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The False Dichotomy of 'Empowered Prostitution'

20/04/2016 16:41

When I was six years old, I was walking along the beach with my father in a seaside town in my home country of Brazil when I saw a young - maybe 12 years old - Black girl sitting on a German tourist's lap. At least from what I can remember, that was my first ever contact with prostitution.

It was also far from the last. It only took a car ride after sundown in Rio, where I was born, to see prostitutes lining up along Copacabana beach waiting for cars to drive up to them - sometimes Porsches, sometimes pick-up trucks. When I was 15, I overheard boys in my school describing how they had lobbed beer bottles at these prostitutes the night before because they thought it would be entertaining. Not long after that, at 18, I moved to Sheffield for university and saw women hiding in the shadows along the route down to bars and nightclubs behind Solly Street and around Kelham Island.

The most conflicting aspect of feeling sorry for these women, and angry at the system that did this to them, was that I also grew up being told their job was empowering. It was liberating, as a woman, to have the agency to choose to sell your body for money, because your body is 'an asset' and yours to 'sell', if you so choose.

But do most women really choose it? I've been fighting the instinct to agree ever since liberal feminist theory first told me they do, and the statistics seem to be on my side. Around 90% of women want to quit the industry but don't have any other means to survive, and 73% of them have been raped over five times. Women who work as prostitutes or in pornography are at considerably higher risk of drug dependency, STDs, violent aggression, and mental health problems such as depression and PTSD - in fact, PTSD is more common amongst prostitutes than war survivors. And already back in 1998, researchers concluded that, given there is significantly more physical violence in street prostitution than in brothels, but no difference in the incidence of PTSD, psychological trauma is therefore "intrinsic to the act of prostitution".

And is the female body really an 'asset'? Evidently, women should be able to do as they wish with their bodies, but the misogynistic view that our bodies are mere means of production, sold for profit in the free market, is far from sexually liberating. Even Marx knew, back in the 1800s, that prostitution was a "specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer" under capitalism; that is, they are victims of the system and its modes of production that reduce women's bodies to a purchasable and profitable asset like any other - after all, as people love to say, it's merely the "oldest job in the world".

As a feminist, I am vehemently against laws that seek to punish women for 'sex work', and evidently support its decriminalisation. An early and seemingly effective example of this was introduced in Sweden in 1999, where laws criminalised those who paid for sex rather than the prostitutes themselves; the so-called 'Nordic model' then spread to Norway, Iceland and, recently, Northern Ireland.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the model was also adopted in France, but suffered immediate backlash from the country's prostitutes, who came together in protest to argue that criminalising clients makes women more likely to accept men obscuring their identities, to visit their homes rather than meet in a safer location, and to ultimately take more risks to protect their clients.

On the other hand, the law is now theoretically on their side, allowing women to contact the police if necessary - although we know reporting violence and coercion isn't always that black and white - and, importantly, giving them identity papers, given that the overwhelming majority of prostitutes are victims of trafficking.

And while the Nordic model, or versions of it, may be implemented across Europe in the coming years, women in developed countries continue to be abused and killed at the hands of the state. Laws work against them and, with the majority hailing from slums and backgrounds of poverty rather than engaging in 'high-class' escorting, living in fear is nothing new.

Let's get something straight, though: I've never had to prostitute myself and will never understand what it's truly like to experience it, so I am not speaking for them. I do, however, hold true that the only way to tackle prostitution, as with everything, is to tackle the problem at its roots: the historical exploration of the female body. The patriarchal system we live in must be overturned so we can stop living in the violent dichotomy of objectifying women's bodies as sex machines operated by men, while simultaneously pretending they're being liberated as a result - all part of a system that is, ultimately, a beast that feeds itself.

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