The sex trade: exploitation or choice?

The sex trade: exploitation or choice?

Bar girls work to lure customers into a bar on Soi Cowboy, in the red-light district in Asoke. Amnesty International is calling for countries to stop criminalising people who work in the sex trade, as they say it compromises their safety. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)
Bar girls work to lure customers into a bar on Soi Cowboy, in the red-light district in Asoke. Amnesty International is calling for countries to stop criminalising people who work in the sex trade, as they say it compromises their safety. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

The rights of female sex workers are the most controversial of all women's rights. There are two views on prostitution: one is that it is a form of violence against women that perpetuates patriarchal rule over women and aggravates unequal gender relations. The other sees it as a valid type of employment, and one that women have the right to choose, especially those deprived of a conventional means of earning a living to support themselves and their families.

The anti-prostitution camp argues that choice does not factor into the matter, as all sex workers are forced by circumstances to provide services against their will and are in slavery-like conditions.

As the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation is increasingly highlighted as a global concern, and is evermore under surveillance by national, regional and international agencies, the argument about choice nearly always goes unheard and is denigrated as a view influenced by whoever is gaining from the subjugation of women.

Apparently the debate about sex work has not changed much since the late 19th century.

The anti-prostitution view was first spearheaded by Josephine Butler, a social reformist from the Victorian era who painted pictures of destitute sex workers in desperate need of rescue and rehabilitation to become a part of society. The sex work advocacy of the time resulted in the 1949 Convention on the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of Prostitution of Others.

In its preamble, the convention articulates that prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation are incompatible with the dignity and worth of a human being and endanger the personal welfare of the individual, the family and the community. Nonetheless, the convention has not led to the abolition of prostitution, but instead focused only on criminalising the act of exploitation committed by a third party.

The degree to which the sex industry and trafficking have manifested in various forms worldwide reflects the world's past failure to adopt and implement the convention. Even today, only about 82 countries out of 196 -- less than half the world -- are state parties.

Then, in 2000, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) introduced the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. It has since become an international tool to suppress this form of organised crime, but does not protect the human rights of the victims.

Another international treaty that deals with the trafficking scourge is the nearly universally ratified 1978 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which calls for state parties to suppress all forms of trafficking in women and exploitation of women.

But it does not take the same moral stance against sex work as the 1949 Convention. Neither does the Beijing Platform for Action, which lists trafficking of women as a form of violence and violation of women's rights, but does not conflate human trafficking with prostitution. It urges all states to eliminate forced sex work but not sex work per se.

Sex work has, over many decades, been a divisive issue in feminist movements. The Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW) advocates to abolish sex work and denies the diverse experiences of female sex workers. It also inaccurately conflates trafficking with prostitution.

Meanwhile, the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women (GAATW) distinguishes trafficking from prostitution and says that each requires a different set of strategies and policies. GAATW campaigns for human rights protection of trafficked women and also of female sex workers.

There are two well known state models to address what is often called a "socially-necessary evil" and the "oldest profession in the world" -- the Swedish model and the Dutch model. The two models both use human rights as a driving force behind them but ultimately have two completely different goals in mind.

The Swedish model is rooted in the abolitionist approach; it considers prostitution a form of violence and manifestation of gender equality. It aims to eradicate the profession by suppressing the (male) demand by criminalising clients in order to diminish the supply (of women). It also believes the approach is a catch-all to solve trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Many countries have adopted the Swedish trend to address prostitution and trafficking in their countries.

The less popular Dutch model, which legalises sex work, is under constant attack by abolitionist activists, who claim that the state adopts the role of a pimp by regulating clientele and taxing women sex workers.

But the Dutch model is much more in line with the demands of sex workers themselves, who are always calling to decriminalise their profession. Decriminalising sex work requires that sexual services are viewed as a valid type of employment entitled to labour protection and social security. Only two countries besides the Netherlands have decriminalised sex work -- Germany and Switzerland.

Yet it causes such an uproar when an established international human rights organisation like Amnesty International proposes that sex work be decriminalised. Many celebrities have signed a petition demanding Amnesty halt the radical move.

We have to consider that prostitution today is much different than in the days of Josephine Butler or those described in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The crucial question is why, throughout history, have women always opted to become sex workers? Why do the stigma and criminal sanctions attached to the world's oldest profession not cause women to shy away from it?

In fact, criminalising prostitution only marginalises sex workers and further allows their abuse by authorities and clients. Women disproportionately bear the stigma attached to sex work. It is women who are deprived of protection and legal redress when sex work is criminalised. Amnesty's call for decriminalisation, alongside the voices of female sex workers themselves, needs to be considered seriously. Sometimes old wine needs a new bottle.


Siriporn Skrobanek is founding member and president of the Foundation for Women.

Siriporn Skrobanek

President of the Foundation for Women

Siriporn Skrobanek is founding member and president of the Foundation for Women.



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