Subject: Legitimating Prostitution as Sex Work (Part 2 of 2 )
From: Donna Hughes (email@example.com)
Date: Sat Jan 02 1999 - 14:40:34 EST
(Continued from Part 1)
LEGITIMATING PROSTITUTION AS SEX WORK: UN LABOR ORGANIZATION (ILO) CALLS
FOR RECOGNITION OF THE SEX INDUSTRY
8. "A major difficulty [to economic recognition of prostitution as work] is
that measures targeting the sex sector have to consider moral, religious,
health, human rights and criminal issues in addressing a phenomenon that is
mainly economic in nature (p. 2)...A stance focusing on individual
prostitutes tends to emphasize moralistic and human rights concerns, which
are undoubtedly important, but which will not have a major impact on
changing the sector" (p.213).
"Moral, religious, health, human rights and criminal issues" have served as
the only brake on the expansion and exploitation of the sex industry.
Prostitution is sexual exploitation and violates the human rights of anyone
subjected to it. Particularly, it victimizes the women in prostitution but
also all women, justifying the sale of any women, and reducing all women to
In the year when Amatya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize because his
economic theory was credited with restoring an ethical dimension to
economics, we think it particularly important to counter the economic
determinism of the sex industry and the ILO report by pointing out the
relevance of ethical and human rights values to any policy on prostitution.
Sen's guiding principle is that the well-being of any group or country
cannot be evaluated only by per capita income or size of the GDP (gross
domestic product). As measured by the Human Development Index which Sen
helped create, countries must quantify the quality of life of their
citizens looking at other indicators such as health, education, longevity
and "opportunities" rather than just economic growth.
In his famous work on famines, economist Sen reminds us that famines are
not caused by food shortages but by the failure of governments to make
social choices to eradicate famine and intervene on behalf of those most
affected by lack of food. The fact that prostitution is a flourishing
industry indicates the failure of governments to make the necessary social
choices to eliminate it. Any economic theory that chronicles the way in
which prostitution is entrenched in the economies of many countries could
encourage governments to make the social choice to eradicate prostitution
and provide economic alternatives to assist women out of prostitution,
thereby restoring an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic
and social problems.
9. Many current studies which highlight "the pathetic stories of individual
prostitutes" and focus on coercion and deceit tend "to sensationalize the
issues and to evoke moralistic, rather than practical responses (p. 3)."
Elsewhere, the ILO maintained that only a relatively small number of women
in prostitution -- about 20% -- are badly exploited or kept in some form of
bondage (Reuters, 1998).
The ILO report exhibits a callous indifference to the injury and
suffering of women in prostitution. It has been the courageous witness of
many survivors of prostitution that has documented the harm that
prostitution does to real women in a real world. The stories of prostituted
women have enabled them to get back some of the dignity and hope that the
sex industry has taken away and to expose the industry for what it is --
not a benign economic sector but an exploitative industry that preys on
women. It is this courageous testimony of survivors of prostitution that
makes the harm of prostitution visible.
In its conclusions, the ILO report features only the International
Committee for Prostitutes' Rights as representing the voices of women in
prostitution. This group has called for "decriminalizing all aspects of
adult prostitution resulting from individual decision" (p. 14). Groups
working on the front lines of direct services for women in prostitution and
staffed by survivors of prostitution are not underscored in the ILO's pages
as working for the rights of women in prostitution. For example, although
the Philippines report mentions the BUKLOD Centre, TW-MAE, and WEDPRO --
all groups working for the empowerment of women who have been subject to
systems of prostitution -- the editor did not choose to distinguish these
groups as "prostitutes rights" groups. Only those groups promoting women's
rights in prostitution are represented as prostitutes rights groups, not
those groups promoting women's rights not to be in prostitution.
10. "Some freely choose sex work as an expression of sexual liberation, or
as an economically rational decision based on income potentials, costs
involved and available alternatives. Others are pressured by poverty and
dire economic circumstances. Still others are subject to overt coercion
from third parties" (p. 212).
The ILO report confuses compliance with consent. It defines force very
narrowly and flies in the face of other studies which indicate that very
few women really choose prostitution as a career. From oral history
testimony collected from women in prostitution, we know that some women
enter prostitution because they have been overtly forced, coerced or
deceived. Others enter because of economic poverty and disadvantage,
manipulation, peer or family pressure, marginalization, loss of self often
resulting from earlier sexual abuse, predatory recruiters, trickery and
initial consent. A number of women enter the sex industry knowing that they
will have to prostitute but having no idea of what this really means and
what they ultimately will have to endure.
The ILO report puts the burden of proof on the women in prostitution to
demonstrate that they were coerced. How will marginalized women in
prostitution ever be able to prove force? At a time when governments
internationally are being asked to legislate against trafficking for
purposes of prostitution, limiting the actionable prostitution to that
which is "forced" practically guarantees that the number of indictments
will be minimal. If victims must prove that force was used in recruiting
them into prostitution, very few women will have legal recourse and very
few offenders will be prosecuted.
Women in systems of prostitution must continually lie about their lives,
their bodies, and their sexual responses. The very edifice of prostitution
is built on the lie that "women like it." The ILO report reinforces this
regressive sexual stereotype that some prostituted women "like it," else
they wouldn't choose to stay, by validating a specious distinction between
forced and voluntary prostitution. Some prostitution survivors have stated
that it took them years after leaving prostitution to acknowledge that
prostitution wasn't a free choice because to deny their own capacity to
choose was to deny themselves.
When a woman remains in an abusive relationship with a partner who batters
her, or even when she defends his actions, concerned people don't say she
is there voluntarily. They recognize the complexity of her compliance. Like
battered women, women in prostitution often deny their abuse if provided
with no meaningful alternatives. But because of the sex industry's public
relations campaign to legitimate prostitution with proffered labor rights
and benefits, it has succeeded in casting the condition of women in
prostitution as chosen work. Thus many who would recognize battering as
violence against women see only voluntary work when they look at the almost
identical abuse of women in systems of prostitution.
Finally, it is important to note that the ILO report omitted a crucial
section in the Philippines country report which addressed the forced/free
distinction. In a letter responding to the conclusions of the ILO report,
one of the Filipino authors, Rene Ofreneo, writes to ILO Manila:
The research team [for the Philippines country report] advocates the
decriminalization of the prostituted while prosecuting and apprehending
those who benefit from the prostitution of others. This policy position on
prostitution is not an isolated one. In fact, it is the position not only
of most NGOs involved in the sector but also of government as indicated
both in the Philippine Development Plan for Women 1987-1992 and in the
Philippine Plan for Gender-Responsive Development 1995-2025 (National
Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, 1995, Chapter 18)...This policy
stance stems from a perspective which does not distinguish between 'free'
and 'forced" prostitution but sees all prostitution as essentially a human
rights violation... The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that
no one should be subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
Therefore, it is the right of all persons not to be prostituted; not to be
harmed physically, emotionally and psychologically; not to lose their
personal integrity, dignity, and self-respect; not to be subjected to
sexual exploitation by others (Ofreneo, 1998).
This is a crucial omission from the Philippines country report -- one which
brings the conclusions of at least one of the four countries into conflict
with the main premise upon which the ILO's recommendations are based -- the
forced/free distinction. The fact that the ILO omitted this section from
its Philippines country report calls into question the accuracy of the
other country reports, as published, and the conclusions of the report
which are evidently not based on the unanimity of the country reports.
11. "Child prostitution should be treated as a much more serious problem
than adult prostitution" (p. 212). Legislation should make a clear
distinction between child and adult prostitution. In the case of children,
"all prostitution must by definition be deemed involuntary and the aim is
its total elimination" but "in the case of adults, we can concede that it
may be possible to make a distinction between prostitution as a freely
chosen form of work and prostitution through coercion" (p. v).
Many individuals and groups are concerned about the sexual exploitation of
children and rightly so. Child prostitution is a horrendous violation of a
child's person and her/his human rights. But when "choice" is used as a
wedge to drive distinctions between child and adult prostitution in order
to legitimate the so-called right of adult women to choose prostitution,
then the harm to women becomes invisible.
The distinction between child and adult prostitution also serves to
perpetuate the exploitation of children because countries then rush to
redefine children as adults, either legally by lowering the age of consent
to sexual intercourse, or socially by redefining the image of children as
adults in pornography, advertising and film. As more and more children are
sexualized and made to look like adult women in prostitution, men can claim
they were ignorant of engaging in sex with a minor.
When distinctions are made between child and adult prostitution for
purposes of making only child prostitution actionable, the child sex abuser
becomes known as a pedophile, a category that gives the impression that men
who buy sex with children are abnormal personalities who are fixated on
children, bio-psychologically driven to abuse children sexually, and not in
control of their actions. There is no pathological type of men who use
children for sex. Rather, men who sexually exploit children come from all
walks of life. In a paper on "The Sex Exploiter" prepared for the World
Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children held in
Stockholm in 1996, the ECPAT Working Group found that "...the majority of
the several million men who annually exploit prostitutes under 18 years of
age are first and foremost prostitute users who become child sexual abusers
through their prostitute use, rather than the other way about (ECPAT, 1996,
p. 2)." These men come from a variety of nationalities, socio-economic,
cultural and religious backgrounds and do not abuse children in
prostitution because they have a focused sexual interest in children but
because "they are morally and sexually indiscriminate."
In the United States, child prostitution and pornography scandals usually
focus on very young children, mostly under age 12, because Lolita-like
depictions of 13 and 14 year olds in the media and on the streets condition
people to see them as adult-like adolescents who are capable of choice.
Will the next distinction drawn be between child and adolescent
prostitution, and the arbitrary age line set at 12 or 13? Furthermore, if
countries limit the harm of prostitution to only "forced prostitution," as
the ILO report suggests, it becomes easier to defend men who engage in
prostitution with adolescents between the ages of 12-18, because this will
become an ambiguous age cohort as more and more choice is attributed to
Consider also that the average age of entrance into prostitution worldwide
is 14. As one survivor who was recruited into prostitution at age 13
remarked, "I must tell you that the day I turned 18, the sexual abuse I was
subject to did not turn into a self-determined choice." By creating a
distinction between child and adult prostitution, we are conveying the
message that there is an appropriate age at which a male may use his social
and economic power to buy access to a female body. Do we really want the
message to be "Not now but later?"
Legal brothels in countries which have recognized prostitution, such as in
Bangladesh, are filled with children. The children carry identity papers on
them falsifying their ages. The police see the papers and do nothing to
enforce the age limit because they accept the false certificates and are
often in collusion with the pimps and brothel owners. Recognition and
outright legalization of prostitution in such countries has done nothing to
reduce police corruption, child prostitution, or the prostitution of women.
Recognition of the sex industry as an economic sector will only enhance the
already high demand for child prostitution. Even the ILO report
acknowledges that "The AIDS epidemic appears to have indirectly resulted in
a rising demand for ever-younger children because of the belief among
clients that they are not likely to be infected with the disease" (p. 19).
Even before the AIDS pandemic, men always sought sex with children and
adolescents in the belief that child sex is more fresh and real than sex
with hardened adult woman. However, men not only seek the vulnerability of
children but also the pliability of children who can be molded more easily
into the sexual objects and instruments of male desire. Men delude
themselves into believing that they are introducing children into sexuality
and derive a false power from "breaking in" girls they imagine are young
The ILO report recognizes that "Commercial sexual exploitation is such a
serious form of violence against children that there are lifelong and
life-threatening consequences. There are also chain effects, with sexual
abuse leading to other forms of abuse, such as drug abuse, and cumulative
negative consequences" (p. 212). Oral testimony from women in prostitution
reveals the same effects on adult women -- that it is such a serious form
of violence that it affects their lives forever. Adult women in
prostitution are at special risk for self-mutilation, suicide and homicide.
In one study, 46% of the women in prostitution had attempted suicide and
19% had tried to harm themselves in other ways (Parriott, 1994). Almost all
the women in this study categorized themselves as chemically-addicted.
Crack cocaine and alcohol were used most frequently.
Connecting the sexual exploitation of children and women does not mean that
we treat women as children. Nor does it mean that the physical and
psychological effects of sexual exploitation on the young may well be more
severe than the effects of sexually exploitative practices on adult women.
It does mean that when an adult takes his sexual gratification over the
bought bodies of women and children that this is a violation of a human
being, that he is using a human being as an instrument for his own
pleasure, and that whatever the age, culture, race of condition of the
victim, sexual exploitation is a violation of that person's humanity,
dignity and integrity and should be made actionable.
Official recognition of the sex sector is not likely to improve things for
women. Those who argue that recognizing prostitution as work will protect
women from abuse fail to acknowledge that violence is often done to women
in prostitution not just because laws do not protect women or the "work,"
but because men's use of women in prostitution and the acts women must
engage in are sexually and physically degrading, exploitative, and most
How would recognition of the sex sector function? The ILO acknowledges that
women in prostitution are against compulsory legal registration but, on the
other hand, seems to accept that some kind of mandatory registration would
have to happen. Will an official license confer rights on women in
prostitution or confine them to a registered ghetto of legally stigmatized
women who enjoy the right to be branded by the state as prostitutes and be
medically accessible for examination? The law in Bangladesh requires a
woman to simply file an application before a first class magistrate to
obtain a license for prostitution. Yet few women file such papers.
In some countries, a whole new criminal network will emerge to control
legal licenses. New laws recognizing the sex sector will have to be
regulated and enforced and that implies more bureaucracy and red tape, not
more protection. When a woman wants to take legal action against a
perpetrator, she will bear an enormous burden of proof of violation because
she will have to prove force. Consider this example which captures the
meaninglessness of the forced/free distinction in the actual "workplace."
If a woman in prostitution is paid to "enact" a rape, how can the purchased
performance of "enacting" a rape, to which she allegedly consents, be
separated from the actual brutality of the rape which the buyer may force
on her. Would any court of law recognize a distinction between a forced and
free enactment of rape in this situation? Or would it assume that an
occupational hazard of prostitution is that the buyer, with impunity, can
get rougher than the prostituted woman bargained for? How will the woman be
able to demonstrate that the violations from acts that she is expected to
perform in prostitution -- e.g., a "regular" rape -- are indeed separate
from those acts she shouldn't be expected to endure in prostitution --
i.e., a brutal rape? How would a woman who wanted to prove force in this
context be able to demonstrate that the violation and violence to which she
was subjected in this rape "enactment" was not a free choice if she is
presumed to consent to the general act of prostitution and the specific act
of "enacting" a rape with a buyer? As the Coalition Against Trafficking in
Women-Asia has stated, "Sex mediated by money means the power to dictate
what kind of sex will happen" (Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia,
The ILO report claims that recognizing prostitution as an economic sector
will improve the health conditions for women in the industry. Just how this
will happen is not clear from the report. In one section, the ILO
acknowledges that health measures, presumably health checks and monitoring,
would have to be directed to the "clients" which is not now a reality. For
it is the buyers who are the major link in the chain of transmission of
HIV/AIDS and STDs, since they carry the diseases not only to the women in
prostitution but to their spouses or other sexual contacts. Perhaps because
the ILO tacitly recognizes that the sex sector's viability depends on
giving the customer what he wants -- which is certainly not mandatory
health checks -- it offers no recommendations for how health monitoring of
buyers would be achieved.
A reason why men go to women in prostitution is that they get the sex that
they demand. If they don't want to use condoms, they won't. Male buyers
don't want to be checked at the door for HIV/AIDS or STDs. They want
anonymous sex on demand. Even in military situations where health check-ups
could easily be mandated, as at the social hygiene clinics set up to
monitor women in prostitution and previously run by the U.S. military in
connection with local governments near the former U.S. military bases in
the Philippines, the military men were never required to undergo medical
Women are not well-served by the ILO's particular brand of economic
determinism that calls for recognition of the sex sector, particularly in
Southeast Asia where the brutal effects of globalization have hit hardest.
As with other forms of violence against women, prostitution is a serious
violation of women's human rights. Instead of capitulating to the laws of
the market, governments need to reaffirm a human rights commitment to
abolish all forms of sexual violence and exploitation, including
prostitution, by de-criminalizing the women in prostitution and penalizing
the pimps, procurers, and buyers.
The four countries surveyed in the ILO report have been and will be hurt
most by its recommendations.
The Geneva-based body is the oldest United Nations subsidiary and has been
involved with the world of work for decades...In many developing countries,
the ILO is looked upon with reverence by trade union leaders who believe
that the people running the organisation have workers' interests at heart.
However...the ILO has...grossly underestimated not just the integrity of
governments in this region but also the intelligence of the South-East
Asian people...Prostitution and the sex industry are social ills, not
legitimate occupations that the ILO claims will bring in better incomes
than unskilled labor. For years the governments in this region have been
fighting a war against the flesh trade. Their status as newly-impoverished
countries should not give the ILO or anybody else the impression that
Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand are desperate and would do
anything for economic growth (Business Times, Malaysia, 1998).
Recognizing the legitimacy of the sex sector will reinforce women's
subordination and lead to the greater sexual objectification and economic
inequality of women. In countries that have recognized prostitution as
work, "there are more brothels than schools." Do we really want brothels
everywhere? Is prostitution a career to which we want young girls to aspire?
Women in prostitution need social services, educational opportunities and
economic alternatives -- real economic recognition that doesn't freeze them
in a life of prostitution but provides a different future. Women in
prostitution need income-generating projects that will provide them with
decent livelihoods -- the kind of jobs that do not lock them into lives of
sexual and economic exploitation. Women in prostitution need to be brought
into the economic mainstream, not to have prostitution mainstreamed as
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