Gloria Steinem recently gave a talk in New Delhi about prostitution and trafficking. Again defying that old trope, forever pushed by advocates for the full decriminalization and/or legalization of prostitution, that pretends abolitionists are concerned with some kind of puritan morality and “sin,” Steinem stated: “Prostitution is not inevitable, it is only about unequal distribution of power.”
That’s right folks. Feminism is about fighting inequality; there is no “moral panic” or fear of sex. In fact, prostitution and trafficking has little to do with female sexuality (aside from that fact that it is perceived and represented as something that exists only for male pleasure) – rather it is about dehumanization. Abolition is about connecting a context of poverty with racism, colonialism, and male power and working from there.
Though it appears the points made in Steinem’s lecture were very clear, there was the inevitable response, accusing Steinem of being “moralistic” and of “conflating sex-work with ‘trafficking.'” This is one of the more popular go-to responses to any feminist who dares challenge the idea that prostitution happens because of inequality or suggests that the sex industry *might* not support women’s human rights.
Another response from Kumkum Roy challenged Steinem by saying that “…voices of dissent pointed out to the need to look at issues of poverty and labour in general, and locate sex work within that context, and/ or within a larger context of violence rather than homogenise all prostitutes/ sex workers.” – a strange response considering that feminists specifically view prostitution as something that exists because of poverty and within a larger context of violence against women.
There is, again, that desperate desire, on the parts of advocates for full decriminalization/ legalization, to separate prostitution from trafficking as though there is a clear division. As though, you know, American or Canadian women are all so free and liberated that coercion couldn’t possibly exist here, whereas other women who live in far, far, away places are the only ones whose choices are limited in this particular way. The only ones who are vulnerable to violence and abuse and coercion.
There may well be differences between prostitution and trafficking, particularly when we look at class divisions and the ways in which more privileged women are able to do sex work, vs. poor women, but there are also connections, as pointed out by Steinem – in that both situations are largely determined by inequality and “both are created by the same customers who want unequal sex.”
It is argued within the response from Shohini Ghosh that “sex-work” is merely something that happens between “consenting sexual adults,” again imagining that a clear line is drawn once money is exchanged. Needing money to survive and therefore electing to exchange sex for money does not equal, simply, “consent” and that argument certainly does not address the ways in which class, race, and gender lead women to “consent” to selling sex.
Steinem couldn’t have said it better: “I don’t think “consenting adults” is practical answer to structural inequality.”
The same argument is often applied around young women and girls who are prostituted – once they turn 18 suddenly their pasts have disappeared, they are no longer vulnerable, no longer at risk for abuse, violence and coercion. Another magical line is drawn.
In any case, please go ahead and read the article yourselves, it is an extremely intelligent, clear response to the tired attacks and misrepresentations constantly applied to abolitionist arguments.
Steinem concludes by describing a third option that goes beyond the limited divide that pretends there is only legalization or criminalization; that option being the Nordic model:
But there is good news. The old polarization into legalization and criminalization is giving way to a more practical, woman-centered and successful Third Way: De-criminalize the prostituted persons, offer them meaningful choices, prosecute traffickers, pimps and all who sell the bodies of others, and also penalize the customers who create the market while educating them about its tragic human consequences.