Havelock Ellis defines a prostitute as “One who openly abandons her body to a number of men, without choice, for money”. The implication is that it is not the number of customers that is immoral (evidenced by the phrase ‘without choice’), but the characteristics of her relationships with them.
Prostitution is called the oldest profession in the world. Hardly true- the earliest documented records of prostitution mentioned as a profession in society date back to Sumeria,(modern day Iraq) to 2400 B.C., and certainly with documentation of events and a scribe itself being a legitimate profession in those days, along with doctors, cooks and barbers, literally, prostitution is certainly not the oldest of them. However, this does prove that it was practiced and observed in society. Ancient kingdoms of Babylon, Greece and Rome have been known to hold sexual intercourse with goddesses as holy and spiritual. Temple priestesses were revered for spreading the power of Gods by entering into sexual relationships with patrons. They were mysterious and awe inspiring women, commanding respect with an air of dignity. At the same time, aboriginal prostitutes in Africa were considered to be merely spreading the race far and beyond, carrying the seeds of their ancestors as aides of evolution. Prostitution flourished in the medieval ages, courtesans from the Persian and Roman era were known across the world for their ethereal beauty. With the passage of time, prostitution gradually morphed into an illegal social evil, spurring violence. Medieval African prostitutes were almost universally identified with slavery, they were sold like merchandise and were at the complete mercy of their masters.
The legal repercussions of these practices are well documented and there is evidence to suggest that it was not a wholly legal profession in those times. However, what aspect or what form of prostitution was targeted is a different story, with different versions heard from different experts. In some Roman courts, the monetary exchange of the act was not considered morally corrupt, instead committing sexual acts outside the bond of marriage, the “sale of love-making” as it was called, was the cause of conviction of crime. The aspects of renumeration came under the scanner later with the development of civilization as greed for money led to the profession’s exploitation, leading to the evolution of the other two prongs of this fork that the modern society recognizes as evils- pimping and brothels.
Modern age prostitution is distinctly different from its medieval counterpart. Industrialization, greed and rampant trafficking converted a profession into an industry, and today some experts estimate it could be worth a jaw-dropping $2.5 trillion dollars. The question arises whether modern society is ready to accept prostitution as just another profession, limited to terms of exchange of services or labour for money. Can it be recognized as a legal occupation, granting full employment rights and claims to standards benefits to the employees? Governments across the world adopt different stands on the issue. It is legalized in some countries to some extent, it is completely illegal in some countries, whereas some countries have not criminalized any of the three activities, namely prostitution, pimping and brothel operations. Surveys show that although prostitution is legal or at least, there are no definite laws to incriminate the activity in almost half of the countries (population not a factor here), pimping, soliciting, abetting prostitution, commercialization of the act and ownership of brothels are illegal in an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations. The results are marred with slight ambiguity as several countries have no definite laws to explain their stand on the issue. Thus, these activities flourish on account of legal loopholes and prosecution is difficult for the state. However, statistics do not lie, and the majority opinion tends to vacillate towards the negative mostly. Due to the malignant secondary occupations associated with it and the potential for violence and abuse, it is still a widely regarded pest, and the general consensus is to rationally restrict it for a better society and future.
Morality is the first reason often cited by purists. It is beneath human dignity to perform sexual acts in return for money. The argument is valid, but certainly, the implication should be that the instigator is the customer and more responsible for the moral corruption we talk about. Prostitutes are more often than not, helpless victims. With sex workers forced to make their living off this trade, it is not a matter of choice but a matter of survival. Weak human constitution and the struggle for daily wage sadly push the value of human life and its integrity to the backseat. In the wake of the dangers of exploitation in the trade, very few individuals would voluntarily choose prostitution as a profession. Most prostitutes are forced into it, separated from family and often have a background of violence and sexual abuse in childhood. Thus, morality and societal corruption is the onus of the customer, or the purchaser of the sexual acts. This would translate into meting punishments to clients, but allowing sellers to continue providing their services. The paradox is explained by the legal experts of countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland which are the only countries in the EU to have adopted this stand, insisting that compliance of a prostitute does not translate into a “wish” to perform sexual activities for money, and hence this is a form of exploitation. Hence prostitution has been decriminalized in these states, and activities such as attempting to benefit from prostitution, living off a prostitute’s earnings, purchasing services from victims of human trafficking among others have been criminalized. Sweden faced a great degree of feminist propaganda prior to passing this law, and gender equations perpetrated by women rights organizations are said to have played a role in it. Judiciary across the world does not respond positively to this law unilaterally due to its apparent contradictory nature. Morality and choices have come a long way across centuries now, and the general good and of the masses is surely a concern in this matter. However, individual meters of virtuosity should be set aside.
On 20th December, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada (Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford) declared the prostitution laws of the state as unconstitutional by a 9-0 majority and asked the government to re-frame the laws within one year. With consensual sexual relations between adults and exchange of money for the same being legal in the country, the court hit hard on the laws banning brothels and commercialization and pimping, citing that the interests of the sex workers and the industry should be reconsidered by the policy makers in consultation with the industry itself to draft new laws. Supporters of legalizing prostitution often cite examples of how sex workers could benefit from free health checkups, regular HIV tests, insurance benefits, welfare schemes, and the freedom to report incidents of physical violence or abuse through the legal channel. Registration of prostitutes, brothels and escort services could reduce human trafficking and help the governments track rampant rape cases and violence by putting the industry under their radar. Increased tax revenues would allow for government spending on establishing a control framework to regulate the industry and hold representatives and owners of entities accountable for their employees’ welfare without putting the prostitutes at risk of prosecution. Free sex markets are proving to be a boost to flourishing sex tourism in countries like Amsterdam, where a small section of the industry has cooperated with the authorities to the extent of maintaining biometric identities of their employees to track them for safety during work hours. These are hopeful incentives, and certainly a society where this industry could maintain standards of transparency and professionalism does not sound entirely preposterous. However, vehement opposition has so far managed to negate these facts. Prostitutes are subjected to violent attacks by clients on an average rate of 10-15 times a year, and the vulnerability risk of rape by non-clients is as high as once a week. It becomes difficult for a law to protect a citizen when they very nature of his source of livelihood poses such active risks on a daily basis. Legal experts claim that coercion by pimps and dealers to engage in such activities even inside the legal framework constitutes exploitation, and the victim’s lack of intent and purpose to commit such acts under influence is a form of rape itself, making it illegal. Legalization and acceptance bears an inherent risk of fostering a funded criminal network, where current underground activities could be able to pass the scanner due to the legal stamp on the industry. Moreover, human and in particular, women and child trafficking could end up flourishing upon legalization of prostitution and this risk is too large to admit the premise of proof of concept. It is fairly certain that prostitution is a dangerous profession and a society cannot be expected to tolerate mass exploitation of the underprivileged. The failure of the system to provide the necessary education and better opportunities to the people to choose a better, safe and healthy life should not be compensated by allowing the harmful outcomes and promising to improve the situation henceforth.
Speaking of personal freedom, prostitution is a dirty word. We have witnessed dramatic transformations in the structure of society, culture and family over decades. We accept men living with men, women living with women, men living with men and women, single women adopting children, male couples looking for surrogate parenthood and multi-racial families. In spite of our open hearts and minds, prostitution is still a dirty word. Canada is a big name in the list of nations where all forms of prostitution are either legal, or social activism and raging controversial debates are helping push them on the table for discussions to reconsider their status. Several sections of the community, ranging from the moral brigade and political leaders to women studies majors in neighborhood colleges have their own opinions on the issue, and it cannot be decisively concluded what may be with right course of action in these times. For an issue that sparks controversy by birthing human trafficking and conjuring horrific images of sexual violence, and yet falls within the purview of the right to freedom and personal choice, opinion is bound to be divided. Laws are meant to be objective and definite, and should be formulated considering the impact of the actions of individuals or groups on the society overall to ensure decorum and order. It is granted that the actions of individuals in the privacy of their own quarters should not be a concern for the society, and equality rights are an individual’s defense against being targeted for his profession. However, sex trade is not merely limited to providing promiscuous relations for money, but various other vices shoot under its umbrage eventually, crippling all other rights of the sex workers themselves. There is no solid proof of reduction in crimes against prostitutes in countries like Canada with all rights granted to them, and in the absence of such proof, generally, it will be a long struggle to convince an executive to make landmark decisions on such a sensitive issue.
Kanika is a member of LSD. She wrote this article while executing campaigns on human rights and social justice for Amnesty International.
The Unanswered Questions