Prostitution and Commodifying Women

Prostitution is the sexual exploitation of women and girls perpetrated by men. While some try to spin the narrative using term such as ‘sex work,’ the reality is that prostitution is rape with money (NMN, 2019). Societal misconceptions have shaped how we conceptualize prostitution as well as policy responses. Understanding the reality of prostitution reframes the issues and aids in the creation of abolition efforts.

The belief that prostitution is ‘sex work’ is a common misconception. While some people like to call prostitution the ‘oldest profession,’ it is really the world’s oldest form of oppression (Wahine Toa Rising, 2020). Levy outlines three conditions that clarify that prostitution is not (and never will be) a job (2020). First, experience is not valued in prostitutes. Expertise is an advantage in all fields of work, often making jobs easier to find and wages higher. However, in the case of prostitution, experience is actually a disadvantage. Young and inexperienced girls and women can be exploited at a higher price compared to older and more experienced women. In this way, the business of selling sex is more like selling cars than selling a service. Second, prostitutes labor is not a necessity. In professional fields, workers are required to produce products or supply services. Prostitutes’ bodies are used for sexual acts and their cooperation is not mandatory for the transaction. Prostitutes can be drugged, drunk, or even unconscious and still be sold. Third, the preconditions of free consent are not met in prostitution. Prostitutes do not have the freedom to choose their sexual partner, to select sexual activity, or choose the timing. Non-consensual sex cannot be determined as work and should be viewed as rape. Prostitution is not and should not be viewed as a profession. By critically deconstructing this myth, we can begin to see how women are viewed as commodities to be exploited.

The effects of prostitution on women’s health are another reason as to why this exploitation can never be considered an occupation. Safety consequences should be considered when viewing prostitution as a ‘job.’ For example, OSHA regulations would never allow for the professionalization of prostitution (Watson, n.d.). OSHA creates workplace standards to ensure the safety of the workers. These regulations including protective gear (masks, gloves, aprons, etc.) clearly not set in the context of the sex industry. Regulations could never be transformed as prostitute’s workplace is not safe for their health. The safety of prostitutes is not a priority as there is abundant physical and emotional damage resulting from the trauma of their exploitation. Physical impacts may include STIs, vaginal/rectal injuries, pelvic degradation, infertility, unwanted pregnancies, destroyed bowel environment, oral illness, eczema, pain, sleeping disorders, and substance abuse (Bissinger, 2019). Murder is also a potential physical threat. In fact, prostitutes have a higher homicide rate than soldiers (including combat-related deaths) with 229 per 100,000 compared to only 27 in 100,000 (Arrow, 2021). United States studies show that prostitute’s likelihood of murder is 18 times that of the general population (Arrow, 2021). While murder is the fatal consequence, no other ‘job’ has as extensive psycho-social rehabilitation requirements (Levy, 2020). The mental effects are often even more traumatizing, long-lasting, and harder to treat in comparison to the physical damages (Bissinger, 2019). If prostitution were really considered an occupation, the statistics for physical and mental harm would be worse than any other.

Despite the hyper-focus on women’s ‘choices,’ women often do not choose to be involved in prostitution and those who are not coerced lack alternative options. Those with power have the most choice-options (NMN, 2021). Conversely, those with a marginalized status in society lack opportunities and choices. Therefore, there is no free choice, only choices bound within the social context. Additionally, most women do not choose this lifestyle (NMN, 2021). In fact, most are coerced or forced by pimps and traffickers (Bhalla, 2017). In fact, the male demand for prostitution fuels this industry and has required them to supply women and girls to the market. While women’s choices are scrutinized, men’s abuse of social, economic, and political power over women is overlooked (Wahine Toa Rising, 2020). Sexism drives the objectification and dehumanization that is vital commodifying women through prostitution (Farley, 2016). Approximately 90% of women wish to escape prostitution but feel as if they cannot safely do so or lack other ways to survive (Farley, 2016). This shows that prostituted women have little or no choice in their exploitation. Societal attention should be shifted to the men who purchase, exploit, and abuse vulnerable women and girls.

Sex trafficking and prostitution are deeply related sharing their conceptualization. Trafficking is defined as a form of prostitution controlled by a third-party (Farley, 2016). These third-party entities are commonly referred to as pimps but can be all types of people including pornographers, strip club managers, escort agency operators. Pimps/traffickers exercise control and ownership over their victims thereby enslaving women and girls. Around 84% of all prostitution is pimp-controlled therefore meeting the legal definition of trafficking (Farley, 2016). With this legal understanding, prostitution can best be understood as an iteration of modern slavery. Prostitution has the fundamental elements of slavery including exploitation, sex trafficking, commodification, violence, and lack of freedom (Farley, 2016). Unsurprisingly, with the little discrepancy between sex trafficking and prostitution, both phenomena go hand and hand. One study found that legalized prostitution led to the expansion of the market and an increase in sex trafficking (Cho, Dreher, & Neumayer, 2013). Researchers found that countries with legalized prostitution experience larger inflows of reported human trafficking (Cho et al., 2013). Sex trafficking is the overwhelming majority of prostitution as women are exploited by their pimps/traffickers. Legally defining sex trafficking discourages prostitution as there are so closely related and legalization increases trafficking. 

Policy formation should be informed of the reality of prostitution rather than wrapped up in the narrative of ‘sex work.’ This façade is merely a rebranding of the issue in an effort to influence policy decisions and protect the perpetrators rather than the victims. Amnesty International’s policy was drafted by Alejandra Gil, who is a convicted pimp/human trafficker (Em, 2021). In order to change the public perception of the sexual exploitation of women and girls, this organization uses lobbying to promote prostitution as if it were like any other ‘work.’ The growing issue of sexual exploitation is marketed as entrepreneurship by pimp lobbying. Based on the narrative pushed by organizations such as Amnesty International, the issue is glamorized turning prostitution into ‘sex work,’ child abuse into ‘underage sex work,’ and sex trafficking into ‘migration for sex work’ (Em, 2021). We must understand that this framing of prostitution comes directly from the pimps themselves who profit not only from exploiting their victims but by convincing policymakers and the public that this is the way to conceptualize prostitution. 

Legalizing prostitution is advantageous for the pimps and traffickers but not for the prostitutes themselves or for the community. Holbeck, Britain’s first (and only) red light district is an example of how this can affect the wellbeing of the city. Drug usage and sex crimes increased affecting the culture of the town with children exposed to used condoms, drug paraphernalia, and even being approached for sex in exchange for money (Rainey, 2018). Legalization increases demand for prostitutes and allows for criminal activity to continue. 

Policy creation is an expression of values. Buying sex must be classified as a criminal act in order to communicate to the public that women and girls are not a commodity to be exploited sexually and economically by men. Policy surrounding prostitution communicates to stakeholders the values and aims of the government. Legalizing prostitution is a threat towards the values of peace, security, and stability.

Sweden is an example of how the abolitionist approach is the best solution for combatting the issue of prostitution. In 1999, buying sexual services became illegal in Sweden and punishable by the law (for the customers, pimps, and human traffickers). Abolitionists distinguish between victims and perpetrators focusing the prosecution on the buyers and exploiters while also offering services to the victims. This approach reduces the demand for sex services as well as reducing the profitability of the market. Additionally, Swedish law was based upon the equality of men and women which is embedded into their constitution. Prostitution is perceived as a form of women’s oppression signaling an imbalance of power (Spiegel, 2013). After 10 years of implementation, the rate of prostitution has declined and the cultural perception has changed. The number of prostitutes has fell from an estimated 2,500 to about 1,000 and less men are paying for sex (Spiegel, 2013). Men are also more ashamed of paying for prostitution services and the public supports punishing customers rather than the prostitute (Spiegel, 2013). The abolition has affected the public and has lasting effects for generations to come. From an early age, the Swedish community can recognize prostitution as a crime and be less likely to see women as a commodity for men’s pleasure.

The narratives and myths about prostitution have been harmful in the way that society and policy makers view the issue. ‘Sex work’ is not work but rather oppression. The women and girls exploited through prostitution and sex trafficking are enslaved by their pimps and traffickers are forced to endure a dangerous life of rape, violence, and commodification. Very few women ‘choose’ this lifestyle and those who do come from marginalized backgrounds with little alternatives for survival. Creating policy surrounding prostitution is a communication of values. Stakeholders profiting and benefiting from prostitution will try to frame the issue as a sex work industry, but abolishment is the only solution. 

By HR

References:

Arrow, E. (2021, March 29). Who is killing whom, where, how and why in German prostitution?
Elly Arrow. Retrieved from https://ellyarrow.wordpress.com/2021/03/29/who-is-killing-
whom-where-how-and-why-in-german-prostitution/


Bhalla, N. (2017, February 2). Girls of paradise fake escort site reveals reality of prostitution.
news.trust.org. Retrieved from http://news.trust.org/item/20170202171734-xk46g/
Bissinger, L. (2019). Physical damage in prostitution. FiLiA. Retrieved from
https://www.filia.org.uk/latest-news/2020/4/5/physical-damage-in-prostitution


Busting 16 Myths About the Sex Trade. Wahine Toa Rising. (2020). Retrieved from
https://wahinetoarising.nz/


Cho, S.-Y., Dreher, A., & Neumayer, E. (2013). Does legalized prostitution increase human
trafficking? World Development, 41, 67–82.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2012.05.023


Em. (2021, May 3). The Renewed Objectification of Women, Part II: Prostitution, Porn and
Surrogacy. Uncommon Ground. Retrieved from https://archive.ph/2sw0o#selection-
721.223-741.131


Fact: Choice is complicated. Nordic Model Now! (2021, December 22). Retrieved from
https://nordicmodelnow.org/facts-about-prostitution/fact-choice-is-complicated/


Farley, M. (2016, July). Slavery and Prostitution: A Twenty-First-Century Abolitionist
Perspective. Prostitution Research. Retrieved from http://prostitutionresearch.com/wp-
content/uploads/2016/07/Slavery-Prostitution-Farley-2015.pdf


From the woman as object to the object as woman. Nordic Model Now! (2019, October 15).
Retrieved from https://nordicmodelnow.org/2019/10/15/from-the-woman-as-object-to-the-
object-as-woman/


Levy, D. (2020, March 12). Prostitution is not a job and never will be. here’s why. Nordic Model
Now! Retrieved from https://nordicmodelnow.org/2020/03/12/prostitution-is-not-a-job-
and-never-will-be-heres-why/


Rainey, S. (2018, November 18). Britain’s only ‘legal prostitution’ zone sees sex crimes double.
Daily Mail Online. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-
6403827/Britains-legal-prostitution-zone-sees-sex-crimes-double.html


Spiegel, D. (2013, May 30). Human trafficking persists despite legality of prostitution in
Germany. DER SPIEGEL. Retrieved from
http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/human-trafficking-persists-despite-legality-
of-prostitution-in-germany-a-902533.html

Watson, L. (n.d.). Why sex work isn’t work. Logos Journal RSS. Retrieved

2 thoughts on “Prostitution and Commodifying Women

  1. Ginger Johnson says:

    Eye opening and very persuasive. I am unclear as to whether Amnesty International was advocating for the pimps/traffickers or pointing out that policy is being influenced by their rhetoric and reframing of prostitution as “work”?

    I am particularly impressed by the assertion that “Creating policy … is a communication of values.” So true! Thank you for writing this!

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