Prostitution : Rights of Women or right to women ?
- octobre 2003
par Elaine Audet
Stella, a Montreal group created in 1995 that advocates for the
rights of prostitutes, has demanded that prostitution be completely
decriminalised and that there be recognition of " sex workers. " This
position is not accepted unanimously. In fact, for most feminists,
prostitution is seen as a consequence of the sexual exploitation of
women and constitutes a violation of human rights. From this
perspective, it is necessary to abolish prostitution and criminalise
customers (johns) and pimps.
In this necessarily short article, I will focus on prostitution by
adult women, touching only incidentally men's and children's
prostitution and transnational traffic in women.
Since the seventies, there has been a trend towards recognition of
the concept of " sex workers " in Quebec, Europe and the United
States. Viewing prostitutes as "sex workers" suggests that they are
merely labourers providing a "social" service and should be given,
therefore, the same rights as other exploited workers who are crushed
by the forces of globalisation, and turned into marketable objects.
In Quebec, members of Stella have spoken the loudest in favour of the
liberalisation of prostitution. They reject the idea that prostitutes
should be treated as victims and say that most prostitutes have
freely chosen this role, finding in their work a source of
empowerment. No doubt, prostitutes have great courage. Testimonies
from these women, such as that in Jeanne Cordelier's memoirs of
prostitution, highlight this : " When the door of the room bangs,
there's no escape... Dead end, no emergency exit (1). " But despite
this courage, and the claims of Stella, there is room for scepticism,
especially when data from an international study show that 92% of the
prostitutes would leave prostitution if they could (2).
A gradual slide toward dehumanisation
In debates about prostitution, all words are loaded, in particular
the concepts of rights, free choice, sexual workers. Concerning the
latter, for example, the French ex-prostitute, Agnès Laury, believes
that seeing these women as " merchandise sold by men to men " (3)
would be closer to their reality.
We live in a consumerist/consuming society where priority goes to
individualism and to the unrestrained consumption of people and
things, the ne plus ultra becoming for us to consume one another. In
such a context, viewing prostitutes as sex workers erases feminist
opposition to the marketing of women on a global scale. It allows the
johns to assert that women do this by "choice," even by "taste,"
thereby hiding what all studies demonstrate : that women prostitute
themselves out of necessity.
Patriarchal culture rests on the principle that the unique duty, and
source of power, of women is to satisfy men sexually in marriage or
by prostitution. The existence of prostitution, and viewing it
as "sex work," hides the extent of this sexual slavery and reinforces
the notion that women are simply interchangeable objects that must be
accessible and ready for all men at all time and everywhere.
The interests at stake
When we consider who would profit from the liberalisation of
prostitution, it becomes clear that it would NOT be prostitutes or
women in general. Rather, the beneficiaries will be pimps, dealers,
organised crime, customers, and all those who view sexuality as but a
mechanical act, deprived of reciprocity and of any responsibility.
Liberalisation will only benefit those, whatever their social status,
who want to be able to purchase power over a woman.
Of course, it is impossible to speak about prostitutes as a whole ;
their situations will differ considerably according to whether they
are call girls, escorts, or nude dancers ; whether they work on the
streets or in massage salons ; whether they are autonomous, or must
give most of the money they earn to a pimp.
Girls are often recruited for prostitution at about age thirteen when
many of them have been made vulnerable by violence, poverty,
unemployment, and drugs in the environments where they live. The
majority have experienced forced dressage by pimps or members of
street gangs who seek to depersonalise a woman until she loses the
ability to act on her own initiative or even to think for herself.
Many girls have spent time in shelters, reform houses or prisons ;
more than half are drug addicts. Living in and experiencing such
circumstances, how can one talk about a girl's/woman's free choice to
On an international scale, revenues from prostitution are about $72
billion a year, now more lucrative than the traffic in weapons and
drugs. This translates into millions of dollars in Canada, where a
pimp collects on average $144,000 a year from each of his prostitutes
(4). Although, 5,000 to 10,000 persons in Montreal make their living
in the prostitution business, many others have some interest in the
expansion of such a profitable market. And given their connections,
these potential prostitution-profiteers have the financial and media
resources to deflect legitimate critique of prostitution and to
exaggerate the importance of division within the feminist movement by
adopting the position of a "free choice" minority who pretends to
speak for all prostitutes. In so doing, they mostly only support
liberalisation to retain their own control.
The merchandised body
The present movement for the liberalisation of prostitution is rooted
in the general movement to liberalise trade, and serves this neo-
liberal approach by framing prostitution as "good" for the economy.
Thus, in the media and at the UN, there is an increasing tendency to
present the sex industry as a solution to economic problems or, even
more, as a road toward development.
In this regard, it is of interest that the UN-based International
Labor Organization (ILO) promoted a 1998 report that supported the
legalisation of prostitution because : " the possibility of an
official recognition would be extremely useful for extending the
taxation net to cover many of the lucrative activities connected with
it (5). " This position is clearly an admission that sex is an
industry and that it can contribute directly and indirectly, and in
extensive ways, to employment, national income, and economic growth.
Prostitution constitutes one of the most violent forms of collective
oppression of women and, with but a few exceptions, it is always
under the coercive control of pimps (6). Therefore, how can we invoke
the free use of one's own body as a human right when the conditions
in which prostitution is practised are such as to violate explicitly
the respect and dignity of the person recognised by the Convention
for the "Repression of traffic in human beings and the exploitation
of someone else's prostitution," adopted December 2nd 1949 by the
United Nations ?
Many prostitutes, breaking the general "law of silence" enveloping
them, have spoken out about their constant exposure to all kinds of
humiliations, physical and sexual aggression, and theft, as well as
to the "Russian roulette" of forced sexual relations without condoms
or other protections. And even if not all men are violent, those
seeking sex with a prostitute necessarily buy the power to be violent
with impunity. " I was afraid, conscious that the situation could
become uncontrollable at any moment ", says a prostitute from Quebec
(7). Moreover, " The beaten girls who do not lodge a complaint have
integrated the message society is sending back to them that
prostitution is a package deal...that one must accept even the
unacceptable (8). " For how long will the right of men continue to be
systematically confused with the Human Rights ?
Many arguing for the total liberalisation of prostitution try to
discredit feminists who are opposed to this position by saying the
latter are moralising, their discourses, thereby, victimising and
stigmatising prostitutes. Nevertheless, the neo-abolitionists are not
responsible for prostitutes' working conditions or for the hostility
of those who see their neighbourhood transformed in an open market
for women and drugs. Because we have not been able to extirpate a
problem's causes, must we legitimate its consequences ?
Trails for action
No individual can remain indifferent to a problem which, in the end,
concerns and touches us all. It is clear that whatever else it does,
the liberalisation of prostitution (and of pimps and customers) as
demanded by Stella, will not provide a real alternative to the
growing misery of prostitutes and might, instead, only make things
Similarly, with the Bloc Quebecois's proposition for a return to
brothels. This "solution" would have the state become the principle
pimp, a parallel to how the state has replaced the Mafia in
provincial casinos. The example of the Netherlands shows that
legalisation institutionalises and legitimates the sex " industry ",
lets pimps masquerade as "foremen" and legal "entrepreneurs," and
rationalises the marketing of prostitutes locally or transnationally.
The only hope for improving the lot of prostitutes and ending the
marketing of women resides in the example provided by Sweden which,
in 1999, passed legislation that criminalised pimps and customers,
but not the prostitutes. This policy led to a reduction by half in
the number of prostitutes, even if it did not succeed in completely
eradicating underground prostitution. However, the Swedish government
continues to pursue its efforts by constantly injecting new funds for
detoxification programs, for the reinsertion of prostitutes, and for
educating customers. Of interest, and encouraging, is that the
European Lobby of Women, comprising around 3500 groups, has urged the
adoption by other governments of a position similar to that of Sweden
In Quebec, there is a consensus that governments at all levels should
cease acting toward prostitutes as if they were criminals and,
instead, give them access to the health, social, legal, and police
services they are requesting. Debates arise between groups on the
subject of criminalising the customers, the pimps being already
subject to Canadian laws, even if these have so far been applied only
in very limited ways.
In establishing policy here, Quebec can find inspiration in the
Swedish experience and in the approaches of cities such as Toronto
and Vancouver where there are efforts to give prostitutes the help
and protection they need, to put in place means of resistance to
pimps and dealers (often the same), and to dissuade and sensitise
customers. The abolition of prostitution can only be a long term
objective, but we need now to question all social, economic, and
sexual relations of domination, and take immediate steps to fight
poverty and violence against women.
" To come out of it," says ex-prostitute Agnes Laury, "one needs an
unshakeable will not to go back on the sidewalk, to be helped and
mostly to be totally cut off from the milieu " (10). In short,
to "come out of it" is to pass from the status of victim to that of "
survivor ", of a woman who fights. It is time for us all to break the
silence about the buying of sexual services and to ask if it is not
really the discretionary power of men to sexual violence that
underlies prostitution, not women's choice. Analysing prostitution
this way is not a matter of puritanism, but of asking fundamental
ethical questions about the marketing of humans. Instead of invoking
a "free choice" to sell one's body to justify prostitution, couldn't
we call for the humanity principle, to a freely accepted limit on
using humans as merchandise, such as was done in the face of slavery,
to abolish the marketing of both sexuality and reproduction ?
1 Françoise Guénette, entrevue avec Gunilla Ekberg, « Le modèle
suédois », Gazette des femmes, mars-avril 2002, Vol. 23, no 6.
2 Jeanne Cordelier, La dérobade, Paris, Hachette, 1976.
3 Agnès Laury, Le cri du corps, Paris, Pauvert, 1981.
4 Conseil du statut de la femme, La prostitution : profession ou
exploitation ? Une réflexion à poursuivre, juin 2002. Gazette des
femmes . Ce document est disponible en version intégrale (pdf) ou en
version synthèse (pdf).
5 Lin Lean Lim, The Sex Sector : The Economic and Social Bases of
Prostitution in Southeast Asia, Genève, Organisation internationale
du travail (OIT), 1998.
Janice Raymond, Legitimating prostitution as sex work : UN Labor
Organization (ILO) calls for recognition of the sex industry, 1998
6 Delphine Saubaber, « Paroles d'anciennes », L'Express, 22.08.02.
7 La parole aux prostituées
9 Françoise Guénette, entrevue avec Gunilla Ekberg, « Le modèle
suédois », Gazette des femmes, mars-avril 2002, Vol. 23, no 6.
10 Les survivantes