Legalised prostitution: a failed experiment

Secret Diaries of a Call Girl, centering on the life of call girl turned blogger Belle de Jour, debuted on New Zealand television screens in early 2008. Belle’s life is rather complicated, as the title of the show insinuates. To her family and friends, Belle lives a very normal and modest professional life as a receptionist, yet viewers quickly discover that her day job is merely a front for her more illustrious job as a high-class prostitute. Her sexual escapades can get her into a tangle at times, but nothing a sex savvy post-modern woman couldn’t handle. In fact, Belle appears to be doing quite well for herself. She’s emotionally stable, more financially secure than most young women in their mid-twenties, and when it comes to her sexual rendezvous, she is the one in control. The underlying message: prostitution is a great career choice for any daring young woman seeking to earn a few extra bucks and have a bit of fun on the job. 

Yet the alluring lifestyle portrayed in Secret Diaries is in stark contrast to the world of prostitution unraveled by the Australian feminist scholar Mary Lucille Sullivan in her meticulously researched Making Sex Work. In fact, using the state of Victoria as a case study, Sullivan demonstrates that prostitution is anything but empowering for women who fall victim to it. In 1984, under the premiership of John Cain, Victoria was among the first states in the world to legalise prostitution. Advocates argued that legalisation was the only way forward if the state wanted to protect the rights of women. It would ensure access to the best sexual health, protect women and children from the woes of street prostitution, and allow those who wanted to leave the sex trade access to state-sanctioned exit programmes. Sullivan’s analysis of the first two decades of the new "industry" in Victoria provides more that enough evidence to suggest the experiment has failed; legalisation has neither decreased demand for prostituted women nor has it managed to curb the market for illegal prostitutes. In addition, decriminalisation has stimulated a growth in child prostitution and sex trafficking, forcing many women and children into sexual servitude.

According to Sullivan, this failure was inevitable since prostitution, whether illegal or legal, is fundamentally a human rights violation. Prostitution can never be liberating, she argues, as women and children frequently only have recourse to it as a last-ditch survival option. In other words, the choice to enter the industry is at best a constrained decision based on inequalities between prostituted women and men buying sex. Essentially, Sullivan explains the occurrence of prostitution by employing the theoretical tools of radical feminism, characterising it as a form of patriarchal violence which serves big business and male clientele. Within this framework, the law is viewed as an instrument in the hands of the patriarchy. Thus, it comes as no surprise to Sullivan that, in debating the merits of legalisation of prostitution, the state was willing to dialogue only with feminist groups in favour of legalisation.

Sullivan argues that by the 1980s the women’s movement had almost wholly abandoned the notion that prostitution could be characterised as a form of patriarchal violence and began to explain abuses in post-modern terms. Post-modern feminists argued that both historical and contemporary constructions of prostitution as deviant sexual behaviour had enforced a set of social and legal conditions that denied prostituted women their full human rights. They argued that, rather than prostitution per se being harmful to women, it was the restrictive legal framework and social stigma that infringed upon the rights of women within the industry. Thus, they rejected the harm minimising strategy endorsed by socialist feminists and embraced the idea that, in order to provide advocacy, they should concern themselves with the rights of prostitutes as a beleaguered sexual minority.

The Prostitutes Collective of Victoria (PCV), the foremost advocacy group in Victoria, epitomises this shift in strategy. While in favour of legalisation, the group held the opinion that legalisation would minimise the harm inflicted on prostituted women through the provision of exit programmes, better access to healthcare and safer “work” environments. Yet by the late 1980s the group had adopted a strategy with a more Foucaultian flavour. This occurred for two reasons. Firstly, the PCV forged an alliance with the gay liberation movement, united by the common goal of preventing the spread of the aids virus. Secondly, the PVC acknowledged that in order to grow and legitimate itself, its only option was to allow itself to be co-opted and inevitably become dependent on the State. In order to fill a need, the PCV was transformed from a women’s advocacy group to the leading heath provider for the sex industry. Accordingly, the PCV adopted the line that its role was to promote prostitutes rights as sexual rights, completely abandoning the idea that prostitution was an intrinsic human rights violation.

Instead, the exploitative nature of prostitution was considered to be tied to occupational abuses. Prostitution was now a free business exchange between consenting adults and therefore no different to any other form of work. Within this context, sexual, physical and emotional abuses were to be considered labour issues and infringements of worker rights. Feminists Maryanne Phoenix and Ruth Frenzil affirmed that the exploitative nature of prostitution will be "eradicated when society viewed sex work as an industry". Thus, while in any other “profession” rape would be classed as sexual assault, within the prostitution industry it was reduced to an occupational hazard.

Sullivan asserts that attempting to explain abuse in these terms accounts for the failure of feminism to achieve its expressed goals within the current legal framework -- namely, to provide a safe and non-exploitative prostitution “workplace” and establish exit programs for the many women who wanted to leave the industry. On the contrary, a comprehensive study on prostitution undertaken by Feminist psychologist Melissa Farley demonstrates that prostitution is, in fact, innately harmful. In her study of prostitution in five countries, Farley found that "violence [physical assault and rape] and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were widely prevalent among the 475 prostituted people interviewed. Sixty-seven percent met the criteria for PTSD." As Farley argues, there were no differences in the incidence of this pathology among four of the five countries, which suggests that the harm of prostitution is not a culture bound phenomenon.

One of Sullivan’s most disturbing points is that, while women in the industry do not seem to be benefiting from legalisation, big business and the state continue to reap economic benefits. One of the biggest misconceptions was that legalisation would contain the industry, rid the industry of the criminal activity directly connected to it and prevent persons from living solely off the profits of prostitution. Soaring economic growth rates have proven to be a barrier to achieving these goals. The prostitution industry has become the highest economic growth area in the state of Victoria: from 1984 to 2004 sexual service providers rose from 40 to 184 and illegal prostitution is estimated to be at a minimum four times the size of state-sanctioned prostitution. More women have been drawn into prostitution to cater to the increasing demand for sex services, which over time has ensured rising profits. The state has directly profited from the expansion of the industry, collecting licensing fees and taxation as well as through the promotion of prostitution tourism. The monies collected from licensing by the state were intended to fund exit programmes for women who wanted to leave the industry, yet no such programmes were ever created. This is rather ironic, Sullivan argues, as the original act stated that it was illegal to live solely or in part of the profits of prostitution.

Sullivan does not just outline the woes of legalised prostitution but also suggests a solution based on the Swedish legal model, which has proved successful in containing the industry and assisting prostituted women in leaving the industry. The way forward, she argues, is to decriminalise prostitution for women trapped in the industry and make it a prosecutable offence for the men who choose to buy sex. There are measurable indications that this strategy has significantly reduced prostitution and curtailed sex trafficking. Gunilla Ekberg, Sweden’s special advisor on prostitution and trafficking, has analysed the effect of Sweden’s model and found that across the country street prostitution has fallen by 30 to 50 percent and the recruitment of women has ceased. Furthermore, Sweden’s strategy has effectively curtailed human trafficking of women to work in the sex industry; while other Scandinavian countries have seen an increase in sex trafficking, Sweden’s numbers have remained relatively constant.

Overall, Sullivan’s rigorously researched Making Sex Work makes for a provocative read. However, her application of radical feminist tools to explain the phenomenon of prostitution, particularly the idea of patriarchy, was not as convincing as her empirical evidence on the woes of legalised prostitution. Prostitution is indeed violence against women but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it originates from a dialectical struggle between woman and her male counterpart. In fact, statistics suggest that males also are harmed by prostitution. For example, while men may be the largest consumers of sexual services, addiction to pornography and commercial sex is the third biggest cause of debt in the United Kingdom, and relationship therapists are seeing an increasing number of men suffering from sexual addiction. Prostitution thus appears innately harmful and degrading for the human person, whether male or female. And while the Swedish solution addresses the exploitation of women directly through the implementation of exit programmes, it is important also to address the damage done to men who indulge in the industry.

For this to occur, however, the discussion of prostitution has to be lifted to a philosophical plane where claims about sexual rights on the one hand, and patriarchal power struggles on the other, can be examined in the context of the meaning and dignity of human sexuality. Radical feminism’s dialectical approach is incapable of acknowledging the mutual harm to both parties involved in the trade.

Pauline Cooper is a recent graduate of the University of Auckland with an interest in radical histories. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.


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