The historic feminist movement motto, "We are women, we are not commodities," is relevant to the particular field of feminism that is in opposition to a bill, introduced by Federal Deputy Jean Wyllys, that regulates the work of sex workers. In Brazil, prostitution itself is not a crime, but exploitation by third parties is. It is precisely this characteristic that the project aims to change by making brothels legal establishments as well as offering the possibility for prostitutes to have a minimum guaranteed salary when working in such establishments. The deputy's argument to expedite the approval of the project is a mega-event and represents a great opportunity for sex workers. Additionally, for the deputy, it is a "fact that many people enter into prostitution out of necessity, as it is also a fact that many come willingly; but the key is that, regardless of motivation, rights will be recognized, and it is a gain for all people who are engaged in prostitution." In this interview, Deputy Wyllys answers questions about the project and reaffirms the distinction between sexual exploitation and prostitution.
What are the principal points of the project? And what are the advantages of regulating prostitution?
Jean Wyllys: The bill for regulating prostitution is meant to ensure the rights of sex workers and seeks to make a clear distinction, in the law, regarding what is voluntary sex work – practiced by adults – and what is sexual exploitation of adults, as well as children and adolescents. It is important to highlight that the expression "child prostitution" is wrong; it does not exist. When it comes to children and adolescents, we are talking about sexual exploitation, and this is a crime! The bill defines a sex worker as "every person over eighteen and absolutely able to voluntarily provide sexual services for remuneration."
The sex worker may provide services as a self-employed person or in cooperatives, and "brothels" are permitted, provided there is no sexual exploitation. The project envisages setting a percentage gain for intermediaries, which may not exceed 50 percent of that received by the program, otherwise it will be considered a crime. It also envisions the possibility for sex workers to retire after 25 years of making social security contributions, as is offered to other workers in professions that are highly dangerous and pose health risks, among other things.
Coming to the advantages of regulating prostitution. The legalization of brothels – one of the main demands of this new legislation – is critical for removing operations in hiding. In other words, it is necessary to help make the shift from operations that are managed arbitrarily by corrupt supervisory bodies to objective operations with control mechanisms that can be triggered. In any city in Brazil, most people know where the brothels are. To deny this is a great hypocrisy. They exist and operate in secrecy without state control. Like any economic activity, if you do not officially regulate it, it ends up being regulated by state agencies that have the ability to allow it or disallow it in practice.
This situation is no different from what happens with abortion or drugs. Does criminalization prevent abortion? No. Does it prevent drug trafficking? No. But criminalization pushes the drug trade and abortions underground, covered up by police and political corruption. And the victims of this corrupt system are poor women, drug users, and workers who are part of the first step of retail trade. With brothels it is the same: Illegality does not prevent them from existing, it only denies prostitutes any chance of having their rights respected, while allowing the abuse from pimps and madams in addition to police bribes, repression, violence, and, moreover, the absence of any regulation that separates sex work from sexual exploitation (from toddlers to teens). Everything is governed by the same evil system.
Hence, the first claim of prostitutes was to legalize and regulate their operating homes, ensuring some basic conditions. Legally, the houses should fall under national, state, and local regulations pertaining to the conditions and environment of work (hygiene, disease control, infrastructure conditions and site safety, health, etc.). That's the main logic: Remove underground operations and marginality so that basic rights can be guaranteed and claimed.
Law Gabriela Leite is only part of the regulatory process. How will it actually regulate the activity of sex workers? Many dream of having a formal contract. Will it be that way?
This was one of the points on which there was unanimity. In the discussions with the representatives of this segment, it has always been a common point that autonomy is fundamental. Because of the peculiarities of the profession, the CLT system is not possible. Citing a reoccurring example, how will you charge a prostitute for 40 hours per week of work? How is this confirmed? What would be the productivity marker? To enter this discussion would invalidate the project, and because of this, successful international experiences were also taken into consideration. Prostitutes who work in houses can negotiate the terms under which they work, as self-employed workers or in cooperatives. This point is important, as it increases the chances of sex workers deciding when to work; for how long; which customers they are willing to meet and which they are not; what they do and do not do; and how much they charge for their services. To conclude, in this way they have more freedom and autonomy.
Another contradiction related to the issue of criminalization is that prostitution is not a crime, but the association of prostitution is, and this prevents the organization of cooperatives that can be self-managed. The bill also sets a limit on the percentage of profit that can be passed on to the house, which must be less than 50 percent: in other words, establishing a minimum earnings floor for prostitutes and a profit ceiling for third parties. This also means that the prostitute can have up to 100 percent of the gain. Third parties cannot take ownership of more than 50 percent, proportionally; these third parties may claim 40 percent, 30 percent, or even none of the profits gained by the sex work, depending on the dynamics of agreements and conditions negotiated. There are cases in which the gain is indirect, that is, through customers paying an entrance fee, bar tabs, rental of rooms, etc., where prostitutes keep 100 percent of the gain. In other cases, there are agreements to pass a percentage to the owner's property to cover the household bills, cleaning, towels, condoms, and other expenses. In this context, one of the objectives of the organized prostitutes who assisted in the preparation of the project is going to work in cooperatives and managing the homes themselves. But this is not easy and not always possible. So the possibility for administration by a third party, thereby opening the space for payment or a percentage, is important. I emphasize that the proposal does not say that the payment of a percentage of profits is the rule, but a possibility, provided it is not less than 50 percent. Given the diversity of possibilities, we realize that this could be a base to restart the process of debate on the legislation. Nothing prevents it from being perfected over time and in practice.
A critique of the project states that it only serves a segment of sex workers – the more educated and those with a more stable financial situation – and does not meet the needs of the poorest and those who claim they are not in the profession by choice but because of social/cultural conditioning. Does the project indicate an improvement in the living conditions of these women?
The project leads to improvements in the conditions of the lives of all women, men, transvestites, and transsexuals engaged in prostitution from the moment they leave the vulnerable state of invisibility, illegality, and marginality, and have a legal framework for enhancing their political organization and claiming increasingly better working conditions. It is a fact that many people enter prostitution out of necessity, as it is also a fact that many come willingly. But the key is that, regardless of motivation, rights will be recognized. It is a gain for all persons engaged in prostitution, especially the most vulnerable, who are more prone to violence and exploitation. In this way, the discussion resembles the decriminalization of abortion and drugs.
Another criticism focuses on the possibility that regulation of prostitution is another way to meet the patriarchal pornographic and hegemonic capitalism that naturalizes and legitimizes the exploitation of women's bodies. How do you respond to that?
This is a reoccurring criticism from a segment of the feminist movement. I say this because there are feminist movements in which certain groups are in favor of regulation and others that are not, just as there are people on the left, in the LGBT movement, and in other segments of the movement in defense of human rights that are in favor or opposed to it. But at the end of the day, talking about sex remains taboo. The regulation of prostitution divides these movements – this has also occurred in countries where prostitution has been regulated. The mandate sought to hear the greatest number of voices. But it is a fact that support for the project was built by sex workers themselves, who, as the major stakeholders in the debate, organized to discuss it, as they experience the negative effects daily of non-recognition, discrimination, and marginalization.
I return to what I said at the beginning of the interview: Regulation of the activity, which exists independently of value judgments, is always better than the informal and arbitrary "regulation" done by the police and lower-level politicians. This is the same debate surrounding drugs and abortion, one that the left has generally always defended. The project also follows another principle of the left: to be on the side of the workers, and people who are working in prostitution; in contrast to the abolitionist feminist movement (which wants to abolish prostitution and considers it a byproduct of capitalism). This discourse is flawed: Prostitution existed before capitalism, not to mention that all workers are merchandise and sell their labor power, using the body to perform this work. The fight against exploitation of this labor will always be ours, but it cannot be because of this that we deny one category of workers' rights.
Another contradiction within feminist discourse is that it claims to empower women in relation to their own bodies while criticizing the right of women to participate in sex work by their own free will, claiming that a woman does not have the right to provide a sexual service with her body. There is a considerable segment of prostitutes who do not self-victimize, who yell with authority about their choice and preference for prostitution. There are teachers, civil construction workers, domestic workers, and people of many other professions who do not choose to be engaged in that profession, but that does not mean that sex workers do not deserve to have their labor rights recognized and guaranteed, and live with dignity within the law.
I wonder why certain ideas are accepted without much controversy for leftists and feminists when we talk about abortion and drugs, yet they are so controversial when talking about prostitution. In my opinion, this occurs because there are moral prejudices about sex and about the use of the body, especially the female body, that have a foundation in machismo. This machismo still carries a lot of weight, even in the speech of many feminist leftists, many of whom do not even realize it.
Translated by Marilene de Paula.