Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Sex workers - On the Edge of the Ethic War

Below is a two-part article I wrote to advocate the decriminalization of sex work. It came as a pleasant surprise for me to find out that more than 70 countries, including very religious and conservative ones in Asia and Latin America have legalized prostitution. Sex work is work, and it should be be seen from a realistic angle of life. The profession has been here since time immemorial, and it is here to stay. Denial or defense simply is not sustainable, and frankly, a big fat lie to ourselves.




I’m writing this amid a current scandal in Vietnam which involves a celebrity being publicly exposed by some media to be a prostitute. Her pictures have gone viral, with as much personal information included as possible. “Whore”, “hooker” and many other degrading words have been used to hurdle shame and guilt upon the woman.

In Vietnam, although the law only imposes moderate punishment (a fine of from 5-25 US dollars) on prostitutes, sex workers are subjected to harsh social criticism. Even the terminology “sex worker” is virtually non-existent since very few would consider trading sex for money as work.
In this article of two parts, let's consider some arguments that have consistently been used to ban prostitution, commonly seen as a profession which is as old as the humanity itself. The questions we want to answer is: “Is prostitution inherently immoral and harmful? Should it be criminalized and punished?”.

1.    "Sex workers are exploited and and coerced to work by criminals, that is why it is harmful"
One of the main reasons why prostitution is considered harmful stems from the fact that in many cases, sex workers are coerced into becoming a prostitute. They are considered victims of the last choice, human trafficking, economic hardship, domestic abuse, or criminal organizations.

According to a statistics from the UN, 80% of border-crossing human trafficking are women and girls, most of them are consequently subjected to sexual abuse and forced to work in the sex industry. It has become common knowledge that many women who end up in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, were promised a career in dance and entertainment.

Some prostitutes are unaware victims of lover boys who target vulnerable teenagers, make them fall in love, then isolate them from families. The girl are slowly trapped in the vicious circle of manipulated relationship with a terrifying mixture of emotional terrorism, dependent love affair, and confusing perceptions of sex, love and money.

Needless to say, those who coerce others into prostitution also include their loved ones: parents who are desperate for money, partners who see their “better half” as “better” in term of financial support. In India, several villages such as Ingonia are known to survive and thrive on the profession. “Born into brothels” is an award-winning documentary in which children of Sonagachi were given a camera to capture their daily life in this red light district. Most female sex workers in this documentary were portrayed as indirect victims of poverty or domestic coercion.

Ironically, if we accept that sex workers are genuinely victims of coercion and crimes, and that is why sex work should be banned, then criminalizing sex work is nothing more than an unethical act to punish the victims one more time. Blaming the victims is obviously easier than finding the culprits, especially when the culprits are hidden behind the thin veneer of families, love, sacrifice, or a corrupted system. We cannot punish a malfunctioning economy that creates such a terrible poverty that consequently puts people in to a situation of having to choose trading sex for survival, can we?

However, if the causal link between coercion and victimhood is the reason why prostitution is harmful and should be banned, then frankly, this can be argued to be the case with most of professions on earth. To a certain extent, all of us are coerced into doing what we are doing, since none of us is 100% free to do what we individually want. Freedom is never absolute, and as members of a society, we all have to sacrifice, compromise, or adjust ourselves to suit the situation, hence, allowing ourselves to be coerced into doing something we genuinely would not want to do. From this point of view, we are all victims of societal pressure, at varying degrees.

At this point, “degree” should be the focal point of this argument. To what degree is coercion acceptable? This is not a question of a bi-polar spectrum where one extreme is right and the other is wrong. This is a question of one single scale with one single attribute of “suffering”, one end more acceptable and the other end less so. Our hypothesis then can be stated as: “If we can somehow make the degree of coercion in prostitution at least similar to other lawful professions, then sex work should be considered a lawful profession”.

This leads the discussion away from the unfair treatment of punishing the victims and focuses the solution on regulations and law enforcement, which is the basis of a civil society. By decriminalizing prostitution and imposing strict rules, victims will be able to avoid double punishment, leading to an escape that is safer and more sustainable than what they have had to endure.

Many studies have proved that criminalizing prostitution creates double incrimination. A study in Florida shows that 82% of the sex workers have been assaulted, and 68% have been raped. They fear to report to police since this can be used as evidence to make them committed another felony charge of working as sex workers. A 2002 Chicago based study found that 30% of exotic dancers and 24 % of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist. Up to 17% of sex workers interviewed reported sexual harassment and abuse, including rape, by police. They had been forced to strip or engage in other sexual conduct while in police detention. Again, a victim is victimized one more time, ironically with a punishment exactly the same as their accused felony.

Further, while acknowledging that this argument of victimhood is valid, we also need to accept the fact that not all sex workers are coerced into prostitution. Many of them choose this profession voluntarily because it fits their life style and personality, or because it is economically efficient, without any pressure.

In the last few months, I have been part of a volunteer group helping to deliver tea and coffee to sex workers in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I started the job with the idea that all these people are victims, and I could not be more wrong. While some of them are surely coerced into prostitution, there are many who choose to work here freely. Sex work is exactly that, work. And what well-intended people should do is to protect those who are forced to enter the industry, and support those who are the boss of their life, regardless of who they choose to be, as long as it is honest labor.
At this point, we have the second hypothesis regarding the argument of victimhood: “If we can be sure that sex workers choose their profession freely, then sex work should be considered a lawful profession”.

Feminism has been torn between these two viewpoints since the end of the 20th century. Half of the feminists believe that sex workers are victims, even to the point that they themselves are not aware of their victim status. Liberal Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway fall into this categories, punishing the buyers and not the sex workers themselves. The other half of the feminists believe that sex workers are also people who choose this profession on their voluntarily basis. The Netherlands and Germany legalize prostitution with strong regulations, making a genuine effort to ensure that sex workers are protected against abuse and coercion (to a certain acceptable degree on par with other lawful professions, of course).

2.    "Prostitution is degrading, that is why it is harmful"  
Prostitution suffers from a strong social stigma as a degrading profession. Being moral or immoral is not the point here, but the way societies look at it. One should not choose to be a sex worker simply because it is a degrading job to do. We try to avoid this profession not because it is wrong, but because societies attach very limited amount of respect to it.

More often than not, those who adhere to this argument are often hypocritical without even knowing it. When the Vietnamese celebrity was exposed on the media, some shook their head in a combination of disgust and empathy: “Sex work is also work, nothing wrong with it. But I still find her disgusting and I curse her for wanting to do that job. Why? Because she knows people dislike it, and yet, she still does it”.

This double standard is deafening, yet so well disguised under the cover page of social conformity. In a nut shell, the job itself is honest labor, but one still should succumb to social stigma and avoid it. Even people who accept that prostitution is pure honest work also cannot escape the need to surrender and bow to the negative social perception and betray their own genuine point of view.

Not only is this argument subject to hypocrisy, social perception towards prostitution as a degrading job cannot rule out the fact that many other professions in our societies are also degrading and not socially desired. Not so many of us can loudly claim to be Jesus-like and give convincing evidence that we love everyone without a tiny bit of bias based on what job they do for a living. Some of us use degrading words to address housemaids, shoe-shine boys, scrap scavengers, or street porters…despite the fact that they are earning money honestly with their labor. If we do not criminalize these professions on the basis of socially undesirableness, why should we do that to prostitution?

Clearly, the discussion should be focused on how to change the stigmatized social perception of sex work, and not the moral nature of sex work itself. If we criminalize a profession simply because it is an unwanted profession by the society at large, then again, we are punishing and victimizing the victims who are already marginalized by the society. Worse, this punishment is purely based on our fear of being seen as sympathizers for the oppressed. If that is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

Again, the hypothesis that should be stated here is: “To an extent that we can promote social acceptance and empathy towards sex workers, then sex work should be able to be considered as lawful work”.


While some sex workers choose their job voluntarily, others can be victims, and hence, need not to be victimized one more time with punishment from the legal system. Obviously, other arguments used to support the ban on sex work do not always come from the sympathy with the victim status of sex workers. Quite a contrary, these arguments target them as the source of social menace, the cause of ethics decadence and the reason why humanity is morally ruined. In another words, sex workers are no where near the status of being victim, they are squarely and simply the culprit.  

3.    Is prostitution being harmful to marriage?
Of all the arguments, this is the weakest one, since it is often used by those who inherently lack of confidence in their sexual prowess, a lack of trust in their partner's fidelity, or ability to maintain a stable marriage, or : “I oppose sex workers because my partner can cheat on me, and our marriage will be destroyed”.

Obviously, this argument is faulty since the burden of guilt should be borne by the unfaithful partners, not the sex workers. The society is full of temptation: sex, power, money, beautiful jewelries, expensive cars, delicious food, and so on and so forth. Ethical people know exactly what they can obtain and what not. If fast food is generally needed but can be unhealthy if eaten too much, should we criminalize fast-food and shut them down, or should we control ourselves not eating too much?  Blaming fast food, or blaming sex worker is just another way to profess our weakness in self-control and regulation.

In another counter-argument, it has been proved that prostitution, if regulated well, can help to protect marriage. Single, inexperienced, or sexually frustrated people can safely find an escape without engaging in rapes or illicit affair with other people’s partners and hence, ruining an otherwise happy marriage.

In 2010, the Family Protection Society in Australia was forced to publicly apologize to Tasmanian sex workers for saying the industry is harmful to women and breaking up marriages. The message is clear, if you eat the forbidden fruit, you are the culprit, not the fruit. Evidence? We still eat apple until this day.

4.    Is  prostitution spreading STD to wider population? 
Of all the arguments, this is the one that has been proven wrong at the strongest level. Study after study has shown that once sex work is regulated and decriminalized, sex workers have a much lower percentage of STD infection, compared to the wider population. Since the institution of mandatory condoms in Nevada's brothels in 1988, not a single sex worker has contracted HIV. In one Australian study carried out in 1998, the prevalence of sexually transmitted bacterial infections was 80 times greater in 63 illegal street prostitutes than in 753 of their legal brothel counterparts.  In the early '90s the Thai government began working with brothel owners to enforce 100% condom use. Free condoms were given to brothels, and sex workers were told to insist on condoms. Establishments that allowed unprotected sex were shut down. As a result, condom use increased from 14% in 1989 to over 90% by 1994. Over the same period, the number of new STD cases among men treated at government clinics plummeted by over 90%. HIV infection rates among military recruits fell from 4% in 1993 to below 1.5% in 1997.

Understandably, criminalizing prostitution fuels the possibility of STD, as it is uncontrolled, workers unprotected, and in many cases, they are willing to succumb to customer’s requests of unprotected sex in order to reduce the time spent on the street, and hence escape the police’s attention. Since condoms can be used as evidence and a form of harassment during street arrests, fear of felony charges can discourage safe sex, and contribute to the vicious circle of victim, being victimized, and then making others victims of STD.

5.    Is sex an inappropriate commodity?
Very often, sex is regarded as a product that should not be put on par with other commodities since it is too intimate, too divine, or too vulgar. Let’s take this down one by one.

Sex is intimate. No doubt. But is sex more intimate than personal thought, than dirty, seedy, deep dark secrets and scandals that have been commercialized, manipulated, written and crazily advertised to fame-boost and make money for celebrities worldwide?

Have a look at some of the world’s famous biographies and you will know what I mean. From incest, rapes, sexual violence, cheating to sex tactics; from family hatred, friendship betrayal, unmasking of loved ones, to deepest personal fear and obsession…you name it. Are these less intimate than an ordinary intercourse?

Sex is divine. Well, maybe. To be precise, sex deserves that status only when it is combined with other wonderful emotion and relationship such as love. It is almost ridiculous to consider sex always a product of love and genuine feeling between two parties. In its pure nature, sex is reproduction, and its foremost function is to help reproduce. This applies to everything on earth, from plants, animals, to humans. Of course sex as a result of love is the ideal, but this world is not populated by idealists, it thrives by realists who know all too well that we as human beings cannot rely on love to survive. If this planet was dependent on love to exist, none of us would be here today.

Sex is vulgar. For some, that is probably true, especially those who believe that humanity has been dammed for the original sin. In the end, sex contributes to the aftermaths of Adam and Eva being thrown off the Eden, and sex is religiously described as having only the function of reproducing. Having a pleasure from sex is taboo, since sex is not meant to be enjoying, but purely a process to make children.

But hey, hello! Criminalizing some product because it is religiously considered only for one specific God-given purpose does not seem to fit the idea of secularism, and still, it does not justify the verdict of sex work being harmful in nature. Looking further beyond the tiny society we live in, many civilizations have honored sex as the source of life, and continue to do so. Sacred prostitution on the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates was practiced in the house of heaven where all women were ordered to give themselves to strange men once in their life time, taking their sacred money and refusing no one. In ancient Greece, Hetaera often enjoyed their high status more than other women. Phallus worshiping, religious sex, sacred marriage, and many other sexual rituals are still the cores of many belief in civilizations from East to West. Vietnam, Japan, Bhutan and many other conservative countries still have festivals that focus on the glory of sex, of yin-yang harmony and revered origin of life.

Finally, there is this argument of seeing the body as a temple of God, and hence not appropriate to sell, meaning to let the consumer have the absolute right over it, is faulty. However, the more precise term for prostitution is that sex workers rent a part of their body in a fixed period of time with well-defined restrictions. Nobody owns their body, and hence, it is not selling in its conventional meaning.
In short, prostitution should be seen from a realistic angle of life. The profession has been here since time immemorial, and it is here to stay. Denial or defense simply is not sustainable, and frankly, a big fat lie to ourselves. More than 70 countries have legalized it to varying degrees, including very conservative Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, Tunisia or strongly Catholic Mexico and many other in Latin America.

There should be no absolute urge to criminalize or venerate such a basic need as sex. To quote a comedian: "There is not much difference between going to a date and meeting a prostitute. In the former, you HOPE to get sex. In the latter, you are SURE to get sex".

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