Monday 19 April 2021

The world’s oldest profession; the world’s oldest argument

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It’s been around since Biblical times, and the arguments for and against have probably been around just as long. Do women have a ‘right’ to sell their bodies for money because they are theirs to sell, or is prostitution always and invariably the exploitation of the female by men? 

If one looks at it purely as an economic transaction, the woman is utilising a commodity (sexual favours) as currency in a ‘market’ which is ruled by supply and demand. If there was no demand for it, surely it would have fizzled out long ago, right? Indeed, those who have always argued that prostitution should be, if not legalised, at least decriminalised, point out that making it illegal has simply driven it underground, putting the women involved in the sex industry at an even greater risk.  There is some truth to this, because as with anything which is ‘forbidden’ or illicit, the desire for it not only grows, but it becomes even more tantalising and tempting. Furtively going to a prostitute in a seedy area of town, afraid you are going to be caught by the police and charged, can give the whole experience an even more dangerously exciting edge.  

That is why some insist that bringing it out into the open, with legalised brothels where no one has to hide and sex workers are housed in a relatively safe place, rather than streetwalking, where they are exposed to potential violence and are always in fear of being arrested for soliciting, is the best solution.  The Netherlands, for example, legalised prostitution, recognising the right of the woman to sell sex because it is ‘her body, her choice’ and this was simply another service being provided for money, like any other service.  

Decriminalising it, on the other hand, which is what this administration is advocating, is simply removing any criminal penalties for both the prostitute and her clients for engaging in sex in exchange for money. In countries where this has been implemented such as New Zealand, however, studies have shown that violence against sex workers has persisted in that country.

When the Parliamentary Secretary for Reforms Rosianne Cutajar announced that the Government will be pushing for the purchase of sex to not be considered a criminal offence, 40 NGOs who work in related fields immediately objected. They stated that ditching the often-quoted Nordic model would be a step backwards for women, would encourage sex trafficking and turn Malta into a sex tourism destination. The Nordic model approach to prostitution decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking. This approach has now been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland, and most recently, Israel.

The Nordic Model was pioneered in Sweden after extensive research. One of the researchers was Cecilie Høigård who described the findings, as quoted in

“We spent several years doing fieldwork and we developed close relationships with the prostituted women. We heard about their experiences of past abuse, extreme poverty and violence. We were prepared for these stories, because of our previous studies on outcasts and marginalized people. But what the women told us of their concrete experiences of prostitution was unexpected and shocking.

They told us what it was like to use their bodies and vaginas as rental apartments for unknown men to invade, and how this made it necessary to separate their body from their self: ‘Me and my body are two separate parts. It is not me, my feelings or my soul he f***s. I am not for sale.’ 

Basically, the ethos behind the Nordic model is that because so many of the women interviewed spoke about this need to separate their core being from what they were doing in order to cope, it was intrinsic evidence of the psychological damage being caused by the act of selling one’s body.  The conclusion of the research was that prostitution is a form of violence, that buying people for sex is wrong, and no matter which way one looks at it, it cannot be viewed as simply another transaction.  The sexual act, the giving of one’s body for physical gratification is such an intimate, personal experience, that reducing it to the handing over of cold, hard cash from a complete stranger where emotions and feelings are cut out of the picture with the precision of a surgeon’s knife, cannot but result in damage to one’s psyche. 

Following her initial statements, Ms Cutajar was then quoting as saying that, “no decision has been taken on this issue” and stressed that there was no intention to legalise brothels. But then she went on to reiterate that “we need to develop our piece of legislation, rather than copying one model or the other,” and that the position would remain the same as it is today, i.e. the client would not be committing a crime, which seems to confirm that Malta would not be adopting the Nordic model.  

And while I agree when she said that prostitution is a reality, and that sex workers should be given as much assistance as possible, I beg to differ with her statement that for some “it is a choice”.  As much as we would like to “romanticise” the industry with images of the Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman who is swept away from the ugly side of things by a rich man who falls in love with her, the truth is more gritty than that.  Similarly, attempts to try and make sex workers seem like some kind of empowered, feminist role models who are completely in charge of their own sexuality and who are willingly and consciously making money out of their assets, just do not wash. 

Even if I try to imagine a high class call girl who works out of her own luxurious apartment which she has paid for herself, who has no pimp exploiting her, and who chooses her ‘johns’ selectively, when you boil it down to its brass tacks – what she is doing remains the same. Selling herself, her core being, for cash.  Stripped away from all the glamour of her lush surroundings, she is no different from a down-and-out hooker who scrambles up the rickety steps of a sleazy apartment building every few hours with a new client in tow.   One can try and make the former seem less of a soul sucking experience than the latter, but the basic act remains the same.  

My main problem with Ms Cutajar’s belief that someone who pays for sex should not be criminalised is because we are already living in a society where human life has become much too dispensable and cheap.  Children are routinely sexually abused, women are smacked around and murdered in fits of rage,  third country nationals are used as slave labour and those who are desperate for employment accept miserable wages and appalling living conditions.  We already have brothels in disguise in the form of Chinese massage parlours, we already have girls pole dancing in gentleman’s clubs, and we have often heard stories of women brought to Malta under false pretences who are then forced into prostitution.  As long as the vulnerable exist, there will be those who are unscrupulous, who will try to take advantage and use them and abuse them. But why do we persist in making it easier for this to happen? Why are we not aiming for a Maltese society where human beings, especially  women, are respected and valued and not treated as interchangeable pieces of meat, existing solely to gratify sexual urges?  Why do we persist in appealing to the worst possible aspects of human nature?   

Honestly, I find it hard to believe that anyone sets out in life to be a prostitute, especially in the long-term. Even though the lure of easy money may sound more enticing than a boring minimum wage job, there will come a day when one wakes up and has to face in the cold light of day the grimness of what one does for a living.  Buying someone for sex should not be dismissed as if it is nothing more than buying a plastic sex doll. We need to work towards elevating the way society looks at a woman and not continue to grind her down, stripping her of her worth, reducing her to a cheap product, whose price is negotiable and whose very spirit and humanity has been crushed. 

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