Leading Democratic candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris have recently weighed in on whether they support decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution , and a handful of states are mulling over bills already. There are plenty of important issues to debate in the upcoming 2020 election, but for feminists, legalization of sex work shouldn’t be one of them.
I know that doesn’t seem very progressive of me; I used to believe that legalizing prostitution would be the best way to offer women bodily autonomy, career choice, and government protection in a dangerous job. This past spring, however, I took a course for my gender studies major called Fighting Violence Against Women, and it revealed to me how legalizing prostitution contributes to cyclic and systemic violence against women -- especially minority, queer, and poor women.
One of the books we read that explained it best was Scars Across Humanity by journalist and domestic abuse survivor Elaine Storkey, who makes it clear that choice very rarely comes into play at all in the story of commercial sex.
An unequal playing field
Storkey argues that the women who “choose" to become prostitutes almost never decide this from equal standing with those who purchase their bodies. Therefore, this line of work inherently draws upon and perpetuates an unequal balance of power between the buyer and the seller -- something that regulating it as a profession would not be able to change. But what does that look like?
According to a study in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment , the women who “choose" to enter prostitution have likely been driven to that line of work by socio-economic, political, and even generational oppression.
“The harms of prostitution are so profoundly linked to gender, class, and racial inequality that the prostitution industry is one of the world's most extreme systems of discrimination. Its victims are overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly poor, (and) it is often undocumented women trafficked from poor countries who suffer the worst exposure to the most harmful and unsafe practices within prostitution," according to the report.
Because of their backgrounds, sex workers are more likely to experience violence than other women. For example, a five-country study in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Venezuela, and the United States -- countries with high rates of sex trafficking and prostitution -- found that “violence against women was endemic in prostitution, with high rates of physical harm (almost 80%), sexual assault (over 60%), emotional abuse (over 80%), verbal threats (over 70%), and control through drugs/alcohol (almost 70%)."
The myth of “choice"
While legalizing prostitution might seem like it would provide women the most degree of choice, this definition of “choice" reflects a privileged standpoint. Storkey wrote that “underneath this view lies a gender-neutral, laissez-faire concept of economics, in which ‘similarly situated’ individuals make complementary choices: one to buy sex and the other to sell it." In other words, because the women who “choose" to sell their bodies almost always have a violent past or come from a disadvantaged social and economic status, the field of prostitution is inherently a power imbalance.
Scientific studies and feminist researchers alike have even found that working in prostitution can have lasting effects on women’s self-esteem and mental health. Survivors of the sex trade report high levels of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, phobias, sexual dysfunction, decreased self-worth, and other conditions.
Too many folks believe that legalizing prostitution would allow those who choose to enter the field to do so safely. However, women who fully choose to become prostitutes, despite equal access to other options, are few and far between: for every 10 women identified as “career prostitutes," who entered or remained in the field of their own volition, about 10,000 others were forced into it “through poverty, rape, or male domination," according to Storkey.
But what about those few women? Is it fair to tell them they can’t make this choice because so many others don’t get the luxury? On one hand, it almost seems like just more policing of the female body, but on another, prostitution on a broad scale is not actually a matter of choice. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that commodifying a human body should not be a valid career option, and nothing that supports a broader cultural context of gender-based violence and marginalization should be condoned by a government.
However, the general public doesn’t see it this way. You could argue that it’s ingrained in our culture, and I wouldn’t disagree. For example, in a 1998 study of prostitutes, three women who worked in an American brothel said that their lives were “unbearable," while another said prostitution was nothing more than “paid rape." The majority surveyed said they would not prefer for prostitution to be legal because of this, and about half who worked in brothels said that to try leaving would be to risk being killed. When considering the rights of oppressed communities, those communities’ experiences and voices are the most important to consider -- bottom line. But for most people considering the issue, these women’s experiences don’t seem to matter.
Countries that have legalized sex work reported associated upticks in sex trafficking, the illegal practice of forcing or coercing others into providing commercial sexual services for a fee that the workers seldom see. For example, Germany saw a surge in trafficking into the country once prostitution became legal, according to Storkey. Women “purchased" from East Asia and other regions could be “sold" to local brothel owners, who saw these women as cheaper goods than native-born prostitutes, whose rights to fair wages were supposedly protected by the government.
As for that and the other protections the government intended to offer, most women said they never materialized. Storkey said only 1% of sex workers had employment contracts a year after prostitution became legal, and very few reported that working conditions had improved.
Essentially, legalizing prostitution boils down to a very explicit objectification and patriarchal commercialization of sex and the (mostly female, poor, and minority) body. But the question still remains -- what to do about the practice of prostitution today?
Some countries in Nordic regions have seen success not by legalizing sex work but by decriminalizing it, while “producing strong sanctions against brothel owners, pimps, and customers," according to Storkey. These measures aim to protect those forced into this work while elevating the level of risk associated with supporting or facilitating prostitution -- thus reducing demand (or, at least, the willingness of men to act on such desires).
Vulnerable and oppressed groups commodifying their bodies so that others can “purchase" them is not a system that allows for equal power or fair, free trade, and it’s not something feminists should support.
A woman’s bodily autonomy and right to choose are some of her most valuable powers and should never be called into question, however, we must think critically about what circumstances influence others’ choices. Instead of trying to achieve equality despite the power structures that disadvantage women, we should be working to dismantle what disadvantages us in the first place.