Recently a wave of support swept through Iceland for an anonymous, masked group of feminist women who call themselves Big Sister. People liked and shared their Facebook page; they made headlines in every paper and appeared on RÚV’s nightly news show, Kastljós. Their executed plan involved advertising on local dating websites and in newspapers as women who would exchange sex for money. Then men who replied to the ads in turn offered their money in exchange for sex. A list of willing prostitution clients’ information was subsequently turned over to the police, following a dramatic press conference at Iðnó. This evidence was ultimately ruled inadmissible, but a dialogue had been started. One I wish to partake in.
Feminists are actually deeply divided on the subject of prostitution. In one camp feminists oppose prostitution on the basis that it, and the sex industry in general, are extensions of a patriarchal, male-dominated society and that the commodification of women’s bodies is inherently evil, degrading and propagates violence against women.
Another view, espoused by a different faction of feminism (and there are many) is that sex-workers should be able to practice in peace and without harassment from law enforcement (but with its support). Extending this point further are claims that the professionalisation of the practice would better promote the ultimate aim of feminism, which is to eradicate gender inequality in all areas.
There are many arguments that stand on the illegality of the profession as the source of the worst aspects of the profession. Unsafe working conditions, lack of medical testing, characteristic abuse of pimps and brothel-type establishments, of law enforcement itself, as well as the unavailability of redress through normal legal means when one is attacked or victimised are common arguments for the professionalisation of prostitution. Some feel that sex-workers should enjoy full civil and political rights within society, and through the ability to operate legally, gain empowerment.
Countries that have decriminalised prostitution include Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Canada, and Finland (as well as over 40 others). The most efficient examples of such decriminalisation aim to regulate the industry, to require workers to undergo health checks, pay taxes and invest in their pension funds. Furthermore, a few have allowed workers to unionise.
Philosopher Simone De Beauvoir considers prostitution as an escape from male dependency for some women. When one has a choice of independently supporting oneself through prostitution or marriage, one could argue that the first choice is a more feminist stance, since a prostitute receives a fair wage for services rendered. Marriage often involves female sexual subservience and economic dependence.
In his ‘Charges Against Prostitution: An Attempt at a Philosophical Assessment,’ philosopher Lars O. Ericsson writes that from the standpoint of free market liberalism there is nothing immoral about prostitution. A free agent exchanges a service for money. We pay people to cook our meals, to massage our feet, and mind our children and we see nothing immoral in those acts. We also regularly and without shame, meet and have casual sexual relations without obligation of commitment or further relationship and we see nothing immoral in these actions. Some might say the common belief of the prostitute as dirty, unclean, impure or helpless victim is a throwback to pre-feminist ideals where women were valued for their innocence.
The inherent assumption, that only women prostitute themselves and only men purchase prostitution, is a false one. It is a marker of equality between genders, that women, now like their male counterparts, also exchange their money for sexual services. Many prostitutes right here in our fair city are men, both gay and straight. Do the Big Sisters take issue with prostitution as an act, or with only men who purchase prostitution? Are the issues so black and white? When is prostitution immoral, and when is it considered a needed and accepted form of commerce? Those are questions for debate and discussion. We do live in a world where sexual needs and desires are considered biological and natural. An adult’s right to engage in any consensual sex act she desires is defended rigorously, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone. In the case of prostitution, the exchange is made explicit instead of symbolic, therefore breaking social norms and becoming taboo.
A much debated story in the UK involves the right for disabled people to purchase sex-workers’ services, and to travel to a destination where those services are legal and regulated (and therefore safer). In Denmark and Germany disabled people are compensated for visits from trained, professional sex-workers. Our society is saturated with sex, yet disabled people are often left out of this equation. My view on this is: if two consenting adults agree to a business transaction which is mutually beneficial, takes place in a discrete way, and harms no one, then my view is irrelevant.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Most people who are not coerced into entering into a life of prostitution do so for financial reasons. If you consider the existence of prostitution an evil in our society and wish to change matters, do this by striking at the roots of inequality and poverty. Not only the inequality between men and women, but between first world women and third world women, between black men and white men, between natural-born and immigrated citizens, and between disabled and able-bodied individuals.
I ask that the discourse, especially discourse which claims to spring from the betterment of women in general, come from a wider viewpoint, and not a moral high horse. Vigilante justice and sweeping judgments about the morals of both sex-workers and purchasers of their services will not serve these aims even if it comes in a masked crusader type package with a flair for the dramatic.