The ultimate free market: selling herself

What is the price of a woman? In London a man may buy the services of a prostitute for £150 to £400, depending on what he wants from her. But this is not only a question about the price a woman may put on her sex. Increasingly it refers to the price her pimp has paid for the girl herself – body and soul, so to speak.(1)

Under-cover investigations by Britain’s Sunday Telegraph have revealed that a young woman may be bought in eastern Europe for as little as £1300. Criminal gangs run a modern slave market in which girls are lured from impoverished post-Communist countries with promises of jobs as waitresses, dancers or au pairs – or simply bullied into leaving home. They are beaten and raped and kept in cellars before being on-sold to prostitution rackets in London and other destinations. Up to 6000 women are said to have been brought to Britain and forced into the sex trade in recent years. About 1500 traffickers were arrested there last year.(2)

In Germany, where prostitution has been legalised, brothel owners and prostitute collectives are excited by the prospect of a business boom when the World Cup is held in their country next year. “We expect some great revenues,” says an official of the Hydra prostitute advice centre in Berlin. But women’s groups, church leaders and trade unionists have warned that thousands of women – as many as 40,000 – could be smuggled in from eastern Europe for the series, many of them coerced into prostitution or duped by criminal gangs. Football leaders seem unconcerned.(3 ) Already there are an estimated 500,000 such women in western Europe.

A similar trade involves women from Southeast Asia and Latin America who are trafficked to Japan, Australia, China, Hong Kong and elsewhere. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are 12.3 million people enslaved in forced or bonded labour at present and that about 2.4 million are victims of the trafficking industry, whose annual income is worth about $10 billion.(4) According to a new report, at least half of these would be victims of forced prostitution.(5)

A legitimate form of commerce?
Ancient, if not honourable: �Babylonian Marriage Market�, by Edwin Long (1875) Of course, not all prostitutes are trafficked. But the question forced on us by the new slave trade is, how free are all the others? Do the “cellar girls” of Macedonia represent a completely different “industry” to the usual prostitution scene, or do the two exist on a continuum, one preparing the ground for the other?

According to the influential British magazine The Economist they are completely different and the attempt to link them is a ploy to reimpose moralistic laws on a legitimate form of commerce, which it describes in the following way: “Two adults enter a room, agree a price, and have sex. Has either committed a crime? Common sense suggests not: sex is not illegal in itself, and the fact that money has changed hands does not turn a private act into a social menace. If both parties consent, it is hard to see how either is a victim.”(6)

Only puritanical moralising and unrealistic law-making prevent this “pure” form of the sex market with its freely consenting adults from becoming the norm, the paper argues.

Many governments seem to agree. Putting (puritanical) morality to one side, the Netherlands and the Australian state of Victoria, for example, have legalised brothels – subject to licensing – and given prostitutes the opportunity to be unionised, tax-paying workers like everyone else. Street soliciting remains illegal, although the Netherlands has experimented with tolerance zones.

Failed experiments
Admittedly, the rationale for these moves was not laissez-faire economics but to provide more control over criminal behaviour and to ensure that women were protected from violence and exploitation. On those grounds, at least, legalisation has failed.

A report for the Scottish Parliament in 2003 states: “Neither of these aims seems to have been achieved, with organised crime, including trafficking, flourishing in both localities, and the illegal layers of the industry continuing to accommodate women who are funding drug addiction.” It was estimated that up to 200 were “under contract” in Victoria [Australia] at any one time, and several licensed brothels there had used trafficked women.(7) In legalised regimes, street prostitution continues, under-age girls are recruited, and local communities are unhappy to have what The Economist admits “may be a grubby business” under their noses.

The trouble, says the paper, is that reforms have not gone far enough. Requirements like the registration of prostitutes spoil the free market model. With a completely laissez-faire approach, “[b]rothels would develop reputations worth protecting. Access to health care would improve – an urgent need, given that so many prostitutes come from diseased parts of the world.” Abuses such as child or forced prostitution should then be treated as the crimes they are – nothing essentially to do with prostitution.

This vision of “brothels with brands” standing aloof from the criminal world appears to have materialised in Berlin, where a €5 million brothel has just opened in 3000 square meters of a refurbished warehouse. The four-story building will accommodate up to 100 prostitutes and 650 male clients. Its owners will demand that its “sex workers” provide their tax numbers and proof of permission to work in the European Union. Oh, and how lucky that the main World Cup venue is just three train stops away. “Football and sex belong together,” opines the brothel operators’ lawyer. Nice bit of branding going on there.(8)

Modern slavery
But it takes more than work permits, tax numbers and marketing slogans to make women in the sex trade free. The evidence, in fact, suggests that a free prostitute is a contradiction in terms, a fantasy existing only in the libertarian mind of The Economist and its fellow travellers. Prostitution is a form of slavery and trafficking has only made that obvious.

It is true that most prostitutes are not trafficked, but most of them now are immigrants – more than 90 per cent in Spain, which is currently debating the problem. Trying to escape poverty, women enter such countries more or less legally and cannot find other work. Spanish trade union leaders say the women work in virtual slavery and they want the trade legalised and regulated in order to protect women and their rights as workers.(9)

The Spanish Feminist Party agrees about the slavery but disagrees about the solution. A representative, Silvia Cuerdas, says legalising prostitution is the same as legalising sexual abuse because the vast majority of women do not want to be in the trade. Only five per cent willingly sell sex and the rest have been forced into it, says Ms Cuerdas. Her figure tallies with research in San Francisco which found that 89 per cent of women in prostitution wanted out but were trapped by violence, addictions and hopelessness.(10) The Scottish Parliament report notes that 79 per cent of prostitutes in the Netherlands want to get out.

Even without trafficked women and immigrants, women in the sex trade typically come from backgrounds which severely limit their freedom. Common characteristics of prostitutes as outlined in a British Government discussion paper include: high levels of physical and sexual abuse in the family; poor school attendance and time spent in care; homelessness and having run away from home; drug use – as many as 95 per cent of those in street-based prostitution are believed to use heroin or crack.(11) Women like this are not free agents. Nor are those who, from a young age today, are groomed by people exploiting the opportunities of the internet.

Searching for domination
And what of the “clients”? Are they free men looking for an equal with whom they can have some simple sex? On the contrary, a recent pastoral document from the Catholic Church states: “It is clear from research that men increasingly seek out prostitutes for reasons of domination rather than for sexual gratification. In social and personal relationships they experience a loss of power and of masculinity and are unable to develop relationships of mutuality and respect. They seek out prostitutes because it gives them an experience of total domination and control of a woman for a specific period of time.”(12)

One international survey showed that there are men who prefer “young and unfree persons because they are more docile”.(13) Ultimately the relationship is unequal because the physical dominance of the male always has the potential for force and violence.

Who, really, is the woman who sells her body? The pastoral document referred to above says unequivocally she is a victim. “She is a human being, in many cases crying for help because selling her body on the street is not what she would choose to do voluntarily. She is torn apart, she is dead psychologically and spiritually. Each person has a different story, mainly one of violence, abuse, mistrust, low self-esteem, fear, lack of opportunities. Each has experienced deep wounds that need to be healed. What are they looking for? They seek relationships, love, security, affection, affirmation and a better future for themselves and for their families. They want to escape from poverty and lack of opportunities and they want to build a future.”

Legalisation does not help them achieve freedom but condones their exploitation. Recognising this, Sweden has turned its back on three decades of legalised brothels and massage parlours and criminalised the buying of sex. The selling of sex has been decriminalised with the aim of motivating women to get out of the trade without risking punishment. Ample funds have been made available for exit strategies, including drug and alcohol treatment, and for education of the public. The law, which sends a clear message to men and boys that recourse to prostitution is unacceptable, is supported by 80 per cent of people in opinion polls.(14)

For some time now developed countries have looked to Scandinavia for models of sexual enlightenment and liberation. It would pay the liberal West to keep looking that way. If Sweden can see that when a woman puts a price on her body she is not free – in any way – then perhaps the rest of us can.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland.

 (1) Sunday Telegraph (London), November 11, 2005
 (2) Sunday Telegraph (London), November 27, 2005
 (3) Deutsche Welle, December 3, 2005
 (4) A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour, ILO, 2005
 (5) Women in an Insecure World, Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), November, 2005
 (6) “Sex is their business,” The Economist, September 2, 2004
 (7)Julie Bindel and Liz Kelly. “A Critical Examination of Responses to Prostitution in Four Countries…”  Submission to Scottish Parliamenty inquiry. February 4, 2004.
 (8) Deutsche Welle, Dec 3
 (9) Deutsche Welle, May 28, 2005
 (10) Donna Hughes, “Woman’s Wrongs,” National Review Online, October 20, 2004
 (11) Paying the Price, British Home Office, July 2004
(12) “Church’s Strategy to Help Women of the Street,” Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, July 2005
 (13) A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor, ILO, 2005
 (14) “A Critical Examination of Responses to Prostitution in Four Countries…”


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.