Prostitution is currently a live issue in the Scottish Parliament with Margo McDonald an independent MSP proposing a bill which would legalise prostitution within recognised “Tolerance Zones”. These zones would be established by the local authority following notice and consultation with the police local health board, property owners in the area residents groups and the community council for the area. These would be in place for up to three years and designate the times that it would operate and a code of conduct for anyone using the zone. Setting up any such area would effectively legalise prostitution within its geographical and temporal boundaries.
This paper considers the effects of legalisation in certain countries, only in New South Wales (Australia) was it decriminalised, which seems to have combined the worst aspects of legalisation (increase in violent attacks, trafficking, under-age prostitution) with a lack of ability to enforce even the most basic health and safety legislation.
While it is acknowledged that there are significant numbers of prostituted men, this paper refers to male clients and prostituted women, as this is the most common form. Women buy sex infrequently, usually from women and usually at the instigation of a male partner. However, criminalisation of clients would cover all who purchased sexual “services” whatever their sex or sexuality and whatever the sex of those who sold it.
Context of Prostitution in Scotland
Prostitution itself is not illegal in Scotland however many of the activities surrounding are. Street prostitution is dealt with under the Civic Government (Scotland Act, 1982, Section 48-1), which states that:
“a prostitute (whether male or female) who for the purposes of prostitution either
1. loiters in a public place
2. solicits in a public place or in any other place so as to be seen from a public place or
3. importunes any person in a public place
shall be guilty of an offence”
These offences are not imprisonable, but are instead subject to a fine (£50 – £500). However many women end up in prison for non-payment of fines. Prostitution is classed as a “crime of indecency”, a sex offence in the same category as sexual assault. As such it must be disclosed to potential employers and can act as a barrier to employment – particularly child-care and related sectors. The same legislation gives local councils the power to issue licences to premises for public entertainment. This has been used by Edinburgh city council to issue licences for “saunas” in which many are in reality brothels). However running brothels and “living off immoral earnings remain criminal offences.
There is no specific legislation directed at clients in Scotland in contrast to the “kerb crawling” offence n the Sexual Offences (England and Wales) Act 1985.
There are an estimated 1000 women working in prostitution in Edinburgh, with approximately 75% working in indoor prostitution through saunas, escort agencies and private flats. Saunas (brothels) are regulated through entertainments licences granted to these establishments this involving the local council the management of prostitution
Street prostitution was tolerated in the area of Leith for approximately 20 years, where the police did not target prostituted women, but worked to ensure their safety. Specialist services for prostituted women were also provided in the locale. It was promoted as a model of prostitution management – no under-age girls were working in the area and there was no open drug dealing occurring. With the increased use of the area for residential purposes and in particular the gentrification which occurred in the 1990s, objections to the prostitution increase, and the policy of non-harassment by the police ended in 2002. Attacks on prostituted women have increased, and there has been a return to the targeting of the women by the police. Edinburgh has a very large and quite public prostitution industry – although street prostitution is less visible now than when the non-harassment policy was in place, the brothels are well known and quite visible – there is also a large sex-industry in Edinburgh beyond prostitution. There is evidence of domestic trafficking of women from Glasgow to Edinburgh to work in the brothels.
Glasgow City council has taken an opposite route to Edinburgh. They have a “Zero- Tolerance” policy towards prostitution, although there is an unofficial red light zone in the city centre, where women choose to wok because of the presence of cameras. There are approximately 1000 women working in street prostitution95% of whom are estimates to have addiction problems and additional 100 are estimated to work indoors in “saunas” or private flats. There is evidence of non-UK women being trafficked to Glasgow to meet the demands of the industry.
Until recently Glasgow city council had ignored prostitution as an issue however with the spate of murders in the 1990s a new approach was required. This has three aspects, an organisation to assist women exit prostitution; a drop in centre to facilitate harm reduction and an interventionist policing strategy which has involved targeting the women. There are regularly 60 women from Glasgow in Corton Vale Prison through the non-payment of fines received whilst working in prostitution.
There is estimated to be 175 women working in street prostitution in the industrial docklands area of the city where prostitution is tolerated. The women are given strict guidelines such are when they can congregate and how many people are permitted in the area. Approximately 90% of the women are estimated to have addiction problems, and issues have arisen with drug dealers congregating in the area.
Experiences of Legalisation
Over the last decade, as pimping became legalised and brothels decriminalised in the Netherlands, the sex industry expanded by 25%. The sex industry now accounts for 5% of the Dutch economy.
In 200 the Ministry for Justice argued for a legal quote of foreign prostituted women to meet the demand. The government has also recognised prostitution as an economic activity – allowing women from the EU and former soviet bloc countries to obtain working permits for prostitution. It is estimated that 80% of the women in brothels in the Netherlands are trafficked, of which 70% are from central and Eastern Europe using this ruling to mask the trafficking which remains illegal.
Child prostitution in the Netherlands increased dramatically in the 1990s, estimates suggest from 4, 00 children in 1996 to 15,000 in 2001. It is estimated that at least 5000 of the children in prostitution are from other countries with a large segment being Nigerian girls
Prostituted women (but not their clients) are regularly checked for contagious diseases – a practice which ensures that the state plays its party in providing disease free women fro purchase to gratify male sexual demand.
Legalisation of brothel prostitution in the State of Victoria, Australia, has led to massive expansion of the sex industry. Whereas there were 40 legal brothels in Victoria in 1989, in 1999 there were 94 along with 84 escort agencies. Illegal prostitution has also flourished, including illegal brothels and street prostitution. Other forms of sexual exploitation such as tabletop dancing; BDSM clubs, peep shows , phone sex lines and pornography have all developed in more profitable ways than before. The occupational health and safety codes, drawn up by the government, brothel keepers and prostitutes rights organisations demonstrate the amount of violence which has become a routine part of the prostituted women’s lives by recommending training in the use of branding irons, whips canes and piercing instruments, giving advice on how to be fist-fucked and how to deal with conflict situations.
Legalisation has normalised the industry with the pimps being considered legitimate businessmen and sitting together with the police and lawyers on the Prostitution Control Board. Rather than controlling prostituted women individually, they now do so with the full backing of state regulation. There is a culture in Victoria which is accepting of prostitution with an estimated 60, 000 men a week using prostituted women and one in six of the adult female population working in the sex industry. Brothels are listed on the stock exchange allowing those with money to profit from women’s exploitation and abuse with out getting their hands dirty.
The reasons given for legalising prostitution in Victoria were to limit the extent of a flourishing underground industry and protect more vulnerable women. This has not happened in the country report on Australia it was noted “ Trafficking in East Asian women for the sex trade is a growing problem in Australia…lax laws – including legalised prostitution in parts of the country make [anti-trafficking] enforcement difficult at the working level. Child prostitution has risen dramatically in Victoria compared to other Australian states where prostitution has not been legalised. Of all the states and territories in Australia, the highest number of reported incidences of child prostitution came from Victoria.
International Socialist Responses to Prostitution.
Probably the most prominent female Bolshevik wrote extensively on the situation of women. She took a primarily materialist stance on prostitution; however acknowledged that the expectation of economic security in return for sexual favours was enshrined in Bourgeois marriage. Although considering prostitution undesirable, as part of non-productive labour, she argued for legalisation (which indeed became the case in Soviet Russia). She did consider the criminalisation of the purchasers of sex but rejected it as it would be too difficult to distinguish between the users of prostituted women and husbands in particular forms of marriage.
The Democratic Socialist Party in Australia advocates the decriminalisation of prostitution. It appreciates that prostitution is oppressive, exploitative and underpinned by women’s economic dependence on men which is institutionalised within marriage. It states that prostitution is counter to proletarian-socialist morality but argues that it is utopian to expect pimps and brothel owners to be treated as criminals over and above the women themselves. It also argues against the criminalisation of the clients which it sees as a measure to “protect” women, undermining the idea that women are independent self-directed human being who are capable of making informed choices and acting on them.
United States, RWL
The Revolutionary Workers League in the US also advocates the decriminalisation of prostitution. It acknowledges the material factors which drive women in to prostitution and the position of bourgeois marriage and sexual repression in sustaining the demand. It classifies prostitution not as waged labour but party of the lumpen struggle for survival under extremely oppressive conditions; appreciates that under any conditions prostitution means the oppression of women and acknowledges the abuse that prostituted women are frequently subject to by pimps, the police and clients. Criminalisation of clients is not explicitly considered however they state that they are against any form of legalisation as the interests of the women and the state are in opposition and thus any legal measures designed to regulate or “protect” those prostituted would be oppressive.
Prostitution and Feminist Theory
Libertarian Feminism (Paglia, COYOTE)
Strongly associated with anarcho-capitalist or free-market philosophies, the primary focus of libertarian feminism is individual autonomy, rights, liberty independence and diversity. It views prostitution as a legitimate choice of work – the right to work in the sex industry must be defended, any attempt at regulation is an attempt to control women’s sexuality and should be resisted. Prostitution is a woman’s right; it should be legal with minimal regulation.
Libertarian feminist theorising of prostitution ought to be rejected by socialists. As they like to ask, prostitution puts together sex and the free-market – which one are you against? The answer is obvious
Radical Feminism (McKinnon, WHISPER)
Radical feminists believe that the oppression of women is the most fundamental form of oppression and provides a model for all others. They believe that prostitution reinforces and perpetuates the objectification, subordination and exploitation of women which is necessary to maintain the patriarchy. Prostitution is sexual abuse and must be eradicated by any means necessary.
By putting the oppression of women at the centre of analysis of power structures, radical feminists ignore the material factors which drive prostitution, the power of the industry and the profits which are to be made out of women’s oppression and exploitation.
Material Feminism (Vogel, GMB)
Drawing on Marxist economic analysis, materialist feminism tends to believe that the objective conditions in which women live define their oppression; as the economic barriers to their full participation in society left, so too will inequalities between men and women. Prostitution is a response to poverty and a particular exploitation of women analogous to the more general prostitution of all who sell their labour; it should be legal but heavily regulated.
By largely ignoring the gendered nature of prostitution material feminists fall into a simplistic arena of “workers rights” whereby prostitution is allowed but that working conditions are monitored and enforced – regulating women’s sexuality and bringing it under the control of the state.
Socialism, Patriarchy and Prostitution
For socialists, economics determine the limits of freedom. The particular situation of women under capitalism cannot be separated from the conditions that produce it – hence women’s sexuality desires and identity are related to how their material needs are met.
Engels made quite a study of the situation of women describing how the need to sustain private property led to the development of the nuclear family and the role of women within it. Before the development of the nuclear family, power structures between men and women were in flux dependant on the prevailing economic conditions – both women and men had several sexual partners making it difficult to tell who the father of any particular child was. What little private property there was passed down through the female line as this was the only certain linear kin relation. He argued that as men started to domesticate cattle and acquired private property, they were reluctant to let it pass down through the female line and imposed restrictions on female sexuality in order to establish paternity. Through the establishment of a class basis to society, monogamy and marriage came to be the prominent form of relationship and women were made economically dependant on men – either their fathers husbands, and to a lesser extent brothers – by restricting their rights to own property. This lack of ownership materialised and sustained their lack of power; the ideal of the “chaste woman” – faithful within marriage and celibate outwith was rigorously promoted.
Prostitution exists as a counter-weight to the oppressive regime of the patriarchal family. The sexual repression and female economic expectation within the family creates a market for sex which is met through prostitution. Men also use prostituted women for more than sex – the devaluation of women in society leads many men to indulge in prostitution as a means of reaffirming their individual devaluation of women and the dominance that society accords to the male.
Within the patriarchal family there is a requirement of maintenance and care of the wife – both to reinforce the husbands status and to continue to benefit from her unpaid labour within the home. Within prostitution there is generally no such on-going relationship, abusing a prostituted woman, unless caught has little impact on a client’s future return. Prostitution and the sex industry more generally gives men a space in which to assert patriarchal dominance which is diminishing within the domestic sphere with the increased economic power of women who participate in wage labour.
There is some debate among socialists whether prostitution is a form of wage labour or not. Marx asserted that prostitution is only the specific expression of the universal prostitution of the worker and that the employment contract is a contract of prostitution. but later appeared to reject that prostitution was a form of wage labour by implying that it was part of the marginal economic struggle for survival – repeatedly connecting prostitution with begging and thieving.
Prostitution as an expression of the patriarchal oppression of women
Engels demonstrated how patriarchy developed to serve the needs of capitalism by the appropriation of female labour for the sustenance of the male worker and the passing of private property down through a male lineage. The maintenance of patriarchal society is thus fundamental in supporting capitalism.
Manifestation of Male Power
The fight for equal rights has oftentimes been opposed to the male power base with in many industries. Equal pay legislation was opposed at the time by much of the left who argued for a family wage for male workers (enough for a man to “keep” a wife on) Fighting against sexual harassment is a key component of trade union work – yet within the sex industry harassment which would be intolerable anywhere else the raison d’etre. Prostitution allows men to assert their power over women in a manner which is unacceptable in any other sphere.
The “need” of men to have sex is frequently given as a justification for prostitution legalisation, yet conforms to a maladjusted view of male sexuality – that the desire for men to have sex requires the availability of women to “service” them. Disabled men in countries that have legalised prostitution have specialised services targeted at them and sometimes have them provided by the state. Women report higher rates of unwanted celibacy than men yet buy sex infrequently and usually at the instigation of male partners.
The existence of prostitution impacts beyond the purely sexual sphere. In Victoria, Australia where prostitution is legal, brothels are promoted as corporate venues with facilities for meetings and product launches – this impacts on the working conditions experienced by women working for these corporations and limits their opportunities for advancement. The desire for women to have egalitarian relationships with men is hampered by widespread prostitution whereby men feel justified in their behaviour in brothels. Married women are forced either to accept either their husband’s behaviour or end the relationship with the financial consequences which that brings.
The Myth of the Chaste Woman
The existence of prostitution oppresses women in a more general sense than the oppression and dominance asserted with each individual act. It sustains an attitude that women are sexual objects for sale or hire, many common female insults imply the sale of sex, reinforcing the concept of prostitution as a threat to keep women in their place.
It is very difficult for prostituted women to gain a conviction when men rape them as there is an underlying belief that they are unable to deny consent. Women’s dress and behaviour are often considered in rape cases to demonstrate that the victim was not a respectable woman but sexually available and hence akin to a prostitute. Some of the reasons that the residents of Leith gave for opposing the tolerance zone n their locality was the harassment that they faced when going to and from their homes and the pressure that they felt to dress conservatively in order to distinguish themselves from prostituted women.
Prostitution’s role in upholding the bourgeois family structure
The patriarchal family is based on the notion of monogamy. The transfer of private property through the generations requires assured paternity, thus limiting the wife’s sexuality. Prostitution not only provides sex, but also gives the illusion of intimacy – allowing and outlet within the conferment of a relationship which has long since ceased to be viable except as a financial arrangement. Prostitution, as opposed to consensual extra-martial affairs ensures that the financial obligations to any offspring are negated, maintaining the “proper” transfer of property. Many wives tolerate their husband’s use of prostituted women as a method of ensuring their own and their children’s financial security.
Prostitution as the commodification of women and their sexuality
Prostitution, as the purchase of a women’s body for sexual use is the commodification of women and their sexuality. Commodification (the transformation of private use values into private exchange values, in Marxist theory is a necessary step on the way towards socialisation (the harnessing of productive forces for the good of society). However, nothing is produced in prostitution – the commodity created is the sexuality of the prostituted women. Much of the sex industry is built around trafficking – a modern day form of slavery, where women are owned by their traffickers and may be sold on. Commodification of people (e.g. slavery, trafficking and baby sales) and their aspects (e.g. sexuality, reproductive functions and organs) is something which socialists should fiercely resist.
The majority of the argument for allowing prostitution to exist entrails creating a distinction between freely chosen prostitution and forced prostitution, leaving aside for the moment arguments over whether prostitution can ever be freely chosen, prostitution is the commodification of sexual relations, taking it out of the sphere of mutual pleasure and into the domain of the market.
Sexuality as a key aspect of a human cannot be separated out form the rest of a person’s life. There are multiple testimonies that women – even when they assert that they have freely chosen prostitution – shut down their emotional responses while having sex for money; thus the commodifying part of themselves – lying verbally, faking physical responses and shutting down their emotional responses. In this respect – prostitution ranks with organ sale and commercial surrogacy as the commercialisation of a human attribute.
Furthermore the commodification of sexuality affects men as well. There is evidence of peer pressure encouraging men to use prostituted women especially on men-only social evens such as stag nights – which persuade men to start viewing sex as a desirable commodity rather than as part of a relationship no matter how fleeting. It fosters the notion that better sex can be bought for more money and an attitude that sex is a service which women provide for them either for favours, on-going economic commitment or hard cash – rather than a mutually rewarding experience. This transforms male sexual attitude in to one that views women as objects for sexual pleasure.
Commodification of women
A major and increasing problem within the sex industry is the level of trafficking. This modern day form of slavery involves women and children being held in debt bondage and prostituted until they pay of ff the ever increasing debt or are uneconomic to sustain. Victoria, the Netherlands and Germany where prostitution is legal all have enormous problems with trafficking.
Women are lured into this situation either by the promise of legitimate work or by accepting the prostitution without realising the terms of their engagement – in some cases younger girls will be sold by their families believing that they will have more opportunities abroad. Their passports are held by the traffickers, they are held captive and transported form country to country and forced to prostituted in dangerous conditions with ever- attendant violence.. Racist immigration controls and laws with target prostituted women combine with the violence and intimidation to ensure that the women stay enslaved. Women are sold on from one trafficker to and other and there is evidence of “prostitute auctions” taking place reminiscent of 18th century Africa – including one raided in Milan where the women were sold for an average of $1000 having been displayed semi-naked for purchase.
The value of the global trade in female slavery is estimated to be between $7 – $12bn. Women differ from other highly profitable illegal industries such as arms and drugs, as they can be sold time and time again in between being rented out.
Soho in London where private flat prostitution was tolerated for some time is now recognised to be wholly under the control of traffickers, and that there is great danger to the women not only from their pimps and clients but also form rival gangs of traffickers.
Prostitution as violence against women
The Scottish Office, now Executive, adopted the UN general assembly definition of violence against women in 1996.
“The term violence against women means any act of gender based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty whether occurring in public or in private.”
Prostitution frequently involves physical harm and threats to women., research has clearly shown psychological damage and damage to prostituted women’s sexuality. Economic coercion is the key determinant for most women entry and continuation in prostitution and the deprivation of liberty is clear when those who wish to exit cannot.
Violence experienced by Prostituted Women
Prostitution has a high incidence of violence – the council for prostitution alternatives (CPA) in the US found that 78% of the prostituted women that sought their help were raped an average of 33 times a year by potential clients and 16 times a year by pimps. In a study of prostituted women from 5 countries 62% had been raped in prostitution. An English study found that 87% of those who prostitute on the street were the victims of violence over the course of a year – 27% were raped, and 43% suffered severe physical assault. In Glasgow seven prostituted women were murdered in six years. A US study found 82% of women had been physically assaulted whilst working in prostitution and 83% threatened with a weapon.
Not all clients are violent towards prostituted women but are party to a system in which the violence is systemic. Much of the violence and coercion take place outwith the immediate contract by the prostituted woman’s pimp (/boyfriend/manager/drug supplier) to ensure the woman’s continued co-operation and pliability. In a recent case in Glasgow, a woman was trafficked from Glasgow to Edinburgh to earn money for her drug supplier. The case revealed ongoing torture and abuse and ended in her murder.
Eroticisation of Economic Inequality
Prostituted women are by and large poor; it is infrequently chosen as a career open when other means of economic survival are available. It eroticises economic power – the thrill of being able to purchase sex is a driver for many men who use prostituted women. Consensual sexual relationships are not difficult to find however there is an element of reciprocity involved for the successful continuation of the relationship an appreciation of an element of intra-dependence. Within prostitution no such relationship exists – the power of the client is made explicit through the purchase.
Economic coercion to perform sex acts is a violation of women’s integrity and can only be understood within the continuing economic discrimination against women. Within developing countries prostituted women keep little of the money that the client pays, while in developed countries prostituted women spend a large proportion of their income on drugs – often buying them from the same person who facilitates the prostitution.
Deprivation of Liberty
In the UK, the average age of entry to prostitution is 14. In a five country study, it was found that 89% want to leave immediately – the most frequently found barrier to this goal was the lack of anywhere to go. There is also an argument that prostitution promotes the “Stolkhom Syndrome” where hostages identify with their captors under a stressful situation, with prostituted women identifying with their pimps against other pimps, police or the wider community. When those who wish to exit but cannot the deprivation of liberty is clear. Each contract is not a freely chosen pursuit but an expression of captivity.
Experiences of Criminalising Purchasers: Sweden
In 1999, Sweden became the first country to criminalise the purchase of sexual services. Opponents of such legislation frequently imply proponents are “anti-sex”, authoritarian, or in league with the repressive religious minorities, however this legislation did not come from the right, from religion or from a sexually backward country, but a powerful feminist lobby in progressive and socially aware capitalist democracy.
History of Sweden, feminism and sexuality
In 1971, Sweden saw the appointment of a Sexual Crimes Report written by seven men and one woman. The free-love agenda was in full swing, and the current laws on vice were outmoded and widely disregard. Swedish pornography was world famous at a time when pornography was timid compared with today and much less available. Sweden was seen as a beacon of the new free-love attitudes; this report was designed to update the laws to reflect this new reality.
The view of the Report was that the state should be involved as little as possible in people’s sexuality, which was expected and welcomed, however, one shocking aspect of the report was that it proposed that rapists be merely fined if their crime was judged to be “less serious”. It also proposed the legalization of prostitution, in 1972 following publication of the report, it was proposed that Sweden should institute state-run brothels. This report and its aftermath sparked a major debate and the emergence of the 2nd wave Swedish women’s movement.
While many women welcomed the “new tolerance” (as it was termed at the time), to start tolerating rape and institutionalizing prostitution was a step too far. Furthermore the subsequent debate went far beyond the realms of the report and into the wider arena of women’s rights, including domestic violence, incest and child abuse, coining the term “jämställdhet” as a vision of the relation between the sexes, that women’s and men’s knowledge, experience and values should be recognized, and developed both independently and together.
Following a series of rallies and demonstrations against the direction that policy was taking, in 1977, the Minister for Justice was forced to abandon the implementation of the Sex Crimes Report and commission a new one with a female majority and a separate Prostitution Report led by women.
Lead up to the prostitution reform laws
The commissioned Prostitution Report was published in 1981, which concluded that
“Prostitution is about violence and oppression, endless female oppression, drugs and crime, power and subjection, the objectifying of women, and men who buy access to the most vulnerable of people in order to confirm, time and again, false manliness.”
However it concluded that both purchaser and seller should be criminalised. Hannah Olsen who headed the report went on to write a seminal book about the murder of a drug addicted prostitute called Caterine de Costa and headed up a campaign to change the stigma of prostitution from the seller to the purchaser. In the 1994 elections, Sweden had the highest proportion of female parliamentarians internationally. On the back of this increased presence and determination to implement jämställdhet, the government commented
“The proposal by the Prostitution Report to criminalise both buyer and seller has been subjected to extensive criticism by almost all referral bodies. The government also deems that, even if prostitution in itself is not a desirable social activity, it is not reasonable to prosecute the party that, at least in most cases, is the weaker party, exploited by others to satisfy their sexual drive. This is also important if prostitutes are to be encouraged to get help to leave prostitution and can feel they will not have to worry about the consequences of having been prostitutes.,”
and commissioned a further report on prostitution in 1995. A “Security for Women” bill was developed in 1998 which included among other measures the criminalisation of the purchasers of sexual services, with penalties ranging from a fine to 6 month imprisonment.
Impact of the Laws
The law had a shaky start with few initially arrested under the law, and little evidence of change however in 2001 the government identified entrenched attitudes within the police as the source of this and began a comprehensive training and communication programme in place for the police and lawyers and judges.
At the time of implimentation it was estimated that there were 2,500 prostituted women in Sweden with approximately 600 working in street prostitution, this has now been reduced by 80%. Over 500 men have been charged under the act. Only in one province has any increase in violence towards prostituted women been reported, all others have decreased. The law has an 80% approval rating from the public five years after implimentation, and has strengthened the legislation in an 2002 Act (Prohibiting Human Trafficking for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation) and is claims that in 2004 no women were trafficked into the country for sexual exploitation, down from 200 in the previous year, and in contrast to the 16, 000 women trafficked into neighbouring Finland.
A key component of the legislation was specific funding for exit strategies for women wishing to leave prostitution, including specific benefits, specialist drug and alcohol services and accommodation. It is estimated that 60% of those leaving prostitution have taken up these services.
Is prostitution per se desirable?
There would appear to be no consistent position on the left which regards prostitution as per se desirable – even among those calling for its deregulation or legalisation, most would appreciate that one of the fundamental drivers is poverty and the economic situation that women find themselves in in capitalist society.
Although trade unions, including the GMB and the Sex Workers Union call for changes in the law to stop the targeting of prostituted women, and argue against criminalisation, I think that the calls for prostitution to be accepted as a legitimate profession are driven by a right libertarian agenda.
If we accept that prostitution is undesirable and one which we would not wish to see in a socialist society we should examine methods of eradication. Some would argue that this call is utopian, but then this is predicated on a view that the elimination of exploitation, a key demand of socialist, cannot be achieved.
How can we eradicate prostitution
The recent debates in the party have demonstrated that no-one is happy with the current laws which target prostituted women – on that we would appear to be agreed. Experiences of legalisation have shown to increase the numbers of prostituted women, the powers of the state and the market over womens sexualities and the acceptability of prostitution as a legitimate form of recreation. Legalisation does further an eradication agenda.
Decriminalisation is seized on by many as a way of avoiding the legal compounding of the harm done in prostitution, however by its very nature, it is a dangerous and risky occupation, and one which we cannot leave to self-policing. As socialists we would demand adequate health and safety protection any other occupation, we cannot allow this most exploitative and marginalised of industries to self-policed by the market.
Only the legal targeting of the purchasers of sexual services, and a complete decriminalisation of those prostituted, together with effective support for exit strategies can effect both the social and economic changes that are required to eradicate prostitution.
Afternote: Special cases
In debating this topic, a number of themes have surfaced time and time again.
Disabled people have difficulty forming sexual relationships and prostitution can provide a service which they could not acquire through any other means.
This argument is patronising in the extreme. The idea that disabled people are unable to form caring relationships is simply not valid. However there are problems with facilitation of this – both through physical difficulties and social attitudes.
Disabled people are frequently discouraged from forming sexual relationships, partly as it is felt that they are not able to handle either the emotional aspects of sex, contraceptive use, pregnancy, abortion or parenthood. None of these are valid arguments for the use of prostituted women over consensual sexual relationships, however care must be taken that appropriate support, both practical and emotional is given to disabled people embarking on sexual relationships who may find particular difficulties.
Other disabled people find it physically difficult to have sex. One model which is frequently promoted is the Dutch strategy, where specialist prostitution services have developed which cater for clients with disabilities, involving specially designed equipment and designated women who cater for such clients – these services are sometimes paid for by the state. While it is true that such difficulties are genuine, prostitution is not the solution, appropriately trained care workers can facilitate consensual sexual relationships including physical assistance. This is not prostitution, but a form of care work which is currently neglected.
Prostitution can fulfil an important sex education role.
In terms of the usual forms of prostitution which may be used for sex-education purposes I think that these are fundamentally damaging to sexuality, and should have no place in a sex education strategy. However sex education is inadequate at a fundamental level as very little is covered routinely other than reproduction and contraception, both of which are only tangentally related to sex education.
We need a proper sex education strategy in place which not only addresses the problems of sex and sexual relationships but genuinely teaches about sex. One groundbreaking publication was Alex Comfort’s “The Joy of Sex” which sought to teach its readers, in a frank and open manner, about human sexuality and its capacity for pleasure. The more common introduction to this is through publications which frequently mix pornography with genuine sex education, blurring it in the mind of the reader and associating sexual pleasure with exploitative practices. Genuine, truthful and liberating sex education, which celebrates human sexuality as a consensual act should be enshrined in the school curriculum.
Sex Therapists can assist people overcome issues with their sexuality; sometimes this involves having relations with clients, if this is in the best interests of the client then it is genuine therapeutic work.
Most sex therapist adhere to ethics which strictly forbid all forms of sexual relationships with clients. The benefits to be gained by consulting a therapist who would participate are dubious at best
Specialist sex work
Human sexuality is multiple and varied, particular forms of sexuality are minority pursuits – use of specialist prostitution services can provide an outlet for these forms without risking offence.
A societal awareness of the variations in human sexuality which would be achieved through genuine sex education would mitigate some of the shock which some feel at certain practices, within the context of an ongoing relationship it might be appreciated that alternatives to the traditional exclusive model may provide an appropriate form for partners with particular desires. If this issue cannot be resolved through negotiation however – the use of prostitutes is unlikely to resolve this.