With governments North and South considering changing the laws relating to prostitution, Laura Fitzgerald makes a contribution to the debate surrounding the sex industry and gives her views on what approach socialists should take to it
The sex industry represents one of the biggest growing legal and illegal industries in the world. Prostitution, as well as the sex industry as a whole, must be considered in the light of the reality of gender and class oppression and inequality under capitalism as it exists.
The majority of those who sell sex are female, and the vast majority of the buyers of sex are male. This is in the context of a global capitalist crisis in which class inequality and poverty is growing, as well as gender inequality. According to World Bank estimates, a 1% fall in economic output increases infant mortality by 7.4 deaths per 1,000 girls, against 1.5 for boys. Similarly, the crisis has resulted in a 29% fall in primary school completion for girls globally, and a corresponding 22% fall for boys.
The oppression of women has existed for many thousands of years, and specifically under capitalism, an ingrained inequality was fostered through the ideology of the patriarchal family – man at the head of the household; woman as ‘natural carer’ for the family; monogamy, or rather enforcing control of women’s sexuality within the confines of marriage in order to pass on private property through the male line. This had many beneficial repercussions for the elite within the capitalist system, including making women sources of unpaid labour and also devaluing women’s labour such that when needed, their underpayment was justified by the ideological promotion of women’s subservience to men.
Struggles of women, struggles of the labour movement – as well as the progressive impact of the en masse entering of women into the workforce in recent decades – means that such overt backward ideas about women and men are socially unacceptable, at least in general in the advanced capitalist world. Inequality remains however, and in fact is being perpetuated by the economic crisis.
Such inequality is encapsulated in two enduring realities; firstly the ongoing pay gap everywhere. In Ireland according to a recent OECD report, women earn on average 14% less than men, and this gap rises to 31% for women who have children. Secondly, the on-going social crisis and epidemic of male violence and sexual violence against women, perpetrated most often by partners, ex-partners, family members or other men known to the survivors and victims, which happens to varying degrees and scale in every country in the world.
It’s a product of a society that still has economic oppression and inequality ingrained in it. It’s an outgrowth of the continued promotion in various ways of the idea of women as subservient to men, women as objects and possessions, as well as the complex interplay of the societal promotion of other patriarchal notions about gender roles, such as men as the protector, provider and power-centre in the home.
Post-Feminism’s failings and objectification
All of this must be considered in the knowledge that in recent decades, in tandem with the utterly fallacious vogue that was post-feminism (a 1990s optimism of pro-capitalist feminists who believed that, given that most key legal obstacles to equality had been tackled in Europe for example, that equality just had to be reached out for by women – it was within their grasp as individuals), there has been an exponential rise in the corporate media’s pushing of the objectification of women and the commodification of women’s bodies. This has been a profit-motivated phenomenon – the beauty industry is big business.
Furthermore, the growth of the sex industry – both legal and illegal – has served to promote a skewed view of sexuality that confines women as objects, their bodies as commodities, and as subjects of male sexuality, needs and desires – a reflection of the oppression of women in society. This is the case with lap-dancing clubs. It’s also the case in general in the corporate pornography industry, which generally depicts a view of sexuality that relegates female sexuality to subservient to that of men. While the recording of sexual acts visually by consenting adults is in and of itself utterly harmless and a private matter, the en masse commercialisation of porn has inevitably reflected the totally exploitative and inherently patriarchal nature of the profit system that it thrives within.
The proliferation of the messages that women’s bodies are commodities, that women are sex objects, that the apotheosis of female sexuality is a loud and exaggerated fake orgasm while a woman performs a sex act that is physically dangerous and painful, are really harmful. They feed into violence against women. They perpetuate sexism. Socialists must oppose the sex industry. The labour and trade union movement should oppose the sex industry.
This has absolutely nothing in common with the conservative, moralistic or religious anti-sex brigade; rather it’s the opposition to the commercialisation of sex. Natasha Walter, in her book, Living Dolls, describes how it’s now normal practice for men to rate their prostitution experience online, with racist and misogynistic comments rife, in a gross example of sexist objectification. She also interviewed a woman who spoke about the growing influence of coercively violent pornography on her life as a prostitute, who said that “younger ones want to experiment, they’ve seen stuff on the internet, violence and rape. What was extreme five years ago is commonplace now.”
The huge rise in the sexist objectification of women’s bodies, pushed by big business and the corporate media, has to a degree normalised the buying of sex. This has corresponded with a big growth of the internet-ordered indoor sex industry. This is a huge issue and is really harmful socially, for women in society in general, as it reinforces gender inequality.
The biggest threat to working class people in general, and within that women in particular, is the vicious and seemingly never-ending austerity juggernaut. A major struggle needs to be waged in order to resist it. Women, the majority of the workforce in the public sector that is at the sharp end of attacks, must play a central role in such a struggle and movement. How can we build maximum unity of working class people across the gender divide if very widely held sexist ideas and views aren’t challenged by a progressive movement to resist austerity?
Women and the working class movement have the right to and should oppose a lap dancing club opening up, for example. A survey in Camden, London showed a 40 per cent increase in sexual assaults in the area after a rapid expansion of lap-dancing clubs. That is absolutely not tantamount to opposition to any of the women and men who work in the sex industry. Those in lap dancing clubs, for example, should be supported in any attempts to organise collectively to improve their safety, their pay, their rights etc.
Prostitution is one particular aspect of the sex industry, and in and of itself has a wide spectrum of aspects to it, but it certainly consists of the most exploitative and dangerous aspect of the sex industry. There is much debate around the question of what laws should govern the issue of prostitution, with some on the left arguing for legalisation. Just as legal equality for women in countries in the world where it exists has not resulted in an ending of women’s oppression; it’s an important starting point to note that there is no legislation that will be a silver bullet to end exploitation.
Women, men and transgender people enter into prostitution for various reasons, and their experiences within that framework can be very different. From the on street prostitute (now only a small and diminishing minority), most of whom are suffering from addiction problems and many of whom have been through the care system, to ‘escorts’, to indoor prostitutes (the growing central form of prostitution in the era of the internet and smartphone), the vast majority of whom are economic immigrants, including a very small proportion of whom are trafficked and very directly coerced into prostitution.
While there is both a demand for prostitution globally on the one hand, and extreme poverty and hardship on the other, the profit-motive will ensure that the two coalesce creating a thriving sex industry globally. It would be reductive to suggest that it’s merely poverty that results in women and men entering prostitution. It can be a complex interplay of issues. Many studies have suggested, for example, that those in prostitution are more likely than the general population to have experienced abuse and sexual abuse in childhood.
As noted, the majority of on-street prostitutes in Ireland have encountered the care system at some point, and most are suffering with addiction. Notwithstanding these points, we also cannot fail to mention the fact that the Lancet Medical Journal has noted with concern, the huge rise in prostitution in Greece as a direct outgrowth that the brutal impoverishment and immiseration of the people of Greece at the hands of government and Troika, capitalist austerity.
“Confounded by the lack of choices”
Much of the lexicon around the debate in society regarding prostitution centres around ‘choice’. This is a relative term and issue. First, there are those who have no choice at all, victims of sex trafficking make up only a very small minority of those engaged in prostitution. Nonetheless, this happens and is part and parcel of the sex industry. It can’t be extricated from it. Sex trafficking has been described as modern day slavery and it’s a growing industry – giving a real insight into the reactionary nature of capitalism in the 21st century.
I will give one anecdote to personalise this point, and illustrate just what it can mean for some of the most oppressed and exploited human beings on the planet. In Lydia Cacho’s Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, she travels the world, meeting with victims of trafficking. One such young woman Cacho meets, aged 17, has survived her ordeal. Aged 12, she was sold by her uncle to a Chinese mafia gang in Cambodia and was enslaved alongside other girls, mostly aged 7 to 10, to perform oral sex acts, or for a special price, to be stripped of her virginity. Clients were mainly sex tourists; men from Korea, Japan, Europe and the US. When one girl tried to escape, she was killed and later, unbeknownst to the other famished girls who had been denied food for over 24 hours, fed to them in a meal as a heinous and deadly warning. This is the seedy, ugly, horrific underworld of the sex industry.
Most of those engaged in prostitution exercise a greater degree of choice than these girls did, but in the vast majority of cases, such a ‘choice’ is within a truly restrictive, narrow framework in a capitalist world in crisis – rife with extreme poverty and degradation for the poorest and most oppressed section of women in particular. In a Maya Angelou poem, she evokes with great pathos, the image of a poor black woman approaching an abortion clinic, “confounded by the lack of choices”.
“Confounded by the lack of choices” seems a useful way in which to describe the scenario faced by most prostitutes. The fact that the majority of those working in indoor prostitution are migrants is indicative of this, as poor women in the main, without the material means, language skills or visas to access decent jobs, the illegal sex industry may afford them the only opportunity to practice economic migration.
Belle de Jour backlash
Media promotion of the sanitised ‘Belle de Jour’ image of a so-called high-class prostitute who is deeply empowered is an anathema to the experiences of most prostitutes and bears no relation to their lives. The promotion of this vision of prostitution is part of a backlash, minimising and even denying the continued existence of the oppression of women in society and consciously aiming to sanitise a deeply sexist and exploitative industry. If there was no question of a power gap between men and women, if women’s oppression was no longer a factor in society, if it wasn’t the case that we live in a world that’s motivated by the quest for profits with those in power willing to commodify all in this pursuit, including sex and women’s bodies, then perhaps we could believe the propaganda.
Rachel Moran, Irish survivor of prostitution and author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution has very articulately challenged the myth of the ‘happy hooker’:
The first step to being a happy hooker is, of course, consenting to be one. Consent to prostitution is viewed as a one-dimensional thing; in reality, it is anything but… I have never come across an example of prostitution in any woman’s life that was not an attempt to get out of a situation, rather than to get into one. In other words, the plethora of women I met over the years were attempting to remove themselves from financial problems; not simply because they’d developed a penchant for expensive handbags. The assumption of choice leads to the conclusion of consent, but choice and consent are erroneous concepts here. Their invalidity rests on the fact that a woman’s compliance in prostitution is a response to circumstances beyond her control, and this produces an environment which prohibits even the possibility of true consent. There is a difference between consent and reluctant submission.
Some on the left, as well as authors like Laura Agustin, rage against the use of the word ‘victim’ to describe those in prostitution. Agustin, while recognising that the choices that many who enter into prostitution have are limited, emphasises the ‘choice’ aspect within that framework. To her, to view any of these people as victims dehumanises them and is part of a modern-day version of ‘white man’s burden’. So what is the reality that prostitutes face? Can we call them victims?
This obliteration of the victim is very problematic. Kajsa Ekis Ekman has saliently put it in the context of the ideology of neo-liberal capitalism – ruthless individualism and a Thatcherite, ‘there’s no such thing as society’, viewpoint. In other words, if there is recognition that there are victims, it’s a recognition that there is oppression. It recognises the reality of overwhelming social forces, including a rigid class division that counter-acts the ability for many individuals to progress and develop, in the context of genuine choice, the type of lives they wish to.
What is the reality facing those in prostitution? In Britain, the mortality rate for women in prostitution in London is 12 times the national average, according to a 2004 Home Office survey. A global survey of prostitution found that 68% of women interviewed were experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of a similar range to torture victims and war veterans (Ramsey et al, 1993). A well-known 1990s survey by Farley and Barkan of 130 San Francisco street prostitutes found that 82% had been physically assaulted, 83% had been threatened with a weapon and 68% had been raped while working as prostitutes.
Tellingly, the majority of prostitutes would not want their offspring to become a prostitute. Those in prostitution are generally victims of class and gender oppression. Recognition of this doesn’t dehumanise them, quite the opposite. Rather, it’s tantamount to a working class empathy with and understanding of the tremendous difficulty, stress and suffering that the capitalist system bestows on the poorest and most marginalised human beings in society in particular.
It’s absolutely the case that NGOs that campaign against prostitution can be motivated by a moralistic and judgemental viewpoint at their core. Some, like Ruhama, have religious roots and its work with prostitutes was originally initiated in connection with the misogynistic Catholic Church. But socialists shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and in an effort to distance themselves from a moralistic approach, deny the uber-oppression experienced within the sex industry.
Furthermore, recognising that such oppression and victimisation exists, and wanting to be part of ending it, is not tantamount to denying the important right of prostitutes for example, to also be agents themselves in fighting against their oppression. It also doesn’t exclude or ignore the right of the women and men working in the sex industry to use whatever description they wish to use, to describe themselves, or the work that they do depending on their perspective, be it sex-worker, prostitute, or something else. It also doesn’t ignore the huge differences of experiences and levels of exploitation within the sex industry – for example between a sex chat-line operator and a woman engaged in indoor prostitution / sex work.
There seems to be a common economistic interpretation on the left; of prostitution involving workers like any other that suffer labour exploitation, (not receiving the full value of your labour as profits created by workers are siphoned off), a viewpoint that can unintentionally feed into the sanitising of the sex industry precisely to the benefit and glee of the sex industry magnates. There is a difference between selling your labour and selling your body. The primary reason for this is the inherent patriarchy that prostitution has at its heart. Buying someone’s body is an extreme expression of power, and the reality is that this most often occurs in the instance of a man buying a woman’s body, or less often, of a man buying a man’s body. A thriving sex industry both reflects and perpetuates sexism and patriarchy. It’s harmful, not only to many of those working in the industry, but also to women in society in general.
In a speech in the Dail on the bill proposed by Thomas Pringle TD to criminalise the buyers of sex, Clare Daly TD evoked the example of a man who is in a sexless marriage who uses prostitutes and is in no way exploitative or violent. This view of prostitution as a social service, alongside the similar argument that men with disabilities need such a service, is in fact a continuation of a conservative and ultimately patriarchal view of sexuality. Why is it that women in a sexless marriage – or disabled women for that matter – are not prime clients for the sex industry? Again, it’s an example of sex viewed through a patriarchal prism that at its heart views sex as something that men want and desire, and that women reluctantly submit to. It has also contained within it, a notion that to have sex is a right, as opposed to something that should always be engaged in consensually. Men in sexless marriages, or people with disabilities, who can and do engage in consensual sexual activities, should not be evoked to sanitise the sex industry.
In relation to the harm done to those working in the industry, a prime example of the harm that can be done is the fact that selling your body can result in a very specific psychological scarring, given the imperative for many prostitutes to distance themselves as people from the horrors that their bodies endure on a daily basis. A survival mechanism for some prostitutes is to actually develop a marked distinction between their psyche and their bodies.
Rachel Moran (already cited) gives a personal account of the latter, when she describes the fact that, even as a survivor of prostitution, she’s never fully reclaimed her own body. For Rachel, this manifests itself when social occasions like weddings call upon her to dance. As a child, she learned to love dancing, but after her ordeal as a prostitute she has never been able to dance. It has become a physical impossibility for her. Another survivor of prostitution, who gave her testimony at an event hosted by the Equality Society in UCD in March 2013, spoke about the fact that she lost her gag reflex while working as a prostitute. In the years she has been out of prostitution she has periodically tested out whether it has returned, as this would represent an important milestone for her in reclaiming her body from the trauma of prostitution.
In any case, supporting the rights of prostitutes to, for example, campaign for free access to contraception, isn’t excluded by implacable opposition to the sex industry – just as it’s possible to both oppose the nuclear industry as a whole due to the menace that it poses to society, and also support the right of workers within this industry to organise for better working conditions.
Socialists should support and indeed encourage and assist when possible any efforts of prostitutes / sex workers to organise in such a way. Similarly, while recognising that legal changes will not eliminate the conditions that force people into prostitution, the left and labour movement should support progressive laws. Just as an outlawing of child labour has not – and will not in and of itself eliminate child-labour while the profit-motive and extreme poverty co-exist – it is simply a given that the left and labour movement has in the past and should today, support such a law.
No woman, man or transgender person who works in prostitution should be criminalised in eyes of the law. Similarly, none should be subject to hassle, coercion or harassment of any kind from the state – or indeed, moralistic judgements – in carrying out prostitution or sex work. Currently in the South, ‘soliciting’ is illegal, which does to a degree criminalise prostitutes. This law must be changed. Similarly, the way in which laws are written in relation to brothel running have resulted in prostitutes being criminalised in some cases for working in pairs with other prostitutes, which can be a safer work environment. So again, legal change and clarity is needed to avoid this, and to allow prostitutes / sex workers to operate collectively to improve their safety.
It’s very important that no prostitute is criminalised in any way in the eyes of the law. This diminishes the discriminatory stigmatising of those who are or have been prostitutes, and will also create an environment that’s more conducive to prostitutes reporting violence and abuse. Socialists should, however, totally oppose the full legalisation of prostitution. Those who profit from the business of prostitution, the ‘pimps’, as well as traffickers should be unambiguously criminalised.
The progressive opposition to legalisation is manifold. Firstly, because of the social message that legalisation conveys; namely, that it’s acceptable to buy sex, that women’s bodies are objects, that it’s okay for a man (as is the case in the vast majority of instances) to use his relative material wealth to buy a woman’s body, or a man’s body for that matter. In Germany, the legalisation of prostitution has been accompanied by a big expansion of the sex industry with up to a million men buying sex each day there. It also has unfortunately not resulted in de-stigmatising sex workers / prostitutes, the many of whom still don’t opt to legally register as official sex workers.
Furthermore, in countries where prostitution is totally legalised, sex trafficking still occurs, and in fact anecdotal evidence suggests that the legalisation of prostitution actually gives the green light to traffickers to increase their activity in the regions and countries that have done so.
For example, Lydia Cahlo believes that thousands of mainly black and Latin women, have been trafficked into Holland and Germany where prostitution has been legalised. In other words, legalisation results in a proliferation of the sex industry, and the nature of the latter means it can’t be sanitised and kept in check. By its very nature, it will always have an illegal element – for example if a social message through legalisation is given that it’s acceptable to buy sex, demand increases. In line with the increase in demand for the services legally on offer, it’s likely that demand for illegal services will be on offer – for example sexual services from underage prostitutes, or sexual acts that are physically dangerous in numerous ways or are inspired by the growing element of the commercial porn industry that links sex and coercion and violence (e.g. ‘rape porn’).
In this way, the industry’s link to criminal and dangerous profiteering mafia gangs is not necessarily severed by legalisation. The drive towards a wholly legalised sex industry is one that’s pushed by sex industry bosses to boost their business and increase profits. The likes of mandatory STI checks for prostitutes can then ensure healthy experiences for their clients, which can have negative consequences for sex workers who become HIV positive, or for different reasons, undocumented migrants (e.g. in New Zealand), who may then not be in a position to work in the legalised aspect of the industry.
It’s also the reality that legalisation has not eliminated, and will not eliminate, the violence and sexual violence that prostitutes experience. It also hasn’t resulted in a de-stigmatising of prostitutes precisely because the ideology that oppresses women is part and parcel of the sex industry. Furthermore, legalised prostitution, where sex work is treated as any other job in society, has seen in the likes of Germany, women on unemployment benefit being expected to take up such sex work jobs by social welfare.
Unionisation of Sex Workers?
Some on the left who advocate legalisation do so while advocating as a central to their programme, the unionisation of sex workers and prostitutes. This ‘harm reduction’ approach is problematic in and of itself for the reasons noted given the extreme expression of power that buying sex is, and the difference between prostitution and other work.
Of course, the left absolutely should support any genuine attempt by prostitutes or sex workers to organise collectively for rights and any measures that reduce harm for prostitutes / sex workers. However, given the reality of the sex industry and the reality of the so-called sex workers unions that exist, it’s idealistic and abstract to focus on calling for unionisation alone. The worst aspects of the industry are based upon the huge isolation and marginalised nature of those who work within it, and any notion that it’s easy and straightforward to bring this together in a strong union movement that could empower is not recognising the reality of the sex industry.
Organising within the sex industry would most likely not result in giving voice to those who are in the most marginalising, oppressive and exploitative conditions and scenarios who are so disempowered and isolated – victims of trafficking for example. The trade union movement that is potentially powerful if it mobilises, should take up the issue of prostitution with a view to ending it, as the key way in which the workers’ movement can really assist.
Some sex workers’ organisations are not unions at all, as they reject the central premise of trade unionism that there’s a conflict between workers and bosses. They promote the sex industry and in doing so, aid the profiteering agenda of the bosses within it – this is the case with the sex workers’ union in Australia, for example.
The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), which is affiliated to the GMB in Britain has a prominent ‘sex worker activist’ as spokesperson, Douglas Fox, who is actually a boss who runs a UK escort firm. The IUSW’s membership is open to anyone including pimps, academics and buyers of sex. Only a minority of its small membership are actually prostitutes. It was presented in 2002 as a group of lap-dancers applying to join the GMB and the Socialist Party in England and Wales supported the right of these workers to join the union. However, the GMB was mistaken to allow the IUSW affiliate as a parallel organisation. More fundamentally it does illustrate the difficulties that exist in developing genuine sex workers’ organisations that must be recognised; while any development towards the latter should be assisted, welcomed and supported by the left.
Criminalising the buyers of sex
The debate about the criminalising of the buyers of sex is now being discussed in a number of countries, including Ireland North and South.
This ‘Nordic Model’ which includes criminalising the buyers of sex, was introduced in Sweden in 1999 with a view to reducing demand. It’s extremely difficult to get accurate figures to illustrate whether this has actually worked. It seems that because this legal change occurred in the context of a progressive campaign and protest movement to challenge sexism and objectification, it did play a role in raising consciousness in Swedish society, and probably has played a role in reducing demand to a degree.
Whether this effect has been or will be long-lasting is unclear. Some suggest that Swedish men who buy sex now go abroad to do so, which gives an insight into the importance of really challenging sexism and objectification of women in a deep and fundamental way in society, most effectively through a social movement, in order to really reduce demand. It also shows the need for a global challenge to capitalism to end poverty and give real choices to women and men everywhere.
Should the left support targeting demand? Given that, in the interests of the working class movement and of women as a whole, we wish to raise consciousness about women’s oppression and sexism, the left should support an attempt to decrease demand for the sex industry and prostitution. Men who wish to end oppression, inequality, and wish to see a united working class struggle and movement against capitalist austerity, should not buy sex and increase demand for an industry that normalises the objectification of women, reinforcing the idea of women’s person and sexuality as subservient to the needs and desires of men. At best, replicating continued gender inequality and at worst, innately feeding into violence against women.
The trade union movement, for example, should run campaigns in workplaces educating workers about the sex industry, its link to sex trafficking and the poverty, violence and coercion that so many of those working as prostitutes experience. The ‘Turn Off the Red Light’ advertisement campaign that pictured a young woman with the photo-caption, “14 – the age Anna was first exploited in prostitution”, was actually quite an effective example of such a campaign. Coupled with such an approach, alongside the left seeking to build an active anti-austerity movement, it’s possible that a law that criminalised buyers could play a certain role in pushing the social message that buying sex is a reflection of and a contribution to sexism and patriarchy.
On its own, a law criminalising buyers of sex – particularly if the continued seemingly indomitable rise of the objectification of women in mainstream culture is allowed to thrive unabated – threats of fines, imprisonment or of publicity would not effectively reduce demand. A social movement that fundamentally challenges sexist culture is needed. In Ireland, this would also include taking on the Catholic Church; fighting for a secular state where progressive, secular and non-heteronormative sex education would be part and parcel of all children and young people’s education. This type of sex education would seek to empower young people to develop the knowledge, self-awareness, social skills and self-esteem necessary to enable them to develop the healthy, consensual, sexual relationships and experiences they wish to when they themselves are ready.
It would also mean seeking to de-stigmatise anyone working in the sex industry which is essential to enable prostitutes or sex workers to report theft, violence and sexual violence. Also, austerity – the planned impoverishment of the majority to benefit an elite minority – must be challenged too, by a struggle and a movement as it will inevitably create the conditions that force women in particular into selling their body as a means of survival.
Limitation of legal changes alone
Laws to fine buyers of sex could be critically supported by socialists if they were implemented with immediate corresponding aids and assists for prostitutes. This would be absolutely essential to cut across potentially increasing the dangers facing prostitutes, as clients urge them to secrecy etc.
It’s the hypocritical Labour, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and Sinn Fein (who are implementing austerity in the North and support reducing corporation tax) that may despicably decide for either opportunistic or moralistic reasons to support criminalising the buyers of sex, who at the same time wouldn’t dream of spending hard cash to back up their sudden u-turn concern for the plight of the female sex! Similarly, support for the ‘Turn Off the Red Light’ campaign by the ICTU leadership is hypocritical as they have made no serious attempt to lead the trade union movement in an active struggle against austerity – the right-wing agenda that is forcing women and men into destitution, and prostitution, across Europe.
Any move towards criminalising the clients would have to be accompanied by state investment in centres for prostitutes where they can access contraception, counselling, healthcare and English language classes, medical assistance for addiction, as well as specially trained reps for the Gardai who are multilingual; where prostitutes could report harassment, abuse, violence and sexual violence. It’s also essential that visas are granted to those in prostitution, as this is the only way in which such women (or men and transgender), the majority of whom are economic migrants with no papers, would have any means to try to get out of prostitution, should they wish to. Similarly, state investment in jobs and public housing are essential for these women to have a viable exit strategy if that’s their wish.
The “Swedish model” (where the sellers of sex are decriminalised, and the buyers of sex criminalised) is being held up as a panacea by some who are, from a positive point of view, trying to challenge exploitation. Apart from the central question that criminalisation of buying of sex will not end demand, there are other problems with the Swedish legal approach. For example, in Sweden, renting a flat to a prostitute who will then work from the flat is considered ‘pandering’ and landlords could be prosecuted for doing so. Although the intent may not be to punish or criminalise the prostitute in the equation, clearly that can be an effect in this instance. Furthermore, in the context of a rightward neo-liberal drift on behalf of the Swedish governing parties, a shift towards criminalising buyers was accompanied by a corresponding shift of investment away from social workers who assisted prostitutes, towards increased investment in police.
Sinead Kennedy in the Irish Marxist Review raises the valid concern that in Sweden, as police utilised used-condoms in prosecuting cases, there was pressure on prostitutes to have unprotected sex. This issue could be specifically dealt with in the law, with a strong sense of the grave crime of pushing a prostitute into having unprotected sex. As well as specific legal provisions to counter any negative consequences for the conditions facing prostitutes, corresponding investment in social services to aid prostitutes is also essential.
In relation to the Gardai’s role; it’s important that we remember the Rossport tapes scandal, which really exposes the role that the state plays in society, and the personification of that in regards to the particular Gardai in question. In Rossport, the Gardai were employed to use heavy-handed tactics to exert huge pressure on protesters against Shell oil. Shell in effect had their own state-funded bouncers to ensure their profits. During one disgusting incident, Gardai were caught on tape threatening to rape two female protesters they had arrested. It’s essential that all Gardai are compelled to attend regular training on how to deal sympathetically with victims and survivors of sexual violence. Similarly, progressive training should be developed in concert with legal changes that maximise the potential that prostitutes / sex workers can report coercion, violence, sexual violence and / or theft to the Gardai.
Targeting demand alone not enough
Unlike the NGOs that push the Nordic model, our programme should not focus on decreasing demand alone. We do not accept the inevitability of the conditions that force people into prostitution. A major struggle against austerity and for massive investment in job creation is vital to eliminate the economic push factors that mean prostitution has risen enormously in Greece, for example. A socialist programme that puts a working class struggle to put the key wealth and resources in Ireland and across Europe, and globally into the democratic public ownership and control of ordinary people, is the necessary programme and struggle to create the conditions that could begin to end poverty and oppression.
Unlike the NGOs worshipping of the accomplished fact, we also don’t accept that sexism, division and patriarchy are inevitable, and we’re fighting for a system that eliminates the material and economic basis that creates gender division – for a socialist society based on co-operation, respect, democracy and choice that would allow for the development of mutually respectful and positive human and sexual relationships that could encompass many various forms, could be short-lived or lengthy, but all would be based upon freedom and choice.
By Laura Fitzgerald