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Not Work, Not Crime: Who are the True Agents in Prostitution?

By Daisy Kler
November 2010

In my practice of feminism I view prostitution as a form of violence against women, racialized misogyny, and a form of exploitation that capitalizes on women’s oppression. I come to this opinion as a feminist, south Asian anti-violence worker.

Thinking of prostitution as “sex work” lends legitimacy to prostitution. It suggests that it’s a trade like any other, with corresponding occupational hazards. This naming implies that prostitution is a free choice for women, among other viable options. Placing the onus on women, this perspective denies the responsibility of men who humiliate, degrade, and violate them even if they pay for it. Calling it work doesn’t remove the stigma attached to prostituted women, but legitimates johns and profiteers of the multinational sex industry — those who do have a choice not to exploit women. Characterizing it as a woman’s individual choice and as work conceals the violence and power relations.

In a Vancouver study, 90 percent of women engaged in prostitution said that they would exit if they could, the same percentage that reported having been assaulted in prostitution. The average age of entry into prostitution is fourteen, long before the age of consent, and between 65-90 percent of prostituted women report a history of incest. Prostitution and the issue of choice is better understood as women’s lack of choices. Few women have unconstrained choices: one in four women in Canada still faces male violence, and we earn less than men for equal work of equal value. When we consider the inequities experienced by Aboriginal or women of color, the suggestion of freedom of choice becomes even more questionable.

Prostitution reproduces racism, perpetuating it both locally and globally. All women in prostitution are viewed as commodities that perpetuate sexism and capitalize women’s poverty but women of color are “sold” to men in a particular way. You need not look far to see the flesh of women of color commodified in the prostitution industry. Just turn to the back pages of local papers to see ads for “Asian Hotties” or “Hot Latinas.” Prostitution relies on selling men a range of “exotic specialties” in the form of racialized women. Fueled by colonization and imperialism, Aboriginal women are pushed onto impoverished “reserves,” or forced to migrate to cities where prostitution is the only “choice” to survive. Similarly, women of color from the global south are forced to migrate out of poverty and trafficked into prostitution.

Prostitution, like any other capitalist enterprise, relies on supply and demand. If there was no male demand for commodified women’s bodies then prostitution would collapse. The demand creates the international trafficking of women and children. Today, prostitution is a multi-billion dollar industry, capitalizing on women’s poverty, colonization and/or racialization. Legalizing it would really only create better market conditions for men to buy and sell women, strengthening the roots of women’s exploitation.

Prostitution is a prime example of how the forces of sexism, poverty, and racism serve as a vice grip on women’s freedom. I maintain that all three issues must be addressed to abolish it. A good start would be to decriminalize prostituted women, and enforce the criminalization of johns and pimps. Legitimating this exploitation by labeling it work, does not serve the equality interests of women.

Editor’s Note: Ontario supreme court justice Susan Himel’s ruling to strike down Canadian prostitution laws in an effort to make sex work safer in Canada came after Canadian Dimension’s copy deadline.

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