“Streetwalkers”, “sluts” and “whores”—what’s really behind sex work?

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Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

Stigma appears to just be one of those things that hovers around women when it comes to sex: women who do not  have sex are prudes, those who are not  interested are frigid, those who enjoy it are sluts and those who get paid for it are whores. Stigmas around sex are not new, but it so seems that prostitution takes a particular hit when it comes to social hate, and prostitutes face a particular challenge when it comes to their integration in society.

Would legalizing prostitution fix this problem? I argue that it would and here’s why:

First of all, I want to clarify the difference between prostitution, sex-work and sex-trafficking. While all three terms are very closely connected, prostitution refers to an individual’s reception of payment for sexual services. Sex trafficking refers to the movement of people in order for a third party to sell sexual services offered by unwilling workers, sometimes resulting in the sale of a person. Sex work is simply a category which regroups prostitution, sex trafficking and all other lucrative activities, legal or not, related to sex in some respect. I also want to note that while I advocate for the legalization of prostitution, I only advocate for activities which are voluntary, not prostitution which is forced under the umbrella of trafficking or any other forced labor.

Second, legalizing prostitution is often seen as a way of condoning sex-trafficking and vice, but its societal benefits are often grossly neglected—presumably because of the normative backlash such a change would engender. Policymakers have traditionally adopted the more conservative strategy of criminalizing prostitution. This might be due partly to the divide between so-called “abolitionist” feminists who claim to advocate for women’s rights in condemning prostitution and prostitutes and sex workers more broadly demanding their rights be protected.

As we well know now, this had little effect in reducing the activity. If prostitution is so problematic for society that it need be a criminal offense, why not legalize it and create coherent, just and enforceable policies to regulate it? After all people can marry themselves in France, it’s required by law to smile at all times in some Italian cities, Scots must let strangers use their toilets if they knock on the door, and various states and counties have now legalized the use of some drugs—perhaps it is time for prostitution to be at the very legal. This does not imply it has to happen in plain sight or just anywhere, only that workers not be punished for, at the end of the day, having sex.

Third, legalization would increase incentives for indoor activity under the form of regulated brothels and parlors, which increases workers’ safety when compared to street practices. The illegal status of the activity makes indoor practice riskier than “lone-wolf” action on the streets, but it also means that reporting of sexual assault is discouraged. Where sexual abuse and assault reporting is already well below what it should be, that which is related to prostitution is even lower. For instance, in Scotland, where prostitution is illegal, it is estimated that only 34% of women who experienced sexual violence reported it to the police, and only a fraction of those were prostitutes, all of which worked indoors. Street prostitution is more common because it is criminalized, yet it is also more dangerous. If prostitution does not disappear when it is banned, it only gets more dangerous for workers. While black market activity is inevitable, states where the activity is legal and regulated have safer workers, save money on policing and can even hope to get tax returns on the regulation of prostitution. So why do we value the stigma of prostitution more than we value the benefits it can bring to society, and the problems legalization can eliminate?

Fourth, increases in regulation and the shift to indoor activities would promote condom use. An indoor, regulated setting facilitates the use of condoms and decreases contagion of Sexually Transmissible Diseases (STDs) which weigh on the health system. Some studies suggest that a decriminalization followed by a legalization of prostitution would encourage condom use sufficiently for a 30% decrease in HIV/AIDS rates over the next decade. There should be no surprise that condoms are not widely used in areas where prostitution is illegal—and this has nothing to do with workers being “irresponsible”—because condom possession can be used as evidence of prostitution in American courtrooms.  

Finally, in societies which have made progress in providing equal opportunities for many if not most, why do we choose to leave prostitutes out of this progress? Abolitionists were successful in the United States in the late 1980’s, making the case that prohibition is in the interest of women. Despite the law stating that both prostitutes and customers are punishable for prostitution, customers are usually arrested without being convicted, or any expectations to be. This unequal chastising of workers results in more incentives to operate on the black market and perpetuate the cycle of stigmatization and poor working conditions. A survey in Australia “found that half of call girls and brothel workers felt that their work was a ‘major source of satisfaction’ in their lives, and seven out of ten said they would ‘definitely choose’ this work”. Perhaps it is time to ask prostitutes to share their side of the story as opposed to letting abolitionists speak on their behalf, when their only interests are in the end their own.

Overall, one can endorse prostitution or not, but the evidence we gather cannot be tailored to fit a narrative, rather it has to encompass a variety of perspectives and seek to find the outcome which benefits society the most, not the interests of a particular group which happens to be louder than the others. Legalizing prostitution might seem radical to many, but when looking at the numbers of prostitutes, or even their clientele, some might be prompted to agree that the stigma is not so warranted, and neither is the criminalization of the act.

By Valentina Laugeri

My name is Valentina, and I am in the second year of my Bachelor’s degree in Politics and International relations. This exciting journey is for me a way to link my passion and my studies and discover new topics and perspectives. I am excited to share my articles and ideas!

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