Prostitution: regulation, exploitation and death

Note: This post was crossposted to Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog, where several criticisms were made regarding my use of scarequotes around the word choice, and that I had not linked to any organisations working directly for sex workers’ rights or criticisms of the Swedish model within the post. That post has been updated to reflect those criticisms. The post below is as originally published. Links that were added to the crosspost at FF101 can be found in comments below.

The Netherlands has found that their licensed, regulated and inspected brothels have not made the industry all that much safer for prostitutes on the whole: they have merely pushed the most abusive practices further underground. Last month Nicholas Kristof wrote of Holland’s experiences for the New York Times, and explained why he no longer believed that the legalisation model would generally benefit prostitutes.

For the Netherlands’ licensed prostitutes, the regulations on health and safety led to some “modest public health benefits”. Both they and the clients who simply want a straightforward transaction of sexual services seem to find the added security for both workers and customers appealing. But as the sex industry grew the more attractive the profits became to criminal gangs, and the incidence of trafficking, violence and child prostitution grew, to the point where they are rolling back their laws on licensed brothels in an attempt to send a no-tolerance message to the abusers.

Kristof points out that Sweden has had much greater success in lowering prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex rather than the selling of sex:

Some Swedish prostitutes have complained that the policy reduced demand and thus lowered prices, while forcing sex work underground. But the evidence is strong that the new approach reduced trafficking in Sweden, and opinion polls show that Swedes regard the experiment as a considerable success. And the bottom line is that if you want to rape a 13-year-old girl imported from Eastern Europe, you’ll have a much easier time in Amsterdam than in Stockholm.

Licensed brothels, safer for both the worker and the customer, were meant to protect sex workers (and their customers), to regulate a simple commercial transaction for sexual services in the same way that other commercial transactions were regulated. They were meant to cut the connection between prostitution and organised crime, to decrease horrific violence, and particularly to minimise trafficking and child prostitution. Instead, the connection to organised crime continues to grow, and all the illegal practices that no government will ever license continue to thrive.

So what drives a market in illegal brothels even where fully legal brothels are widely distributed and easy to find? Amanda at Pandagon argues quite convincingly that the reason lies in flawed models regarding the transaction model for prostitution i.e. the popular idea that what is being sold is simply sexual services is not merely woefully simplistic, it’s actually dead wrong when we are analysing the fundamental appeal to a crucial subset of men, the men who appear to form the most profitable consumer demographic of the sex trade.

The experience of the Netherlands indicates that the licensed brothels don’t actually offer large numbers of customers what they really want when they pay to spend time with a prostitute, because once the law mandated that the workers had to be treated with basic care for their safety then those customers chose instead to go elsewhere. It is not only the sexual services that these men want to buy, they want to buy the opportunity to degrade and harm as well i.e. what they really want to buy is a rape. (This ties in to the recent Australian story about long-haul truck drivers exploiting Aboriginal women in remote communities sexually and how the truckers over the years were requesting younger and younger girls, even girls under 10 who inevitably would be harmed by sexual penetration.)

In comments at Pandagon there were arguments that there were other factors bothering men who chose to avoid licensed brothels: a concern that records kept at such places might threaten their marriages and/or community reputations. Maybe so. Perhaps a compromise with the Swedish model is needed: purchasing sex from a licensed brothel is totally legal, but purchasing sex from any other source is a prosecutable act.

One thing that can’t be denied is that in jurisdictions where selling sex is criminalised, then sex workers are easily coerced simply by threatening to report them to law enforcement (where they’ll probably have to bribe the police with so-called “freebies” on the way to the holding cells), which is the major reason to support decriminalisation. This is where the Swedish model does help to redress the balance: instead of the client having the power to coerce the worker via the threat of a complaint to the police, in Sweden the worker holds the power of a complaint to the police, meaning that workers can defend themselves against unreasonable demands.

While there were lots of different points of view argued in that thread (and various others I found since, discussing prostitution in the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal), including the usual about how regulating prostitution was denying women agency in their “choice” to undertake well-remunerated work where men treat them badly and even hurt them, very few of those making the “choice” argument were willing to look at what exactly the harm to prostituted women entails, in detail. It’s not just a few bruises and a recovery period of a few days, the harm to prostituted women lies overwhelmingly in the rate of premature mortality: prostitution is literally killing women, by murder more than any other cause, and a whole heap of people simply don’t care.

No other industry with a comparable mortality rate is unregulated by the state, and in none of those industries would the workers be allowed to sign away their basic health and safety guarantees in order for more pay. Employers who try to coerce miners or firefighters to go into work without adequate safety measures are quite rightly prosecuted and socially condemned, yet the workplace death rate of those professions combined does not match just the homicide rate amongst prostitutes, let alone the death rate once drug overdoses are taken into account.

From a longitudinal cohort study of prostitutes in Colorado Springs (Potterat, Brewer et al, 2004):

Few of the women died of natural causes, as would be expected for persons whose average age at death was 34 years. Rather, based on proportional mortality, the leading causes of death were homicide (19 percent), drug ingestion (18 percent), accidents (12 percent), and alcohol-related causes (9 percent) (table 3).

When the researchers looked specifically at violent death, they found that the prostitutes in Colorado Springs had about a 1% risk of being murdered during their period of active prostitution (average active period about three-five years) and that “active prostitutes were almost 18 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age and race during the study interval“.

The researchers pointed out that their methodology was necessarily limited and could not fully account for mortality numbers, especially for homicides: women murdered overseas, or murdered women whose bodies were never found, would not be accounted for. It’s worth pointing out too that it’s only cohort studies like this, where women are identified as prostitutes before they are murdered, which gives us figures anything close to representative, as very few murdered women are identified as prostitutes on their death certificates, and thus that datum doesn’t get included in the general population statistics.

The workplace homicide rate for prostitutes (204 per 100,000) is many times higher than that for women and men in the standard occupations that had the highest workplace homicide rates in the United States during the 1980s (4 per 100,000 for female liquor store workers and 29 per 100,000 for male taxicab drivers).

The homicide rate for prostitutes underlines their vulnerability like nothing else. If a pimp or john threatens a non-compliant prostitute with death, they know simply from their co-workers who have died that those words are a very credible threat. With the next highest cause of death being drug-related, it’s ludicrous to speak of prostitution as a “free choice” for any but the much-glamourised “high-class call girl” (and although I don’t have figures to hand I would not be at all surprised if the homicide and drug-death rate for elite/freelance prostitutes wasn’t also significantly higher than for the average population).

This is why I have no patience at all with those who have defended Eliot Spitzer’s buying of prostitutes as engaging in an activity which does no harm. While the young woman known as “Kristen” may well have chosen to engage in “escort work” just to pay the bills for her aspiring music career, that economic freedom for her and the other women who work at the “glamour” end of the sex-trade with the high-flyers does not justify failing to make life safer for the ordinary women in the sex-trade, who are dying at an average age of 34 while these elite sex workers build their nest-eggs for a few years and then go on to a fairly normal life.

Regulation of the sex trade on an occupational health and safety basis could theoretically be a partial answer, but it will only monitor the ethical johns – the ones who just want to get laid and who have no interest in abusing the women they pay to provide this service. Regulation won’t stop the abusers who are more interested in the opportunity to hurt and degrade women than they are in getting professionally laid, and it won’t stop the exploitative pimps and madams who are quite content to make a profit from the abusers either. These people will merely move underground and the trafficking and the drug deaths and murders amongst those sex workers will continue at this appalling rate.

Elite prize-fighters accept that the way they make their living is highly regulated in order to protect others: the street-sluggers dreaming of big prize-money need to be protected from from brain-injury and death in unsafe fights organised by unscrupulous managers and promoters. Boxing fans have been socialised over the years to view underground prize-fights as unacceptably unethical brutality compared to the artistry of a “proper” prize-fight. Do underground fights still occur, and fill the stands with spectators? Yes, but it’s rare, the venues are small, and it is universally condemned and swiftly prosecuted when it occurs. Prostitution needs to be at least as regulated as prize-fighting, with criminalisation restricted to those who disregard worker safety by not conforming to regulations and those who pay for a known unsafe performance : the workers whose safety is being risked should never be the ones who are criminalised.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, health, law & order, social justice, violence

Tags: , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Please excuse the imposition. This post was flagged in my reader due to the mention of health and safety. But regardless, it’s very interesting reading. I have to agree that one of the best ways to reduce prostitution is to heavily penalise the people who create the demand.

  2. I remember another post from Amanda at Pandagon quite a while ago now– she likened prostitution to gladiatorial rings: the gladiators were almost always forced to compete, and while a select few may have been able to claim truthfully that they were doing so by choice and doing well out of it, the whole system would only work because there were so many masses of people forced into it.
    One thing I really think is always too absent from discussions of prostitution and how to address the problems therein is the voices of sex workers and former sex workers. This is not surprising of course, given that many of them would not be able to afford internet access, and the stigma associated with sex work, which must burn even with the relative anonimity that the internet offers. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t discuss it– but there’s always something missing if sex workers themselves don’t have a voice in the discussion.

  3. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus amongst the sex workers who are commenting on the internet on regulation, although they nearly all appear to support decriminalisation.
    There’s quite a few current freelancers defending their right to choose well-paid work that they claim to also enjoy, there’s quite a few former workers who are now radfems attacking all forms of sex-trade as they share their histories of abuses, and there’s a handful of current and former workers talking matter-of-factly about how it is/was the only halfway-decently-remunerated employment option they could find and how they accept/manage the risks.
    My main point in this post was bringing up the mortality rate, the hugeness of it hardly ever mentioned by anyone in the sex-trade debate. Dead sex workers have no voices at all.

  4. I also wondered how many of the ‘drug deaths’ also belonged in the first category of ‘murdered’.

  5. Hard to know, isn’t it? The study used death certificates, police reports and coroners’ findings to tally up their figures. I guess it would ultimately depend on the thoroughness of the Colorado Springs police at investigating apparent self-administered drug overdoses.

  6. Not quite the same, but in Dallas, Texas a strip club couldn’t have its license revoked for employing underage strippers because that’s not listed in the city ordinance (unlike illegal drug use or prostitution in the club). Apologies if this was already covered here, I did a quick search of the archives and didn’t find anything.

  7. That’s either an incompetently drafted ordinance or a deliberately loopholed ordinance. Surely a properly drafted ordinance would have enabled licence revoking for any activity within the club which constituted a crime under the vice statutes.

  8. Of course “Regulation won’t stop the abusers who are more interested in the opportunity to hurt and degrade women than they are in getting professionally laid”. Lowlifes always exist, and women willing to risk their ministrations for enough money, or (far worse) suffering from a form of battered wives syndrome will always exist too.
    But I’d be sceptical that legalising and regulation won’t stop some of it, and in particular make coercive practices by employers a bit less common. If a regulatory regime doesn’t do this I’d suggest its an argument for better (and better enforced) regulation rather than driving everything – including fully consensual prostitution – back underground.

  9. That’s exactly the point I’m arguing, DD – that there needs to be a balance between regulation, decriminalisation and criminalisation which best addresses the health and safety needs of the average sex worker.

  10. The crosspost of this post to FF101 attracted some criticism, and in response I added some links to the post there, those links being:
    * Arguments for decriminalisation and sex workers’ rights: see the Sex Worker Outreach Project East
    * Criticisms of the Swedish model
    Another very interesting post was linked by Djiril in comments there:
    Reaching the Media: Sex Workers Against Rape


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