QotD: “The common but erroneous theory that prostitution is simply work prevails”

The common but erroneous theory that prostitution is simply work prevails […]. This view that prostitution is labor skirts recognition of the fact that the
institution of prostitution promotes and cements sex and race inequality. Trafficking expands and markets women’s sexual exploitation and their subordination to men. When these facts are ignored, theory about prostitution gets derailed into strange territory. For example the important issue of immigration abuse, as discussed by Segrave in this issue, is elevated to a central position in the debate. Trafficking for prostitution is then addressed primarily as an issue of transportation or migration, rather than as an issue of women’s sexual exploitation, violence, and inequality. The notion that trafficking for prostitution is banal whereas immigration abuse is the essential harm – reaches its postmodern nadir in a comment by sociologist Laura Agustin about Proposition K (a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco):

My guess is that if K passes there will be no great impact either way for migrants who sell sex in San Francisco. Some of them might benefit from not being criminalized per se, but being undocumented workers would remain their principle problem (Yeung, 2008).

The people described by Agustin simply as “undocumented workers” are in fact desperately poor Asian women (Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean) transported by organized criminals to North America for men’s sexual use under slave-like conditions of captivity, violent control, and debt bondage.

There is evidence that very few people freely choose prostitution. O’Connell Davidson (1998:5) notes that only a “tiny minority of individuals” choose prostitution because of the “intrinsic qualities of sex work.” Research in 9 countries found that 89% of all those in prostitution said that they were in prostitution because they had no alternatives for economic survival and that they saw no means of escape (Farley et al., 2003:33-74). Even the International Labor Organization (which defines prostitution as work) found that in Indonesia 96% of those interviewed wanted to escape prostitution (Jones, Sulistyaningsih, & Hull, 1998:43).

Prostitution was decriminalized in New Zealand in 2003. Despite its firmly optimistic assessment that decriminalized prostitution was a success in New Zealand, buried inside the 177 pages of a 2008 Review of the NZ law are a number of disturbing facts about the consequences of both the theory and the practice of a law that defines prostitution as work (Prostitution Law Review Committee (PLRC), 2008:121). The Report noted that after prostitution was decriminalized, violence and sexual abuse in prostitution continued as before. “The majority of sex workers felt that the law could do little about violence that occurred” and that it was an inevitable aspect of the sex industry, according to the Report (PLRC, 2008:14 and 57). During one year post-decriminalization, 35% of women in prostitution reported that they had been coerced in prostitution (PLRC, 2008:46). The highest rate of coercion by johns was reported by women in massage parlor prostitution who were pimp-controlled (described as “managed” by the Report). Furthermore, the social stigma of prostitution persisted after decriminalization.

In the five years since legally defining prostitution as work, the NZ law was unable to alter the exploitive quasi contractual arrangements that existed before prostitution was decriminalized (PLRC,2008:157). Most women in prostitution (either outdoors or indoors) continued to mistrust police and did not report violence or crimes against them to the police (PLRC, 2008:122).

As Roces points out in her article in this issue, trafficking for prostitution is not a
“binary;” women have both agency and victimization in prostitution. Women who are in harm’s way do what is necessary to survive and to obtain food, shelter and if they can, education for themselves and their children. While women are harmed and manipulated in prostitution most nonetheless survive, manage to deconstruct their experiences in prostitution, and in the Philippines as elsewhere, survivors fight back via theater, victim testimony, and by helping other women escape or avoid prostitution. Development Action for Women Network’s (DAWN) analysis of the psychologically destructive process of internal commodification in prostitution is deeply accurate. The fact that women are earning money and supporting families offers the women a way to value themselves but it does not erase the human rights violations of prostitution that also cause profound harm.

As long as prostitution is considered work then it will inevitably function as a social and economic cage especially for poor and ethnically marginalized women. Almost always, when a woman has the resources to avoid prostitution, she does that. If we ignore the material evidence for the structural inequalities of sex, race, and class in trafficking for prostitution and if we ignore the clear statements of women in prostitution who tell us that they want to escape it, then we end up in a postmodern neverland where theory unanchored to reality frames prostitution as a problem of workers’ rights or trafficking as an immigration problem (as Musto suggests in this issue).

Melissa Farley, 2009, Theory versus reality: Commentary on four articles about trafficking for prostitution

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