A pro-choice response to an article Taslima Nasreen wrote calling for the abolishment of prostitution: Sex Slavery Must be Abolished
While Taslima Nasreen and I both share a concern for women's rights and I have absolutely no quarrel with sex trafficking or slavery being abolished, we are very different in the solutions we find acceptable on sex work. To me it appears that Taslima sees the sexual traffic/slavery/work scene as a separate thing from women's rights. Her approach to it is everything we fight against when it comes to human rights - the imposition of external morality and restrictions on matters of personal choice.
[Tweet "To equate choice with lack of choice is like as saying sex and rape are same."]
I believe that personal autonomy is a fundamental right and it must be upheld to the highest standards possible. In my eyes, over ruling another person's choices about themselves amounts to human rights abuse.
To equate a situation with choice (prostitution) and a situation without choice (slavery) is like as saying consensual sex and rape are the same thing.
I believe that in any crime, against any gender, age or culture, the first and most damaging loss is that over personal autonomy. Where a person is forced into actions they do not want for themselves. To restore dignity, in my view it is vital that the personal autonomy must be impeccably respected unless it causes harm to another.
The Indian government says, there are more than 3 million prostitutes in India. Human Rights Watch says, there are more than 20 million prostitutes in India. I believe there are more than 20 million prostitutes in India.
[All quotes in this post are from Taslima's article linked above.]
To abolish this, will mean the unemployment of 20 million people. According to the current statistics, we have almost 10 million unemployed people and another 60 million who are under-employed. We add 20 million to these. They have no skills for other jobs. They have no acceptance or respect in society and are considered to be legitimate targets of sexual abuse by many. What alternative employment is available to them? Should they and their children starve for someone's idea of morals? I wouldn't. Frankly, sex is not that bad and I suspect that in a deeply misogynist society, there may be liberation in having sex without the often undesirable impositions of marriage attached.
Actually it is not difficult to abolish prostitution. Criminalize clients. Where there is no demand, there will be no supply.
There are plenty of countries where prostitution is criminalized. Legislation has little impact on biological urges and trade rooted in basic instinct. There isn't any place in the world without prostitution. Personally, I also believe that sex is always traded - formally or informally. For money, protection, peace of mind, social legitimacy, love, power, mutual enjoyment, whatever. I don't know what is so evil about money alone.
Everything is the oldest form of patriarchal oppression. Prostitution is no special case than say arranged marriages or women being last to eat in most households. Read the Delhi Police sting. In recent years, awareness and activism actually has sex work breaking out of those cages, and now we single it out as patriarchal oppression?
Most of the comments on Taslima's blog are from sex workers, activists and other related professionals, vigorously defending the right to engage in sex work. I don't deny that there are oppressed women forced into the sex trade, but calling all prostitution oppression is an attitude that defies the observable world and thus is worthless in terms of finding practical and respectful solutions to the problems that do exist.
Nor are all prostitutes women.
I can choose to call my computer keyboard a guitar if I wish. Sex work can be sexual freedom if the woman has made her choice, it can be exploitation if she is forced into it against her wish. This disregard of the prostitute's will stinks of a misogynist, patriarchal society, where women are mere objects and what their experiences must be validated or invalidated by another.
Our awareness of rights still hasn't reached the point of respecting choice. Supply & Demand in the Caravan magazine is worth a read in its excellent detailing of high end sex work through the perspective of the pimp (who has prostituted himself too, at a point).
Two parts. 1. other than the sex traffickers: I don't see why people engaged in the sex trade benefiting from it is an undesirable thing. When was the last time anyone was horrified over a business doing well? That is the whole idea of productive employment, no? That people are able to work with dignity and earn well?
2. Sex trafficking again may or may not be exploitative, depending on whether the girl is in it willingly and using the trafficker to reach opportunities or if she is being forced into it against her will. For the forcing against will, the state has a duty to protect citizens from harms, and existing laws provide for that. Such a person is a criminal, and must be stopped, but I disagree that this is the total or even overwhelming reality.
Last year's drought brought with it stories of young girls who had left drought and crippling poverty behind to work as sex workers in the cities (remember the moral police killed the dance bars?). They were under-graduates. Did they know they were ruining their lives? Sure they did. What alternatives did they have? Economy was at a standstill without water for all except the tanker mafia and related male dominated work. Cities aren't exactly welcoming under-graduates from rural schools with open arms and jobs. Vulnerable girls will be targeted by sexual predators anyway.
What were their choices? Seeing the family die of thirst? Being trafficked as brides to states like Haryana and Punjab? They were prostituting themselves, earning enough to cover their expenses and sending money home to their families so that there may be water for them, siblings would study and eat well. I think it was the wiser choice than selling themselves permanently in exploitative marriages (where wives without any local base are purchased and often privately shared among siblings) or dying of thirst and hunger. Maybe one day they do something else, maybe they like this way of earning. Who knows? It can be argued that they didn't have to be the ones to sacrifice, but they also got to be the ones to escape that crippling cage to seek something new.
I also see no harm in sex traffickers facilitating the movement of sex professionals as long as they are choosing to do it, and not being kidnapped and/or sold. What do all those "over seas head hunters" do for computer professionals wanting a job in the US or nurses from Kerala seeking employment in Dubai? The bottom line is CHOICE. Personal autonomy.
Truth4. The sex of prostitution is not “sex” for women in it. Most men who use women
in prostitution have other sexual partners.
Well, obviously the sex worker has other partners too. How does the partners present or in other places turn sex into something else? Irrelevant. If this is meant to imply a blame on prostitutes for harming relationships, then that is bullshit. If it is meant to illustrate the lack of permanence, well that is fundamental in sex work, no?
The client, as a consenting adult is responsible for what s/he does with their relationship and the ethical (and legal) contract with the spouse/partner, and blaming a sex worker for this is plain WTFuckery. Besides, a person inclined to be unfaithful doesn't necessarily need a sex worker. Plenty of married people have affairs with non-prostitutes. The worrisome thinking here is that this is somehow the business of the government to prevent.
Also, there are plenty of people who actually have no (or low) wish for sex and are quite happy for their husbands to find satisfaction elsewhere. In India, where a vast majority of marriages happen for reasons other than sexual compatibility, sexually mismatched couples are the norm more than exception. I forget where I read it, but in about 70% of Indian marriages (not certain, can't find source right now), there is no sex or very little sex between husband and wife beyond 5 years, and some 85%-90% by 10 years.
Truth5. Prostitution is not an acceptable job for women. They are forced to enter prostitution. Prostitution is an abusive institution and women stay poor in prostitution. It is not a vocation choice, it is human rights abuse.
Why should one person's idea of what is appropriate for all sex workers be more valid than another's? Why not mine, the sex workers' or a friendly neighborhood mullah simply asking for them to be stoned? Who decides what is acceptable for another to do with their bodies? Why?
It is indeed a vocation of choice for very many. Some of whom have commented on Taslima's post in objection. Others have formed unions to assert their rights. They aren't asking for alternative jobs. They are asking for legal rights.
Have you ever tried telling a mountaineer to stop courting death on a mountain? All that practice, expense, effort, risk of life and limb, abandoning non-degradable junk in emergencies (or routinely) .... to spend five minutes on a peak and hurry back with no lasting utility from the exercise. What makes it more acceptable to apply such an ban on prostitution? No really, what is the hang up being forced on all and sundry here?
Truth6. Legal prostitution does not protect women in prostitution from harm. All prostitution , legal or illegal, harm women.
Read the many comments on your blog from real life sex workers who have experienced these things first hand and are telling you their side of the story. They are speaking of how a legal status will help protect them from assault, exploitation and discrimination. One show the ignorant, but not one who refuses to see. Harming women? Perhaps they are harmed more from their interests in legal protection being dismissed into a ban on them?
India too has organizations and sex workers unions with memberships of sex workers who obviously aren't slaves, since they are members in a place like that freely. Whether psychological slavery happens? Possibly. I have seen it more in marriage than in places where the sex worker gets paid upfront, can refuse and in any case gets free of the man when the time/act covered by the payment is done. In my view, these things are individual situations and empowerment means that people should be enabled to make choices for their well being rather than regimented into a prescription.
Greater harm is done in attaching this stigma and lack of respect for sex workers.
Truth7. Not social stigma, Harmful aspects are rape, beatings, physical abuse, psychological abuse, and other violence from clients and pimps.
Every third woman in India has experienced domestic abuse and physical violence. Every third woman in India is not a prostitute. Why this selective protection of women from one kind of risk? Will stopping prostitution and entering unemployed and vulnerable in a society that doesn't respect them be a better alternative? How about law enforcement? Prostitute or domestic violence, rape, beatings, etc are punishable by law. Why aren't you recommending upholding laws - which is a pretty direct fix and will work to protect any woman from assault?
Truth8. Prostitution is associated with increased rate of sex crimes.
See above about enforcement, but I dare say it will be a complex solution. Also, I would like to see some data for this.
Truth9. Prostitution is the destination point for trafficking.
Only if you are incapable of thinking of anything other than prostitution, because two massive areas of trafficking are actually domestic work and bonded labour. Visit coal mines to see little sooty kids wrecking lungs in coal dust.
Truth10. Legalization/decriminalization of prostitution expands the sex industry
So? Did you protest the profusion of ice cream parlours or cyber cafes? India NEEDS a sex industry. We have too many people interested in sex with too few legitimate outlets.
Truth11. We have to decriminalize poor prostituted women but arrest their predators: clients, pimps, traffickers.
In other words, lie in action. Strangle prostitution without appearing to target the women you are claiming to save. Nice ethics, madam. But the funny thing is that this is true in India already. Women can offer sex for money in India, but pimping, trafficking, running a brothel and so on is illegal. So where is the reduction in prostitution?
My bottom line? Personal Autonomy. Who a person has sex with and why is really no one else's business as long as it is consensual. When it is not consensual, we already have laws existing for that.
I would like to see RESPECT for sex workers - as for every human - as the biggest intervention, which clearly is missing here rather than these acts of God. That itself will be a big milestone.
Reduction of poverty will go a long way to help women find alternatives that agree with their conscience among those who do it solely out of desperation. Reducing unemployment, monitoring for human rights abuse and offering rescues and alternatives to those who WANT to leave will allow a better result from lesser money.
Rather than strangle prostitution, it should be legalized, legitimized, sex workers being recognized as members of society with a right to live their lives. Law enforcement should be available to them. Crimes against them should be investigated. Safety created now, rather than dangled like bait on the condition of embracing unemployment and starvation.
But most, most, most of all, there is an urgent need to understand that human rights are rooted in personal autonomy. The ability for self-determination and the lack of imposed limits to potential. It is vital that human rights workers do not become patronizing messiahs.
There is no excuse for de-legitimizing the existence of a group of people we fail to protect. It only hides our failure under the carpet. Banning sex work will not end sex slavery, let alone all trafficking, because slavers are already criminals and are highly unlikely to give up a profitable business for your sense of morality. Banning prostitution is the human rights activists version of Gurgaon cops banning women from working post 8pm as a solution for rapes. In other words, it is a big lie.
And even more than that, understanding the difference between choice and coercion. I repeat. A sex slave is a victim of a horrendous crime that means rape. A sex worker is a professional in a vocation that may not be approved by all. They are NOT the same thing.