by-choice the same consideration as to her bona fides that I would expect myself to give to someone if they were talking about their experiences of rape or racial discrimination. I’ve only just realised why I don’t find that comparison valid. Rape and racial discrimination are not something that someone chooses – they are externally imposed.

    Cleo was offended because my post focussed on abused women, referring to my descriptions of abused and addicted sex workers as “gender cliches and sterotypical assumptions” which I see as horribly dismissive of the sex workers who have actually died due to violence and drug overdoses – and how many more survive having suffered great harm? As the cited study shows, the mortality rate is real – it is not a stereotype or a cliche.

    I think she badly misread the post as a whole, but obviously that must be at least partly down to me for not making my points more clear. I certainly agree with this section of Cleo’s comment (reformatted for legibility):

    u might think about what problems exist in society that may cause certain individuals to rape someone, why women r viewed in society as something to use and discard and why women are treated with disrespect because i dont know about u but i get more of that on the street walking home than i have ever experienced during my work hours.

    the problems dont exist with the workers or the clients or the idea of sex for money, the problems exist in predetermined gender roles, larger ideas on a social level as a whole, and descrimination towards sex workers.

    you can regulate sex word all u want but if at the end of the day the person u are making your complaint to is still looking at u like a dirty whore its not going to make a goddamn difference.

  19. I’m really torn here. It’s clear that there are some inherent issues with sex work that are unique due to the gender dynamic. And although sex workers’ voices are very important, we need to keep in mind that with any business there are incentives from all angles to abuse of the system.

    For example. I think the age restriction for sex work should be raised to 21 years old. In some ways this hurts sex workers, but it might make it harder for individuals to exploit minors.

    Also I read a book, called the Logic of Life, where a study showed that some sex workers in Mexico use condoms as a bargaining chip. That is, if men specifically ask to use condoms, they charge something like 15% more. If men specifically ask to have sex without a condom, the sex workers charged something like 40% more. This is despite the sex workers having been given information about the risks of HIV and other STIs and that condom use was the best prevention.

    I’m not saying that this would necessarily happen elsewhere or that it happens often, but it’s an interesting piece of information, that I would have never been imagined.

    The recommendation was to also provide information to the men who buy sex. But, there is a serious outreach problem logistically with this. Think about it.

    Also, I think the expectation of client privacy makes it practically impossible to enforce laws without putting severe limitations on women’s abilities to do business.

    The fact is that men who seek paid sex often expect a high level of privacy. And they are willing to pay a premium for this. So I’m wondering (in places where legalized), when faced with the choice of reporting an abusive client to the authorities, how many brothel owners or workers actually do so. Seems like there is a built in incentive to just kick him out, for fear of gaining a reputation for exposing clients (in many places arrests become public record).

    Also, I think it’s unfair that there are typically no programs to test clients. In Italy, there has been an increase in STIs among people over 50 years old–a group who had previously been considered low-risk. This risk has been associated with men paying for sex. Of course there is no testing required for johns so they go on to infect their wives. How much client privacy is reasonable?

    Also in Germany, the courts had to order an online prostitution agency to release the names of six clients for DNA testing to establish paternity for a sex-worker who was impregnated by a client. The court stepped in because the sex operator refused to break client privacy. But again, how much client privacy is reasonable?

    To me expecting that society is just going to wake up one day and stop stigmatizing sex workers is just unrealistic. Maybe one day it will happen. There needs to be reasonable policies in place that treat clients and workers as EQUALS. And I want to see policies that de-incentivize exploitation for those who do not choose this job, because many women do not choose this.

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