Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Of Course They Claim They Were Coerced": On Voluntary Prostitution, Contingent Consent, and the Modified Whore Stigma

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Of Course They Claim They Were Coerced": On Voluntary Prostitution, Contingent Consent, and the Modified Whore Stigma

Article excerpt

Abstract (2)

This paper starts with a reflection on the main tactic adopted during the Taipei prostitutes' movement, namely, the "poverty as force" rationale, and argues that a campaign strategy that focuses on the justification of prostitutes' consent to their job does not help them much; instead, it reinforces the stigma on "voluntary" prostitutes. I suggest that sex workers' activism abandons the now dominant "voluntary vs. forced" division of prostitution and, emphasizes the working conditions of sex workers rather than the reasons that underlie those workers' consent. This suggestion by no means implies that we neglect the critical moral value of consent. Rather, in light of the vague, contingent, and relative nature of consent, I argue that a focus on the practical working condition of sex workers is a more realistic and feasible strategy to prevent sex workers from being victimized. Finally, the examination of the workers' consent, while necessary, should be placed on a macro level, and to encourage the realization that prostitution and more readily accepted social institutions are equally a repetition of certain hegemonies. It is only through this approach that sex work and sex workers can gradually be de-specialized and de-stigmatized.

Keywords: prostitution, consent, whore stigma, sex workers' activism

Introduction

On the morning of September 1st 1997, almost one hundred licensed prostitutes showed up at the Taipei City Council. They came to protest against the then Taipei City mayor Chen Shui-Bian, who ordered shut down all licensed brothels that had existed for four decades. Broadcast through overwhelming media coverage, their public appearance was literally a shocking scene to the general public in Taiwan. Although the prostitutes' movement only succeeded in obtaining a two-year grace period, (3) it triggered deep reflection among feminist activists and intellectuals, and the first sex workers' activist group, COSWAS (Collective Of Sex Workers And Supporters), was established in Taipei in 1999 as a legacy of the movement, with the main agenda to decriminalize and de-stigmatize prostitution.

This paper begins with a reflection on the main tactic adopted during the licensed prostitutes' movement, namely, the "poverty as force" rationale. After extensive interviews with related policy actors, including local and migrant prostitutes, clients, pimps, the police, city councilors, women's activists, and community residents in person or online, (4) I found that the licensed prostitutes' movement, while perhaps generating a more widespread and profound recognition of the licensed prostitutes' hardships, crystallized a subtler form of whore stigma on "voluntary" prostitutes. Moreover, the definition of voluntary prostitutes is so arbitrary that it can include any prostitute who is not violently coerced by another person or oppressed by extreme poverty. In other words, most prostitutes, if not all, still suffer from whore stigma, which is now a more rigorously modified concept with which to rebut any claim that prostitutes might use in justifying their decision to sell sex.

Therefore, following Jo Doezema (1998), I suggest that sex workers' activism abandons the now dominant "voluntary vs. forced" division of prostitution and, emphasizes the working conditions of sex workers rather than the reasons that underlie those workers' consent. This suggestion by no means implies that we neglect the critical moral value of consent. Rather, in light of the vague, contingent, and relative nature of consent, as will be shown in this paper, I argue that a focus on the practical working condition of sex workers is a more realistic and feasible strategy to prevent sex workers from being victimized. Indeed, this approach will not only cover the "typical" trafficked victims, defined as who "never consented" and "under ongoing exploitation ... to generate illicit profits for the traffickers," (5) but also those who might have "consented" to travel at the initial stage, but then changed their mind due to unbearable or indisposed working conditions. …

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