Ignoring imprisonment and institutionalisation

As long as it’s only women in the sex industry being exploited and abused, that is. There’s two excellent posts around on legalised prostitution at the moment, examining the way that legalisation seems to have offered an extra layer of cover for the trafficking of other women in what is tantamount to slavery, and incidentally offering a glimpse of the casual violence surrounding the pimps who make the profit. Pavlov’s Cat writes generally about trafficking in displaced persons for the purpose of prostitution in Don’t think it doesn’t happen here, but also particularly of an actress discussing her research for a part in a movie (The Jammed) being dissuaded by a worker in a legal suburban brothel from asking dangerous questions:

‘And when I was speaking with one girl in a suburban brothel,’ says Sywak, ‘I think in Burwood in Sydney, I was speaking with her about the issue of human trafficking and this was just – I have to clarify this was a legal brothel and the girls were there on their own accord and I was talking to them and they said – I casually mentioned that I was going to go up to the Cross to learn – to discover more about human trafficking and try and contact or try to come face to face with some of these girls who have been enslaved.

And this woman said to me, she stopped, she said, “Sweetheart, if you go up to the Cross and ask about human trafficking, you’re going to be dead by this afternoon.”‘

At Reclusive Leftist, The Ghost of Violet Socks writes So that’s why all the morons think prostitution is an empowerfuling career choice, recommending (as an antidote to a “reality TV” show about happy hookers being shrewd, savvy courtesans) a book examining the legal prostitution industry in Nevada, where the researcher is threatened directly:

During one visit to a brothel, Farley asked the owner what the women thought of their work. “I was polite,” she writes in her book, “as he condescendingly explained what a satisfying and lucrative business prostitution was for his “ladies’. I tried to keep my facial muscles expressionless, but I didn’t succeed. He whipped a revolver out of his waistband, aimed it at my head and said: “You don’t know nothing about Nevada prostitution, lady. You don’t even know whether I will kill you in the next five minutes.'”

Sure, all those women who stay in prostitution are making a totally free choice, the continual threat of death for noncompliance doesn’t restrict their choices at all! And what about all that money they’re making?!!

Yes, let’s just examine that, shall we?

Farley found that the brothel owners typically pocket half of the women’s earnings. Additionally, the women must pay tips and other fees to the staff of the brothel, as well as finders’ fees to the cab drivers who bring the customers. They are also expected to pay for their own condoms, wet wipes, and use of sheets and towels. It is rare, the women told Farley, to refuse a customer. One former Nevada brothel worker wrote on a website: “After your airline tickets, clothing, full-price drinks and other miscellaneous fees you leave with little. To top it off, you are “¦ fined for just about everything. Fall asleep on your 14-hour shift and get $100 [£50] fine, late for a line-up, $100-500 in fines.” (The women generally negotiate directly with the men over the money; what they get depends on the quality of the brothel. It can be anything from $50 for oral sex to $1,000 for the night, but that doesn’t take account of the brothel’s cut.)

Farley found a “shocking” lack of services for women in Nevada wishing to leave prostitution. “When prostitution is considered a legal job instead of a human rights violation,” says Farley, “why should the state offer services for escape?” More than 80% of those interviewed told Farley they wanted to leave prostitution.

The effect of all this on the women in the brothels is “negative and profound,” according to Farley. “Many were suffering what I’d describe as the traumatic effects of ongoing sexual assaults, and those that had been in the brothels for some time were institutionalised. That is, they were passive, timid, compliant, and deeply resigned.”

“No one really enjoys getting sold,” says Angie, who Farley interviewed. “It’s like you sign a contract to be raped.” emphasis mine

A downthread comment from Violet which I will reproduce in its entirety:

There is a goodly list of occupations involving men which society will not tolerate because they incur too much harm, risk, and/or degradation:

voluntary slavery
gladiatorial combat
buying/selling of bodily organs

But when it comes to prostitution, suddenly talk turns to “consenting adults.” Which really means that our culture is so conditioned to think of women as sexual commodities to be bought and sold that people simply can’t see the harm. It’s what women are for, doncha know? Oldest profession in the world, doncha know?

People used to be able to sell themselves into slavery. This was actually a common occurrence in the late stages of the Roman Empire. People used to pay to watch gladiators fight to the death or endure torture or do any number of things that now we would never allow to be legal. These activities exploited the poor and disadvantaged. It was always the poor who became slaves, always the disadvantaged who became gladiators. Their misfortune became somebody else’s entertainment.

For a few people, becoming a slave or a gladiator actually worked out well. We know, for example, that a few gladiators became rich, which could never have happened for them outside the circus. And if ancient Romans had suddenly realized that human slavery was horrible and that paying people to be tortured or fight to the death was an outrageous thing that no civilization should allow, I can guarantee you that the handful of happy gladiators and slaves would have opposed any attempt at abolition.

They would have argued, “It’s my choice! Why shouldn’t I get to choose what I do with my body?”

And there is no good answer to that question if the focus is simply on one person making his (or her) individual choice. But it’s never about one person, never about the tiny handful who actually do okay out of the deal. It’s about the system, the huge meat-grinding system that exploits the poor and the desperate and the powerless.

If someone brought back gladiatorial games today, the men who would sign up would be the poorest men in the country, probably poor black men desperate at a chance to make money. And society would say: wait a minute. This is exploitation. And the argument would stand even if a couple of the guys did really well and made money and started proclaiming how wonderful a choice it had been for them personally. Their experience, real as it was, would not outweigh the pile of corpses on the floor of the arena, the bodies of all the poor black men whose desperation led them to that place. It would not outweigh the horrific insult to human rights that the system represented. It would not outweigh the brutality of a society that pays desperate people to be tortured for other people’s entertainment.

Now ask yourself why prostitution is different.

Hear hear. Prostitution is an industry which relies for its bread and butter on women selling themselves into voluntary slavery1, a practise which society refuses to allow any other industry to do with male workers because it’s too risky and/or degrading. The comments thread raises several recent scandals which have occurred to do with the exploitation of men as illegally indentured workers who have had their entitlements illegally withheld or been killed doing work as indentured labourers without the proper safety provisions in place. These incidents were scandals only because the workers involved were men and the industries were not the sex industry. Women are trafficked against their will by pimps, imprisoned by pimps, financially exploited by pimps and regularly beaten and murdered by johns and pimps, yet the media and thus the public don’t even bat an eye.

There’s a lot of other excellent comments in the thread over at Violet’s (as well as the inevitable trolls, although interestingly they’re not pro-prostitution trolls). Read the whole thing.

1. Despite the large number of women who do voluntarily enter prostitution, it is nonetheless an industry which also literally enslaves women against their will. The voluntarily enslaved women act as a camouflage for the totally illegal kidnapping and trafficking and imprisonment of women. I’m not blaming voluntary sex workers themselves for acting as camouflage, they merely exist and are used as camouflage, and anyway are also exploited and institutionalised by the systemic brutality of the industry as a whole. And the small minority of happy hookers who enjoy a good income and glamorous lifestyle, and leave in their own time with a courtesan investment fund? They/you are also not directly to blame for the suffering of the heavily exploited sex workers, but neither do they/you in any way justify the pile of imprisoned, damaged and dead bodies on the sex industry heap. Courtesans will also still exist if the coerced/enslaved segment of the industry is properly policed and dismantled.

Categories: Culture, violence

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4 replies

  1. “If someone brought back gladiatorial games today, the men who would sign up would be the poorest men in the country, probably poor black men desperate at a chance to make money.”
    Sadly, in the US we have Bum Fights, where the videomakers taped homeless people doing humiliating stunts for money or alcohol.

  2. That was a pretty interesting post. The only reason I support legalised and regulated prostitution is that it gets even worse when it’s illegal.
    For better or worse, we can’t abolish it. It’s been tried off and on for thousands of years, but the trade is still with us.
    I’d nominate the Northern Territory as having a fairly balanced system. Most of the prostitutes I met in my work at the NT News seemed pretty cheerful because they could work by themselves and expect police protection.
    It’s still a risky and troublesome business though. Your post has given me food for thought.

  3. Well thank God some are beginning to wake up to the fact that legalised prostitution encourages trafficking – particularly of women and children (I’ve blogged about it myself before – owners of legal brothels here love the legality as they are targetted less often for police raids and so can get away with their trafficking – including abuse of work visas).
    Yes yes, people go on that you can’t eradicate it – well you can’t eradicate murder so do you legalise it? Any decent person should condemn prostitution of any form and punish perpetrators left right and centre. Sweden also charges punters (clients) – bring that on here too I say.

  4. I’m on board with condemning the exploitative prostitution which makes up a majority of the industry, and revisiting the Dworkin/Mackinnon legislation which looked at making it not just possible, but simple, for women who had been harmed by their work in the sex industry (prostitution and/or porn) to sue the perpetrators. For this to work there has to be some sort of legally enforced paper trail tying worker and owner/operators together for the purposes of later legal action, but I’m not at all convinced that regulation should go much beyond that.
    There needs to be a culture change, affecting not just the police but also the jury pool, that crimes against prostitutes count as real crimes and need to be treated seriously, that the prevalent attitude of “she had it coming to her” is simply not good enough and is an act of rancid bigotry towards women who just want to support themselves and often their family as well in the best-paid job they can access.
    Blanket regulation/criminalisation of the entire prostitution industry won’t help trafficked or other abused women though. It will just drive the whole industry underground. Whatever is done needs to help both the women who want to get out and currently can’t, but also the women who do want to stay in the industry because of the earnings as an independent operator.
    After all, for women not being ripped off and abused by others, sex work can be a lucrative income – why should women be barred from accessing that income? And why should clients who are making an ethical choice to avoid the exploitative end of the industry be swept up with the others who either don’t care or who actually get off on the degradation of the women they pay for sex?

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