Criminalizing prostitution: the family and violence against women

Rhoda Grant MSP’s consultation to bring the Swedish model to Scotland is going to harm families. The Swedish or ‘end demand’ model criminalizes sex purchase without criminalizing selling sex, so it at least is not as bad as criminalizing both parties like in America. But it’s still bad. Now, the fact that the model is against labour rights, sex workers’ rights and basic freedoms has been covered by others who know the subject better than me. Similarly, the fact that criminalization actually increases sex trafficking, violence against sex workers and the risk of them being raped, that it does not end demand, that it leads to sex workers being arrested or forced to give evidence against their own clients – even police forcibly taking evidence from the sex provider or clients’ genitals which is state-sanctioned sexual assault – has been discussed elsewhere, especially by sex workers’ organisations. I’m not going to repeat these arguments. Instead, I’m going to focus on an angle which people don’t seem to be looking at – how criminalising sexwork will affect everyone, and how it will fail us all.

Violence Against Women (VAW)

The argument that Rhoda and the radical feminist anti-prostitution organisations use is that all women are necessarily unhappy in sexwork, that sex with a sexworker is similar to rape, and that criminalization will help making it impossible for them to earn a living by sexwork (though they would be free to find other jobs in the sex industry, for example by being porn actresses.) An alarm bell or two may have started ringing in your head, but let’s pretend this sounds perfectly logical. Now, will this really stop men from harming women by sex? Will it stop men committing rape or sexual assault, or molesting children, or getting a woman pregnant and disappearing? Will it stop men lying to women that they really like them or pretending they will stay with them forever so that the woman will have sex with them? I don’t see how it could. Rhoda and her supporters seem to be clinging to the old idea that rapists are strangers. They seem to have forgotten very real issues like domestic violence, incest, date rape, coercive boyfriends, older boyfriends and sexual harassment in the workplace. They are also forgetting that women commit sexual offences too, which means that men (especially boys, who may be physically weaker than women) also need to be protected from women. They have also forgotten about the risks faced by lesbian or bisexual women who may be more likely to be raped by their girlfriends and female civil partners than by a man.

Sex workers also are less vulnerable than non-sex workers when it comes to rape. Most people are raped by someone they know. So, if you are raped by a friend, family member, teacher or acquaintance, you are less likely to report it (or even to realise that it was rape). Also, you’re less likely to be able to run away or defend yourself when it is happening, because you trust the person. You won’t instantly turn and bolt, or scream for help, or hit them. By the time you react, it might be too late. By contrast, if you are a sex worker then you may be more vigilant about clients because you don’t know them (unless they are regulars).You might be able to react quicker. You will be more likely to realise you’ve been raped. I understand that sex workers do face greater obstacles when reporting rapes, but ironically that’s more to do with the feminist organisations and rape crisis centres’ anti-sexwork ethos that stops sex workers getting support from them. Juries can be prejudiced against sex workers who don’t fit the feminist anti-sex work organizations’ sad sex slave stereotype.

Sexworkers also cannot be lied to by men; they know they are doing business to a man can’t trick them by pretending it’s a serious relationship to get sex.

Sex workers also are much less vulnerable than non sex workers to being coerced; if you are selling sex, you cannot be coerced; it is what you want to do. Coercion into sex acts the sex worker doesn’t usually do is possible but as it is a business relationship, it is less easy to talk someone into something than it would be to talk your partner into something.

Sex workers are also less vulnerable in other ways: if you beat or rape a sex worker (or, judging by what I’ve seen on Twitter, simply fail to turn up for an appointment) they do not have to see you again. They can refuse to take bookings. Easy, right? But for a battered wife who wants to stay with her husband for the sake of the kids, it’s not so easy. For a girl abused by her father, it’s not easy to call the police and watch your dad go to prison. For a woman attacked by a friend, she may find that her other friends turn on her and accuse her of lying if she tells anyone. Women have a hard enough time getting employers to take sexual harassment by colleagues seriously!

So, even assuming that criminalization makes logical sense, it obviously fails at ending violence against women. Men can treat any woman like a sexworker by using her for sex and obtaining sex by lying to her and then dumping her; they can rape any woman (and would prefer to rape without paying the woman, right?) and they can coerce any woman. And, given a choice, I’d rather be paid than be used/coerced/raped and not get paid. (Possibly this is the thinking behind Criminal Injuries Compensation, which does cover all sex crimes).

So, criminalizing prostitution fails women.

The family

Criminalization harms the family because it stigmatises mothers who are sexworkers, daughters still living at home who are sex workers, and grandmothers who are sex workers.And though Rhoda’s imaginary universe is peopled only by cis, female sex workers, in real life there are male and transgender sex workers too. So fathers, sons and grandfathers would be stigmatised. Sex workers are already stigmatised, thanks to conservatism and radical feminism, and although only buyers would be criminalized, sex work would become seen as illegal or semi-legal, instead of as a legitimate industry. This would result in stigma against both providers and clients. Sex workers would also be arrested to give evidence against clients; they might be secretly surveillanced doing sex work (as happened in Sweden), have their homes searched for evidence of prostitution, etc. The sex worker is the key witness against the sex purchaser, so he or she will be subject to police scrutiny and will have to attend court hearings to testify against clients. Again, this state surveillance and police involvement stigmatise sex work. Furthermore, everyone will know that sex work is criminalized because women can never be happy selling sex and are too stupid to be given the right to choose their job. This may lead to negative perceptions of women as intellectually inferior to men or as asexual. The belief that women are asexual will strengthen the sexual double standard and promote slut shaming. And if sex workers are stigmatised, then women who have lots of sex (or who are assumed/stereotyped as having lots of sex such as lone mothers, victims of malicious gossip or rumours, and young women) will be more stigmatised and this will also increase slut shaming. After all, the designation “whore” as an insult seems more insulting if being a whore is criminalized, and if whores are stupid, unhappy victims, or women who are used by men, or are ‘othered’. These new associations will give the word ‘whore’ more bite. Now, the insult just means a woman who will go with anyone; though this isn’t actually true of any human being that they would sleep with absolutely anyone regardless of age or looks, it doesn’t bother me as an insult. But to call me used, a victim, or a criminal would bother me.

Single women wouldn’t be the only ones targeted by slut shaming. As “sluts” become more stigmatised (and against a wider backdrop of the state prescribing a sexual norm against which other models are criminalized) polyamorous families and swingers will also find themselves stigmatised even more than they currently are. This will impact very negatively on their children.

Criminalization also may target pro-dommes (dominatrixes of both genders), even though they do not offer sex. It may target services for adult babies and diaper lovers, or any other fetish or BDSM lifestyle. This would deny resources to already marginalized and misunderstood communities.

Therefore criminalization fails to help women and families at all. It doesn’t help families suffering from domestic abuse, or woman who are raped, or children being abused by parents or acquaintances. It actually has negative consequences for women, poly families, swingers and the BDSM/fetish community.And all of that is assuming that criminalization can end demand, doesn’t increase trafficking or violence, does not lead to state sanctioned sexual assault, is not against freedom/giving the state too much power, and actually makes any sense.


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One thought on “Criminalizing prostitution: the family and violence against women

  1. Antonia Zerbisias January 13, 2013 at 11:12 pm Reply

    Great post!

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