To whom does the regulation of prostitution serve?

Women demonstrating in Brasilia. The message on the placard says: "The world isn't a commodity, so aren't women"
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Women demonstrating in Brasilia. The message on the placard says: "The world isn't a commodity, so aren't women"

In Brazil, prostitution regulation is once again under discussion. What was, and remains, at stake in the proposals, is the legalization of pimps and sex entrepreneurs. The legislation proposed by congressman Jean Wyllys (PSOL), which tries to regulate sex workers’ activities, actually means to legalize the pimps – arguing that it will improve the "work" conditions, although the proposed legislation does not provide for any regulation of their working places and their suitability. The proposed legislation's content shows that it does not aim to improve the lives of women in prostitution, does not include any kind of specific public policy, that might help these women from being constantly victims of insults, violence and marginalization. Instead of promoting the rights and economic empowerment of women, the project aims to meet a need in the sex industry, which along with large corporations seek to use women's bodies to cash in big at major events like the World Cup.

The public debate on the regulation of prostitution as a profession has starting points that manipulate and distort the reality of prostitution. One of the first things it does is to oversimplify the issue, treating as an individual behavior something that is part of an institution, part of a system. That argument is based on a liberal vision, centered on individuals and their choices on the market, not taking into account the political and power relations involved. In that position, it is clear that a critical vision of the patriarchate, as a male-dominated system is overlooked, as well as the connections between the current model of sexuality and prostitution.

When one establishes a difference between sexual exploitation, free sexual services and forced sexual services, there is an intention to legitimate prostitution as a commercial service. The differentiation between forced and volunteer prostitution recognizes that there are situations on which women are forced to prostitute themselves. This vision, in general, is attached to a position of considering child prostitution as a crime – considered sexual exploitation in this case, since it is not volunteer.

The first element that catches our attention in this statement is that one does not consider that most women are driven to prostitution when they are still children or teenagers, like in Brazil's case. Then they wait until the day they turn 18. If they remain prostitutes, then it is considered a free will decision: the whole situation of an 18 year-old girl that has been a prostitute since she was 12 is completely disregarded. As well as the meaning of this on her self-esteem and confidence that she could become anything she chose to be, and that she would be accepted, too. It is like the situation of sexual exploitation did not leave any marks on her body, on her subjectivity, on the way she sees and thinks about the world and about herself. It all adds up to the stigma she would have to face and to the limits women face to enter the job market. Finally, we need to remember that most women on this situation are under the control of pimps or madams, which is a relationship that is very hard to break.

A job like any other?

Arguments that defend prostitution as a job like any other play with an extremely unequal reality in the job market. They state that prostitution provides better income than most predominantly female jobs, like domestic jobs or telemarketing. Choosing the "less harmful" to guarantee survival conditions is not a reference for people in favor of gender equality and social justice. Besides, this speech conceals class and race inequalities that exist even among women: it seems that we live in a world where all women have the same conditions to "choose" if they want to be a doctor, a professor, a house cleaner, a prostitute, a lawyer …

One can only wonder whether the different trajectories (escaping abuse situations, poverty, violence, authoritarianism) and routines (having sex with several clients, drug abuse to handle the situation) of women prostitutes are a "free choice". One thing is the desire of going out on the streets wearing whatever you want, without being harassed, or having sex with whomever you like. A completely different thing is having to use your body and sex to survive. Not living, only surviving, because the prostitutes' reality is way different from the glamorous one depicted by the media, in soap operas and magazines, and mostly in the visibility given to statements of women that say they are prostitutes for being autonomous and libertarian.

Standing in favour of the legislation can only be sustained if the reality and essence of prostitution are concealed. A reality in which the vast majority of prostituted women is composed of the poorest women, the ones expelled from their lands, the ones prostituted in the vicinity of large construction, mining and timbering sites and agrobusiness companies. Or the reality of prostitution in the rich countries, where the majority of prostitutes come from Southern or Eastern countries, and have either migrated or been trafficked to Europe.

In fact, this pro-regulation discourse reinforces the view of the dominant group - the men who encourage or force women to become prostitutes. They follow a patriarchal system that has been giving them power for thousands of years. And they have managed to make relations of domination seem to be the result of biology: the supposed innately aggressive male sexuality, insatiable when compared with the passive female sexuality.

The desire is theirs alone, and women's bodies exist only to satisfy them. Only believing in this can explain why men want to have sex with a person who does not desire them. In fact, for those who believe that women are a commodity, that does make sense. So this is based on a particular morality, which has historically treated women in a polarized, saints or whores point of view. In feminism, this dichotomy was analyzed as the hypocrisy of double standards being used to deny and control women's desire. It divides women as a group, throws them against each other and works as a criterion to judge women for their sexuality. From the standpoint of women's experience, the results are ambiguity and contradiction between the expression of their desire and the punishments and dangers that this can bring upon them. In other words, the dangers related to what happens when they dare transiting the borders between saints and whores.

The problem with this position is that, by not admitting its conservative view, seeks to muddle the debate, pegging the feminist view as moralistic and full of and sexual taboos.

A different morality

Our morality is different: we defend freedom and autonomy. Freedom can only be built if a critical approach exists in opposition to the domination mechanisms. Otherwise, it legitimizes the oppression. Prostitution was historically constructed to ensure patriarchy and its sexuality model and it persists as a mechanism of coercion to this day.

We are convinced that we must prevent the regulation of prostitution as a profession, but that does not mean there is nothing to do. The State already has instruments to change the reality of invisibility and stigmatization in these women's lives. The State must promote prevention and awareness campaigns about the violence and control of the sex trade, over the bodies and lives of women and girls. The actors who organize this market and those that support it, in other words, the pimps and customers, have to be punished for the violence they generate. We must also fight against the discrimination and prejudice that prostitutes experience while seeking health services or the police. Furthermore, we consider that there are many policies to be developed in terms of ensuring universal retirement, including prostitutes in social inclusion policies, specific programs of education, housing, employment and income generation. None of these proposals are contained in this proposed legislation. On the contrary, the legalization of pimping would only help to legitimize the exploitative system, keeping women as objects and not as citizens with the right to have rights.

Translated by Marli Tolosa.