Magazine article Foreign Policy

Think Again: Prostitution

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Think Again: Prostitution

Article excerpt


"Prostitution Is Bad."


PROSTITUTION HAY BE THE WORLD'S OLDEST profession, but there is still little agreement on the social and moral legitimacy of commercial sex. There are, of course, those who consider sex sacred and its sale a sin, and there are libertarians who are willing to accept nearly any degree of sexual freedom. But plenty of people have views that lie somewhere in between, and they are fighting over the fairness, regulation, and even the precise definition of what advocates and practitioners increasingly refer to as "sex work."

Take France, for instance, where a debate erupted last fall over a proposed law that would fine people $2,000 for purchasing sex. All sorts of protesters took to the streets: women arguing that the law was necessary because violence and coercion are endemic to the sex industry, and sex workers, hoisting posters with slogans like "La repression n'est pas la prevention," who condemned the law. A group of men also insisted in a letter that the government take its hands "off our whores." Ultimately, on Dec. 4, the lower house of Parliament adopted the measure.

The French case is but one example of a global dispute about what constitutes exploitation in the sale and purchase of sex--and it also shows that one side of the argument often has the upper hand. That side, a group of odd bedfellows frequently called abolitionists, thinks that because all prostitution is inherently degrading and dangerous, it must be eliminated. The group draws from, among others, religious and faith-based organizations, both liberal and conservative political ranks, and some outspoken feminist camps. (The driving force behind the controversial measure in France is Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.)

So strong is the influence of this group that it has shaped the language typically used to describe the global sex industry. In common parlance, sex work is a dangerous phenomenon that routinely violates women's rights and perpetuates their subordination to men. There is hardly a distinction drawn between sex work and human trafficking, which involves controlling someone through threats or violence with the express purpose of exploitation. This conflation leaves no room for sex workers who make decisions for themselves; they are all just victims. "The term 'sex worker' is false advertising," says the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

This is more than a semantic issue. Since George W. Bush's administration, the U.S. government has required that international organizations receiving funding for efforts to combat trafficking and HIV/AIDS must not "promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution." In an October 2013 call for project proposals, the State Department reiterated, "The U.S. Government is opposed to prostitution and related activities, which are inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and contribute to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons."

This stance has put sex workers and their advocates--who support the idea that some people choose, although perhaps from a range of poor economic options, to sell sex--in an impossible position: They must make a choice between compromising their principles or missing out on opportunities for much-needed money. Such was the case with SANGRAM, a sex workers' collective in India that refused to adopt an anti-prostitution pledge required by the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. (The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the pledge as a violation of free speech in June 2013, but this was only a partial victory: Foreign, as opposed to U.S.-based, NGOs could still be barred from receiving funds, and the court did not address PEPFAR'S ban on advocating the legalization of prostitution.)

To make matters worse, the influence of prostitution's vocal opponents has contributed to a dearth of good data on the global sex industry, including its most harmful aspects. …

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