Kajsa Ekis Ekman
« Prostitution is the enemy of sexual liberation »
Prostitution is, in reality, very simple. It is sex between two people—between one who wants it and one who doesn’t. Since desire is absent, payment takes its place. This inequality of lust is the basis of all prostitution, be it ‘VIP escort services’ or the modern slavery of trafficking. The same condition is always present: one person wants to have sex, one doesn’t. Money may get the buyer ‘consent’ and even fake appreciation during the act, but it only highlights the fact that the other party has sex even though s/he does not really want to. No matter how much is said or done to cover this up, if there were mutual desire, there wouldn’t be any payment—and we all know it. Prostitution is therefore an enemy of sexual liberation, of lust, and of free will. This, of course, is only one of the problems associated with prostitution. There is also the violence, the poverty, the high mortality rates, the pimps—be it the mafia or the state—and the whole industry that feeds off the inequality of lust. The sex trade is a highly gendered phenomenon. It primarily involves women and girls being sold to men: 98% of the people whose lives are sold through trafficking are women and girls. A minority are men and boys whose lives are sold to other men.
Simultaneously, a new way of talking about prostitution has arisen. It is called ‘sex work’. Its promoters say that prostitution is a job, just like any other. That selling sex should not be seen as a violation of our rights, but more as a right in itself. That we ought to focus on the condom use and proper payment. They say that if prostitution is legalized, its negative features will disappear, the authorities will be able to control it and prostitutes will be able to establish unions and be better paid. They claim that prostitution is not harmful in itself, that what happens between two consenting adults is their own business. Not infrequently, feminist and socialist organizations are mouthpieces for this line of argument: work, unions, rights and self-determination. In the world of prostitution, ‘working’ has long been used as a euphemism to avoid naming what is happening, a kind of perversely ironic usage. Someone asked “Are you working?” with a certain look, and the other person got the drift. But today the term ‘work’ is used in all seriousness by social commentators, politicians and international organizations: prostitution has become a job. We hear it from the postmodern left as well as the neoliberal right. According to this way of thinking, prostitution has nothing to do with the relationship between women and men but instead is quite simply a business transaction. We are to speak, then, in business-related terms. Although the absolute majority of people in prostitution in the world are women and girls and the absolute majority of buyers are men, we are not supposed to speak about women and men, but about ‘sellers’ and ‘customers’. Instead of prostitution we are to say ‘commercial sex’ and instead of prostitutes, ‘sex workers’—terms that provide a semblance of neutrality. In Holland, where all aspects of prostitution are legal, brothel owners are called ‘independent entrepreneurs’; in Australia, ‘service providers’.
The cultural equivalent of sex workers’ rights is the ‘cult of the The whore’.In intellectual circles, praising the whore is fashionable. The whore is quintessentially hip. The word ‘whore’ can spice up the dullest book or the most insipid party; it breathes exoticism and titillation. We hear more and more talk of ‘reclaiming’ the word. They call it paying homage: the whore has been scorned by society—now we must elevate her! But the gesture is, in fact, a way of dissociating oneself from prostituted women. Wearing the ‘whore’ like a necklace: ‘I wear her as an accessory, and thus show that I am not her’.
The sex worker story is the contemporary justification for the sex industry, just like the “happy whore” was in the 60´s and the “necessary evil” or the “drainage model” was in the late 1800´s. It provides society with an excuse not to have to face the exploitation, misery and inequality that prostitution entails. As the sex industry grows, it seeks to be legalized and has succeeded, in places like Australia, to be listed on the stock exchange. The story of the “sex worker” or “job like any other” fits the industry perfectly, at the same time as it offers feminists and the Left an excuse not to act.
The facts of prostitution, however, tell us another story: that it is definitely not a job like any other. For women and girls in prostitution, the death rate is 40 times higher than the average. No group of women, regardless of career or life situation, has as high a mortality rate as prostituted women. A significant study of individuals in prostitution, led by Dr Melissa Farley, was carried out in 2003 by a team of doctors and psychologists who interviewed 800 prostitutes in 9 countries. The results showed that 71 percent had experienced physical assault while in prostitution, that 63 percent had been raped while engaged in prostitution, that 89 percent said they wanted to leave prostitution and would if they had the possibility to do so. What other profession can be compared with this?
In my opinion, any society which wants to strive towards gender equality, respect for life and dignity and a decent future for young girls, needs to fight against prostitution. But not by fighting the prostitutes! No: by fighting the exploiters: the industry and the buyers. It is the buyer, not the prostitute, who really has a choice.
Sweden passed a law in 1998 prohibiting the purchase of sexual services. It was the first time in the world that prostitution legislation had targeted the buyers. This means that it is perfectly legal to sell sex anywhere, but it is illegal to buy it. It was the result of 30 years of struggle from the women´s movement, as well as social work and research.
Thirteen years after the law, buying of sex has diminished substantially. The sex industry had to pack up and leave, along with most of the traffickers. Before 1 in 8 Swedish men bought sex, today the number is down to 1 in 13. In Germany, where the sex industry is legal, 1 in 4 men buy sex. Often it has been said that buying sex is “natural” for men – but these statistics should disprove that, since if that were true, the same number of men would buy sex in every country. Today in Sweden, buying sex is seen as something only “losers” and social outcasts do. Real men can get women without having to pay for them, our generation thinks. This of course does not mean that prostitution has entirely disappeared. But that we are on our way. To exploit another human being is not “natural” or “biological” – even if the sex industry wants us to think that. Their biggest fear is that everyone will have sex for free, because we want to – that would mean the end of their market. As a report on the Australian sex industry states: the future of the sex industry looks good – despite the ”competition from unpaid sex.” Now we know – every time we are having sex for free, we compete with the sex industry.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman
Author of « Being and Being Bought – prostitution, surrogacy and the Split Self », Spinifex Press, 2013 and « Stolen spring » on the eurocrisis and how it hit Greece.