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Legitimating Prostitution as Sex Work : UN International Labour Organization Calls for Recognition of the Sex Industry (Part Two)

1er octobre 2003

par Janice G. Raymond

(Continued from PART ONE)

8. "A major difficulty [to economic recognition of prostitution as work] is that measures targeting the sex sector have to consider moral, religious, health, human rights and criminal issues in addressing a phenomenon that is mainly economic in nature (p. 2)...A stance focusing on individual prostitutes tends to emphasize moralistic and human rights concerns, which are undoubtedly important, but which will not have a major impact on changing the sector" (p.213).

"Moral, religious, health, human rights and criminal issues" have served as the only brake on the expansion and exploitation of the sex industry. Prostitution is sexual exploitation and violates the human rights of anyone subjected to it. Particularly, it victimizes the women in prostitution but also all women, justifying the sale of any women, and reducing all women to sex

In the year when Amatya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize because his economic theory was credited with restoring an ethical dimension to economics, we think it particularly important to counter the economic determinism of the sex industry and the ILO report by pointing out the relevance of ethical and human rights values to any policy on prostitution. Sen’s guiding principle is that the well-being of any group or country cannot be evaluated only by per capita income or size of the GDP (gross domestic product). As measured by the Human Development Index which Sen helped create, countries must quantify the quality of life of their citizens looking at other indicators such as health, education, longevity and "opportunities" rather than just economic growth.

In his famous work on famines, economist Sen reminds us that famines are not caused by food shortages but by the failure of governments to make social choices to eradicate famine and intervene on behalf of those most affected by lack of food. The fact that prostitution is a flourishing industry indicates the failure of governments to make the necessary social choices to eliminate it. Any economic theory that chronicles the way in which prostitution is entrenched in the economies of many countries could encourage governments to make the social choice to eradicate prostitution and provide economic alternatives to assist women out of prostitution, thereby restoring an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic and social problems.

9. Many current studies which highlight "the pathetic stories of individual prostitutes" and focus on coercion and deceit tend "to sensationalize the issues and to evoke moralistic, rather than practical responses. (p. 3)." Elsewhere, the ILO maintained that only a relatively small number of women in prostitution - about 20% - are badly exploited or kept in some form of bondage (Reuters, 1998).

The ILO report exhibits a callous indifference to the injury and suffering of women in prostitution. It has been the courageous witness of many survivors of prostitution that has documented the harm that prostitution does to real women in a real world. The stories of prostituted women have enabled them to get back some of the dignity and hope that the sex industry has taken away and to expose the industry for what it is - not a benign economic sector but an exploitative industry that preys on women. It is this courageous testimony of survivors of prostitution that makes the harm of prostitution visible.

In its conclusions, the ILO report features only the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights as representing the voices of women in prostitution. This group has called for "decriminalizing all aspects of adult prostitution resulting from individual decision" (p. 14). Groups working on the front lines of direct services for women in prostitution and staffed by survivors of prostitution are not underscored in the ILO’s pages as working for the rights of women in prostitution. For example, although the Philippines report mentions the BUKLOD Centre, TW-MAE, and WEDPRO - all groups working for the empowerment of women who have been subject to systems of prostitution - the editor did not choose to distinguish these groups as "prostitutes rights" groups. Only those groups promoting women’s rights in prostitution are represented as prostitutes rights groups, not those groups promoting women’s rights not to be in prostitution.

10. "Some freely choose sex work as an expression of sexual liberation, or as an economically rational decision based on income potentials, costs involved and available alternatives. Others are pressured by poverty and dire economic circumstances. Still others are subject to overt coercion from third parties" (p. 212).

The ILO report confuses compliance with consent. It defines force very narrowly and flies in the face of other studies which indicate that very few women really choose prostitution as a career. From oral history testimony collected from women in prostitution, we know that some women enter prostitution because they have been overtly forced, coerced or deceived. Others enter because of economic poverty and disadvantage, manipulation, peer or family pressure, marginalization, loss of self often resulting from earlier sexual abuse, predatory recruiters, trickery and initial consent. A number of women enter the sex industry knowing that they will have to prostitute but having no idea of what this really means and what they ultimately will have to endure.

The ILO report puts the burden of proof on the women in prostitution to demonstrate that they were coerced. How will marginalized women in prostitution ever be able to prove force ? At a time when governments internationally are being asked to legislate against trafficking for purposes of prostitution, limiting the actionable prostitution to that which is "forced" practically guarantees that the number of indictments will be minimal. If victims must prove that force was used in recruiting them into prostitution, very few women will have legal recourse and very few offenders will be prosecuted.

Women in systems of prostitution must continually lie about their lives, their bodies, and their sexual responses. The very edifice of prostitution is built on the lie that "women like it." The ILO report reinforces this regressive sexual stereotype that some prostituted women "like it," else they wouldn’t choose to stay, by validating a specious distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution. Some prostitution survivors have stated that it took them years after leaving prostitution to acknowledge that prostitution wasn’t a free choice because to deny their own capacity to choose was to deny themselves.

When a woman remains in an abusive relationship with a partner who batters her, or even when she defends his actions, concerned people don’t say she is there voluntarily. They recognize the complexity of her compliance. Like battered women, women in prostitution often deny their abuse if provided with no meaningful alternatives. But because of the sex industry’s public relations campaign to legitimate prostitution with proffered labor rights and benefits, it has succeeded in casting the condition of women in prostitution as chosen work. Thus many who would recognize battering as violence against women see only voluntary work when they look at the almost identical abuse of women in systems of prostitution.

Finally, it is important to note that the ILO report omitted a crucial section in the Philippines country report which addressed the forced/free distinction. In a letter responding to the conclusions of the ILO report, one of the Filipino authors, Rene Ofreneo, writes to ILO Manila :

The research team [for the Philippines country report] advocates the decriminalization of the prostituted while prosecuting and apprehending those who benefit from the prostitution of others. This policy position on prostitution is not an isolated one. In fact, it is the position not only of most NGOs involved in the sector but also of government as indicated both in the Philippine Development Plan for Women 1987-1992 and in the Philippine Plan for Gender-Responsive Development 1995-2025 (National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, 1995, Chapter 18)...This policy stance stems from a perspective which does not distinguish between ’free’ and ’forced" prostitution but sees all prostitution as essentially a human rights violation... The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that no one should be subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Therefore, it is the right of all persons not to be prostituted ; not to be harmed physically, emotionally and psychologically ; not to lose their personal integrity, dignity, and self-respect ; not to be subjected to sexual exploitation by others (Ofreneo, 1998).

This is a crucial omission from the Philippines country report - one which brings the conclusions of at least one of the four countries into conflict with the main premise upon which the ILO’s recommendations are based - the forced/free distinction. The fact that the ILO omitted this section from its Philippines country report calls into question the accuracy of the other country reports, as published, and the conclusions of the report which are evidently not based on the unanimity of the country reports.

11. "Child prostitution should be treated as a much more serious problem than adult prostitution" (p. 212). Legislation should make a clear distinction between child and adult prostitution. In the case of children, "all prostitution must by definition be deemed involuntary and the aim is its total elimination" but "in the case of adults, we can concede that it may be possible to make a distinction between prostitution as a freely chosen form of work and prostitution through coercion" (p. v).

Many individuals and groups are concerned about the sexual exploitation of children and rightly so. Child prostitution is a horrendous violation of a child’s person and her/his human rights. But when "choice" is used as a wedge to drive distinctions between child and adult prostitution in order to legitimate the so-called right of adult women to choose prostitution, then the harm to women becomes invisible.

The distinction between child and adult prostitution also serves to perpetuate the exploitation of children because countries then rush to redefine children as adults, either legally by lowering the age of consent to sexual intercourse, or socially by redefining the image of children as adults in pornography, advertising and film. As more and more children are sexualized and made to look like adult women in prostitution, men can claim they were ignorant of engaging in sex with a minor.

When distinctions are made between child and adult prostitution for purposes of making only child prostitution actionable, the child sex abuser becomes known as a pedophile, a category that gives the impression that men who buy sex with children are abnormal personalities who are fixated on children, bio-psychologically driven to abuse children sexually, and not in control of their actions. There is no pathological type of men who use children for sex. Rather, men who sexually exploit children come from all walks of life. In a paper on "The Sex Exploiter" prepared for the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children held in Stockholm in 1996, the ECPAT Working Group found that "...the majority of the several million men who annually exploit prostitutes under 18 years of age are first and foremost prostitute users who become child sexual abusers through their prostitute use, rather than the other way about (ECPAT, 1996, p. 2)." These men come from a variety of nationalities, socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds and do not abuse children in prostitution because they have a focused sexual interest in children but because "they are morally and sexually indiscriminate."

In the United States, child prostitution and pornography scandals usually focus on very young children, mostly under age 12, because Lolita-like depictions of 13 and 14 year olds in the media and on the streets condition people to see them as adult-like adolescents who are capable of choice. Will the next distinction drawn be between child and adolescent prostitution, and the arbitrary age line set at 12 or 13 ? Furthermore, if countries limit the harm of prostitution to only "forced prostitution," as the ILO report suggests, it becomes easier to defend men who engage in prostitution with adolescents between the ages of 12-18, because this will become an ambiguous age cohort as more and more choice is attributed to older children.

Consider also that the average age of entrance into prostitution worldwide is 14. As one survivor who was recruited into prostitution at age 13 remarked, "I must tell you that the day I turned 18, the sexual abuse I was subject to did not turn into a self-determined choice." By creating a distinction between child and adult prostitution, we are conveying the message that there is an appropriate age at which a male may use his social and economic power to buy access to a female body. Do we really want the message to be "Not now but later ?"

Legal brothels in countries which have recognized prostitution, such as in Bangladesh, are filled with children. The children carry identity papers on them falsifying their ages. The police see the papers and do nothing to enforce the age limit because they accept the false certificates and are often in collusion with the pimps and brothel owners. Recognition and outright legalization of prostitution in such countries has done nothing to reduce police corruption, child prostitution, or the prostitution of women.

Recognition of the sex industry as an economic sector will only enhance the already high demand for child prostitution. Even the ILO report acknowledges that "The AIDS epidemic appears to have indirectly resulted in a rising demand for ever-younger children because of the belief among clients that they are not likely to be infected with the disease" (p. 19). Even before the AIDS pandemic, men always sought sex with children and adolescents in the belief that child sex is more fresh and real than sex with hardened adult woman. However, men not only seek the vulnerability of children but also the pliability of children who can be molded more easily into the sexual objects and instruments of male desire. Men delude themselves into believing that they are introducing children into sexuality and derive a false power from "breaking in" girls they imagine are young virgins.

The ILO report recognizes that "Commercial sexual exploitation is such a serious form of violence against children that there are lifelong and life-threatening consequences. There are also chain effects, with sexual abuse leading to other forms of abuse, such as drug abuse, and cumulative negative consequences" (p. 212). Oral testimony from women in prostitution reveals the same effects on adult women - that it is such a serious form of violence that it affects their lives forever. Adult women in prostitution are at special risk for self-mutilation, suicide and homicide. In one study, 46% of the women in prostitution had attempted suicide and 19% had tried to harm themselves in other ways (Parriott, 1994). Almost all the women in this study categorized themselves as chemically-addicted. Crack cocaine and alcohol were used most frequently.

Connecting the sexual exploitation of children and women does not mean that we treat women as children. Nor does it mean that the physical and psychological effects of sexual exploitation on the young may well be more severe than the effects of sexually exploitative practices on adult women. It does mean that when an adult takes his sexual gratification over the bought bodies of women and children that this is a violation of a human being, that he is using a human being as an instrument for his own pleasure, and that whatever the age, culture, race of condition of the victim, sexual exploitation is a violation of that person’s humanity, dignity and integrity and should be made actionable.


Official recognition of the sex sector is not likely to improve things for women. Those who argue that recognizing prostitution as work will protect women from abuse fail to acknowledge that violence is often done to women in prostitution not just because laws do not protect women or the "work," but because men’s use of women in prostitution and the acts women must engage in are sexually and physically degrading, exploitative, and most often violent.

How would recognition of the sex sector function ? The ILO acknowledges that women in prostitution are against compulsory legal registration but, on the other hand, seems to accept that some kind of mandatory registration would have to happen. Will an official license confer rights on women in prostitution or confine them to a registered ghetto of legally stigmatized women who enjoy the right to be branded by the state as prostitutes and be medically accessible for examination ? The law in Bangladesh requires a woman to simply file an application before a first class magistrate to obtain a license for prostitution. Yet few women file such papers.

In some countries, a whole new criminal network will emerge to control legal licenses. New laws recognizing the sex sector will have to be regulated and enforced and that implies more bureaucracy and red tape, not more protection. When a woman wants to take legal action against a perpetrator, she will bear an enormous burden of proof of violation because she will have to prove force. Consider this example which captures the meaninglessness of the forced/free distinction in the actual "workplace."

If a woman in prostitution is paid to "enact" a rape, how can the purchased performance of "enacting" a rape, to which she allegedly consents, be separated from the actual brutality of the rape which the buyer may force on her. Would any court of law recognize a distinction between a forced and free enactment of rape in this situation ? Or would it assume that an occupational hazard of prostitution is that the buyer, with impunity, can get rougher than the prostituted woman bargained for ? How will the woman be able to demonstrate that the violations from acts that she is expected to perform in prostitution - e.g., a "regular" rape - are indeed separate from those acts she shouldn’t be expected to endure in prostitution - i.e., a brutal rape ? How would a woman who wanted to prove force in this context be able to demonstrate that the violation and violence to which she was subjected in this rape "enactment" was not a free choice if she is presumed to consent to the general act of prostitution and the specific act of "enacting" a rape with a buyer ? As the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia has stated, "Sex mediated by money means the power to dictate what kind of sex will happen" (Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia, 1997).

The ILO report claims that recognizing prostitution as an economic sector will improve the health conditions for women in the industry. Just how this will happen is not clear from the report. In one section, the ILO acknowledges that health measures, presumably health checks and monitoring, would have to be directed to the "clients" which is not now a reality. For it is the buyers who are the major link in the chain of transmission of HIV/AIDS and STDs, since they carry the diseases not only to the women in prostitution but to their spouses or other sexual contacts. Perhaps because the ILO tacitly recognizes that the sex sector’s viability depends on giving the customer what he wants - which is certainly not mandatory health checks - it offers no recommendations for how health monitoring of buyers would be achieved.

A reason why men go to women in prostitution is that they get the sex that they demand. If they don’t want to use condoms, they won’t. Male buyers don’t want to be checked at the door for HIV/AIDS or STDs. They want anonymous sex on demand. Even in military situations where health check-ups could easily be mandated, as at the social hygiene clinics set up to monitor women in prostitution and previously run by the U.S. military in connection with local governments near the former U.S. military bases in the Philippines, the military men were never required to undergo medical check-ups.

Women are not well-served by the ILO’s particular brand of economic determinism that calls for recognition of the sex sector, particularly in Southeast Asia where the brutal effects of globalization have hit hardest. As with other forms of violence against women, prostitution is a serious violation of women’s human rights. Instead of capitulating to the laws of the market, governments need to reaffirm a human rights commitment to abolish all forms of sexual violence and exploitation, including prostitution, by de-criminalizing the women in prostitution and penalizing the pimps, procurers, and buyers.

The four countries surveyed in the ILO report have been and will be hurt most by its recommendations.

The Geneva-based body is the oldest United Nations subsidiary and has been involved with the world of work for decades...In many developing countries, the ILO is looked upon with reverence by trade union leaders who believe that the people running the organisation have workers’ interests at heart. However...the ILO has...grossly underestimated not just the integrity of governments in this region but also the intelligence of the South-East Asian people...Prostitution and the sex industry are social ills, not legitimate occupations that the ILO claims will bring in better incomes than unskilled labor. For years the governments in this region have been fighting a war against the flesh trade. Their status as newly-impoverished countries should not give the ILO or anybody else the impression that Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand are desperate and would do anything for economic growth (Business Times, Malaysia, 1998).

Recognizing the legitimacy of the sex sector will reinforce women’s subordination and lead to the greater sexual objectification and economic inequality of women. In countries that have recognized prostitution as work, "there are more brothels than schools." Do we really want brothels everywhere ? Is prostitution a career to which we want young girls to aspire ?

Women in prostitution need social services, educational opportunities and economic alternatives - real economic recognition that doesn’t freeze them in a life of prostitution but provides a different future. Women in prostitution need income-generating projects that will provide them with decent livelihoods - the kind of jobs that do not lock them into lives of sexual and economic exploitation. Women in prostitution need to be brought into the economic mainstream, not to have prostitution mainstreamed as legitimate work.


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Janice G. Raymond


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