Prostitution: Legal Work or Slavery?

A Failed Attempt at Defending Women’s Dignity

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By Father John Flynn, L.C.



ROME, OCT. 15, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Legalizing prostitution is under debate in a number of countries.

Hungary recently decided to legalize it, apparently in part due to the government’s desires to exact revenue from an activity they calculate could generate around $1 billion a year, reported the Associated Press, Sept. 24.

Bulgaria, however, took a step in the opposite direction, reversing a plan to legalize prostitution, according to the New York Times, Oct. 6.

“We should be very definite in saying that selling flesh is a crime,” Rumen Petkov, the interior minister, said during a recent forum on human trafficking, the article reported. The New York Times also commented that last year, Finland made it illegal to buy sex from women brought in by traffickers, while Norway is reportedly planning on imposing a complete ban on purchasing sex.

Italy, meanwhile, is considering how to deal with the widespread practice of street prostitution. Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said the government was thinking about measures such as fining clients, reported the Italian daily Avvenire, Sept. 26.

Prostitution is also under debate in Britain, where a new television series, “Belle de Jour,” presents a glamorized view of the sex industry -- a portrayal strongly criticized by Emine Saner in an article published Sept. 20 in the Guardian newspaper.

“Of the estimated 80,000 women who are sex workers in the U.K., the vast majority do it because they have drug problems or families to support and have no other viable way of making money,” Saner commented.

Moreover, she argued that two-thirds of sex workers have experienced violence, including rape. Government data also reveal that at least 60 sex workers have been murdered in the past 10 years.

Guardian commentator Madelaine Bunting returned to the debate with an article published Oct. 8. Around 90% of prostitutes want to leave their activity, she said. At a time when sex trafficking is booming as one of the most lucrative forms of organized crime, we don’t need a fairytale story about prostitution, argued Bunting.

Victorian failure

Countries debating whether or not to legalize prostitution could learn from what occurred in the Australian state of Victoria. The state government legalized prostitution in 1984 and since then, the sex industry has flourished. With over 20 years of experience, many of the promised benefits of legalizing prostitution have not, however, materialized, according to a book published earlier this year.

A detailed examination of the situation in Victoria was authored by self-declared “feminist activist” Mary Lucille Sullivan, in her book “Making Sex Work: A Failed Experiment With Legalised Prostitution,” (Spinifex Press).

“Victoria’s legalized prostitution system assists in maintaining male dominance, the sexual objectification of women, and the cultural approval of violence against women,” is her thesis.

Normalizing prostitution, as if it were merely some kind of employment, has also undermined women’s workplace equality and contradicts other government policies aimed at protecting women’s rights, accused Sullivan.

Too often, she added, the pressures today to treat prostitution as just another job stem from a neo-liberal vision of the free market, which sees women and girls as a commodity. Some feminists who supported the legalization of prostitution, Sullivan continues, were also influenced by a libertarian outlook and a misplaced desire to establish the “rights” of prostitutes. For its part, the state saw economic advantages in legalization, since it could tax a heretofore underground and illegal activity.

Legalization in Victoria, Sullivan explained, was also defended under the guise of minimizing the harm to the women involved, by bringing about formal regulation and legal protections in the sex industry.

Intrinsic violence

This has not occurred, she affirmed, because attempting to portray prostitution as an occupation to be put under the control of health and safety norms ignores the intrinsic violence of prostitution and the fact that sexual harassment and rape are indistinguishable from the product clients buy.

Moreover, legalization itself has introduced a new series of damaging consequences for women, Sullivan argues. Among these is, ironically, a further expansion of the illegal side of prostitution. In fact, the phenomenon of curbside prostitution, far from disappearing with legalization, has continued to grow in Victoria.

Likewise, legalization, far from removing the influence of organized crime, has instead fueled the role of illegality by introducing greater economic incentives for trafficking in women and girls for both legal and illegal brothels. Sullivan also quoted experts in organized crime who allege that the legalized prostitution industry in Victoria still has strong links to underground criminality.

With regard to this human trafficking, Sullivan draws attention to international studies that put at billions the profits made from this modern form slavery. Estimates of the numbers of women and girls who are trafficked range from 700,000 to 2 million each year.

The legalization of prostitution in Victoria has not done anything to reduce illegal sex trafficking, Sullivan argues. In addition, since legalization, child prostitution continues to be a problem.

Billion-dollar industry

We are now in a situation, Sullivan pointed out, where the media, airlines, hotels, the tourist industry and banks all seek to promote and expand the industry of prostitution. In addition, legalization has brought an encroachment of prostitution in public life.

According to data cited in the book, by 1999, annual turnover in Victoria’s prostitution industry reached $360 million (Australian), which at the current exchange rate would be US $323.3 million . Overall in Australia, 3 states and one territory have legalized prostitution. A business information service cited by Sullivan put at $1.780 million (Australian) the turnover in the financial year 2004-05.

Instead of legalization, Sullivan recommended following the example of Sweden, where the law criminalizes the buying of sexual services and does not penalize the women and children. Sweden also helps women who have suffered violence as a result of prostitution.

Legalization of prostitution, Sullivian concluded, makes a fundamental mistake as it enshrines as a man’s “right” the ability to buy women and girls for sexual gratification. Once this is done, it becomes much more difficult to control the industry or prevent the exploitation of women.

Slavery

“Prostitution is a form of modern slavery,” commented a recent document of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants, issued June 16. The publication, “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road,” attracted media attention due to its ten commandments for drivers, but its content also includes a section on street prostitution. (Nos. 85-115)

“The sexual exploitation of women is clearly a consequence of various unjust systems,” commented the Pontifical Council. Causes such as a need for money, the use of violence, and human trafficking contribute to trap women into prostitution.

“The victims of prostitution are human beings, who in many cases cry out for help, to be freed from slavery, because selling one’s own body on the street is usually not what they would voluntarily choose to do,” the document added.

The council called for greater efforts to help free women from the abuses against human dignity that result from prostitution. Catholic institutions, the declaration added, have often helped women to escape from this situation. Women need to be aided so that they can regain their esteem and self-respect, and to be reintegrated into family and community life.

“Customers,” on the other hand, “need enlightenment regarding the respect and dignity of women, interpersonal values and the whole sphere of relationships and sexuality,” the document said. The exploiters also need to be enlightened regarding the hierarchy of the values of life and human rights, it recommended.

“Committing oneself at various levels -- local, national and international -- for the liberation of prostitutes is therefore a true act of a disciple of Jesus Christ, an expression of authentic Christian love,” the council concluded. Surely a far better answer than legalizing what is nothing more than sexual slavery.