Far From a Victimless Crime

Marcy Bloom

Unequivocally, prostitution, in every manifestation, is a human rights violation and violence against women and girls everywhere. And we need to say so.

It is certainly not news that men of power and influence buy and use prostitutes. Still, the recent revelation that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was involved with a high-priced prostitution ring gave me pause. I didn't see as much as I expected to in mainstream venues about what I believe to be the most important theme — the view that prostitution, as the exchange of money for sex among adults, is a profound violation of women's human rights and a form of violence against women. So I decided to write about it.

Numerous organizations that study and provide support services to sex workers are clear in their perspective that prostitution constitutes violence against women and is a fundamental violation of women's human rights. For instance, Ruhama, a Dublin, Ireland-based organization that offers "dignity, support, hope, and choice to women involved in prostitution," believes that intrinsic to prostitution are numerous violations of human rights: sexual harassment, economic servitude, educational deprivation, job discrimination, partner and family violence, racism, class bias, vulnerability to frequent physical and sexual assault, and being subjected to body invasions that are equivalent to torture.

The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres finds the system of prostitution is profoundly sexist and racist. It is based on the existing inequalities between men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, between countries of the north and south, and racial inequalities. This degrading system is linked to the sexualization of women and girls, the commercialization of women's bodies, and the "development of a prostitution culture that is increasingly globalized, as sexual trafficking is needed to feed the sex industry's constant demand for ‘new blood and exoticism' " and needs to constantly find new sources of girls and women.

Dr. Melissa Farley, a feminist researcher and clinical psychologist, has written extensively on this topic since 1993. As the current director of Prostitution Research and Education, a non-profit organization in San Francisco, she has researched prostitution and sex trafficking in nine countries. She writes that "U.S. prostitution can be understood in the context of the cultural normalization of prostitution as a glamorous and wealth-producing 'job' [as was seen in the media uproar of Spitzer] for girls who lack emotional support, education, and employment opportunities… The sexual exploitation of children and women in prostitution is often indistinguishable from incest, intimate partner violence, and rape…" And, she argues, "sexist and racist economic policies in the United States such as the lack of educational opportunities for poor families and a lack of sustainable income from many jobs contribute to women and girl's entry into prostitution.

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Further, according to Dr. Farley, "Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)… characterized by anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, flashbacks, emotional numbing, and hyper-alertedness commonly occurs among prostituted women and is indicative of their extreme emotional distress. In nine countries, we found that 68% of those in prostitution met criteria for a diagnosis of PTSDAcross widely varying cultures, the traumatic consequences of prostitution were similar."

The discussion of prostitution as a human rights violation, exploitive, profitable (at least to the pimps), based on racist and sexist economic policies, and seen in the context of the cultural normalization of violence, abuse, and the degradation of women certainly needs to be reiterated. But not all of these ideas have universal agreement.

In 1997, for example, the Asia Women's Human Rights Council urged the "acceptance and recognition of prostitution as work for women." This position was based on the reality that millions of women in the world, and in particular, in Asia, survive or otherwise make a living through prostitution. The council drew the conclusion that an approach is needed that respects women in prostitution and expresses solidarity with them by accepting the existence of prostitution.

Aida Santos of Women's Education, Development, Productivity, and Research Organization, Inc., (WEDPRO), located in Quezon City in the Philippines, strongly disagreed in her response to the council: "It is indeed important that ‘we recognize and validate the reality of women who are working in prostitution,' but this reality should be in the context of a genuine understanding of the human rights violations embedded by the nature of prostitution that are constantly, if not daily, faced by the women in this sector. When your statement claims that ‘sex work is not the problem, that abuse, violence, and criminality are the social problems,' there is an assumption that the so-called sex work and the social problems are different sets of concerns. The social problems are part and parcel of the industry and to separate the two glosses over the nature and character — and ideology — of prostitution."

I agree. These factors are clearly interconnected and feed off each other. To this point, feminist author Nell Beram has written: "As for the economic defense of sex work by some feminists, it presumes that feminism is about economic equity at the expense of all else. Thirty years after the second wave, and on the heels of some incontrovertible feminist victories (Roe v. Wade, public acknowledgment of sexual harassment as a real phenomenon), why are our sights set so low?"

The dehumanization of women, the racial, ethnic, and class oppression and biases, the economic and survival issues — a means of maintaining male subjugation of women, and the accompanying violence — leads us back to Dr. Farley's premise that "all prostitution causes harm to women." According to Dr. Farley's research, it becomes impossible to continue to say that the oldest profession is a victimless crime, a common view in many societies.

To believe that prostitution has no victims, one would need to ignore the following facts from Dr. Farley's Fact Sheet:

  • 78% of 55 women who sought help in 1991 from the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland, Oregon reported being raped an average of 16 times a year by pimps, and were raped 33 times a year by johns.
  • 73% reported having experienced physical assault in prostitution.
  • 72% were currently or formerly homeless.
  • 92% stated that they wanted to escape prostitution immediately.
  • 75% of women in escort prostitution had attempted suicide.
  • 67% meet diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder.
  • Estimates of the prevalence of incest among prostitutes range from 65% to 90%. The Council for Prostitution Alternatives found that 85% of their prostitute clients reported a history of sexual abuse in childhood, while 70% reported incest.

This information makes it clear that the victims of prostitutions are the women themselves. At an individual level, the harm of prostitution is physical, social, emotional, and psychological. This harm extends to all women and humanity as a whole — socially, culturally, and globally. When a human being is reduced to a body, objectified to sexually service another, whether or not there is so-called "consent," violation of hte human being has taken place. As well as breaching an individual's human rights, the prostitution system and the trade and commodification of human beings is a violation of the rights and dignity of humankind as a whole.

The Coalition of Women in Trafficking is currently working for an international convention to recognize that all forms of sexual exploitation, including prostitution and trafficking, need to be declared "a violation of a person's human rights." The proposed new Convention Against All Forms of Sexual Exploitation would also decriminalize the women in prostitution and criminalize the pimps, procurers, and customers — as the 1999 law in Sweden has done. The new convention also covers the support services, educational, and economic alternatives for women who survive and exit prostitution.

In response to the talking heads that insisted that Eliot Spitzer's use of a prostitute was a private matter, let me quote the powerful perspective of Norma Ramos, the co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, as demonstrated in a press release of March 11, 2008:

Governor Spitzer's regular use of prostituted women is no private matter. It is, in fact, a very public matter that raises the urgent issue of the demand for prostitution that fuels sex trafficking…

The contradiction and hypocrisy of Governor Spitzer's being a supporter of the recently passed New York State Anti-Trafficking legislation to he himself being part of the demand that fuels sex trafficking is an enormous betrayal of the human rights and women's rights movement that works to end human trafficking.

Prostitution is not a victimless crime, as so many are now proclaiming. It is widely recognized as violence against women, arises from negative social conditioning, and is contrary to equality for women…Continuing to have a class of women available for commercial sexual exploitation violates every human rights standard. The exploitive dynamics of prostitution are not altered by the amount of money involved.

I hope the world is listening. Unequivocally, prostitution, in every manifestation, is a human rights violation and violence against women and girls everywhere. And we need to say so.

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