Monday, January 23, 2012

Feminism and sex work: should women be for sale?

There is an advertising campaign in Ireland at the moment to raise awareness about the rights of sex workers. The campaign seeks to present sex workers as ordinary healthy people, who have children and pay their mortgage, and who don’t deserve the stigma and discrimination sex workers face. The campaign is in response to the movement to ban sex work in Ireland, called Turn off the Red Light.

The movement to ban sex work has been growing in Europe.

France is joining other European countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, in making the buying of sex illegal. This means the client will be charged, fined and/or imprisoned. Iceland has also banned sex clubs and profits from nudity, so, no lapdancing and no topless waitressing. Sex trafficking has declined. The prime minister of Iceland is a lesbian woman who was a single mother for eleven years until she married her partner. Same sex marriage is legal. Almost half the parliamentarians in Iceland are female. The passing of these laws in Iceland is seen as a feminist victory. Iceland is considered the best place in the world to be a woman. For two years it has topped the World Economic Forum’s report on gender equality. Its policy on domestic violence states that the person who committed the violence must leave the home. They have strong supports for families, with maternal and paternal leave, and affordable child care. From 2013 corporations will be obliged to have at least 40% of each gender on their boards. Sweden and Norway are also well known for their socially progressive policies that support gender equality.

The message is clear. Women are not for sale. Women are worthy of respect. It’s an attractive idea. It’s a message one would hope would infiltrate all through society so that women are portrayed in a respectful manner, from boardrooms to billboards, from t shirts to video games. The message, from high office, that women should be respected, with supporting policies in all fields (health, work, education, justice) is a feminist dream come true.

However, some object to the move to ban sex work, saying it will simply make prostitution more dangerous for sex workers. This is an issue in Australia too.

Scarlett Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers’ Alliance, says that the legislation currently proposed by the NSW government to move from a decriminalisation model to a licensing model of regulation will drive many currently law abiding sex workers into the illegal sector. The licensing model as it has been implemented in Victoria and Queensland has not resulted in the expected outcomes. It results in very low compliance and means that sex workers are further marginalised and vulnerable. The current model of decriminalisation is lobbied for by sex workers throughout the world as the only model of sex industry regulation that supports sex workers’ rights, and encourages good health and safety practices.

Feminism is not only about protecting women who may be vulnerable, but about listening to the voices of women about their own experience and own needs. Sex workers have rights just as any workers do. (And it isn’t only women who work in the sex industry.)

But does legalising prostitution legitimise the trading of women for sex? It is possible for legal brothels to engage in the criminal activity of keeping sex slaves and accepting trafficked women. How best to reduce the illegal activity? Should campaigns focus on reducing demand for sexual services and protecting those who choose to work in the sex industry? Is it OK for educated women who have real options to choose to do sex work, but not OK for uneducated women or drug addicted women, or those who have no options, and those we could be helping? Would women choose sex work if they had well paying options with real work flexibility?

It is difficult to think about sex workers in the west without thinking about sex work in developing countries, and how many girls and women are traded/forced/raped/abused sexually. Often, for them, being in the sex industry isn’t a choice.

Many people around the world are working in advocacy and agency, investing in women and girls in developing countries to assist their families’ and communities’ move out of poverty and into dignity. Women working as health workers in rural communities; who insist on being part of peace talks; working to help the 1100 women a day who are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo; who work with infant and maternal health in developing countries; who help women and girls escape the sex trade, are taking feminist action. They are working for the basic rights of women. Does that include the right to earn a living in the sex industry?

In fifty years which idea will be so obvious to us that we cannot believe we contemplated anything else; the idea that women are not for sale, or the idea that sex workers have rights? Or is it possible for us as a society to agree with the clear message that is a little more complex; that all women deserve respect, even women who choose to do sex work?

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