Legitimating Prostitution as Sex Work (Part 1 or 2)

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Subject: Legitimating Prostitution as Sex Work (Part 1 or 2)
From: Donna Hughes (dhughes@uri.edu)
Date: Sat Jan 02 1999 - 14:39:47 EST



Janice Raymond
December 1998


In a controversial 1998 report, the International Labor Organization (ILO),
the official labor agency of the United Nations, calls for economic
recognition of the sex industry. Citing the expanding reach of the industry
and its unrecognized contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of
four countries in Southeast Asia, the ILO urges official recognition of
what it terms "the sex sector." Recognition includes extending "labor
rights and benefits to sex workers," improving "working conditions" (Lim,
p. 212, hereafter referred to simply by page) in the industry, and
"extending the taxation net to cover many of the lucrative activities
connected with it" (p. 213). Although the ILO report claims to stop short
of advocating legalization of prostitution, the economic recognition of the
sex sector that it promotes could not occur without legal acceptance of the

For many years, the sex industry has lobbied for economic recognition of
prostitution and related forms of sexual entertainment as sex work. Now the
ILO has become the latest and most questionable group urging acceptance of
the sex industry. Effectively the ILO is calling for governments to cash in
on the booming profits of the industry by taxing and regulating it as a
legitimate job. Entitled The Sex Sector: the Economic and Social Bases of
Prostitution in Southeast Asia, the ILO report echoes the economic
determinism of the February 14, 1998 cover story of The Economist aptly
termed "Giving the Customer What He Wants." The report professes to be a
survey of the "sex sector" in four countries authored by country-specific
writers in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. But the
framework, summaries, and conclusions of the report were edited by
economist Lin Lean Lim, longtime advocate for governmental acceptance of
the "sex sector."

Southeast Asia is facing its most serious economic crisis in decades.
Together with the political uncertainty and instability in many parts of
Asia, the economic crisis has exacerbated the recruitment of women into the
sex industry. Governments which follow the ILO recommendations to recognize
prostitution as legitimate women's work will thus have a huge economic
stake in the sex industry. Consequently, this will foster their increased
dependence on the sex sector. The ILO report will be used as a
justification for increasing the entry of women into "sex work" to lower
the unemployment rate and then for taxing women's earnings to raise
desperately needed capital. As in Latin America, the impact of
macro-economic policies in certain countries of Asia will provide these
governments with the rationale to expand the sex industry. The government
of Belize, for example, has "Recognized prostitution...[as] a
gender-specific form of migrant labor that serves the same economic
functions for women as agricultural work offers to men, and often for
better pay." (WEDO, 1998, p. 32)

Rather than economic opportunity, the most glaring evidence of women's
economic marginalization and social inequality in almost all Asian
countries is the rampant commodification of women in prostitution, sex
trafficking, sex tourism and mail order bride industries. In this context
of severe economic decline, it seems the height of economic opportunism to
argue for the recognition of the sex industry based on transforming women's
sexual and economic exploitation into legitimate work.

The ILO report reads as an economic anointment of the sex industry. In this
year of the 50th Anniversary of the International Declaration of Human
Rights, the ILO report seems to regard human rights concerns about
prostitution as an impediment to recognition of the sex industry. As part
of its policy recommendations, it concludes that "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 or reducing the [sex] sector" (p. 213). The ILO grossly
underestimates the violation and violence that prostituted women endure,
dismissing the harm done to women in prostitution by stating that only 20%
are badly exploited or kept in some form of bondage (Reuters, 1998).

Contrary to the benign picture of prostitution painted by the ILO report,
the violence that prostituted women endure is more acute and much more
frequent than that experienced by other women. In a study of Nepali women
and girls trafficked for prostitution into India's brothels, Human Rights
Watch/Asia documents that "Most girls and women start out in these cheap
brothels where they are 'broken in' through a process of rapes and
beatings"(Human Rights Watch/Asia, 1995, p.34). In another report on
Burmese women trafficked for prostitution into Thailand's brothels, Human
Rights/Asia states that "the brothel owners are profiting off the repeated
rape and sexual assault of the Burmese women and girls sometimes over long
periods of time..."(Asia Watch, 1993, pp.62-63). The report makes clear
that rape and sexual assault were not restricted to under age girls or to
the girls' or women's initial seasoning into the brothels. "The combination
of debt bondage, illegal confinement and the threat or use of physical
abuse force the women and girls into sexual slavery...for the duration of
their time in the brothel." (Ibid., p. 65)

This picture of extreme violence is not restricted to developing countries.
In a study of English street prostitutes, 87% of the women had been victims
of violence in the past 12 months. The abuse ranged from verbal assault by
clients to stabbings, beatings, and rapes. 27% had been raped; and 43%
suffered severe physical abuse. Nearly all (73%) of the 87% were multiple
victims of abuse (Benson and Matthews, 1995, p. 402). In another U.S. study
of 55 survivors of prostitution, 78% were victims of rape by pimps and
buyers an average of 49 times a year; 84% were the victims of aggravated
assault and were thus horribly beaten, often requiring emergency room
attention and hospitalization; 49% were victims of kidnapping and
transported across state lines; 53% were victims of sexual abuse and
torture; and 27% were mutilated (Susan Kay Hunter, 1993, p. 16).

In its minimization of the harm of prostitution and in its push to redefine
prostitution as sex work by recommending that governments recognize the sex
industry as an economic sector, the ILO seems oblivious to recent
legislation demonstrating that countries are able to reduce organized
sexual exploitation instead of capitulating to it. Two countries which have
specifically refused to recognize prostitution as work are Sweden and
Venezuela. In May, 1998, Sweden became one the of the first countries to
prohibit the purchase of sexual services with punishments of fines or
imprisonment (Swedish Government Offices, 1998). In so doing, Sweden has
declared that prostitution is not a desirable economic and labor sector.

Also in May, 1998, the government of Venezuela passed legislation rejecting
the request of powerful pro-sex industry groups to register a legal union
of so-called sex workers. The Ministry of Labor's decision was based on the
fact that since the majority of "sex work" is prostitution, rather than
being sexual work, it is sexual exploitation. Venezuela ruled that
"prostitution cannot be considered work because it lacks the basic elements
of dignity and social justice." It also ruled that since one of the main
purposes of forming a labor union is "to promote the collective development
of its members and of their profession," a decision in favor of unionizing
so-called sex workers would in fact promote the development and expansion
of prostitution (Republica De Venezuela, 1998).

For over a decade, women's groups worldwide have sought better measurement
of women's contribution to national economies calling for the inclusion of
work such as child or family care, housekeeping, cooking and shopping --
most of which women have traditionally done -- in labor force statistics.
Since governments use these statistics to assess economic development and
to prepare and implement social policies, failure to properly recognize and
measure women's role in production distorts and minimizes women's economic
contribution to society and impedes their access to economic resources.

Given the lack of recognition and the devaluing of women's work in the
systems of national accounts, it is a travesty that the ILO would now be
calling for the economic recognition of prostitution as legitimate work. If
women in prostitution are counted as workers, pimps as businessmen, and the
buyers as customers, thus legitimating the entire sex industry as an
economic sector, then governments can abdicate responsibility for making
decent and sustainable employment available to women.

Why specifically is the ILO urging recognition of the sex industry? The
report lists a number of reasons which, it says, are based on interviews,
conducted mostly by academics and university students, and done with small
samples of women in the sex industry in each of these four countries. It is
highly questionable whether this small sample of women, interviewed by
academics and university students, could get at the truth of prostituted
women's lives. For this and other reasons, we think it is important to
address these arguments and to offer detailed responses.


1. Prostitution is "mainly economic in nature (p.2)...The stark reality is
that the sex sector is a 'big business' that is well entrenched in national
economies and the international economy...Especially in view of its size
and significance, the official stance cannot be one of neglect or
non-recognition"(p. 213).

As an economic activity, prostitution institutionalizes the buying and
selling of women as commodities in the marketplace. It further removes
women from the economic mainstream by segregating them as a class set apart
for sexual servitude. It reinforces the definition of women as providers of
sexual services, thereby perpetuating gender inequality. And it legitimizes
and strengthens men's ability to put the bodies of women at their disposal.

Because the sex industry is integrated into the economic, social and
political life of many countries doesn't mean we should passively accept
this state of affairs as a kind of economic law. The ILO's dispassionate
recommendation to recognize the sex industry as an economic sector
capitulates to a conservative laissez-faire market ideology prevalent in
many countries. That the sex industry contributes significantly to the
economy and GDP of many countries should be taken as a cause for alarm and
action against the industry rather than an excuse for acquiescence to it.

2. "The sex business has assumed the dimensions of an industry and has
directly or indirectly contributed in no small measure to employment,
national income and economic growth..." (p.1). In Southeast Asia, the sex
industry prostitutes "between 0.25 and 1.5 per cent of the total female
population in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand" and
"accounts for between 2 per cent and 14 per cent of the gross domestic
product (GDP)"(p.7). In Thailand, "prostitution was the largest of the
underground businesses winning out over drug trafficking, arms trading,
contraband in diesel oil, trafficking in human labour and gambling (p.
10)...These economic bases underscore the importance of the commercial sex
sector in the economies of Southeast Asian countries, and help to explain
why the policy issue cannot be seen only from the perspective of the
welfare of individual prostitutes (p.11)...It is worth considering...the
possibility that official recognition of the sector would be extremely
useful...for extending the taxation net to cover many of the lucrative
activities connected with it" (p.213).

The international narcotics industry contributes significantly to the
economy and GDP of several Latin American and Asian countries. Millions of
farmers and families in countries such as Columbia and Burma depend on the
income generated by the drug sector. Foreign currency generated by drug
trafficking is said to contribute to economic stability. The drug sector
involves diverse but highly interrelated establishments such as farming,
transportation, bars, gambling, prostitution, tourism, and hotels. The
revenues generated by the drug sector, if calculated, would rival the
revenues generated by the sex sector. Should we, by the same token,
recognize the "drug sector," redefining harmful drugs as legal marketable
commodities and drug traffickers as legitimate businessmen?

The ILO report makes little mention of the harm that accrues to women in
prostitution. As the report states, "the welfare of individual prostitutes"
cannot be allowed to dictate the policy issue. It is this harm, made
visible in the violence and health consequences suffered by women in
prostitution, that most strongly refutes the ILO arguments that
prostitution should be accepted as work by recognizing the sex industry as
an economic sector. Study after study has shown that the lives women in
prostitution lead are hazardous and bordering on brutality.

The harm of prostitution is graphically evident in its health consequences.
Women in prostitution suffer the same injuries that women subjected to
other forms of violence against women endure, including bruises, broken
bones, black eyes, concussions, and loss of consciousness. The reproductive
health effects include a high incidence of unwanted pregnancies,
miscarriage, multiple abortions and infertility. In addition to HIV/AIDS,
chronic pelvic pain and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) from sexually
transmitted diseases (STDs) are alarmingly high among women in
prostitution. In the study done by Human Rights Watch/Asia of Burmese women
prostituted in Thailand, fourteen of the thirty girls interviewed were HIV
positive, infected by the men who bought them (Asia Watch, 1993, p.70). The
report on Nepali women and girls cites the Indian Health Organization's
estimate that "80 percent of sex workers are infected with a sexually
transmitted disease...Activists there have also encountered cases of forced
sterilization of brothel inmates, hysterectomies during abortion being the
most typical" (Human Rights Watch/Asia, pp.65-67)

Recognition of the sex sector will not change this reality.

3. The ILO report argues that "All the country studies confirm that
earnings from prostitution are often more than from alternative employment
opportunities open to women with no or low levels of education" (p. 207).

Rather than accept the unexamined premise that some women earn more in
prostitution than anyplace else, the ILO should question why prostitution
is the only place where mostly women can turn when all else fails. The ILO
report acknowledges that "A striking finding from the survey is that
although many women indicated that they would like to move to other jobs,
they were conscious of the income loss they would face" (p. 207). It is a
gendered reality that prostitution may be the best of the worst economic
options that many women have, and it is understandable that women turn to
prostitution in these circumstances. However, the fact that there are often
no better job options for women shouldn't be manipulated to turn many
women's desperate economic plight against them by institutionalizing their
exploiters as entrepreneurs. This is to surrender the political battle for
women's right to decent and sustainable work, and to tolerate that women's
bodies are increasingly bought for sex and used as merchandise in the

The ILO report conveys the impression that prostitution is a viable and
even lucrative economic activity for all, including the women most
involved. In a response to the ILO report published in Businessworld
(Philippines), the author notes that "the majority of the sex workers [in
the Philippines] receive only an average of 10% of the total revenue
(P54,000 per year or P4,500 per month) that they make for the capitalists,
brokers or employers" (The View from Taft, Sept. 10, 1998). Of this total
they must spend between P5,000 to P6,000 per month for their clothes,
transportation and cosmetics. Another large portion which is not calculated
goes to support their families. "At the end of the day (or night),
therefore, most of these sex workers...usually find themselves helplessly
and, worse, perpetually trapped in a debt maze" (Idem.) They thus end up
more unable to cope with economic disadvantage or further impoverished.

These figures mirror the situation of women in the sex industry in other
countries who ultimately see very little of the money they earn. In
industrialized countries, women in prostitution and related sex industries
such as stripping, spend a large portion of their small income to buy drugs
which help anesthetize the violence, violation and indignities of the acts
that are perpetrated against them. Furthermore, as Dorchen Leidholdt has
pointed out, women in prostitution stop being marketable as sexual
commodities in their early 30s, since the male demand is for younger women.
The fact is that this so-called sex work is temporary, and women end up
with no job skills, often so debilitated that they are unable to work, and
more destitute than when they began.

4. "On the demand side, recent economic development has created
increasing...capacity and, very likely, the motivation of men to buy sexual
services in a much wider and more sophisticated range of settings...This
has resulted in the widening of the diversity of settings in which sexual
services are offered, and in the establishment of new and more luxurious
types of sex establishments" (pp. 207-08).

The most invisible part of the sex industry is the buyer and his role and
responsibility in creating the demand for prostitution. The ILO report
offers no criticism of the male entitlement to buy women for the sex of
prostitution. Citing the expanding reality of male demand for prostitution,
and even acknowledging that "poverty has never stopped men from paying for
sexual services" (p. 210), the ILO's recommendations implicitly support the
view that men need sex and are entitled to have it even if they have to
purchase a woman's body. The body of the prostituted woman is the vehicle
with which the male buyer acts out his gender-based dominance. The ILO
seems to assume that male biology dictates male sexual behavior, and that
thus prostitution is inevitable.

If not biologically inevitable, the ILO report does assume that
prostitution is economically inevitable. "Given that the economic and
social foundations are not easy to change, the sex sector is not going to
disappear in the foreseeable future. Especially in view of its size and
significance, the official stance cannot be one of neglect or
non-recognition" (p. 213). The explicit recommendations of the report urge
governments to recognize the right of men to buy women in the market sector
because male purchasing power is increasing. This is no less that an
economic rationalization of male sexual privilege and economic power.

 Instead of transforming the male buyer into a legitimate customer who buys
women's bodies with impunity, the ILO should seriously study various
innovative programs which make the buyer accountable for his sexual
exploitation, thereby regulating his actions instead of recognizing them as
legitimate. For example, the SAGE Program in San Francisco has designed a
program to educate those men arrested for soliciting women in prostitution
about the risks and impacts of their behavior. Buyers have to listen for
eight hours to those most traumatized by male sexual exploitation,
especially the prostitution survivors, who tell these men that they wreak
havoc on women's lives leaving behind them a wake of danger, degradation,
disease and often death (Ybarra, 1996, p. 18). Winner of the prestigious
1998 Ford Foundation/JFK School of Government "Innovations in Government
Award," the SAGE Program addresses the reorientation of male clients and is
premised on the assumption that men can change, rather than prostitution
being inevitable.

5. When the sex sector is recognized as an economic sector, governments may
be better able to regulate and monitor the expanding criminal elements of
the industry such as organized crime, drug abuse, and especially child
prostitution. "Yet governments have found it exceedingly difficult to
tackle the problems...because...The sex sector is not recognized..." (p.1).

Even if it were possible to remove the criminal element that controls the
sex industry, or to limit prohibition only to child prostitution, these
"solutions" can be compared to attempts to regulate slavery as a business
-- a serious proposal at the height of the slave trade. Those who advocated
abolition of the slave trade knew that it was/is not possible to legislate
against slavery by simply removing abusive slave owners, or by tolerating
the slavery of adults but not of children, because slavery itself is the
abuse. They knew that these "economic sector solutions" were tantamount to
reinforcing slavery as an oppressive institution.

As with slavery, prostitution per se is abuse, exploitation and an
oppressive institution. Sexual exploitation violates the human rights of
anyone subjected to it, whether adult or child. The criminal aspects of
prostitution which the ILO report is critical of cannot be remedied without
addressing the entire system of prostitution. Transforming the crime of
prostitution into an official acceptance of it will only lead to
entrenching organized crime.

The legacy of slavery in the United States has been a legacy of the racial
subordination and oppression of all African Americans. Slavery set the
standard for the way the way African Americans, as a race, have been
treated in the United States, although all African Americans were not
enslaved. For all African Americans, slavery generated a history of
physical violence and racial hatred, a society based on segregation, and
unequal access to all the basic rights of citizenship.

Similarly, prostitution expresses the worth of all women. Prostitution has
an enormous impact on the way men value and treat women in general and any
woman in particular. The pervasive sexualization of women, the fact that
women's bodies are made increasingly accessible and available to men, and
the ways in which all of this is made into "sex" in prostitution define
what a woman is in this society and what she is made for. Because any
woman's body can be commodified and sold as sex in the marketplace, all
women can be reduced to sexual objects and instruments. The degraded role
into which prostituted women are cast sanctions the sexual exploitation of
all women, eroticizes women's inequality, and thus bolsters women's
personal and social subordination.

6. "For those adult individuals who freely choose sex work, the policy
concerns should focus on improving their working conditions and social
protection, and on ensuring that they are entitled to the same labour
rights and benefits as other workers" (p. 212).

In countries that have taken a labor approach to prostitution
regulating/legalizing it as work, recognition of the sex sector has caused
prostitution to flourish more than when it was illegal. There is good
evidence that countries such as Holland and Germany, both of which have
recognized prostitution as work and as an economic sector, are precisely
the countries which have higher rates of women illegally trafficked into
the country for prostitution (de Stoop, 1994; Barry, 1995; Benson and
Matthews, 1995). For example, in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, women
from Latin America, the Philippines and Eastern Europe are reported to
comprise 40%, 65% and 50% respectively of the prostituted population in
these cities (Golding, 1994). Earlier evidence from Germany indicates that
only 12% of prostituted women work in the state-regulated eros zones
because the majority "would rather live in illegality than accept the
state's working conditions, wages and control" (Jaget, 1980).

Furthermore, the permissiveness of the legal climate encourages the illegal
sector to grow. In Germany, the eros zones have acted as a magnet for a
range of illegal activities which then spill over into surrounding areas
(Golding, 1994). Men who formerly would not risk buying women for sex now
see prostitution as acceptable. The tolerant legal climate makes it easier
for pimps, traffickers and brothel owners to attract women to the "work."

The ILO argues that recognition of the sex sector would help keep the sex
industry above ground and make it controllable. But consider the example of
the legal arms sector which is supposedly monitored and regulated by
governments, the very position in which the ILO would place the sex sector.
A significant percentage of the arms trade is clandestine and underground,
although the arms sector is subject to disclosure and to governmental
oversight. In addition, hundreds of NGOs keep close watch on the arms
sector. That there is a trade in legal arms has only served to enhance the
viability and expansionism of the illegal arms industry. Rather than
reducing the illegal trafficking in arms, the legal flow of arms serves to
expand it by creating the infrastructure on which illegal arms trading
depends. Why should the sex sector be any different?

         Recognition of prostitution as work can only increase the current
expansionism of the sex industry giving it the stable marketing environment
for which it has lobbied and locking women even further into the industry
by legitimating the sex trade. Instead of recommending that governments
cash in on the economic benefits of the sex industry, the ILO should
recommend that states invest in the futures of prostituted women by
providing economic resources from the seizure of sex industry assets to
enable women to leave prostitution. In this context, the ILO should pay
attention to that part of its own report which found that "...prostitution
is one of the most alienated forms of labour; the surveys show that women
worked 'with a heavy heart', 'felt forced' or were 'conscience-stricken'
and had negative self-identities. A significant proportion claimed they
wanted to leave sex work if they could" (p. 213).

7. The ILO report does not call for the legalization of prostitution. Lin
Lean Lim, the editor of the report has stated that "Recognizing
prostitution as an 'economic sector' does not, at all, mean that the ILO is
calling for the legalization of prostitution."

Although the ILO report does not explicitly recommend legalization, it
implicitly advocates legalization by calling on governments to recognize
prostitution as an economic sector and "a legal occupation with protection
under labour law and social security and health regulations" (p. 2). One
might ask how an illegal activity could be taxed. How can prostitution be
recognized as a "legal occupation" without legal recognition, thus
legalizing it in some way? How can prostitution be regulated as legitimate
work, subject to occupational health and welfare standards, without some
form of legalization? As the Singaporean Straits Times editorialized, the
ILO position is at the very least "fishing for legalisation...Not calling
this legalisation is a bit like smoking marijuana and claiming
non-inhalation (Ghosh, 1998, p. 35)."

 Other ILO spokesmen are more forthright. Jean-Claude Parrot, Canada's
representative to the ILO, has said that "Any government that wants to
implement that report in order to really address the economic issue and the
taxation system has to look first at legalizing the issue" (Gollom, 1998,
p. A1).

(Continued in Part 2)

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