I have thought about posting this and I have changed my mind several times. I am still not entirely sure it is a good idea, but I think, for the purposes of the debate, that it is important to highlight some of the problems with prostitution.
In my native country, Sweden, there seems to be a consensus that prostitution is inherently evil. It is a patriarchical expression of female oppression and cannot be anything else. In my most recent blogpost I touched upon victimisation and the dangers of it. The logic applies even here and that is what I am going to attempt to highlight.
Now, I am all for the freedom of choice. The liberal streak runs strong in me and I believe that anyone has a right to choose as long as it does not obviously harm someone else. This is where the conundrum with prostitution. Is it really inherently evil? Does it always harm the women or men selling their bodies for money?
I also want to point out that I am talking about women who enter the trade voluntarily so to speak, i.e. without any coercion or threat of violence or otherwise, so trafficking victims are not what I am writing about here. I am also not talking about women who are forced into slavelike positions through debt bondage. I am talking about the women who made a conscious choice to enter the trade, whether or not it was because of societal norms and/or pressures. I am also focusing this post on women, because this is the area of my knowledge and interest and while I am sure there are certain similarities between male and female sex workers, the societal views on the both genders differ greatly.
Some people argue that prostitution is indeed evil. It is a strong expression of men’s view on women as their commodity to use and trade as they wish. Women cannot make the choice to become sex workers, they are always forced into it by society, economic circumstances or force. Even if women openly state they are working in the sex trade voluntarily, it is only because society has forced the view upon them that women have to be at the disposition of males. Society requires them to serve men.
While there is some validity in that argument and I would not doubt that many women are forced into prostitution due to economic and social circumstances or, indeed, violence (in fact, I have read a lot of research that proves this), there is also a danger in it. By arguing that even women who voluntarily enter the trade cannot make that choice because there is this metaphysical veil of male oppression surrounding them, they are effectively denying any choice to any woman. Furthermore, by taking away the agency in this way, saying that men stand behind these women’s choices they are reinforcing the assumption that these women are not strong enough and thus need saving. They are essentially reinforcing the same gender stereotypes they are trying to battle.
I personally do not believe that I am one to say whether or not these women have made that choice or not. I am not them, I do not know of the potential circumstances that led them into the sex trade and I cannot answer for them the question of whether or not they are happy doing so. Only they themselves can answer that. This is where the quagmire comes in. Sociological and psychological research done on the topic can argue both ways, but essentially it is subjective, and dealing with something subjective, a researcher cannot always trust that she or he will get truthful answers from their research subjects. Point being, we cannot know the absoute truth as to what these women feel, all our assumptions are subjective based on our reality.
I do recognise that there are several problems with prostitution. Women and men all over the world are used and absued by people who buy sexual favours of them. Moreover, I have yet to hear a compelling argument that argues that female oppression is not reinforced by the current practices of prostitution. However, I also believe that it is a part of women’s liberation, not to mention sexual liberation, to make that choice to become a sex worker. If a woman feels content with her decision to become a sex worker it can be very empowering in the sense that she is able to break social norms and taboos and do what she chooses to do, just like the movement of women who burned their bras.
To answer the question I posed at the beginning of this entry: No, I do not believe that prostitution is inherently evil. On the contrary, as I just said, I believe that it can be empowering for women to take control over their lives and make a choice like that. Sadly, I also believe that in the current state of the world, this is not possible. The view on women needs to be improved before we can have a society that respects sex workers, that will not abuse legalisation of prostitution. Currently legalisation of prostitution generally means an increase in trafficking victims who are used and abused, sold, threatened and held in debt-bondage. There are men who seize the opportunity to reinforce their own views of women as near equals to cattle and society’s view on sex work is too riddled with old-fashioned morals that too oppress women in their own way. Until we can have a society where women are respected as decision-makers, as versatile individuals and as worthy of the same status and rights as men, this freedom is just harmful.