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Prostitution : Rights of Women or Right to Women ?
DANS LA MEME RUBRIQUE
Burkini Is a Feminist Issue Too
The notion that it’s ok for disabled men to pay for sex is rooted in misogyny and ableism
Egyptian doctor living in Zurich produces educational videos about health and sexuality for the Arab world
Amnesty International and Prostitution : Not in Our Name !
Open letter to rabble.ca - Support Meghan Murphy suffered a misogynist campaign by the sex industry lobby
"Insectual - The Secret of the Black Butterfly", by Barbara Sala
Canada’s New Sex Trade Law
Sharia Law, Apostasy and Secularism
“Harm reduction” is not enough to appropriately analyze prostitution
True Progressives Encourage Women’s Equality, Not Their Prostitution
Sexual mutilations outside Africa : new report and new denial except the Iraqi case
FGM slowing down ? The UN asserts it, the Indonesian case contradicts it
Prostitution, STRASS and the senator - When opacity becomes relevant
Is equating prostitution and rape ‘intolerable violence’ ? Really ?
Obama, Madonna and us
After Ontario Courts rule on Bedford : a rant
Comparing Sex Buyers and Non-Sex Buyers July 2011 (Boston)
Sex resistance in heterosexual arrangements
Abolitionists of the prostitution system : who we are, what we want !
Women Living Under Muslim Laws Statement on Libya
Prostitution is a Threat to Humanity
Prostitution - Call for Australia’s prostitution laws to be tightened
Violence - An Open Letter from Black Women to SlutWalk Organizers
Nothing that is sexual can be considered criminal : hidden sexual violence in the DSK case
The Truth about Global Sex Slavery – A Book by Lydia Cacho
Why reproductive rights and prostitution are not the same thing : A response to one decriminalization argument
Prostitution - The abolitionist project within the conference Women’s Worlds 2011
Montreal - The Turcotte jury got it wrong
Reasons I Will Not Go On the Slutwalk
International Sex Industries and their Accomplices Hamper the Autonomy of All Women
Ten Critical Reasons for getting rid of Harper’s Conservatives
Real solidarity with prostituted women is in the fight for abolition of prostitution
Decriminalize prostituted persons and criminalize those who exploit them (‘johns’ and pimps)
Polygamy in Canada Should Remain Illegal
My fears of the push for indoors prostitution
We cannot be satisfied with the simple harm-reduction model
The Native Women’s Association of Canada is Worried About Himel’s Judgement on Prostitution
Ontario Court Decision Abandons Aboriginal Women and Women of Colour to Pimps
Response to the VPD review in the cases of the Pickton Murders
Speech - The effects of globalization of political Islam on Women’s Rights, the question with polygamy, the Niqab and Honour Killing
Quebec Forges Enlightened Trail on Burkas
Breast Cancer a Disease, No a Marketing Opportunity
The International Campaign To Closedown Iranian Embassies
Violation of rights in Iran, a window from my experience to a broader picture
"Sex worker" ? Never met one !
The One Million Signatures Campaign has been awarded the prestigious Global Women’s Rights Award from the Feminist Majority Foundation
Prostitution - Feminist Perspectives, a book
Prostitution : Violating the Human Rights of Poor Women
More than 1 000 american historians call for equity in the stimulus package in open letter to Obama
Order of Canada Awarded to Dr. Morgentaler - Acts of intimidation should not rule Canada
Femaid report on Afghanistan, May 2008
Time for Quebecers to be more open : Bouchard-Taylor report
Canadian Bar Association supports strengthening equality in the Quebec Charter
Zero Tolerance for Johns : How the Government of Sweden Would Respond to Spitzer
Politicians are responsible for toxic, misogynist environment facing girls
Spitzer - The Myth of the Victimless Crime
Goodbye To All That (#2)
The freedom to never prostitute oneself
NO legalized brothels for the Olympics 2010 - Aboriginal women’s Action Network statement on prostitution
CLES says NO to the violence of prostitution
Does Porn Make the Man ?
A Trip Into the Absurd
Mothers File International Complaint Against United States
Prostitutes are victims, not criminals
Anthology of Québec Women’s Plays in English Translation, Volume I (1966-1986)
The Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle (CLES) intervene during the upcoming provincial election
Prostitution - Three Women and a Debate
Men Favour the Apolitical Discourse on Prostitution
The Whole Truth Must be Told : Sylviane’s testimony on her experience of prostitution
Democracy and Religious Obligations : an Impasse ?
What is liberation ? Feminism past, present and future
Books by Andrea Dworkin
Globalization, Militarism and Sex Trafficking
Muslim Groups Denounce the Cultural Relativism of a Certain Left
Canadian Muslim leader alleges her veil views sparked vandalism
Prostitution : CATW’S Post-World Cup Statement
NOW to denounce so-called parental alienation
Prostitution : for an Abolitionist Bill
The dimensions of trafficking for purposes of prostitution
"Charm is a Guise ; Batterers Belong in Jail, Expert Says"
Interview with Catherine MacKinnon : Are Women Human ?
Danish cartoons - Doing away with the Enlightenment ?
It’s happening next door : from incestuous girls to alienating mothers
Green Light for Pimps and Johns
Buying Sex is not a Sport
Prostitution is Violence Against Women
The Ideal Site for the Crime
Tell me, what does "gender" really mean ?
Gunilla Ekberg : « The best thing we can do for our sisters is to support them to get out of prostitution »
Interview with Catharine A. MacKinnon : « They haven’t crushed me yet. »
Decriminalizing prostitution, a magnet for pimps and johns
Declaration on Religious Arbitration in Family Law
Prostitution : Towards a Canadian policy of abolition
Prostitution inseparable of violence against women
The need for a public debate on prostitution and its social consequences
Prostitution of First Nations Women in Canada
270 000 $ granted to Stella for a four days event on sex work
IN MEMORIAM : Andrea Dworkin or The passion for justice
Decriminalizing prostitution will not improve the security of prostituted women
Dworkin - Taking Back the Night
Backlash and Whiplash : A Critique of Statistics Canada’s 1999 General Social Survey on Victimization
Helping the prostituted women or promoting prostitution ?
The Need for a Public Debate on Prostitution and its Social Consequences
The legalization of prostitution and its impact on trafficking in women and children
Prostitution Links, Women’s Justice Center
"If you don’t take a job as a prostitute, we can stop your benefits"
Sweden Treating Prostitution as Violence Against Women
Forced marriage as crime
Why Women Must Get out of Men’s Laps
International Campaing Against Shari’a Court in Canada
Decriminalize prostituted women, not prostitution
Canada Contributes to the Sexual Trafficking of Women for Purposes of Prostitution
Fathers’ Rights Groups in Australia and their Engagement with Issues in Family Law
Women Rage Against ’Rape’ in Northeast India
Sexual domination in uniform : an american value
Tribunals Will Marginalize Canadian Muslin Women and Increase Privatization of Family Law
The sexual sadism of our culture, in peace and in war
Queer theory and violence against women
The Legalisation of Prostitution : A failed social experiment
Globalization and the Sex Trade : Trafficking and the Commodification of Women and Children
Will Paternal Paranoia Triumph ?
Ode to Survivors
Court confirms any woman’s human right to organize with peers
Program produces motherless kids
Legitimating Prostitution as Sex Work : UN Labour Organization (ILO) Calls for Recognition of the Sex Industry (Part One)
Legitimating Prostitution as Sex Work : UN International Labour Organization Calls for Recognition of the Sex Industry (Part Two)
Elisabeth Badinter distorts feminism the better to fight it
The "Stolen Feminism" Hoax : Anti-Feminist Attack Based on Error-Filled Anecdotes
Hormone Replacement Therapy, the "Magic Bullet" Ricochets
For the sake of the children : the law, domestic violence and children contact in England
Friendships between women good for health
Children of divorce need our protection
Divorce Bill’s flaws inadvertently aid abusers
Problem isn’t little boys, it’s little minds
A report from Status of Women Canada about the discursive denial of gender inequalities
Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution
Poem for Peace
Peace Rally Speech of a 12 year old American Girl
Good clone, bad clone ?
Canadian Women’s Health Network
So hard to say goodbye
Stella, a Montreal group created in 1995 that advocates for the rights of prostituted women, has demanded that prostitution be completely decriminalised and that there be recognition of " sex workers. " This position is not accepted unanimously. In fact, for most feminists, prostitution is seen as a consequence of the sexual exploitation of women and constitutes a violation of human rights. From this perspective, it is necessary to abolish prostitution and criminalise customers (johns) and pimps.
In this necessarily short article, I will focus on prostitution by adult women, touching only incidentally men’s and children’s prostitution and transnational traffic in women.
Since the seventies, there has been a trend towards recognition of the concept of " sex workers " in Quebec, Europe and the United States. Viewing prostituted women as "sex workers" suggests that they are merely labourers providing a "social" service and should be given, therefore, the same rights as other exploited workers who are crushed by the forces of globalisation, and turned into marketable objects.
In Quebec, members of Stella have spoken the loudest in favour of the liberalisation of prostitution. They reject the idea that prostituted women should be treated as victims and say that most prostituted women have freely chosen this role, finding in their work a source of empowerment. No doubt, prostituted women have great courage. Testimonies from these women, such as that in Jeanne Cordelier’s memoirs of prostitution, highlight this : " When the door of the room bangs, there’s no escape... Dead end, no emergency exit (1). " But despite this courage, and the claims of Stella, there is room for scepticism, especially when data from an international study show that 92% of the prostituted women would leave prostitution if they could (2).
A gradual slide toward dehumanisation
In debates about prostitution, all words are loaded, in particular the concepts of rights, free choice, sexual workers. Concerning the latter, for example, the French ex-prostitute, Agnès Laury, believes that seeing these women as " merchandise sold by men to men " (3) would be closer to their reality.
We live in a consumerist/consuming society where priority goes to individualism and to the unrestrained consumption of people and things, the ne plus ultra becoming for us to consume one another. In such a context, viewing prostituted women as sex workers erases feminist opposition to the marketing of women on a global scale. It allows the johns to assert that women do this by "choice," even by "taste," thereby hiding what all studies demonstrate : that women are being prostituted out of necessity.
Patriarchal culture rests on the principle that the unique duty, and source of power, of women is to satisfy men sexually in marriage or by prostitution. The existence of prostitution, and viewing it as "sex work," hides the extent of this sexual slavery and reinforces the notion that women are simply interchangeable objects that must be accessible and ready for all men at all time and everywhere.
The interests at stake
When we consider who would profit from the liberalisation of prostitution, it becomes clear that it would NOT be prostituted women or women in general. Rather, the beneficiaries will be pimps, dealers, organised crime, customers, and all those who view sexuality as but a mechanical act, deprived of reciprocity and of any responsibility. Liberalisation will only benefit those, whatever their social status, who want to be able to purchase power over a woman.
Of course, it is impossible to speak about prostituted women as a whole ; their situations will differ considerably according to whether they are call girls, escorts, or nude dancers ; whether they work on the streets or in massage salons ; whether they are autonomous, or must give most of the money they earn to a pimp.
Girls are often recruited for prostitution at about age thirteen when many of them have been made vulnerable by violence, poverty, unemployment, and drugs in the environments where they live. The majority have experienced forced dressage by pimps or members of street gangs who seek to depersonalise a woman until she loses the ability to act on her own initiative or even to think for herself. Many girls have spent time in shelters, reform houses or prisons ; more than half are drug addicts. Living in and experiencing such circumstances, how can one talk about a girl’s/woman’s free choice to be prostituted ?
On an international scale, revenues from prostitution are about $72 billion a year, now more lucrative than the traffic in weapons and drugs. This translates into millions of dollars in Canada, where a pimp collects on average $144,000 a year from each prostituted woman (4). Although, 5,000 to 10,000 persons in Montreal make their living in the prostitution business, many others have some interest in the expansion of such a profitable market. And given their connections, these potential prostitution-profiteers have the financial and media resources to deflect legitimate critique of prostitution and to exaggerate the importance of division within the feminist movement by adopting the position of a "free choice" minority who pretends to speak for all prostituted women. In so doing, they mostly only support liberalisation to retain their own control.
The merchandised body
The present movement for the liberalisation of prostitution is rooted in the general movement to liberalise trade, and serves this neo-liberal approach by framing prostitution as "good" for the economy. Thus, in the media and at the UN, there is an increasing tendency to present the sex industry as a solution to economic problems or, even more, as a road toward development.
In this regard, it is of interest that the UN-based International Labor Organization (ILO) promoted a 1998 report that supported the legalisation of prostitution because : " the possibility of an official recognition would be extremely useful for extending the taxation net to cover many of the lucrative activities connected with it (5). " This position is clearly an admission that sex is an industry and that it can contribute directly and indirectly, and in extensive ways, to employment, national income, and economic growth.
Prostitution constitutes one of the most violent forms of collective oppression of women and, with but a few exceptions, it is always under the coercive control of pimps (6). Therefore, how can we invoke the free use of one’s own body as a human right when the conditions in which prostitution is practised are such as to violate explicitly the respect and dignity of the person recognised by the Convention for the "Repression of traffic in human beings and the exploitation of someone else’s prostitution," adopted December 2nd 1949 by the United Nations ?
Many prostituted women, breaking the general "law of silence" enveloping them, have spoken out about their constant exposure to all kinds of humiliations, physical and sexual aggression, and theft, as well as to the "Russian roulette" of forced sexual relations without condoms or other protections. And even if not all men are violent, those seeking sex with a prostitute necessarily buy the power to be violent with impunity. " I was afraid, conscious that the situation could become uncontrollable at any moment ", says a prostituted woman from Quebec (7). Moreover, " The beaten girls who do not lodge a complaint have integrated the message society is sending back to them that prostitution is a package deal...that one must accept even the unacceptable (8). " For how long will the right of men continue to be systematically confused with the Human Rights ?
Many arguing for the total liberalisation of prostitution try to discredit feminists who are opposed to this position by saying the latter are moralising, their discourses, thereby, victimising and stigmatising prostituted women. Nevertheless, the neo-abolitionists are not responsible for prostituted women’s working conditions or for the hostility of those who see their neighbourhood transformed in an open market for women and drugs. Because we have not been able to extirpate a problem’s causes, must we legitimate its consequences ?
Trails for action
No individual can remain indifferent to a problem which, in the end, concerns and touches us all. It is clear that whatever else it does, the liberalisation of prostitution (and of pimps and customers) as demanded by Stella, will not provide a real alternative to the growing misery of prostituted women and might, instead, only make things worse.
Similarly, with the Bloc Quebecois’s proposition for a return to brothels. This "solution" would have the state become the principle pimp, a parallel to how the state has replaced the Mafia in provincial casinos. The example of the Netherlands shows that legalisation institutionalises and legitimates the sex " industry ", lets pimps masquerade as "foremen" and legal "entrepreneurs," and rationalises the marketing of prostituted women locally or transnationally.
The only hope for improving the lot of prostituted women and ending the marketing of women resides in the example provided by Sweden which, in 1999, passed legislation that criminalised pimps and customers, but not the prostituted women. This policy led to a reduction by half in the number of prostituted women, even if it did not succeed in completely eradicating underground prostitution. However, the Swedish government continues to pursue its efforts by constantly injecting new funds for detoxification programs, for the reinsertion of prostituted women, and for educating customers. Of interest, and encouraging, is that the European Lobby of Women, comprising around 3500 groups, has urged the adoption by other governments of a position similar to that of Sweden (9).
In Quebec, there is a consensus that governments at all levels should cease acting toward prostituted women as if they were criminals and, instead, give them access to the health, social, legal, and police services they are requesting. Debates arise between groups on the subject of criminalising the customers, the pimps being already subject to Canadian laws, even if these have so far been applied only in very limited ways.
In establishing policy here, Quebec can find inspiration in the Swedish experience and in the approaches of cities such as Toronto and Vancouver where there are efforts to give prostituted women the help and protection they need, to put in place means of resistance to pimps and dealers (often the same), and to dissuade and sensitise customers. The abolition of prostitution can only be a long term objective, but we need now to question all social, economic, and sexual relations of domination, and take immediate steps to fight poverty and violence against women.
" To come out of it," says ex-prostitute Agnes Laury, "one needs an unshakeable will not to go back on the sidewalk, to be helped and mostly to be totally cut off from the milieu " (10). In short, to "come out of it" is to pass from the status of victim to that of " survivor ", of a woman who fights. It is time for us all to break the silence about the buying of sexual services and to ask if it is not really the discretionary power of men to sexual violence that underlies prostitution, not women’s choice. Analysing prostitution this way is not a matter of puritanism, but of asking fundamental ethical questions about the marketing of humans. Instead of invoking a "free choice" to sell one’s body to justify prostitution, couldn’t we call for the humanity principle, to a freely accepted limit on using humans as merchandise, such as was done in the face of slavery, to abolish the marketing of both sexuality and reproduction ?
1 Françoise Guénette, entrevue avec Gunilla Ekberg, « Le modèle suédois », Gazette des femmes, mars-avril 2002, Vol. 23, no 6.
Le Nouvel Observateur, dossier, L’aggravation de la prostitution relance le débat, no 1972, 22 août 2002.
Témoignages 1 : Survivantes françaises.
Sites Internet :
Lobby Européen des Femmes
Références sur la position pro-libéralisation
Claire Thiboutot, Stella, p. 6-9 dans le rapport de la FFQ, décembre 2001.