When Pala Molisa argued in an article on this website that prostitution was a form of male violence against women that’s fuelling our rape culture — and that the government was wrong to legalise it in 2003 — he was accused of being “whorephobic”. Sex work was empowering, said his critics, and sex workers weren’t selling their bodies, but a service, much like the dentist or physio. Here’s Pala’s response to that.
When I criticised prostitution as a key institution that props up male supremacy and fuels our rape culture, I knew there’d be a lot of pushback. That’s because most people have come to accept prostitution and New Zealand’s law, the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, which decriminalises prostitution, as the norm.
And I get where a lot of the pushback is coming from. A lot of it rightly comes from a concern for the women and people in the sex industry who have traditionally been stigmatised and voiceless.
And what the law tries to do is help remove the stigma of prostitution by treating it as just another form of work — a “job like any other”.
This has brought in changes that are progressive when compared to the earlier legal regime, when sex workers were criminalised, subjected to routine police harassment, denied basic employment rights, police protection, and access to the justice system.
Decriminalisation has given sex workers access to a whole raft of employment benefits and rights that others are entitled to — and helped to bring some legitimacy to an occupation whose workers are marginalised.
In this sense, its intent has been profound: a desire to listen to sex workers who wanted this legislation passed, and to bring about changes recognising their dignity and humanity.
The problem, though, is that most people think that’s the end of the story and that prostitution’s now okay.
There’s an uncomfortable reason why people find the arguments for prostitution and its legalisation appealing. The realities of prostitution are ugly. They’re ugly because they’re based on violence, exploitation and abuse. They’re ugly because they arise from the power inequality between men and women.
They’re ugly because this difference in power doesn’t just say something about what happens to women in prostitution. It also says something about what men are like and what women are like. And about ourselves as a society. Not what men and women could be or should be. But what an acceptance of male supremacy trains us to be.
Men have a stake in believing that we’re not really like that. And women have a stake in believing that men don’t really see them that way. So we all look away. Pretending that prostitution is just a job like any other. Pretending, now that we’ve decriminalised prostitution, that everything’s okay.
It’s not okay.
The truth we need to face is that the pro-prostitution, pro-decriminalisation arguments represent another form of silencing that male supremacy itself is based on. That’s because these arguments ignore the violence and power of men that the sex industry is based on. Not just pimps and johns but men as a class, as a whole.
And they silence the voices of those women in the sex industry in New Zealand who, rather than accepting this violence, are rebelling against it and want the men who abuse them to be called to account.
Erasing the violence of men
Pro-prostitution lobbies like the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective want us to see prostitution as just another form of work.
But no other form of legitimate work exposes workers to the sorts of violence and abuse regularly experienced by sex workers.
This is “work” in which — so overseas research tells us — 60 to 95 percent of workers were sexually assaulted as children, and 75 percent had been homeless at some point in their lives.
It’s work where 95 percent of workers experience sexual harassment that could be legally actionable in another job setting. And where 70 to 95 percent are physically assaulted. Where 60 to 75 percent are raped. And where 68 percent met the criteria for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) a rate matched only by combat vets and state-tortured prisoners.
Then there’s the 80 to 90 percent of sex workers experiencing verbal abuse and social contempt. And the 80 to 90 percent — the vast majority — who want to escape it, but have no other options for survival.
Prostitution’s defenders might want society to see prostitution as “empowering” for sex workers, but clearly it’s the buyers of prostituted people who are the ones being empowered — to use and abuse sex workers as they please.
These realities show how prostitution should be seen as violence against women. First, there’s the unpaid and routine violence: the rape, murder and beatings. Then there’s the paid violence: the psychological and material violence that women experience in prostitution.
That’s why the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among prostituted women is so high. Women’s experience of prostitution is that men use their bodies as objects, so they “dissociate” in order to survive.
Sheila Jeffreys is a former professor in Political Science at the University of Melbourne. I interviewed her early this year — and here’s her explanation: “This dissociation is similar to that employed by children. It causes post-traumatic stress. The need for money is a form of coercion, and prostitution is, in that sense, forced sex.”
That’s why prostitution should be seen as commercialised rape: rape that men pay for.
This is what international research has shown. But we’d be hard-pressed to find this sort of research here in New Zealand. That’s because the only research projects that the Prostitutes’ Collective tends to approve are those that begin from the understanding that prostitution is “work” rather than abuse. This research doesn’t look at sex as a way men can demonstrate and enforce power over women. It’s research that paints a sanitised picture of the sex industry — a picture that doesn’t show the role of institutionalised male power in the sex industry.
Such research can’t even “see” the endemic and institutionalised male violence that’s staring them in the face.
Silencing the rebel women
Not all sex workers think prostitution is empowering. Not all sex workers think that it’s just a job. Many sex workers will tell you about the routine violence and abuse that is their everyday reality. Many will tell you that the industry they’re in is one founded on male violence, exploitation and rape. And many sex workers are fiercely critical of decriminalisation.
The problem, though, is that they don’t have a mainstream public platform. They don’t have much of a voice. You’ll never see these women being promoted by pro-prostitution lobbies because, in order to maintain this idea that prostitution is “just work”, they have to ignore and sanitise the realities of violence and abuse that prostituted women suffer.
The only women you’ll see supported by pro-prostitution lobbies are those who echo the interests of sex industrialists, pornographers and pimps — and who trumpet the pro-legalisation line.
Despite this mainstream silencing, however, there are women who are speaking out. One is Rachel Moran, who wrote Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution. She was a prostituted woman in Ireland for seven years and a founding member of SPACE International, an organisation for survivors of prostitution.
She says that there are some advocates who argue that women in prostitution sell sex as consenting adults. “But those who do are a relatively privileged minority — primarily white, middle-class, Western women in escort agencies — not remotely representative of the global majority.”
But their right to sell, she argues, doesn’t trump her right or the right of others “not to be sold in a trade that preys on women already marginalised by class and race.”
That’s what prostitution does. Like the war industry, this global multi-million dollar industry feeds off the despair, poverty and hopelessness that the engine of global capitalism is producing — and that afflicts the lives of young people, especially indigenous women and people of colour.
Rebel women like Rachel Moran aren’t just overseas. They are right here in Aotearoa.
Early this year, I interviewed one of these rebel women. Sally (not her real name) is a prostituted woman working in Auckland. She’s in her 20s, and when I met her she was working in one of the biggest brothels in the country (around 200 women). Her story is similar to many: kicked out of home at 14, been in the sex industry for years.
When I asked how we should understand prostitution and sex work, she said: “First off, we’re not sex workers. We’re raped workers.”
And why is prostitution not sex, but rape? Sally: “Those who have something to gain (financial or sexual) from the prostitution of women (or much more rarely, of men) will try to argue that prostitution is sex and not rape because it involves consenting adults — the man (for it is nearly always men) consents to the purchase in prostitution and the woman (for it is nearly always women) consents to the sale in prostitution.”
But what is consent in this situation? When a man consents to briefly buying a woman’s body, he’s signalling a desire for sex. But when a woman consents to sex only when she’s paid, she’s signalling a desire not for sex but for money.
That’s how Sally sees it. And she argues that “the men who use prostituted women know that the sex is unwanted. That is why they pay money to force it to happen anyway. They exploit financially vulnerable women in order to get away with rape”.
The Prostitution Reform Act did nothing for the prostituted, says Sally, other than ensure that prostituted women would not be convicted for their own rape. By legalising prostitution, we have enshrined “the entitlement of pimps and johns to the sexual slave trading and the rape of women”.
“We, the prostituted could not seek protection from police before decriminalisation because we were considered the criminals ourselves. And we cannot seek protection from police after decriminalisation because the crime has been invisibilised by the enabling of pimps and johns.”
When I asked about the realities of abuse in the sex industry, she said: “Sexual assault and sexual harassment are part of the role. They are not isolated incidents. Our role is to be harassed, assaulted, and raped. As well as to be an entertainer, counsellor, maid, masseuse.
“The act of purchasing a human being … is in itself an act of violence, no matter how gentle the occasional ‘shy guy’ may be in the execution of this violence. Whatever personal boundaries you set, be they as meagre as insistence on condom use and not sharing bodily fluids, their enforcement under decriminalisation is a 24/7 battle of wills, cunning, and strength of which you are always on-guard.”
Sally rejects the idea that prostitution is based on “choice” because the “only distinction between what happens in prostitution, and any other form of non-consensual sex/rape is that the women in prostitution have made a choice to endure the rape in exchange for money … and other kinds of rape victims/survivors have not had to make this choice to purposely put themselves in harm’s way as a means of economic survival.”
Sally’s not alone. In 2013, for example, 150 women ex-prostitutes filed an appeal calling on the government to change the law, saying decriminalisation had failed them. That was led by Elizabeth Subritzky, who’s worked with many sex workers wanting to get out of the sex industry.
As she told Parliament’s justice and electoral committee at the time, the Prostitution Reform Act not only encouraged more men to buy sex, but transformed prostitution into an acceptable, even attractive job for young, poor women in New Zealand. The only solution to the damage that prostitution caused, and the violence it created, she said, would be to prosecute buyers of sexual services through a reform of prostitution laws.
Breaking the silence
Women like Sally and Rachel Moran are shunned by the mainstream media and mass culture because, like those who dare to talk about the reality of war, they tell the truth about prostitution.
And they bring home this ugly truth. As a country, we have this idea that we’re sexually and politically progressive, and yet we’ve enshrined in law one of the fundamental planks of male supremacy’s rape culture: men’s entitlement to buy and use women.
That’s not surprising, though, because, as columnist Chris Hedges has argued in an article, The Whoredom of the Left, “prostitution is the quintessential expression of global capitalism”. A culture that thinks that pimps and johns should be decriminalised is right in line with a world of deepening inequality where our corporate masters are now the ruling pimps.
It’s a culture where workers around the globe are increasingly debased and degraded. Where they become impoverished and powerless. And where they’re thrown away like so much human refuse when they’re no longer of use.
That’s the world at large. And that’s exactly what prostitution is.
All this just shows how morally bankrupt we’ve become. We’re trying to deal with the crisis of male violence while there’s a multi-billion dollar global industry that’s growing in our midst. That includes pornography, too, which, as Sally says, is just “prostitution that happened in front of a camera”. Like prostitution, the vast bulk of the global pornography industry is based on male violence and rape.
Our moral bankruptcy can be seen, on the right, by the way National-led governments have shut down and under-funded rape crisis centres, and failed to provide crucial sexual violence support services. And, on the left, by the way most of the left is largely silent not just about white supremacy and imperialism, but crucially, about prostitution and pornography.
All of this means that we have a choice. We can look into the fire, try to grasp the reality of prostitution. Or we can turn away. We can listen to women like Sally and Rachel Moran. Or we can salve our conscience by saying that pro-prostitution voices represent the voices of all sex workers, and ignore the realities of male violence and power.
Me, I’m going to listen to women like Sally and Rachel Moran. Women who fight for the voiceless. Women who refuse to lie down. Who know what it’s like at the bottom. Who might still be at the bottom, but who fight the powerful, the pornographers, the pimps.
By fighting against the violations of prostitution, we’re fighting against the violations of global capitalism, in its destruction of indigenous peoples, lands, and ecological boundaries.
None of this is easy. But it’s necessary because prostitution and pornography are systems of death. It’s only by fighting against these systems of death that we’ll have any chance of addressing the severe social and ecological crises that we have all around us. And any chance of keeping hope and the human spirit alive.