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Disclaimer: This article is written by Xintong Chen. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the team editor nor any entities they represent
Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, “desperate poverty” has driven more women to take up prostitution to make a living. Hundreds had transferred from their initial jobs (e.g. waitresses, teaching assistants and cleaners) into prostitution since the beginning of 2019.
The latest UK news
Numerous female sex workers in the UK appealed that “prostitution should be a legally registered job needed to be recognized by government” because they are facing the increasing living cost. They argued that the legitimization of prostitution might be a tool for them to gain work benefits. Section 51 of Sexual Offences Act 2003, which criminalizes soliciting behavior of prostitutes, has been severely opposed by female sex workers for a long time.
Would legalization of prostitution possibly solve issues of survival which female sex workers face?
The myth of “voluntary choice”
A common claim made by those who are pro-prostitution, mostly consisting of brothels, pimps, and male customers, is that “entering into the prostitution industry is an economic activity on prostitutes’ volition to support their lives”. Sex workers are not “victims” if they “voluntarily” accept to provide sex services instead of being compelled. This statement, the mainstream opinion of those aiming at promoting the legalisation of prostitution, however, is so deceptive that it risks tempting us to ignore the “slavery characteristics” behind sexual work.
Few women actively choose to engage in prostitution. A study finds that most women in deciding to become prostitutes fail to make rational choices as they are not available to them and they deem taking up prostitution as a last resort. This is because physical and mental infliction of pain, which is either brought by male clients or pimps, is inevitably imposed on a woman when she enters into the prostitution industry. Studies shows that prostitutes risk being exposed to the danger of being battered or raped if they fail to satisfy male clients’ need.
Hence, the language adopted such as “sex work” is more likely to normalise prostitution just as other occupations, masking the exploitative characteristics. As such, some prostitutes, especially those who are underage, are unaware of the suffering which await them. A survivor uncovered the truth of prostitution in her book by stating that “prostitution is neither sex nor work but dehumanization and violence.”
Suffering behind prostitution?
Unlike other secular jobs, in the sexual industry, the complicated factors concern an extreme imbalance of power between prostitutes and clients: it is hard for prostitutes to say “no” to clients.
Income is a decisive factor for female sex workers. There is a huge income gap between clients who are often middle or upper class men and prostitutes who are often instead lower-class. Male clients can hence take advantage of their superior position to dominate female sex workers because of the ingrained imbalances of historical and structural power between men and women
In order to earn money to survive, there may be no alternative for prostitutes but to accept the requests, however grim. Even when prostitutes are pregnant, they can still lack the freedom to say “no”. In contrast, they may have to serve 15 to 40 men per day until they give birth. Those clients know the painful conditions which prostitutes experience but often keep on buying sex service without guilt and want more without limitation.
From this angle, the conclusion is that female sex workers’ lower economic status can be easily exploited to satisfy male purchasers.
Physical and mental health issues
Even though many prostitutes decide to exit from the sex industry, trauma has often already been left on their bodies and hearts.
Physical health issue
Female sex workers can be easily exploited by male clients with higher economic status. Male clients reject to wear condoms notwithstanding that they have been educated to do so. Sex buyers instead prefer to pay more for prostitutes who are vulnerable to turning down higher prices so that those women would be more likely to accept their requirement—avoiding condom use. A report revealed that 73% of men offered to pay more for sex without a condom. Plus, men are more likely to be excluded from the requirement of health checks, even though prostitutes are usually forced to do so outright. The nonuse of condoms and the double-standard requirement of health tests combined can thus increase the risk of contracting HIV infection, chlamydia and gonorrhoea.
The concern is that the legitimisation of prostitution might fuel the reasonableness of refusal to wear condoms given that sex buyers just view their requirements with transactional nature, irrespective of dehumanization.
Mental health issue
Prostitutes tend to adopt a survival strategy to persuade themselves to withstand the violence they face – for example, being mistreated as a sex toy. The most frequent tactic used is dissociation; they try to keep their bodies and emotions apart in order to make it seem as though the degrading behavior of their male customers can be tolerated.
Although dissociation might provisionally alleviate prostitutes’ mental suffering, this strategy can adversely affect their social skills in the long term even if they choose to exit from the sex industry. One survivor explained the effects she felt from dissociation: “I had serious problems talking and listening to others. I felt dizzy every day.”
Experiencing humiliation in the sex industry can ravage individuals’ dignity as well as self-esteem, although this might be unnoticed either by prostitutes themselves or outsiders.
The trafficking issue
Decriminalization of prostitution in a country can promote a human trafficking phenomenon. The following research has demonstrated this concern. Pimps involved in human trafficking might defend that they just do a “ legal business” with voluntary prostitutes. A law permitting prostitution seems to offer shelter for those pimps and brothels who exploit women.
Fewer individuals have been condemned for trafficking since Germany legalized the sex industry in 2002. Data displays that the number of convicted persons in 2002 and 2001 was 151 and 32 respectively. The trend indicated is that if prostitution is legalized, more individuals suspected of human trafficking might not be convicted. Those individuals might artfully defend that females are ‘voluntary’ participates in the sex industry. Female victims hence may be faced with more barriers to report traffickers.
(2) New Zealand
As a country with the most liberal prostitution laws, New Zealand has been a destination for traffickers to transport women to provide sex services, most of whom are from southeast Asia.
In the Netherlands, resulting from there being no “legal impediment” to pimps and brothels, these sellers hide the sordid fact by claiming that those trafficked women are migrants with legal working permits as sex workers.
These examples of countries may be indicative of decriminalisation of prostitution being less likely to protect prostituted individuals and instead fueling trafficking.
The legalisation of prostitution is more likely to establish a social norm that sex buyers and third-party selling of prostitutes is acceptable. Normalising the behaviours of sex buyers and those who sell women might provide a justification for “rape culture”.
Both physical and mental suffering endured by female sex workers should be recognized by the whole society. However, it may be challenging for outsiders to comprehend the suffering of female sex workers, due to traps established by those who stand to gain from industrialized prostitution. Those who benefit contend that “prostitution must be normalized without differences to other types of jobs.” Despite being a hard-won battle, fighting the perception that prostitution is an official career is still essential.
Never acquiesce in the existence of the current sex industry. Never be indifferent to the suffering that female sex workers undergo. Never let the legalisation of prostitution mask the underlying exploitation of women.