Abolishing Prostitution: Possible? Desirable?

In “Abolishing Prostution: A Feminist Human Rights Treaty,”  Kathleen Barry “argues that the time is ripe for a UN treaty to bolster ongoing efforts to end prostitution.”

Barry tells us of Normal Hotaling who founded SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation) which has worked to end prostitution in San Fransicso in part by offering customers who are first time offenders the opportunity to attend  a “school for Johns directed and taught by prostitution survivors.”  Seems to work, too.  Over 12 years only 4-5% of johns have been arrested a second time.

On the treaty,The Convention Against Sexual Exploitation, Barry supports:

“In addition to arresting, jailing and fining johns, this treaty would requires state to provide women with health and training programs and jobs, the absence of which sends so many women to streets, brothels and to immigrate for work.  It would require that states prevent the sexual exploitation of women during wartime and insure the safety of migrating women. In other words, criminalizing customers must be accompanied with women’s equal access to jobs and their special vulnerabilities to sexual exploitation (prior sexual abuse, poverty, immigration, war) requires state support.”

I understand and appreciate the sex workers’ movement to an extent, but feel it obscures much of the suffering of and violence against women as well as the human trafficking and exploitation that are too often part and parcel of sex work.   In other words, I support the treaty.  What do you think?

13 thoughts on “Abolishing Prostitution: Possible? Desirable?

  1. “I understand and appreciate the sex workers’ movement to an extent, but feel it obscures much of the suffering of and violence against women as well as the human trafficking and exploitation that are too often part and parcel of sex work. In other words, I support the treaty.”

    This seems to imply a hidden premise of the form ‘sex work necessarily (or perhaps ‘almost inevitably’) results in human trafficking/exploitation/violence/suffering’, as one is using the latter as a reason to be against the former.

  2. I don’t think such a hidden premise is assumed in what I say. I am not claiming that every person involved in sex work is either trafficked, exploited, or abused. The point I want to stress is that if some women/men/children are trafficked/exploited/abused as a result of their involvement with sex work, we should pause to consider whether sex work as an industry is morally defensible. Is it possible to have a sex work industry sans trafficking/exploitation/abuse? I do not know and would want to see evidence that such is possible before supporting the sex work industry and arguing against the abolition of prostitution.

  3. The key question as far as I’m concerned is: “will such a treaty aid or hinder sex workers?”

    And the answer is far from clear. It would depend very heavily on how such a treaty is implemented by UN member states. Will they use it as just another excuse to arrest prostitutes? Will they bother making any moves to reform johns? Will any of this talk of cooperation on trafficking issues actually get implemented? Will they just ignore the progressive elements and implement only the regressive, anti-feminist interpretation of the treaty?

    I’m very far from being sold on this one. I’d be very interested in what folks in the sex workers’ movement think, particularly in whether they think there are better ways to implement some of the positive aspects of the proposed treaty.

  4. A statement like this from someone like Kathleen Barry, who is aligned with the typical radfem anti-trans, anti-BDSM, anti-porn, anti-sex worker position is … well, speaking as someone who has done sex work and still does bodywork that I’m sure the likes of Barry would classify as prostitution or porn, and works in and teaches BDSM — and just to be clear, I’m not a spokesperson for anyone or anything — she and her ‘ideas’ are contrary to I think of as feminism or human rights.

    The seemingly reasonable moral argument of some sex work being the result of trafficking and so on, is in itself is not a legitimate argument upon which to question the whole industry. Furthermore, there are already international organizations, laws, and services in place for dealing with this.

    And “will such a treaty aid or hinder sex workers?” has also been answered repeatedly, for decades. Criminalising prostitution will drive it underground, and will cause a massive increase in all the suffering people like Barry pretend to be concerned about; it absolutely will not cause it to magically cease.

    And, writing this from beautiful Germany where sex work is legal and really not such a big deal.

  5. “Criminalizing customers” i.e. “end demand” policies actually increases prostitution, not decrease it. Here’s an article I wrote recently on the economics of “end demand” intervention: http://eminism.org/blog/entry/340

    Of course if the “end demand” policies are accompanied with *real* alternatives–good jobs, education, housing, healthcare, childcare, immigration relief, etc.–things would be different. But if these alternatives could actually be provided, there is little need for further intervention (e.g. prohibition of prostitution), other than protecting people in the sex trade from violence and exploitation just like everyone else.

  6. Are you really sure that people who pay for sex generally are blameworthy and rightly subject to punishment? I don’t feel sure about that at all.

    It seems clear to me that those who engage in trafficking and abuse are legitimately open to punishment, and also that we need to work hard to enlarge the resources and social power of the many women and girls who are now acutely vulnerable to exploitation because of poverty and gender-based oppression.

    But why should we seek to punish all the people who pay for sex– many of whom may treat sex workers respectfully and pay them fairly– simply because they participate in a market in which some other people profit from slavery and exploitation? Why isn’t this like saying that we should all be punished for buying clothes because some clothes are made in sweatshops?

  7. Oh I love this blog. I was scared to read the comments as I feared a big round of bashing on prostitution. I am delighted to see such thoughtful criticisms of this sort of hamfisted abolitionist agenda.

    My view is that any healthy society will make room for sex work (though perhaps not sex wages, if we somehow overcome capitalism some day, hahaha don’t hold your breath). The way it actually happens is horrifically f*cked up in a huge percentage of cases (but same for lots of other industries). But I think it would be really sad if that whole domain of human experience were somehow effectively singled out and closed off forever from the opportunity for people to offer their services and arts and for others to avail themselves of them. In a healthy society, there would be sex work just like there would be restaurants. We are wildly, wildly far from that utopia, obviously, but however much activist work there is that needs to be done, moving towards abolition as the ideal seems to me to be deeply, sadly wrong.

  8. Obviously, one of the reasons it is so difficult for people to escape all sorts of circumstances of coercion and oppression is the lack of good alternatives and of resources that they would need to find better situations. I dislike seeing highly praiseworthy efforts to improve alternatives and make resources available being linked to the much less promising “end demand/criminalize customers” policies, which have a very poor track record. Especially as reaching out and providing alternatives seems to be a lot harder than just arresting a bunch of people, so one fears that it is the latter which will end up getting the emphasis.

  9. “Is it possible to have a sex work industry sans trafficking/exploitation/abuse?” could easily be answered ‘no’ … but if you simply remove the word ‘sex’ from that quote, the answer is just as much no. In any system, people try to exploit it, either within or beyond the rules. (Examples: wage rates for casual workers, exploitation of cheap labour, etc.) Trafficking/exploitation/abuse is usually worse when it occurs in the sex trade because of certain physical elements of the industry (but again, compare something like ‘blood diamonds’). This isn’t a good reason to ban the industry. It is a reason to regulate the practice (and enforce the regulations).

    As Rebecca said, “The way it actually happens is horrifically f*cked up in a huge percentage of cases (but same for lots of other industries)”. The problem is the fuckedupedness, not the industry. (Industry in the abstract. There are plenty of problems with actual components of the industry, but…)

  10. “Fuckedupedness” is one of my absolute favorite nouns. Hear, hear to the whole comment!

  11. Rebecca, to ponder your utopian vision,

    You imagine the possibility of a good, non-capitalist society, which is fine and I agree with such hope, but you also say that you see a place for sex work in such a utopia, where as I would hope that we could reform institutions and relationships and our selves in such a way that the need and desire that lead to such sex work would become unnecessary. Not because such work would be degrading or stigmatized, just because we found a better way to enjoy relationships and fulfill needs and desires so that the idea that we would set up exchanges for such activity would be unnecessary.

    Then again, why not, maybe we should not see it as any less necessary than any other service exchanged. I guess my approach comes from the other side, and I claim that our relationship with sex and the casting of it into sin, our failure to be honest about it say, is obscuring our vision of a world where we would do relationships significantly different and thus may obviate what (partially) drives the flourishing of sex work. That is, honesty about the self and rethinking our desires (something that I assume would be necessary if we are abolishing capitalism!) would also offer radically different worlds in the terms of what we seek as individuals.

    To counter your own example, perhaps in our non-capitalist world we have also learned to cook our own local food more often and share it with family and friends, thus greatly curtailing our restaurant exchanges, at least the fast food ones. If we are going to imagine better worlds I feel those questions have to also be on the table.

  12. I think it can be quite normal to sometimes want relatively complications free – even anonymous – sex, for both men and women. Or, one might want sexual experiences that one’s partner does not like.

    Perhaps a habit of visiting prostitutes indicates a problem, but it could be a problem of being unattractive to one’s desired cohort or of being insecure, etc. It would be great to eliminate all such problems, but I don’t think we ever will.

    If prostitution is decriminalized, then female and male prostitutes can have recourse to law enforcement if they are being abused. If it is decriminalized, then female and male prostitutes can have workers’ rights and protections.

    I cannot imagine ever being or going to a prostitute, and I am lucky to have had alternatives for making a living. But, neither my tastes nor my luck should determine the lives of others. If anyone realy does choose to become a prostitute, then that person should be able to do so witout fear of either police or abuse.

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