Another research paper promoting the legalization of prostitution as beneficial has been released. Titled, “Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies”, the report was funded by the staunchly pro-legalization Open Society Foundation in service of “tackling the structural drivers of HIV.”
Investigating the structural drivers of HIV transmission is a noble public health goal, however it is not a feminist goal. Feminism centers its advocacy and education on bettering the lives of women and girls. I have been writing feminist analyses of prostitution research for several years, which is to say I read prostitution research with the question, “How does this serve women and girls?” on the top of my mind.
Expecting people to pore through the daunting statistics and methodologies that sometimes spin even my academically-inclined head is unrealistic and also unnecessary. Statistics are useful to quantify the severe harms of prostitution, but I have found more success convincing people that legalization exacerbates prostitution’s harms when I lay off the numbers and lay into common sense rationale connecting my audience to recognizable elements in their own lives.
I wrote the “Genderberg Prostitution FAQ” in 2005 to emphasize reason over statistics and it remains the most popular page on my archived website Genderberg.com. Few emotions are more satisfying to me than occasionally seeing someone reiterate my point, “There is no other ‘job’ where a 13-year-old with zero experience can be sold for 100 times the price what a 23-year-old with ten years experience is sold.”
For December 17th’s International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, here are 10 more pithy explanations for how prostitution is much more aligned with exploitation than with work.
1) No job title is threateningly flung in the faces of women and girls all over the world the way “whore” and its many synonyms in many languages are used to commit verbal abuse.
2) Prostitution is often compared to coal mining. Harms to coal miners are accidents that safety equipment aims to reduce; harms to prostituted women are intentionally inflicted on them. Pornography commonly portrays harming women as an attractive goal for consumers.
3) Prostitution is often compared to low-paid McJob work. Fast food employees don’t need specialized social services to “help” them quit the way prostitution survivors need protecting from pimps. When prostituted women escape they are more often in the same situation as domestic violence victims, fleeing from imminent harm with only the clothes on their back and the fear of being recaptured in their minds.
4) Prostitution is often compared to cleaning toilets. Being forced by economic necessity to clean toilets every day would be deeply unpleasant but it isn’t rape and it doesn’t leave people with PTSD, sexually transmitted diseases, or unwanted pregnancies. Anyone who has both cleaned a toilet and engaged in sex could explain the vast differences in these two activities.
5) Prostitution is not service work, it is bodily exploitation. The sex, race, and age of who provides a legitimate service doesn’t matter for cashiers, plumbers, accountants, cab drivers, etc. the way it matters to prostitute-using men who won’t accept sexual services from a man’s body when they want a woman’s body or from an elderly woman’s body when they want a young girl’s body.
6) There is no occupation that can be done while the worker is unconscious. Prostitutes are often drugged, passed out from unendurable pain, or have head trauma inflicted on them before and during being sexually assaulted.
7) Prostitution is not an entertainment media profession like modeling or acting. Actresses pretend to have sex, prostituted women are not pretending having sex and the harm to their bodies and minds is evidence of exploitation, not an occupation. There is no trafficking ring forcing teenage girls to perform Shakespeare for men’s leisure.
8) Basic work safety conditions are impossible to reconcile with prostitution. Laws about occupational exposure (“reasonably anticipated skin, eye, mucous membrane, or parenteral contact with blood or other potentially infectious materials”) mandate latex gloves, eye goggles, face masks, and aprons to protect employees. Prostitution can never be OSHA compliant.
9) Unionization is not possible. Pimps and pornographers call themselves sex workers because they are employed in the sex industry as they lobby for deregulation and exceptions to worker safety laws. You can’t negotiate your way out of being raped when enduring unwanted sex is the job.
10) “I’ll give you a dollar if you let me punch you in the face,” is not a freelance job offer and neither are prostitution solicitations. Men soliciting for prostitution in public are not magnanimously offering women jobs, no one approaches strangers in the street with offers of gainful employment.