Is Prostitution a Right?
Human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, has gotten plenty of media attention lately. Thanks largely to social media, the fight against modern day slavery is being publicized and given the attention it deserves. Such a wide-ranging and emotionally charged issue is bound to create a debate about how best to respond to what has been called the greatest moral challenge of our time.
Most activists, NGO's, ministries and community action groups that exist to fight trafficking fall into two distinct camps. Both groups place their arguments on a platform of feminism. The crux of the argument is whether or not prostitution is inherently anti-feminist or whether women should have the right to choose prostitution as a way to make a living. Both groups fight forced prostitution. The difference is that the second group views sex work as an acceptable career choice, as long as it truly is a choice.
Since both camps base their arguments on feminism and make a claim to be upholding women's rights, the question that logically follows is which of the two groups is doing a better job of working for full equality between men and women. That, after all, is the basic definition of feminism. I will attempt to answer that question here.
First, let's examine the first group. Anti-traffickers who fall in this first category believe that all forms of prostitution are inherently anti-feminist. This is simply because prostitution commodifies women and reduces them to a physical body that can be bought and sold. Whether a woman chooses to sell herself or not, the outcome is the same. She has been reduced to a product. Prostitution is the ultimate act of anti-feminism, the ultimate reductivist act.
Activists who fall into the first camp have been accused of prudishness, of failing to come to terms with the reality of prostitution both ongoing and at all times throughout history. Rather than being prudes, they are more properly termed Idealists. They envision a society in which men are expected to control their urges and find sexual fulfillment in a relational context. Whether that is a one-night stand or a marriage doesn't matter; what matters is that sex happens in a mutually agreed upon context that does not involve the man purchasing power over the woman. To put it bluntly, in an ideal society a man would be expected to have decent enough social skills to convince a woman to sleep with him without having to pay her.
Am I saying that all men who purchase sex have sorry social skills? Absolutely not. In fact, many powerful, articulate men purchase sex, but what they are really purchasing is power. In the context of prostitution, the man calls all the shots. His needs are fulfilled and he is not expected to reciprocate in any way. What is being purchased is a physical female body over which the man can exert dominance. Since male dominance is essentially the polar opposite of the feminist agenda, prostitution therefore becomes anti-feminist.
Now on to the second camp. These would be the people who insist that many sex workers chose prostitution because it was the most profitable and expedient way to earn money. They say that efforts to shut down prostitution will end up harming women who are otherwise unable to make a living. Let's call them Realists since they recognize that prostitution is indeed the oldest profession and it would be extremely difficult to achieve a society in which it does not exist. Many poeple who fall in this camp advocate the legalization of prostitution for the simple reason that it could then be regulated and the safety of sex workers more easily ensured. Activists in this camp truly do see themselves as being on the side of the sex worker.
The issue with the Realists is that, while they have some decent suggestions on the practical side of things, they fail to deal head on with the ideological issue. As long as we live in a society that normalizes and even glamourizes the sale of women's bodies, men and women will never be equal. The Realists also fail to take into account that the vast majority of sex workers worldwide, and in America as well, came into sex work through a string of tragic circumstances that range from abject poverty to years of sexual abuse as a minor. In America, there is an astounding correlation between runaways and children in foster care who eventually find themselves caught in prostitution. In the developing world, the culprit is almost always poverty.
The Realists fall for the common myth that prostitution is a choice. Of course they oppose forced prostitution, but they want to uphold the right of women to engage in sex work if they so choose. Unfortunately, most prostitution is actually human trafficking. From the extreme and easily recognizable instances of women being handcuffed to beds, to the subtle situations where a 17 year old is being pimped by a man she believes to be her boyfriend, women in prostitution are usually there because they are being forced or because they feel they have no other choice.
Sex trafficking is a complex issue, but one thing is certain. Women who are trafficked are vulnerable in some way. Whether they run away from a foster home in Chicago or they were sold by their own parents to a brothel in Cambodia, these are not empowered women. They lack options. Let's face it, no little girl ever says, "I want to be a prostitute when I grow up." We should not be offering prostitution as a "right" for our most vulnerable women and girls; we should be offering them the right to do something else for a living.