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mardi 25 octobre 2011

Prostitution is a Threat to Humanity

par Wassyla Tamzali, lawyer and author

Écrits d'Élaine Audet

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So hard to say goodbye

In May 2000, with the collaboration of UNESCO and several other partners, Fondation Scelles organised a conference on prostitution, the theme of which was “People of Abyss : Prostitution Today”. At the beginning of the conference, and organised by the group Act-up, several people employed in prostitution seized the microphone to denounce speeches that had not yet been made. They directed their accusations against the meeting organisers, criticizing them for not basing the event on their claims - namely the recognition of prostitution as an ordinary profession - and denying non-prostitutes the right to discuss prostitution. Tamzali, who was at the time Director of the UNESCO Programme for the Promotion of the Status of Women from the Mediterranean, was one of the first speakers. She expressed regret that the protesters - who had claimed that they were not being listened to - had left without waiting to hear the response of the conference participants. She responded to all the standard arguments that aim to silence those who see prostitution not as a job, but as a threat to humanity. She called for states and international human rights institutions such as the United Nations to raise awareness of this threat and to act to combat it. Wassyla Tamzali authorised the publication of her speech, as well as the title suggested by Sisyphe.


I had prepared a text on ethics and prostitution, which I will come back to later.

What has just happened in this room has shocked me, and accused me. I want to react immediately to what we have just seen and to what has been said. I want to respond to the questions that have been asked – questions that we can no longer ignore, even though the protesters left the room without listening to what we had to say. In doing this, they brutally and decisively rejected what we came here to do - to listen, to understand, and to collectively find ways to put an end to prostitution (or at the very least to express our wish for a world without prostitution) and most importantly to express our solidarity with the people of the abyss - prostituted men and women. I asked you, and I asked myself, what this rejection and violence signified – the rejection and violence displayed by people who are - or at least appeared to be - the ones we have come here today to help, and on behalf of whom some of us have been fighting for many years (i.e. prostituted men and women). First and foremost therefore, we must express very clearly who and what we are here to discuss.

By leaving the room without waiting to hear our response to their accusations and claims, the protesters aimed to pointedly illustrate that we did not have the right to discuss prostitution, or to speak out on behalf of prostitutes. Before tackling the reason or deeper causes behind the violence of this protest led by Act-up, we must dissipate the bad feeling which was created in the room after these people – who were, or at least claimed to be, prostitutes - took the floor, claiming an exclusive right to discuss prostitution and attempting to prevent others (i.e. all of the speakers and people in this room, and first of all myself) from expressing their point of view on the topic.
Is it necessary to be a prostitute in order to discuss the radical sexual exploitation of human beings, and prostitution in all its forms, whether it is said to be consensual or forced ? Do I have the right to express myself in my capacity as a woman who works for the international enhancement of female status in the world ? What is the connection between the two ? Do I have the right to discuss human trafficking, or the trafficking of women and children, when their fate depends primarily on decisions that are being made, that will be made or that should be made by the international community and the European Union on the topic of organised crime and its transnational structures ?

Do I have the right to speak here about the long and difficult struggle of women and children whose stories have been heard, who have been rescued, taken care of, helped and supported by associations that, since Josephine Butler’s campaign at the end of the 19th century, have continued to scour the streets of our cities ? Since 1975, and in collaboration with these associations, we have undertaken the difficult job of raising awareness amongst men, women and policy-makers about the flagrant violation of human dignity and fundamental rights, at the heart of the most democratic countries – all those places where people are giving up the fight against prostitution. Are we to accept that the prostitution of these women concerns them exclusively, when we know what vital roles they have to play with regard to the status of all women, the relationship between men and women, little girls, and the images created by prostitution, pornography and everything that concerns women and womanhood but also men and masculinity and the sexual relations between men and women ? Are we to disregard the constant display of naked human bodies, at times deformed by biological and surgical science, distorted and subjected to the predatory sexuality of men at the heart of our cities and in the areas surrounding them ? Are we to disregard the effect that all this could have on sexual violence against women and children ? What will help these fragile souls to establish the limits that society has not set ?

With all this in mind, can we still claim that prostitution concerns only prostitutes ? Prostitution concerns not only prostituted women and those involved in the fight against AIDS - more and more of whom have been speaking out on behalf of victims of prostitution - but also men and women whose duty it is to express the kind of world they want for the future. Will it be a world with, or without, prostitution ?

Yes, prostitution is everyone’s business. It lies at the heart of the work that we are undertaking at an international level to promote the recognition of female dignity and respect of fundamental human rights. The issue concerns me, and it concerns you, and what we have heard here simply justifies once more how important it is that we come together to express our views on prostitution, and state what we expect public authorities to do in order to stop the problem developing and worsening.

What we have heard here, and what we hear in the courts, from men and women who express deep solitude and distress in the violence of their comments, reminds us (if we had forgotten) that what we are here today to talk about is men, women and children. We must never forget that what is being debated here is the suffering of women and children – prostitutes are becoming younger and younger – and that global prostitution is a massive and tragic phenomenon that affects a great number of children throughout entire regions and almost always leads to the death of the little girl or boy who is affected. Prostitution is a kind of planned death for thousands of children of both sexes. And for many others, it leads to the death of their souls. We are aware of this now thanks to the media that brings us news of what is happening in distant lands. What is happening “elsewhere” is perhaps characteristic of the curse of prostitution, but let’s not kid ourselves – playing down the issue in so-called western and democratic countries is no different to what is happening in these other countries – it causes the same indignity and the same suffering.

What alarms us, or at least some of us, is the naked and open expression of a practice that knows no limits. In certain countries of Southeast Asia – and, as we are beginning to discover, in Africa as well – an increasingly large number of children of both sexes are subjected to forms of prostitution that border on barbarism. Should we not consider that the reason for the continuing persistence and growth of this absolute evil - this curse that is devastating poor countries, and becoming more and more dangerous for little girls and boys every day, this mass sexual exploitation of human beings, the sexual specialisation of entire neighbourhoods and even entire towns, the increasing number of towns that run exclusively on sex tourism – might be our own hesitation and indecisiveness in condemning the very essence of the practice ? What are public authorities doing ? What are international authorities doing ? What should people be discussing in the international compounds of New York, Geneva and Brussels ?

Whilst we clearly understand international issues relating to commerce and the food industry, can we not see that prostitution, where it is being practiced, is putting us in danger where we are ? The fate of the whale or the polar bear – are these the only issues that concern us ? What is the use of all these enormous machines that constitute the bodies of the international system and the European Union if there is not a strong and decisive desire to ensure adherence to the most important of the principles upholding communal life and allowing us to communicate with a minimal level of understanding – the principle that all men are born free and equal, and human dignity is a heritage that we must share and protect.

Are we to assume that there is nothing we can do, and that we must simply accept the situation ? Should we silence the fear and indignation that we feel for these sacrificed people and these practices that undermine our notion of human dignity ? Should we accept that the human body has become a trading commodity ? Finally, can we accept that at the heart of institutions and states that legalise trafficking or prostitution, and at the heart of the United Nations and the media, there is a school of thought according to which prostitution and the sex industry are presented as an alternative to a country’s economic problems, and even a path to development ? This trend, which is becoming increasingly strong and threatening, is best illustrated in a 1998 report by the International Labour Organisation. Reading this report will illustrate the gravity and urgency of our debate much better than a long speech will. The text illustrates the extent of the abuses that are threatening the very basis of the system put in place by the international community to ensure adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1949 United Nations Convention on human trafficking, which was implemented by the Declaration and concerns issues relating to prostitution. I quote :

“Prostitution in Southeast Asia has grown so rapidly in recent decades that the sex business has assumed the dimensions of a commercial sector, one that contributes substantially to employment and national income in the region. In Southeast Asia, between 0.25 and 1.5% of the total female population of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are engaged in prostitution and the sex industry represents between 2 and 4% of GNP. In Thailand, prostitution remains the most significant illegal activity – much more significant than drug or arms trafficking, oil smuggling, the trafficking of workers or gambling. These fundamental statistics underline the importance of the sex sector within Southeast Asian economies. This is why the political issue cannot be tackled simply from the point of view of the well being of individual prostitutes. It is worth considering that the possibility of official recognition would be very useful in order to increase financial gains and also to cover numerous other related profitable activities.”

The English-language version of the report, entitled The Sex Sector : The economic and social bases of prostitution in Southeast Asia and edited by Lin Lean Lim (ISBN 92-2-109522-3) received the 1998 Nike Award, and was the subject of a wide promotional campaign by the International Labour Office (ILO). This should be mentioned and underlined. It was all the more unexpected since the report went against an international convention adopted by the United Nations and ratified by 56 member states – the Convention of 1949. Is it possible that the cohesion of the system is at stake ? I would simply say that facts such as these illustrate that international players, both national and international, attach little importance - or only a superficial importance - to the problem and that they are not considering the consequences of their complacency. You now understand why, when I welcomed you, I said that it was important that we meet at UNESCO’s offices, and that we tackle the problem at its roots.

When I read this report, I feel a sense of indignation about the fact that women and children who are limitlessly subjected to the most archaic sexual impulses in exchange for a few banknotes are discussed in such a way. There is a very strong sense of being witness to a crime. A physical feeling - one that can be compared to something I once experienced in Mauritania, when I realised that the young, fragile girl that had been assisting me for the past few days was a slave. For the first time in my life, I was looking at a slave. A long shiver went down my spine. The abolition of slavery is accepted almost universally – slavery has become a fundamental taboo. I realised that this was the only way to eradicate prostitution – selling a certain part of the human body is just as much of a taboo as selling the entire body. We need to make our societies accept that the sale of a person’s genitals is just as unacceptable as slavery or incest. It’s a long road, and the end of this road can only be reached - even in the very long term - if we begin in the right direction, right now. It is not about imposing a legal ban, which would bring us dangerously close to being a prohibitionist system (the worst possible thing for prostituted women), but a moral ban.

Indignation and fear

Now, at the end of the century, there is a fear that the mindset that developed in the wake of the Second World War will be defeated. We emerged from the war stunned, covered in the ashes of Western civilisation, not only due to the war - as if this was not enough – but also due to the horrendous crime perpetrated against Jews and other groups of human beings. Men, women and politicians were jolted awake. They set up the United Nations organisation, which was founded on two key words – “all people are born free and equal”. These were two words that they resolved and swore to defend to the hilt. However, at the very heart of the system that was born out of this epiphany, we are currently witnessing a weakening of those principles that once governed the international community. It is the same sense of weakening (one might even say renunciation) that we saw in the ILO report. The horrors of genocide committed against human beings, crimes committed against the human body by researchers – are these now being disregarded so that, once again, those who do not value the human species can look around for yet more sources of profit ? Genitals, women, men, organs, uteruses… Is there anything left to sell ?

It is a question of denial, and not (as one would have us believe) a reasonable response to an existing situation. How can we forget that human rights were won over - and despite - existing situations ? If we believe the rumours and sarcastic remarks that are currently circulating, it is simply a question of a conflict between efficient realists, who are responding to the needs of prostitutes and society, and utopians who are unaware of reality, moralists who are living in the past. We loudly reply that it is in fact a question of the diehard conflict between those who have given up hoping for a better world for themselves and for others, and those who continue to believe that world is not what it really is, but what is should be, and that its whole raison d’être can be found in the future. It is an impossible dialogue. On one side, there are those who accept the superiority of the market over human values – who accept that our existence, mindset and ambitions are to be evaluated according to their market value, and who say that we should take the world for what it is and deal with it… deal with the drugs… deal with the prostitution. And on the other side there are those who do not accept the world for what it is, and who refuse to give up the fight. This refusal is not new. Human rights campaigners know that human rights are engaged in a constant battle against reality.

When I talk about fear, I am not talking about a surplus of sensitivity, or a scandalised vision of the world and of people. Nor is it a cultural, moralist, sectarian, partisan or so-called feminist point of view. What is in question goes beyond “my” sensitivity, “my” vision of the world, “my” point of view or “my” morals. It is about stating what standards we will accept in order to safeguard our most valuable gift – our own human heritage. It is about stating the limits that establish what is possible and what is not, and what will endanger the human species. In short, whether one likes it or not, and even if it is difficult to accept or unfashionable, it is about accepting that we must base our views of prostitution on ethics and, in this complex, sex-related field, commit to preserving and protecting human integrity and heritage here as well rather than “freedom” ; intelligence and passion of knowledge on one side, lucre on the other. It is about stating whether or not the practice of selling human sexual organs is a threat to our safety. This is already being done in a great many countries. Ethics committees, set up to “monitor” scientific research, could serve as models and render public opinion less hesitant regarding this topic.

Prostitution is not an alternative to poverty

In order to understand the urgent situation that we are faced with, and to properly debate the problem that brings us here today, we must overcome the pathos that this vile issue has led to. We must escape the sense of inaction that has been created by those backing the idea that prostitution is a profession, and defending the decriminalisation of trafficking. These people want to force us to accept prostitution as an alternative to misery and poverty ; they want to make us admit that the prostitution of women can be of service to society ; they go as far as to discuss sexual services for the disabled. They tell us that we must accept prostitution because it has always existed, and that in accepting it, we are helping prostitutes and giving them back their dignity, their social and professional rights. They also tell us that we must not confuse the prostitution of adult women who choose to work as prostitutes with that of children or women in the third world who are victims of trafficking. Finally, they tell us that trafficking should be considered a trade like any other, since it can be undertaken non-violently, with the consent of and to the advantage of the “trafficked” person.

These arguments are a web of lies. For about a decade, we have seen them and heard them in the most important and official conferences ; we have heard them circulating at international meetings. Audiences are misinformed, and are sometimes taken in by this misinformation they are fed since, if they are not playing an active role in the conference, they are often in a hurry and not concerned by the topic. If they are concerned it is because they have a guilty conscience, and they will confess that the enormity of the issue is beyond them. They are jaded, they have let themselves be misinformed and they have given up the fight. Their convictions are lukewarm and ambiguous.
Our inaction regarding the practice of prostitution – about which we are learning increasingly horrific things by the day, and which is becoming so commonplace on our streets, in our parks, in our newspapers and on our television and cinema screens – this inaction becomes confusion when prostituted men and women appear before us in the flesh as they did today to claim their right to be what they are and to ask us to consider them “sex workers”. We have seen for ourselves that they do not have the decisive and cold determination of representatives of NGOs that are set up on an international level – and using massive funds – in order to defend the idea of prostitution as a profession. Nor do they have the articulate and psychoanalytical language of those who, from their self-imposed marginalised positions, choose to defend freedom in all aspects of sexual life.

They cry. They cry out from the abyss. If they cry in front of us, it is because they have escaped the abyss ; they are survivors. They speak of their hatred and their contempt for everything that we represent in their eyes. They are the survivors of a system that society, that all societies including the society of the United Nations, reinforces – a system that bourgeois ethics, as we denounced in the 80s during a UNESCO meeting of international experts in Madrid, has scrupulously maintained for centuries, a system based on sentencing a whole section of women and children to death.

Loud and clear, they claim their right to be prostitutes. Have we left them any choice ? These men and women who demand the right to be prostitutes - who ask us to acknowledge their dignity or at least stop condemning them, and to accept prostitutes in the same way that we accept prostitution - what are they doing, other than simply responding to what we tell them about the sex trade in all kinds of ways and in all languages ? It is because they know that we already accept prostitution that they are claiming the right to escape the purgatory to which we have condemned them. They undoubtedly hate us for enabling their situation through our own weakness, our hundreds of moral concessions and compromises, our cowardice, selfishness and dishonesty. They hate us for allowing them to be what they are – men and women condemned forever to belonging to a group of people that are reduced to living on the margins of our towns and cities. A group of people who inhabit the fringes of our societies, like madmen and recluses. These women, who came to tell you that “I am a free prostitute, and I am happy to be one” - have they really chosen to say this, or are they simply agreeing to a decision that we have made ? Because it is we who have chosen to say that prostitution is the oldest job in the world and that no one will ever be able to stop it, that prostitution is necessary, that it meets a need in men that women cannot satisfy, etc, and various other rubbish that would make us laugh if was not the thing that bound together the hellish system of prostitution.

Even in the 1949 Convention, we gave in to our own hesitation and ambiguities. The Convention was the product of difficult negotiations and of a feeble consensus, resulting in the complete absence of any provisions ensuring the implementation of the text. As regards the scope of the Convention, it should be added that, although the preamble condemns prostitution as an attack on human rights, its articles and their interpretation by various Ministries of Justice have led to a distinction being made between two types of prostitution – one free and authorised, the other forced and criminal. This distinction is now promoted by the anti-abolitionist and pro-regulationist movement. This movement hopes that the 1949 Convention will be revised in order to make a clear distinction between the two types of prostitution. What is more, so that there is no more confusion, its supporters – by way of a relentless semantic offensive – are trying to eradicate the term prostitute in favour of “sex worker”. They have already been preceded by the ILO who in the 1970s, undoubtedly without really considering the significance of what they were doing, used the term “sex workers” in the first report on massage parlours in a certain Asian country. With regard to the 1998 report, we cannot possibly imagine that the authors used this vocabulary unwittingly, since this last report is part of a strategy whose objectives we in fact already know. It is because of what we confirm every day and in various different places - international courtrooms, the privacy of our homes, the media, books, through our culture and values and in what we pass down to our children - that prostitution is an inherent part of our societies and that nothing will ever change that, and that these women insist so strongly that they are prostitutes by choice. As in the case of Sisyphe, understanding and accepting their fate is the only triumph of human freedom that they can hope for.

We are certainly deserving of the rejection and violence shown by those who came and expressed themselves here today, and who left the room without listening to what we had to say. We cannot realistically expect to hear from these men and women again unless we overcome our hesitations and our ambiguities. In order to defend human dignity we need as much determination and as loud a voice as possible. We need to act with as much force as those who rise up against junk food or globalisation. We must make people aware of the danger that we are all in, as we willingly sacrifice a whole group of human beings to the most archaic of instincts, and dress it up as “sexual freedom”. The promotion of these instincts and impulses by sex merchants should mobilise us just as much as - if not more than - protecting a forest, or defending a certain way of eating or making films. How do we explain a situation in which we see thousands of people unite – and good on them – to express their discontent about globalisation or to defend the size or quality of what is put on their dinner plates, but we do not see a single protest against the massacre of thousands of women and children ?
How do we explain this indifference without coming back to a feminist analysis of society, and the place given to women ? Italian feminists understood the issue of women’s freedom well, stating that they were “neither mother nor whore”. This is what patriarchal society has reduced women to. Due to a fear of using the word “feminist”, which is perceived negatively (even, at times, by women), we no longer know what it is that we are talking about. Lifting the lid on patriarchal societies exposes the prostitution of women and children. Denouncing this culture strengthens our collective voice when we denounce prostitution, and all other forms of sexual violence that are illustrative of male power. Feminism broke the silence regarding men’s sexual abuse of those in their care. The family fortress was shattered. The sexual power held by fathers, husbands and brothers is now questioned. Feminism has brought these crimes out of the private domain and into the public domain.

Women are trapped in this patriarchal culture that reduces them to either whores or mothers. This alienation of women by patriarchal structures is best and most horribly illustrated when a father sells one of his daughters in order to support his other children. Even if he cried, we could not forgive him for that. What should we be saying about societies like ours that exist in a state of relative but very real luxury and peace (since we have lived in peace now for 50 years), but in which a mother living in Brussels - a mother who comes from Brussels, not from those distant lands, those “different” countries elsewhere, that are strangers to our ideas of human rights - is forced to prostitute herself just a few feet away from the official seat of Europe in order to care for a son with tuberculosis ? In this case, should we accept prostitution as a social solution to women’s’ economic problems ? In a situation such as the one in question, and in order to keep in line with our general beliefs, should we not demand that the state fulfils its role, and accuse it of failing to help a person in danger ? Should we not demand that it reacts to the destruction of this woman’s body, and those of other women trapped in similar situations ?

We must not use the marginalisation of women as an excuse to claim that women have the right to prostitute themselves. In saying that, we would be renouncing the long battle for recognition of our right to work, our right to benefit from our country’s wealth and women’s right to be free from all forms of sexual exploitation. We feel that, despite the acknowledgement and respect for one’s right to be free from all sexual exploitation, we cannot say that women fully enjoy all fundamental rights. Whatever form prostitution takes, it will involve an unbalanced relationship, and an abusive and violent situation that we would otherwise condemn and punish. When violence is committed by the husband, this does not alter the crime. Do we accept the violence involved in prostitution just because it is part of a moneymaking business ?

What we would like to say to the International Community - as long as it does not block its ears to feminism - is that in order for the equal rights of men and women to be fully and wholly realised, women MUST be free from all sexual exploitation, and that this right, like one’s right to be free from all forms of slavery, will determine all fundamental rights. As such, prostitution is an obstacle for all women since it gives credence to the idea that female sexuality can be bought.

My proposal goes beyond feminism and the interests of women, even it its logic and passion are drawn from these topics. The issue here is the principle of human rights and human dignity. How we respond to the questions that have been asked here will tell us whether or not we can accept prostitution as a profession and as an opportunity for those employed in it to resolve their financial problems, or whether we think that choosing this path will endanger humanity, condemn men and women to living as second-class citizens, and eventually condemn the society that accepts it.

Version originale : « La prostitution menace le patrimoine humain », décembre, 2010.

Translation for Sisyphe : Emma Bale

On Sisyphe, October 23, 2011

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Wassyla Tamzali, lawyer and author

Wassyla Tamzali was born in Algeria in 1941. She worked as a lawyer from 1966 to 1977 in the Court of Algiers whilst simultaneously carrying out journalistic, literary and artistic work. She was Editor in Chief at the first North African free weekly newspaper Contact from 1970 to 1973, is the author of a book on North African cinema entitled En attendant Omar Guetlato (1975) that calls for freedom of speech, and a work of art entitled Abzim (1986) that illustrates the finery of Berber women and is a homage to the creativity of women in her country. In 1996, Tamzali was appointed Director of the UNESCO Programme for the Promotion of the Status of Women from the Mediterranean. Since 2006, she has been the Executive Director of the Collectif Maghreb Égalité, of which she is a founding member. Her most recent book, Une éducation algérienne. De la révolution à la revanche des tribus, 2007, and Une femme en colère, Lettre d’Alger aux Européens disabuses, were published in 2009 by éditions Gallimard.

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