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Why I Believe Sex Work Should be Legalised

January 21, 2012

This is one of the beliefs of Sex Positive Feminism, which my last blog listed as point 3, and which I said I would come back to as (a) the previous post was over 2000 words long ; and (b) this point alone is probably going to be near that length too.

Legalising sex work is controversial.  There is so much wrong with the current mainstream sex industry; as with all other areas of society (and remember, please, I can only write about what I know so this is from my perspective as detailed in the “Who I Am” section of this blog) it exists within the inherent gender/heritage/race/ability/sexuality etc. discriminations that ALL systems and institutions are influenced by.  That is crucial; all institutions and systems are subject to and either wittingly or unwittingly perpetuate the discriminations even if they specifically attempt to address the discriminations.  Societal change is slow, there is no either/or, just gradual evolving.  Sex work is merely one such institution, and because of the overt gender and sexuality prejudices they have been the most obviously utilised and widely accessible examples of perpetuation of the discriminations.  However, that does not mean they are defined by those discriminations, any more than gender-stereotyping occupations such as nursing, plumbing, secretary, midwife, fireman, milkman, binman, postman (see the connection developing here?) are defined by the stereotype.

But what exactly is sex work?  Historically, it has been defined as prostitution and pornography.  However, one could extend this definition to include anything in which sex features as part of a person’s labour by which they derive their income; ‘sex sells’ is a frequent mantra of advertising, so is it sex work to take part in advertising campaigns which either explicitly or implicitly use sex as a tool of selling?  Is it sex work to be part of creating a scene in a film which has sexual content in it?  Celebrity culture derives much of its material from sex and lust – is that sex work?  Magazines on shelves aimed at men which are not defined as being in the pornographic industry, such as FHM or Loaded, feature pictures on their covers which are frequently indistinguishable from the covers of porn magazines just one or two shelves up.  Are the creators, producers and participants partaking in sex work?  Although acts of sex such as kissing and touching may be involved in such labour, it seems that the definition of sex work is when actual acts of physical or verbal sexual intercourse (not necessarily penetrative) occur; when the sexual activity is ‘real’ as opposed to ‘acting’ on the part of at least one participant (for example, with phone sex lines one of the participants may well be doing no more than reading a script).  Even that line has been blurred in modern production, and is becoming more so.  There are also other types of labour in the sex industry which are not illegal nor involve sexual activity, such as shop workers in establishments selling sex-related products.

As I am talking about legalising sex work though, it should be assumed I am discussing pornography and prostitution.  Even then, the laws with regard to pornography are complicated.  In the UK much pornography is legal which leads me to conclude it’s already okay to engage in sex for money as long as it is filmed or photographed for distribution.  That’s bizarre to me…

Therefore, it seems, this blog is about legalising prostitution, that being the only form of sex work which is actually illegal (and may also have the largest introduction to a blog in the history of blogging).

For background, here is a brief summary of my understanding of sex positive feminist beliefs with regard to sexual behaviours, from my previous blog:

  1. Sex Positivism is about informed consenting sexual activity.
  2. Sex Positivism is not about moral judgements.
  3. Sex Positivism is about fostering healthy attitudes towards one’s body and one’s sexuality.
  4. Sex Positivism is about autonomy over one’s own body.
  5. Sex Positivism is about accepting that people, all people, of all shapes, sizes, sexualities etc. are sexual beings and have a right to express their sexuality without moral judgement or impingement.

‘Prostitute’ is the only job title which is considered an insult (except maybe ‘banker’), and it is gendered.  Male prostitutes exist, but the gender has to be stated in order for it to be understood the worker is male, either that or such terms as ‘rent boy’, ‘escort or ‘gigolo’ are employed.  For male prostitutes, the assumption is that it is a gay activity, and homophobia comes in to play, or their job is seen as servicing older woman and possibly is a good thing, because of course men are supposed to be highly sexed and are ‘allowed’ to have sex with more than one partner without being married or in an emotionally attached relationship.  Women do employ prostitutes, increasingly so as it becomes more acceptable for women to have sex lives, but still there is the slut/stud dichotomy that is never so obvious in relation to sex workers.  I see ‘prostitute’ as a job title akin to my own (Litigation Assistant according to my firm’s website), and that is how the term is being used in this blog.

In order for legalisation of prostitution to work, social attitudes towards gender/sexuality and sex must change.  As was shown when Amsterdam legalised the sex industry, social attitudes were not addressed and this meant any complaints of abuse made by the prostitutes were subject to the same discriminations as before.  If the law is changed, it must be enacted; many prostitutes in Amsterdam found their complaints were discounted, treated as ‘part of the job’ or it was considered they had ‘deserved it’.  These attitudes are prevalent with regard to sex workers.  Legalising would be a start in giving sex workers protection, but are part of the bigger change towards creating non-discriminatory attitudes towards sexuality.

If a person visits a prostitute, the reason for the visit is not the responsibility of a prostitute.  Society would not judge a plasterer, for example, who visits a property to fix damage caused by a domestic violence incident.  There are myriad reasons for employing a prostitute, none of them the responsibility of the prostitute.  Such reasons should not be an influence when making laws regarding sex work and/or prostitution.  They are more to be understood in the context of sex education, and the broader issues involved in relationship & life skills learning.

The reasons why one may become a prostitute are also myriad.  Here is where freely-given informed consent comes in.  The illegality of prostitution means it is not an option people can make when considering paid employment choices.  This means that many people who do choose the option do so from a position of desperation.  For those people, informed consent is subject to pressure and is not freely given.  Extreme debt, drug addiction, history of abuse; these all may restrict a person’s ability to give free informed consent.  However, it is possible that a person with such influences has given free informed consent; to assume not is to assume knowledge of someone one cannot have unless one is close to the prostitute.  Legalising prostitution would help people escape from the trap they may have fallen into as a result of such pressures; no criminal record would help in job applications and combined with a social policy of non-judgemental acceptance, the stigma attached to sex work would (slowly) recede.

The illegality of prostitution in part enables the abuse to continue.  Trafficked sex workers, underage sex workers – these are not sex workers and I do not agree with the reference to the same.  They are abuse victims, they are rape victims.  It is commercialised rape, and is not part of the sex work industry.  At the moment though, they are considered to be, and it is down to the fact it is a blanket illegality.  Legalising prostitution would not legalise these aspects of the industry; in fact it would free up vital resources for detecting and prosecuting these abuses.

Not forgetting our basic right to autonomy over our own bodies.  If a person chooses to become a prostitute, then it is their absolute right to do that with their body.  Any employment we may take up uses a physical part of ourselves in one way or another.  It is the moral rules built up around sex which have caused sex work to become an employment which is negatively morally judged.  There are those who have historically and do currently choose to work in the sex industry; freely and with informed consent.  It is every person’s right to make that choice, and to make that choice illegal removes a fundamental right to body autonomy.

If prostitution is to be legalised, it must be regulated and the voices of the prostitutes must be heard in designing these regulations.  The protection of both sex workers and those who employ them is paramount.  I feel it is of principal importance that the prostitute be the one with charge of their employment.  Undue pressure can be exerted by employers in the quest for profit and/or business (as I am sure we can all recognise from our experiences of legal employment, although I am currently in the blissful position of loving my paid employment and being able to respect those for whom I work; I am fully aware of how lucky I am!).  The prostitute must be in charge of deciding what services they will or will not offer.  It may be that contracts between the prostitute and employer of their services should be drawn up; the practicalities of such arrangements notwithstanding, it would provide the prostitute with further protection in the victim-blaming sexual abuse culture we currently endure and ensure the client has a clear understanding of what they have contracted to partake in.  Regular STD testing would be required and legalising sex work would make access to such services and certificating the same (as is already part of the porn industry) far easier.

There would no longer be a fear for the prostitute who wishes to utilise the safety of collectivism and group protection which at the moment leaves them open to charges of running brothels.  The illegality of prostitution forces many to put themselves into dangerous situations, which again because of victim-blaming sexual abuse culture means if they are attacked or abused they have little or no recourse.  The worker on the street or the woman ‘employed’ by a pimp is in potential danger, and can have free informed choice taken from them at least in part (I am not ignoring the impact sex stereotypes has on this) because of the illegality of their job.

The illegality of prostitution in itself can make it titillating (for those who find the sense of disapproval and illicit thrill titillating).  The success of Belle du Jour, best-selling books and two TV series and counting, and the eroticism of ‘high class’ prostitutes introduces a peculiar dichotomy; on the one hand she is titillating, naughty, the ‘acceptable’ face of selling sex, on the other hand she is selling sex, she is a prostitute and all that job title implies.  How is it that she can remain illegal and yet be so acceptable?  Many of those people who enjoy the books and TV series are those who wish prostitution to remain illegal.  As long as the idea of a prostitute who freely chose that job is fictionalised, it seems it is acceptable.

Of course, legalising sex work will not result in overnight societal change.  I believe any results from such changes may take two or three generations to begin to emerge.  But for the safety of those already in the industry, for the perpetuation of gendered and homophobic stereotyping, for the right to body autonomy we all have, for the development of a sexually non-judgemental society, for all the reasons I have given, legalising and regulating sex work should happen.

From → Ideology

  1. Having moved from the Netherlands to Thailand, this is definitely a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. I agree that legalizing has many positive aspects and I believe there is definitely a better situation in Amsterdam (f. ex.) than here in Bangkok (where, people might not know it, prostituition is actually illegal). We have to fight human trafficking, child prostitution, forced and bonded labour and all the ugly stuff which is connected with prostitution in order to make things better, not criminalize prostitution (it won’t go away…). Good thoughts of yours!

  2. legalising would (and has been proven to) raise levels of trafficking and criminality, not decrease it (Holland and Germany). Legislation has to care about the vulnerable, the exploited, whose lives would get worse, not better with legalisation.

    You should work as a prostitute for a bit to get a proper insight. Give it a shot. You might love it. What’s not to love about it?

    • I’d be interested to see where those increases are documented – did they regulate the industry at the same time, in the way I say is essential to do if legalising happens?

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