Should Prostitution Be Legal?

By Otchet, Amy | UNESCO Courier, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Should Prostitution Be Legal?


Otchet, Amy, UNESCO Courier


Some women's groups consider prostitutes as victims; others regard them as 'sex workers' with rights

"Ever since the Chinese declared 'To get rich is to be glorious,' women without connections, brain power or money have been using the only asset available to them for quick money. Equipped with a room, a bed, a supply of condoms, a red light - and voila - instant brothel. . . . These girls can make much more money at $30 a customer, than $4 per day in the factories. As is (the case) in almost every underdeveloped country!" according to the International Sex and Red-Light Guide.

Sold for $30, the guide "instructs" men on where to find cheap sex around the world. This is a business venture, according to the authors, where the only principle is getting the most for your money. "If one so chooses to use her body in this manner, in lieu of social slavery at the hands of poverty employers, and men are willing to pay them more than slave labour wages, so be it. If it is not your body and not your life, it is also not your business. Until [someone] can correct the whole world's economic condition, as well as the overpopulation problem, someone has to pay the bills."

But who?The poorest, the most vulnerable? There is no denying that the sex industry has taken on international dimensions, recognized as an economic motor for many countries, particularly in Asia. The irony is that prostitution is not entirely legal. Would legalization reduce some of the inequalities and abuse suffered by the women involved? Or by legitimizing prostitution, would we reverse decades of work to promote human rights and improve the status of women?

An acrimonious debate

On the surface this looks like a rehashing of a timeless debate. But it isn't. The question is no longer about morality - is prostitution a vice and are those involved evil or somehow lacking in judgment? We now ask: is prostitution a form of exploitation to be abolished or an occupation to be regulated?

This has proven to be one of the most divisive issues among women's groups around the world. There are basically two camps - those seeking to eradicate prostitution, like the non-governmental Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and prostitutes' rights groups, primarily based in the Netherlands, the United States and England, who view the women involved as "sex workers". There is considerable acrimony between the two. For example, the Coalition maintains that these groups generally represent the interests of the "pimps and procurers". In rebuttal, the rights' groups maintain that the abolitionists are locked away in the ivory towers of academic feminism, cut off from the day-to-day realities facing prostitutes.

The dividing line between the two camps lies in distinctions between so-called "free" and "forced" prostitution. Abolitionists generally maintain that the vast majority of women are forced into prostitution, while the sex workers insist that this is not necessarily the case. But as both point out, for different reasons, these distinctions oversimplify the issues. The 12-year-old Nepalese girl sold to an Aids-infested brothel in India clearly never consented to this form of slavery. The drug-addict in New York who must fulfil a quota of clients to get a fix from her pimp is not free to make decisions concerning her body. But what of the Ukrainian woman who looses her job and decides to go to Germany to work as a maid but ends up in a brothel?

For the Coalition, "the distinctions between free and forced prostitution obscure the powerful structural socio-economic conditions - like poverty, marginalization, lack of opportunities and prior sexual abuse - that often drive women and children straight into prostitution situations," says Aurora Javate de Dios of the Coalition's Asia-Pacific branch. "Economic crisis, natural disasters, political unrest and conflict situations make women and children more vulnerable and easy prey to sex traffickers and recruiters. …

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