Of Bodily Autonomy and Ignorance: A Response to Supporters of Legal Prostitution
The history and forms of prostitution are as old and ancient as human civilisation but its manifestation in the modern times simply isn’t a subject to be dismissed under gossips and chit chats of public morality and character judgements.
The sex business today is more complicated than just an exchange of sexual pleasure for financial benefits. Wide-ranging issues like sex trafficking, legality, sex crime, drug abuse accompany the question of legalisation of the sex industry. This sparks up the debate of whether or not to legalise the sex industry which till date remains unconcluded.
The proponents of legalisation justify their case on the basis of some arguments which are inherently ill-considered and overlook various realties.
Let us examine them one by one and understand why legalisation is not a solution.
SEX INDUSTRY IS LIKE ANY OTHER INDUSTRY
This is a myth based on the preconceived capitalist notion that the human body is essentially a commodity and sex is the labour. Prostitution merely involves the sell of human labour like in any other activity such as farming. Just like a farmer, a sex worker sells his/her work in the form of paid sex.
The above comparison between a farmer and a sex worker is essentially flawed and unfair. A farmer does not sell his body. He contributes his labour to crop production assisted by machinery, equipment and fellow farmers. Farming or any other conventional activity is a collective, organised, survival activity where human dignity largely remains unharmed.
If just about any labour for money or other rewards were to be considered legitimate work, then the distinction between exploitation and work would be hard to make. Prostitution cannot be normalised as a regular and normal activity qualified for a job, because it is impossible to sustain it as a profession in the pre-existing norms of free-market without causing yourself severe exploitation and harm. If prostitution were to be treated like any other buyer-seller based business, then the sex worker will have to concede to all the demands of the buyer on payment. In such a case, questions like withdrawal of consent mid-way during intercourse, human dignity and rights remain unaddressed and unresolved.
Moreover, the human body is incapable of functioning as a full-time machine. Too much sexual activity can cause severe health problems like dehydration, urinary tract infection, bruises, rug burns, lower back pain, weak immunity etc, and these are just the health problems which come along with the profession, additional issues like violence, unprotected sex haven’t been addressed yet.
In other activities, at least the human labour is assisted by other means and machinery, but that possibility goes out of the question in the case of prostitution.
The lockdown has unravelled the precarious nature of this profession. Most of the sex workers were left jobless during the lockdown. A report in The Hindu says, over 60% of sex workers in Delhi returned to their home states due to lack of money.
When the destitute condition of migrant labourers makes us critically analyse capitalism, then why shouldn’t we reconsider our sugar-coated notions about prostitution.
At a time when some ideologists propound theories of alienation wherein a worker in a capitalist society feels alienated from his work; how can we possibly overlook the gross alienating nature of prostitution which presumes humans to be an automaton with no right to dignity.
Even a 1998 ILO (UN International Labor Organisation) report suggesting that the sex industry be treated as a legitimate economic sector, found that “…prostitution is one of the most alienated forms of labour; the surveys [in 4 countries] show that women worked ‘with a heavy heart’, ‘felt forced’, or were ‘conscience-stricken’ and had negative self-identities. A significant proportion claimed they wanted to leave sex work if they could’.
Just because historically women got involved in prostitution due to unavoidable reasons and lack of alternatives, we must not promote the sex industry as a legitimate economic sector and give legitimacy to inherently objectifying and gender oppressive institutions. Instead, women must be empowered with better options and discourage the buyers, traffickers and pimp(s) by not legitimising their work through legalisation.
PROSTITUTION IS A CHOICE
This claim stems from a very narrow understanding of choice. A person can be said to have exercised his/her choice if done so in the absence of coercion, external interference and with a full conscience. Most importantly, there must also be multiple options to choose from; only then can a person be considered to have really made a choice.
Women never chose to become sex workers. They did so not because they enjoyed being exploited by unknown men but because they had no other option or the know-how to do anything else. This isn’t called a “choice” but a survival strategy.
The elite feminists who brand prostitution as a choice, do so from a position of privilege where they are safe and empowered enough to explore their sexuality and fantasies. They fail to recognise the circumstances under which a woman risks her life as a sex worker.
The very nature of the sex industry is violent and exploitative, which is beyond any reform. The sex worker gets the least profit from it and that too for a particular period. Women are mostly preferred during their young age and are discarded once they are old and worn out. Therefore, middle-aged and older women remain of no use and become social outcasts with no means of earning left.
A profession which has no concept of dignity, pension, and social security does no good to anyone in society.
LEGALISATION WOULD EMPOWER WOMEN
The proponents of legalisation advocate that it’d empower them in various aspects. Women would become legally more robust in reporting crime, the stigma attached to it in society would be removed, and their economic prospects will also increase.
Firstly, the security argument does not work in favour of women because legalisation will lead to desertion of police from the area, which would lead to an increase in the risk of crime and oppression by men. If the prostitute faces any sexual violence and assaults, it’d be challenging for her to prove the same in the court, and most of them won’t even have the legal resources to do so. Since most of them are victims of a patriarchal society with low or almost no education, they are most likely not to report anything. Moreover, they would even consider themselves responsible for their condition instead of recognising the culprit.
There’s another possibility that the owners of the brothels, intermediaries and pimps might manipulate the trafficked women, minors and children into becoming sex workers due to their poor condition and lack of conscience employing coercion. In such a case if the sex industry were to be legalised, it’d be challenging to hold the culprits accountable and recognise the victim.
Prostitutes in India have the right to rescue and rehabilitation, and they also enjoy all other rights like any other citizen of India. It is also legal to solicit in private so if a woman really feels like prostituting by choice, she is free by all means. Legalisation stands to make the process of rescue and rehabilitation complicated. And the notion that legalisation would remove social stigma and improve legal rights is highly idealistic and far from reality.
Secondly, when the legal barriers disappear, more men avail the services which they otherwise wouldn’t. It becomes socially and culturally acceptable by men and society to see women as sex objects and prostitution as harmless fun. This increases the demand for more sex by more men due to which the immoral trafficking of women and young girls increases. The women feel compelled to compete in providing services like anal sex, unprotected sex, BDSM etc. irrespective of their condition. After all, they’ve been legalised and sanctioned by the state as objects and service providers in exchange for money.
Thirdly, the women stand no fair chance to become economically empowered because the pimps and the brothel owners would extort most of the profit.
In countries like the Netherlands, sex workers continue to face the same kind of treatment and stigma after legalisation.
The health conditions of women also remain the same. It’s only the women who are tested for HIV and AIDS, not the clients. Therefore, the risk of spread of STDs remains unshaken. Most of the men also refuse to use a condom, and due to money, the women concede to unsafe sex.
Coalition against trafficking in Women and funded by the Ford Foundation did a study in 5 countries where women firmly stated that prostitution should not be given legal legitimacy. “No way. It’s not a profession. It is humiliating and violence from the men’s side.” Not one woman interviewed wanted her children, family or friends to have to earn money by entering the sex industry. One stated: “Prostitution stripped me of my life, my health, everything.”
Thus legal or illegal, most prostitutes remain stigmatised throughout their life. It’s only the agents who gain legitimacy or any profit, not the sex worker. They do not get empowered whatsoever.
To understand this argument, we must compare prostitution with begging because both are very similar in third world countries. The act of begging provides no dignity or sustenance to the beggar, and it also leads to the emergence of traffic networks where trafficked children are forced to beg. In such a case who gets the benefit- the agents or the children? It is always the agents; the same is with prostitution.
Legalising an industry which reeks of oppression, gender inequality, hypermasculinity can by no means be qualified as progressive. The solution must focus on improving the condition of sex workers rather than giving legal legitimacy to pimps and solicitors. We must first work towards destigmatising sex. The problem must be seen within a broader spectrum and making laws to make use of condoms mandatory in prostitution should not be the only solution.
The government must make laws to discourage solicitors, pimps, brothels and protect the sex worker and provide them with better alternatives.
We must also understand that prostitution isn’t a gender-neutral industry. It should be noticed that most of the times, the debate surrounding the legalisation of prostitution centres around “female prostitution” rather than merely “prostitution”, this itself shows that it is a sexist industry with women at its helm as sex objects. Legalisation has failed in many countries and has only led to the expansion of the sex industry. Therefore, to believe legalisation would emancipate destitute, illiterate and broken women is nothing but wishful thinking.