Point A Moral Investigation
by Colin Holmes and Karolina Papiez
Counterpoint Only Rights Can Stop the Wrongs
by Carol Leigh
It’s a telling sign that something is amiss when we derive logical justifications but struggle to overcome some indistinct objection lurking in the back of our minds. I don’t think that I am alone in saying that I feel this way about prostitution – the rights of autonomy and self-ownership, and the resulting right to sell your own body makes sense, but there is a difficult-to-quantify feeling that keeps us from closing the matter. It seems that prostitution as an isolated idea, independent of the issues of human trafficking, violence, and poverty that surround the sex trade, presents a number of problems and concerns.
Why is this? Do the historical moral codes of our society exert so much subconscious influence that they override our rational conclusions? While traditional biases play an important role in the landscape of prostitution today, there are also a number of reasons for us to hesitate when confronting moral failures that exist - even in the most favorable hypothetical situations.
Even in a hypothetical arrangement in which prostitution did not influence the societal view of women (or transgendered, or homosexual people) as a whole, sex workers become a lower class that suffers from unequal treatment. Consequently, even if the specific sexual practices in question may vary, the client is always in a position of control over the interaction due to their role as the initiator and the prostitute’s role as the subordinate worker. While the exchange of sexual services for money may be economically equal, even in a voluntary transaction, it is not socially, politically or morally equal. In other words, prostitution turns sex workers into usable commodities, more goods than service. As a result, prostitution can never be truly compatible with “the rights of autonomy and self-ownership.”
Although there are many legitimate service relationships that are initiated and dictated by the customer, prostitution is not equivalent to any other job. A worker in a fast food restaurant must meet the demands of the rude clients and work in undesirable conditions, typically at minimum wage. While we typically wouldn’t choose to do either job for minimal compensation, it is clear that sex work is orders of magnitudes less desirable than being a fry chef: it involves the routine violation of the very identity of the sex worker. A fast food employee can take off a uniform at the end of the day, thereby separating workplace functions from his or her sense of self, whereas the degradation that constitutes a sex worker’s reality can’t be isolated or discarded from his or her identity.
Another consequence of the practice of prostitution is how it re-enforces the idea of sex as conquest, whether achieved through money, good looks, or charm. Accepting sex work as morally valid places a price on and thereby devalues intimate aspects of our beings. We start to wonder: how much is my personhood worth? If I can choose to sell part of it, is it still an important part of me? We should trust our gut instinct on this question: such an intrinsic part of our being does not have a monetary equivalent, and the idea that we could “fairly” sell it operates under a corrupt (or at least inconsistent) set of morals.
So if prostitution is so morally abject, why does it still occur? Kidnapping and physical coercion partially explain some individuals’ entry into sex work, but there are also individuals who do so voluntarily. In the answer lies the reason that governmental (or societal) intervention is necessary: prostitution is a predatory system that leads to economic and social entrapment. Before diving in, consider Merriam-Webster’s definition of a victim: “one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent.”
The economic angle is easy to see. When individuals in need of financial support are unable to find conventional unskilled labor and have no way to learn marketable skills, they are forced into the jobs that nobody else will take as a means of survival. These pressures can drive both men and women into sex work, but for men, the solution is more often undertaking exceedingly difficult or dangerous manual labor. Women are denied these positions on grounds of the physical strength required or because many do not consider manual labor “women’s work.” That impoverished women are often under an obligation to raise children is only a further confounding factor. Prostitution becomes the job that any woman can get. Sex workers relinquish some or all ownership of their bodies and identities in order to meet a need that they can’t otherwise fulfill.
This should sound suspiciously similar to the definition of victim offered previously. Sex workers are pulled into the trade for lack of alternatives and become subjugated as sexual objects, thereby devaluing their individuality in all aspects of life – not to mention the social problems like danger of physical abuse or inability to seek legal aid. It is a complex problem, and our attempts to morally justify prostitution may spring from a desire for a simple solution. But accurately identifying the problem is an important first step and essential in the search for a solution.
The sex workers’ rights movement, comprised of diverse international and local grassroots campaigns, was launched in the early 1970s and has grown to include hundreds of thousands of sex workers and other activists, joined by allies such as health and social services providers, academics, feminists, attorneys, and human rights’ advocates around the world.
The principles of this movement are rooted in a respect for self-definition and recognition of sex work as work. The sex workers’ rights movement also acknowledges diversity of experiences, beliefs and circumstances of those who sell, trade, and survive through transactional sex. While some are “prostituted people” or victims of trafficking, many others identify as sex workers, porn actors/models, hustlers, healers, body workers, erotic service providers, or simply individuals who have engaged in sex for some purpose or exchange.
A fundamental principle of the movement is the recognition of sex workers’ human, civil and labor rights. The International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe invokes “the right to freedom from slavery, forced labor and servitude” as well as a range of protections of prostitutes’ independence, health and safety based on international law.
Laws that criminalize sex workers’ businesses, clients (and even grown children and domestic partners) drive sex workers underground, exacerbate the danger and stigma, and limit protection against violence and discrimination. As a symbol of sexual oppression, the sex worker is an easy scapegoat, on the receiving end of a backlash expressing social anxiety about new sexual mores.
Most prostitution laws around the world have been based on abolitionist strategies that criminalize most aspects of prostitution. Even when sex work is legal, advertising, soliciting and maintaining a location to conduct business are usually illegal. Contemporary prostitution abolitionists now call for the additional criminalization of clients. These campaigns purport to support decriminalization of prostitutes as well, but have been applied only where prostitution is legal for both parties. The result is an increase in the criminalization of commercial sex, and not the decriminalization of sex workers. As numerous reports have indicated, these laws make sex work more dangerous and isolating for sex workers.
Some anti-trafficking policies conflate trafficking with prostitution, increasing the arrest of sex workers and limiting women’s rights to travel. Sex workers around the world organize to protest laws influenced by these ideologies because rather than assisting sex workers, they only make them more vulnerable.
Despite current repressive trends, the sex workers’ rights movement has grown exponentially over the last decade with 65,000 sex workers organizing in West Bengal, dozens of organizations around the world and in the U.S. including SWOP-USA with chapters in many states. While engaged in an uphill struggle in a hostile political climate, the movement has been on the forefront of harm reduction and other human rights work. Sex worker activists have consulted on United Nations policy projects and advised local and national governments. During the recent United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review process, the U.S. acknowledged the prolific adverse effects of discrimination against sex workers.
Emerging from centuries when sexual health and pleasure were forbidden subjects, the discourse about prostitution is unsophisticated and based on a puritanical understanding of sex that is out of sync with changes in sexual mores. Anti-prostitution groups portray and define prostitution as “inherently oppressive.” This definition of prostitution is extremely reductive and omits the realities of our diverse and complex experiences. Anti-prostitution discourse reproduces and relies on many misconceptions about the sex worker rights movement, maintaining that “pro-prostitution” advocates claim prostitution is just like any job, or that it is always empowering.
Is sex work “empowering?” The empowerment discourse itself invokes class-based assumptions. An individual can earn money for survival, rent, food, etc. One may or may not value the experience of sex work in other ways, but it’s a mixed bag when the cost of choosing to labor in a sexual economy is to lose one’s legal status and one’s safety and often live a double life. Despite these odds, I have known many courageous sex workers who are proud to have survived or even thrived.
Is prostitution a dangerous and predatory institution? As an institution within our current patriarchy, conditions in prostitution reflect gender inequities in our societies. As an institution within our current racist and predatory capitalist system, those who survive through sex trade are subjected to the forces of those systems as in other work. This is compounded by criminalization and stigmatization.
Is decriminalization the solution to all the obstacles faced by sex workers? Clearly decriminalization of prostitution is not the complete solution to centuries of stigma, to current criminalization, nor to the economic values that lead to poverty - discrimination and exploitation. Decriminalization of commercial sex and anti-discrimination strategies lays the groundwork to support conditions that would allow us to organize and address these challenges. The solution to the problems and inequities of prostitution is the same as the solution to problems of society in general, that is, promotion of social and economic justice, democracy, human rights and peace on earth. As our allies at Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in West Bengal remind us “Only Rights Can Stop the Wrongs.”
About the Issue
Point author: Colin is an LSA Honors student hailing from the wild lands of the Pacific Northwest. He spends his time on an IV drip from the internet, exploring interests from modern fiction to fluid physics. Karolina is an LSA honors student, planning on majoring in Neuroscience. She enjoys web design, writing, and tennis. Colin and Karolina are both a part of a seminar on the commodifcation of the human body.
Counterpoint author: Carol Leigh has been a sex worker and activist since the late seventies. In 1978, she coined the term “sex worker.” Leigh is a member of SWOP-USA, Desiree Alliance, COYOTE, and is also the co-founder of BAYSWAN. She founded and directs the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival. Leigh won a settlement in 1993 from the University of Michigan law School for the censorship of Porn’im’age’ry: Picturing Prostitues, an exhibit curated by Carol Jacobsen which included Leigh’s video “Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitutes.”
Edited by: Lexie Tourek and Lauren Opatowski
Cover by: Matt Rosner