The article first appeared in Malta Today
All this talk of strip clubs and nude joints where men flock to, either to just watch a pole dancer, or to get a lap dance or to pay for sex, has inevitably led to a discussion about the other side of the coin. What about the women who work in the sex industry themselves?
Feminists have long debated this issue, along with the parallel topic of the porn industry. Are women being exploited; are their bodies simply cheap, disposable merchandise which is exchanged for cold, hard cash to make some pimp or shady businessman even richer?
Or are strippers, prostitutes and porn stars actually the “ultimate” feminists because they have control over their own bodies and sexuality and have gone down this route of their own free will, choosing this form of ‘employment’ to turn their assets into money?
Basically, are they victims or willing participants?
Even societies much more liberal and open-minded than ours can ever hope to be, still cannot get to the bottom of this question, which has vexed them for many decades. Many studies have been carried out to try and unravel the perspective of the women themselves, which is at the core of the ‘sex for cash’ debate, while countries across the world have experimented with different methods to determine whether the controversial issue of legitimizing the sex industry actually works .
Take Germany, which in 2002 legalized prostitution, something which has been suggested time and again by those who think that by making the oldest profession in the world into just another employment opportunity, the whole industry will be above board and much safer. Legitimizing it, so the theory goes, will strip it of its dark, underworld connotations, and it will cease to be so sleazy, exploitative and downright dangerous for the women involved. But the question is, has this actually happened?
According to an excellent article which was passed on to me, entitled, “Welcome to Paradise”, the reality is quite different. The author, Nisha Lilia Diu actually visited the mega brothels and other sex establishments which have seen a boom in the last 15 years. To quote from the article:
“The idea of the law, passed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrat-Green coalition, was to recognise prostitution as a job like any other. Sex workers could now enter into employment contracts, sue for payment and register for health insurance, pension plans and other benefits. Exploiting prostitutes was still criminal but everything else was now above board. Two female politicians and a Berlin madam were pictured clinking their champagne glasses in celebration.
It didn’t work.
“Nobody employs prostitutes in Germany,” says (brothel owner) Mr. Beretin. According to the author, none of the authorities she spoke to had ever heard of a prostitute suing for payment, either. And only 44 prostitutes have registered for benefits.
What did happen, she points out, was the opening of Europe’s biggest brothel – the 12-storey, neon-wrapped Pascha in Cologne. “Not to mention a rash of FKK, or “naked”, clubs where men can spend the evening drifting between the sauna, the bar and the bedrooms. Bargain-hunters might try the “flat rate” brothels, where an entry fee of between 50-100 euros buys you unlimited sex with as many women as you want, or cruise the caravans at motorway truck stops, or the drive-through “sex boxes” in the street-walking zones.”
This then, was the result of lifting the stamp of illegality from prostitution in Germany, which according to the brothel owners whom Ms Du interviewed, has only served to make the Government richer . What about other countries? According to the article, “The Netherlands legalised prostitution two years before Germany, just after Sweden had gone the other way and made the purchase of sex a criminal offence. Norway adopted the Swedish model – in which selling sex is permitted but anyone caught buying it is fined or imprisoned – in 2009. Iceland has followed suit, and France and Ireland look set to do the same.”
The idea of criminalizing the buyer of sex, rather than the prostitute, is an EU anti-trafficking directive in order to reduce human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution. As for the prostitutes themselves, the surge of Eastern European prostitutes who are willing to work for lower rates, has pushed prices down, which means that in the ‘sex boxes’ women are willing to engage in sex for as little as ten Euro.
At Pascha, the prostitutes are actually tenants, paying 175 euros for 24 hours’ use of a room. They will need to sleep with at least four men to break even.
There are no employment contracts with the brothel because both sides want to save on social security contributions. When a self-employed prostitute does try to get health insurance, she finds that the high premiums (500 Euro a month) due to the risky nature of the job are prohibitive.
Undoubtedly there will always be a demand for sexual in exchange for cash and Malta is no exception From the grim Testaferrata street in Gzira where haggard prostitutes used to sit outside waiting for customers to those now loitering in the Marsa area, to the more glamorous sheen of the euphemistically-named ‘Gentlemen’s Clubs’ which have taken over Paceville, there will always be men wanting to buy sex and women always willing to sell their bodies. They sell themselves openly on the internet catering for any kind of fetish imaginable, which also includes those selling their virginity. Like any other consumer item which relies on supply and demand, there is a whole world out there for whoever wants to look for it, which trades in human flesh.
Sometimes the women are coerced into the industry after they are brought to a European country under false pretenses (as also happens in Malta), and sometimes they walk into the role with their eyes wide open, telling themselves it will only be for a short while, until they have saved enough money “to get out”.
In interviews carried out with prostitutes, even those who are high-class escorts, it is very rare to find someone who says she is happy to keep doing this job for the rest of her life. I cannot put it any better than this statement from a paper by Janice G. Raymond, which was published in 2003 entitled Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution:
: “… dignifying prostitution as work doesn’t dignify the women, it simply dignifies the sex industry. People often don‟t realize that decriminalization means decriminalization of the whole sex industry, not just the women in it. And they haven’t thought through the consequences of legalizing pimps as legitimate sex entrepreneurs or third party businessmen, or the fact that men who buy women for sexual activity are now accepted as legitimate consumers of sex.”
This is the point which is often missed by those who advocate for the right of women to sell their bodies for money. How much of a choice is it, really? As also pointed out in the above paper:
“Most women in prostitution did not make a rational choice to enter prostitution from among a range of other options. They did not sit down one day and decide that they wanted to be prostitutes… Instead, their “options” were more in the realm of how to feed themselves and their children. Such choices are better termed survival strategies. Rather than consenting to prostitution, a prostituted woman more accurately complies with the extremely limited options available to her. Her compliance is required by the fact of having to adapt to conditions of inequality that are set by the customer who pays her to do what he wants her to do.”
As for those who attempt to equate prostitution as simply another “lifestyle choice”, perhaps what they should ask themselves is whether they would be OK with their daughter or other female relative doing it?